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The stars speak out
In December, CBS All Access announced that The Walking Dead's Sonequa Martin-Green would be playing the lead role on Star Trek: Discovery, the latest iteration of the venerable space franchise. It wasn't just the first time the lead would be a non-captain (Martin-Green is playing Michael Burnham, the first officer of the USS Shenzhou), it also marked the first time a woman of color would lead a Star Trek show -- or movie.
And some fans lost their damn minds.
What's most curious about the reaction (beyond, you know, all the racism and sexism) is that series creator Gene Roddenberry's vision of the future wasn't just about exploring strange alien worlds, or boldly going where no man had gone before: it was a vision of inclusion, a glimpse into a world just a few hundred short years from now where people weren't judged by the color of their skin, or their sex, or even what planet they were from -- they just were.
"The way the best stories work is that the messages are subliminal," star Jason Isaacs -- who plays the mysterious Captain Lorca of the Discovery told TV Guide, when we caught up with the cast in Toronto last month. "The subliminal message was that there were different species, not just different ethnicities working together on the bridge, and in the Federation."
What that meant in the original Star Trek series was that the crew wasn't just led by a white man (that would be William Shatner's Captain Kirk) and a white alien (Leonard Nimoy's highly logical Commander Spock). The starship Enterprise was also was staffed with George Takei's Lieutenant Sulu -- one of the first Asians to play an Asian role in a positive light on TV -- and most notably Nichelle Nichols' communications officer, Lieutenant Uhura.
Not that Sulu isn't notable, mind you. Takei's portrayal, and "oh my" catchphrase have permeated pop culture, allowing for a touchstone of hope, particularly now when Asian representation onscreen is still a primary issue (see: recent controversies about Ghost in the Shell, Death Note, and far too many more). But when we talked to the cast, at least, it was Uhura who made the biggest impression.
"As a young girl, I remember seeing her," Martin-Green recalled, though she noted it was through reruns in the '80s, and not the original '60s run of the series. "It was impactful to see. 'Oh, that's a black woman! That's me. On the ship. That's amazing.'"
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Nichols almost didn't see it that way. Though Roddenberry was up front about his push for a diverse cast, both through the original, scuttled pilot of Star Trek, and when the show got a second shot at becoming a series, Nichols was ready to leave. The series hadn't really (pardon the loose pun) taken off; and despite breaking ground by having one of the first characters of African descent in a focal role, the actress wanted to get back to her first love, musical theater.
Enter Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The civil rights icon was a fan of the show, and told Nichols so -- to which she responded that she thanked him, but was planning on leaving. As the story goes (Nichols recounted the following in the 2010 documentary Trek Nation), King's smile disappeared, and he said to Nichols, "Don't you understand for the first time, we're seen as we should be seen. You don't have a black role. You have an equal role."
With this powerful statement behind her, Nichols continued on Star Trek's five year journey, and made TV and film history in the process. Though one could (successfully) argue that at least initially Uhura didn't break new ground for women, as she was often reduced to an expository device, she did participate in the first scripted interracial kiss on television; and as the shows and movies continued, more of her character was explored and she was allowed to grow. A little.
But like the mission statement Roddenberry set out with, and King, Jr. emphasized, Nichols' biggest impact may have been the visual one: that she was present, she was there, and she was able to show generations of future women of color, like Martin-Green, that being on screen as more than a member of "the help" was an option open to them. And even for those who weren't women of color, it was life-changing. Take, for example, a young Aaron Harberts -- who would go on to become co-showrunner and Executive Producer of Discovery.
"For a kid who was growing up in the midwest in a time that there wasn't a lot of diversity," Harberts said, "it certainly opened my eyes and exposed me to the idea that the world looks a lot different."
Each iteration of the franchise has continued this idea, to push the diversity behind the scenes while just letting things "be" on camera. That extends to Burnham -- and her name, which Harberts has credited as original showrunner Bryan Fuller's "signature move," to use a male name for a female character -- but doesn't stop with the first officer. Discovery will also include the franchise's first ongoing openly gay couple, after a few fits and starts.
Roddenberry always meant to include LGBT characters in the franchise, but he passed away before he was able to add any into the second TV series, Star Trek: The Next Generation. And various iterations of the Star Trek TV series have flirted with the idea, but -- to much lamentation from the LGBT community -- never fully taken the plunge. It wasn't until 2016's theatrical feature Star Trek Beyond that the first LGBT main character was officially revealed, in the form of John Cho's Sulu. The moment was meant to be a subtle nod, as the rebooted movie franchise depicted Sulu reuniting briefly with his husband and daughter.
Of course, some fans lost their damn minds -- including, surprisingly, original Sulu actor George Takei, who objected on the grounds that his Sulu had always been heterosexual when he portrayed the character on TV.
That controversy, and alternate universes aside (the movies take place in what's called the Kelvin Timeline, while Discovery takes place 10 years before The Original Series in what's called The Prime Timeline), Discovery finally -- finally! -- shows off a happy, together gay couple, played by Wilson Cruz and Anthony Rapp. The former Rent stars play Hugh Culbert, the Discovery's medical officer; and science officer Paul Stamets, respectively.
"This is what society looks like," Cruz told us. "We are a diverse community, and so why shouldn't our stories reflect that? In the end, people just want to see themselves. We want to be acknowledged and seen as part of a fabric of a culture. Seeing a diverse cast is part of that."
For Discovery, that means treating Culbert and Stamets like any other couple. Harberts noted during a tour of the set (and the couple's bedroom) that they'll spend a lot of time "downloading" while brushing their teeth at the end of the day, or just spending time together and figuring out their own relationship drama. After over five decades of LGBT fans begging the various showrunners and producers to add characters who represent them, it almost feels like Discovery should be making a bigger deal out of "the Stamets family," as Harberts refers to them. But like Nichols and Takei before them, the big deal is how not a big deal it is onscreen.
"It's never been about the differences between Uhura's skin and Kirk's skin," added Rapp, "or Sulu's ethnic background, and Chekhov's ethnic background. They just were."
Discovery's push extends to the casting of superstar Michelle Yeoh. The renowned actress and action star is hardly controversial -- she's one of the biggest international box office draws and one of the most recognizable faces in the world. If anything, casting her as Captain Georgiou of the USS Shenzhou, the ship Burnham works on before moving over to the Discovery, is a huge coup for the series. But even small choices Yeoh made have had a huge impact around the globe -- including to use her own accent, which she credits as, "not American, it's not British, it's not really completely Asian."
When the first footage featuring Yeoh speaking was released online, fans once again lost their damn minds. But this time it was a positive reaction. Teary fans tired of constant whitewashing of Asian roles couldn't believe that not only was an Asian woman in charge of a Star Trek spaceship, but she was allowed to just be herself.
"It was explosive, to say the least," Yeoh noted about the reaction to the trailer. "Especially in Asia, to see an Asian woman who is a captain... Everyone back home was like, 'Oh my god, oh my god!'"
And all of this is well and shiny and good. The soundbites about Discovery's woman of color lead, out gay couple and Asian captain are, frankly, right and true. But they also ignore the very real racism and homophobia that has permeated so-called fan communities, and society at large. It would be nice to think the show exists in a bubble powered by hope. But it doesn't. Right now, around the world, we're fractured. Alt-right groups chant racist and anti-semitic slogans while marching in the middle of America. The rights of the LGBT community are under constant question and attack not just by random trolls online, but members of the government. And even as recently as this past week, Disney came under fire for adding a (some say unnecessary) Caucasian cast member to its live-action remake of Aladdin.
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Many members of the cast I talked to earnestly toed the line when it came to Discovery's take on current societal issues, with Isaacs noting that he felt, "I don't know that Discovery is pushing any kind of political agenda," while adding, "I think when good stories are told you don't notice anything else going on in the story."
And to a certain extent this is technically true: Discovery is far from "social justice warriors in spaaaaaace," with the thrilling plot focusing more on character, and more on the developing cold war between the human-based Federation, and the vicious, burgeoning Klingon Empire.
But for Martin-Green, who got extremely emotionally charged in the time we talked, this is missing a key element of what Discovery brings to the table.
"This show is just right in the middle of it," Martin-Green said. "It tears my heart into pieces, the state that we're in right now... It's extremely heartbreaking as well when I look at the future, when I think of my son, what I'll have to teach him."
As Martin-Green continued, it became clear that this -- what we teach our children -- is the true key to Discovery. Roddenberry's vision wasn't about turning to the camera and saying, "and so you see, a black woman and an Asian man and a white dude can be friends." He was following the cardinal rule of drama: show, don't tell. That's why we turn to entertainment, whether we know it or not, to illuminate a more pure way to live, to filter the confusing messages the world gives us on a daily basis -- sometimes into easy platitudes, and sometimes into equally complicated messages that perhaps don't provide answers so much as the idea that we're not alone in our struggles.
What Star Trek does at its very best though is to show us what's next -- there's a reason, after all, the show is set in the future -- and given the current, apocalyptic mood that most of the America (and perhaps the world) is in, even the very idea that there may be a "next" is a revelation.
As Harberts stood in Lorca's office, right off the bridge, he talked about how the writers of the show -- and set designers -- were always tracking the war between the Federation and Klingons. "We're really trying to make sure that people understand it's a grim prospect," he noted, before paraphrasing a quote from Captain Georgiou: "Wars are screams and funerals."
Isn't that what the world outside our window feels like right now? Screams and funerals? "The problem is almost threatening to swallow us up," Martin-Green said. But what Star Trek has always offered, beyond the space action, is something simple: actual hope, and a very real path to get there. That comes not just from the plot, but the idea that these diverse faces will, someday, 200 years from now maybe, live and work together in harmony, joining together against a threat that's bigger than all of them.
"Now we're seeing it come to the surface, seeing it come to the light," Martin-Green continued, referring to the hatred and anger that seem omnipresent in the real world at the moment. "That's necessary, because you have to accept it, before you can cage it. We come in at a time such as this and we offer a solution. Storytelling, art in general, it is a mirror to society. Hopefully life will imitate art, in this case. Hopefully we turn that quote on its side. And I hope more than anything right now, more than ever possibly... Right now, we need this show. We are a form of activism, and I couldn't be more grateful to be involved."
Dr. King would have smiled.
Star Trek: Discovery premieres Sunday, Sept. 24 at 8:30/7:30c on CBS before moving exclusively to CBS All Access.
(Full disclosure: TV Guide is owned by CBS)