Space… the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise… you know the rest. But the final frontier isn’t all space action-adventure. Although, that’s a huge component of the show.
There’s something more at work underneath all the phasers, space battles, fist-fights, and weird alien lifeforms.
Star Trek has always represented the hope of a better future for humankind, and we understand that until it’s understood that Black lives do matter, that future cannot be achieved 🖖 pic.twitter.com/VNCwmcmyJS
— Star Trek (@StarTrek) June 2, 2020
You might be saying, “yo, hold up, homeskillet, since when has Star Trek ever been political.” Easy. Since 1966.
The original 60s series —you know, the one with Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock—is known for its diverse casting, including featuring Nichelle Nicholas as Lt. Uhura and George Takei as Mr. Sulu.
The choice to put a Black woman and an Asian male on the bridge of the starship Enterprise was and still is a political statement. Star Trek said all the people of Earth would go to the stars, as equals. No one would be left behind.
“Well, when I was nine years old Star Trek came on,” Star Trek: The Next Generation actress Whoopi Goldberg has said. “I looked at it and I went screaming through the house, ‘Come here, mum, everybody, come quick, come quick, there’s a black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!’ I knew right then and there I could be anything I wanted to be.”
For me, as a queer Trekkie, Star Trek has always been a queer progressive future, even if it took the show 50 some odd years to have a regular gay crewmember. And this year, the franchise is introducing the first non-binary and trans characters — played by non-binary and trans actors respectively — in the new season of Star Trek: Discovery.
Star Trek has been breaking barriers and being political AF since 1966.
Here are ten Treks that prove so.
1. “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” (TOS)
This is the episode that screams racism allegory. Very loudly. This story is hardly subtle. More like a sledgehammer in black and white.
See, the Enterprise encounters aliens who are split into two colors — one side of their body is black, the other is white. And they’ve been locked in a generational racial war because they’re not black, or white, on the same side of the body.
Yeah, it’s not a subtle episode. Take a look:
While the writing isn’t stellar (pun fully intended), this episode is well within the original Star Trek‘s political polemic wheelhouse.
2. “Far Beyond the Stars” (DS9)
Deep Space Nine tackled racism in America a helluva lot better 30 years after “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” aired. Due to an alien vision, Captain Ben Sisko finds himself a Black science-fiction writer in the 1950s, who writes a story about a Black space station commander named Ben Sisko.
This Twilight Zone-esque episode shows first hand the racism and sexism of the era without a belabored metaphor. While it may be talking about the past, the episode is still relevant today, including police officers harassing and bullying Black citizens for the color of their skin alone.
3. “Past Tense, Parts One and Two” (DS9)
The Atlantic called this the most political episode of all Star Trek . And they’re right. 25 years before the Black Lives Movement, Deep Space Nine predicted the last four years where racial and economic inequality would erupt in protests and police riots. The only thing they got wrong was the year: 2024.
I could write thousands of words on this episode, but this YouTube essay does a great job putting the episode in today’s current context.
This is Star Trek at its political and prescient best. And it’s science-fiction at its damned finest, making us confront our societal ills and asking us some tough questions in the process.
4. “A Taste of Armageddon” (TOS)
The original Star Trek is very anti-war even though the show is basically a space military drama. Nevertheless, Kirk works hard to prevent war or end wars, even if it means breaking Starfleet’s sacrosanct non-interference directive. That’s just what he does in this episode.
The citizens of an alien world wage a computerized war with a rival planet. But there are no bombs. No armies. When a region is “attacked,” the population willingly enters disintegration chambers. The people die. The property remains intact. Clean and neat.
But Kirk doesn’t think so. So he gives the world the real horror of war so they can fight for everlasting peace. I’ll let the man himself tell you why:
5. “The Cloud Minders” (TOS)
Star Trek says worker’s rights. That’s the episode.
The wealthy literally live in the clouds high above the very workers whose labor funds their lavish lifestyle. When the workers go mad from a dangerous gas in the mines, Kirk once again intervenes. He even forces the world’s economic and political leader to breath in this deadly gas to make his point. And this being the original Trek, it ends in a good old fist fight:
6. “Workforce”, Parts One and Two (VGR)
Star Trek says worker’s rights… again for the people in the back!
Captain Janeway and the crew of the Voyager find themselves as good, content employees at a production plant. But they have no memory of Voyager or their lives as Starfleet officers. All they remember is their jobs and that they’re happy laboring for their managers. That is until they start experiencing a common worker ailment known as Dysphoria Syndrome.
Without the burden of command, Janeway is able to live a peaceful, simple life. She has a good job. A boyfriend. And is relatively happy. But she didn’t choose this life. It was forced upon her by an insidious corporation, working alongside some shady doctors. See Big Corp kidnap the crews of passing ships, wipe their memories, and give them jobs with free housing. There’s even a local pub to numb them to their life of servitude.
This episode isn’t just about worker’s rights. It’s about migrant worker’s rights with a dose of corporate human trafficking.
7. “The Outcast” (TNG)
This was TNG’s attempt to address homosexuality back in the early-90s through the allegory of an agender alien race, played by cisgender actors. In the episode, one of the aliens, Soren, has female tendencies and falls for Commander Riker. That causes an uproar to say the least. Soren is then sentenced to conversion therapy as punishment.
Okay, this one is tough for me to discuss as a queer. You might be saying, “But, Ryan, it was the 90s and the only way they could do it was through metaphor.”
To which I call, bullshirt. Plenty of 80s and 90s shows were already introducing regular LGBTQ characters and discussing gay issues head-on. But this seemed to elude 90s Trek. And it took the franchise 50 some years to introduce its first regular LGBTQ characters.
But, in hindsight, this episode works better as a transgender and trans rights story. And while it has its shortcomings as a purely gay rights episode, it works as an unintentional trans one. However, as a cisgender queer, I’ll shut up and let a transwoman Trekkie take it from here:
Also follow Jessie Gender’s YouTube channel for excellent essays on Trek and other geekdom.
8. Star Trek: Discovery
The rebirth of Trek on television dived into the deep end of the diversity pool. The first series to have a female Black lead, two regular gay characters in a loving relationship, a lesbian regular, and now will be adding non-binary and trans characters. The show also cast actors appropriate for all their LGBTQ roles.
The show has taken a lot of hater flak for its diversity. To which I say, those haters haven’t really been watching Star Trek. Trek has always been about diversity and inclusion.
One of Trek’s philosophical tenets is IDIC — Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations. And Discovery exemplifies it.
9. Star Trek Into Darkness
This one is gonna raise someone’s ire. That’s OK, I like a bit of controversy. The reboot films are pretty divisive… well, for some. I love ’em.
But this movie has a lot of flaws. A lot. Especially its whitewash casting of Benedict Cumberbatch as the Sikh antagonist, Khan Noonien Singh. Of course, in the 60s and 80s, Khan was played by Latin actor Ricardo Montalbán. Nevertheless, casting Cumberbatch was a bad move.
This movie makes this list because what it was trying to say is relevant to today. The film, flaws and all, highlights the inevitable dangers with the militarization of society, and the arming of pseudo-military organizations. In this case, Starfleet as opposed to local police.
And this sequence spells it out clearly:
Unfortunately, the film never sticks the landing with that theme. But its attempt to have an underlying message is the one reason I think highly of this movie. Well, also because Chris Pine is excellent in it as a conflicted Captain Kirk.
10. Star Trek: The Webcomic (non-official)
Writer-artist Mark Farinas boldly goes where no social justice warrior has gone before with his non-canon, non-official Star Trek webcomic. For the past seven years, Mark (full disclosure: one of my dearest friends) has been exploring Gene Roddenberry’s universe with an even more laser-focused social lens.
In eight serials, one of which I co-wrote, Mark has explored issues of refugee migration, political dogma, endless wars, and the arms race.
But he’s also populated his comic with even more POCs and LGBTQ characters than any previous Trek, beating Discovery to the punch by several years. He even let me introduce Trek’s first Filipinx characters into his Trek playground in our serial, “The Word of God” (shameless plug). And that serial included a non-binary character, Dr. M.
Check out more at www.trekcomic.com.
Now It’s Your Turn…
We’ve given you our list of Treks. Now go out there, boldly go and find more of your own to add to this. Cause there’s much more adventure out there beyond the shows. There are the comics. The novels. And a hella lot of movies.
— Brown Geeks (@AvaazMedia_) September 8, 2020
Feature image credit: Bob Peak/CBS