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Forest for the trees

Star Trek Discovery. Oh, my heart.

(Post contains minor spoilers.)

To be honest, I’m still mad at myself for agreeing to pay $10.99 a month for CBS All Access just so I can watch this stupid show legally and with a clean conscience. But the midseason finale that aired this past week made me realize the pathetic truth that Star Trek is my true TV ride-or-die, and that I will probably continue handing my wallet to CBS every month — even during the series offseason — just so I can spend the next two months rewatching the same nine episodes of Discovery over and over again until my little Trekkie heart explodes.

The only other Trek series that I was old enough to watch as it aired was Enterprise, which, having been canceled after a mere four seasons, is almost universally regarded as the worst series in the franchise. Enterprise holds a special place in my heart because it was that childhood-defining show that I grew up with. But after skimming through some old episodes on Netflix recently, I’m fairly certain that had I first watched Enterprise as an adult, I would’ve completely disavowed it as being too nationalistic, too militaristic, too white male gaze-y for it to feel like the progressive bastion that Trek is known to be. The timing of the show’s premiere offers a somewhat helpful explanation: Enterprise first aired shortly after the September 11th attacks, right when the country was climbing towards a fever pitch of patriotic fervor. Americans were out for blood at that point, and Captain Jonathan Archer was exactly what the country was looking for in a hero: a tough, imposing, masculine, six-foot-tall white dude hellbent on destroying evildoers while still maintaining a heart of gold. Add to that the gratuitous amount of female characters in skintight body suits and half-naked decon chamber scenes, and you’ve got a series that was practically a love letter to early 2000s American hypermasculinity.

But I hesitate to single out Enterprise as a “man’s show,” given that Star Trek has made even more obvious nods to the male gaze in its previous iterations: T’Pol certainly wasn’t the first female bridge officer to squeeze into a catsuit, and two of Trek‘s most prominent male characters (Kirk and Riker) made entire reputations out of being serial womanizers. I’ll give some leniency to the fact that Star Trek originally premiered in the 1960s with a cast and a story that was objectively progressive for its time. This was the show that featured a Russian bridge officer at the height of the Cold War, after all. This was the show that showed the first interracial kiss on TV. Objectively progressive for its time.

But that’s precisely the thing that makes Enterprise so hard for me to place within the greater sociological Star Trek canon. Having debuted more than 35 years after the original series, one would expect a little more effort diversity-wise than just plopping two POCs on the bridge and calling it a day. This is a franchise defined by its socially progressive reputation, and all that the first Trek series of the new millennium has to offer are two ensigns with almost-personalities who get consistently overshadowed by a gruff engineer with unmistakable Southern charm, a British dude who likes to play with guns, and Captain Jonathan America? #NotMyStarTrek.

I suppose that one can’t really begin picking apart the sociology of Enterprise without fully understanding the social climate of post-9/11 America, and that’s a rabbit hole that I’m not really prepared to explore yet. At the very least, though, I’m willing to say that Enterprise was far from the shining example of social progressiveness that Trek has always made itself to be. The fact that Enterprise failed in this regard while also being the first Trek series of the 2000s is particularly disappointing. But on the other hand, it (perhaps unintentionally) offers itself up as a fascinating sociocultural lens into post-9/11 America.

Which brings us, 12 years later, to Discovery. In comparison to Enterprise (or any other Trek series, for that matter), Discovery is diversity cruising at Warp 10. You’ve got a black female lead, a gay chief engineer, a multiracial chief of security, a Latino doctor, an Asian starship captain. And if the casting already speaks volumes about Trek‘s dedication to social progressiveness, the storyline shouts it from the mountaintops. The show features two of its male leads — one of whom is Captain Lorca, the obligatory macho-man character of the series thus far — suffering very publicly from the effects of PTSD. Moreover, a major plotline is formed around the torture and rape of the other male lead, Lieutenant Ash Tyler, by a female Klingon.

This, along with making a black woman named Michael (who spends far more time rescuing men from peril than dating them) the heroine of the story, does not make Discovery a series that would appeal to the stereotypical redpilling sci-fi neckbeard that one usually associates with Trek fans. But it’d be foolish to think that, at this point in history, Discovery‘s showrunners were out to make a show catering to this particular type of fan. For better or worse, “wokeness” is the trend du jour right now, and there isn’t a better time for a series like Star Trek to capitalize on that trend. The JJ Abrams movies kinda threw a few nods in this direction, but Discovery spore-jumped their way there faster than you can say “intersectional feminism.”

On a broader political level, I’m not sure how I feel about the whole virtue-signaling, performative wokeness that comes with today’s pop activism, and the idea of Hollywood actively cashing in on social justice as a “trend” is disconcerting. As much as I’ve come to love it, I’m not going to absolve Discovery of playing a part in this. (They are making an easy 11 bucks off of me every month, after all.) But at the same time, I can’t help but feel like there’s a net good coming out of this. The midseason finale — written by two women — is a great example of this. The level of emotional nuance written into every character during that episode was off the charts (as one might expect from a “woman writer”), but I was far more struck by how successful the writers were in creating the truly equal, truly color- and genderblind utopia that Trek was always meant to be. Star Trek has long been lauded for its “colorblind” view of the universe. The term “colorblind” usually makes me cringe because of how dismissive and facile it is, but it’s one that makes perfect sense in the Star Trek universe given Trek‘s vision of a future where things like systematic oppression and implicit biases literally just don’t exist. Previous series tried to present this utopia as well as they thought they could, but there was always this overhanging sense of inauthenticity and compromise; like, “the show is still socially progressive for the sake of preserving brand integrity, but let’s be sure to keep the white men the real heroes of the story and let’s throw a few hot girls in catsuits in there so that male viewers can still feel secure in their masculinity while watching.” Our arcane, 21st century sins of racism and sexism interrupt the onscreen utopia and ruin it.

But you don’t get that with Discovery. What you get instead is a universe where color- and genderblindness actually works because somewhere down the line in the Trekiverse, humanity did the necessary heavy lifting to achieve true equity amongst all groups and classes of people. Biases were identified and excised completely. Social, political, and economic capital was redistributed. Reparations were paid. (It’s not hard to see why Star Trek was often accused of being overtly communist.) It’s laborious work, but this labor yields a universe where an Asian woman can become a starship captain without a single person questioning her ability to lead. It’s a universe where a man can tell his superior officer about being sexually assaulted without fear of judgment. It’s not a universe filled with a few good people who understand how to be “woke”; rather, it’s a universe where equity (and thus, “colorblindness”) has become so much the norm that it’s almost taken for granted.

It’s a universe that, frankly, I’d like to live in someday.

(Couldn’t end a Disco post without a few plot theories of my own, right? So: does Ash = Voq, or does Voq = Ash? Was that flashback scene depicting torture, or just really gruesome plastic surgery? Is L’Rell carrying Ash’s baby?? My pet theory points to the fact that one of Shazad Latif’s most notable roles prior to Discovery was as Dr. Henry Jekyll in Penny Dreadful, where his character learns to suppress his murderous instincts and “tame the beast within.” Seeing that actors are often tapped to audition for roles that resemble characters they’ve played in the past, and seeing how nicely the Jekyll/Hyde thing parallels with the theory that a part of Voq’s consciousness was somehow (surgically?) shoved into Tyler’s brain, I’m beginning to think that much of Tyler’s character development in this series will orbit around this struggle to reconcile this Klingon consciousness embedded in his mind. The remainder of season 1 will probably be more focused on L’Rell using Tyler/Voq as a sleeper agent aboard Discovery, but my guess is that this Jekyll/Hyde theme will be a defining point in Tyler’s character for the rest of the show.)(Also, Captain Lorca is actually mirror Lorca, Captain Georgiou is definitely coming back this season, and Stamets probably isn’t going to die anytime soon because Anthony Rapp’s too good of an actor.)