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Flying Forwards But Backwards
To Strange New Progressive Reactionary Worlds
Star Trek’s Strange New Worlds, which just ended its second season, is in something of a political bind. The series is intended to be a return to the episodic format, the themes, and the characters of Star Trek The Original Series (TOS). TOS, when it aired in the 1966-68, was meant as a vision of a progressive future—its bridge crew was famously multinational and even, in a somewhat pioneering move for the time, multiracial.
This was still 60s network television though; the main characters in the show were all white men, and the portrayal of women tended to be both sexualized (miniskirts on a military vessel?) and stereotypical (secretaries, nurses, transient romantic interests.) If the show is true to its letter, it can’t really be true to its spirit, and vice versa. The impact of Star Trek was at least in part due to its progressive vision. But that vision, if followed too closely, no longer looks all that progressive.
The creators of SNW were quite aware of this problem, and for the most part they have confronted it boldly and with a good bit of flair. They have wisely abandoned the miniskirts. They’ve also been forthright in transforming and updating some of the familiar Enterprise bridge crew. Lt. Uhura (Celia Rose Gooding) a glorified administrative assistant in the original series, is transformed into a hyper-multi lingual genius who gets to save the day in multiple episodes. Nurse Chapel (Jess Bush), a maternal nurse whose big moment in the original series was delivering Spock soup, is turned into an ambitious researcher, action hero, and romantic heroine. Dr. M’Benga (Babs Olusanmokun), a blink-and-you-miss-him Black doctor who popped up in a couple of episodes, becomes a war hero.
The show also introduces a range of new characters—pilot Erica Ortegas (Melissa Navia) security officer La’an Noonien Singh (Christina Chong) who (a) are not white men and who (b) get to have their own narratives rather than just serving as window-dressing for that original triumvirate of Kirk/Spock/McCoy. Taken together, these characters (and more) extend the original series’ message of equality antiracism not least by working to repair and rectify the original series’ failures. The stunningly talented Nichelle Nichols as Uhura didn’t get to be the main character in a Star Trek episode back in the 60s because Black women didn’t get to be main characters in network series of the time. But now it’s 60 years later, and we can fix that.
It's a lot of fun to see Nurse Chapel kick butt, or to see one of those transient Kirk romances from the perspective of the romancer who isn’t Kirk. But even though its mission is, in part, to show where Star Trek should have gone but didn’t, it’s still restrained to some degree by the demands of canon.
Strange New World is set in the period before Kirk took over the command of the Enterprise. The captain who served before Kirk, both in the earlier TV pilot and in the in-show chronology, was Christopher Pike a bog standard heroic white guy, because bog standard heroic white guys were the people who were seen as captain material (and tv star material) in 1967. And so, the Captain of Strange New World is that same Chris Pike. Star Trek has had captains who aren’t white men over the course of the franchise. But SNW is a return to the series’ roots—and that means, in part, returning to a crew in which the white guy is the boss.
SNW isn’t the Pike show the way that Star Trek TOS was the Kirk show. He’s not the center of every episode, and he isn’t the hero of every episode. Still, he’s a fatherly, patriarchal presence who serves as a moral center, reminding the crew of their mission, refusing to let them lose hope or betray their ideals. He’s the first among equals, perhaps, but still the first. And having the patriarchal white guy be the de facto and moral leader does, to some degree, undermine the message the show is trying to send with the rest of its casting. Is this a show about a future in which every narrative doesn’t have to be about white men? Or is it a show about how cool this white guy is for having a diverse crew?
I don’t think Strange New Worlds is reactionary or racist; I don’t think it fails in finding and cultivating the progressive aspects of TOS. I don’t even think Anson Mount as Pike is a bad captain.
I do think, though, that given what the show is trying to do, and given the message it seems to want to project, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to have, as captain, a standard brave heroic white guy protagonist. He’s not there because that’s what the show needed. He’s there because that’s what canon dictates. And when it’s 60 years old, even a putatively progressive canon is going to be, in many ways, a conservative force.
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