Star Trek: The Battle Against Prejudice

by Phantom (phantom1313 at tfrid dot com)

For decades Star Trek has captured the heart and imagination of its viewers. Through three spin-offs, and eight blockbuster movies, the series continues to provide its audience with an uplifting view of what may come. In this world, humanity possesses the ability to accept others' differences and overcome prejudice.

This vision of the future originated with one unique man. "Trek's late, great guru/creator Gene Roddenberry wanted us, his star-children, to believe in a day when bloodshed and prejudice would be banished from Earth and tolerance and acceptance would permeate the cosmos" (Logan, Endless 1). Roddenberry knew that his vision could not be mired in the racism and sexism that permeated the time period. For the first pilot, he had created a female first officer, but NBC "eliminated . . . the role of Number One . . ." (Gross 13). Roddenberry was also pressured to "get rid of the guy with the ears, insisting that the audience couldn't identify with an extra-terrestrial character" (Gross 13). Although the premise of the show was the interaction with alien creatures, the network was wary of anything that looked unfamiliar. In a compromise, Spock was given the computer-like mind of the first officer. Roddenberry felt that this character was essential, ". . . even if the price was the acceptance of 1960s style sexual inequality" (Gross 13). Spock was kept in the background, but soon became one of the more popular characters.

Although the final cast of Star Trek was quite different from the original pilot, ". . . Roddenberry's vision was peopled with a multiethnic cast of supporting characters: Trek boasted an Asian, a Scotsman, a friendly Russian, and even an African-American woman with a real important job. America had never seen anything like it" (Logan, Endless 1). The character of Checkov, the friendly Russian, was especially unusual during the Cold War time period. These characters' everyday interactions proved that people from diverse backgrounds can work together effectively.

During an interview for the televised Star Trek 30th Anniversary Special, Nichelle Nichols, the actress who played Uhura, told the audience about her plans at one point to leave the show. It was at this point that she was introduced to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He pleaded with her to never leave the show, since she was a role model, playing an African-American woman with an important and dignifying job. He went on to say that it was one of the very few shows that he allowed his children to watch. Inspired by his words, Nichols decided to remain with the show.

One episode in particular stands out in its efforts to eliminate prejudice. "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield" features two aliens who are mortal enemies, each half black and half white. One is regarded as being a lower form of life, since the colors are on the wrong sides. In the end, it is discovered that they are the sole survivors of their races, the rest having wiped each other out. Writer Oliver Crawford stated, "It dealt with racial intolerance. . . The whole point of the story was that color is only skin deep" (Gross 74). Fred Freiberger recalled, "That's the stupidity of prejudice. There was a big morality show, and I liked the idea of it" (Gross 74).

"Plato's Stepchildren" is another monumental episode in Trek history. In the episode, Kirk, Spock, Uhura and Nurse Chapel are being forced by self-acclaimed gods to act unusually, leading to the first televised interracial kiss. During the debate by the writers of which male was supposed to kiss Uhura, Shatner told her, "It's not that I don't want to, but I don't want to humiliate you" (Gross 73). In his autobiography Shatner: Where No Man, the actor remarks, "They kind of backed off on it, in that I was being forced to do it. It wasn't Kirk actually kissing Uhura. . . . So the edge was taken off the first interracial kiss on television. . . . [But] Kirk and Uhura wouldn't even think of a kiss or a love story as interracial. . . . If we did any good with that kiss or anything we did on Star Trek, it was to push in the direction of not having to think about that" (Gross 73).

Star Trek: The Next Generation continued to challenge prejudice and stereotypes. Data is presented as an android with an air of innocence, whose greatest wish is to become human. Geordi LaForge is given a VISOR, which allows him to see, since his eyes are non-functional. Despite what could be considered to be a handicap, he performs his duties with distinction. Played by LeVar Burton, this African-American character is a part of the senior staff and holds the position of chief engineer.

An episode in the last season, "Journey's End," involves a colony of Native Americans who had settled on a planet which has been transferred to Cardassian control through a new treaty. Rather than be forced off their ancestral land, as they were on Earth, they decide to live under Cardassian jurisdiction. Jeri Taylor remarks, "Native Americans have become a highly politicized voice who are articulate and emphatic and demanding in the way they have been depicted in the past and the way they want to be depicted now. . . . We intended to treat the Native American culture with the utmost respect and show the value of some of their metaphysical ways of approaching life, that it is positive and valuable but even in the depiction of that, we ran into trouble with some groups who don't want that depicted at all" (Gross 302). Ron Moore agrees, "This is a sensitive issue for a lot of people and these people have the right to be sensitive considering their history. They're understandably careful about what they like said about them and who says what. . . . We knew we were not going to be able to please everybody, but it was done with the best of intentions and I hope it was well-received" (Gross 302).

Another of the Next Generation episodes, titled "The Outcast," focuses on gay rights and discrimination. First officer Riker and Soren, a member of an androgynous race, meet and fall in love. However, Soren's people are forbidden to have relationships with gendered races. In the end, Soren is "treated" by her people to purge herself of her female tendencies, since gender-connected emotions are regarded as primitive and wrong by her people. Director Robert Scheerer commented, "Treating the whole sexuality in a wonderful almost comedic way, I thought, in many instances was delicious" (Gross 240). Supervising producer Jeri Taylor stated, "We had wanted to do a gay rights story and had not been able to figure out how to do it in an interesting science-fiction, Star Trek-ian way. . . . It would be controversial and I welcome that. . . . I am not a gay person, but as a woman I do consider myself in a particular minority; I know what it feels like to be disenfranchised - not in that precise way - and I feel like I had a touchstone to the feelings involved" (Gross 246).

Deep Space Nine, the second spin-off, features African-American actor Avery Brooks as Captain (originally Commander) Benjamin Sisko. Sisko is posted on space station Deep Space Nine, near the first stable wormhole to be discovered. Although he was reluctant to audition at first, he ". . . ultimately accepted the role on DS9 in order to give African-American children 'who are planning their own funerals the chance to think the long thought, to believe that our people will be alive 300 years hence'" (Logan, Captains 1). His authoritative, no-nonsense persona provides a strong role model for his viewers.

Jadzia Dax is another character that breaks through stereotypes. Although her body is that of a woman in her late twenties, she houses a symbiont that has lived through seven other lifetimes. As Rick Berman, one of the executive producers, explained, "It was very difficult to say you're a beautiful woman and a 400-year-old androgynous character at the same time" (Gross 333). The character, although comprised of paradoxes, is still an attractive woman who is also a science officer, proving that testosterone is not essential to excel in math and science.

Terry Farrell's character, Dax, has an even greater part in challenging homophobia in the fourth-season episode "Rejoined." In a rather complicated relationship, Jadzia's symbiont's previous host had been married to the host of another symbiont, whose present host, Dr. Lenara Kahn, is visiting the space station with other Trill scientists. Relationships between two symbionts that have been previously together is forbidden and regarded as a step backward, since Trills are supposed to have new experiences. However, Jadzia and Lenara cannot deny their ongoing love. This leads to one of the few lesbian kisses to be featured on television. Although the characters were not specifically portrayed as lesbians, their feelings for each other were portrayed as powerful and valid, not ridiculed or trivialized.

While Dax may succeed in breaking through prejudice, Odo is so unusual that he seems to defy description itself. He is a shapeshifter whose natural form is a gelatinous mass. He does not eat or breathe, and his rest period is spent as a puddle of goo, using a bucket as a receptacle in the first two seasons of the show. He is gruff and "sort of a curmudgeon and he's a very rigid man. . . [but is only] trying to discover were he came from . . ." (Gross 331). Odo's bizarre characteristics present a character that is almost as different from humanoids as possible, but his quest for his past and his people make him seem quite human, allowing the viewers to relate to and sympathize with him.

Voyager has been the latest spin-off to continue the Star Trek legend. While Major Kira has a strong position as first officer on Deep Space Nine, Voyager features the first female captain in the limelight of the genre. Captain Janeway is given a strong backbone, and both the strength and charisma of a leader. Her skills are perhaps tested more than any other captain, since her ship is trapped in the distant Delta quadrant, and the return trip at warp speed will take about seventy-five years. One of the executive producers, Jeri Taylor, observed that "the captain is the person that gets the white hot glare of publicity as the first female ever to head one of the Star Trek series and she had to be just right. . . . . I have always said during this whole process that surely by the 21st century women can assume roles of leadership without acting like men." Gross 348). Rick Kolbe stated that "It seems to me she's going to do a hell of a lot for women on television. She is definitely a woman but she can handle any situation in her own particular way" (Gross 348).

The captain is not the only diverse character on the set. Commander Chakotay, a Native American, "comes from [a] background with one foot in the 21st century and one in an earlier era" (Gross 302). He wears a ceremonial tattoo over his eye in memory of his father. Tuvok is the first black Vulcan to appear in any show. Neelix is a Talaxian who is familiar with the Delta quadrant where the crew is stranded, and he serves as morale officer for those aboard. Kes is an Occompa, a race that lives for only about nine years. Ensign Harry Kim serves as the Asian ops and communications officer. B'Elanna Torres, a Klingon/human hybrid, serves as Voyager's chief engineer. The ship is equipped with a holographic doctor whose bedside manner leaves much to be desired. Despite a rocky start, and some initial hostility between the members of Starfleet and those that had been involved in a renegade Maquis group, the crew soon came to depend on each other and function as a team.

Star Trek has done more to wear down prejudice than simply create a few novel characters thrown into a show. The background of each race is complex and unique. The Ferengi are a major part of Deep Space Nine. They adopt greed as a virtue, and their main goal is to acquire as much profit as possible. The episodes "Rules of Acquisition" and "Family Business" are used to satirize and ridicule the former position of women in our society, which still remains to some degree. Ferengi women are forbidden to wear clothing or acquire profit. They must chew their children's food before serving it to them. One of the Rules of Acquisition states: "Never insult a Ferengi's mother. Insult something he cares about instead." The large lobes on the males are attributed to financial success, another reason why females, with very small lobes, cannot earn profit. When Pel, a female Ferengi in disguise, approaches Dax with her secret identity, Dax assures her that the Ferengi treatment of women is barbaric and archaic. She informs Pel that human women experienced the same treatment centuries ago, but they fought for their rights, and that sexism in their race has been eliminated long ago. This comment, along with the ludicrous rules governing female Ferengi behavior, seem to be a sort of tweak of the nose to those that still uphold such beliefs.

Not only do the Star Trek series challenge prejudices held by society, they question the stereotypes within its own worlds. Worf challenged the biases and stereotypes held toward the warrior-like Klingons by becoming the first of his race to join Starfleet. While he retained his predatory edge, he also had a strong sense of honor and duty, changing the audience's viewpoint towards his kind. Nog, a Ferengi, was also the first of his species to join Starfleet, thus proving that profit is not the end-all, be-all of his culture. There is no such thing as a one-dimensional villain in Star Trek. Even the terrifying Borg, a race of cyborgs with one collective mind and a drive to assimilate all races, are portrayed as having a human side, if the word "human" itself isn't too presumptuous, as the Klingons argue in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. The feelings of isolation and confusion are highlighted, as well as the recovery of a separate identity, in the Next Generation episode "I, Borg," as a lone Borg is found separated from his people and taken aboard the Enterprise D. In a recent episode of Deep Space Nine, "Business as Usual," the Ferengi barkeeper Quark decides to risk his life and surrender the offer of vast wealth in order to prevent the death of twenty-eight million people from a mutenagenic weapon. Mark Alaimo plays Gul Dukat (Gul is a military rank) on Deep Space Nine, who is from a rather reptilian-like race known as the Cardassians. He loves the dimensions of the character, and the freedom to explore new facets of Dukat's personality. He states, "I'm not sure how they wanted this character to develop, whether they wanted him to be a one-dimensional, aggressive, mean Cardassian, who eats children. . . . That didn't interest me to do a one-dimensional character. So I tried to develop him slowly as having a sense of reason, being sensitive, having a family, being a person. . . " (Stever 65). Each race of villains has some quality that the viewers can relate to, avoiding an "us against them" mentality that seems to perpetuate racism.

With four series, eight movies, and numerous series in novel form, Star Trek has been a pervasive part of American culture. While each is an independent creation, they all stay true to Roddenberry's dream of acceptance and cooperation. Each has contributed in its own way to changing long-held biases and myths. In this way, Star Trek will continue to "boldly go where no one has gone before."

Bibliography

Gross, Edward, and Mark A. Altman. Captains' Logs: TheUnauthorized Complete Trek Voyages.

Canada: Little, Brown & Company (Canada) Limited, 1995.

Logan, Michael. "The Captains: Avery Brooks." web page:

http://www.cybercomm/nl/~sytze/tvguide/pages/ftr2c.htm

Logan, Michael. "Endless Voyage Celebrating Star Trek's 30th Anniversary."

web page: http://www.cybercomm/nl/~sytze/tvguide/pages/ftr2c.htm

Nichols, Nichelle. Interview. Star Trek 30th Anniversary Special.

National Public Television. UPN 20: WDCA Washington, D.C. 8 September 1996.

Stever, Gayle. "Mark Alaimo: The Unlikely Sex Symbol." Star Trek Communicator 11 (1997): 62-67.

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