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Star Trek Discovery: diverse futuristic vision let down by 20th-century gender stereotypes

Star Trek, from the original series through several generations of sequels, is one of the best-loved and most enduring science fiction creations. For more than 50 years, the television series and films have displayed a universe of tolerance and inclusivity, based on the progressive ideas and vision of the future of its creator, Gene Roddenberry.

The cultural impact of Roddenberry’s vision has been significant, particularly in how gender and minority groups have been portrayed – starships and galaxies peopled with characters from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds and the Federation of Planets as a community of worlds peacefully co-existing.

But the newest addition to the Star Trek family has already caused a stir among fans.

The criticism is not just that the series, Discovery, is darker and more conflict-focused than its predecessors nor that there is too much emphasis on the imperialist patriarchy of the Klingons. The controversy instead stems from the fact that the trailer shows two women, neither of them white, in command positions.

Challenging preconceptions

Throughout the Star Trek series, men and women, humanoid or Vulcan, live and work together as equals. The series have inspired generations of viewers and challenged preconceived ideas of gender roles, culture and identity. An episode featuring Kirk and Uhura’s “inter-racial” kiss in 1968 remains a typical example of this.

A woman as the ship’s doctor and – for a while – a woman as security chief – made Picard’s bridge in The Next Generation more balanced in terms of gender. For many viewers however, the thrill was in the opening sequence where Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s voice replaced the familiar but sexist “where no man has gone before” with the gender-neutral “where no one has gone before”. This promised a 24th-century utopian society that had moved beyond gender and cultural stereotypes.

Later, Captain Kathryn Janeway, in charge of Voyager, showed that if a woman can lead a starship, the boundaries between male and female aspirations and achievements are no longer relevant.

But while a future with multi-cultural/racial/galactic relationships and societies has been daringly portrayed over the decades, this vision has stayed within the confines of socially-accepted 20th-century views of gender and identity.

William Shatner and many others have documented how the studios constrained many of Roddenberry’s more progressive ideas to avoid controversy and upsetting family audiences. A focus on family structures, male-female relationships, with men as dominant and women as caring and sensitive, was maintained – even in imagined future worlds. The male presence is normalised in film and media in general – and an opening scene with two men talking while walking across an isolated planet would not be viewed as unusual. But in Discovery, where one woman is captain and the other is second-in-command, it is considered challenging, controversial or boundary pushing.

Sign of the times

While watching a Star Trek episode can easily propel viewers from their sofas to the bridge of a 24th-century starship, the gender roles, patterns of speech and behaviour do not progress much beyond the stereotypes of our time. Characters, roles and exchanges in particular episodes of The Next Generation provide interesting examples of attitudes to gender and cultural stereotypes within a universe based on progressive and altruistic ideals.

This might explain why Counsellor Troi, an empath (as half-Betazoid, her telepathic abilities enabled her to read minds and provide “counselling”) was the only crew member to wear a (short) skirt in the first episodes. In response to viewers’ complaints, her outfits were changed to trousers or long dresses. Inexplicably, however, as her skirts became longer her neckline became noticeably lower.

While it can – and is – successfully being argued on social media that the new series, Discovery, has departed from Roddenberry’s optimistic vision of the future, the first two episodes appear to focus on one character – first officer Michael Burnham (played by Sonequa Martin-Green) – and conflict rather than relationships, consensus and community-building.

But until now, the tolerant and inclusive United Federation of Planets has been mainly under the leadership of white men. Advances in real-life technology have allowed the series to develop from a clunky, formica-styled bridge with Kirk and crew swaying from side to side in turbulence, to holidays in holo-suites, organ and part-body replacement, spectacular views and light shows of nebulae.

Understandings of the age and scientific discovery might have influenced such production details, but awareness and representation of gender roles and identity has remained firmly embedded in 20th-century stereotypes. “You must challenge your preconceptions or they will challenge you,” announces the trailer for this newest series in the Star Trek franchise. How far the series allows audiences to do this remains to be seen.

It could all depend on whether viewers prefer a vision of the future based on peace and tolerance or one of confrontation and conflict. To resolve this may require a journey beyond our current gendered limitations.

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