Star Trek exists in two contexts. While race and gender discrimination supposedly doesn’t exist in the Star Trek world, it is undeniable that it exists in ours and therefore manifests in the other.
When 90% of the captains in the Federation are white dudes, one has to start wondering at what point should we start realizing that we are assigning our contemporary privileges on to a show that is supposed to be about progress.
Furthermore, identity politics are important in television because television doesn’t represent us.
I once saw Avery Brooks (panel write-up can be found here), and a fan asked him what the biggest change in Hollywood has been since he started. His answer was “Nothing”. He said that he was still waiting for the change; that he was still waiting for Hollywood look like the world.
We need identity representation in the media because it doesn’t exist, whether you like it or not.
As such, Brooks’ position has always been interesting to me, and perfectly illustrates why I continue to critique the show. In Star Trek, his character isn’t defined by race. He has a distinctive culture just as Picard and Kirk do, but it’s never used as an after-school special. He just is. Loyal, serious, and deeply complicated and sometimes contradictory man. Yet, the first thing we think about when we think of Sisko is that he was the first black captain. That should let you know how important these two contexts a show lies are. There is what it supposed to be, and then there is what it is.
Let’s face it. The original series of Star Trek was a mess of sexism and neo-colonialism, and The Next Generation has more than a few problems smoothing over cultures to fit Federation standards, and then ignoring how problematic that high-handed moral attitude is. Star Trek isn’t perfect because the people of today write it, and that’s worth looking at it.
So yeah… I’ll keep on doing that, because I love this show, and because I also want a brighter future.
Note: As many of you know, I run a Stargate Universe podcast which you can find here. I have a great deal of thoughts about the show, but the following one is an idea that I don’t think I fully expressed in the podcast, so here it is. Even if you haven’t seen Stargate Universe, I think it may be interesting to you.
Sometimes, one of the hardest things to be in the science fiction fandom is be a Stargate Universe lover. At the very least, it’s one of the hardest things to be in the Stargate fandom. If you doubt this, let me tell you a story. I dressed up as Eli Wallace to be a part of my friend’s Stargate cosplay group, and I was asked to get out of the group photo…
So yeah. It’s either that, or they all hate Eli…
At least I go this one, complete with a Rush-is-yelling-at-me-on-the-walkie-talkie expression:
Anyway, there could be a few reasons for the SGU hate. Some people erroneously believe that Stargate Atlantis was cancelled in favor of Stargate Universe. Some really liked the campy scifi feel of SG-1 and Atlantis sometimes employed, and the Nolan-esque grittiness of SGU felt like a betrayal.
But after years of listening, and asking pointed questions at these people, I think the real matter is that the show was misunderstood.
One of issues that I heard over and over from people who dislike the show is that the ship solves all their problems for the crew, so it’s not interesting. There is no tension, they say, and it lacks the crazy solutions Carter and McKay would come up with.
I can’t blame them for thinking that. After all, on the surface, it looks that way, especially when watching the first four episodes.
Essentially, they saw “Air”, where our poor crew end up on the Destiny, and quickly discover that there is not enough oxygen for all of them. The ship takes them to a planet for them to get a kind of limestone for the carbon monoxide scrubbers. Broken-down, and barely inhabitable, Destiny causes just as many problems as it tries to solve. After all, it takes a near inhuman effort of Greer and Scott to find some limestone and barely make it back in time to the ship before it leaves.
This lack of control, by the way, is exactly why Destiny acts as an antagonist.
The next crisis that presents itself in “Light” and “Darkness”, where the ship flies straight into a star. Having no control over the ship, and no power to do anything anyway, the crew has to make hard decisions. Gone are the Polly-Anna-McKay solutions that would somehow convert power from a strange source,find a ZPM, or whatever he would come up with. Even if they could get power, they have no way to steer the ship away from the star. They don’t have the time, resources, or personnel to save all of the lives this ship is endangering. Instead, they have to hold a lottery to to send a small contingent of people away to live a hard life on a frigid planet that is barely fit for carbon-based lifeforms, while the rest sail into a star to die. The ship is the enemy here. Sure, it turns out the ship goes into stars regularly to power up, but they could not have known that. Not only that, the ship going into a star with no indication of why caused another issue: how to get back the people they sent off as the shuttle is not fast enough to catch up?
The next episode follow a similar theme. They are running out of water. The ship takes them to an ice-planet, most of which is poisoned with ammonia. To make it worse, the ship institutes its countdown clock, giving them a tight deadline to barely get enough water at all. Because of this, Destiny becomes partially the antagonist along with the alien species that is consuming their water on the ship.
All in all, I think this poster says it all:
It’s all about survival, and the ship does not make that easy at all.
But I’ll belabor my point. After the first five episodes, I think it’s very hard to argue that the ship solves any of their problems for them.
Telford becomes the antagonist in the next episode, “Earth”, as he proposes a risky procedure to open the stargate that Rush is positive will kill them all. In “Time”, it’s a simple Man vs. Nature conflict as the crew fights not only multiple timelines where they meet very grisly ends, but a plague. (And by the way, “Time” is probably one of the best episodes of scifi written in the last twenty years, and should have been nominated and won a Hugo award. Even you don’t have interest in Stargate, watch that episode. It actually deals with time travel theory properly.)
And after that, you have the completely man-made conflict when Rush and Young finally come to disastrous results as they vie for power, both believing the other is hampering the the crew’s chances for survival. I don’t see the ship stepping in a mediating this… which it could possibly do if Season 2 is to be believed. And let’s not forget that Rush and Young’s feud to another problem the ship can’t solve at all, which is the alien Nakai. If anything, the ship’s completely depleted shields, and inability to fully charge up at stars (because they can’t control it), makes it harder for them to survive the Nakai attacks as they limp away from their inexplicable enemies.
The thing is, the ship is pretty much the cause of all of their problems, and when they finally get some minimal control so they can cause even more of their own problems, the ship still acts an antagonist as it takes them in a cross galaxy jump they will not survive. Their only basic control, combined with ship’s dilapidated system continues to work against them as much as the genocidal drones.
And really, I love it. I relish the plethora of conflicts that layer in Stargate Universe, all of which are at a personal level because it’s limited to the ship. It’s not “oh no, we have to do this to save Earth from aliens… again”. It’s “oh no, these characters I adore could be gone forever”, and “oh my god, we may never find out what Destiny’s mission is, or what theses obelisk planets are”.
I will forever be grateful for how SGU explores the reality of people in a universe with stargates in somewhat unflattering, but always thought-provoking ways. And for me, one of those thought-provoking ways is that the thing they depend completely on for survival is also the very thing that threatens it.