I went to see Star Trek on the weekend, and indeed, as The Onion reports, it is an action-packed thrill-ride that makes the old television series seem, well, old.
I loved it. Fantastic cinematography, big themes of power and oppression and diversity writ large – whole countries representing “races”, so the themes of tolerance and negotiation can be simplified for everyone.
But no female characters except two there to look at, and two there to give birth to our important men. Disappointing in the extreme that the post-modern reinvention of a classic has relegated women to less important than we were in the 1960s. And disappointing that the re-invention of James T Kirk paints him as a leering sexist as a young man.
Star Trek became so well-established late in its television career – and then spawned the New Generation and various films and merchandise opportunities – that we forget it was originally taboo breaking and controversial to the point of being assigned television death by those in charge.
It was saved by a letter-writing campaign of one million fan letters sent directly to NBC television executives.
As well as all the science fiction devices, it was deliberately ethnically and racially diverse – challenging to many in the early 1960s, when much of the United States was still racially segregated. It was also deliberately inclusive of women in a way unusual for its time.
The cast featured Uhura, a Black woman with a Swahili name, Sulu, a Japanese-Filipino American supposed to represent all Asia (I didn’t claim Star Trek was perfect…), Russian Chekov, other female characters Christine Chapel and Janice Rand, and of course the central male characters of Spock, Captain Kirk, Scotty and Bones McCoy.
It really wasn’t perfect. The female characters were still peripheral – and interestingly in the new film, only Uhura reappears. Peripherally. And expecting one person to represent other non-white race/ethnicities – while keeping in place a white majority, particularly in power and character development – is obviously less than full racial equality.
But Uhura was a strong woman and one of the first major Black characters on US television, and an inter-racial kiss with Kirk was ground-breaking and controversial way back then. And even though we still had a nice white man in charge of everything, it was revolutionary – during the Cold War with Russia, and American imperialist wars in South-East Asia, and the Civil Rights movement for African-Americans – to suggest that racism and inter-racial strife would be a thing of the past one day.
So I have brand loyalty to Star Trek, and to science-fiction as a genre in general. For me, it helps imagine how the world just might be a little bit fairer, a little bit less divided, a little bit kinder.
And I loved the new film, and especially the time/space trick of an alternate reality being created by the central plot story device. But it would be nice, just once, for a rewrite of a classic to remember that including women is still important. It shouldn’t be groundbreaking now, in the 21st century, to have central female characters who think, speak, act, choose, desire.
Yet if we think about the newer Star Wars and the new Star Trek film, the ground remains firmly unbroken in our post-feminist world.
I never thought I’d say this, but does anyone miss Princess Leia?