The first trailer for Star Trek Discovery, the latest TV series in the Star Trek franchise, highlighted the stark difference between Discovery and the rest of the Star Trek franchise: the future of Star Trek is female. For the first time, two female lead characters will guide us through the depths of space aboard a Federation ship.
Set 10 years before the events of the original series (TOS), Discovery follows the crew of the titular Federation starship, helmed by Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs), from the perspective of its First Officer, Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green). Michelle Yeoh plays Philippa Georgiou, the captain of another Federation ship, the Shenzhou.
From the trailer, we also get a look at a new alien named Lieutenant Saru (Doug Jones), and Spock's father, Sarek (James Frain) as well as conflict between Starfleet and the Klingon Empire. The rest of the crew is made up of Maulik Pancholy playing the ship’s doctor, Anthony Rapp as the science officer, and Rainn Wilson is taking on the role of Harry Mudd from TOS.
Star Trek has always been progressive going back to Gene Roddenberry’s utopian vision of the future with TOS in the 60s, which had a multicultural crew with prominent roles given to Sulu (George Takei), Uhura (Nichelle Nichols and Chekov (Walter Koenig) – groundbreaking on American television at the time. TOS featured the first interracial kiss on television and many alien encounters in the series were metaphors for racial tensions gripping America during the 60s.
Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) maintained the series optimism, but took a little dip in the diversity department despite prominent roles for black actors and a boost in female cast members. Deep Space 9 delivered the first black captain, followed soon after by Voyager with its first female captain.
Discovery is keeping the tradition going but it’s not only doubling down on having female characters in positions of power, but acknowledging an openly gay crew member, played by actor Anthony Rapp.
Before the original show runner, Bryan Fuller (Pushing Daises, Hannibal, American Gods), left the project, he told CBR in an interview that the show would continue the franchise’s legacy of celebrating diversity: “We were very adamant early on about that cast, not just in terms of race but also in terms of gender.
“Janeway (the captain from Voyager) carved a nice path as did Majel Barrett (Nurse Christine Chapel in the original Star Trek series) in 1966, in the original pilot. So it was important for ethnic inclusivity and gender inclusivity (to be upheld in casting). I was very excited to cast Michelle Yeoh before I left. I was pushing very hard for Sonequa Martin-Green to be cast before I left. So I feel like there’s a lot of wonderful diversity represented in the show, and I’m excited to see how it turns out.”
While the Star Trek TV shows took a backseat to the Star Trek films (Star Trek, Star Trek Into Darkness and Star Trek Beyond), television more broadly has been catching up to the progressiveness of Trek. Series like Orange is the New Black, Supergirl, Transparent, The Family Law, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Empire, Black-ish, The Flash, Scandal, Fresh Off the Boat, Atlanta, Insecure, Master of None, Jane the Virgin, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage has each been praised for pushing diversity on screen. Discovery, as part of a legacy franchise with roots in diversity, will be held accountable to the standard set by these modern shows.
There’s speculation that Martin-Green’s character may be playing a human who was raised on Vulcan and is caught in the classic struggle of the species between logic and emotions, which could be a fascinating metaphorical idea to explore threading in themes of gender and race in a way that only Star Trek can.
Fandom has also changed a lot over the past decade-and-a-half. For a long time, sci-fi and fantasy had a bad habit of excluding women, both on and off screen. Things have changed, slowly. Nicole Pearlman became the first woman to script a Marvel film with Guardians of the Galaxy, author Diana Gabaldon's time-traveling epic Outlander has become a hit TV series, a female Thor has her own comic book series, Suzanne Collins The Hunger Games became a mega film franchise and J. K. Rowling delivered the juggernaut Harry Potter series and its subsequent films, merchandising and theme parks. With these creators comes a shift in the female perspective on stories. The same goes for queer and trans creators as well as writers of all ethnicities.
The creative pool is no longer limited to white male voices. It’s the same for fandom. In 2012, Time Magazine declared women as the new face of fandom: “Soon, even the most misogynist of old-school fans will look around and realize that female fandom has grown into something equal to, if not greater than, the traditional male model ever managed.” Five years later, the shift in fandom has happened. As reported in IndieWire, women make up the majority of the movie-going audience and the film calendar is packed with blockbuster pop culture offerings from Marvel, Star Wars, DC Comics, Star Trek, Harry Potter and more. On a personal note, I have been attending Star Trek conventions in Australia for 20 years, and while it skewed male, there were always female fans present because Star Trek was a place where they weren’t forgotten. If anything, female Star Trek fandom has grown and gotten more vocal than ever, which is why Discovery is looking to reflect what the modern fanbase is made up of.
From what we’ve seen so far of Discovery, it has the sheen, but that comes easy when you throw enough cash at Star Trek. What we want is the smarts, and it’s a promising sign that the diversity of the cast suggests they’ll be leveraging political themes into the show’s plot. It’s time for Star Trek to get bold again.