Does ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ Deliver on Its Promise of Diversity?

Rahawa Haile and Nicole Chung discuss the successes and failures of representation in the newest ‘Star Trek’ series

H i. I’m Rahawa Haile, an Eritrean-American writer and lifelong Star Trek fan. I’m joined by Nicole Chung, a writer and editor who’s still a little disappointed she couldn’t attend Starfleet Academy and troll Wesley Crusher. She and I both wanted to write about the new Trek series in anticipation of a mostly white/mostly male flood of episode reviews and thinkpieces. Since Star Trek: Discovery used leads who were women of color to promote the show and its commitment to diversity, who better to give feedback than us?

Star Trek: Discovery streams on CBS All Access on Sundays at 8:30 p.m. ET. If you want to watch and yell about it with us (not at us, please), we’re on Twitter at @rahawahaile and @nicole_soojung. But if you haven’t watched it yet, be aware that this conversation will contain many, many spoilers.

Nicole Chung: Hi Rahawa! Maybe before we get to SO WHAT DID YOU THINK?? about the long-awaited Star Trek: Discovery, we should talk about what brought us to sci-fi and Star Trek in the first place. I’ve been rereading favorite books with my older daughter, who certainly doesn’t need me to read to her, but I did not go through all that labor only to sit on the bench while she reads my favorite books by herself. Somehow I hadn’t realized just how many of the books I’d want to read aloud with her would be sci-fi and fantasy, from A Wrinkle in Time to The Lord of the Rings. Which seems like a silly thing to have overlooked! These books were life-giving to me as a kid.

Still, you can’t necessarily draw a line from loving Madeleine L’Engle to attending a small-town Star Trek convention (which I did, in early high school; my Starfleet Academy class ring no longer fits). When it comes to my love of the Trek multiverse, I must point the finger at my dad. We’d watch whatever Trek was currently on CBS on many a Saturday night, and often we’d stick around for very late Original Series reruns. We owned all the movies. Dad still loves Star Trek in all its iterations — except for NuTrek, about which we argue with no bitterness (he says “it’s Star Trek for people who don’t know anything about Star Trek”; I agree to a point, but don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing, and I find the new cast utterly delightful).

I have a hard time ranking the Treks because they are so different, but Star Trek: The Next Generation is my sentimental fave and Deep Space Nine is the one I’m most likely to rewatch nowadays — I think it is the strongest and also the weirdest of all the series.

Rahawa Haile: I met Star Trek as a young girl in love with all things “space” as many children are. I grew up watching Star Trek: The Next Generation, proceeded to watch Deep Space Nine, and gave up a few seasons into Voyager. At 16, I was so thrilled for Enterprise’s premiere I begged my mom to buy me a small bottle of Alizé so I could pretend it was Romulan ale (I settled for “Cool Blue” Gatorade); it was to be a short-lived excitement. Enterprise was terrible. I came late to Star Trek: The Original Series. An episode here and there, sure, but rarely more.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine felt like a revelation. As an eight-year-old in Miami — three hours south of the rocket launches at Kennedy Space Center — watching Avery Brooks, a black man, command a space station meant everything to me. It still does.

Watching Avery Brooks, a black man, command a space station meant everything to me. It still does.

NC: Brooks was so good throughout that entire series, and it was such a strange role — boilerplate Star Trek storyline at first, and then things got wild. The weirder that show got, the more I loved it.

I would have been excited about Discovery anyway, but two women of color leads in a Star Trek series seemed, well, too good to be true. I have been grappling with the fact that I was fully ready to be pandered to with this series, as a longtime sci-fi fan who’s not white. (When you’re usually ignored, honestly, a little pandering can be welcome.)

For me, it was thrilling just to see promo photos of Sonequa Martin-Green (who plays Michael Burnham) and Michelle Yeoh (who plays Philippa Georgiou) in their new uniforms, on the bridge, looking badass. I got choked up seeing Michelle in the captain’s chair. In their first scene together, when they’re walking through the desert on an alien world, discussing the mission and whether Martin-Green’s character is ready for her own command — it was about as happy as television has ever made me.

I was fully ready to be pandered to with this series. When you’re usually ignored, a little pandering can be welcome.

RH: Right. But I wish everything about Discovery didn’t feel so…opportunistic? The CBS All Access subscription. Their treatment of Yeoh (death) and Martin-Green (incarcerated). If the allure of diversity in this series — which their promo material relied on heavily — lies not only in who is seen but who has agency, the show is off to a very questionable start.

NC: I would like to talk more about this, because I too was rather dissatisfied — and it wasn’t just the early death of Yeoh’s character, though that was one disappointing result of larger plot and character issues. As you point out, just having people of color on the show is not enough; you also have to write them well, give them the kind of background, development, and agency nonwhite characters lack on so many shows.

I couldn’t understand why Martin-Green’s character would throw away seven years of camaraderie and mentorship to knock out her captain and attempt a mutiny, for example (even to save lives?). That move just felt rushed, like we’d need more backstory and a better grasp of the characters in order to fully understand it. Yes, Michael was triggered by a run-in with the Klingons, who killed her parents — but it seemed too great a leap to have her attack Captain Georgiou in the pilot.

As for Georgiou, she was allowed to be seen nurturing her crew, being an encouraging mentor . . . and yet, somehow, she was not shown to be a very good captain? She was rather hapless during the battle, anyway, until the (white, male) admiral showed up. Now the captain of Discovery, the ship where Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) is headed, has in Jason Isaacs’s Lorca a captain who is in it to win it, and you could read this as a decision to give us yet another white male captain who can do the job an Asian woman couldn’t.

It doesn’t sit well with me that these two women I was so excited to watch in this universe had such a strange, almost nonsensical beginning and a relationship I just could not figure out.

Just having people of color on the show is not enough; you also have to write them well, give them the kind of background, development, and agency nonwhite characters lack on so many shows.

RH: Yes! I called Martin-Green “Michael Thrace” (a reference to the Battlestar Galactica reboot’s Kara Thrace) at one point because of this impulsiveness. If you’re going to part ways from Roddenberry’s utopian vision that starkly, give me the character development to back it up!

I’m uncomfortable with how much this series is indebted to the Battlestar Galactica reboot. I don’t care how impressive the CGI was: Episode two did not earn its battle. No episode two does, because television is not the movies. Visuals are not the reason Star Trek has enchanted viewers for 50 years. I need more than 40 minutes of set-up to care about the people in a battle like the second episode’s. My lifelong history of rooting for previous Federation leads does not mean Discovery gets to skip the heavy lifting of building characters in favor of shootouts. Action is meaningless if I know nothing about those who are acted upon.

I’m disappointed as much as everyone else by Yeoh’s death. Charlize Theron received endless praise for learning to fight during the filming of Atomic Blonde, but oh my God does Michelle Yeoh deserve an Emmy for managing to act like she doesn’t possess her legendary fighting skills in this episode.

NC: Yeah, as I keep saying to everyone, there’s no way Michelle Yeoh loses that or any fight IRL, sorry. And I liked the BSG reboot, except for the last bit of the series finale and literally two episodes I always skip (BSG fans can probably guess which ones), but I don’t think it’s a model for Star Trek.

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RH: I tweeted that I don’t think Discovery knows what science fiction show it wants to be yet. It’s streaming on a subscription service meant to lure established fans; it’s promoting(ish) women of color leads meant to entice wider audiences; it’s action-driven and shiny because it believes it has to be as visually immersive as the recent films. I want stronger writing and more exploration.

Two scenes stuck out the most to me from the Discovery premiere. The first was when Martin-Green’s face looks almost golden in her spacesuit. That look of awe — that is what I’m here for. The other was in the brig, when her cell was about to be exposed to the vacuum of space. “How does a character face death?” will always be an interesting question. Watching her before she found a way out — her body language, her silence, everything — is what gives me hope for this series. (Although I’m a little surprised she didn’t close her eyes for the scene! Same with Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy. Readers, if you’re ever about to be exposed to the vacuum of space, please close your eyes.)

Overall, I think my kindest takeaway is that Martin-Green has the range. She can be stoic. She can be emotional. She can be a reserved soldier. She can lie. This is more dexterity than most Star Trek characters usually get to show. That kind of depth just isn’t written into them. These next few episodes are going to matter a lot. I want to see how she interacts with her fellow crewmen. Great emphasis has been placed on the novelty of having a series told from the POV of a character other than the captain, which might be neat, but is also incredibly vulnerable to the chemistry between Martin-Green and the rest of the crew. Can you imagine a DS9 told from Odo’s POV versus, say, Bashir’s? A TNG told from Worf’s POV versus Data’s? We’re talking about wildly different shows that would get old or stale for different reasons at different times.

I hope Discovery doesn’t waste Martin-Green. I hope it isn’t a show about her having to prove herself over and over again. Star Trek is about connections, successful or absent. I hope it shows us some.

I hope Discovery doesn’t waste Sonequa Martin-Green. I hope it isn’t a show about her having to prove herself over and over again.

NC: I’ve wondered about perspective on Discovery, too, because while other series have centered the captains, they’ve also been strong ensemble shows with different episodes unfolding from different characters’ perspectives. On TNG, I appreciated weird little episodes like “Suspicions,” which gave us a whole episode of Dr. Crusher playing detective; or “Data’s Day,” all about Data and his friendships with O’Brien, Keiko, and Crusher. I don’t know that a serialized show leaping from conflict to battle to shocking twist can do that kind of storytelling or perspective-shifting. And maybe we don’t miss it so much if Michael turns out to be the wonderfully developed character Martin-Green deserves! But it’s another one of those things I tend to think of as quintessential Star Trek, and it’ll feel odd if we don’t see it later.

RH: Let’s talk about the Klingons. I’m deeply disturbed by how flat they made them, how singularly intolerant. They may as well be DS9’s Jem’Hadar. The slogan “Remain Klingon” has made waves across the fandom as an allusion to the political climate in America. But listen, are the Klingons in Star Trek: Discovery the other or the bigots? Are they both? Because if so, I feel like I’ve just walked into someone telling me black people are the real racists. Who does the show want them to be? And, based on that answer, what does it mean that they’re the villains?

NC: That’s such a good point. It’s a little disappointing after the world-building with the Klingons I grew up watching on TNG, who were sometimes allies and sometimes not, but always complex and compelling. I thought the “Remain Klingon” rallying cry signaled the Klingons are meant to be the bigots, but the portrayal was confusing! I kept thinking of Worf’s line from the DS9 episode when Sisko and crew go back to Kirk’s Enterprise and witness the encounter with the Tribbles; they see some Klingons and note how different they look, and Worf is like, “Yeah, we don’t talk about that.” These Discovery Klingons were pretty much unrecognizable to me, which would be okay if the portrayal wasn’t so one-dimensional so far.

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Of course, even on other Star Trek shows, whole species are often whittled down to a single trait: the Romulans are sneaky, the Klingons are warlike, the Cardassians are ruthless, the Ferengi are greedy. And yet within those broad strokes you see individuals (I guess I’m thinking about Garak now, because I am rewatching DS9 as I write this) who get to be full, interesting characters, of but also distinct from the general cultural stereotypes.

I’ve been trying to think of a sci-fi offering that’s been especially good when it comes to race and culture (both literal aliens, and also actors of color in all sorts of interesting roles). I keep going around, arguing with myself about whether sci-fi does race better or worse than other types of stories. I am not sure. It’s probably a silly question. But I ask it because sci-fi is where I’ve sometimes felt just slightly less invisible than I do in other genres (cozy mysteries, love stories, literary fiction…). I guess I’ve always appreciated Star Trek for its “diversity,” even when I have wanted a hell of a lot more of it.

I guess I’ve always appreciated Star Trek for its “diversity,” even when I have wanted a hell of a lot more of it.

RH: I hear you. DS9 excelled at portraying Ferengi (Rom) and Cardassians (Garak) who broke away from stereotypes. My gut reaction is to say, yes, of course sci-fi handled race better than other stories, but I wonder how much of that is still true; there’s an argument to be made that comics are currently doing this better and more consistently than just about any format out there. Televised sci-fi today can bring us representation in ways that are important within the context of their stories, sure, but that are also intrinsically tied to the historically exclusionary nature of that medium.

My takeaway from episode three is that this Star Trek is going to do whatever the hell it wants. No one trusts anyone. The captain might be good or bad. Whatever sense of camaraderie might develop among the crew will take longer than most old fans are used to seeing. I hope they stick around.

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