Entertainment, Top Stories

What Is This Thing You Call ‘Social Justice’?

Star Trek: Discovery begins its second season this week, with its producers no doubt hoping for a smoother start after a first season marred by considerable behind-the-scenes difficulties and uneven reception from hardcore fans. After major delays and a series of sudden creative staff changes, many plotlines were introduced and quickly abandoned, fans were frustrated with the show’s inability to adhere to the Star Trek canon—the whole first season was chaos.

But hey, at least the succession of showrunners were able to signal their progressive bona fides to the woke social media legions. Indeed, they started well in advance. Before Discovery had even premiered, former showrunner Aaron Harberts was on a press tour boasting of the fact that Discovery was going to take on the Trump presidency through its storytelling: “The allegory is that we really started working on the show in earnest around the time the election was happening,” said showrunner Aaron Harberts. “The Klingons are going to help us really look at certain sides of ourselves and our country. Isolationism is a big theme. Racial purity is a big theme.” (Harberts, incidentally, was one of the showrunners accused of “verbal violence” and subsequently let go after the first season was complete.)

Star Trek fans didn’t appreciate that in the initial episodes, the lead character, a woman of colour named Michael (for some reason) had no moral backbone and no redeeming qualities other than a high intersectional score, and the supporting cast seemed to have been assembled for reasons of diversity over talent or compelling character. The two exceptions to this are Saru, the cautious and clever Kelpian, and Cadet Tilly, who provided much-needed comic relief.

Worst of all, Discovery turned the Klingons into hairless race supremacists, an embarrassing, two-dimensional depiction of one of the most popular alien races in the Star Trek canon. Echoes of the deplorables’ rallying cry of “Make America Great Again” can be found in the Klingon’s rallying cry for racial purity: “Remain Klingon.” The parallels were so excruciatingly obvious that CBS had to publicly deny any direct connection.

In the first two episodes of Discovery, which serve as a form of origin story for the rest of the season, Klingon leader T’Kuvma preaches to his followers that the Federation must be attacked because humanity and its like-minded democratic allies seek to impose multiculturalism on the galaxy. T’Kuvma preaches a “Klingon First” mindset, in an attempt to unify the 24 disparate Klingon houses. The Klingons might as well have been chanting, “Build the wall!” The message behind the first episodes is mind-numbingly simple: diversity good, Trump voters bad.

Star Trek fans are smart, though, and they took to the internet to call Discovery out on its virtue signaling. This led to a litany of media-approved think-pieces defending the social justice agenda of the new series, including one cringeworthy attempt by a writer at the Mary Sue to break down all Star Trek series, including Discovery, according to quota.

Diversity is a good thing; art can be used to make political statements; and not all anti-Trump art is bad. I’m also willing to grant that episodes later in Discovery‘s first season became more watchable as the production team began to show more respect for Star Trek fandom and canon. But there’s no getting around the fact that the overt, reactionary tone of the early Discovery episodes had all of the subtlety of a Kathy Griffin tweet.

This was particularly jarring when set in comparison to some of the classic episodes from this historic franchise’s past. While Star Trek always has been broadly liberal in its politics (including TV’s first interracial kiss), it has typically been classically liberal—in opposition to what we would now call political correctness, identity politics, and mob justice. And by pausing to appreciate some classic episodes, we may find hope to conclude that it’s not too late for Discovery to alter course.

In particular, it’s hard not to get shivers re-watching a 1967 episode of the original Star Trek entitled Return of the Archons, in which Captain Kirk and his crew encounter a society whose behavior is entirely regulated by a centralized authority called Landru. People walk around in a collective daze and greet each other with platitudes like, “Peace and joy to you, my friend” and “Contentment and tranquility.” Later in the episode, Dr. Leonard McCoy, who had been indoctrinated by Landru, realizes that Spock and Kirk were just pretending to be as “absorbed” as he was. McCoy becomes hysterical, pointing and screeching at his shipmates: “You’re not of the body!” and calls for the “Lawgivers” to arrive and correct them—which is basically what now happens here on planet earth when an unpopular opinion is expressed online.

(Kirk and Spock eventually confront Landru, who turns out to be a software artifact. They pose a series of queries that lead to Landru’s self-destruction, by convincing the entity that since its own definition of evil applies to itself, and its mandate is to destroy the evils of society, it must self-annihilate.)

In the 1992 Star Trek: The Next Generation episode The Outcast, Commander Riker becomes romantically interested in Soren, a member of an androgynous race whose society is apparently blissfully free of gender. The alien race, called the J’naii, forbids gender specificity. As Riker and Soren get to know each other, they share information on their respective mating rituals. They grow fond of each other. At one point, an exasperated Riker tells Soren: “For two days, I’ve been trying to construct sentences without personal pronouns…forgive me if the odd he or she slips by.” Soren smiles and nods because—not being a 2019-era culture warrior—she is an adult and not insane.

Soren boasts that the J’naii process for reproduction is “less risky.” Riker quips that it is “less enjoyable.” She explains that, “the idea of gender, it is offensive to my people. Long ago, we had two sexes as you do. We evolved into a higher form”—an unintended foreshadowing of a vision promoted by modern social justice activists who insist that “the future is non-binary.”

The pair eventually fall in love and Soren is arrested by her people as a result. The J’naii authorities force Soren to chemically alter her physiology in order to become sexless and genderless. Riker tries to intervene and take the blame for Soren’s attraction. But Soren does not accept his help. She faces her inquisitors and says, “I am female. I was born that way. I have had those feelings, those longings all of my life. It is not unnatural. I do not need to be helped. I do not need to be cured.”

It’s a powerful soliloquy in defense of individual rights and the freedom to love whom you want. But of course, it does not persuade the J’naii authoritarians, and they use her impassioned plea as incriminating evidence. She then is sentenced to “psycho-technic perversion therapy.”

Riker goes rogue and attempts to rescue Soren from the J’naii. But, by the time he reaches her, she has been pumped so full of drugs or ideology (what “psycho-technic perversion therapy” entails is not clear) that she claims that she had only been attracted to him because she was “sick.” She has been converted back to J’naii asexualnormativity. Seen by the lights of 2019, the episode’s story arc is eerie to say the least. Riker might as well have tried to rescue an activist grad student from Evergreen State.

The very best Star Trek episode that tackles social justice (as we would now call it) is the 1991 Next Generation episode The Drumhead. This is Star Trek’s own version of The Crucible. The Enterprise becomes 17th-century Salem in this cautionary tale, as Captain Picard must fight a ranking officer who is conducting a show trial based on a fantastical conspiracy theory.

The ranking officer is distinguished Starfleet Admiral Norah Satie, who comes aboard the Enterprise to preside over the trial of a Klingon named J’Dan. (By this time in the canon, the Federation and Klingons have become allies.) He has been charged with attempting to sabotage the Enterprise. J’Dan admits to being a spy for the Romulan Empire, which remains hostile to both the Federation and the Klingons, but Admiral Satie becomes convinced that J’Dan had accomplices, and her ideas grow increasingly unhinged .

Satie deputizes Lieutenant Worf, the Enterprise’s security chief, who also gets swept up in the moral panic that surrounds the trial. He promises Satie that, “If there is a conspiracy on board, I promise you I will find it,” and starts rounding up innocent members of the Enterprise crew for interrogation.

A young crew member named Simon Tarses is one of them. He is fidgety and nervous. Satie pounces on him and tries to restrict his movements. As it turns out, Tarses indeed has something to keep from Admiral Satie—his racial identity: While Tarses is innocent of any kind of subterfuge or conspiracy, he is guilty of having a Romulan grandfather, something he has kept secret in order to pursue a career in Starfleet.

The cruelty and ruthlessness of Admiral Satie toward Tarses escalates to the point where Captain Picard himself is forced to intervene. Satie rejects Picard’s appeal for sanity, and informs him that the Head of Starfleet Security, Admiral Thomas Henry, is already en route to witness the completion of the trial. Satie then turns her attention to Picard and attempts to railroad him with false allegations of betraying Starfleet. This leads Worf to snap out of his own paranoid hysteria and defend his captain. Of course, Worf is now implicated as a result—a fate that can befall anyone who stands up for justice in the face of moral panic.

The episode reaches a crescendo when Picard uses the accusations against him to invoke the words of Admiral Satie’s father, Judge Aaron Satie, a legendary Federation lawmaker who warned about the dangers of denying due process in the name of safety: “With the first link, the chain is forged. The first speech censored, the first thought forbidden, the first freedom denied, chains us all irrevocably.”

Satie is enraged and screams, “I have brought down bigger men than you!” With this, the trial effectively comes to an end as Admiral Henry has now been witness to the delusional fanaticism of the once-trusted Satie. The explosion aboard the ship that triggered the investigation is eventually determined to have been a simple accident, caused by a faulty part.

Once the trial is officially brought to a close by Admiral Henry, Worf and Picard discuss the hysteria that swept throughout the Enterprise.

“We think we’ve come so far,” Picard says, “The torture of heretics, the burning of witches, it’s all ancient history. Then, before you can blink an eye, it suddenly threatens to start all over again.”

“I believed her…I helped her. I did not see what she was,” Worf says.

“Mr. Worf, villains who twirl their moustaches are easy to spot. Those who clothe themselves in good deeds are well camouflaged.” He concludes: “Vigilance, Mr. Worf. That is the price we have to continually pay.”

These are just a few of many examples in which Star Trek warned us about the perils that attend any fanatical mindset, even those that begin with apparently virtuous intentions. The entire Borg storyline, for instance, is all about the dangers of the hive-mind, which can extrapolate a society’s natural desire for unity to its pathological extreme.

There’s another scene from the original series that I keep coming back to. I’ve written about it before in relation to the Twitter-shaming of Chris Rock. It’s from a 1969 episode called “The Savage Curtain.” Lieutenant Uhura comes face to face with an alien entity who is projecting the image of Abraham Lincoln. The alien is struck by Uhura’s beauty. He calls her “a charming negress,” then immediately realizes he has said a problematic word and says, “Oh, forgive me, my dear, I know that in my time some used that term as a description of property.”

“Why should I object to that term, sir? You see, in our century we’ve learned not to fear words,” Uhura says.

The response embodies the hopeful, humanist sentiments that made Star Trek resonate with fans in the first place. It reflects a vision for the future where diversity is a given as opposed to an obsession, and where resilience and confidence were prized over sensitivity.

While the original (and best) captain of the Enterprise continues the fight against social justice extremism on Twitter to this day, the franchise itself is in danger of trending in the opposite direction. Whether Star Trek: Discovery can succeed depends on whether or not its creative team can begin to tell stories that don’t rely on pandering to activists and instead engage with broad audiences. Following Uhura’s advice would be a good start to righting a listing ship.


Barrett Wilson is a former social justice crusader. He writes for Quillette and Areo, and is an editor for The Post Millennial and the satire site The Swift. You can follow him on Twitter @BarrettWilson6

 

75 Comments

  1. codadmin says

    Chilling, and to paraphrase: “ Resistance is racist! You will be converged! “

  2. Morgan Foster says

    Star Trek has lived too long and has not prospered.

    • Fyooz says

      It needs yet another reboot with showrunners not drawn from film schools, maybe. though I do have some complaints about the canon too. Excessive reliance on time travel.

    • Corby Logan says

      That’s good. weaponized post-modernism will eat itself. They will all turn on each other, all you have to do is keep them triggered and watch the fun. It is interesting to read the stories of those who used to be part of the perpetually aggrieved but were set upon by their own group.

  3. X. Citoyen says

    Great piece, thanks. Self-awareness seems to be in short supply these days.

  4. Riley McCormack says

    Discovery sucks because the free market demands it pander to the lower common denominator. Trek of old – thoughtful, countercultural and philosophical – would have delivered a solid takedown of conservatives, and their historical alliances with fascists, hyper-nationalists and religious fundamentalists, and their nostalgic fetishizing of an idealized “pure” past.

    Instead we get Die Hard in space as acted out by space liberals, which is just an awkward juxtaposition. Writing good philosophical fiction is hard, and Trek’s not been able to do it since Picard left; it’s mostly been lug-headed action since then.

    • Peter from Oz says

      What is it with Americans and TV shows? They are always trying to critique the most banal popular programmes as if they are somehow culturally vital or important to the whole ethos of the nation.
      It’s just a TV programme.

        • Peter from Oz says

          My wife is a huge Star Trek fan, so I have watched it now and then.
          It was far from deep, just well made entertainment that hardly warranted any literary analysis.
          Even though my wife is very keen on the Star Trek franchise, she is quite happy to admit that the programmes are just a bit of fluff. They are not the stuff of which a serious critical essay is made.

          • Dazza says

            @peter from Oz
            Oh c’mon Peter, that’s a little condescending and bordering on intellectual snobbery. You can write a critical serious essay on any subject. Mixing entertainment and a bit of philosophy is quite a challenge, Star Trek did it well. You can’t judge something you’ve never really watched. But ultimately your wife is right, it’s just entertainment.
            As for the article, I thought it was well observed.

          • Peter from Oz says

            Danza
            I think you misunderstood my point. Of course you can write an essay about anything. This essay is in fact a good one. But it is not really about the aesthetic value of Star Trek so much as its politicisation in the hands of some people who don’t understand how entertainment works.
            My theme here is that the value of the thing lost is not so high as to concern us, but that the actions of the inconoclasts who are essaying to preach to the masses by perverting a pop culture franchise are reprehensible. In other words I would ask why the leftist fanatics can’t even leave us to enjoy a simple space opera?
            The irony is that these leftists think that they are intellectual. They are not. They are the true philistines.
            America has given the world a lot of good things. But these are now far outweighed by the horrible cultural destruction caused by the new Puritanism spawned by the American left.
            Sinistra delenda est.

      • Farris says

        @Peter
        “It’s just a TV programme.”

        No argument Peter. In the U.S. television is the pulpit of the American Left. From news to entertainment to sports, Americans are subject to nonstop preaching. It gets tiring but on balance you are correct there is an “Off” switch.

        • jimhaz says

          Part of that is that it is becoming harder and harder to find any form of novelty – it’s all been done before. Even comic strip heros have been done to death. All that is left is Woke stuff and producers are being steered into this contemporary topic. The selection of woke stuff is also occurring because women and gay folk now have a lot more power in the industry and they tend to like this woke drama stuff.

      • Heath says

        Not really, when it is part of the propaganda agenda to falsely and opiniatedtly sway viewers to groupthink that focuses on ostracizing and condemning anyone who disagrees. This agenda and attack threatens the very foundation the US was built on, freedom to believe and express your beliefs without being attacked.

    • Charlie says

      The most effective people in fighting the Nazis were the conservatives. It was the best of German officer class who were sacked by Hitler by 1935- read W Shirer. In the UK most of the officers who led commandos, parachute regiment, SOE, SAS and SBS were conservatives and often aristocrats Lovat, P Leigh Fermour, Willy Moss, Sterling Brothers, F MaClean, Jellicoe ,etc, etc. In fact there are an exceptional number of special forces officers who are Roman Catholics and come from a landed gentry and aristocratic background, for example Lovat and Sterling Brothers. Sir

      In Germany, the Roman Catholic were early critics of the Nazis, particularly their eugenics policies.
      As Orwell pointed out , the left wing middle class contempt for patriotism, physical courage and Armed Forces undermined the fight against the Nazis. When someone said there were too many public school types in the Foreign Office E Bevin the Labour Foreign Secretary replied ” They did all right in The Battle of Britain “. Bevin was a former docker and founded the TGW Union

      The first fascist was Mussolini who was friends with Lenin in Switzerland pre WW1. In Italy the aristocracy largely opposed the Fascists or did not support them.

      Many communist changed allegiance to join the Nazis/Fascists. In occupied Europe very few middle class intellectuals resisted the Nazis, Sartre did not.

  5. D-Rex says

    As long time Trek fans (well over 100 novels on my bookshelf) my wife and I were looking forward to the new Discovery tv show. We couldn’t get passed the second episode and the overt anti Trump messaging. SJW’s are ruining everything in pop culture.

    • Those first two or three episodes were, I thought, genuinely dreadful pieces of television. Why I continued watching I don’t know, but I did, as it navigated its way though another half dozen episodes of sheer averageness. Then suddenly, after the Christmas break it really picks up and becomes something much closer the Star Trek we all remember. There was clearly a big rethink regarding the show’s direction at some point, if only they’d begun that way right from the start.

  6. Now Aimlessly Wandering Trekkie... says

    As an avid (former?) Trekkie, last night I watched the first episode of season 2 of “Star Trek Diversity”. OMFG! Ridiculously rapid and confusing visuals with a continuous musical sound track and sound effects drowning out the dialogue. I could sort of understand what was going on (I think). It was completely over the top and made season 1 of Diversity look sensible in comparison. They have utterly trashed the brand. I don’t think I can continue to watch. After all, now that they have switched to series mode and away from self-contained episodes, if I didn’t really understand the story in the first episode, the second is lost….

    • Event Horizon says

      We’ve just seen the first episode of season two. I honestly cannot tell anyone what the show is all about. Lots of girl power, cool visuals, but a storyline? We don’t need no stinkin’ storyline!

    • J. J. says

      NAWT, if you didn’t understand what was going on in episode one of season 2 in Discovery, you need to watch the episode again. I am no genius, yet I felt it was very straightforward.

      Do you guys not remember Captain Pike?! Do you honestly not see how it tried to put S1 behind it and try to go for a more classic style, and the many things it set up, and outright referred to? Seriously, watch it again, utilize your memories of all the past shows and common tropes. I am not even a Trekkie, I have just seen most ST shows except for Voyager because that one was airing at inconvenient hours for my at the time schedule.

      Getting older is no excuse for actively letting your analytical abilities wither and your memory get poorer!

      • Now Aimlessly Wandering Trekkie... says

        First J.J., if you have not watched Voyager, then you really should make the effort – for me it was the most enjoyable of the ST series. Janeway comes across as a bit of an American matriarch, but she’s good value nonetheless. There are numerous great Borg episodes. Possibly my favourite non-Borg eps are “Distant Origin” and “Timeless”.

        Actually, getting older IS an excuse for withering mental abilities unfortunately, but I cannot buy your idea that Diversity season 2 is closer to the classic style. If anything it was typical of the superhero stuff used to appeal to 14 year old cinema-going males. Read some of the online reviews of season 2 ep 1. I was not the only one who had trouble following the dialogue…

  7. Bitwonk says

    The Orville is more true to the Star Trek ethos, I think.

  8. Stephanie says

    Thank you for this article, there is so much that could be written on the cultural relevance of Star Trek to current leftist hysteria, and this is a great start.

    It always amuses me to see leftists who don’t understand (and probably never watched) Star Trek claim it as the “future Socialists want.” Aside from the fact currency and hierarchy absolutely still exist in the Star Trek universe, it seems to escape them that the Federation is a colonial enterprise funded by resource extraction. Moreover, it exerts the moral virtue of their expansionist ambitions.

    Deep Space 9, my favorite Star Trek, has an amazing exchange between two non-humans, Quark and Garak, when Quark has Garak try Root Beer:

    Garak: “It’s vile!”
    Quark: “I know. It’s so bubbly, coy and happy.”
    Garak: “Just like the Federation.”
    Quark: “You know what’s really frightening? If you drink enough of it, you begin to like it.”
    Garak: “It’s insidious.”
    Quark: “Just like the Federation.”

    Just like the Federation, a confident West is so intoxicatingly peaceful and prosperous that other people are tripping over each other to be a part of it. The problem for the Federation comes when the bureaucracy becomes too powerful, too fearful of external meddling, and to eager to persecute people for imagined crimes.

  9. Saw file says

    (Aside to the article) The worst thing that can happen to any new TV production, that has a good first season? Replace the original writers with ‘professional’ writers.
    Seems step one was eliminated.
    And friends wonder why I don’t watch TV, other than for proving ridicule.
    I haven’t seen anything worth watching on MSM TV in over 10yrs (outside of some (disappearing) comedy series).
    Truly a sad legacy, of so much good entertainment…

  10. Daath says

    ST: D wasn’t as painful and irritating as its acronym, but it’s mostly a story of wasted potential. You could make a very interesting character out of nationalist leader using a threatened identity and war to unite his fractious people. T’Kuvma wasn’t bad, so of course they killed him off straight away, and the rest of Klingons just weren’t interesting at all. Likewise, there are lots of great stories you could tell about conflict between Federation and a martial, xenophobic culture that sees them as a sort of soft Borg, creators of a superficially diverse culture where everyone nonetheless thinks the same way. Except, this also went nowhere. Somehow chanting “Build the wall! Make Federation pay for it!” wasn’t a sufficient replacement for actual depth. I suppose it’s fitting that the degeneration of Star Trek mirrors the degeneration of Western liberalism, but it’s still sad to see.

    The Harry Mudd episode was OK, and the Terran Empire arc, pretty decent. If ST: D somehow manages to keep up that level of quality in the second season, it’d be solid Trek despite the seriously lacklustre main character. However, my hopes are pretty low, so much so that I find myself lacking any enthusiasm about starting to watch it. Maybe at some point.

  11. John Williams says

    Same thing has happened to Doctor Who in the UK. We now have the first woman Doctor, no problem with that, but the endless heavy handed finger wagging has people turning off in droves. Most tv now seems to be lecturing us on thoughtcrimes we didn’t know we’d committed.

    • Aerth says

      That’s the problem with “woke” writers. They are so deep in their self righteousness they do not believe message can be delivered any other way than by sledgehammering. Which drives off old fanbase and does not attract new ones, cause SJWs are all about complaining about “injustice” in pop culture products, they are not exactly willing to consume them. For them, it is about “fixing” something and moving on to find a new “broken” game/movie/tv show/comic book.

      • Mark Beal says

        The thing is that “woke” activists don’t actually like pop culture, full stop, since to them all it does – as does every other thing save for the Church of Wokeness – is reproduce “oppressive structures”. So when “woke” writers get their grubby little paws on pop culture, they are unable to create anything of worth since they don’t value the form to begin with, but rather view it is a way of indoctrinating “the plebs”. To them it’s just a matter of WHO gets to indoctrinate “the plebs”. Fortunately most people resent being lectured to by humourless zealots.

  12. STDdts says

    I am rather disappointed by the content and form of this essay: the author makes a few major claims that are (slightly) misleading, and he squeezes the only genuine point of criticism into a false dichotomy. This is unfortunate, because we can easily do better.

    For those who care to find a little bit of nuance in this conversation, the essay can be summarised as follows.

    “Season one of STD focuses too much on diversity, both in its casting of actors and in it’s central theme (which is an annoying parody of current politics in the USA). The writers should have spent their talent on a decent plot instead. And, for what it’s worth, that plot should have been more like the plots of decades earlier.”

    Some brief responses:

    1. The casting is indeed diverse and that’s fine.

    This may or may not be a great thing in the eyes of the author. But I assure you that it is incredibly meaningful and important to me. Moreover, diversity in casting shouldn’t ever have to compete with a decent plot. Anyone claiming otherwise is creating a false dichotomy. I too have serious have issues with the plot (see below), but I know that those issues have nothing to do with the casting.

    2. STD doesn’t obsessively focus on diversity and Trumpism. But the author does.

    It is true that the following themes are explored in the show: increasing nationalism, a commitment to diversity, appeals to tolerance, tendencies towards militarism and imperialism, angst about ethnic purity, (the suspension of) democracy, and isolationism. And it’s fair to point out that these themes are very much present in our current discourse. The author is, of course, welcome to find the analogy to be too direct or too obvious. And it is true that these themes are explored consistently, rather than as a “topic of the day.”

    But that’s simply how TV show’s have evolved: from villain-of-the-day to story-of-the-day-while-expanding-the-context to exploring-big-story-arcs-through-episodes. Moreover, these themes have always been explored in ST (just not so consistently). And we have to be a little fair here: the show consistently explores many, many, many, many, many other topics. Not just peripherally, but in a central way. To name but a few:

    How to cope with losing your biological parents. Not being able to grow up with “your own kind.” Desperately trying to fit in, only to be rejected by your people. If your biological parents and your adoptive parents cannot give you what you need, what do you do? Do you actively seek out a new people (the Federation)? Do you actively seek out a new mother figure (captain G.)? Now that the Federation and captain G. have given you everything you had ever dreamed of (love, inspiration, mentorship, knowledge, skills, a career, a place in the world, etc.), what would it take for you to betray your new people and your new mother? How do you deal with that betrayal and how would you redeem yourself?

    So, why does the author focus so narrowly on diversity and Trumpism, while excluding every single one of the other central themes? Are the themes too subtle because they live in the complicated intersection of morality and logic and strategy and identity and meaning and “the feels”?

    3. STD explores current issues and that’s just fine.

    Star Trek has always done this.

    4. It’s OK for STD to try some new things that are different.

    No one is taking away your favourite episodes with captain K. or P. or J. Some of the new ST shows will be rather conservative in their approach. Other ST shows will be more innovative. That’s fine. The author is free to watch only those episodes that make him feel safe or that appeal to his nostalgia.

    5. The plot of STD is weak.

    Now here, I agree. In so many ways.

    Even though it had its weaknesses (early on), I think Voyager got it roughly right. But I could probably write a whole series of essays about important ST-related inconsistencies in STD. By far the worst (in my opinion) is that, in STD, the Federation seems to promote only its least competent members. No exceptions to this rule. They always make the wrong choice, no matter what the circumstances. This is, in my opinion, so contrary to *one* crucial thing that the Federation stands for: the promotion of excellence. (A confident and curiosity-driven exploration of The Other and The Outer World, being a second crucial aspect.)

    The show had such potential and yet it was a total mess. I’d be happy to read how the author would have taken the raw material (which was good!) and turned it into a season that is great.

    • Margaretta Babb says

      Thank you for this thoughtful summary. I am an old Trekkie who has never seen STD. I am curious now. Yes, it is American tv and, therefore entertainment. But, the old Star Trek did us a service in revealing unethical social issues, and doing so with humor. It endeavored to make people think.

    • ‘The author is free to watch only those episodes that make him feel safe or that appeal to his nostalgia.’

      But you could say that about any work or series of works. It doesn’t mean that the excluded elements then don’t have to be considered just because you ignore them. It’s generally agreed, for example, that Shyamalan has made quite a few terrible movies and a couple of genuinely great ones. Does this mean we get to ignore the terrible elements of his oeuvre and comfortably consider him a great filmmaker? Hardly. Similarly you can’t expect a Trek fan to be happy or satisfied with ignoring the myriad flaws in Discovery and pretending all is well in the Federation.

      Aside from that I thought your response to Barrett’s piece was generally smart and fair.

      • SDTdts says

        Thanks for replying, Colt, and I hear your feedback. I now think I may not have expressed myself clearly in my original post. So, I’ll try to elaborate a little more.

        I completely agree that it can sound silly to advise people to essentially “focus on the good, while leaving the bad stuff mostly on the side,” if “the alternative would make them upset.” Many people, including me, have strong feelings about new trends in ST, and that’s just fine.

        What I do worry about is that we sometimes fail to engage with our emotions in a nuanced way and, as a result, fail to see the bigger picture.

        For example: I could fill pages with all the problems that I see in STD. But I could also fill pages with good things that are relatively new and exciting. I could also look at *many* of the other ST series and films that have come out recently (or that are about to come out). Most of the new material will not be as experimental or innovative as STD. Most of the new material will adhere more closely to the approach of “old ST.”

        So, when I criticise STD, I do it in the knowledge that experimentation is a necessary step in any creative process. And I also know that experimentation will often not get things exactly right. And I also know that even if the results of these new series aren’t (yet?) what I want them to be, I still have much other, new, and “more conservative” material that I can turn to for fun, entertainment, and inspiration.

        When I remind myself of “the bigger picture,” when I view STD in its proper context, when I gain a little perspective, I immediately feel much less threatened by the new and experimental approach. And I think that allows me to make my feedback a little more constructive.

        P.S.: As far as M.N.S. is concerned: I think we are allowed to conclude that “some of his work was fun, and some of it wasn’t =).” That’s O.K. I feel comfortable with that. I don’t need him to be “all-good” or “all-bad.”

    • In the real world – when people read or watch something, they get attached to the points that they can relate to. People from the states have this whole election drama fresh in their minds, so they are more likely to see STD as a political thing.

      Personally, when I watched the first season – I couldn’t see anything that had to do with Trump or the political stuff – then again, I also have not spent an awful lot of time trying to figure out what the lefties are thinking about Trump or how they see them.

      Same was with Handmaiden Tail – I didn’t get bothered with the story until I actually read someone’s opinion who was connected with the show. And then I thought it was ridiculous! And well, for the handmaiden story what bothered me most was the almost-constant self-righteous grin of the main character.

      Anyway – personally, the best points that stood out for me in that STD first season had nothing to do with politics or the personal story of Michael being an orphan and brought up in a very difficult environment (well, now that I think about it – having to suppress emotions and all that lot is a pretty lame plot that actually MIGHT address teenage girls (who doesn’t feel being repressed and abused, after all).

      I liked the most the stuff with the spored and the tardygrade and the white haired gay guy getting the superpowers. That fragment of the story was the one that kept me coming back, really. The overpowered magical stuff!

      But regarding the character himself – every time they forcibly shove a gay couple into a story I feel a little disappointment. And note – not that I mind the gay people – but how they write their stories do not seem like something that goes on in the real world – so far in series I have only seen caricatures of gay people, not something that would actually feel authentic and interesting – so come on – there’s got to be something other interesting about gay people than them being in a gay relationship :)))

      I hope that in the future when people write gay couples in the series (any series), they at least bother enough to give those characters well thought trough personalities.

      Aaaanyway o/

      • SDTdts says

        Hi, Ishirubi.

        I agree that we all consume works of art in our own special ways. Our approaches are always informed by our past experiences and by the context of the day. And a small change in context may reveal different interpretations of the same work. That’s interesting.

        I would disagree about one thing you brought up, though. I don’t think that “Michael’s plot about finding her people” was necessarily “lame” or that it could appeal (only? mostly?) to “teenage girls.” Finding your people after dislocation is a very old trope going back to (at least) the ancient Greek myths and plays. But it can also be found in the stories of Spock and Seven of Nine (which each have interesting variations on the theme). And I suspect not all fans of classical literature or past ST series were teenage girls. 😉

        So, I think the story is interesting, in principle. But I’m just not particularly happy with the results of STD in practise.

        I also wonder about another point you brought up: you were not happy with the “gay relationship” that was “forced into the story” and that was reduced to “stereotypes.”

        I, for one, was really happy to see an explicit same-sex couple in the series. After all: ST routinely introduces all kinds of absurd social situations. And I see no reason why we would keep marginalising social bonds that are perfectly common on earth.

        But I also believe that the relationship was very disappointing for many reasons. The relationship was very superficial to me and the partner (the doctor) existed only to be a partner. He didn’t have a story of his own.

        So my first reaction was: “yes, finally!” My second reaction was: “aww, why so superficial …” And my third reaction was: “well, I am sure the series got A LOT OF push back for even such a superficial and harmless same-sex relationship. In fact, the superficialness is probably going to be used as an excuse not to have any same-sex relationships in the show.” I can already imagine the opinions and blog posts fuming about the couple being inserted only for representation purposes.

        But do you think that STD could have gotten away with a serious same-sex (male) relationship as one of the main story lines? A deep one. With kissing and pillow talk? Do you think Trekkies would have been comfortable standing in the shoes of a gay man in love? To experience love from his point of view? I don’t know what you think about this. But I think that the push-back would have been a thousand times worse in that scenario.

        So that puts the writers in a bind. Baby steps are criticised (by reactionary Trekkies) because they are too big (in an honest or dishonest way), and they are criticised (by people like me) because they are too small.

        If we don’t approach this topic in a more nuanced and constructive way, we’ll all just end up shouting without making anything better. I wonder how you see these things.

  13. Thank you so much for this, Barrett. It’s bad enough that Discovery is just a mess so far – which I could forgive, considering you could say the same about most of the franchise’s other opening seasons – but it’s extra galling to see Trek’s genuinely diverse and progressive history ignored and dishonoured by a desperate cast and crew. Michelle Yeoh’s recent comment about going ‘where no WOMAN has gone before’ is an insult to Kate Mulgrew and Nana Visitor, to name just two great female characters.

  14. Crawfather says

    You can findTwitter controversy with all comedians (otherwise they aren’t doing their job), but can’t help but wonder whether the author meant Kevin Hart rather than Chris Rock here.

  15. Funny thing, before reading this article I’d forgotten there was a new Trek series on. So bad were its first two episodes.

    If they would’ve wanted to make something really great and topical, they should’ve continued the original timeline. In this series the Federation would be in relative state of peace after Dominon and Borg threats. But it would start to see problems with corporatism, elitism, trying to maintain status quo with increased control and, well, maybe even identity politics. On the other hand some planets would have Brexit-style populist movements rising against the Federation.

    By presenting a three-dimensional view of both sides (instead of painting the populists as the bad guys) they could’ve transcended the current political climate. Then the series could’ve featured a crew on a diplomatic mission negotiating sensible, centrist, middle-of-the-road compromises between different factions.

    By adding techno-ethical considerations to the mix, they could’ve also presented a more positive outlook of technological progress than, say, Black Mirror. The original timeline would’ve also allowed doing great fan service by revisiting some beloved TNG/DS9/VOY characters at crucial season finale moments or one-off episodes.

    But what do I know. If it’s this SJW virtue signalling that gets you recognition as a writer/producer/showrunner nowadays, so be it. I’ll just rewatch TNG.

  16. Marshall Mason says

    Star Trek has always leaned left and it was ahead of its time on issues such as diversity and social justice from day one. They always seemed to manage doing it with a light touch and even humor. I’ve always loved that about it.

    The Star Trek alternate timeline movies of recent years is more like fan fiction than real Star Trek. All the elements that made Star Trek lovable were missing. It was made into just another boring action flick. This is how I see Star Trek Discovery. It doesn’t have any of the original creators or writers, and completely lacks any classic elements of Star Trek. It’s completely devoid of story. What made it unwatchable for me is its obscene political correctness, diversity quotas, and Trump-bashing. It’s as subtle as a sledge hammer.

    So, while the “official” Star Trek has become fan fiction, The Orville, which is literally fan fiction, is ironically more consistent with original Star Trek, including many of the classic writers and actors. It feels so much more “Trekkie” than Star Trek Discovery. It tackles diversity and social justice issues of our time with the light touch and humor. I’ll give some examples, avoiding spoilers:

    Season 1, episode 3, About a Girl: Deals with gender identification issues in an honest and fun way. Characters grapple with what gender means and the trade-off between honoring the traditions of a culture and respecting the rights and uniqueness of each individual (a common Star Trek theme).

    Season 1, episode 7, Majority Rule: Tackles Twitter mobs and the dangers of replacing presumption of innocence with the court of public opinion. This is my favorite episode.

    Season 2, episode 4, Nothing Left on Earth Excepting Fishes: Deals with xenophobia arising from integrating other cultures too quickly. It’s very subtle and even loving.

  17. SinuousGrace says

    I’ll stick with The Orville thank you very much.

  18. Fickle Pickle says

    This truth-telling essay describes the nature of applied right-wing politic and its world-wide cultural context in relation to a movie that was very popular at the time.

    It describes the blood-soaked “logic” of postmodern capitalism

    http://www.logosjournal.com/hammer_kellner.htm

    It was even promoted as a superb missionary tool for communicating the “good news” of the Gospel.
    It features a review of an unspeakably vile sado-masochistic snuff/splatter movie in which the “hero” representing every single human being, and humankind altogether is systematically beaten to death.

    Naomi Klein describes the same applied politics in her book The Shock Doctrine.

    Check out an outfit which used to be called the “school” of the Americas for more truth-telling re the “logic” of applied right-wing politics. There is a site titled School of America’s Watch – soaw

  19. Dazza says

    @Peter from Oz

    In the last Star Wars film they set free some racing alien creatures of some description, drawing parralles with horse jump racing. As much as I love animals and don’t like to see them get hurt, I cringed and thought to myself “why can’t you just blow stuff up and entertain me.”
    Being preached to by the new crop of right on writers is tiring, so I’ll agree with you on that point.
    I suppose if you are a fan of Star Trek then you’ll feel more let down by the new writers than if you are not a fan.
    I’m also a fan of Shakespeare, could you imagine a modern day sequel to Hamlet? Think of the fun a leftist right on writer could have with that! Maybe it has already been done, I’m not even going to google it!

  20. Ike the Spike aka Itzik Basman says

    Don’t know nuttin’ ‘bout no Star Trek, never seen a minute of it.

    But social justice is, among other things, a legislative or judicial action that remedies a problem suffered by a wide group of people.

    It’s also taking concerted popular action to right wrongs affecting a wide group of people.

    Interesting it is to understand why class actions don’t count as social justice, at leas as I see social justice.

    That’s because they’re an efficient means of bringing right to individual based claims. If specific individuals don’t meet the criteria for class inclusion, can’t prove their harm, they get no relief.

    Social justice doesn’t work like that: it overrides vindicating individual entitlements in the interest of bringing overall justice to the group as a ground.

    That difference reflects the difference between an aggregation and a group as a collective.

    • Ike the Spike aka Itzik Basman says

      That is……to the group as a group…

  21. R Henry says

    Discovery Season 1 was unique in that there were no heros. It killed its Captains. It was hope-less.

    In that regard, I believe it very accurarately illustrates the natural result of a human culture fixated on “social justice,” which taken to its logical end, is anything but.

  22. R Henry says

    Discovery’s SJW activism was essentially violent. While legacy Trek used allegory and subtlety, Discovery gave us homosexual kissing.

    This fact also illustrates how the producers were more interested in their activism than making money. If they had kept the show family-friendly, they could have reaped merchandising windfalls. As a child, I had StarTrek everything…even the sheets on my bed. Since gay men kissing was more important to them however….nothing….

  23. STDdts says

    Hi, R Henry.

    I had never seen anyone describe a kiss as “violent.” When I think of violence, I think more of people shooting at each other with guns or people throwing punches in bar fights or soldiers being killed on the battle field.

    So, I’m curious: did you think Kirk kissing Uhura (as shown in the video above) was violent as well? Do you think the phasers and space battles are too violent for ST?

    I’m genuinely puzzled.

  24. R Henry says

    @STDs

    Homosexuals comprise about 3% of humanity. The other 97% of humanity generally finds the concept of homosexual activity disgusting…onpar with seeing a person disemboweled. So yes, I do consider it violence.

    • neoteny says

      I find tattoos disgusting, even the well-executed (‘artistic’) ones. Yet I would never consider someone displaying a tattoo as doing violence to me: I’m aware that the psychic unease/pain I experience upon seeing a tattoo is rooted in my personal (and as such subjective) dispreference for tattoos.

      If causing psychic unease/pain for someone is doing violence to that person, then any argument which causes cognitive dissonance (a psychically painful state) in someone is doing violence to that person — a stance which justifies the demands for “safe spaces” where people can’t voice dissenting views as that would be considered doing violence to the listener.

    • STDdts says

      Hi, R Henry.

      Thanks for the quick response. Are you saying that you live in a part of the world in which 97% of the population finds seeing a same-sex kiss as disgusting as seeing a disembowelment? I would very much like to know which part of the world that is. And would you also say that heterosexuals are being violent when they kiss in a TV series?

      Sorry if I’m asking too many questions.

      • R Henry says

        I livei in California. Yes, I believe homosexual activity is as disgusting disembowlments, and I believe this is universal among heteros.

        • STDdts says

          Hi, R Henry.

          Thank you for replying so quickly. I used to live in California myself. And I honestly don’t think that 97% of Californians find seeing a same-sex kiss on TV as “disgusting” as seeing a disembowelment. What do you think could explain our different experiences of California?

          Also, to briefly come back to my earlier two questions:

          1. Would you describe the interracial kiss of Kirk and Uhura (see video in the original essay) as violent? I’m sure you know that were so disgusted by it at the time, that the show suffered *quite a lot*!

          2. Would you describe a same-sex kiss on TV to be violent to people who are not heterosexual?

          I’m not asking these things to troll you. I’m genuinely trying to understand where all of this is coming from.

          P.S.: If anyone is wondering why the writers of STD are only taking baby-steps with a superficial same-sex story, then they could benefit from reading R Henry’s posts. Even the most harmless displays of affection, even the most superficial forms of representation apparently generate very strong push-back.

          • Peter from Oz says

            I think R Henry may be overgilding the lily, but there is an element of truth in what s/he says. Heterosexual males are repulsed by the sight of homosexual males showing romantic affection. It is a natural reaction.
            I suspect, however, that most people have no real problem with homosexuality as such, they just don’t want to see gays physically expressing their love on screen. Of course, when it is two lesbians, I’m sure most straight men wouldn’t object…

          • STDdts says

            This comment is for Peter from Oz (sorry, I don’t know why my browser won’t allow me to reply directly to your comment.)

            I agree that a certain proportion of the population feels uncomfortable with seeing same-sex affection, even if that display of affection is rather innocent (like holding hands or giving a kiss). But I don’t understand what makes you write that “heterosexual males are repulsed by the sight of homosexual males showing romantic affection. It is a natural reaction.”

            I see it very differently: these reactions of disgust are caused by the culture that you were raised in. They are cultural rather “natural.” After all: people who are not heterosexual are constantly exposed to heterosexual media without being constantly disgusted. And in certain parts of the West, it’s really not that big of a deal for same-sex couples to appear in a story.

            So, what does R Henry’s argument then boil down to? “Same-sex couples should remain marginalised in ST because I was raised in a homophobic culture.” That doesn’t seem like a very constructive argument.

            And then people wonder why it is so important for marginalised minorities to be represented in the media … I really wish that commenters in general / the author of this essay had done one of the following two things:

            1. Explicitly state why same-sex couples *should not* be represented in the ST universe.
            2. Explicitly show how same-sex couples *should* be represented in the ST universe.

            Now that would be the beginning of a serious discussion.

        • STDdts says

          Actually, coming to think about it, STD had:

          1. multiple abduction plots,
          2. a long torture plot (at least as bad as disembowelment),
          3. an important rape plot, and
          4. several explicit murders.

          But it was the kiss that horrified you??? I’m really struggling to understand you, Henry R … =(

          • R Henry says

            “these reactions of disgust are caused by the culture that you were raised in. They are cultural rather “natural.”

            There is a reason homosexuals have been in the shadows forever. The vast majority of humanity finds homosexual activity to be singularly disgusting.

            That said, I harbor no ill will toward homosexuals. I am simply disgusted by what they do in private. As long as they keep their activities private, we are good. Men in cute StarFleet jammies brushing their teeth together…and kissing…on television…is not keeping things private.

            Despite your effort to make hetero sex directly anologous, don’t bother. That well trod road leads nowhere. Heterosexual activity is biologically programmed, and is essential for procreation…. while homo sex is….whatever it is….I have no idea…. No, there is no comparison.

            This is my last entry, I have no other points, and do not desire additional dialog. I know what I believe, and I am not interested in changing/moderating my views in this area….. just like you, seemingly.

          • STDdts says

            Hi, R Henry.

            Thanks for the response.

            I am not asking you to change your views! =) I’m simply trying to find out what these views are. Your original comment equated the depiction of a same-sex kiss with violence. So I’m just trying to understand what the people of Quillette and the producers of the show are supposed to do with that comment.

            Should we continue the marginalization of same-sex couples in Star Trek because some people feel uncomfortable seeing a same-sex kiss? If so, should we continue the marginalization of interracial couples in Star Trek because some people still feel uncomfortable seeing an interracial kiss?

            I’m sorry if you feel unsafe in this conversation. If you do, please don’t feel obligated to reply.

  25. I’m not a Star Trek fan, but I gave the first two episodes a shot. From memory, both episodes seemed obsessed with replacing the masculine with the feminine… a strange message in many films and TV shows these days.

    Doctor Who? Ruined thanks to political correctness. I was a huge fan.
    Star Wars? The same. I was a huge fan.

    • Morgan Foster says

      @Mark

      Not merely replacing the masculine with the feminine, but denouncing the concepts of trust and loyalty and making a virtue out of betrayal.

      The first season, at any rate, was written by a staff of people possessing no sense of fixed morality or ethics.

  26. IsiahBerlinWall says

    Ex-SJW or not, there’s no excuse for ‘rising to a crescendo‘.

    Other than that, nice.

  27. Wells Marvel says

    “The response embodies the hopeful, humanist sentiments that made Star Trek resonate with fans in the first place. It reflects a vision for the future where diversity is a given as opposed to an obsession, and where resilience and confidence were prized over sensitivity.”

    So true. The sad part is that Gene Roddenberry’s future – a future where the moral arc is real and we are climbing it like explorers of star space – that future was already anti-Trump. There was no need to steer further into it.

    I haven’t seen Discovery, but I’ll take the author’s word. Great article!

  28. The writer himself claims the series gets better mid-way through, and indeed it does: “I’m also willing to grant that episodes later in Discovery‘s first season became more watchable as the production team began to show more respect for Star Trek fandom and canon.”

    It was indeed a shaky start, but it feels it is getting itself together. I really thought the first episode of season two felt more Trek-ish than most of season one. As for the SJW angle, I didn´t feel it that strongly in the first season because most of it focused on war and action, which became a big criticism of many people (and many SJWs) that hated the lack of slowed down “Trek-philosophy” moments.

    I do agree with the writer’s take on Trek being a more classical liberal, or even libertarian, show. But again, I read a lot of criticism from the SJW-leftist crowd within forums for DISCO focusing too much on war and disagreement among the members of the crew. And they actually really love to use TNG as their basis for the happy socialist/communist future that we can work towards. So, I guess this is just a matter of what one brings of their own bias to art versus simply seeing it for what it is.

    I can’t think of too many scenes in the first season of Star Trek Discovery which blatantly make a call to action to SWJ or leftist ideology unless you want to include the fact that it stars a black woman – but then I guess both Star Trek Voyager and Deep Space Nine are virtue signaling shows. … nah

    Once Michael is on the Discovery she has to deal with Lorca and a host of other white male and female characters (only bringing that up to show the contrast, I don’t bean count).

    But again, the show divided a lot of fans, but I don’t think it did so on the basis of left vs right-wing ideological pushes, but rather on action vs talk, exploration vs explosions, fast pace vs slowed down moments, darkness vs humour etc etc.

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  30. MikeS says

    Dark times for the sci fi fan that is looking for something mit out SJ bludgeon. (They did the same thing to Doctor Who, btw). We’ll, STD is not broadcast, you have to get it on purpose.

  31. gregglory says

    A well-argued critique of the new series, with appropriate references to past series episodes and acute denotation of the current moral panic against all things Trump.

  32. I knew immediately in the new episode that once the man disagreed with Michael, he’d be killed off. I was so not surprised that he was dead before I finished my sentence to the other 2 people watching it with me.

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  35. Stephen Pierson says

    Wonderful, thoughtful piece, though I admit I agree with almost every syllable. However, I paused where you write that the desire for “unity” is natural. Is this really the case? It seems that politically unity has always been a result of force, and its maintenance enforcement. That it can benefit some or even most is true, but that it benefits all is debatable. Marxism had some dubious ideas and has been implemented with catastrophic results, but one of its major claims, history is class struggle owing to the hierarchical character of society, strikes me a valid. Put differently, unifying around a common set of principles seems more like a strategy than something natural. Still, overall, I find your essay perceptive and insightful.

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