It is an axiom of geek culture that Star Trek was a beacon of progressive thought on prime-time television, presenting an aggressively optimistic vision of the future in which humans of all races worked alongside even stranger beings to explore the universe and protect life in all its diversity, with phasers set to “stun” unless absolutely necessary. It is equally widely admitted that a glaring gap in the rainbow coalition aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise was human sexual diversity: in six television series and 12 feature films, the franchise has never identified an onscreen character as unambiguously gay, lesbian, or transgender.
Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry was, apparently, farther behind the curve on gay rights than he was on racial equality, and never quite made queer inclusion a priority in his time guiding the franchise. Nevertheless Trek has tiptoed up to the line from a number of angles, presenting mind-swaps between bodies of different sexes going back to the “Original Series” of the late 1960s, alien species with sexual and gender roles that defy the male-female binary, sexually ambiguous alter-egos in parallel universes, and even gender reassignment surgery. Legend among fans also has it that an officer on the bridge in the movie Star Trek: First Contact, Lieutenant Hawke (Neal McDonough), was conceived with a gay backstory, but this personalizing detail was cut for time, and Hawke was assimilated by the Borg — maybe making things a little more fabulous in the depths of the Collective, if not the onscreen canon. Gay men also made central, if officially closeted, contributions to Trek: most notably George Takei, who played Lieutenant Sulu, and screenwriter David Gerrold, who wrote episodes including “The Trouble With Tribbles,” the one that buries William Shatner’s Captain Kirk in a pile of multicolored fur-balls. Gerrold wrote an episode for Star Trek: The Next Generation, “Blood and Fire,” which included a gay couple in pivotal roles, but the screenplay never got anywhere near production. (It has since been adapted in a fan-made continuation of the Original Series, with no small success.)
But while fans looking for overt queerness in Star Trek are forced to rummage through the lower decks of the franchise, there’s been a covert gay icon stationed up on the bridge since before the first episode was broadcast. That icon is none other than the First Officer of the Enterprise, Mr. Spock.
The New York Times reports that Leonard Nimoy has died at age 83. We’ve already seen his death and funeral on screen, in the movie that was possibly the best episode of the television show that made him famous. But that time, there was a sequel.
I’ve meant for a long time to write about how, for all its failure to directly represent the diversity of human sexual identities, Star Trek did have queer characters in leading roles — and Spock was the first of them. But I’m going to block out my evening tonight to re-watch The Wrath of Khan.
Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels were among the first grown-up science fiction I read. I still remember picking up the tattered dime-store paperback copy of Foundation in the high school library, opening it up, and getting sucked into the story of a galaxy-spanning Empire that was about to collapse from its own cultural-historical inertia, and a rogue colony of “psycho-historians” who use a sort of historical physics to guide the galaxy through the coming dark age to a Second Empire even better and more stable than the first one.
Word on the Web is that HBO is planning a television adaptation of the Foundation series, and I am totally excited. But it’s going to be very interesting to see how this adaptation proceeds. For one thing, the first stories in the series date back to the early 1940s, so their ideas about “futuristic” technology need some serious updating. The first novel, Foundation, implies that it’s possible to have faster-than-light travel and interstellar war without understanding nuclear fission.
For another thing, the first stories in the series date back to the early 1940s, so very nearly every character who does anything meaningful in them is a man. (There is one story, in the later books, that revolves around a precocious teenage girl, and another that centers on a husband-and-wife couple.) But this, it has occurred to me, is not a problem! The Foundation novels are fundamentally not about interpersonal interactions—their recurring theme is that people are swept along in broad historical currents. The story, and its drama, is literally about the Fall and Rise of Empires, not about individual people. So it actually doesn’t matter what gender anyone in the Foundation stories is. As a bonus, everyone’s names are in Asimov’s concept of future-ese, which makes many of them less obviously gendered: Hari Seldon, Salvor Hardin, Bel Riose. Those are all dudes in the original, but don’t tell me they couldn’t each be women.
So my challenge to the folks working on this adaptation: Gender-swap every other character that you adapt from the original Foundation books. You’ll end up with a more human vision of the future, and you might just end up creating the next Starbuck — or several of them — in the process.
Oh, man. This is exciting, but I also feel a sense of creeping dread, as though I’m trapped in some sort of interdimensional cineplex of televisual entertainments and, after strange ages of wondering among endless theaters showing long-form serialized dramas of violence and disturbance and vague supernatural malevolence, I’ve just brushed aside yet a crimson curtain and walked into the room where I first met that backwards-talking dwarf.
He is holding a cup of coffee.
Hat tip to Steve Silberman.
Two bodies: Liza Winter (Olivia Williams) and Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey) are both Ph.D. scientists—but only Frank works in a field useful to the Project. (WGN America)
Some of the best dramatic fantasies project otherwise commonplace struggles and worries into extraordinary circumstances. Make that awkward teenage girl a vampire slayer, and put her in a high school that is literally built over a gateway to Hell. How do we feel about that military occupation if it’s reimagined as humans subjugated by their out-of-control cybernetic creations? A love affair is a lot more compelling if it involves the President of the United States and the woman who helped fix his election. So maybe it shouldn’t be all that surprising that the most compelling television show about the daily drama of academic science is a historical drama about building the first atomic bomb.
Manhattan, which airs on WGN America and streams on Hulu, follows physicists designing what will become the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, starting about two years before August 6, 1945. The project staff and their families are living in a laboratory campus built and hyper-secured by the U.S. military in the desert near Los Alamos, New Mexico, but in many respects they could be working at any research university today. Here’s my (spoiler-y) list of the parallels, which are sometimes dangerously on-the-nose: