CBS announced today that its next Star Trek TV show will be headed by Bryan Fuller, whose illustrious career in television started with in the writers’ rooms of Deep Space Nine and Voyager. Fuller has already expressed eagerness to get back to the franchise’s roots and to assemble a diverse cast. As the new heir of a legacy of inclusion, Fuller has an opportunity to give Star Trek fans something that’s been noticeably missing for a long time — LGBT characters.
“My very first experience of Star Trek is my oldest brother turning off all the lights in the house and flying his model of a D7 Class Klingon Battle Cruiser through the darkened halls,” Fuller said in a statement. “Before seeing a frame of the television series, the Star Trek universe lit my imagination on fire.”
It’s clear that Fuller is a true fan, and I knew exactly what he meant. Star Trek ignites imagination in a way that little else can.
Star Trek has always been science fiction for outsiders, even if you don’t regard the genre as being inherently weird and nerdy in the first place. In the most recent iteration of the franchise, J.J. Abrams produced two movies that were, for all their positive qualities, big on half-naked women and explosions. Most “Trekkies” weren’t surprised by the revelation that Abrams hadn’t particularly liked Star Trek as a child, or by his moving on to Star Wars. Abrams’ James Tiberius Kirk took after the popular image of the captain as a rakish playboy, but fans of the original series hadn’t forgotten that he started out as a bookish nerd who spent his spare time playing chess.
In 1991, Gene Roddenberry promised fans that Star Trek: The Next Generation, then on its fifth season, would include gay characters. Roddenberry died soon after, and no one ever bothered to follow through on this aspect of his vision. The closest TNG ever got to addressing LGBT issues was an episode in which a member of an alien species without gender decides to identify as a woman; she was played by a cisgender actress and expressed her femininity by falling for Will Riker, practically the poster boy for heterosexuality.
Later Trek series entertained the idea of introducing gay characters; rumors remain about which members of each cast were candidates before the writers lost their nerve. In a later season of Deep Space Nine, we got the franchise’s first and only non-heterosexual relationship, between Jadzia Dax and another female member of her species. In a tortured bit of sci-fi logic, the two had been a straight couple in a previous incarnation, and their society’s cultural stigma against such “reunions” was allowed to separate them — a metaphor for homophobia triumphing that was handled inexplicably casually. Jadzia never showed a hint of same-gender attraction again, and nor did any of the past or future Dax hosts.
The last time Star Trek went near anything gay was in an Enterprise episode which was meant to combat AIDs stigma, about twenty years late, and ended up portraying the sufferers of Poorly Conceived Metaphor Disease as careless and promiscuous. People involved in the current movie reboot tend to dodge the question of when Trek will finally follow up on Roddenberry’s 1991 promise in a way that suggests they won’t be the ones to buck the trend.
But outside the officially sanctioned realm, we all know that Star Trek has always been gay. As a young viewer of the original series, I recognized something of myself not just in the famously ambiguous relationship between Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, but in Spock’s denial of his true emotions in pursuit of an unattainable philosophical ideal. Leonard Nimoy empathetically compared his character’s struggles to those of a biracial child who asked him for advice, and they spoke to my experiences, raised Catholic and questioning my faith and sexuality, too.
I wasn’t the only one. The original series was the jumping-off point for an enormous subculture of fanfiction writers who portrayed the show’s heroes as non-heterosexual. “Slash fic” has been the subject of much discussion and mockery, but I always thought the explanation for why it was written was simpler than often thought. Fanfic writers wanted to imagine a media landscape in which not everyone was straight. Star Trek, with its utopian society and close male friendships fraught with possibly-intentional implications, let them.
Star Trek’s characters were there for outsiders — they made us feel understood, less alone as we stared down our final frontiers. The universe of Starfleet seemed like it could belong to us too. It was a world without prejudice — we were told, despite the show’s clumsy handling of race and bizarre 1960s sexism. The execution of the utopian Federation was flawed, but the concept wasn’t just a fantasy for straight white men with William Shatner jawlines. It was for everyone.
The original series is the show that showed Mae Jemison that a black woman could go to space — and she did. Deep Space Nine gave us a black captain, Benjamin Sisko, and Voyager followed in 1995 with a woman, Captain Janeway, at the helm. Those were probably the halcyon days of the Star Trek franchise. Enterprise is generally considered a weak entry into the canon, and its captain is the incredibly bland Archer, who was apparently written with the goal of having no representational value at all. The reboot movies returned to Jim Kirk, who is still portrayed as straight as they come, with the alien conquests to prove it.
But now Star Trek will return to TV (internet TV, at least), and Bryan Fuller is at the helm. Fuller is an acclaimed writer who I’m happy to entrust my favorite fictional universe to, and his Trek bone fides don’t hurt. He’s also openly gay, a showrunner who let a lesbian couple make it to the end of Hannibal un-murdered, and encouraged fans’ interpretations of the main characters as non-straight.
(And yes, one of those main characters was a cannibalistic serial killer… it’s something.)
In 2016, it’s not too hard to imagine a minor member of a starship crew, a Miles O’Brien type, coming out. But I think Fuller knows that LGBT audiences are sick of our stories being sidelined. We don’t want to be background color; we want stories in which we get to wear command gold. It’s time for Star Trek to imagine LGBT characters as central as Kirk or Picard.
Gene Roddenberry himself once said that as a young man, he made thoughtlessly homophobic comments because of the prevailing culture, but was able over time to change his attitude. He wanted Star Trek to be part of changing attitudes, as it had been before, on the issue of LGBT rights.
There are still a lot of minds out there that could be changed. Star Trek’s captains are iconic figures, names familiar to every geek (and plenty of normal people) in the world. They’re heroes, philosophers, leaders, and just human beings. They’re exactly the kind of character who is always and inevitably straight. But they don’t have to be.
Mr. Fuller, you’ve been given an extraordinary opportunity. You have the opportunity to do for the generations of LGBT kids who imagined our own place among the stars what no other Star Trek series ever did. To paraphrase Captain Kirk — if there’s any justice in the world, we’ll end up on that that bridge someday. Here’s hoping someday is soon.