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Star Trek: Discovery and the Promise of Diversity

Before Star Trek: Discovery premiered, Michelle Yeoh’s accent received some attention.

Soon after the release of a trailer, people started talking about the fact that Yeoh, a Chinese-Malaysian actor, would speak fluent English with her Malaysian accent. Some noted this as yet another way that Discovery was boldly going where no Star Trek had gone before in terms of diversity. Some saw it as a big step for Asian representation in western television. I don’t disagree.

In recent memory, how many Asian women who speak with “Asian” accents have been touted as stars in a network drama? Not as an exotic villain, mystical sage (more on that later), or comic relief? It’s a real head scratcher.

Of course there were trolls who, amidst cries of Discovery being party to a “white genocide”, blustered that they couldn’t understand Yeoh.

Their outrage at Yeoh’s “incomprehensible” accent was just the tip of the iceberg frozen from white, male tears concerning the lack white male “representation” on the show. It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out what they said, so there’s no need for me to repeat or link such racist, sexist malarky.

But others, like writer Swapna Krishna, were moved. Moved to tears.

Wrote Krishna:

But still, nothing could have prepared me for the moment when Yeoh utters those first words. I don’t know why the decision was made to keep Yeoh’s natural accent — if it was something the actress fought for, or it was designed that way, or even if it was a non-issue — but it mattered to me. You may have seen one person’s reaction to Diego Luna’s accent in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (a touching story that went viral), and this is similar for me. I personally do not speak English with an accent — I have the bland tones of someone born and raised in the Midwest. But my parents, immigrants to this country, speak with an accent, though they’ve lived here the bulk of their lives.

I admit that when I saw the trailers for Discovery, as an Asian-American woman and Star Trek devotee, I was moved as well. I did not burst into tears, but Michelle Yeoh’s voice stirred me, stayed with me.

Could it be? Is this too good to be true?”

I was wary, but I was hopeful.

Then I watched the first episode of Discovery and I actually did cry.

So much has been written about Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) and Captain Philippa Georgiou (Yeoh) in those opening scenes – a Black woman first officer and her Asian woman captain walking across a desert, talking about Burnham’s future – that I won’t rehash it too much here. I could write dozens of pieces on the myriad of components at play in Discovery – from canon to character analysis to general Trek nitpickery – but today I’m here to focus on race and representation on this show.

And that is all I could think about in those opening scenes.

A Black woman and an Asian woman, the two top officers of the USS Shenzou (a Chinese-named ship!) filled the screen of the first Star Trek TV series in 12 years. It was their voices, their faces that ushered us into what could be a new era of Star Trek.

Perhaps the harmonious world that Trek creator Gene Roddenberry imagined would finally, fully include people who looked like me? Women of color who had also fantasized about the captain’s chair, the first officer’s adventures, but had no basis to form that image in their head. And again I thought, “Could it be?

My hopes raised as the first episode continued. A “white” (well, pale, peachy-pinkish colored alien, Lieutenant Saru played by Doug Jones) male did not speak until eight minutes and thirty-two seconds into the pilot, and a seemingly cis white male did not speak until nine minutes and forty-eight seconds in. 

The episode was dominated by Yeoh’s and Martin-Green’s characters.

Looking at the bridge of the USS Shenzou, I continued to be hopeful. This was not a white, human male dominated bridge. But diversity cannot just be about populating a set.

As Nicole Chung wrote on Electric Lit, “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 found the depiction of the Klingons particularly disturbing. They are the darkest skinned characters on the show – the darkest skinned Klingons yet on Star Trek. They are portrayed as singularly ruthless, violent, insular. At one point Georgiou and her senior officers argue about the difference between the race and the culture of the Klingons. What is “in their nature”?

It’s pointed out that due to Burnham’s being raised by Vulcans, she should understand such a dichotomy. That she “of all people” should understand.

Star Trek as has always been a lens for the time in which it airs. It seems that Discovery, even at this early stage, is no different.

As the central character of the show, we as viewers see the world of Discovery through the eyes of a Black woman. A Black woman raised in a culture (by Ambassador Sarek of Vulcan) where she didn’t quite belong, faced discrimination because of her species, and who now must operate between worlds. She must accommodate her Vulcan nature as well as the human world she exists in. 

Burnham has both a human and Vulcan soul. (Quite literally. But that’s a spoiler for another time.)

Looking at the way Discovery handles the Klingons and Burnham, the shows Black and “black” characters, is both successful and problematic.

On one hand you have what may promise to be a complex, troubled, but deeply human character in Burnham. One that both represents the racial and gender-related troubles of our time, yet also transcends it. As this Trek has been allowed to break the rule that Starfleet officer characters couldn’t have longstanding conflict because it went against Roddenberry’s vision of a future utopia, we get to see a troubled, burdened Burnham who has always had to, and continues to struggle with how she fits into worlds – Starfleet or Vulcan – that only conditionally accept her.

The world of Discovery, or really Starfleet, is not by definition or intention a “white world”…but it is. It is the “utopia” at war that, from what we can see, is built by men who more often than not have a pleasingly paler skin tone.

Those black-skinned Klingons are the antithesis of that utopia. They are scary and they are bitter toward Starfleet. They call out the Federation’s good intentions for peace and say what they see it as: colonialism and erasure.

For a show that seems to be trying very, very, very hard to be inclusive and diverse, the Klingon parallel to Black American tensions is a bit tone deaf, ignorant. Creating flat, just angry characters with black skin – I mean, come on.

Discovery goes on to kill Yeoh’s character in the second episode. I knew that she was going to be a recurring character, but with all the hype over having her in the cast, it still felt like a bait and switch. We never got to see all the greatness that Star Trek told us Captain Georgiou possessed. And that is a loss for both Starfleet and Asian-American representation. Maybe we will still get to. I hope so. 

It’s been confirmed that Yeoh will return in the series, in some form, but I’m already getting whiffs that it may be as some sort of wise ghost AKA a mystical Asian.

Discovery is now seven episodes in on CBS All Access. Burnham became Starflet’s first and only convicted mutineer, and through the convenience of the Star Trek Rodden-world (which I say with nostalgia and respect), she is now a functioning crew member of the USS Discovery.

Helmed by Captain Gabriel Lorca. A white man.

They killed Georgiou and replaced her with a white man. A white man with a hispanic name, but from what the show tells me so far, he is a white American.

I’m still hopeful, but I’m disappointed. Captain Lorca as Burnham’s redeemer and savior definitely rubs me the wrong way. I suspect there’s more to learn about Lorca, but for now it felt like a real blow at Discovery’s cry of “DIVERSITY!”

Discovery is still young, and I believe it is just now finding it’s stride. It hasn’t hit it yet, but there are glimmers of promise. A Black woman lead; openly gay main characters; women and characters of color not reduced to caricatures or one-off aliens; at it’s best Discovery has beings struggling and striving with, how can I say it?

Humanity.

I’ve dried my eyes over Discovery for now, and I’m strapping in for the journey. My hopes are still there, but Discovery has yet to earn my trust.

Featured image via Creative Commons

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Louise Hung

An American writer living in Japan, Louise is a contributor and researcher for the Order of the Good Death and Ask a Mortician. You can find her on Twitter @LouiseHung1.