To Boldly Go Where No Two Men Have Gone Together Before

~by Ryan B

star-trek-review

I want to bounce off of this Alyssa Rosenberg post, not because we have a deep disagreement, but because I think she’s not being totally fair. She’s certainly right that Abrams’ insistence that a gay relationship work with the plot is at odds with the way he portrayed the Spock/Uhura relationship in the first film. And she’s also right that what worked for that relationship in the context of the film is that it is genuine and natural, two characters behaving the way people do in tense situations, and that there’s nothing inherently straight about that. But I’m just not sure how far that takes us.

In defense of Abrams, he clearly wants to use Star Trek, a show that really is about what the future would be like if liberalism won and became the dominant ideology of humanity, to both portray the reality of same-sex love and advance the cause of gay relationships in a larger cultural sense. And he is struggling, in a way I think Rosenberg doesn’t give him credit for, to figure out how to make that work in a movie that has to be simultaneously a blockbuster, a work of art (for some definition of “art” – don’t interrogate this too much, please), and apparently now also a liberal clarion call. That’s hard!

How do you make this work without it being pure tokenism?

The thing you don’t really want your audience to do is walk out of the movie saying, “That was okay, but why was Bones gay?” (This, for what I hope are obvious reasons, is my favorite potentially gay character). I realize there is a kind of double-standard here, in that (as above) there’s no organic reason why the story requires Spock and Uhura to be a couple, but you can’t just wish away the double standard because you don’t like it. Audiences aren’t ripped out of the story when a guy and a girl kiss or do the other things guys and girls sometimes do with each other. If two dudes smooch without any particular reason, especially if it’s the kind of scene centerpiece that Spock and Uhura’s first kiss in the elevator is, it will be no better than Abrams putting a giant neon sign on the bridge behind Kirk’s head.

The counterpoint here is that maybe that’s exactly what Abrams should do. In the context of the story, we have to assume the Federation is pretty pro-gay (unless the liberal agenda gets severely made over sometime in the next couple centuries), so none of the characters would think it’s at all weird for two dudes or ladies to just start kissing. Put that on the screen, front and center, and let our discomfort be the story. That might be a good film, and it might be a film I would like quite a bit, but it would be a very hard thing for a major studio to allow in one of its tent-pole franchises. Maybe that’s the point, and it certainly would be appropriate in some sense for Star Trek to “boldly go” there, but it sure is asking a lot.

Also, I have to say, one of my favorite things about Rosenberg’s post, and it just warms the cockles of my lefty heart, is her sarcasm about Nero’s opposition to interracial dating. How many people even noticed that Spock and Uhura are different colors? I actually didn’t even think about it until she mentioned it (which may say more about me than anything else). That’s exactly the kind of progress we’re working on here, and it’s why getting this right matters.

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85 thoughts on “To Boldly Go Where No Two Men Have Gone Together Before

  1. I think part of the reason that the last movie was uniquely ill-suited for introducing a gay character is because we already “know” all of these people. Abrams is admittedly going new directions with them, but it took what amounts to the whole damned movie to justify Spock being in a relationship with anybody. Move things too much and instead of Star Trek, which is more-or-less a known quantity, you have something that just kind of vaguely looks like Star Trek. This is why you get the “That was okay, but why was Bones gay?” question: we already know Bones, etc., and unless the story itself justifies a change from what we expect, switching the sexuality of a character the audience already knows can only be a stunt.

    Now if Abrams continues to make these movies, introducing a new character who happens to be gay wouldn’t set off the same kind of neon signs. The Doctor Who series’ do this fairly successfully, even if they do lean on it a bit too hard. If the audience has no expectations about a particular character’s sexuality (or the lack thereof!), there’s a lot more freedom to tell the kind of story one wants.

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    • The entire “reimagine” is a stunt to keep milking the ST cow with as little creativity as possible. If they want a gay character then they do have the option of actually inventing a new character which is probably the wisest move. If the entire project is based on milking the franchise in the safest way possible then do the suits really want to gamble with making a gay relationship a centerpiece of the next flick. I mean, how to do you do that in CGI? Okay maybe i can guess that part…but where are all the explosions? okay maybe i can imagine that part to, but not in a PG rating.

      The sad obsession with having a big bad villain likely precludes making exploration, either inner or outer, the focus of the next movie.

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      • The entire “reimagine” is a stunt to keep milking the ST cow with as little creativity as possible.

        It’s certainly a stunt, but I don’t see it as being quite as narrow as you do. I think the studio was actually looking to permit more creativity, as the main canon of Star Trek is now pretty well fixed. So unless we’re going to start what amounts to a new TV show (which isn’t a terrible idea…), the existing universe is starting to get pretty crowded. Even to the point of making a new show difficult. Like the comic book worlds, once a creative universe gets sufficiently complicated, writing new stuff which is still in continuity with the old stuff gets really hard.

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    • “How many people even noticed that Spock and Uhura are different colors?”
      Forget different colors, they are different species! After all Spock is 1/2 Vulcan and Vulcan’s aren’t human already. But doesn’t anyone recognize that the ORIGINAL Star Trek was already working to break those barriers? While Kirk was busy having hinky sex with every alien in a skirt we were missing that there was a beautiful black woman not only in the Front of the bus, but she had an important role as an intergalactic telephone operator! And a commie(!) was the navigator! Ahh the good old days of my halcyon youth.

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      • How old are people who think “subtlety” is required when it comes to Star Trek? Anyone who grew up with the show, watching the series in real time as opposed to reruns, could not have been unaware of how purposely beat-them-over-the-head with the message the show was.

        I was a mere tyke at the time, but it was obvious to me. So was the earth-shattering innovation of TV advertising with BLACK PEOPLE!!!!! OMG!!!!!!

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    • I’m with Jason. I don’t think there’s much call to sweat a gay character (or lack thereof) in the Star Trek reboot. I mean it was a reboot and a bit of an experiment to begin with. These are established characters and he and his studio are taking a chance with the movie so I don’t fault them for trying to avoid anything that has the potential to blow their movie up. They are businessmen as well as artists after all, more so in big expensive movies than in more modest forms of art.

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  2. Come on, stuff like this isn’t that hard.

    Sulu and Chekov fall in love and get married. (George Takei plays Sulu’s father in the ceremony.) The happy newlyweds take some shore leave as their honeymoon on an exotic planet that looks suspiciously like a convenient filming location. But then they stumble upon The Secret Romulan Plot To Take Over, and the rest of the Enterprise crew has to rescue them and foil the Romulans’ evil plot.

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    • Except that both of their characters are decades old and have never been written as gay before. I’m gay myself and even I don’t want to see that kind of jolting change. It just screams “some PC whiner got hold of the Dirctors balls and forced them to turn an establish character gay”. Better to write new gay characters into new art forms.

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      • Exactly. It’s hard to put a gay character into an established universe in a way that doesn’t feel completely artificial. And your reaction might be, “Oh well, people who don’t like it are a-holes”, but those people also pay for tickets.

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        • Again, that’s not precisely it. Inserting a gay character into an established universe is no harder than inserting any other character, Exhibit A being Jack Harkness of the Whoniverse. What’s hard is changing an established character.

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      • It just screams “some PC whiner got hold of the Dirctors balls and forced them to turn an establish character gay”.

        No, it screams “JJ Abrams likes slash fic”

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    • Sulu was plausibly gay in the old series. He never really had a girlfriend (though his evil alternate universe self tried to seduce Uhura). His most famous scene was running around without a shirt, sweating profusely and brandishing a sword, and if you had to vote for the most stereotypically gay scene in the series that would have to get a lot of votes. But on the other hand, making Sulu gay in the re-imagining might seem too obvious.

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        • He has a daughter. However, at no point does he appear to have a _wife_. It’s the future. Him having a daughter with another man is entirely reasonable.

          If they can create Khan in 1960 or whenever, surely they can create a person with two biological fathers by the time of TOS. (Hell, we’re not that far away from that now.)

          And while making Sulu gay(1) might be ‘too obvious’, sometimes the obvious thing is the easy thing, and it would be a nice acknowledgement to George Takei.

          1) I say, writing from the hetronormative position that all people are straight until proven otherwise. In actual fact, it wouldn’t be ‘making him’ gay, because we literally have no idea of his sexual orientation. (Alternate Sulu was straight, or at least bi…but alternate Kira was bi, and normal Kira is straight. So clearly that can vary between dimensions. Or perhaps all Sulus are just bi.)

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  3. Rosenberg misses the importance of the Spock / Uhura relationship. The movie revolves around the character development of Kirk and Spock, particularly through their emerging rivalry. The original series’ central dynamic was Kirk/Spock/Bones, which allowed Spock to be extremely Vulcan and Bones to be extremely Human, with Kirk as the final arbiter. This new version has, at least so far, been about Kirk and Spock. It required them both to be very compenent (note that McCoy did almost nothing in the remake). They are rivals who find a balance in themselves and in each other. They’re able to achieve that balance by having neither one be obviously superior – hence, Kirk gets the ship and Spock gets the girl.

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  4. The picture you used suggests the obvious answer. It’s not “tokenism” if the two main characters are together, and it’s not out of nowhere given the number of fans who have interpreted their relationships that way. Putting the Spock/Uhura relationship in the first movie makes it hard to do that now, though.

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        • Slashfic portrays gay male romance for the purpose of titillating female readers. It typically presents such romance in ways that are both untrue to gay relationships as they actually exist, and contrary to the established characterizations of the fictional characters involved.

          I’m not saying slash is an objectively bad thing. You can pry my Superboy/Robin slash from my cold dead fingers. But slash advances the positive portrayal of gay relationships about as much as lesbian porn.

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  5. Hi All!

    I wish I thought this—”In defense of Abrams, he clearly wants to use Star Trek, a show that really is about what the future would be like if liberalism won and became the dominant ideology of humanity, to both portray the reality of same-sex love and advance the cause of gay relationships in a larger cultural sense.”—was true, but I’m having a hard time seeing any evidence of it. The first Star Trek movie actually seemed notably disengaged with a vision of a progressive future, with the possible exception of the fleet being less hostile to folks of mixed backgrounds than the Vulcan High Council. No renewable energy, no particular focus on diplomacy, a plot that’s not based around exploration or governance of the galaxy etc.

    Second, I agree a character who’s shown in established heterosexual relationships shouldn’t necessarily be turned into a gay character, but treating Sulu as if he’s gay seems entirely reasonable. The assumption that if folks don’t have an on-screen relationship that they’re straight isn’t a neutral assumption, nor a reliably accurate one. And I don’t even think this has to be a main plotline—yes, the first movie is about Kirk and Spock’s relationship (though that, in and of itself, isn’t a reason why the movie had to make the romantic relationship an interracial one—if Abrams own plot standards were applied to hetero couples, he’d have to provide justification for that specific, theoretically disruptive to the audience pairing), so have it be a toss-off reference somewhere. You can fill in the details of the world in all sorts of ways.

    And finally, Star Trek fandom invented slash fiction. The assumption that filling in a character’s life with a same-sex relationship would be greeted with horror seems a little odd.

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    • Hey Alyssa, thanks for the response. You’re now the second person to point out that I’ve clearly over-read Abrams. I think it’s not destructive to the rest of my argument, though, so I’m moving on.

      You may be right about the reaction of a segment of Star Trek fans, but I’m not sure I believe that the larger audience would necessarily react as positively, unless it’s handled with a fair bit of grace.

      That said, anything would be better than Abrams pulling a Rowling and telling us someone is gay in an interview.

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      • … did you catch Martin’s gay characters? some people didn’t… (course, someone missed what was going on when Bran was staring in a window… “wrestling” hah!)

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    • , what are the requirements for a “Progressive” Enterprise?

      You seem to have started a list although the renewable energy has me a bit perplexed. Wind powered Enterprise hurtling through space with sails? Well, maybe not hurtling…

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  6. I myself thought that the treatment of the Uhura character in the first movie was rather disastrous. When we think about the original Uhura we tend to focus on her blackness, but it’s important to remember that she was taken for granted as a woman in a position of responsibility and not somebody’s love interest. It’s a shame that in the recent movie we tend to think of her as Kirk and Spock’s sexual football.

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    • When we think about the original Uhura we tend to focus on her blackness, but it’s important to remember that she was taken for granted as a woman in a position of responsibility and not somebody’s love interest.

      That doesn’t quite align with TOS (e.g. Plato’s Children)* nor it’s treatment of women in general (e.g. the demotion of Majel Barret)

      *it is possible even probable (and possibly documented) that Uhura’s skin color is actually what got her ‘taken for granted’ as a non-love interest for the majority of the TOS TV run

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    • Nichelle Nichols has stated in interviews she was initially unhappy with her character and that she felt Uhura was nothing more than a glorified receptionist. And that none other than MLK himself strongly urged to keep on with it because the importance and visibility of a black woman as one of the main characters in a weekly television at that time. She wasn’t the captain but she certainly wasn’t the maid.

      Agree with Steve S. below that “Plato’s Stepchildren” was not one of the better written ep’s (and, sadly, all too typical of the third season), but let’s not forget the controversy it sparked. Apparently the only way NBC would let the scene stay in was if Kirk and Uhura were under “alien mind control” and not embracing out of their own free will — because according to the culture at the time what white man would ever purposely kiss a black woman, even a hottie like Uhura?

      And think of how ridiculous those apprehensions sound today.

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      • “Nichelle Nichols has stated in interviews she was initially unhappy with her character and that she felt Uhura was nothing more than a glorified receptionist. ”

        This reminds me of the Sigourney Weaver character in Galaxy Quest, and the running joke that her character’s role had been to wear short skirts and restate whatever the computer said.

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      • I think Nichols sells the character a little short with the “glorified receptionist” remark. Yeoman Rand, now she was a glorified receptionist, maybe not even glorified.

        I probably don’t have to remind Trek nerds that Roddenberry originally had the second in command as a coldly competent female but the network shot it down.

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        • “…the second in command as a coldly competent female but the network shot it down.

          Yes, and the same network deemed the entire pilot “too cerebral” for dumbed down American audiences raised on Gunsmoke — and that was 30+ years before the advent of “reality” TV.

          The difference today, I think, is that compared to the homogenized (and nearly racially pure) content of the 50’s and 60’s, today’s overwhelming selection at least offers some thoughtful, stimulating fare as well as the likes of The W.B. Good news for libertarians at least.

          On the topic of modern entertainment and fluid sexuality, anyone watch HBO’s True Blood? Instead of a forward-thinking utopian universe a-la ST, we have a universe steeped in a deep past where the gender of one’s lover is a non-issue (though there are plenty of other sources of high drama to contend with). The whole anti-vampire “God Hates Fangs” element is a useful juxtaposition of the anti-gay forces at work today.

          Unlike poor Ernie and Bert.

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  7. I’m not gay, so this may not be worth noting…

    … but if I *was* gay, I would think the moment I would feel comfortably victorious wouldn’t be when two major characters were rebooted to be out of the closet, it would be when a character – main or supporting – was gay but only in passing plot-wise – because it just wasn’t that big a deal.

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  8. Since we are deciding to change things for the sake of change, in this arena as with comics, why don’t we make make Kirk black, Spock Hispanic and then make them be gay lovers as well?

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  9. Is tokenism really even a relevant thing to be worried about in Star Trek, seeing as how everyone on the bridge except Kirk, Spock and McCoy are in essence tokens?

    I don’t think it’d be that much harder to add one more character into the ensemble who’d fill a role that wasn’t necessarily around in TOS but could add to the dynamic…though I suppose a gay counselor would be a bit too far onto the tokenism scale…a chief of security? A nurse? Surely there’s enough characters that you could add one…

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  10. “How do you make this work without it being pure tokenism? ”

    Uh… by having more than one gay character. There’s so much background heterosexuality in Star Trek. ANY scene of the cafeteria has couples at tables.

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  15. … Okay. Here’s what I want. I want Bones to be gay (why? cause it’s fun, and he’s snarky). Then, I want them to play up the sexual tension between Spock and Kirk, and I want Bones to snark about THAT. Which, at the very least, should make Spock uncomfortable — and probably Kirk as well, because he’s a hothead. Kirk turning red and sputtering, should be served up with Uhura looking askance at Kirk and saying “Dude, nobody cares about your sexuality — why ARE you so upset?”

    Have Bones be the gay guy (complete with subtle clues), and never reference it. Let the whole “who is gay” thing revolve around Kirk and Spock, who aren’t.

    … I think it’d be funny!

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