Gene Roddenberry: The Original Social Justice Warrior

If you frequent Star Trek fan sites, you’ll know there’s a disagreement between groups of fans. This has become particularly apparent now that the news of a new series starting in 2017 has broken. Some are hoping for the new show to push the limits even farther and include more women, an LGBTQ main character or captain, and in general a more diverse cast. Others push back on this and want to “keep that SJW crap” out of Trek.

For those wondering, that acronym stands for Social Justice Warrior. It’s usually meant in a derogatory sense to put said SJW down. You know what, though? I don’t see wanting social justice as a bad thing. Neither did Gene Roddenberry, and Star Trek is at its heart a progressive and forward-thinking show. If we look back at Roddenberry’s comments and articulated ideas about the show, we’ll find that he was, in fact, the original SJW.

Let’s start at the very beginning, with the original pilot “The Cage.” The first officer in the first episode is a woman. This is in the 1960’s, when women didn’t have nearly the same rights and options that women today do. Number One is portrayed as cool, levelheaded, and perfectly capable of taking command when Captain Pike is taken captive. Roddenberry originally intended for half of the Enterprise’s crew to be women as well. The studio forced him to back down; Number One was cut and the crew became one-third women instead. Still, though, the sentiment was there. Roddenberry clearly believed that in the future men and women would be equally represented and equally capable of command.

The cast of "Star Trek: The Original Series" (Photo: CBS)
The cast of “Star Trek: The Original Series” (Photo: CBS)

The makeup of the cast of The Original Series itself was progressive at the time. At the height of the Cold War, when Russians were viewed as the enemy of the United States, Pavel Chekhov is at the helm of the ship. The Japanese Hikaru Sulu is symbolic, too. The Japanese were a recently defeated enemy in WWII, and the country was just starting to come to terms with how they had treated their Japanese citizens. George Takei himself had been a victim of racist paranoia and put into an internment camp with his family.

Lt. Uhura may be one of the most significant additions to the crew. Not only is she a woman, she is also black. She is portrayed as intelligent, competent, and an integral part of the crew. This was absolutely groundbreaking at a time when most roles for black women on TV were maids or servants. Whoopi Goldberg was famously inspired by Uhura as a child, and partially because of her went on to become a famous actress herself. Roddenberry showed us a future where we had transcended the barriers of gender, race and religion.

The diversity of the cast is important. Viewers were able to see themselves in the characters. Another famous Uhura fan, Mae Jemison, the first black woman in space, watched Star Trek as a child. Without Roddenberry going out of his way to show diversity, we would have lost some of the most brilliant minds in our society. Nichelle Nichols went on to recruit women and minorities for NASA, including the current NASA administrator. When we asked her in an interview (read it here) why she believed diversity is important she said, “Because we are diverse. Earth is diverse, the future is OURS, meaning all of us.” How can you disagree with Uhura herself?

In addition to a diverse cast, there are several notable episodes that show Star Trek’s progressivism. The Vulcan concept of “infinite diversity in infinite combinations (IDIC)” was introduced in “Is There No Truth in Beauty?” In the following exchange between Spock and Dr. Miranda Jones we get a good explanation of it.

“The glory of creation is in its infinite diversity.”
“And the ways our differences combine to create meaning and beauty.”

We see this in action through casting in episodes throughout the series. Miranda Jones is an accomplished doctor, Dr. Daystrom, a black man, is a leader in his scientific field. We are shown women and people of color in differing positions as the series goes on.

Gene and Majel Barrett-Roddenberry
Gene and Majel Barrett-Roddenberry

Apart from diversity, Roddenberry uses to show to make statements on other issues. “A Private Little War,” is a clear allegory to the Vietnam War, in which two major powers, in this case the Federation and the Klingons, are arming the native peoples of a planet and fighting a proxy war. The episode points out how dangerous it is and how easily it could escalate to a full conflict between the powers. This isn’t the only episode to point out the evils of war and conflict. “A Taste of Armageddon” shows a society where war has become such a way of life that the citizens of the planet have sanitized it and made it part of daily life. Kirk and his crew go out of their way to show them the barbarity.

The Original Series doesn’t always live up to its own ideals (we’re pretending “Turnabout Intruder” doesn’t exist), but by and large it leans progressive and teaches important lessons about our own society and ideals. It cautions us against sexism, racism and blind hatred. The following four series continue this tradition. We later get a black captain in Sisko and a woman in command with Janeway, furthering the diversity of Star Trek captains. Let’s look at some standout episodes from the other shows.

The Next Generation, with the diplomatic Captain Picard in command, pushes the envelope farther yet. Not only do we get commentary on the futility and horror of war, but in the famous “Chain of Command” we get a scathing condemnation of torture. This has become particularly relevant to our post-9/11 world, in which government officials have argued for the use of torture to stop further terrorist attacks. Our beloved Picard is brutally tormented both physically and psychologically by Cardassians to get Federation defense information. He almost gets to the point where he sees the fifth light, aware that admitting something he knows isn’t true will make the torture stop. This episode is both a commentary on the ineffectiveness and barbarism of torture, but also the fact that civilized governments tacitly condone it.

In “The Outcast” we get one of the few examples of a Star Trek show exploring gender and sexuality. The crew meets a race of aliens that have evolved beyond gender, where choosing to identify as either male or female makes an individual an outcast. This episode has a great conversation between Soren and Dr. Crusher when Soren questions her about the differences of the human genders. Soren asks why women paint their faces, if it’s the woman’s job to attract the man, etc. Dr. Crusher is at a loss to explain much of it. Through it we see how odd traditional gender roles would be through alien eyes. “The Outcast” explores sexuality that differs from the societal norm.

We also see something that is controversial in our own world, “conversion therapy,” in which Soren is brainwashed into conformity. The therapy is depicted as taking away her individuality and choice. An argument can be made that the episode could have taken it even further. Jonathan Frakes wanted a male actor to play Soren to make it even more overtly in favor of LGBTQ inclusion, but was denied. While it may not have been perfect, it at least made the attempt.

The episode I find the most relevant in its social commentary recently is “The Drumhead.” With the recent terror attacks in Paris, I specifically chose to re-watch it. Picard and the Enterprise crew believe there is a saboteur on board, possibly a Romulan collaborator. The Romulans are, of course, the greatest threat facing the Federation at this time. At first Picard is fully participating and supports the proceedings. As Admiral Satee begins to persecute crewman Simon Tarses for his Romulan heritage Picard begins to get uncomfortable.

They begin operating on the assumption that just because he is part Romulan he is guilty, despite the lack of verifiable evidence. The admiral even continues her prosecution of Tarses after it’s proven that the engine explosion was an accident rather than sabotage. Picard finally steps in to end the trial, finding that it violates some of the Federation’s most dearly held principles. He says, “Have we become so… fearful, have we become so cowardly… that we must extinguish a man? Because he carries the blood of a current enemy?” There is a fear that anyone with Romulan blood must be involved in the conspiracy, despite evidence to the contrary.

The characters in the episode slowly become paranoid and take it too far, blaming innocent people for the crimes committed by others of their race. There are so many ways this is relevant to us: from the detainment of terror suspects without trial and a suspension of their human rights in the War on Terror, to rampant racism and prejudice against Muslims from 9/11 to now. It happened to Japanese-Americans during WWII. Just ask George Takei. It’s beginning to happen again. “The Drumhead” asks us, if we’re taking away liberties and rights to protect ourselves, what are we protecting? Picard says “Oh, yes. That’s how it starts. But the road from legitimate suspicion to rampant paranoia is very much shorter than we think. Something is wrong here, Mr. Worf. I don’t like what we have become.”

Capt. Benjamin Sisko and Joseph Sisko from "Paradise Lost" (Photo: CBS)
Capt. Benjamin Sisko and Joseph Sisko from “Paradise Lost” (Photo: CBS)

The Deep Space Nine episodes “Home Front” and “Paradise Lost” have a very similar theme. A changeling attacks Starfleet in an act of terror, and Captain Sisko and Odo return to earth to help assess the threat. Throughout the two episodes we see the Federation take steps and become paranoid in the name of safety, slowly taking away the freedoms of their citizens. It takes Sisko’s father’s stubborn refusal of a mandated blood test for Captain Sisko to see what’s happening. He realizes Admiral Leyton is using the attack as an excuse to execute a military takeover of Earth, all in the name of better protection and readiness against the Dominion. The following exchange between Sisko, his father and Odo articulates the message perfectly:

Odo: Am I the only one who’s worried that there are still Changelings here on Earth?

Joseph Sisko: Worried? I’m scared to death. But I’ll be damned if I’m gonna let them change the way I live my life.
Captain Sisko: If the Changelings want to destroy what we’ve built here, they’re going to have to do it themselves. We will not do it for them.

The episodes from Deep Space Nine with important progressive messages are almost too many to count. We have “Duet” with its commentary on the after effects of a brutal military occupation, “The Maquis,” parts 1 and 2, and its exploration of the effects of diplomacy on marginalized groups. “Past Tense” parts 1 and 2 are unusually prescient given the current conversation on racial and economic inequality, and strongly condemn the treatment of racial minorities, the mentally ill, and the economically disadvantaged as less than human. It’s an excellent case for empathy and compassion, and proof that humanity working together can affect real change and reach harmony.

There is “Demons/Terra Prime” from Enterprise, and “Workforce” from Voyager, both pretty overtly political and progressive. There are countless other examples of similar episodes from all five shows. Too many to list all of them. Star Trek is, at its heart, a progressive and forward-thinking show. As Gene Roddenberry said “Star Trek was an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in life forms. […] If we cannot learn to actually enjoy those small differences, to take a positive delight in those small differences between our own kind, here on this planet, then we do not deserve to go out into space and meet the diversity that is almost certainly out there.” 

So, if you’re upset about people asking for more diversity and inclusion and want to keep social justice out of Star Trek, well, I’m sorry: You can’t separate them. If you want a Star Trek free of social commentary, you might want to find a different show to watch.

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Michelle lives in northern Minnesota, where she does normal things by day and nerdy things by weekend and night. Her interests range from Star Trek, to history, archaeology, languages, fantasy and sci-fi, politics, and cats.

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