Berli's Trek Shack

Race in Star Trek, Part One

Who Are The Star Trek Races?

It's often been said that Star Trek is really about America's place in the world, an idealized look at America's role as peacemaker and empire builder. Of no series was this more true than the first one. The Federation was the peaceful but sometimes argumentative free world. The Earth stood for America itself. As for its enemies, the Klingons and the Romulans represented the USSR and China, although which one was which is not entirely clear. Although neither trusted the other, the Klingons and Romulans colluded against their common enemy, the Federation. On countless worlds the Federation and the Klingons faced off over the fates of worlds, offering the natives membership in their respective empires to use the world as a base or mine its assets. The Federation, of course, professed only the noblest motives, promising members a degree of freedom and sovereignty not found in the authoritarian Klingon Empire. Meanwhile, the Klingons rationalized their costly expansion as the only defense against Federation encroachment. Ironically, it was the Federation, rather than the Klingons, who were the most ideologically driven, unlike their counterparts in the real world.

What interests me, of course, is the racial coding of the predominant races. I'd like to consider the Humans Vulcans, Romulans, and Klingons, mainly, as I'll address the Jem'Hadar and casting of less important races in part three. The fact that they are referred to as races is, of course, interesting in itself. Technically, if we were to encounter extra-terrestrial beings, they would undoubtedly be of another species, with entirely different DNA and certainly incapable of interbreeding. (As Carl Sagan is reported to have complained, one could sooner cross a human with an artichoke than with a Vulcan). In this way, Star Trek is certainly not hard science fiction, nor was it ever meant to be. Roddenberry's motivations in creating Star Trek were very clear - it was a vehicle to talk about difficult topics, disguised with ray guns and spaceships to fly under the network censors.

Despite the anti-racist intentions of its creator, Star Trek in some ways never quite escaped its times. For every episode like [shoot! the one with the organians] there was one like [omega glory?], the latter penned by none other than Roddenberry himself. The Omega Glory could be a page in itself, but I digress. Considering the classic series as a whole, we can see how the Vulcans were exoticized, like Asians were in the greater culture. Although Vulcan philosophy is for the most part the purest form of very western tendencies, in reality, Spock and other Vulcans were portrayed as inscrutable, exotic and somewhat barbaric in customs. Rather than being cooperative individualists, according to the Western ideal, they are portrayed as highly conformist, bound by all-important familial obligations and strict ettiquette. In the episode Amok Time, one sees Confucian and Japanese elements; in the Kolinahr discipline to remove all emotion, there is an echo of the Buddhist monk's goal to eliminate all desires. And finally - although the Greeks would certainly protest - in this day and age what could possibly be coded more "asian" than Spock's proficiency in martial arts?

The upside to this portrayal of Vulcans was that it freed Star Trek to avoid all of these things when portraying actual Asians. Sulu was quite a character, but there was nothing about him which was stereotypically "Oriental," a great achievement in the 1960's, when white actors were still commonly cast as Chinese on television. Harry Kim, who is an Asian-American, is a completely assimilated American, and why not? (Sulu wasn't Asian-American, but according to at least one origin, he was Japanese-Filipino, his parents were scientists, and he grew up in space, which would explain the lack of any positive national identity). Keiko O'Brien and Nurse Ogawa on NextGen and DS9 are the only other Asians of note on Star Trek, and they were both portrayed in a positive light. I might be wrong, but I thought that TPTB did a decent job portraying Keiko as Japanese, but without burdening her character with a bunch of mistaken notions of what that was supposed to mean. Unfortunately, Keiko suffered as a character by being "O'Brien's wife." She never transcended that, and the writers on DS9 were never quite sure what to do with her. Come to think of it, maybe the writers *were* projecting their views of Asian women on the character. Ya know, eager to please, not very assertive, that kind of thing. I mean, sure, Keiko and Miles got into arguments (most of which she started) but while Miles' position was always easy to understand, Keiko always seemed to be acting out of an unarticulated sense of discontent. She didn't know what she wanted. (Maybe she had a secret . . .).

While we're on the topic of Asians, I'd like to mention that the original series Klingons were associated with Asians as well. Yes, it sounds odd - in many ways, the Klingons were much more closely associated with the Russians - but I have proof in the form of Star Trek Log [?]. There were actually two different makeup jobs done on the TOS Klingons. One was little more than facial hair and titled eyebrows, making them look something like Fu Manchu in chain mail. The second involved some of the same face work, but with the added bonus of copper skin. This time, the Klingons are colored, and, not surprisingly, portrayed as somewhat more animalistic. (Type One Klingons in The Trouble With Tribbles taunted the Starfleet officers, but Scotty threw the first punch; type two Klingons ran amok on the Enterprise in Day of the Dove).

Of course, the connection between the Romulans and the Japanese can't be forgotten. The Original series indulged in a heavy Roman conceit for the Romulans, which has been all but dropped since then. When you look past this, however, there are some disturbing coincidences. The Romulans fought Earth forces "one hundred years ago" (which we know is 20 years of our time :-) and they were almost evenly matched. The Federation now greatly outnumbers them. They are loyal to their emperor, concerned with preserving their honor and they do not hesitate to destroy themselves to avoid capture. Although Kirk can communicate with the Romulan commanders he encounters, there seems to be a cultural barrier which makes communication nigh impossible.

Race in Star Trek: Is Star Trek Racist?


The evolution of this article.

Part Two: The Crews

When Sisko was promoted to Captain on Deep Space Nine, the Star Trek franchise finally put a African-American on equal footing with the two famous, white captains of the previous two series. Despite that (and all the headway made on DS9) all of the series had some issues when it came to the crew - human and alien.

Part Three: Klingons, Jem'Hadar and Tuvok

Portrayal of Black men on Star Trek is really nothing to brag about.

Part Four: Alien crewmembers, from Spock to Tuvok

What was, is again. Or is it? If you've seen The Galileo 7, you know Spock didn't always have an easy ride. He was alien and cold, and that rubbed some people the wrong way. But if Spock sometimes had it rough, Tuvok is never given a break. Throughout the Voyager series, he's been verbally abused by everyone, from the Captain on down. Maybe it's just a "coincidence," but I know Kirk never treated Spock the way Janeway treats Tuvok.

Conclusion: Beyond Star Trek

Star Trek's woes with regards to race are endemic of the situation in all science fiction and all television - recently, in some ways, worse. Star Trek held up a shining ideal of tolerance for all races, religions, nations, creeds, a world united for peace. It wasn't such a bad idea. It's fashionable now to act like things will never get better in America - but that very defeatism feeds into the problem. The real way to bring Star Trek to life isn't silly costumes or exotic technology, but by building the sort of society that we hold in our dreams.

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This site created and maintained by Berli.
Posted May 6, 2001.