Much like today, the 1960s were a time of great political turmoil. In fact, the similarities were overwhelming. Political violence was on the agenda, race relations were at a breaking point, and America and Russia looked increasingly likely to kill everyone in a nuclear confrontation. Into the mix stepped Gene Roddenberry with a vision of a better tomorrow. No longer would the base instincts of greed, racism, xenophobia, and sexism define humanity; instead, in this future, cooperation and science would drive us forward. The political message of Star Trek was clear.
However, even in 2022, Fox News doesn’t seem to have figured that out. Writing last week on the Fox News website, David Marcus claimed that Star Trek writers had taken “Starship Enterprise where it’s never gone before—woke politics.” In the piece, Marcus highlights former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams’s cameo on Star Trek Discovery and the 2020 capitol insurrection being featured as part of America’s road to a second civil war in Strange New Worlds. Marcus calls this “pure partisan politics.”
The piece sits perfectly within the recent trend amongst conservatives to wage war on Hollywood and “woke culture.” Mainly fuelled by young people, the emergence of “wokism” has petrified the right for some time, exploding after the Black Lives Matter protests. With a focus on economic and racial injustice, the movement has shown a willingness to return to 1960s-style activism to achieve equality, which many find uncomfortable. As such, opponents have made a concerted effort to link “wokeness” to extremism to give plausible deniability to opposing the struggle for justice.
Deep Space Nine writer Robert Hewitt Wolfe wasn’t having any of it. Writing on Twitter, Wolfe made it clear that older Star Trek writers disagreed with the assessment that their Star Trek was any less “woke” than the current iterations. Beginning by calling Marcus “a moron,” Wolfe added a GIF depicting a famous scene from the DS9 episode “Bar Association,” where employees at Quark’s bar attempt to form a union. “Workers of the world unite,” says Rom in the clip, “You have nothing to lose but your chains.”
The quotation is from Karl Marx. However, it should be noted that “woke” does not automatically mean somebody is a Marxist, and in turn, being a Marxist doesn’t mean somebody is necessarily “woke.” However, the scene highlights some of the left-wing views that have always undergirded the franchise. While few, including Marcus himself, would conclude that Star Trek has ever been right-wing, it certainly hasn’t sat in the center either.
A history of “woke” Star Trek
Certain aspects of The Original Series may, at first glance, appear appealing to individuals like Marcus. It may seem, for example, that proclaimed American ideals had triumphed by the time of Captain Kirk and, given the prominence of American-born characters throughout the franchise, that U.S. hegemony survived into the 24th century.
This, however, isn’t the case, as a deeper look into the show’s fictional universe shows. The original show was constantly pushing back against conservative narratives. For example, in 1968, Star Trek: The Original Series featured the first-ever onscreen interracial kiss, in this case between Kirk and Uhura, against the network’s wishes. The same year, “A Private Little War” directly addressed Vietnam and Cold War-era proxy wars, with Kirk arming “our side” to fight against “their side,” where the Klingons stood in for the then-USSR. The episode was sharply critical of American foreign policy.
Star Trek‘s progressive bent goes way beyond individual episodes and scenes. The very existence of a multicultural and multiracial crew was shocking for American audiences in the ’60s. Not only was a Black woman like Nichelle Nichols (Uhura) featured prominently, but George Takei (Sulu) advanced Asian representation by stepping away from the stereotypes that had dominated up until that point. The show also featured a positive portrayal of Russian Pavel Chekhov and was led by two Jewish actors, William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy.
Star Trek‘s positive influence was such that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself urged Nichols not to quit the show, pointing out the influential role the media could play in achieving Black equality.
And this focus on progressive politics didn’t end there. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home had an environmental message so loud that it was impossible to miss. The Next Generation addressed HIV/AIDS when the Reagan administration was actively stigmatizing it as a “gay disease.” Voyager placed a woman in charge of a starship. Meanwhile, Avery Brooks (Benjamin Sisko) became only the third Black-American male actor in a starring role in a first-run television drama when he led Deep Space Nine.
Speaking of Deep Space Nine, it can only be assumed that Marcus missed the episode “Past Tense” from season 3. In scenes that were referred to in the most recent season of Picard, it learned that, in the past, America descended into oppression and fascism. Beset by economic disparity, the American government turned against its own people and ghettoized the poor, sick, mentally ill, and homeless.
The episode was partially inspired by the Attica Prison riot of 1971. If “Past Tense” were broadcast today, it’s easy to imagine Twitter obsessing over it for weeks! But as much as Fox News would like to claim otherwise, these traditions of dystopian fiction have been around for a long time courtesy of visionary writers who saw the dangers that existed in society and wrote about them.
Many of these predictions have sadly come all too true, and while some would wage war on “wokeness,” perhaps what they’re really doing is waging war against those who would speak truth to power and shine a light onto our own failings as human beings. That’s something that Star Trek has always excelled at.