Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Infinite Diversity

The crew on the Enterprise bridge was meant to illustrate a principle about the future, and simultaneously about the present. There was the all-American Captain Kirk (played by Canadian William Shatner), and in true war movie fashion, an engineer with a Scottish brogue (James Doohan as Mongomery Scott.) But at the communications console was a young lieutenant played by Nichelle Nichols, who was becoming the first black woman with a continuing role on an American network drama series. Or as one young viewer cried to her mother, “There’s a black woman on TV and she ain’t no maid!” As both an African American and a woman, she represented two minorities most viewers would not expect to see in her position.

There was as well an Asian officer who, in contrast to most Asian men on television, wasn’t a servant or an inscrutable villain. Lieutenant Sulu (played by George Takei) was the helmsman of the starship. He didn’t speak in broken English, but in strong, rich, confident tones.

This was the future enacted on a starship, and on 1960s TV screens. Forty years later, the shock of it has to be explained.

“The show dealt with mankind’s attempt to better mankind, to be better than we were before,” said Robert Justman, associate producer. “Why should we even be here on earth if we don’t try to make things better for the next people who come along, so they can make things better.”

Symbolizing the meaning of these presences (and that of a Russian navigator later in the series) was the Enterprise science officer, called simply Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy.) Viewers would expect there to be weird looking space aliens on this show, but as threats and enemies that the good guys would battle and destroy. But here was a weird looking yellow-green alien with big pointy ears—second in command!

Aliens are included in this future, and suddenly on TV screens across America, in this present. This is the present of Civil Rights demonstrations, assassinations of black leaders, and riots in African American sectors of major cities during several summers, including what Henry Ford called “the greatest internal violence since the Civil War” in Detroit and Newark in 1967, with even worse rioting in Washington and other cities following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1968. This is the present of the rise of Black Power and then of the Silent Majority, and “playing the race card” became an undercurrent in U.S. politics.

This is the present of increasing numbers of American young men sent to fight Asians and die in Vietnam and other parts of southeast Asia, bombers destroying 50 square miles of Asian land, and photos on the evening news of Asian children burned by napalm and screaming.

Star Trek’s enactment of a diverse future, as well as its eventual, powerful statements for tolerance and against reflexive violence and warfare, were not abstractions. The violence of war and intolerance was also on television throughout these years.

Nor was it an abstraction for those who brought these stories to life on Star Trek. Producer-writer Gene Roddenberry and producer-writer Gene Coon (who wrote many of Star Trek’s most important stories) were combat veterans with anti-war convictions forged in personal experience and authentic observation. James Doohan was seriously wounded on D-Day, and had to keep his disfigured hand away from the cameras.

Nichelle Nichols had been denied lodging and suffered other discrimination because of her race, and had been raped. George Takei had spent several years of his childhood in a World War II internment camp for Japanese-Americans. He was so adamant in refusing to play a servant--the usual role he and other Asian actors were offered-- that he had to support himself for awhile by actually being a servant.

Their earned conviction informed and deepened their commitment to a television show that had certain personal advantages (at this point, regular employment being the primary one) but also required great sacrifice.

There was another aspect to this diversity on display. While echoes of racial and ethnic conflict were part of the overall tension between the human crew and the alien Spock, the crew of different races and nationalities worked together smoothly, without ethnic rancor. This was unlike many previous dramas with mixed casts. The future of working together for common cause was demonstrated rather than preached.

In reality, the Star Trek cast, staff and crew had to work together to produce this unique program, which was more difficult and more necessary because of very tight budgets and therefore very little time. There was conflict (and books written about it) but in particular the actors displayed the chemistry their characters also had.

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