Cultural Differences and Some Baseless Speculation about Star Trek Discovery

No, I still haven’t gotten around to watching Star Trek Discovery. And considering how much the trailers and reviews so far have repelled me, I’m not likely to bother with a show that will only make me angry. A pity because I like Michelle Yeoh and Jason Isaacs a lot and Sonequa Martin-Green seems likeable as well. And indeed Star Trek Shenzhou is a show I might have watched. However, based on everything I was seen so far, this show shouldn’t be called Star Trek Discovery, but Star Trek: The Abuse and Mistreatment of Michael Burnham (I had to look up her name). And I for one don’t want to watch the abuse and mistreatment of a woman of colour, intermingled with occasional space battles and fights with Klingons, that don’t even look like Klingons.

In short, Star Trek Discovery seems to be the new Battlestar Galactica of the Star Trek franchise. And if you know me, you know that’s not a compliment, because I hate the new Battlestar Galactica with the sort of rancor people normally reserve for the Star Wars prequels. I talk a bit about that here.

By now, I’ve accepted that in this age of remakes, reboots, prequels and sequels, it is our fate to see the heroes of our youth turned into jerks and outright monsters and to have our childhood raped again and again. I used to be massively angry about this, but I no longer am. I simply choose not to watch the remakes/reboots/sequels/prequels or whatever, though I reserve the right to grumble about them. And indeed, I tired of Star Trek long before Discovery came along. Indeed, I stopped watching Deep Space Nine, which I never liked, halfway through, and gave up on Star Trek altogether during the third season of Enterprise (which wasn’t Star Trek either, just some lame war on terror analogy, because apparently every SF TV show had to be a war on terror analogy in the early 2000s). Coincidentally, I don’t watch the J.J. Abrams Star Trek movies either (not happy what he’s done with Star Wars either), because whatever those movies are, they’re not Star Trek.

I may have to check out The Orville to fill the Star Trek shaped hole in my heart, since that has been getting generally positive reactions from old school Star Trek fans (and how sad is it that the alleged Star Trek parody is closer to the real Star Trek than the latest actual Star Trek show?). Of course, I have a huge problem with Seth MacFarlane, ever since he did this. And according to reviews I have seen, MacFarlane’s character in The Orville is basically the same character MacFarlane plays everywhere else. However, there is a chance that Seth MacFarlane has learned better since that Oscar night. After all, if I could forgive Ron D. Moore for ruining Battlestar Galactica, because he actually did a good job on Outlander, then there is hope for Macfarlane

So this is not a post about Star Trek Discovery nor one about The Orville, let alone a review of either show or a comparison (though I might do that, if I can bring myself to watch them). Instead, this is a post about deep-seated cultural assumptions and how they can influence what we write and how we write it, using Star Trek Discovery and some baseless speculation about the show as a basis.

Warning: Spoilers behind the cut!

Though I probably won’t be watching Star Trek Discovery anytime soon, I know what happened in the two-part pilot, since I read a bunch of reviews and recaps (linked in my weekly link round-up over at the Speculative Fiction Showcase). When you live in a place, where it can take a year or more for you to get the latest US shows, if at all, you learn to be spoiler-resistant.

So I know that Jason Isaacs isn’t even in the pilot, that Michelle Yeoh’s awesome starship captain of colour dies in the second episode, killed by Klingons (yeah, as if a regular garden variety Klingon could handle Michelle Yeoh), that her protegee, the unlikely named Michael Burnham, played by Sonequa Martin-Green, manages to mutiny against her mentor, get thrown in the brig, watches her mentor get killed and manages to start a war with the Klingon Empire, all with the very best intentions. So in short, Michael Burnham is a screw-up. She’s also a deeply traumatised person, who lost her parents at a young age (to Klingons at that) and was raised by an emotionally distant foster father (Sarek, who already proved how crap he is at fathering with his somewhat better adjusted son Spock; not to metion that no one should hand a traumatised kid over to Vulcans of all people) and probably should never have been accepted into Starfleet at all, given her obvious issues. Coincidentally, Michael Burnham is also no different from the (white) male maverick officers with which stories like this are suffused, as Jodie points out in her review of the first episode only at Lady Business. Male mavericks usually find that everything works out for them, just ask James T. Kirk. Poor Mihael Burnham, however, is not so lucky. And so in the end, for all her troubles to stop the Klingons from attacking the Federation in order to make the Klingon Empire great again (there is apparently an Trump analogy in there, of course there is), Michael Burnham is court-martialled by a Federation military tribunal and given a life sentence. Cue cliffhanger – how can our heroine possibly get out of this? Judging by this spoilerish trailer for the rest of the season, it involves a lot of abuse and mistreatment, and it will probably turn out that the Discovery is a ship stuffed full of convicts on a Dirty Dozen style suicide mission (No, I don’t know for sure. This is not a spoiler, it’s just a hunch).

Now mind you, I haven’t actually seen Star Trek Discovery and Michael Burnham yet. But I already hated what happened to her and screamed at a random online review, “This is not Star Trek. Cause the Federation is supposed to be an egalitarian utopia. And an egalitarian utopia would never hand down life sentence for something like this, let alone abuse and mistreat a traumatised woman so much.” Never mind that Kirk or Picard or Janeway or Archer or even Sisko would never tolerate crewmembers abusing a prisoner.

And then I thought back at the previous versions of Star Trek, from the original series via Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager all the way to Enterprise. I remembered the original series two-parter The Menagerie, a reworking of the unaired pilot The Cage, where Mr. Spock is court-martialled and put on trial for his life for the dubious crime of mutinying (hmm, I think Sarek did one thing right: he instilled a healthy skepticism of authority and unreasonable rules in his kids) to take the severely disabled Captain Jonathan Pike back to a world where he can live out his days in happiness. I remember how much that two-parter horrified my teenaged self, because Spock was clearly right and didn’t deserve to be punished, let alone threatened with execution. And anyway, how could a clearly good political system like the Federation have something as horrible as the death penalty, when even the less than perfect West Germany I grew up in agreed that the death penalty was barbaric?

I also remembered reading about Harlan Ellison’s original draft of “City on the Edge of Forever” (a Star Trek episode which was considered a spectacular standout, even when I first watched it in the 1980s, because it involved Joan Collins, then a superstar due to her performance as Alexis Carrington in Dynasty, and was just a fabulous episode in general) and how Ellison’s original screenplay included an execution by firing squad (carried out by Mr. Spock of all people) for drug dealing (coincidentally, when I told my Mom this, she said, “Mr. Spock would never execute people. Period.”) I remembered how glad I was that Ellison’s original version was never filmed, because if my teenaged self had watched that version, I would never have been able to watch Star Trek again, because it violated “the pact”.

For my teenaged self was very well aware that the US had the death penalty and actually executed people. However, this was never mentioned in any of the US crime shows I watched, because – so I assumed – US TV producers, being unassailably good people, were of course horrified that their country engaged in such horrific practices like executing people and therefore had a pact never to mention the death penalty in any crime drama, because otherwise viewers would hate the detective for being complicit with such a horrible thing. Villaims were allowed to threaten heroes with execution, of course – after all, they were villains. But heroes did not do such a thing. If a program violated “the pact”, it was an instant dealbreaker that caused me to never watch said program again, no matter how much I liked it before (and there was at least one example of that, a now forgotten Aaron Spelling show). Of course, “the pact” never existed anywhere except in my mind (I still wish it was real BTW) and the only reason US crime dramas shown on German TV hardly ever mentioned the death penalty was because such scenes were cut prior to broadcast for fear of upsetting viewers like me. They stopped doing such content edits sometime in the 1990s and we suddenly got US crime dramas in their full horribleness. From 2001 on, US television dramas got steadily worse. Indeed, if I still stuck to my old dealbreakers today, I couldn’t watch any US shows anymore, given the many torture scenes, threats with execution and prison rape committed by the supposed good guys, ridiculously high prison sentences, etc… in otherwise innocuous cop shows, crime dramas, etc… In fact, I suspect the increasing nastiness of other US TV shows, particularly the so-called “quality” TV shows is a large part of the reason why Star Trek Discovery is the way it is – after all, some reviews keep telling us that this is modern Trek for modern times and modern viewers and not “your grandpa’s Trek” and that we should deal with it.

However, the Federation was not as good and utopian as they think they are even way back in the original series. I also thought of other versions of Star Trek. I remembered Commander Sisko sending his ex-lover to prison for smuggling, a classic victimless crime, in an early episode of Deep Space Nine and how it cause me to hate the character forever after because of that (in this house, we refer to Commander Sisko as Captain Arsehole and indeed I always have to look up his name, because to me he is Captain Arsehole). I remembered how in the first episode of Voyager, we meet Tom Paris in prison, forced to do slave labour for – well, I don’t remember for what, but it wasn’t a very serious crime (interestingly, someone at File 770 immediately remembered what the crime was, apparently it involved cooperating with the Maquis, the supposed anti-Federation terrorists I always felt had a point). I remembered how the Federation considered Data not a citizen but property and wanted to take him apart. I remembered how they were willing to let a whole planet full of sentient and clearly intelligent beings die, because rescuing them would violate their precious prime directive. I also remembered how I was always convinced that the Second Doctor’s rant about the cowardice of the Time Lords at the end of The War Games was in truth an accusation aimed across the Atlantic at Star Trek and the prime directive. I remembered how the Federation imposed Handmaid’s Tale type politics (every woman is forced to bear at least three children from three different men – they’re not even allowed to have stable monogamous relationships) on some poor colony instead of helping them refresh their gene pool, because reproducing via cloning is apparently unnatural, while treating women like walking wombs is totally okay. There were grisly Irish stereotypes in the same episode (Next Generation, not original series), too.

In short, I remembered all of the times I hated the Federation. And I thought, “So the Federation is supposed to be an egalitarian utopia. But it isn’t and it’s never been that. If anything, the Federation is a fucking dystopia. Only that for some reason, no one ever noticed. And coincidentally, why do the Vulcans, who are supposed to be rational and logical, put up with a system like the Federation?”

Now there’s nothing wrong with future worlds that are dystopias. If I had problems with dystopian worlds, I could never have watched Star Wars nor read Nineteen Eighty-Four nor Brave New World, all of which I did around the same time I finally watched all of Star Trek except for Patterns of Force, which wasn’t broadcast in Germany until 2011 and which coincidentally has a Federation historian praising fascism as “the most effective form of government ever devised” (another strike against the Federation). Hell, my own attempts at space opera regularly feature pretty awful regimes. There is absolutely nothing wrong with awful regimes and dystopian worlds in science fiction. However, dystopias that don’t know they are dystopias are a problem.

And the Federation was never intended to be a dystopia. This is very, very clear and indeed, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry is on record for stating that he wanted the Federation to be a utopia, a vision for a world that is so much better than the one he was living in. And indeed Gene Roddenberry succeeded in presenting a vision of a better future that inspired generations of viewers and he did it during the Cold War and at the height of the Vietnam war. Yet Gene Roddenberry also had his blind spots. For all his progressive ideas, he still could not imagine a utopian society without the death penalty (which many countries had already abolished or severely reduced by the late 1960s) or life sentences or indeed without prisons altogether. Just as he clearly could not imagine a utopian society where LGBT people would have the same rights as heterosexuals and this would not be considered in any way remarkable or out of the ordinary.

Subsequent Star Trek works, including Discovery, have done their best to correct Roddenberry’s not so great record on LGBT rights. However, the Federation’s justice system (and coincidentally, its education system) is still appallingly backwards even by 21st century standards. And the telling thing is that many viewers, particularly American ones, just cannot see it. To them, it is utterly normal that a young woman is given a life sentence for nerve-pinching her Captain (an act that does not cause any permanent harm – indeed Michelle Yeoh’s character wakes up again almost at once), firing at hostile Klingons and killing the Klingon supremacist demagogical leader after he has killed her Captain.

In that discussion at File 770, another German commenter and I kept pointing out that Michael Burnham’s life sentence is kind of excessive and that the Federation’s justice system is appalling in general and also why do they have labour camps at all, when they are supposed to be a utopian post-scarcity society? Or are the previously unseen (except in the first episode of Voyager) Federation labour camps the reason they have a post-scarcity society in the first place? Most American commenters, on the other hand, felt that Michael Burnham’s sentence was just (Burnham even says so herself, but then she is a deeply traumatised young woman with what clearly are self-harm tendencies), while most other non-American commenters decided to sit that one out.

Star Trek Discovery and Star Trek in general are just the latest example for the differences between US and European sensibilities. Now the US and Europe as well as Canada, Australia and New Zealand are often summed up as “the West”, united by common values. However, there is a cultural and value gap between the US and Europe (leaving aside Canada, Australia and New Zealand for now as well as the differences between the various European countries) and that gap seems to be getting bigger.

Now I consume a lot of US pop culture, because homegrown pop culture rarely caters to my tastes. If you like science fiction, if you like fantasy, if you like horror, if you like superheroes, you’re pretty much forced to look for your fix abroad, because you’ll only find slim pickings at home (since “Science Fiction is not a German topic”, as the head of the Bavaria Studios once said). So I often run up against those cultural differences. Though it took me a while to understand that tropes which regularly drive me up the wall in US pop culture were not bugs but features to the US audiences these works are primarily created for. I go a bit deeper into this issue in this post.

Now Star Trek Discovery has the misfortune of hitting a few of my personal hot buttons. First of all, it’s Star Trek and though I’ve been done with the franchise for years now (I was actually relieved when Enterprise went off the air, because the franchise was seriously played out by that point, the story told once and for all), Star Trek was some of the first science fiction I encountered (along with Time Tunnel, Raumpatrouille Orion, Space 1999 and the Captain Future anime). Star Trek was part of what made me fall in love with the genre and I will always have a soft spot for it for that reason. And I don’t want to see it turned into yet another grimdark, explosion laden TV series – after all, I’m still angry about the new Battlestar Galactica.

Secondly, like most Germans, I have issues with the portrayal of the military in all US media and particularly the fact that following orders without questions is considered a good thing. Because due to our sorry history, blindly following orders without ever questioning anything is not considered a good thing in Germany. And indeed, Kirk and Spock, the original Apollo and Starbuck, Commander Cliff Allister MacLane were always creative about interpreting orders as well as bending and breaking the rules to do the right thing. Indeed, that was part of what I loved about these characters and their stories. They always got away with it, too. Whereas poor Michael Burnham gets life in prison.

Which brings me to point 3, the excessive punishment for Michael Burnham’s crime. Now in Germany, a life sentence usually means 15 to 25 years. Even the surviving Red Army Fraction terrorists were eventually released. In order for a life sentence to truly mean imprisoned for life, the person in question has to be an unreformably Hannibal Lector type, like this guy who died after 49 years in prison. There is also this guy, currently Germany’s longest serving prisoner, who’s still locked up after 54 years, even though he’s not the irredeemable serial killer type, apparently because he is refusing to comply with prison rules. Michael Burnham, however, is no Hannibal Lector. Indeed, there is no case in Germany that’s comparable to hers. Something that vaguely comes close is the play Terror by Ferdinand von Schirach, where an air force officer is put on trial after shooting down a civilian passenger plane that had been hijacked by terrorists who were going to crash it into a stadium full of football fans. At the end of the play, the audience is asked to declare the defendant guilt or not guilty. Now I have issues with Terror, mostly because the whole scenario is manipulative. However, German and western audiences in general mostly vote to acquit the defendant, whereas Chinese and Japanese audience tend to find them guilty. Here is a write-up of an American performance of Terror BTW, where some details were changed (the football match became a baseball match and – more crucially IMO – the air force officer, who is a white man in the German performances I know of, is a Hispanic woman). The American audiences also voted to acquit her BTW.

In a related point, I not just have an issue with excessive penalties, I also have a huge issue with prisons in general. I know that we can’t do without them altogether, but that doesn’t stop me from hating prisons. I’m not sure where this intensive dislike for prisons comes from, since I’ve never had any personal contact with the prison system beyond the fact that a neighbour of my East German great-aunt was a prison guard (and I was scared of that man). However, I’ve had this intense dislike from a very young age on. I suspect it’s pop culture induced due to watching movies like Jailhouse Rock (deemed harmless, after all it’s an Elvis musical, so how bad can it be?) on afternoon TV and being horrified at seeing Elvis whipped by prison guards.

As a result, freeing unjustly incarcerated prisoners is something of a power fantasy for me. That’s also the reason why there are quite a lot of prison scenes and last minute rescues from execution in my work. I suppose the execution thing also comes from watching old westerns and cloak and dagger movies unsupervised on afternoon TV as a kid*. Any culture we consume, even if it was decades ago, influences the art we make. I use mine to work out my prison break and rescue fantasies (whereby every evil guard I’ve ever written is based on the neighbour of my great-aunt). For the past few months, I’ve been working on a SF prison break story in the In Love and War series. The going is slow, because both the required research (I was one of the few people in Germany who actually knew who Joe Arpaio was before Trump pardoned that piece of shit) and the story itself is so emotionally harrowing that I often have to stop working on it for several days. Coincidentally, whenever I think “This is too awful. I can’t possibly write this. No one will believe it”, I come across similarly awful or even worse things that happened in real prisons. Once or twice, I’ve actually had to alter details of the story, because the reality is so much worse. And not just in places like North Korea either, but also in the US or Australia.

So I’m in the odd situation that I hate prisons, but like prison break stories, even though they tend to upset me. And if Star Trek Discovery turned out to be Star Trek Prison Break, I would probably have watched. However, based on the trailers I’m pretty sure it’s not going to be that. Instead, we’ll probably get Michael Burnham doing penance for her crime. Coincidentally, all this also touches on another hot button point for me, loyalty to the system trumping personal loyalty to friends and family. Because if Michael Burnham is the foster daughter of Sarek, a high-ranking Vulcan ambassador in the Federation, and the foster sister of Spock, who is himself not exactly powerless, not to mention the sort of person who interprets the rules creatively. So why aren’t they trying to help Michael? Of course, it may turn out that Sarek and/or Spock actually try to help her, but that’s not the vibe I’m getting from the grimmer and grittier Star Trek Discovery.

I’ve seen a lot of enthusiastic reactions to the first episode of Star Trek Discovery online of fans who were happy to see two women of colour playing lead roles in a new Star Trek series and who were thrilled to see a mentor and protegee relationship between two women, whereas the usual suspects on the right of course hated it. I’ve seen reactions from South East Asian fans who were thrilled to see Malaysian actress captaining a Federation starship and the script and set design acknowledging her cultural heritage. I feel sorry for those fans, because the show has pulled a cruel bait and switch on them. Instead of women and colour being awesome, we get one woman of colour dead and another woman of colour in prison, apparently headed for abuse and mistreatment.

Coincidentally, when my Mom saw a trailer for Star Trek Discovery on TV (Netflix is currently sitting on the German rights and try to use Trekkies to up their subscriber base) and when I told her what the show was about, her reaction was, “I like her [about Michelle Yeoh]. I like him [about Jason Isaacs]. That’s a nice looking young woman [about Sonequa Martin-Green]. Those Klingons look awful. Wait a minute, so Michelle Yeoh gets killed, the nice young woman gets thrown into prison and the Klingons are evil now [my Mom is a big fan of the Next Generation and later era Klingons]. Well, I won’t be watching that.”

If my suspicions turn out to be correct (and there still is a chance they won’t – after all, Star Trek is known for ropey pilots and first seasons), I won’t be watching either.

*My parents often visited friends who were the sort of people who had the TV running all the time. They usually didn’t pay attention to whatever was on, but I, who was bored, did. And so I saw a lot of things that were not exactly age appropriate.

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