Two unique things happened on the most recent episode of Star Trek: Discovery – a domestic scene between two gay characters, and the use of the f-bomb. Guess which one got more attention?
Judging from the reaction on Twitter last Sunday, when Cadet Tilly (Mary Wiseman) dared to say of the mycelium network, “You guys, this is so f***ing cool!” the delicate ears of Trekkies were caught aghast at the utterance. They must have surely fainted the when Lt. Stamets (Anthony Rapp) agreed saying, “No Cadet, it is f***ing cool.”
It was, at the least, unexpected. In its 51 year history, Trek has avoided the use of, let’s call them, “colourful metaphors”. For the most part, salty language was restricted to Dr. McCoy declaring, “Dammit Jim, I’m a doctor not a [situationally specific occupational metaphor]!” And yeah, Data once said “Oh, s**t!”, but the Enterprise-D saucer section was crashing, so it’s understandable and we’ll allow it. Klingon swearing? The Next Generation had that once, and Picard was complimented for it. If there was a Klingon 2 Live Crew, Picard would have surely been an emcee.
For the most part though, language in Star Trek – be it at the movies or on TV – has been antiseptic. In Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, when a San Fransisco cabbie tells Admiral Kirk and the gang, “Watch where you’re going you dumb ass!”, he’s aghast. The words sounded bad, but it’s like he hadn’t heard them before hence the retort, “Double dumb ass on you!” And then later, when the punk rocker flips Kirk and Spock off, the gesture seems lost on them. It’s as if they say to themselves, “What does that mean? Is he pointing his finger up because he likes the music louder?”
Trek’s approach to swearing has always seemed that quaint; swearing, it seemed, was as foreign to Starfleet as racism and poverty, it was a relic of the distant past. Data’s S-bomb in Star Trek: Generations, meanwhile, was impish, like a kid taking this forbidden word for a test drive for the first time. If Star Trek’s never been serious about swearing, then broadcast Standards and Practices do take some of the blame, but with Discovery being on the streaming All-Access site, might Trek’s foul mouth be set lose?
“Every writer’s impulse when you get to work on the streaming shows with no parameters is to go crazy,” Discovery executive Producer Aaron Harberts told Entertainment Weekly,
“But then you look at things like: How does nudity play on Trek? Eh, it feels weird. How does a lot of [profanity] play onTrek? Not so great. Are there moments where it merits it that we’re trying to push here and there? I would say we’re trying to push more by having the type of complicated messed-up characters who aren’t necessarily embraced on broadcast.”
Haberts may be right about the shock factor. An article on UK Yahoo did an inventory of negative fan reaction, which ranged from “Hearing the f-word on an episode of #StarTrek just feels wrong on so many levels,” to “Very disappointed and shocked to hear ‘f-word’ in #StarTrekDiscovery. This is not Star Trek. The franchise has just ended in my mind.”
Reactions like these remind one of Harry Knowles’ review of the Battlestar Galactica reboot miniseries, in which the now disgraced Ain’t It Cool News founder was aghast that there was sex in the new series. He called Tricia Helfer’s Six a “Blonde f**k-bot” and Grace Park’s Boomer as “Bang Bang Boomer”, which illustrates both his hang-up with BSG’s bold departure from the original and Knowles now publicly problematic view of women.
There were probably a lot of people though that felt the same about the brazenness of BSG’s sexuality, particularly fans of the original series. Of course, the 2000s Galactica is barely recognizable as compared to its 1970s counterpart, which featured a cute kid sidekick, a robot space monkey, and a universe filled with other people despite the fact that the series started with “humanity being wiped out.” In other words, Battlestar changed with the times.
It’s worth noting that one of the things that prompted the creation of Enterprise after Star Trek: Voyager was the influence of modern TV. “Actually, Rick Berman and I were heavily influenced by The West Wing and The Sopranos,” said Enterprise co-creator Brannon Braga in 2001,
“We watch television, too. Week after week we would watch shows like ‘The Sopranos’ and we’d say, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could just write people without having to worry about that somewhat stylized, neutral way of talking?’ […] This concept allows us to really start writing more naturalistic characters.”
If you watched the first two-and-a-half seasons of Enterprise, then you know how that turned out. The formula found a way to survive, and that’s why it took a significant shake-up in the style and delivery like J.J. Abrams’ 2009 movie to bring Star Trek back to the forefront of pop culture. (In which it’s also worth noting that Captain Kirk famously says “Bulls**t” in that movie when he meets and elderly Vulcan that just so happens to be the older self of his antagonist, Spock.)
Going back to Braga’s desire for naturalism, that’s exactly what that moment in Discovery gives us. Tilly, being given insight into the awesome science and engineering that the ship’s spore drive runs on, says appropriately, “This is so f***ing cool!” Isn’t it great to see people excited about science? Especially on a Star Trek show which over five decades has driven so many young people into STEM fields and space exploration, and especially in this day and age when many of our political and economic leaders want us to think that science is some kind of dodge or hustle.
Science is awesome. New scientific discoveries are awesome. And if Star Trek can’t sell us on those ideas, then we might as well mothball this whole modern technology thing. My freakin’ ears can take an f-bomb or two if Trek starts selling us on the value of scientific pursuits again.
All that’s to say nothing of the real Trek first that matters as seen in the recent episode of Discovery – Star Trek’s first gay couple in the form of Stamets and his partner, Culber (WIlson Cruz), one of the ship’s medics. Weren’t they cute brushing their teeth in matching jammies?
It’s almost offensive to say this in 2017, but this was huge. Trek has been tragically gun-shy about portraying LGBT people and relationships; a planned episode about the AIDS crisis was labelled too hot for late-80s TV during Next Gen’s run, and the only serious attempt to do something queer positive was the DS9 episode “Rejoined.” That entry famously had one of TV’s first lesbian kisses, but one suspects that the story was only palpable to studio suits because the two female characters, members of a long-live species who pass from host to host over centuries, were a hetero-couple in a past life.
And yes, Sulu was portrayed as a gay man with a husband and a daughter in Star Trek Beyond, but one expects that Stamets and Culber’s relationship will be developed a little further than some hand holding. In other words, Star Trek can once again comfortably take its place as a social leader, and that too is f**king cool.