The Trump administration prompted a space for dissent, critique and counter positioning within the media. Inevitably its extreme agenda had an impact on television. Trump’s rhetoric was so problematic that there would inevitably be responses to his views and policies within a range of television programming. The divisive language represented the then President’s emphasis upon borders, exclusion and enemies, both outside and within the USA. There were comedic responses to this rhetoric, such as Larry David wearing a hat with the slogan Make America Great Again (MAGA) to avoid talking to people in Curb your Enthusiasm. Also there has been the possibility of responding to this agenda via critique and protest, such as taking the knee at sporting events and projects such as the Black Lives Matter Video Essay Playlist, engaging with the media in challenging ways to recognise and collate expression and dissent. Star Trek: Discovery can also be viewed within the context of Trump’s agenda because of the criticisms of ‘wokeness’ and diversity that it received, its challenge to the canon, and members of the cast using the show as a platform to speak out against the Trump Administration and speak out against the Presidential agenda.
The show’s storylines challenged the bias of Trump’s presidency, particularly in the range of characters within its ensemble narratives. But more than this, some of the actors themselves clarified their political position in response to the president. They spoke to the press about issues such as LGBTQIA+, Black Lives Matter and feminism, often referring to past stars of Star Trek, such as Nichelle Nichols, as inspiration in challenging the status quo and recognising the Star Trek franchise’s underpinning ethos itself as an impetus to act. The show was viewed as going off-canon and challenging tradition. Star Trek: Discovery was also viewed by some as working against the franchise in tone and style. As a series it was often beleaguered by comparisons with what were viewed as more traditionally focused series within the canon. It has a divided fan base torn between those who dismissed it, often berating its political correctness, and those who celebrated its diverse casting and fresh approach. The fact that Spock, played by Ethan Peck, now had a sister was certainly a departure. There were also some internal production issues which needed to be addressed, so the showrunner changes became a focus as well. However, its challenge was also celebrated in casting choices which included a trans actor playing a trans character, female black and Asian lead characters, and gay characters, establishing the franchise as embracing recognition and visibility within a science fiction show that chimed with contemporary social issues. This is certainly not the first example where science fiction has resonated in this way, but certainly it has proved more contentious given the current political and cultural climate.
Although many fans welcomed the new show, others disliked the shifts and changes in relation to former Star Trek series. Some responses to the show were extremely negative in their dislike of the chosen cast and the idea of a black, female lead seems to have been problematic. Concerns regarding representation also emerged from the #MeToo and the #Time’s Up movements identifying issues of representation within film and television. The female lead actors, Sonequa Martin-Green, playing Michael Burnham, and Michelle Yeoh, playing Phillipa Georgiou, portrayed strong characters and the tone shifted towards complex storylines within each season. Picard was also released during the Trump Administration, with its own diverse casting making an impact and illustrating the way that both series were extending the work of other series such as Star Trek: The Next Generation and Voyager. Picard was not viewed as controversial in the same way as Discovery, as it was primarily aiming to expand the canon rather than rework it, but it adopted some challenging themes which were an extension of Star Trek’s oeuvre.
The concept that actors should speak out and have a political voice also became an issue. Polarised politics can create a vacuum where voices are not heard or reverberate within an echo chamber. However, the series spilled out onto a stage of American society impacted by Trump’s agenda in a way that science fiction potentially can do: representing an alternative world interpreted in terms of a contemporary political and cultural agenda. Sonequa Martin-Green refers to actorvism, as a way of capturing and advocating for positive representation. Within this process the actors speak out both as their characters and themselves. Jason Isaacs, playing Gabriel Lorca, claimed that he would take the knee on the bridge if he could. Within the current climate, and Trump’s agenda for a second term, the importance of standing up for oneself and others by using your voice and celebrity status still seems important. To challenge and defend people’s rights, to be an advocate, and to provoke and respond by taking a stand is something that we can increasingly recognise as a significant, if contested, choice today.
Teresa Forde is Senior Lecturer in Media at the University of Derby. She publishes on film, television, art and curation. She is co-editor of The Legacy of Mad Men: Cultural History, Intermediality and American Television. She has written on True Blood and The L Word as Television Finales and also published on Doctor Who on Fringe. Teresa’s recent publications include chapters on Race in UK Television Drama and Star Trek Discovery. She is currently working on a book about women in contemporary science fiction.
Farnoush Amiri.” ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ Cast, Crew Reveal Why Trump Should Watch Diverse Take on Franchise.” The Hollywood Reporter. October 9, 2017. https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/live-feed/star-trek-discovery-cast-crew-reveal-why-trump-should-watch-diverse-take-franchise-paleyfest-ny-2017-1046847
Teresa Forde. ‘Star Trek: Discovery and Controversy: ‘The War Without, The War Within’ in K. McNally, Ed. American Television During an American Presidency, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2022
Joe George, ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ Is Even More Relevant Post-Trump’ Observer, 2021. https://observer.com/2021/01/star-trek-discovery-cbs-all-access/
Jamie Lovett. “’Star Trek: Discovery’ Star Invokes Gene Roddenberry In Support Of #TakeTheKnee.” comicbook.com September 24, 2017. https://comicbook.com/startrek/2017/09/24/jason-isaacs-take-the-knee-rodenberry-star-trek-discovery/
Seren Morris. ‘How to Watch the Larry David ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ Episode Where he Pretends to Support Trump to Repel People’ Newsweek 2/11/2020. https://www.newsweek.com/watch-curb-your-enthusiasm-larry-david-donald-trump-maga-hat-1486640
Trekmovie, SFX. ‘’Star Trek: Discovery’ Cast And Crew On Filling A Leadership Vacuum.” trekmovie.com January 8, 2019. https://trekmovie.com/2019/01/07/star-trek-discovery-cast-and-crew-on-filling-a-leadership-vacuum-classic-storytelling-and-the-hulk/
Margaret A. Weitekamp,. “More Than ‘Just Uhura’: Understanding Star Trek’s Lt. Uhura, Civil Rights, and Space History.” in Star Trek and History (Wiley Pop Culture and History Series), edited by Reagin, Nancy., 22–38. New York: Wiley, 2013
Black Lives Matter Video Essay Playlist. The Video Essay Podcast. https://thevideoessay.com/blacklivesmatter
Curb Your Enthusiasm, Season 10, Episode 1: ‘Happy New Year’ HBO
Star Trek: Discovery (CBS: All Access, 2017 – ) Season 1 Trailer, Netflix. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oWnYtyNKPsA