Science Fiction and Racial Identity
The kiss scene in the ‘Plato’s Stepchildren’, the third season episode of Star Trek: The Original Series first broadcast in 1968, is one of the most talked about in television history. Widely cited, albeit incorrectly, as the first interracial kiss on American television, when William Shatner deliberately ruined every other take of the scene to ensure that the footage of the kiss had to be used, he and co-star Nichelle Nichols created a small-screen legend. Of course, the original Trek was well known for the diversity of its cast. Even the choice to include a Russian character at the height of the Cold War was considered daring.
Perhaps because of the precedent set by Gene Roddenberry’s casting, science fiction has historically been one of the more inclusive genres for casting people of colour. Arguably the best relationship Joss Whedon’s cult classic series Firefly is the marriage of Zoe and Wash. Intimate and complex, without being on display in the same way as the budding romance of Simon and Kaylee or the tension beween Mal and Inara, their deep and abiding love is an emotional cornerstone of the show and its crew. It is their connection, as much as that between the Tam siblings, which forges the underlying theme of family that is so vital to the show. Moreover, Zoe is a fantastic warrior and Gina Torres, the actress who plays her, is one of the most statuesque and compelling genre actresses on television.
Of course, it’s not all plain sailing.
In many ways, JJ Abrams was lucky that his treatment of Alice Eve’s character Carol Marcus was the focus of controversy during the publicity for Star Trek: Into Darkess. It certainly helped to deflect mainstream media attention from his other choices.
Much of the criticism that has been levelled at Abrams, throughout his involvement in the rebooted film series, is that he simply isn’t a Star Trek fan. If he had been, perhaps he would have realised that his choice to whitewash the series’ greatest villain flew in the face of the show’s history and, more fundamentally, its ethos. In recasting the iconic villain Khan Noonien Singh, originally played with scene-chewing aplomb by Ricardo Montalbán, as a very British old Harrovian, Abrams certainly wasn’t doing himself any favours. Benedict Cumberbatch may be a great actor, and he certainly has strong geek credentials, but he really is more ‘John Harrison’ than Khan. He’s at his best in the film during extended elevated-prose monologues, or becoming increasingly dishevelled as he becomes more unhinged, echoing more than a few shades of Alan Rickman.
Despite the cast’s best efforts, it’s easy to understand why so many fans were angered by the choice. If Abrams wanted to shake things up a little, there’s no doubt he could have done things differently. For a long time, Benicio Del Toro was linked to the role, an actor with the charisma and profile that the director was clearly looking for. To cause the right kind of stir, Abrams could have picked a South Asian actor to play his villain. Someone like Irrfan Khan whose roles in Slumdog Millionaire and Life of Pi have given him both profile and critical attention. If he was so dead set on having a younger actor, he could have done worse than Dev Patel, who has genre-form from his part in the live action adaption of The Last Airbender. He could even have cast an unknown, which might have made some spoilers easier to protect.
Equally concerning is the fact that Abrams is by no means the only director under fandom scrutiny. Recent upsets with the casting choices of Benioff and Weiss have left some Game of Thrones fans uneasy. That said, there’s currently a lot of positive focus on the casting of Idris Elba and Rinko Kikuchi in last month’s monsters-vs-giant robots flick Pacific Rim.
Science fiction has, over the years, created great roles, and role models, for people of colour. When Whoopi Goldberg first saw Uhura appear on Star Trek, she shouted to her mother: “There’s a black lady on TV and she ain’t no maid!”. Years later, Goldberg went on to play a role herself in Star Trek: The Next Generation, largely because she was such a fan of the original show. However fantastic John Cho’s monologue in Into Darkness may be, it doesn’t make up for the fact that he barely gets another line in the script, or that Chekov’s character is reduced to scampering about the ship with his ‘amusing’ accent. If Star Trek hadn’t existed before 2009, perhaps JJ Abrams’ choice of villain wouldn’t have been quite so disappointing for the fans, but it did and as a result it was. Under the circumstances, it’s no wonder people are apprehensive to see what he does with Star Wars.