It’s no secret now that the cast of Star Trek: Discovery has posted on Instagram a group photograph of themselves taking a knee in support of the protest against police brutality against blacks. The #TakeAKnee movement was originally begun last season by NFL San Francisco 49ers player Colin Kaepernick. His peaceful protest, taking a knee during the national anthem became his silent way of denouncing racial injustice in America.
As the movement grew and was adopted by other athletes, so did the backlash. Kaepernick was met with opposition from people offended by his expression of freedom of speech. Because Kaepernick’s gesture was done in response to the United States National Anthem, many conflated it to a protest against the United States itself.
It is in this dynamic, fluid and controversial social setting that the cast of Discovery joined star Sonequa Martin-Green in taking a knee for the photograph.
A Fandom Divided
Star Trek: Discovery has its share of devotees, who are delighted that there is new Star Trek on television once again after a 12 year dry spell. Seeing its return to the small screen has lifted the spirits of millions of fans. The plot line and episodes appear to be telling an undiluted grand sweeping epic of a kind not seen in Star Trek television before (though Star Trek: Enterprise did some of this, and Star Trek: Deep Space 9 came closest, both were also littered with stand-alone filler episodes). Production values are high at 8-8.5 million dollars per episode. The characters are different, edgier than what we usually see in Star Trek, and the plot line seems to be moving in unexpected directions.
A very vocal subset of Trek fans, however, have been unhappy with both the direction the new show has taken. Some decry the apparent adoption of the JJ-verse as the new standard for Star Trek visual design. Others are unhappy that CBS has chosen to lock the show away behind the paywall to a streaming service that, statistically speaking, nobody uses. Still others are displeased that, in their view, the very audience that gave Star Trek its primary succor all these decades are the ones left standing on the dock as the Discovery sails off to visit every other country in the world but the one in which it originated. Then there was the CBS war on fan films. The maelstrom centered on Axanar, a fan film which, despite its other issues and inherent controversies, happened to have chosen as its main topic the exact story setting planned for Star Trek: Discovery. Even though CBS eventually settled with Alec Peters and the Axanar production, the events helped to polarize the part of Trek fandom following the incident into two warring camps. Star Trek: Discovery was, therefore, already in the middle of squabbling factions of fandom just by what had already transpired.
Media Girds for Battle
The war between the Klingons and the Federation may pale in comparison to the battle now being fought in social media and in right-biased and left-biased media. The right-biased media seems to focus exclusively on the negative comments from social media, who in turn seem mostly focused on why Discovery is taking political sides when it should be remembering its place as being purely for entertainment:
“Ridiculous, lost a follower! It’s disrespectful to those that died for our flag no matter how you look at it #shameful,” one Instagram user wrote in response to the photo.
“I’ll not be watching this show and deleting therealsonequa,” one user wrote while another said, “Couldn’t we have just had one night of celebratory joy exclusive of politics? You do you, though.”
“Life long Star Trek fan no more,” a user wrote while another said, “This is quite a disappointment to see.”
Surprisingly, Sonequa’s Twitter feed seems to be remarkably devoid of comments on the subject at all, though the Instagram feed also contains positive entries such as the following:
“24K is like for this pic of Discovery crew. 700 comments. Some good some bad. 24k vs. 300 is a ratio of 80 people who love it vs 1 person that is upset with their protest. I don’t think they have anything to worry about. Live long and Prosper.”
“I salute the Crew of the Discovery for their solidarity with the NFL players in response to social injustice. To those people complaining: You never understood Star Trek to begin with. Go wrap yourselves in your faux-patriotism and your blind devotion to your demagogue.”
“Look at all these complete idiots who say they are lifelong Trek fans but don’t understand the first thing about its themes. Inclusiveness, justice, and equality as well as free expression have ALWAYS been central to Trek. Thank you for keeping up the progressive tradition.”
The numbers represented by the top of the second block of comments appeared to be accurate at the time of this writing. The negative posts appear to be noisy, but in this case at least seem to be in a clear minority.
The Long War Ahead
Star Trek: Discovery deals with the previously unexplored subject of the Federation / Klingon War — a war which, by the time of James T. Kirk and his famous command, had been won by the Federation. The conflict, from reports, is meant to echo real world events to a smaller or larger degree. Political commentary has always been a tentpole of the Star Trek franchise, from the very beginning days when the original series was on NBC in the 1960’s. As much as Star Trek is (and has always been) a mirror of our modern times, the transit through the looking glass goes both ways.
As Trek portrays conflict in its universe of fiction, it is also stirring new controversy in the one we live in. Frankly, the Klingons and the Federation have nothing on our own battles against ourselves, with the difference being that our own world is far more complex.
The United States appears to have been (and probably still is) the target of a continuous attack by Russian troll farms on the United States national dialog via its social media. Potential years of trolling has mixed politically driven fantasy with reality so much and for so long that at this point it is impossible to determine exactly how much of Fandom’s collective mind set has been influence by it.
It’s impossible to prove connections, but we have to wonder how much of this interference in our culture has driven surprising events like the rise and apparent fall of the Sad / Rabid Puppies over the past couple of years? How much influence does angry polarized speech, either left-leaning or right-leaning, actually have on the popularity of Star Trek: Discovery? Given that the actual viewing numbers for the show will probably be estimates provided by CBS itself, how will we know how well it’s actually doing, and why? Have the marketing needs of CBS been satisfied by a single season of the show (signs point to “yes”)?
It’s not knowing the answers to any of these questions, nor being able to find purely objective, unimpeachable sources for information on the correlation between political polarization and fandom activity, that will keep some non-zero segment of Fandom in divisive conflict for years to come.
This is the world into which Star Trek: Discovery is born. It’s far from a perfect one. Perhaps Discovery will find its essential voice and calm the waters. Perhaps not. In the end, the greatest war will be among ourselves. All we can do is wait, and hope, and try to be better.