Origins Star Trek Television

All My Role Models Have Pointy Ears

It was probably not a coincidence that my adolescent Trekkiehood (and no, I’m not uptight over the whole -ie vs. -er thing) coincided with the beginnings of the interrogation and articulation of the politics of multiracial identity that has preoccupied my academic and extracurricular life since then (and I’m 39 now).

I’d already spent a good number of my childhood Saturday afternoons watching Classic Trek reruns on Channel 13 when Star Trek: The Next Generation started airing at the same time that I started junior high. I don’t think I was quite sure why, exactly, I was so into it, but I was. My friends and I would spend science class talking about the previous night’s episode or passing around the latest NextGen comic book. I filled my bookshelf with TOS and TNG novels from Pocket Books, plus all the oversized manuals and behind-the-scenes-looks and field guides filled with art and graphic design. I hung a framed poster from Star Trek IV: The Voyage HomeStar-Trek-IV-The-Voyage-Home-poster-star-trek-movies-8475632-500-762 (a.k.a. The One With The Whales) over my bed and taped a pair of those shades they give you after the eye doctor dilates your eyes to slide into your glasses over Spock’s eyes.

I wore an original series command uniform made by my mom of soft gold velour to school on Halloween at least once if not twice (and somehow avoided getting beaten up). I received TNG action figures as gifts and pinned them to my cork board, keeping them mint-in-box. I went with friends from school to the monthly LA comic-con, first at the Ambassador, then at the Shrine, to browse the dealers’ room and see special guests (the “Save Max Headroom” flyer I got signed by Matt Frewer, Jeffrey Tambor, and George Coe hung on my bedroom wall for a long time after that show’s demise). We graduated to Creation cons devoted to our beloved Trek, and took the bus to the Westin Bonaventure downtown or got my dad to drop us off at the LAX Hilton, where I won a mug in a Pocket Books trivia contest and we saw a surprise preview screening of “The Best of Both Worlds, Part I” introduced by The Great Bird of the Galaxy himself in what was to be one of his last con appearances. I was a teenaged Trekkie, and I was not ashamed.

The summer after seventh grade, I attended an academic program we affectionately called “nerd camp.” After an elementary school career spent reflexively celebrating my mixed heritage—writing a report on Japan here and a report on Austria there, and participating equally in classroom demonstrations of origami and latke making—I wrote my first, surprisingly down-tempo and tragic-and-torn-trope-echoing poem specifically addressing being biracial in my creative writing class there (and I really don’t know where I got that stuff from—though hey, it still rhymed!). Outside the classroom, I befriended another mixed kid with whom I shared an affinity for science fiction in general and Star Trek in particular. He had founded a Star Trek fan club (which was basically his family) called the Vulcan Academy of Sciences, and I signed up for membership, complete with hand-cut-out membership card noting the member’s nom-de-Trek (I chose Sulu, natch; he was already Spock) and a newsletter of dot-matrix-printed, ASCII-art-festooned pages stapled together and mailed, comprised of articles written by all the members (read: the founder and his parents). Being in LA and this being a decade pre-World Wide Web, I became the TNG and TOS movie casting and gossip columnist, copying tidbits from the LA Times Calendar section and sending to VAS headquarters in San Francisco by post.

By the time I was in high school, I had started to make explicit connections between the science fiction worlds and characters I loved and the real-world issues of race, justice, and identity that I had only just begun to articulate as important and foundational for me. I learned more about the internment of my Japanese American family and community during World War II, talking to relatives for school assignments and reading all I could just for my own knowledge, including the autobiography of my almost-neighbor George Takei, who I saw jogging through the neighborhood regularly and who always waved back when I waved. I connected with Roddenberry’s vaunted utopian and multicultural vision of the future as I learned more and more about the history of racism and injustice and especially, as I explored what it meant to be mixed-race in America, I connected with the only pop culture figure I could find: half Vulcan, half human Spock. I bought a Vulcan IDIC (Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations—how could a geeky mixed teenager not fall in love with this?) pin at a con and took to using it as a tie tack on the rare occasions I had to dress up, including my high school graduation photos and graduation itself. The same year I founded a tiny club at my high school, LA High, for mixed kids to talk multiraciality (called LA HYbrid, ba dum bum cha!), I wrote a monologue called “All My Role Models Have Pointy Ears,” about growing up mixed and watching Spock on Star Trek and looking for mirrors in the media and the world, for a big assembly our campus multicultural awareness club was doing on at our majority-minority public high school smack dab in the middle of Los Angeles in the wake of the LA Riots. I don’t know what I was thinking, a biracial Asian/white nerd doing a monologue, for frak’s sake, about race and Star Trek, in front of the whole school, wearing (it gets worse) a black fedora and a Japanese happi coat. It went as well as you’d imagine—I got booed off the stage (the middle of the gym floor, actually) in the middle of the piece. I didn’t finish. Yeah.

51JfussV1FL._SY346_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_But then I went to college three thousand miles from home, at the dawn of the multiracial movement of the ‘90s. I jumped head-first into the world of race and social justice, in and out of the classroom, both majoring in Ethnic Studies (after working for the establishment of the major in the first place) and co-chairing our campus mixed-race students’ group. And all my classes and workshops on pop culture, representation, race, and media messages gave me the tools to critique and question my beloved Star Trek. The legendary progressive multiculturalism of Roddenberry’s vision of the future — a diverse bridge crew, officers of color, no more racism, television’s first interracial kiss — could not be divorced from the context of the time and culture in which that futuristic vision was actually being created — white men still in charge, racial allegory displaced problematically onto alien species, that first kiss being written as coerced. Yes, the Trek universe was progressive and ground-breaking, but…

That “but” and all the critiques that came after it came purely from a place of love. Like all acafans (though as a undergraduate who didn’t pursue graduate studies in the field, I don’t really count), I pointed out the problems and shortcomings of my favorite fictional universe because I loved it, because I cared about it, because it mattered to me, not the opposite. And the part that mattered most was the part that had given an uncertain young teenager, mere years before, his first pop culture mirror to point to and say, see, we exist. Namely, the mixed-species characters that started with Spock.

Hspacehapasuman/Vulcan Spock, human/Betazoid Deanna Troi, human/Klingon B’Elanna Torres, even transracially adopted Klingon Worf and the array of multiracial characters and interracial relationships centered around him, and a number of smaller guest or recurring characters all served to allow story telling about race, identity, and belonging vis-a-vis mixed-race people in ways that were not and still are not seen anywhere else on television. And to see those stories as a young multiracial person grappling with those real-world issues was breathtaking. I still remember going to a conference of mixed-race college groups and watching TNG with a bunch of other attendees, and all of us reeling in awe at what we saw on the screen, as it turned out that that night’s episode was “Birthright, Part II.” So much of what was right and wrong with how Trek deals with race and identity was encapsulated in that episode, as we saw raised-by-humans Worf teach culturally sheltered Klingon youth about how to be real Klingons and then deal with his own prejudice upon discovering that his new love interest was half-Romulan. “Oh my god,” we yelled at the TV, “there are RomuKlingons on the plantation!”

Nowhere else were these stories being told, and that made me raise three questions. One, why was it easier to tell televisual stories about half-aliens dealing with this stuff than real-world mixed folks, and two, what unintended effects did displacing these stories onto allegorical alien species have? And three, in the end, was the handling of these characters and stories really as progressive as it seemed? I poured over episode after episode, behind-the-scenes accounts, academic analyses… Spock was hardly different from the tragic-and-torn figures of passing narratives forced to choose; Troi’s mixed heritage manifested in “watered down” heritable traits; Worf’s multi-series arc complicated and confused notions of race, identity, culture, and nation; and B’Elanna, poor B’Elanna they literally split in two in order to underline a lesson in self-esteem and self-acceptance.

Belanna_human-klingon,_faces

By using the science fictional trope of tackling real-world problems allegorically by displacing them onto, in this case, alien species, Trek’s mixed-species characters had the unintended consequence of reinforcing the (false) biological nature of race and confusing the connections between race, biology, and culture, even as the sociological truism that race is a social construction (with real-world meaning and consequences, yes, but a construction just the same) was slowly moving from the academy to the rest of the world.

And so, for my senior honors thesis in Ethnic Studies, I wrote it all down. I propped a B’Elanna action figure on my computer monitor as my good luck talisman, and churned out the longest paper I’d ever written, called “Where No Half-Breed Has Gone Before?,” I pondered what might become of Worf and Jadzia’s future children, before they killed her off, and this, of course, was years before The Powers That Be retconned Trek’s interspecies mating history by using T’Pol and Trip’s lab-spawned baby as a plot point in a heavy-handed story about racism and xenophobia.

Nowadays, when I think about mixed-race, identity, and the future, I’m thinking more about my multiethnic daughters and the lessons I want to teach them, and the world I want them to both inherit and create. But the vision of the future Star Trek gave a younger version of me, and the mirror it gave me when I needed it, will always be a part of the vision of hope and change and justice I want to bequeath to my girls, and not despite of my questions and critiques, but because of them.

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