"To boldly go where no previous Star Trek installment has gone before!"
Is Star Trek actually getting closer to finally going where it's never gone in its forty-five years — adding an actual gay character? AfterElton.com spoke with J.J. Abrams (Alias, Lost, Fringe, Star Trek, Super 8) at the Television Critics Association Press Tour about just that very issue.
We've written numerous articles about Star Trek's lack of GLBT visibility and doing so seems warranted given that the Star Trek franchise isn't just hugely popular and influential, but prides itself on being about tolerance and inclusvity.
And yet despite Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry's original vision of a highly progressive world, and despite dozens of movies and series based on the original over the past five decades, Star Trek has never included an actual GLBT character. (Yes, the show has done gay metaphors and genderless aliens and aliens inhabiting human bodies; but as for actual flesh-and-blood gay characters, the show hasn't had a single one.)
Last January I spoke with Brannon Braga, one of Star Trek's most prominent writers and producers, who told me that Trek's lack of GLBT visibility was "...not a forward thinking decision."
Braga's regret notwithstanding, since he's no longer involved with either a proposed new series or the next Star Trek film, he's not in a position to rectify what is inarguably the worst stain on Star Trek's reputation.
The same can't be said of J.J. Abrams, the man who not only rebooted the Star Trek franchise, once again turning it into a worldwide sensation, but is arguably one of the most powerful men in Hollywood thanks to shows like Alias, Lost, and Fringe.
In addition to having previously spoken with Braga about Star Trek's lack of diversity, we'd also spoken with the last movie's writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, both whom said they were open to the idea, but had no plans to include a gay character as of yet. So when we had a chance to talk with Abrams, we grabbed it.
AfterElton: I know the new movie is still a little ways off, but have you given any more thought to when might we finally see a gay character on Trek?
JJ Abrams: It’s interesting because we’ve actually given so much thought to some of the more broad strokes, little like story structure issues that are for me the defining issues to how the movie gets made and whether or not I’m directing it and all that kind of stuff.
There are many people who say there have been gay characters in the show all throughout. [laughs] I would say that it is, you know, something that I would love to do, but just the way I would be careful doing a story that would involve any of the characters and their personal lives. The balance is always, what how does that story relate to sort of the bad guy, which by the way is always going to be that critical thing, what are they up against? The question how do you get into literally these are personal sexual lives of these characters? Like what is that going to be about. I don’t know who’s assuming characters aren’t gay or are gay. You know what I’m saying?
AE: Well, in forty-five years of Star Trek, there has never been an identifiably outwardly gay…
JA: Yeah, like you know he was gay.
AE: Yes. I mean it would be like saying there has never been a black character on Star Trek.
JA: Well, yes and no. When there is a black character or an Asian character that’s something that’s an identifiable thing that you don’t have to stop the story and say “let’s now make a point of that person being Asian.” It’s something that is as much as a visual thing and then what they bring to it. Like for example, in the first movie we had like a katana blade that Sulu had which we allowed ourselves to relate to his heritage. That was an easy thing to do.
We didn’t make a point of Uhura, had she not been cast originally with Nichelle Nichols, we could have cast someone who was white, Latina, whatever it was. It wouldn’t have necessarily changed the story. When you say a gay character what you’re proposing is delving into a specific aspect of that character’s life, which I think would be great to do. You know, why not? There is no reason not to but it’s not the same thing as saying there’s a character who is black, there’s a character who’s Latina. You know what I’m saying?
AE: Obviously you can’t make an exact correlation [because of the visual aspect]. But the series has had all sorts of heterosexual romantic relationships and entanglements…
AE: And that’s a part of [the stories you tell]. I’m a huge Trek fan. It was a huge part of my childhood and yet growing up it never reflected…
JA: You know what’s funny? As someone who was never a huge Star Trek fan and I didn’t watch the shows. And my experiences with the movie was the first series and then watching and re-watching some of the movies that I’ve seen. I’m frankly shocked that in the history of Star Trek there have never been gay characters in all the series. In Deep Space Nine and all the Enterprises that that’s never come up.
AE: There were metaphors and other....
JA: Yeah, but I do feel like there's ... if that was something I was aware of, it would surprise me, and if it mattered to me in that way, I would feel unrepresented in something that’s supposed to be representing the world and the community. That was very much what Roddenberry was doing. So I do believe that it’s something that, you know, should happen and I would love to be able to be a part of that.
I just wouldn’t want the agenda to be ... whether it’s a heterosexual relationship or a homosexual relationship, to tell a story that was, that felt distracting from part of the purpose of the story is. So I’m in complete open-minded, you know, I’m interested in finding a way to do that but it’s almost like, it’s a tricky thing, because it’s the right thing to do and sometimes so is a story about something that also has some kind of meaning but do it and if it in a way that doesn’t feel like you’re doing it in order to make that point because then it’s almost a disservice. Because then it feels like “oh that stupid distracting subplot about you know, you know, that minority. Or those people... " The thing that really matters to you as a writer. So the question is how do you do it where it doesn’t feel like why am I getting into that kind of detail about the character’s life if not just to make a point of it? So the answer is, I think it should be done and I’ve love to be able to do it. And the question is once we get through the bigger issues of certain structural things that are really the key to the show or the movie being done well.
Once we get into that aspect of the character's lives, how do we do that well.
AE: Star Trek has had so many amazing writers. And you are obviously an incredible success and amazingly talented. It’s just such a shame that Star Trek, the beacon of social advancement and inclusiveness has such a blot--
JA: I totally agree.
AE: And I hope J.J. Abrams is the guy who fixes that. That would be…
JA: Well, thank you for bringing this up for me, because honestly this was not in the list of my priorities to try to figure out how to make this movie in the best possible way. But it will now be in the hopper. And it’s one of those things I’ll bring up with the writers next time we meet.
AE: Well, there are legions of gay Star Trek fans. Like I said it was hugely influential in my childhood.
JA: I really appreciate you bringing this up because it seems insane to me that it has not been overtly discussed. Here’s the other thing, by the way, in a TV show it’s the greatest opportunity in the world for that. Because a TV show allows for, again whether it’s heterosexual or homosexual relationships, into the intricacies of those kind of lives and you go, “Oh I didn’t know there are those people.”
Where in a movie when you got those two hours, it usually is a broader stroke thing, and the question is how do you do it in a film that doesn’t feel like you’re shoehorning in something that has meaning to you in a piece of entertainment that doesn’t otherwise have room for it. So that’s the trick. So honestly I’m stunned that it’s not been something that’s been overtly, you know, dramatized. What an ideal opportunity on one of those shows to have that be an ongoing storyline.
AE: Well, like I said Brannon Braga seemed sincere when he said, looking back after all these years, that’s the thing that he and the others most regret that they never did that.
JA: I really appreciate this.
AE: And I appreciate you listening.
JA: It’s such a valid point.
Abrams is also the executive producer of Person of Interest which premieres Sept. 22 on CBS