Why Calls for Subtlety in Star Trek are Misguided

Whenever there’s news that a new Star Trek character will be queer, female, or a person of color (POC), the internet erupts with cries of “Star Trek was better when it was subtle, when it didn’t rub its message in our faces.” This critique is disturbingly common in the current political climate, but is there any truth to it? Was Star Trek better back during this unspecified time when the message was subtle?

No, no it was not.

Star Trek’s Best Episodes Aren’t Subtle

Jadzia and Lenara kiss in "Rejoined"


Star Trek has never been “subtle.” A strong contender for The Original Series’ most memorable episode is “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield,” a story that is literally black and white in its view of racial conflict. While “Last Battlefield” lacks some important nuances that have entered the modern conversation about race, the message was clear to anyone watching.

Star Trek continued its lack of subtlety into the golden era of The Next Generation, with episodes like “The Drumhead” and “Chain of Command”. “The Drumhead” was an unflinching look at how fear of the enemy can destroy a free society, and there’s no doubt where “Chain of Command” stands on the subject of torture, or on the number of lights.

Not to be outdone, Deep Space Nine hit us with “Rejoined,” a story about how lesbians, I mean Trills, should be able to love freely. And of course there’s DS9‘s “Far Beyond the Stars,” with possibly the least subtle message of all time. The episode may have taken place in the 1950s, but the commentary on racism is eternal.

But maybe those episodes only appeal to social justice security-officers like myself. What about universal favorites like “Best of Both Worlds”? Still not subtle. That entire episode is blatant about its message: maintaining individual freedoms in the face of a powerful, dehumanizing force. Whether the Borg are a stand in for communism or a faceless corporation, the message is the same. Picard even says the Federation is built on “freedom and self-determination.” That’s about as unsubtle as you can get.

Star Trek Is Popular Because It’s Not Subtle

Black and white characters from Let That Be Your Last Battlefield

Even subtler.

Star Trek’s longevity owes a lot to blatant messaging. Sci-fi franchises are a dime a dozen, but only a few have stuck around. Each of them offers something that audiences can’t easily get elsewhere. Star Wars has a number of excellent hero’s journeys. Doctor Who has wacky time-hijinks.

For Star Trek, that special something is its message. Star Trek is still a cultural powerhouse after 50 years because it had something to say. Otherwise, it would have gone the way of Lost in Space long ago.

We are living in a golden age of science fiction TV. That’s great for us viewers, but it means the market is crowded. If Star Trek is going to compete with the likes of The Expanse and Battlestar Galactica, it must stand out. The easiest way to do that is to double down on Star Trek’s powerful messaging, updating it to include folk who have been previously ignored.

Star Trek’s very survival as a franchise may depend on it not being subtle. The problem with subtlety is twofold. First, if a message is too subtle, the audience could miss it. Then it’s not doing any good. Second, subtlety can be interpreted as waffling on important issues. While there will always be great moral debates, most of the issues facing us today have been thoroughly solved. We cannot make a moral argument that queer folk don’t deserve the same rights as straight folk. There is no question that black lives matter. If Star Trek or any other show includes those issues, the creators must plant their flag firmly on the right side of history.

Subtlety Doesn’t Mean What Some People Think

Sisko as Benny in Far Beyond the Stars

Just the subtlest.

What many fans fail to grasp is that Star Trek is already full of subtlety. At the same time Trek was hitting us with blatant messages about individuality, it quietly showed us a world where many modern day prejudices no longer exist. This tradition dates back to The Original Series, when a black woman, an Asian-American, and a Russian all served on the Enterprise bridge without anyone making a fuss. The subtle message was that in the future, this wouldn’t be a big deal, it would just happen.

Including characters from disenfranchised groups is one of the most subtle options at Star Trek’s disposal. A Muslim character who observes the adhan without anyone commenting would subtly debunk the idea that Islam is incompatible with Western values. A trans character who never faces conflict over their gender would subtly show that gender is a social construct, not an ironclad truth determined at birth.

Including queer folks, women, and POCs is the height of subtlety. It’s not enough on it’s own, but it’s vitally important. Why then, do so many fans react by calling for more subtlety? Because they don’t actually want subtlety; they want to remove anything that makes them uncomfortable. Sadly, a bridge not filled with white men is enough to make many people uncomfortable.

At best, this is a knee-jerk reaction made in ignorance. People see an Asian woman with captain’s bars in the Discovery trailer, and it seems wrong for reasons they can’t explain, so they go to the internet and complain about how Star Trek is just too blatant these days. Others are deliberately disingenuous. They don’t want a diverse cast, but know it’s socially unacceptable to say that. They cloak their intentions with calls for subtlety, as if the very existence of a minority character is a blatant act.

These reactionary views must be resisted, whether they come from ignorance or malice. Star Trek must have its blatant messages in order to survive, and seeing them on TV will help us build a bright future in real life.

Oren grew up with Star Trek and its optimistic goodness. He writes about storytelling and roleplaying for Mythcreants, where he only critiques because he loves.

  5 comments for “Why Calls for Subtlety in Star Trek are Misguided

  1. Star Trek always addressed modern relevant issues, without the context of modern relevant politics, and I think, that’s the approach people say they should take when they say it should be subtle..

    For example, “Let That be your Last Battlefield” was certainly about hatred based on minor biological differences… it addressed issues such as equality between people who look different… and even lampooned those who would hold to absurd ideas (such as thinking that someone who was a different color pattern was somehow a less being)…

    But, while it did those things it did them away from talking about the Civil Rights Movement….

    A Taste of Armageddon explored the horrors of the death created in war, without the context of the Vietnam war… again the issue was relevant, and the message was very much addressed towards those issues we were facing in that era, but it wasn’t commentary on modern politics…

    So while not subtle it was presented in a way that disarmed the audience who may have been turned off by a blunt force presentation….

    I also think, that by avoiding modern political context, is what helped the show remain relevant and contribute to its longevity….

  2. Well said. Star Trek has been direct and clear about the values of equality and respect. The opposite of direct and clear isn’t subtle, it’s evasive and vague.

    Star Trek has been subtle about the narrative conventions that carry the stories: the show draws from the foundational stories of western political philosophy. The writers do not announce their utilization of John Stuart Mill’s theories of individuality in TNG’s “The Measure of a Man,” nor their use of Machiavelli’s advice to the Prince in TNG’s “The High Ground,” nor their adaptation of Nietzsche’s views on language in “Darmok” (TNG). They show these narrative rather than tell about them, a much more useful way to keep iconic cultural stories in circulation.

  3. After Trek cast/crew endorsed Hilary, I saw an article from a conservative website that said TOS was fun until the SJW’s took over. I’m amazed there’s people out there who have no idea that Rodenberry was a SJW when basic research into his life would tell you this.

    As a fellow Babel conference member on Facebook, remember the discussion about the Hilary endorsement? One poster (can’t remember his name but he didn’t approve of the endorsement) said something to effect that Trek worked because it was subtle. I wanted to tell him he didn’t watch closely enough but they deleted the thread before I could respond. Consider posting your article there.

  4. “Because they don’t actually want subtlety; they want to remove anything that makes them uncomfortable.”

    Exactly. When Blizzard Entertainment made a comic revealing that one of the characters in their game Overwatch, Tracer, was a gay woman, some called it “shoehorning” or “shoving it down their throats” despite the fact that the comic just showed her and her girlfriend celebrating Christmas. If that’s not subtle I don’t know what is. Notably, no one complained about the fact that other characters’ familial relations are shown from time to time. Widowmaker’s husband Gerard Lacroix is a fairly major part of her backstory, for instance.

    Fortunately, I’m fairly sure that the people complaining about the Discovery cast are either a minority of Trek fans, or non-Trek fans using it for their own ends. Anyone with passing knowledge of Trek knows it has a long history of advocacy, both subtle and blatant.

    PS: Someone needs to write a browser plugin replacing all instances of “social justice warrior” with “social justice security-officer”.

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