An (admittedly old) item on the website Giant Freakin’ Robot (GFR) outlined reasons why Star Trek: Voyager wasn’t a roaring success.
Prominent among these was their complaint that Chakotay was a racist character.
Well, he was, I suppose. At least in the sense that they’re complaining about, he was: he relied on the stereotype image of the American Indian* as the wise, mystical shamanic type in tune with nature and the deep flow of life energy and whatever, just like every Indian is in TV and movie productions.
That said, I suspect the idea was done with the best intentions. It’s always been a key element of Star Trek that all of Earth’s disparate cultures have come together to form a valuable and diverse part of the Federation. Just as the original Enterprise (the original original Enterprise, I mean: NCC-1701 as opposed to NX-01) prominently boasted a Scot, an Bantu woman, an Asian-American and a Russia (EDIT: “A Russia”? They’d struggle to fit that onto the bridge. Читать “русский”. Do you see what I did there?). I suspect their addition of Chakotay was simply an attempt to represent a culture they hadn’t yet featured.
It’s worth remembering, too, that all of this was happening only a couple of decades after the end of the Second World War, and in the early years of the Cold War. To put Sulu on the bridge was a giant step considering the US had only recently been involved in a fierce war with Japan. Chekov’s presence was decided in spite of rising tensions between the USA and the USSR. And a black female? Uhura’s presence struck at two serious, deeply held prejudices of the time to a degree that those of us born later perhaps can’t fully grasp. We can only marvel at the ruckus raised when Uhura and Kirk locked lips in the episode Plato’s Stepchildren.
All that said, Chakotay’s character didn’t fully work out, because he did present a somewhat shortbread-tin picture of what Indian culture is.
But in explaining this reasoning they also appealed to Original Series Chief Engineer Montgomery ‘Scotty’ Scott, and pointed out that he wasn’t seen roaming the decks in a kilt; and Chekov, we’re reminded, “didn’t wander around trying to convince everyone to become communists”.
And this latter point brought me up short.
No, Chekov didn’t try to convert anyone to communism, that’s true. But why would he, when everyone around him was already communist?
What? Well, it’s difficult to see what else you call a society where the state functions for the greater good of the people; where each citizen is provided for according to their needs, and contributes according to their ability; where one’s survival is based not on one’s commercial exploitability – the potential earning power one might bring to an employer – but on one’s innate worth as a human being.
And this, I remind you, is the definitive American sci-fi series, and it took off not that long after the McCarthy witch hunts of the fifties, and while considerable suspicion of ‘reds’ still remained. And if you’re in any doubt about how strong that suspicion must have been at the time of Star Trek, bear in mind there is still intense suspicion – even hatred – in the US of anything that smacks of socialism. Exhibit A.
Did America just not realise that its most celebrated science-fiction show was built on the premise that one day communism – proper communism, that is, not the weak imitation practised in so many dictatorships around the world – would form the basis of a peaceful and utopian interstellar government? Or if they did, why does the notion of communism in itself – as opposed to a totalitarian oppressive regime using communism as an excuse for its tyranny – now scare them so deeply?
(* I’ve always found it difficult to know what term to use to describe the native peoples of the Americas, because every single word or phrase I’ve been taught depends on defining them A) as a single homogenous people, which they’re not; and B) by reference to terms Europeans have imposed. Some recommend ‘Native American’ over ‘Indian’ because ‘Indian is a term Europeans dropped on them. But they’re no more ‘American’ – a European term – than they are ‘Indian’. And since I’ve heard several express a preference – if we whites can’t be persuaded to name them according to their actual tribe or nation – for the straight-up wrong ‘Indian’ over the euphemistic and still wrong ‘Native American, I go with ‘Indian’.)