Guest post by Mark Turetsky
Star Trek: Discovery has broken new ground for diversity in the franchise, featuring Sonequa Martin-Green as the first woman of color to headline a Star Trek series, as well as Anthony Rapp as the first openly gay TV series regular. Despite this progress made in casting, however, Discovery has revived a harmful trope from Trek’s early history.
Discovery borrows a major plot point of its first season from 1967’s “The Trouble With Tribbles.” Tribbles is a perennial fan favorite episode, regarded as one of the best of the original series and beloved for its comedic tone. This tone, by the way, came courtesy of producer Gene L. Coon, according to The Fifty-Year Mission: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Trek. Gene Roddenberry, the executive producer and creator of Star Trek, considered broad comedy the domain of shows like Lost In Space. While Roddenberry was away writing a Robin Hood pilot, Coon took advantage of his absence and produced three comedic episodes back to back. The story goes that when Roddenberry returned to the set, he called a meeting with Coon, after which Coon quit the show.
The episode centers around a space station that’s loaded with a cargo of grain bound for a Federation colony on a disputed planet near the Klingon border. Kirk and company match wits with bureaucrats, Klingons, and fuzzy little balls of cute called Tribbles. Kirk and Spock discover that the grain has been poisoned, sabotaged by a Federation official name Arne Darvin. It turns out that Darvin is actually a Klingon spy, surgically altered to look human.
In the original series and the Kirk-era movies, the Klingons were an obvious allegory for the Soviet Union, with the Federation taking the role of The United States. The original Klingons were dark-skinned (literally white actors colored with shoe polish) with wispy facial hair, and speaking in not-quite-Russian accents. In his script for “Errand of Mercy,” the first episode to feature Klingons, Gene L. Coon describes their appearance as “oriental.”
With this in mind, it’s hard not to see Darvin as an outer space version of a communist infiltrator, worming his way into the Federation government, committing sabotage for his evil masters.
Leonard Nimoy referred his friend Charlie Brill, a Brooklyn-born Jewish actor for the role. It’s a curious bit of casting, considering the pernicious association between communism and Judaism, from the Jewish Bolshevism canard that came out of the Russian Revolution, through the Hollywood blacklist of the 40s and 50s, all the way to the antisemitic dog whistle of “cultural marxism” that persists today. Notably, when Darvin returned to Star Trek in the 1996 Deep Space Nine episode “Trials and Tribble-ations,” he had assumed the identity of Waddle, a wandering gemstone merchant, which is, as far as occupations go, not entirely disassociated with Jewish people.
Also, the crime that Arne Darvin commits in “The Trouble With Tribbles” sounds a lot like a medieval libel against Jewish people: well poisoning. In the 14th century, during Black Plague times, there was a belief among Christians that the plague was caused by Jews poisoning wells. This led to the raiding of hundreds of Jewish communities throughout Europe, ending, as such things do, in mass slaughter. This wasn’t just a purely medieval one-off occurrence; the accusation of well poisoning, both literal and metaphorical, persisted through the 20th and 21st Centuries, tying in everything from Stalin purging Jewish doctors for supposedly poisoning Soviet leaders to conspiracy theorizing about Jews causing the AIDS epidemic.
Which brings us to Star Trek: Discovery. While the series is set roughly ten years before The Original Series, it very much reflects the culture and values of today. The cold-war Soviet Klingons of The Original Series have been replaced with hardline religious zealots, who in the first season waged a holy war against the Federation in the name of reclaiming its cultural purity for the glory of Kahless, a figure from Klingon history revered almost as a god.
Into this story comes Ash Tyler, played by Shazad Latif, an actor of mixed Pakistani and British heritage. Tyler is a Starfleet security officer from just outside Seattle, who escapes imprisonment and torture by the Klingons. The character at first appeared to offer a sober exploration of PTSD, dealing with the trauma of his ordeal, but instead he turned out to be a Klingon agent named Voq, surgically altered (just like good old like Arne Darvin) to appear human. Unlike Darvin, Voq isn’t aware that he’s a Klingon, and actually believes himself to be Tyler. He’s a sleeper agent, somewhat akin to Laurence Harvey’s character in The Manchurian Candidate, but with the sci-fi twist of radical gene-altering surgery and memory transplantation.
What started out as a positive, nuanced portrayal of a character of mixed-Pakistani descent got undercut by turning him into a religious sleeper terrorist. There are enough of those on TV already, in just about every season of 24, or the prestige Showtime drama Homeland. We could even look to an episode from Trek’s first season, “Balance of Terror,” for a better treatment of a similar subject: Spock faces suspicion and xenophobia from members of the Enterprise crew when they discover that Romulans are identical to Vulcans. Stiles, the navigator, accuses Spock outright of being a Romulan spy, only to have Kirk call out his bigotry for what it is, out in the open, right on the bridge of the Enterprise.
There does seem to be hope for Ash Tyler, though. The second season of Discovery has recast him as an intelligence agent for the shadowy Starfleet spy organization Section 31. He’s still a Klingon who thinks he’s human, but the writers seem to want to put that storyline behind them and have it just be another angle to the character’s traumatic past. Of course, it’s television, and I’m sure Tyler will be dealing with buried Klingon programming just as soon, and for as long, as plot demands.
The producers of Discovery don’t get nearly enough credit for the homages they make to the rest of Trek (cue the cries of “Discovery doesn’t care about canon!”), especially with this season’s loving and detailed treatment of TOS’s original, failed pilot “The Cage.” It’s disappointing, though, that they not only returned to this particular well, but poisoned it in their own contemporary way.
Mark Turetsky is a voice actor and audiobook narrator of more than 75 books living in Northern Louisiana. He writes the Star Trek comedy twitter account @RejectedDS9. His work can be found at www.markturetsky.com.