'Star Trek: Discovery' keeps progressive view of future in the Trump era

'We are creating a world that we would like to see,' says executive producer Alex Kurtzman.
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Sonequa Martin-Green as Burnham of the CBS series "Star Trek: Discovery."Jan Thijs / CBS

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By Ethan Sacks

The future looks bright — depending on a sci-fi fan's political persuasion.

"Star Trek: Discovery" returns for a second season on CBS All Access on Thursday, hurtling at warp speed back into an imagined 23rd century where the people of Earth have united in peace to take to the cosmos to "seek out new life and civilizations." Sure, the starships in the United Federation of Planets are armed with photon torpedoes, but they at least try to come in peace.

Airing in the Trump era — with all of its political divisions, international crises and the looming existential threat of climate change — that scenario can seem even further away than Alpha Centauri. Especially for a cast and crew that wear their progressive views on their sleeve as proudly as the Starfleet insignia on their chests.

"We are creating a world that we would like to see," series co-creator and executive producer Alex Kurtzman told NBC News. "We’re creating it in the literal world that we surround ourselves with the cast, the crew and the writers and we’re creating it on screen and we’re hoping that people can follow."

That continuing mission extends to the crew of the USS Discovery. The bridge helmed by one of the most diverse casts on television, with a black female lead ("The Walking Dead" alum Sonequa Martin-Green), an Asian captain ("Crazy Rich Asians" star Michelle Yeoh) and a loving gay couple (played by Anthony Rapp and Wilson Cruz) among the officers.

Anthony Rapp as Lieutenant Paul Stamets; Wilson Cruz as Dr. Hugh Culber of the CBS series Star Trek: Discovery.Michael Gibson / CBS

For Martin-Green that means continuing the franchise mission, dating back to the original series that ran from 1966 through 1969, to get the next generation dreaming of a future full of possibilities.

"Those moments of realization happen all the time," the actress said by email. "From parents telling me that their black and brown daughters now want to pursue science or math or aeronautics, to women and men telling me that they see themselves on that screen and now feel stronger, to one white man telling me that he feels he can finally break the cycle of racism in his family because of his intimate experience of fully seeing himself in me.

"We’ve come to a point where representation alone isn’t enough. Positive representation is necessary, and it’s a gift that can change people permanently."

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Not all "Star Trek" fans were willing to beam aboard that version of the future. When the trailer for the first season of "Star Trek: Discovery" debuted last year, some internet trolls blasted the "white genocide" of the franchise.

"The spirit of Trek itself is one of inclusion, of universality and equality," said Martin-Green. "I’ve said this before, it seems antithetical to me to embrace Trek without embracing that."

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But what can really gall more conservative sci-fi lovers is not the diversity of the cast, but what they perceive as a lack of diversity of ideals.

"In Hollywood, whenever there is an obvious message in the story, it will almost always be left of center," said Christian Toto, editor of HollywoodInToto.com. "But the best art comes when it leaves itself open to interpretation."

Take the "Hunger Games" franchise for instance. "Both people on the left and the right can point to it and see an oppressive totalitarian government and have different views of how we got there," said Toto. "People from both sides of the political spectrum can take something away."

When it debuted on Sept. 8, 1966, the original "Star Trek" series really did boldly go where no other television series went before. At the height of the Cold War and in the midst of the civil rights movement, the crew of the USS Enterprise included a Russian navigator, a Japanese helmsman and a black woman as communications officer. At a time when the fear of nuclear annihilation hovered over American living rooms, it was reassuring to tune into a future where humans survived.

Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock, Walter Koenig as Pavel Chekov, William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk, Nichelle Nichols as Uhura, George Takei as Hikaru Sulu and James Doohan as Montgomery "Scotty" Scott on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise in the Star Trek episode, "Spock's Brain."CBS via Getty Images

"The news was covering [the tumultuous events of the era], but primetime was ignoring it entirely," said Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. "This was a period of talking horses and flying nuns, genies and witches.

"So when 'Star Trek' comes out and starts to do its philosophical and humanist parables, that was a big deal — even though it was disguised in another century and on other planets."

The show even featured one of the first interracial kisses on television, just a few years removed from the days when black lips couldn't use certain water fountains in the South.

Fifty-three years, 13 movies, and seven TV series (not counting the upcoming "Picard" and "Lower Decks") later, the franchise's progressive streak continues.

This season of "Star Trek: Discovery" revolves around a mysterious entity that is devoid of empathy which challenges the crew of the titular ship and channels the zeitgeist of the world outside the writers room.

"I think that the world as it is inspires us that what we’re doing on 'Star Trek' is not just storytelling, it’s a mission," said Kurtzman. "That so much of what people can do when they go online is be incredibly painful and so deeply negative, and it speaks to the many, many challenges that we face as a race right now."

"The reason 'Star Trek' has become an anchor for me and all the people that work with me is because it’s helped provide a comfort for what we can be. And it’s helped us believe there is a future where the best of us steps forwards."

That doesn't mean, however, that the future has to be completely intellectualized. It can be fun, too.

"Our show is by nature escapist," said Martin-Green. "We’re talking about a world 237 years into the future where we’re living with aliens, teleporting through space and traveling faster than the speed of light.

"You have to escape to even suspend your disbelief and go on the journey."