Fighting for the Future – In Conversation with Sabrina Mittermeier and Mareike Spychala

Fighting for the Future, the latest from our Liverpool Science Fiction Texts and Studies series, is the first book to explore Star Trek: Discovery, the newest instalment in the Star Trek franchise. The volume brings together eighteen essays and one interview from a variety of disciplines including cultural and media studies, literary studies, history and political science – we spoke to editors Sabrina Mittermeier and Mareike Spychala to learn more.

What drew you both to focus your research on Star Trek: Discovery?

It was exciting to see a new Star Trek show on the air, having been Trekkies since childhood, and after the franchise had been absent from television screens for so long.  We were not prepared for it to have quite such an impact on us and, as it turned out, there was a lot to say about the show academically as it broke ground in numerous ways. We ended up with the idea for a volume in late 2017, even before the mid-season finale had aired – the call for papers went out the day of the season finale in February 2018, and here we are.

Star Trek ranks as one of the most culturally influential television shows of all time. How do you think Star Trek: Discovery remains relevant to contemporary society?

The franchise provides an ideal example for tracing how television has changed over the past 50 years, and Discovery shows how they are going with the times – it is the first series that airs exclusively on streaming services and is completely serialised. The pace and tone of Discovery is also very much in tune with current viewing conventions, as are the high production values. Staying with the older episodic format would feel stale, especially for a science fiction show that benefits from so much world building.

While the older shows did not always go completely with the zeitgeist when it came to representation (especially Enterprise, which felt like a step back after Deep Space Nine and was also never as commercially successful), Discovery is breaking new ground for the franchise while still honouring the Trek canon. The producers seem to be looking out for diversity not only on screen, by having a black female lead and gay actors playing gay characters, but also off screen, by employing women of colour as directors, writers and in the costuming department.

The book includes studies of Michael Burnham, the first black female lead in a Star Trek show. How does the Star Trek universe explore issues of race and diversity?

Star Trek as a franchise has long built a reputation for taking representation seriously. The Original Series famously featured a black female officer, a Russian officer, and a Japanese officer as members of its bridge crew in the middle of the Cold War. There’s also the long-standing story that the 1968 episode “Plato’s Stepchildren” featured the first interracial kiss on American television. While probably not quite accurate, it is still a significant moment in American TV history. Fast forward a few decades, and after the first male African American lead in Deep Space Nine and the first white female lead in Voyager, Discovery gives us the franchise’s first black female lead. This is, sadly, still a significant step for a franchise this large, given that black women and women of colour rarely get to lead franchises.

In addition, while Star Trek has always claimed to show us a utopian future in which humanity had moved beyond issues like sexism and racism, it has also always relied on racist tropes and stereotypes in its narratives (for example in the representation of alien races like the Klingons and the marginalized presence of black male and female characters).

It was clear to us from the beginning that this was something that should be addressed in the book and so we have several essays engaging with race and gender in different ways. Amy Chambers focuses on the representation of female scientists on TV, particularly on Michael Burnham as a black female scientist; Mareike’s essay compares how representations of femininity have shifted throughout the franchise; Whit Frazier Peterson focuses on the treatment Burnham receives from her white commanding officer and what this says about the depiction of race in Discovery as well as the often racist underpinnings of technological progress.

We were very glad that Diana A. Mafe, whose 2018 book Where No Black Woman Has Gone Before: Subversive Portrayals in Speculative Film and TV focuses on the portrayal of black women in science fiction films and television shows, did an interview about Discovery and Michael Burnham with us. It covers, among other things, how Burnham differs from earlier characters like Lt. Uhura and Guinan, her relationships with other women on the show, fan reactions, and the ways in which Discovery differs from other science fiction shows in its portrayal of a black female character.

How does Fighting for the Future pave the way for future research in this area?

Our book focuses predominately on the first two seasons of the show, and while our contributors cover a wide range of topics – from the shift to seriality and the show’s engagement with the larger franchise, to posthumanist narratives, to sociopolitical discourses in fanfiction inspired by the show, to gender and LGBT* representation – there is certainly room for more analyses, especially with the show’s third season on the horizon. Discovery seems to have kick-started a revival of the Star Trek franchise and especially Star Trek television shows: it will be interesting to see what connections, if any, other new shows like Star Trek: Picard and Lower Decks might have with Discovery and how that could change the structure of the franchise and the way it tells stories.

What are you both going to be working on next?

Sabrina: I’m working on a postdoc project dealing with LGBT* Public History that is still eagerly awaiting funding, but Star Trek has not quite left me – together with Leimar Garcia-Siino and Steve Rabitsch I am currently co-editing the Routledge Handbook to Star Trek and also writing a chapter on Star Trek: Discovery for it. My dissertation-turned monograph titled A Cultural History of the Disneyland Theme Parks – Middle Class Kingdoms is out with Intellect by January 2021, as are several articles I have been working on over the past few months covering theme parks, queerness in Star Trek, the Star Trek cruise, the Death of Stalin, or Celebrity Activism where I use Jason Isaacs as an example! I’m also co-organizing a conference on “Speculative Fiction and the Political” this September in Augsburg, Germany.  I owe over half of my academic CV to my fascination with Discovery and especially its Captain Lorca;  Fighting for the Future certainly has opened doors.

Mareike: I’m working on finishing my dissertation, which focuses on female American veterans’ Iraq War autobiographies, specifically on the way gender and imperialism interact in these narratives. I have also written an essay on “War and Conflict in Star Trek”  for the Routledge Handbook to Star Trek  Sabrina is co-editing. In addition to my research, I will be co-teaching a class titled “British and American SF/F TV and its Literary and Cultural Adaptations: Situating Doctor Who and Star Trek” with my colleague Dr. Kerstin-Anja Münderlein in the summer term. Obviously, my dissertation is taking up a lot of my time right now, but I’m pretty sure that I’m not done with thinking and writing about Star Trek and other science fiction and fantasy for a long while yet.

For more information on Fighting for the Future, visit our website.

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