When Star Trek: Discovery was first announced to have a female lead, I was overjoyed. This has only ever happened once before in the history of #StarTrek (who could forget Janeway captaining the USS Voyager), and everything about #StarTrekDiscovery seemed to suggest it was boldly pushing those frontiers and giving the TV franchise a much needed update. But then, after one more woman was cast — the excellent Michelle Yeoh as the USS Shenzhou's captain — a drastic imbalance became apparent.
The vast majority of actors cast so far have been male. With only one more woman (Mary Wiseman) in the main cast, Jason Isaac's recent casting as the USS Discovery's captain brings us to a total of three women to six men in the main cast. And for a show airing in 2017, that's really not good enough.
All the Star Trek shows have only two or three women in the main cast at any one time, with others staying only for a season (eg: Ezri Dax on Deep Space Nine) and some more women popping in from time to time (eg: Guinan on The Next Generation). For a franchise that prides itself on progressive social politics, this is surprising — but what's worse is that so far Discovery has made no improvement on Star Trek's history of male dominated casts.
A Depressing Inequality
The most recent casting announcement for Discovery seems to be the last — from what we can tell the main cast are all accounted for, and as the show commenced filming several weeks ago, more characters are unlikely to be added in anything other than recurring roles.
The main cast is split between the USS Discovery and the USS Shenzou, with Admiral Anderson (Terry Serpico) also appearing in all 13 episodes. On the USS Discovery we have: Lt Commander Rainsford (Sonequa Martin-Green), Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs), Lt Stamets (Anthony Rapp), Lt Saru (Doug Jones), and Cadet Tilly (Mary Wiseman). Serving on the USS Shenzou are: Captain Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh), Dr. Nambue (Maulik Pancholy), and Ensign Conner (Sam Vartholomeos). This is excluding the interesting Klingon characters, who so far are slated to appear in only two episodes.
With nine main characters in total, three are women and six are men. That's hardly a good ratio for any TV show to have, and it's especially depressing that there has been no progression from decades-old Star Trek shows. Frankly, we expected better from Star Trek: Discovery, a show that seems determined to win representation points for its female lead.
Of course, just because Discovery has a female lead doesn't mean this negates the need for an equal female to male cast. And yes, there is a need for equality, especially in Star Trek.
Against Trek's Principles
When Gene Roddenberry first conceived of Star Trek, he intended it to be a commentary on the state humanity is in now, and what we need to change to become our best selves. Yet for all its moral messages, Star Trek has an aggravating history of sexism both on the screen and behind the scenes.
Aside from some distinctly iffy writing, Star Trek is known for squeezing its female characters into skin tight jumpsuits: Poor Jeri Ryan had to be sown into her rib-crushing Seven of Nine costume on Voyager, and Marina Sirtis (Counsellor Troi) wasn't even allowed to wear a Starfleet uniform until The Next Generation's final season. As popular as it might be, The Next Generation had a terribly sexist culture behind the scenes, leading both Denise Crosby (Tasha Yar) and Gates McFadden (Dr Crusher) to quit in protest.
The horror stories of sexism behind the Star Trek curtain have become infamous in recent years. Suffice it to say, Discovery has a lot to make up for. But even beyond the franchise's poor track record, Star Trek simply must have an equal ratio of female to male characters, because of what the show is.
Star Trek is supposed to be about our future; not only that but a future in which we have solved the problems of the past — racism, sexism, and homphobia to name just a few. This is what the Star Trek writers have been telling us for years, and yet as long as the casts continue to consist of mostly male characters, the entirety of Trek's principles ring false. How are we supposed to believe in this moral message if there are only two (maximum three) women on the bridge at any one time?
Discovery deserves better than this hypocrisy. For a show made in 2017 to suffer from the exact same gender imbalance as those that aired in the 1990s, that really says something depressing about our culture, that we (and by "we" I mean CBS' casting directors and the Discovery writers) can't see past our current cultural climate to populate a starship with as much women as men.
Tell us in the comments: What are you hoping to see in Star Trek: Discovery?