The crew of the SS Enterprise may have explored the farthest reaches of space and encountered thousands of alien peoples and cultures, but through more than 40 years of official Star Trek television shows, movies, spinoffs, one life form they’ve never encountered is the human homosexual.
But now a group of dedicated fans who’ve launched their own web series continuing where the original Star Trek left off is changing that by introducing a gay couple into the crew of the Enterprise.
Dubbed Star Trek: Phase II, the web series has been in the works for five years and features an astonishing level of technical detail and special effects.
The most recent episode, titled Blood and Fire, begins a two-part story that revealed Ensign Peter Kirk, nephew to Capt James Kirk, is in a relationship with Medic Alex Freeman. They respond to a distress call from a failed Star Fleet ship only to find that the ship is overrun with Regulan Blood Worms, a deadly and contagious parasite.
Blood and Fire was originally pitched as an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation with the blood worms serving as a metaphor for AIDS, but the episode was shelved when network executives felt nervous about the episode’s gay subplot.
Phase II executive producer James Cawley, who also plays Captain Kirk in the web series, says that he wanted to adapt the episode for the series since Phase II was launched.
“[Blood and Fire] was something they should have done a long time ago and they never did,” says Cawley. “I knew that just the fact that it dealt with gay characters would cause excitement in one group of people and argument and upset another group of people. Star Trek was always at its best when it was doing that. Somewhere along the way, it became the McDonalds of sci-fi, this safe franchise.”
The original Star Trek series was acclaimed when it first aired in the 1960s for its racially diverse cast, prominent female characters and political themes.
Carlos Pedraza, who adapted the original Blood and Fire script for the web series says putting gay characters into the Star Trek universe sends a positive message to Star Trek fans.
“The lack of seeing gay people in the Star Trek universe basically said to gay people, ‘You don’t exist in the future,’” Pedraza says. “Including gays shows that we’re not a disease and we don’t need to be cured, and we contribute as we’ve always contributed to the advancement of science, culture and art.”
But Pedraza says acknowledging the controversy that gay characters have created for 21st-century Star Trek fans proved a difficult balance when writing characters with 23rd-century sensibilities.
“We didn’t want the gay characters treated by the other character differently because they were gay. We really wanted to show that being gay in the 23rd century is normal,” Pedraza says. “What we tried to do was make a comment by showing how normally they are treated, and showing that the remarks that other people on the show make about these two characters have to do with the affection that they hold for each other, not that they’re the same gender. That speaks volumes to modern audiences.”
Blood and Fire has certainly struck a chord with Star Trek’s legions of fans. The episode was downloaded more than a quarter-million times in the first week that it was available, and has sparked debate on Star Trek fan discussion sites.
“This episode was meant to provoke people to think and have arguments,” says Pedraza. “In all the venues where Star Trek gets discussed, we’ve seen an unprecedented amount of discussion about the characters and the issues we’re dealing with today, about gay couples being together without being persecuted for it.”
Gay characters are a natural fit for Star Trek, Pedraza says.
“Putting gay people in Star Trek doesn’t feel like an artificial construction because the whole theme of the show is inclusion,” he says. “The premise is that difference is a good thing, and we’re stronger because of our differences. It appeals to the feeling that everyone has — to want to be part of something greater than themselves.”
Cawley agrees. “It’s the underlying message of there is going to be a tomorrow and it’s going to be better than it is today and everyone [is] going to have a place in that world. There’s something pretty special about that,” he says.
Cawley first got to work on Star Trek in the wardrobe department on The Next Generation, and used connections he made on that show to help make Phase II possible. Over the years, he acquired set pieces and props from the original series and met writers and actors who’ve since become part of the Phase II team.
The web series is produced with the permission of Star Trek owners CBS, as long as Cawley doesn’t earn money from the show. Phase II is funded entirely out of Cawley’s pocket, and the commitment of Star Trek fans who lend their time and skill to each episode’s production.
“There’s a lot of Star Trek fans who are professionals, like cinematographers, editors,” Cawley says. “People come from all over the world to be a part of this: Australia, the UK, Canada, and all 50 states.”
Fan production of Star Trek stories is nothing new — Star Trek ’zines have been around since the beginning. A vast amount of Star Trek fan-fiction which includes gay characters or gay erotica can also be found on the internet.
But what sets Phase II apart is its high-calibre technical production and special effects, and the ability of the internet to deliver the show to millions of fans — more than 33 million downloads of the series so far.
“What we’re doing was sci-fi when the original Star Trek came out. It’s amazing that fans would have the ability to do this at home and receive it on their computers,” Cawley says.