Star Trek: Discovery has been the talk of the town since San Diego Comic-Con. With season two in the pipeline, fans are wondering who will end up behind the camera. One person who has some experience and skill is Robert Duncan McNeill.
Robert Duncan McNeill is no stranger to Star Trek or directing. To fans, he’s best known as Voyager’s pilot Lt. Tom Paris. As a director, he has credits with such shows as The Orville and Salvation. However, when he was asked about directing any episodes of the upcoming season of Discovery, he spoke candidly about why he won’t be sitting in the director’s chair. And the idea he expressed is seemingly now commonplace in Hollywood.
In the conversation there were two takeaways that were disturbing:
I wanted to direct Discovery. I met with their producing director. I didn’t know the show that well, but I met with him on their last hiatus to talk about season two. I also produce now. So, I hire a lot of directors. The last few years, there’s been a seismic shift in terms of the priorities toward female and diverse directors. That reality now has meant that what used to be normal, which was a lot of white guys, to be quite honest, has changed. Some shows are mostly women directing. I think Jessica Jones, last year, had all female directors. Handmaid’s Tale. A woman may direct the next Star Trek movie. Most importantly, it’s a wonderful thing that’s happening. I’m proud that on other shows I’ve produced — The Gifted, The Arrangement, Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce — I’ve brought in female directors. But, to answer your question, Discovery does a limited number of episodes and a priority there is to get female and diverse directors, so there are fewer opportunities for people like me, which is a great thing. But, yeah, if the opportunity arose to direct Discovery and I fit what they needed and it fit my schedule, I’d love to do it.
Of course, the nature of streaming services usually means a limited number of shows produced each season. It’s akin to premium networks such as HBO and Showtime. For fans, this isn’t so much a limitation, but rather an opportunity to get better quality products.
But is forced diversity something that Star Trek should be tackling at all? Is it really beneficial to the fans who keep the franchise alive and pay the bills?
Creator Gene Roddenberry always strived to create a world in which differences such as skin color or gender weren’t something that could determine a person’s worth. What race or gender characters were didn’t define them in the Star Trek universe. Crews were made up of populations so diverse they didn’t even belong to the same species.
Those differences were typically an afterthought and rarely the center of attention unless there was an important message to be said. I remember seeing characters embrace their heritage, such as First Officer Chakotay’s use of Native American belief and ritual to develop his character’s motivation throughout the series.
But he wasn’t the first. Captain Benjamin Sisko, throughout the run of DS9, wore his black heritage on his sleeve. It was a natural part of his character, not its totality. Topics ranged from clothes, references to black family culture, and even cuisine.
For example, in the episode Badda-Bing Badda-Bang of DS9, Captain Benjamin Sisko directly tackles the issue of race and the past. He notes how holding on to the sins of the past only restricts one’s growth. Kasidy out of all people was best able to bring this point home to Sisko.
It goes even farther back, as Trek fans know. Star Trek’s leadership on this issue can be seen in TV’s first interracial kiss between William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols, which was even more incredible because it happened during the Civil Rights Era of the United States.
To bring this idea full circle, is that message of inclusion and individual worth what Robert Duncan McNeill is talking about? Is his statement an extension of Trek’s great legacy? Or are we seeing an artificial placement of people due to their aesthetics, which not one of us can control?
If you claim not to judge, at some point, when you are attempting to “diversify” your crew, you are in fact making a judgment call. You are valuing someone over someone else, based on an inherent trait like race or gender. Isn’t that idea of judging people by their skin color or gender something that Roddenberry himself tried to move away from?