In the past, celebrity ‘Star Trek’ cameos weren’t also campaign stunts
The fourth season of Star Trek: Discovery’s finale featured Stacey Abrams in a prominent role as the recently-elected President of 32nd-Century Earth. The Emmy=nominated voice actress and best-selling political thriller author Stacey Abrams is now running for the governor of Georgia. With clear ambitions to fix the American political system for real, this naturally begs the question–why take time out of her busy schedule to appear in an episode of Star Trek?
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The notion of celebrity cameos in Star Trek isn’t new, although they’ve typically been far more incognito than the Stacey Abrams media event. Star Trek: Voyager featured Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine as a random crewman extra. Morello also had a turn wearing the thick alien makeup which made Star Trek famous as an extra on the feature film Star Trek: Insurrection. Paul Williams likewise donned makeup as the leader of an alien race in Star Trek: Voyager with no concept of music. And Iggy Pop played yet another completely different kind of alien on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, in a more prominent role as the negotiator for a prisoner exchange.
You’d have to be a fan of the people in question to be able to tell who any of them were, and even then the makeup made the task difficult. They also didn’t write the roles for celebrities. Just about anyone could perform these walk-on parts. From the perspective of the viewer, these were just funny little Easter eggs. For the cast and crew, it was an excuse to hang out with famous singers. Tom Morello recounted in a short video how the other extras on Star Trek: Insurrection didn’t understand why central performers kept coming up to talk to him. Once the producers explained his secret identity, naturally, all the extras tried to give him demo tapes.
Star Trek in the still-demo-tape filled late nineties was a sweet spot for the cultural relevance of the franchise. Even as The Next Generation, its best-regarded work, wasn’t airing new episodes, it still aired reruns. And Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager ran new episodes in national syndication, usually on UPN. If you don’t know or remember what UPN was, they were famous for licensing screen rights to (very poorly regarded) programming directed toward African-Americans and also professional wrestling. Not coincidentally, the single most famous Star Trek cameo prior to Stacey Abrams was Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as a gladiator on a planet featuring cage matches.
These casting gimmicks also took place in the context of entirely sincere, if occasionally ridiculous, storytelling. You can actually see Dwayne Johnson seriously throwing himself into the role of an extremely smug yet extremely level-headed alien with bulging muscles who’s confident in his fighting prowess and not at all easily knocked off balance. There’s no hint of his persona as “The Rock” as Dwayne Johnson, too, takes advantage of the makeup to be someone else.
Time was that being on Star Trek meant…being on Star Trek, with all the negative nerdy connotations that might imply. Which is a far cry from the epic pretensions of modern Star Trek, which has somehow morphed into a prestige brand. The Stacey Abrams cameo has all the trappings of a campaign advertisement, probably less due to anything Stacey Abrams herself does in the episode as to the veritable media circus surrounding the casting gimmick.
The irony is that, as recently as the last generation anyway, Star Trek was absolutely about the gimmicks–but not in any real-world sense. We’re talking about a show with such infamously bad plotlines as characters turning into post-evolutionary lizards who have sex and lay eggs and then abandon their children. Nobody learned anything from that episode. The writers so obviously had no idea what point they were even trying to make that the concept is fascinating in its grotesqueness. Any seriously creative writing is going to result in incomprehensible stinkers like that, because the whole point of writing about the unknown is that the story will wind up in unexpected places.
The generally bleak attitude Star Trek has to its own fictional backstory is another important aspect to this. Two generations ago, Star Trek assumed that civilization would succumb to a horrific nuclear war sometime in the nineties. By Deep Space Nine, in the last generation, the presumption was that in the twenties a deleterious economic situation would lead to a revival of tent cities.
Yet by Star Trek: Discovery, we know that…Elon Musk will be one of the great pioneers of space travel. Far from being pessimistic about the major social issues of the day, Star Trek: Discovery barely even seems aware of what they are, openly advocating for regime change to solve interspace political tensions. The writers seem completely oblivious to the fact that both of the previous generations of Star Trek explicitly disavowed such tactics as both ethically wrong and materially dangerous in the long term.
Nor have these more obvious pretensions done much to improve the relevance of Star Trek. Really, it’s weird just how unimportant Star Trek feels now, given that there are four ongoing series and a film franchise.
What does this have to do with Stacey Abrams? Well, very little. It’s more of a campaign advertisement than anything. And that’s the problem. The Abrams gimmick casting has been the most exposure Star Trek: Discovery has had in the zeitgeist this whole season. It even ripped off the Stacey Abrams appearance idea from Black-ish. Although, really, saying that “Stacey Abrams is cool” qualifies as a worthwhile concept is itself a bit of a stretch. A series that was once about boldly exploring strange new worlds just keeps reheating the ones we already have.