Over the weekend, Star Trek: Discovery released some relatively innocuous news: it would be rated TV-MA, as revealed in a new trailer. Some fans, however, did not take that as a positive sign, worrying the show was chasing the streaming and cable trend towards “adult content.” And perhaps it is, but not in the sense of boobs and blood.
If you take a look at shows carrying TV-MA rating, it’s a broad category. Sure, Game of Thrones is on there, but so’s The Crown, and it’s not like John Lithgow’s parading around nude in that one. TV-MA is, essentially, TV shows that perhaps adults don’t want kids to see for any number of reasons, and that’s always been Star Trek to some degree. Not because it showed Vulcans Gone Wild: Pon-Farr Out or Worf proving tribbles are best eaten alive, but because of the franchise’s efforts to be socially relevant.
As a kid, Star Trek was where I first learned about a lot of political issues. Every weekend, my dad and I would sit down to breakfast in front of the TV to watch Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. Usually, those shows’ most puzzling elements involved space/time anomalies, but every now and then, my dad had to explain an episode like DS9‘s “Cardassians,” which focuses on war orphans being used as political bargaining chips, or “The Outcast,” a well-meaning but poorly considered episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation about gender identity and sexuality. Obviously we didn’t stop watching, but I doubt my dad woke up on Saturday excited to explain terrorism or race relations to a fifth-grader. And he’d grown up with the original series, which dealt with the Vietnam War, mutually assured destruction, and racism, so he knew what he was in for.
Part of the value of Star Trek, still, is that it’s willing to use science fiction themes as metaphors to deal with real issues. Sometimes this leads to some of the franchise’s best work. Deep Space Nine, in particular, explored terrorism, post-colonial politics, genocide, religious extremism, and other issues that were politically pressing in the 1990s (not to mention today) yet barely explored on TV outside of the nightly news. Sure, not every episode was a political allegory, but it happened often enough to prompt more than a few parental explanations. Other times, well, nobody’s turning to “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” to teach anyone about race relations, but hey, A for effort.
Over time, though, people have gotten touchier about the politics of their entertainment, real or perceived. It doesn’t matter what the show is, no matter how innocuous, there are people on the internet offended by it, even if they have to contort themselves into a mental pretzel to make that happen. So, networks turn to a simple ratings system: Don’t blame us, we told you it was TV-MA.
We already know this won’t be going Westworld. In fact, showrunner Aaron Harberts explicitly said as much to Entertainment Weekly:
I’m not saying we’re not doing some violent things or doing a tiny bit of language… But what’s important to the creative team is the legacy of the show — which is passed down from mother to daughter, from father to son, from brother to brother. We want to make sure we’re not creating a show that fans can’t share with their families. You have to honor what the franchise is. I would say we’re not going much beyond hard PG-13.
Really, if Star Trek Discovery is doing its job, a family will sit down one morning to watch and have at least one awkward conversation about what’s happening onscreen. But that’s part of the tradition of the show, really, and if CBS needs to give it a rating to warn people, so be it.