Throughout its history Star Trek has been lauded for its displays of inclusion and diversity, however, there is at least one episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation that fails to meet these standards: “Code of Honor.” Now a couple of TNG actors are pointing out how this racially insensitive episode is a particularly poor fit for today’s climate… and was all along.
The “embarrassment” that is “Code of Honor”
This weekend, GalaxyCon brought in Jonathan Frakes (William T. Riker), Denise Crosby (Tasha Yar, Sela), and John de Lancie (Q) for the second of its two Star Trek: The Next Generation virtual events. The panel started off with a discussion of the TNG pilot “Encounter at Farpoint” and when the moderator jumped forward to discuss the series finale Frakes interjected with, “Are we just going to wipe right through ‘Code of Honor’ is that what you are planning on doing here?”
“Code of Honor” was the fourth episode of the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, airing first on October 12, 1987. The episode focuses on the Enterprise’s visit to the planet of Ligon II to pick up a vaccine only available from Ligonians. While not human, the Ligonians were humanoid and all depicted by Black actors, with a society and dress styled on non-specific African tribal culture. The main crisis of the episode involves the Ligonian leader Lutan kidnapping Crosby’s Lt. Yar, a blonde white woman. In the years since the episode has aired, many members of the cast and crew have called it out for being racially insensitive.
Frakes bringing up “Code of Honor” during the GalaxyCon panel resulted in the following exchange:
MODERATOR: Well, we’ll talk about anything you want to talk about.
FRAKES: The embarrassment heaped upon us in season one, mostly on Denise.
CROSBY: Can you imagine playing that right now in this climate?
FRAKES: [nodding] That’s what I am trying to lead the witness to.
CROSBY: Wow, wow.
MODERATOR: Maybe there were some good intentions there, but they got buried along the way.
CROSBY: [shaking her head] Nah, nah, nah.
This is not the first time Frakes has showed his disdain for the episode. In 2011 TrekMovie reported on Frakes calling it a “racist piece of shit” during a STLV panel. Speaking with TrekGeeks on Thursday, Frakes had this to say about the varying quality of TNG episodes, “In those days we did 26 episodes a year and you know they are not all going to be home runs… think of season one, “Code of Honor,” specifically.”
And Frakes is not alone. In 2012 Brent Spiner told TrekMovie he felt the “Code of Honor” was “racist” and the “worst” of the series. At a TNG reunion panel in 2013 Michael Dorn referred to it as “the worst episode of Star Trek ever filmed,” and at a 2010 DragonCon panel LeVar Burton agreed with the assessment that the episode “stinks,” adding “without question.” In the book The Fifty-Year Mission: The Next 25 Years, season one TNG writer Tracy Torme said the episode was “offensive,” likening it to the 1950s sitcom Amos ‘n’ Andy.
The original story for this episode called for a reptilian alien race with a culture more like Japanese samurai. The African theme and casting of Black people for the roles were brought in by director Russ Mayberry, who was fired during production by TNG creator Gene Roddenberry and was never hired to direct another Star Trek episode again. In his review of the episode Star Trek author Keith R.A. De Candido wrote: “Apparently, the casting of entirely African-American actors as the aggressively primitive Ligonians did not sit well” with Roddenberry.
Fans and critics also rate “Code of Honor” poorly. It has the lowest IMDB rank of the first season of TNG, which is already considered the worst of the series. Like with all things Trek, there is no critical consensus, but there are many serious detractors for this episode. Den of Geek says “Code of Honor” is “possibly the worst piece of Star Trek ever made,” Jammers describes it as “idiotic,” Screenprism calls it “pure trash,” and OkayAfrica describes it as “absurdly racist.”
Frakes sees Roddenberry’s vision in Black Lives Matter
Recent weeks following the killing of George Floyd while in police custody have seen a global series of protests against racial injustice and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. On that Thursday live stream, where Frakes called out “Code of Honor,” he also spoke about the protests:
It’s so important that it’s taken over the COVID news, that the human news of a new awareness of the Black Lives Matter culture is leading the news cycle all over the world. I think it’s exciting and I think I think it’s powerful because it’s gone on this long. I sure hope it outlives the 24-hour news cycle and is part of people’s thoughts and hearts and feelings, and hopefully people are reevaluating the way they treat each other.
Later in the panel, he tied it into Star Trek creator’s Gene Roddenberry’s vision:
I think and I hope and I believe that not only will be we be able to put the bigotry behind us but there is a future in which we will be color-blind where all lives will matter and it would be ideal. It’s really part of Roddenberry’s vision that there be no racism and there’d be no sexism and I’m very optimistic that the positive results of this worldwide awareness of how appalling people of color have been treated for centuries is the change. That there will be radical real change in people’s hearts and in their minds and I’m very optimistic that when things settle down people will behave differently and there would be more honor and more respect. I’m not usually this serious but I really believe that this is the time, and long, long past.
On Saturday’s panel, Frakes and Crosby appear to be highlighting how “Code of Honor” is especially problematic for 2020, particularly with the national conversation going on regarding racial injustice and the Black Lives Matters movement.
Media companies are examining racially insensitive library content
Racially insensitive content has become a critical issue for studios and streaming services in June. In the last week, a number of streaming services have been looking at their content libraries and removing content considered to be offensive. Netflix has been removing episodes and in some cases entire series with problematic content, including one episode of the popular comedy It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia featuring blackface. The BBC removed an episode of the 1970s comedy Fawlty Towers for racial language, only to reinstate it after star John Cleese called the decision “stupid.” Earlier in the week, HBO Max removed the classic film Gone With the Wind but plans to reinstate it with a new introduction by African-American scholar Jacqueline Stewart.
Jonathan Frakes continues to be very involved with the Star Trek television shows streaming on CBS All Access, directing for all three current live-action Trek series, and appearing in two episodes of Star Trek: Picard. Neither Frakes nor Crosby has called for CBS or other streaming services with Star Trek content to remove “Code of Honor.” However, both actors seem to want to bring the issue of this episode not living up to Star Trek standards into today’s conversation about how Black people are depicted in film and television.
Keep up with all the Star Trek conventions and event news and reports at TrekMovie.com.