Michelle Yeoh says her ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ role ‘means so much’ to Asian women around world
September 20, 2017
She’s boldly going where no Asian woman has gone before.
Michelle Yeoh plays Captain Georgiou of the starship Shenzhou in “Star Trek: Discovery” — premiering Sunday on CBS before moving to the network’s fledgling streaming service — and the action film veteran sees it as a real call to duty. Space is the final frontier for viewers who look up to, and look like, the Malaysian-born actress since Philippa Georgiou is the first Asian female in the franchise to hold such a prominent post.
“I understand when I’m sitting in that chair and I’m coming across as an Asian woman captain, it means so much to women of Asian descent everywhere around the world,” Yeoh tells the Daily News.
“Because it just tells them that we are recognized to be in a position of power,” adds the 55-year-old actress. “It is very empowering and it is very inspirational. In the past I didn’t used to think about it, but now I can understand how powerful a motivator it is, especially for (young girls). They’ll think, ‘If she can do this, I can do this.’”
Not all Trekkers were beaming, though, when the first trailer for the show dropped in May.
An underbelly of fandom lashed out on social media over the sight of Yeoh and series lead Sonequa Martin-Green (“The Walking Dead”), who plays a Vulcan-raised first officer named Michael Burnham — two women of color, in command of one of the largest sci-fi franchises on our planet. And don’t get them started on Lt. Paul Stamets, played by Anthony Rapp, the first openly gay character in a “Star Trek” series. (The main cast is rounded out by Jason Isaacs, who plays the captain of the Discovery starship.)
Some internet trolls lamented what they called the “white genocide” of the franchise. One tweeter dubbed the show, “StarTrek: Feminist Lesbian Edition.”
That vitriol contradicts the prime directive envisioned by the late Gene Roddenberry, back when his original “Star Trek” series first beamed onto TV screens in 1966. The officers on the bridge — the command center of the ship — included a Japanese man (Hikaru Sulu, played by George Takei) and a black woman (Nichelle Nichols’ Uhura) — the latter making history with the first major interracial kiss that aired on television.
“That really stunned us,” co-showrunner Gretchen J. Berg says of the online backlash. “If you don’t understand that diversity and everyone being included is part of Starfleet and the Federation and ‘Star Trek,’ then you just don’t get (the franchise). Especially in the future, we just feel that everybody would be represented on a starship — from our planet and beyond.”
CBS is banking on everybody being represented in the audience as well, considering what’s at stake. After the hour-long pilot airs Sunday at 8:30 p.m., the rest of the 15-episode season will only be available on the network’s streaming service, All Access, at a cost of $5.99 a month. The second episode will debut immediately after the first on the service, with future episodes landing on successive Sundays. Forget the Klingons, “Star Trek: Discovery” is pointing its phasers towards Netflix and Amazon.
Set before the Starship Enterprise’s original five-year mission and with a batch of characters that are yet unknown to fans, “Discovery” is in uncharted territory.
“If you think too much about the weight of this franchise you’ll be crushed underneath it,” says co-showrunner Aaron Harberts.
But one thing Trekkers can expect: the show will resonate with Trump-era political themes, the same way the original series tapped into Cold War fears.
“‘Star Trek’ has always been about hope and this show is no different. Because we all need to have hope, especially [with] the climate and the tension and the craziness when you turn on the TV,” says Yeoh, who volunteers as a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador committed to female empowerment.
Writing for the show started just after Election Day, and filming on the pilot began three days after the Inauguration, so politics “was in the water for sure,” Harberts says.
“If the Federation and Star Fleet are standing in for what’s happening in the U.S., that was something that was very interesting to us,” he adds. “And in terms of a lot of the messages that the Klingons espoused — the ideas of isolationism, its ideas of racial and cultural purity, messages that are coming out of certain faction in the United States.
“And then as we started rounding the corner into the finale, getting written now and preparing to be shot, the North Korea stuff comes up, and this is a ‘Star Trek’ series very much about war.”
That doesn’t mean the series won’t be a fun ride — especially for Yeoh, an action star from movies like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and the James Bond film “Tomorrow Never Dies.” She’s been a sci-fi nerd since childhood, even if she never dreamed she’d be given command of her own ship.
“When I’m in that [captain’s] chair (in between takes), I’m spinning around, I’m barking orders, ‘Don’t any of you come near me!’ But every time I get up to leave the bridge, everyone is scrambling to sit in that chair.
“It’s a powerful seat.”