On Star Trek: Discovery and Michelle Yeoh's accent

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May 19, 2017

When the Star Trek: Discovery trailer was first announced, I almost didn't want to watch it. I'm a lifelong fan of the franchise — I grew up on The Next Generation and Star Treks IIVI and I'd followed every up and down of the development of this series (and there have been too many) with breathless anticipation. There were so many delays that it almost didn't seem real anymore.

But finally, here it was, a bright and shiny trailer that all of a sudden makes this show tangible. I am actually going to see a new Star Trek series on TV.

I finally worked up the nerve to watch it, though I shouldn't have worried about disappointment. The trailer was, quite simply, spectacular, setting the stage for an exciting new series. I could go into the ins and outs, breaking down the trailer and analyzing each and every scene, character and setting — but that's not why I'm writing this.

This article is about one specific moment in the trailer: when Michelle Yeoh's character, Captain Philippa Georgiou, speaks for the first time.

"It's hard to imagine you've served under me for seven years," she tells First Officer Michael Burnham, played by the exquisite Sonequa Martin-Green, as they walk through a searing desert.

This line might seem innocuous, and it is. But that didn't stop me from bursting into tears the second I heard Yeoh deliver the line. Why?

Because Michelle Yeoh kept her accent.

As a young girl of color, Star Trek was the first place I can remember seeing myself represented. Through characters like Uhura, Sulu and Geordi LaForge, I saw people that looked a little like me — that shared the first thing people notice about me, a darker skin color — and for the first time understood that I could achieve anything, even serve on a starship. I, and people who looked like me, existed in this future. It was one of the major forces that shaped my childhood and the adult I have become.

When they began to announce casting for Star Trek: Discovery, the child in me was thrilled. Not only would one of the starship captains be a woman of color, but she was Asian. Not South Asian like I am — Michelle Yeoh is Chinese Malaysian — but it began to feel like Star Trek was finally embracing the global population Starfleet purported to represent. I was excited.

But still, nothing could have prepared me for the moment when Yeoh utters those first words. I don't know why the decision was made to keep Yeoh’s natural accent — if it was something the actress fought for, or it was designed that way, or even if it was a non-issue — but it mattered to me. You may have seen one person’s reaction to Diego Luna’s accent in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (a touching story that went viral), and this is similar for me. I personally do not speak English with an accent — I have the bland tones of someone born and raised in the Midwest. But my parents, immigrants to this country, speak with an accent, though they've lived here the bulk of their lives.

All of a sudden, it wasn't about me anymore. My parents, who share my love for Star Trek (even if they were somewhat skeptical of my fervor for it as a child), now have a place in this universe. It's hard to put into words what it feels like to watch a thing you so badly want to love and, all of a sudden, being emotionally devastated (in the best way possible) because they included you in such a seemingly effortless way. When you're used to having to fight for every small morsel of representation you get, having it granted without even having to even ask, and in such a thoughtful way, is overwhelming.

The fact is, many people — and many Americans — speak like Michelle Yeoh does, with a bit of an accent. That's okay. We're a multicultural country, and we should celebrate our differences. We're a country of immigrants. In this political climate, it’s so important to remember that. And Star Trek: Discovery is giving us another reminder of what we value. It's the show we need right now.

I still can’t watch the trailer without being overcome with emotion when Michelle Yeoh's character says her first words. I know she's a recurring star, not a series regular, but that’s okay. The fact that she exists in this universe is enough for me.