I’m a huge fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation, so it was with a certain amount of fangirl glee that I stumbled across this digitized memo from Paramount Studios. The memo (which found its way online in 2010) dates back to April 1987, and it lists some of the short-list casting considerations for some of our ST:TNG first season bridge crew.
There are some expected entries — Patrick Stewart as the favourite for Picard, and Jonathan Frakes winning out the role for Riker (spelled with a “y” in this memo) And, of course, Trekkies like myself were aware that Denise Crosby was initially considered for Troi. Many African American actors of note, including Wesley Snipes and Tim Russ (who would go on to star in Star Trek: Voyager) were on the short-list to play Geordi Laforge.
And, in an alternate universe, Rosalind Chao would’ve been Commander Tasha Yar, the hot-headed and tomboyish head of security. As Trek lore goes, Chao was a favourite for the role until Marina Sirtis auditioned for Troi; Rodenberry then decided to bump Chao’s casting and move Crosby to Yar’s role. Chao, who later appeared as Keiko O’Brien on ST:TNG and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, would’ve — I think — revolutionized images of Asian American women in science fiction. An Asian American Yar is tough and no-nonsense, but also struggles with her femininity and sexuality, undermining chances that Chao’s portrayal would’ve spun off into a “dragon lady” stereotype.
But then there are a few surprises.
Paramount was already toying with the idea that it might be ST:TNG, not Star Trek: Deep Space Nine that might give the franchise its first African American Starfleet captain; esteemed actor Yaphet Kotto was considered a competitor for Patrick Stewart in the role of Picard. Kevin Peter Hall, another African American actor, was in the running for the role of Data.
In addition, Kelvin Han Yee was being considered for the role of Data. Yee has had a storied career in Hollywood, and has appeared in many popular TV shows and films. He would definitely have been a fascinating Data, particularly since the character’s struggle to establish his humanity when the world views him as an inscrutable, emotionless talking computer has already spoken to so many Asian Americans.
Most interesting about this alternate universe cast is how these two characters enjoy a sexual tension in the show’s first season, sparked by their brain-washed hook-up in the season’s second episode. Might not the first season have resulted in a compelling exploration of Asian American gender and sexual interrelationships had Chao and Yee played Yar and Data respectively? How might an Asian American Yar’s character have evolved — and in so doing pushed the envelope of how Asian American women are portrayed on television — had she not been killed off in the first season (a result of Denise Crosby choosing to leave the show)?
I can’t be the only one yearning for a ST:TNG that could’ve been here, right?