The main antagonist of the past season of Star Trek: Discovery was Osyraa, played by the great Janet Kidder, an Orion woman and leader of the Emerald Chain, a crime syndicate intent on dominating the galaxy and crushing the Federation. For most viewers not steeped in Trek lore, Osyraa was just a great green villain who seemed ready to spar with Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) and her crew, but the history of the Orion race is a murky one that Trek’s writers have been trying to reckon with for decades.
In the early years of Star Trek, the Orions were standard-issue exotics. During Trek’s first iteration, in 1966, Captain Kirk has just an encounter with an Orion woman, the sex slave of a former Starfleet officer, a character who didn’t have much going for her beyond being scantily clad and green. In the 1970s animated series, Kirk and Co. fought off a ship of male Orion pirates attempting to steal a bunch of space fuel and medicine. As with much science fiction of the ’60s and ’70s, the depiction of alien others as ruthless brigands and sexy slaves was woefully uncomplicated, but a few writers of the 2000s series Enterprise saw enough potential in the Orions that they wanted to take a new stab at this race.
The fourth season of Enterprise involved slave markets (more sexy green women), but late in the season, an Orion male reveals that even though their women appear to be slaves they are actually the enslavers, using pheromones to manipulate and control the men around them. The slave auctions involving Orion women seen earlier in the season are just a ruse to get close to powerful men. Sexy aliens are OK if they’re the ones who have the power, right?
J.J. Abrams’ Trek films tried to step away from the trend altogether with an Orion woman enrolled at the Starfleet Academy, but she’s still just a sexy alien whose only substantive screen time is a hookup with the young James Kirk. In other words, the Orions have always lived in the sexual power space, at least until both Discovery and Star Trek: Lower Decks refreshed and confronted their previous iterations in the last year.
Discovery’s Osyraa is the leader of a crime syndicate and always happy to dirty her hands with the blood of those who’d defy her. Rather than the manipulative pheromonic rule of her people’s past, she has taken outright control and seems to be running a better slave and mercantile racket than any Orions before. In her first appearance, she nods to Orion history by saying, “My ancestors knew that power is virtue and there is no nobility in suffering. You do what it takes to get what you need, or you don’t.” She respects what the women of her race have done, but there’s no chance this savvy crime boss will tolerate what they had to put up with.
Before we even meet her in the back half of the season, Osyraa’s terrifying presence looms. Her name stirs fear in all who hear it, and her inept nephew is terrified of his fate after failing to stop Michael Burnham from causing chaos at a slave exchange he runs. When Osyraa finally appears, it’s clear how far the Orions have come, even if they’re still indulging in a pirate-adjacent economy. Unlike her predecessors on Enterprise and the original series, she’s shed the traditional skimpy space bikini for a simple black outfit without much flair, because she doesn’t need to use her body or her pheromones to trick men into doing what she wants. There’s no more ruling from the shadows, and she’s a powerful political figure in addition to a crime boss, attempting to enter peace negotiations with the Federation after stealing their strongest ship and forcing her way into their protected compound. She knows the Federation and the Emerald Chain would be stronger together, and is even willing to bring an end to the slave markets across the galaxy, at least as long as she can be pardoned for her crimes.
Perhaps even more interesting than Osyraa is Ensign D’Vana Tendi (voiced by Noël Wells), a science officer in the animated series Star Trek: Lower Decks. A science nut obsessed with all the tech on her starship, she’d rather spend her days exploring and solving scientific problems than engaging in the slavery and seduction others expect of the Orions. In one episode on the holodeck, she finds herself cast as a typical Orion woman dressed in a revealing outfit and written as a ruthless pirate, but she quickly pushes back on the discomfort with that stereotype, claiming most Orions haven’t even been pirates for years.
Though the on-screen encounters in the original series and Enterprise before last year don’t signal such depth, there are a few mentions over the years that hint at a bigger picture. At one point in the original series, Spock mentions that a translation of text from ancient Orion ruins was essential in revolutionizing modern immunization techniques. On Star Trek: Voyager, one crewman only joined the ship to get his required experience before attending the Institute of Cosmology on Orion I. Both of these point to a culture interested in fostering scientific discovery and exploration, not just piracy and slavery. Sure, those might be the most outwardly lucrative endeavors for a race interested in enriching themselves, but any space-faring race has had to progress far enough to be able to make it to space and beyond, something impossible without a robust science program. They can’t steal and enslave if they can’t leave the planet.
The newest versions of Star Trek seem ready to reckon with the thin canon created in the franchise’s early days, confronting things like sexy slave tropes and racial stereotypes. It’s a noble task that is exciting to witness when pulled off well, but a lesson they still need to learn is that just because something is a piece of Trek history doesn’t always mean it deserves a reconsideration.
Correction, Jan. 19, 2021: Due to a production error, an image in this photo illustration was originally misattributed. The collage contains an image from Star Trek Continues, which is an independent production.