Star Trek: A Phenomenon and Social Statement on the 1960s

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Star Trek: A Phenomenon and Social Statement on the 1960s


Copyright © 1995 J. William Snyder, Jr.

 Permission granted to copy and use for private study and other non-commercial and academic purposes




 

On September 8, 1966 at 8:30 PM on NBC, America received its first glimpse of what was to become a legend. "Star Trek" made its debut that night, and America was never to be the same. For three years Star Trek graced the network, only to be canceled and to later return in syndication. Only then did the series command the reputation it deserved. But Star Trek has never been a run-of-the-mill science fiction program. One might find great difficulty in trying to compare it to other television science fiction series, like "Space: 1999" [which competed with Star Trek during its run in syndication], or series produced in the 1980's, like "Battlestar Galactica" or "Buck Rogers in the 25th Century". Comparison is difficult because Star Trek is not simply a far-out science fiction program- it is a science fiction program that reflects the America of the 1960's. Indeed, Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, during one interview is quoted as saying, "I have no belief that "Star Trek" depicts the actual future, it depicts us, now, things we need to understand about that". And David Gerrold, a writer for the series, says in his book that "[t]he stories are about twentieth century man's attitudes in a future universe. The stories are about us". Of course not every single episode makes a social commentary, but throughout the series, characters, themes, motifs, and of course, individual episodes make strong comments on sexism and feminism, racism and improving race relations, as well as militarism and peace, all major social issues during the late 1960's, and to a different degree, social issues of today.


Sexism and feminism

It was during the late 1960's that the contemporary feminist movement began. Major progress in women's rights in America was still years off, but the movement was gaining strength in the face of backward and  reactionary ideas. Star Trek was almost destined to collide with the movement for women's rights in some way or another. Star Trek's attitude towards women was intended to be progressive from the very beginning. However, circumstances would not permit this progressive attitude of women as full equals to their male counterparts to achieve its proper position. Instead, the series seemed to embody the 1960's status quo as far as relations between the sexes and the role of women. Star Trek had the opportunity to have a woman play a character in a clear authority position, but it instead backed off preferring to use regular female characters that either came just short of what was originally envisioned or reaffirmed the traditional roles for women. And according to Karen Blair, the rest of the female characters that appear in Star Trek are shallow, femme-objets that are disposed of at the end of each episode.

In the earliest conception of the series and during the first pilot, the script called for a character by the name of "Number One," the female first officer of the U.S.S. Enterprise. A strong, cool, almost emotionless character, she was intended to have experience and knowledge of ships operations superior to that of the Captain. Number One (she was never given a proper name) did make out of the notebook and into the first pilot for the series, 'The Cage', produced in 1964. Portrayed by Majel Barret, she comes across as an extremely competent, authoritative officer committed to duty. When Captain Pike is forming up an away team to investigate the crash of the S.S. Columbia on Talos IV, Pike purposefully leaves her behind, not because she is a woman, but because he feels her to be the ships most experienced officer, and she would be needed most on the ship should anything happen to the away team. When the pilot was shown to NBC executives who in turn approved more work to produce the series, they ordered that Number One be cut from the format. According to a behind-the-scenes look at Star Trek hosted by Leonard Nimoy that was produced a few years back, their rationale was that the audience would not be able to identify with a woman in such a powerful authority position on board a starship [Nimoy]. Unfortunately, the sexism of the 1960's was preventing the establishment of a progressive character because of traditional attitudes. Along with Number One went her costume design that differed very little from the costumes for the male characters. Throughout the rest of the series after the two pilots [The second pilot, the one finally accepted by NBC, was titled 'Where No Man Has Gone Before'], all the female members of the crew were dressed in short, skimpy skirts instead of trousers that Number One and other female characters wore during the pilots. [Although her character was cut, Ms. Barret returned to the series to play Nurse Chapel, a character more in line with what the network executives had in mind].

Lt. Uhura was communications officer of the Enterprise - a bold step on the part of Star Trek to have a Black character in such an important position on a television show during the 1960's. Uhura, whose name means "freedom" was a Black-African princess from East Africa who was fluent in Swahili, not an American Black woman, and this added a certain mystique to her character.


With the demise of Number One, Star Trek's portrayal of women was to be, at best, ambivalent - wavering between an implicit belief in women as equals but an unwillingness to exemplify in a tangible way what was being professed. In general, "the Enterprise's female crew...are a generally placid lot, passively observing the action or servicing the male endeavor" [Greenberg 63]. The characters of Lt. Uhura and Yeoman Janice Rand speak to this ambivalence well. Lt. Uhura, played by Nichelle Nichols is the highest ranking female officer to serve aboard the USS Enterprise during the three years that the series ran on network television. Lt. Uhura serves as communications officer and as fourth in command of the Enterprise [Gerrold]. To have a woman in such a prominent position on board a starship with her responsibility is truly amazing for a television show in the 1960's [Editor]. She is almost never portrayed as a stereotypical woman incapable of accomplishing anything without male assistance. As a strong, fierce character, she can take care of herself quite well. In the episode 'Mirror, Mirror', Uhura's task is to divert the attention of parallel-Sulu from his helmsman's post so Engineer Scott can divert power to the transporter room necessary to send her, Captain Kirk, Dr. McCoy, and Lt. Cmdr. Scott back to their own universe. Taking advantage of parallel-Sulu's desire for her, she moves in to "divert" his attention wish a seemingly sexual advance, only to violently slap him back once the indicator light on the helmsman's position warning of the power shift has gone out. She then defends herself quite nicely against the angry parallel-Sulu with a knife. Nichelle Nichols had much to do with portraying her character and fighting for her character's status. Ms. Nichols during an interview with David Gerrold mentioned that in the script for one episode, Lt. Uhura was to assume the helmsman's position because all the senior officers were on a planet, but the script was rewritten to exclude that action by the Lieutenant. Nichols "pitched a bitch" over being written out. "When you're out in space, in a dangerous situation. you're not going to have some female that goes, 'Ooooh, Captain, save me, save me!'". Ms. Nichols was bound and determined to secure a prominent place for Lt. Uhura and the rest of the women aboard the Enterprise. [Much also can be said about Uhura as a Black in a prominent position aboard a starship, but this will be discussed later].

Unfortunately, another prominent female character on board the Enterprise was not as progressive as Lt. Uhura. Yeoman Janice Rand, portrayed by Grace Lee Whitney, comes to exemplify the ultimate "dumb blonde" and damsel in distress in a skimpy outfit that could possibly exist in a male dominated environment. Her main duties aboard the Enterprise entail having Captain Kirk sign orders, bring him coffee, and a host of other duties typical of a secretary for a male chauvinist pig. Yeoman Rand gets especially bad treatment in the episode 'The Corbomite Maneuver' [airdate 11/10/66], as she appears as a "glorified maid" who enters the bridge to bring the Captain hot coffee and to make sure that he takes his pills (Compendium). The episode also includes a rather snide remark by Captain Kirk about what he was going to do to the individual who assigned him a "female yeoman". The series did back off of the overt sexism directed towards Yeoman Rand, but never the less she remained a sex object for the male members of the crew to gaze over. During the episode 'Miri', Yeoman Rand remarks in a delirious state that she had always tried to get Captain Kirk to look at her legs. She now openly asks him to look at her legs, which are now discolored due to the disease caused by the Life Prolongation Experiment attempted by the native adults of the planet several hundred years earlier. She is also captured by the children and held until Captain Kirk comes to rescue her. Eventually, the character was written out because Ms. Whitney's bout with alcohol and diet pill addiction. Ironically, Ms. Whitney not only loved the outfit the show gave her to wear, but also the roles the show had for her- she thought that "[w]hen we put legs into the format I think that helped sell the series". While other actresses, particularly Nichelle Nichols, were pushing for larger, more important roles, Ms. Whitney help to perpetuate classic sexism and sex roles during the series through her portrayal of Yeoman Rand, and the writers, producers, and network executives seemed more that happy to oblige her.

As far as other female roles on Star Trek, Karen Blair has proposes in her article 'Sex and Star Trek"'that female roles in the series have sought to "affirm traditional male fantasies in a most direct and unenlightened way". Blair maintains that the female characters, especially those created for specific episodes, fall into Simone de Beauvoir's concept of femme-objet, an objective view of women in a male dominated world. Her focus is on three episodes, 'Requiem for Methusalah' [airdate 2/14/69], 'Wink of an Eye' [airdate 11/29/68], and 'The Mark of Gideon' [airdate 1/17/69], and the female guest stars that are presented and then "disposed of" at the conclusion of the episode. In 'Requiem..', the Enterprise has come to a planet inhabited by a mysterious Mr Flint and his android "daughter" Rayna in search for medicine for a plague that has broken out on board ship. The beautiful Rayna is extremely intelligent, but appears to lack human emotions. Flint enlists the aid of Captain Kirk in getting Rayna in developing her feelings, only what actually happens during her emotional awakening is a conflict between her love for Flint and her love for Kirk that results in her death. According to Blair, Rayna is a "femme-objet par excellence," an android cast in the male image of what is female created by Flint to keep him company. "The supposed moral is that one can't program or control love, but a feminist perspective demands that one ask what kind of love, for what kind of person, living what kind of life". In the episode 'Wink..', the Enterprise is responding to a distress call from a planet claiming that only a tiny portion of their race still exists. The aliens are in fact living in an accelerated state enabling them to beam up with the away team and take over the Enterprise without anyone noticing. The men of the planet are sterile, and the women are therefore left with no other option than to secure men from spaceships that happen to respond to the distress call. Deela chooses Captain Kirk to be her mate, but Kirk does not oblige her wish to take him back to the planet. She gets little if any sympathy for her endeavor. In '..Mark..', the female character Odona has volunteered to spend time with Captain Kirk so that she might acquire the various deadly diseases Kirk has been exposed to during his lifetime. She does this so she would act as a carrier of deadly disease that would start to cure her planet of its dreadful overpopulation problem. Odona ends up receiving the viewer's approval. "Odona, the germ bank, is applauded; Kirk, the sperm bank, is unthinkable". In short, Blair feels that Star Trek fails to provide female viewers with any female characters that serve as "viable role-models" in a male dominated ideological environment.

Clearly, Star Trek gives rather short shrift to women at almost every turn. It turned down the opportunity to break new ground in the area of women's rights and opted for a largely passive and secondary role for its female characters. This is reflective of America during the late 1960's where the feminist

Racism and Improving Race Relations

One area where Star Trek made considerable progress and incorporation into its substance was its regard towards minorities. Of course, by the late 1960's. the Civil Rights Movement in the United States was in full swing, and much progress had been made in that area. By the time the first episode of the series aired in 1966, the Congress had passed numerous Civil Rights Acts, the Voting Rights Act on 1965, and constitutional amendments outlawing the poll tax and extending the right to vote in Presidential elections to the residents of the District of Columbia, where a majority of the population is Black. Thus, Star Trek was ripe for emphasis on the equality of all people regardless of race. Still, because of the population in the South that watched the show and other factors, elements of racism and racial inequality still appear in the series. Lastly, Star Trek has one episode that appears to make a clear statement regarding America's Civil Rights Movement.

 

To begin with, the crew of the Enterprise was racially mixed. "The ship had to be interracial because it represented all of mankind. How can the human race ever hope to achieve friendship with alien races if it can't even make friends with itself?" (Gerrold). The series has two regular characters that represent American minorities rapidly gaining status in American society, Lt. Sulu and Lt. Uhura [previously discussed in her role as a woman].

 

Mr. Sulu, played by George Takei, is the helmsman of the USS Enterprise. He first appeared in the second pilot 'Where No Man Has Gone Before' as "physicist" Sulu where the character had very few lines that were not indicative of the "adventure-loving, vital individual into which he would develop" [Compendium 18]. He is described in the episode 'Errand of Mercy' [airdate 3/23/67] as a "capable combat officer" by Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock as Sulu is left with commanding the Enterprise in battle against a formidable Klingon attack force. He is also a bit of an adventurist and a swashbuckler as is evident by his chivalric swordplay in 'The Naked Time' [airdate 9/29/66]. To have a Japanese-American in such an authority position was indeed a big step forward. Though hostile feelings in America towards Japanese-Americans due to World War II had cooled off significantly, some concern existed as to whether a Japanese-American character would cost the series viewers in Indonesia [Stine]. Still, George Takei, like the other minority actors for Star Trek fought and lobbied hard for his character. He was never happy with the lines and actions the writers had for his character, and Takei pushed so hard for his character that producers and writers learned to watch out when he came around. Gene Roddenberry never viewed Sulu as a "token Asian", even at a time when it seemed everyone was against him for insisting on a major role for his minority characters. Lt. Sulu thus became an indispensable member of the Enterprise crew. It is difficult to imagine anyone else at the helm of the USS Enterprise that could perform the duties of helmsman as well as Sulu.

The other minority regular on Star Trek was, of course, Lt. Uhura, communications officer of the Enterprise. Again, it must be stressed that it was a bold step on the part of Star Trek to have a Black character in such an important position on a television show during the 1960's. Uhura, whose name means "freedom" [Compendium] was a Black-African princess from East Africa who was fluent in Swahili, not an American Black woman, and this added a certain mystique to her character. Just as Sulu was never intended to be a "token-Asian" for the benefit of certain viewers in the audience, Uhura was not intended to be a "token Black", and both Ms. Nichols and Gene Roddenberry sought to make sure of that. Unfortunately, pressure from network censors and writers often reduced her to simple lines like, "Hailing frequencies open, Captain" or "Captain, what is it?" However, of the major groundbreaking steps involving Lt. Uhura that Star Trek made in television history was television's first interracial kiss [widely acknowledged as such in the literature]. The controversial kiss occurred during the episode 'Plato's Stepchildren' [airdate 11/22/68] where Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy, Nurse Chapel, and Lt. Uhura are held captive by admirers of Earth's ancient Greek society who are also endowed with telekinetic powers. The script called for either Captain Kirk or Mr. Spock, under control of his alien captors, to kiss Lt. Uhura. According to Fred Freiberger, producer of the episode, the show was caught in a bind- if they had Spock kiss her, the critics would say the show was too scared to have a White man kiss a Black woman, and if they had Kirk with Uhura in the scene with no kiss, then they would have gotten the same reaction. He and his colleagues made the decision to "...have Kirk do it, and go as far as [they could] in terms of censorship and all the rest of it".  The kiss between Uhura and Kirk and Kirk did make it on the air, and it apparently turned a lot of heads, but Ms. Nichols felt that the kiss was not all it was cracked up to be. She remarked once that Kirk was forced to kiss Uhura, and moreover, he was trying to fight the pressure. Fan mail after the episode was critical of the kiss, saying basically that if Captain Kirk had a beautiful woman in his arms, he would not be reluctant to kiss her.


Star Trek did attempt to make bold steps with its minority regulars, but the steps fell far short of their intended effect.

Star Trek does have a strong vein of racism running through it, but this racism is not directed towards the minority regulars [that would have caused major problems], Instead, this racism was directed towards Mr. Spock [portrayed by Leonard Nimoy], the half-Human half-Vulcan first officer and science officer of the Enterprise. Spock is the only one of his people aboard the Enterprise. His pointed ears, green blood, and devotion to pure logic set him apart from the rest of the crew. As a Vulcan, a fictional race of beings, scathing comments regarding his ethniticity [and especially his pointed ears] could have been made with virtual impunity while similar comments directed toward recognized minority groups would have been greatly frowned upon. The relationship between Mr. Spock and Dr. McCoy makes this point clear. During practically every episode, McCoy badgers Spock about everything from his pointed ears to his green blood.
  

During the episode 'Bread and Circuses' [airdate 3/15/68], Spock saved McCoy's life during a gladiator battle. McCoy later tries to humbly thank Spock for saving his, but he was put off by Spock's concentration on finding a way out of their jail cell and resorts to back to his typical scathing remarks regarding Spock's physical characteristics [I forget the actual line, but it goes something like this: "I'm trying to thank you for saving my life, you pointed-eared Vulcan!!"]. McCoy is not the only one to attack Spock's ethniticity. During the episode 'The Omega Glory' [airdate 3/1/68], Captain Ronald Tracey of the USS Exeter points to Spock's pointed ears and tries to convince his captors the Yangs that Spock is Satan, an endeavor that fails. And finally, in 'Balance of Terror' [airdate 12/15/66], "Lieutenant Stiles, a barely concealed racist and reactionary who lost several ancestors in [the human's first war with the Romulan Star Empire], accuses Spock of being a Romulan sympathizer simply because Vulcans and Romulans have pointed ears. [In the end, Spock risks his life to save...Stiles and the bigot is instantly chastened and reformed]" [Worland). Attitudes like this towards Spock were tolerated because Nimoy was a White and his character a Vulcan, not a Black or a Hispanic or an Asian. Roddenberry had originally wanted to cast a black man in Spock's role, but it seems rather doubtful if the same remarks could have been made about Spock were he played by a Black. Lastly, one episode of Star Trek is a clear statement on racism and its inherent disutility. 'Let That Be Your Last Battlefield' [airdate 1/10/69] is about two half-white half-black beings from the planet Cheron who bring their senseless racial struggle to the Enterprise. Lokai is the first to come aboard the Enterprise - he arrives in a stolen shuttlecraft asking for asylum. His pursuer, Bele, soon afterwards arrives on the Enterprise asking to take Lokai back to their home planet to stand trial for political crimes. Bele explains to Captain Kirk at one point his reason for wanting to take Lokai back to Cheron. Apparently, Lokai and others like him are considered inferior because they are black on the right side of their bodies while Bele's people are white on that side [the difference is not apparent to Kirk and the rest of the crew until Bele points it out, and the way it is pointed out makes it look silly and arbitrary]. He attempts to justify his people's treatment of Lokai by saying they are well treated and well cared for by his people, but because of their inherent inequality, they are not able to take care of themselves and require paternal guidance from the "superior" members of their society. Later in the episode, Lokai gives a lecture to members of the bridge crew on racism and persecution - the bridge crew emphasizing that racism and persecution existed at one time but was a thing of the past in their society. Bele eventually hijacks the Enterprise to Cheron when his extradition request is denied by the Federation, but when the Enterprise reaches Lokai's and Bele's home planet, they find the entire population dead from a major war. Instead of putting aside their differences, the two blame each other for the war, and they end up beaming themselves back down to the planet to continue their senseless race war. The episode ends with Captain Kirk not acknowledging the either of them was right or wrong, but "all that mattered to them was their hate". The parallels between this episode and the Civil Rights struggle in America are uncanny. In the United States, in addition to people like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who were advocating peaceful change and Senator Stromm Thurmond of South Carolina who was advocating the status quo, extremists groups based on hatred and anger existed on the playing field. Malcom X, a radical Black activist, advocated a violent uprising by Blacks against Whites [in essence, "Kill Whitey!]. There was also the Black Panthers, a militant Black organization that was prepared to seemingly start another civil war with all the weaponry it managed to procure. On the other side of the spectrum, there were the Ku Klux Klan and other White hate groups. What all these individuals and groups have in common is a fierce, uncontrollable hatred of those opposed to them, much like Bele and Lokai in this episode. The message to them is simple: hatred and violence will bring about everyone's destruction. Indeed, it was peaceful change that eventually brought about the major reforms in civil rights in this country, not the violent uprisings or suppressions that the extremist groups advocated.

Thus, Star Trek appears to have made many contributions to the improvement in race relations in America. Minority characters in clearly important positions emphasising the equality of minorities were combined with a "safety-valve" in the form of Mr. Spock to act as an outlet for racist attitudes. And of course one episode does get to make a direct comment on race relations in America. More than likely it is Star Trek's quality of remoteness of time and location that gives it the ability to do this without appearing to overtly be a social commentary.

Militarism and Peace

Of all the social issues that Star Trek alludes to or addresses, the one it seems to spend the most time on is the ethics of war and peace. Star Trek ran during the escalation period of the Vietnam war, a time when relations among the superpowers were tense. It takes numerous opportunities to make comments and address war and peace issues, overall criticizing use of force or the threat of it to achieve policy. Star Trek sets up and develops throughout the series striking parallels between the United Federation of Planets and the "West", and the Klingon Empire and the Romulan Star Empire as the "East". The series also have episodes that do not involve either of the Federation's enemies, but still make forceful comments on the evils of militarism.

The United Federation of Planets, the governing body in Star Trek with the Enterprise belonging to its military service Starfleet, is a product of the second season of Star Trek - prior to this the governing body of Star Trek is a united Earth government. Terry Worland in his article "Captain Kirk: Cold Warrior" offers and enlightening discussion of the relationship between the Federation and its adversaries. During the first season, the Enterprise has a few isolated skirmishes with both enemies, but as soon as the Federation is introduced, conflict between them takes on an ideological flavor in the episodes [Wortland]. "It became clear that the Federation controlled a definite sphere of influence and a vital interest [that was being] continually challenged and threatened". Moreover, Wortland believes that the Federation is not another United Nations, a rather weak organization with limited tools for achieving policy, but rather resembles the "free world" being defended by Starfleet, representative of NATO and the United States. "If the Federation represents America and the Western alliance, consider that during the time of Star Trek's production the U.S. government was seeking to challenge two principal adversaries in the Third World, especially in Vietnam". According to David Gerrold, just as America was supposed to be the policeman for the world, Star Trek is the policeman for the galaxy, all at a time when it was being questioned whether or not America should play that role [Gerrold]. Starfleet's originally scientific mission becomes one to "spread truth, justice, and the American Way to the far corners of the universe"  as well as to defend the Federation against its cancerous adversaries.

Just as the Federation comes to represent the "West" of 20th century earth, The Klingons seemingly come to represent America's staunchest adversary - the Soviet Union. William Blake Tyrell in his essay 'Star Trek as Myth and Television as Mythmaker' compares the Klingons and the Romulans to the Indian tribes the U.S. fought in the western part of the country. The Klingons are the "Magua - sly, perfidious, and fallen" while the Romulans are the "Chingachgook, the noble warrior ever outside the white man's world" [Tyrell]. However, I believe that given the time period in which Star Trek ran on NBC that examination of both the Klingons and the Romulans in terms of 1960's superpower relations provides a better interpretation of these two forces. The Klingons are a race of warriors from a part of the galaxy contiguous to Federation territory. They are thoroughly rotten creatures capable of such brutality and violent conquest as to make Josef Stalin in the Soviet Union seem like a mere street corner bully. "Think of the Mongol Hordes with spaceships and ray guns. To the Klingons, Genghis Khan was a phony and Attila the Hun was a fairy. And Hitler was only a beginner", [Gerrold] They seem to live by the maxim that "rules are made to be broken by shrewdness, deceit, or power" [ Tyrell. The Klingons are ruthless, planet-conquerors who use violent means to colonize "third- worlds". Kor, the Klingon commander 'Errand of Mercy' [airdate 3/23/67], establishes Klingon rule on Organia with an iron-hand, issuing orders banning public gatherings of more than two people and a whole host of other repressive measures. Klingons are also creatures of duty and fatality - the hope of every Klingon is to die in battle. During the episode 'Day of the Dove' [airdate 11/1/68], Kang, the Klingon commander of a small force holding part of the Enterprise, responds to Kirk's threat to kill his wife with a fatalistic statement that she knows the costs of final victory and is willing to pay with her life in order to further the greater glory of the empire. According to Worland, the Federation is locked in a "Cold War" with the Klingon Empire over the colonization of "third worlds", and moreover, the Federation is committed to stopping the spread of "Klingonism" at all costs [Worland]. Indeed, the Federation does conflict with the Federation over developing planets in the episodes 'The Trouble with Tribles' [airdate 12/29/67] and 'Friday's Child' [airdate 12/1/67].

However, one episode of Star Trek including a battle with the Klingons over a developing planet that makes a seemingly direct comment on the Vietnam War is 'A Private Little War"' [airdate 2/22/68]. In this episode, Kirk, Spock, and McCoy beam down to a planet in the Organian-imposed neutral zone where Kirk was once stationed. They find the Hillpeople and the Villagers engaged in a war, and oddly enough, the Villagers have flintlock rifles - weapons they could not have possibly developed in Kirk's absence. Kirk suspects the Klingons of supplying the Villagers with their relatively advanced weaponry, but he needs absolute proof. After obtaining that proof, and a few flintlocks to boot, Kirk returns to the Hillpeople's camp to arm them with the exact same weaponry. He justifies his action to Dr. McCoy by referring to the "20th century brush wars on the Asian continent" and noting that the only way to deal with the situation then was to maintain the balance of power between the two opposing sides. Kirk feels that he must do the same thing now as was done them in order to fight the Klingons. But by the end of the story, Kirk realizes that he has opened a Pandora's box by arming the Hillpeople and does not arm them anymore than he has. Oddly enough, this episode was broadcast during the Tet offensive, the bloody two month long attack by the Viet Cong on every major city in the Republic of Vietnam, including Saigon. This is widely acknowledged as the turning point of the Vietnam War as far as American public opinion. In this episode, "[Kirk] adopts the rhetoric of five presidential administrations in describing the causes of a civil war and the rationale for American/Federation involvement". [Wortand] Here, the Hillpeople come to represent the South Vietnamese as the U.S. government would have liked the public to view them - peaceful, unagressive, and good-natured. Likewise, the Villagers come to represent the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong who readily take aid from the Klingons/Soviet Union. However, Wortland believes that Star Trek stopped just short of making a strong comment on the war. Instead, he feels the episode is ambivalent, wavering between a pro and anti war stance [Wortland 113]. Because of this, both sides probably labeled it as either "treasonous" or "sharp criticism [of the war]" [Wortland]. Either way, it seems that this episode was lucky to make it on the air given this very touchy subject.

The Klingons are not the only adversaries the Federation face. On the other side of Federation space lay the Romulan Star Empire. The Romulans are not seen very much during the course of the series. Apparently, the humans and the Romulans fought a major interplanetary war to a stand-off, then negotiated a treaty calling for the establishment of a neutral zone that entrance into by either side constituted an act of war. The Romulans are creatures of pure duty, more so than the Klingons. In 'Balance of Terror' [airdate 12/15/66], an episode during which the Enterprise and a Romulan warship engage in a battle, the commander's final act is to destroy his disabled ship to avoid the disgrace of capture. Comparatively, the Romulans are a regional power, but also one not to be taken lightly; allied with the Klingon Empire, they copy Klingon warship design in 'The Enterprise Incident' [airdate 9/27/68] [Wortland]. The Romulans were not as repulsive as the Klingons were, but they were much smarter than their Klingon counterparts [Gerrold]. They are also not completely despised as the Klingons are, principally because they and Mr. Spock have the same distant ancestors [Wortland].

The episode 'The Enterprise Incident' involves an act of blatant espionage by the Federation on the Romulan Star Empire. The episode opens by Captain Kirk, in a seemingly insane state of mind, orders the Enterprise across the neutral zone and into Romulan space only to be captured. While aboard one of the Romulan ships, Spock "kills" Captain Kirk with the Vulcan Death Grip [there is no such thing, but the Romulans do not know that!] after Kirk accuses him of selling him and the rest of the ship out. Back on the Enterprise, Kirk is given plastic surgery so that he looks like a Romulan. Then the true nature of the mission is revealed: the Enterprise is to obtain the Romulan cloaking device, a device the Federation considers a major threat to its security. They steal one of the devices and escape safely back to Federation space. It is widely known that Dorothy [D.C.] Fontana wrote this episode in response to the capture of the U.S. spy ship Pueblo in 1968. The vessel was allegedly spying for the U.S. in North Korean waters when it was captured. The captain was then told to sign a confession of spying or risk losing his crew. According to Wortland, the original plot was an exact parallel of the "Pueblo Incident", putting Captain Kirk in the same position as the captain of the Pueblo. But, intense pressure demanded that the episode be rewritten as to remove and doubt that the spying was justified [Wortland]. "In fact, the way Star Trek told it, we were justified because our side was right and theirs wasn't" [Gerrold]. Indeed, the episode could have served as a dramatic stage for television to make an argument about whether the U.S. was right in spying in this manner [it was widely believed that the government was lying about the position of the Pueblo when it was captured, but like other aspects of the show, Star Trek neglected this opportunity as well].

Finally, one episode that does not include either the Klingons or the Romulans makes a comment on the Vietnam War and on war in general. "' Taste of Armageddon', the Enterprise encounters a planet that is at war with one of its neighbors, but seems to be a thriving civilization not affected by the carnage of war. Kirk discovers that many generations before, the two planets agreed to continue their war, but to reduce it to computer simulated attacks and requiring the "casualties" to report for disintegration. Kirk destroys their computer [an abrogation of the treaty signed between the two planets] so that they will finally realize that the carnage, brutality, and horrific death of war makes it something to be avoided. David Gerrold compares the counting of casualties and requiring those people to submit to disintegration to the statistics coming out of Vietnam on troop strenth and body counts of the enemy [often believed to be greatly underestimated] [Gerrold]. War, when reduced to mere numbers, becomes painless and unobjectionable. Star Trek's moral here is to object to that reformulation of war. Indeed, the leaders of the planet finally agree and open talks with their enemy to put an end to their war once and for all.

Plainly, Star Trek does attempt to address war and peace issues, largely along the lines of present day earth's East/West conflict. However, it could have made much stronger statements, but it chose not to for various reasons. Americans themselves were beginning to be unsure about the morality of their country's actions. It is quite possible that this is why Star Trek refuses to take a stronger stance regarding warfare.

Conclusion

Star Trek does indeed make comments on its time period, and this is what separates it from other science fiction programs of its time period. Perhaps this is one reason for the series’ immense popularity, for the social issues dealt with in Star Trek are also social issues of our day if to a different degree. The feminist movement is firmly established and has made much progress in the area of women's rights. Equal pay for equal work is now the law in Washington state, on-demand abortion is now legal thanks to Roe v. Wade in 1973, and women are breaking out of traditional sex roles and stereotypes in practically all aspects of life. Race relations have improved greatly, although problems still exist. School integration spurred on by bussing has integrated the public schools and helped to mold a new generation with the ideas of racial equality firmly embedded in their beliefs. Still, hate groups exist despite social and legal pressure to stamp them out. Tensions have eased somewhat among the superpowers, but possibility of conflict in the third world still exists. Star Trek reminds us that these social issues are timeless for our society, and if our society is to progress to the day when we can peacefully explore and colonize space, these issues must be finally and absolutely resolved. Star Trek did attempt to make bold steps with its minority regulars, but the steps fell far short of their intended effect.


Works Cited


Asherman, Allan. "The Star Trek Compendium" New York: Pocket Books, 1986. Cited as Compendium. [All airdates from the episodes were taken from this book]
Asherman, Allan. "The Star Trek Interview Book" New York: Pocket Books, 1988.
Blair, Karen. 'Sex and Star Trek'. "Science Fiction Studies" 10 [1983]
Editor, 'Talk of the Town'. "The New Yorker" 64 [12 December 1988]
Greenberg, Harvey R. 'In Search of Spock: A Psychoanalytic Inquiry'. "Journal of Popular Film and Television" 12 [1984]
Gerrold, David. "The World of Star Trek." New York: Bluejay Books, 1984.
Nimoy, Leonard [Mr. Nimoy hosted a television show about the time of the release of "Star Trek II: the Wrath of Khan" offering a behind the scenes look at the making of "Star Trek" the series and the first two "Star Trek" films. Unfortunately, I cannot remember the title or any other information about it to make a proper citing. [Watch TV late one night and it might come on again!]
Stine, G. Harry. "State of the Art: Star Trek Revisited". 108 [November 1988]
Tyrell, William Blake. 'Star Trek as Myth and Television as Mythmaker'. "Journal of Popular Culture" 10 [Spring 1977]
Wortland, Rick. 'Captain Kirk: Cold Warrior'. "Journal of Popular Film and Television" 16 [Fall 1988]

 



 

The Language of the Unheard - Martin Luther King and the Impact of Star Trek
"Star Trek" was one of the most important television programs of the 1960s. Here Christopher Benedict explores why through the many fascinating characters and plots. It was also a show that Martin Luther King, Junior enjoyed – and one that broke boundaries on race in one very important way.

Strange New Worlds

Martin Luther King, Junior was, still is, and always shall be remembered and revered for the myriad roles and responsibilities he assumed during a life which was as astonishing for its historical and cultural impact as it was appalling for the barbaric manner in which it was often disturbed and ultimately terminated.

Among his assumed or accepted capacities were preacher, teacher and practitioner of nonviolent resistance, writer, agitator, community organizer, civil rights leader, Nobel Peace Prize winner. And Trekkie?

Even Nichelle Nichols, who played the groundbreaking part of Lieutenant Uhura - Communications Officer aboard the USS Enterprise on the short-lived but beloved original series of Star Trek - could hardly believe it. She would learn of Dr. King’s affinity for Gene Roddenberry’s visionary science fiction program when she found herself at a professional and existential crossroads, acting eventually upon-and revitalized by-personal counsel originating from a most unexpected source. Her peace-keeping mission was no longer relegated simply to the distant and abstract galaxies of Uhura’s 23rd century “where no man has gone before”, but in the very real here and now of the turbulent 1960s where Ms. Nichols could and would have a more direct, forceful, and noble influence.

To Boldly Go

Star Trek was not an easy sell. Having signed a development deal with Desilu Productions [started by, and named for, Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball] Gene Roddenberry submitted a proposal to executives at CBS for an episodic drama modeled after the popular western "Wagon Train", transporting the consequent adventures from the American heartland to outer space. Though they were not necessarily contemptuous of science fiction as a genre with prime-time viewership potential, CBS did dismiss Star Trek as "too cerebral" in favor of the more sanitized and banal "Lost in Space", a sort of interstellar "Leave it to Beaver".

Roddenberry then pitched his concept to NBC which agreed to move forward after overhauling the show’s cast [Spock being the only character retained] due to the dismal reception of the pilot episode called 'The Cage'. Unlike the creators of "Lost in Space", Rodenberry was uninterested in formulaic, obtuse entertainment depicting a gentrified cast acting out pointless hijinks for the dubious benefit of injudicious audiences. Indeed, he was hell-bent on crafting an audaciously philosophical and tirelessly optimistic vision of the future which would be both brain-teasing and gut-checking, defiantly challenging racial prejudices, social constructs, and political xenophobia of the day.

"Gene was a man of ideas and ideals," explains original cast member turned social media sensation George Takei. "Our human past may not have been all good, and neither had the history of his creation, Star Trek. But he had the boldness of spirit to go into a medium-television-famous for mediocrity and uplift it and succeed, against all odds, with idealism".

To scratch the surface of what Takei describes as Roddenberry’s "world of infinite diversity in infinite combinations", you need only examine a snapshot of the team gathered aboard the bridge of the Enterprise.

A Constellation of Rising Stars: Leonard Nimoy as Spock

Second in command and dogmatically contrary to the swashbuckling James Tiberius Kirk, whose heroics were almost always reactionary and emotion-driven, was Leonard Nimoy’s Mr. Spock, the ship’s Science Officer. His mother an Earth woman and his father Sarek a green-blooded Vulcan, Spock is denigrated as a "half-breed" by an android version of Kirk in the episode 'What Are Little Girls Made Of?' Spock inherited not only Sarek’s pointed ears and perennially arched eyebrows but the predominant Vulcan trait of thinking and acting strictly within the logical boundaries of mathematics and science.

The wrestling match between sensible reason and deliberate speculation which the partly-human Spock must occasionally participate in is reminiscent [as is his physical appearance in a vague fashion] of Abraham Lincoln who grappled with similar ideological conflicts in his speechwriting, policy making, and personal thinking. What later turns out to be a carbon-based copy of Lincoln beams aboard the Enterprise in the 'Savage Curtain' episode [third to last of the original series] and encounters Lt. Uhura to whom he refers as "an enchanting Negress". Uhura takes no offense, assuring a properly chagrined ‘Lincoln’ that "in our century, we’ve learned not to fear words". The replicated Emancipator replies, "The foolishness of my century had me apologizing where no offense was given".

Nichelle Nichols as Uhura

The visually striking and multi-talented Nichelle Nichols had modeled, danced in Hugh Heffner’s Playboy Club, traveled extensively as a singer in the ensembles of Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton, and appeared variously onstage and onscreen. She was featured in Gene Roddenberry’s first series titled, appropriately for the soon-to-be Communications Officer of the Enterprise, "The Lieutenant". Interestingly, because Uhura’s makeup swept her hair atop her head and accentuated Nichols’ naturally almond-shaped eyes, she was often mistaken for Asian by people viewing the program on black and white television sets.

George Takei as Sulu

The role of Helmsman Hikaru Sulu was filled by George Takei, who was very involved in several early plot lines alongside the show’s central triumvirate of Kirk, Spock and Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy ["Dammit, Jim, I’m a doctor…"] played memorably by DeForest Kelley. Born Hosato Takei in Los Angeles to Japanese parents, he [at the age of four] and his family were rounded up along with more than 120,000 other Japanese Americans in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack and interred for five years in a perpetual state of "chaos and confusion" among "rows upon rows of black tar paper-covered Army barracks aligned in military parade precision", first in Alabama’s Rohwer Relocation Center then Camp Tule Lake back in California.

Prior to navigating the Enterprise out of a succession of hazardous situations among the stars, one of Takei’s first film appearances was an uncredited role as the Japanese steerer who pulverizes Lt. John F. Kennedy’s torpedo boat in "PT-109".

Walter Koenig as Chekov

Takei’s prolonged absence while filming "The Green Berets" opposite John Wayne was responsible for the increased screen time given to Walter Koenig, introduced as Ensign Pavel Chekov in Star Trek’s second season. His parents, Isadore and Sarah Koningsberg, were Russian Jews who fled Lithuania for Chicago and ultimately New York where Isadore, a former Communist, found himself subject to scrutiny beneath the red-tinted lens of Joseph McCarthy’s un-American activities microscope. Koenig compared the McCarthy witch-hunts of the 1940s and 50s to "our version of the Spanish Inquisition or Robespierre’s Committee on Public Safety or the shadow councils of South American dictatorships".

Roddenberry’s addition of a Russian to the cast was a further controversial brushstroke of brilliant multiplicity just as the successful missions of Sputnik and Vostok had given the Soviets the lead in the jingoistic space race, throwing further fuel onto the fire of the still-simmering Cold War. Beyond giving the prematurely balding actor a mop-topped toupee, drawing favorable comparisons among female Trekkers with Davey Jones of the Monkees, and requesting that Koenig over-enunciate an already cartoonish Russian accent [such as swapping W’s for V’s], Roddenberry’s public relations department concocted another puzzling fabrication.

The character of Chekov, according to a press release which was every bit a work of fiction as Star Trek itself, was created to satisfy the call for a Russian cast member proposed by the Soviet newspaper "Pravda", a publication which pre-dated the October Revolution but had enjoyed its most immense readership under Lenin’s rule along with the Bolsheviks’ other propaganda sheet of choice "Izvestia".      

 James Doohan as Scotty

James Doohan confessed that he was Canadian with "some Scottish blood in me, but that’s three hundred years ago". He recalled being asked by Gene Roddenberry during his audition to judge for himself "which of the eight different accents I’ve just done for him would best fit the role of the Chief Engineer. It had better be a Scotsman," Doohan decided. "They’ve built all the great ships around the world. The Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth, the Titanic…"

That last example notwithstanding, the Enterprise’s Transporter Engineer adopted the guise of Montgomery Scott, still associated today with the catchphrase "Beam me up, Scotty". Like "Play it again, Sam", it is one of those peculiar anomalies of the pop-culture lexicon for having never actually been spoken as quoted. Much to Doohan’s regret, the aforementioned Lincoln-related episode 'Savage Curtain' would be the only opportunity for Scotty to don the traditional Scottish kilt.

MLK Rescues Uhura   

Star Trek did not become the mainstream cultural phenomenon that it remains today until after its 1969 cancelation and subsequent network syndication in the 70s. The series suffered, during its inaugural season, from lukewarm critical reaction and poor viewership ratings. It was also nearly altered drastically and for the worse by the potential departure of one of its major cast members.

Nichelle Nichols was routinely given a difficult time by certain security guards on the Paramount lot who pretended not to recognize the unmistakable actress with the intention of denying her access to the show’s soundstage. One afternoon, she was approached covertly by two mailroom employees who apologized for withholding the bulk of her voluminous fan correspondence - which rivaled that of either Leonard Nimoy or William Shatner - at the request of their supervisor who himself was acting on orders handed down from above.

Worse still, she was verbally accosted by a Desilu executive who told her in no uncertain terms following a first-season cast reduction that "If anyone was let go, it should have been you, not Grace Lee," referring to Grace Lee Whitney who had played Captain Kirk’s personal assistant and hopeful love interest Yeoman Janice Rand until her role was deemed redundant. "Ten of you could never equal one blue-eyed blonde," was his bigoted analysis.

These events proved the breaking point of the frustration already weighing heavily upon her at being little more than a prop on the ship’s bridge [with the notable exception of getting to sing in two early episodes], exhibiting her shapely legs in a red mini-dress and interminably intoning the line, "Hailing frequencies open, sir". The last episode of the season having wrapped, Nichelle went to Gene Roddenberry’s office and tendered her resignation, effective immediately.

She attended an NAACP fundraiser the following evening where a fellow guest asked if she could take some time to meet with a big fan. Anticipating a short cordial chat followed by an autograph request or photo opportunity, Nichols was astounded to turn and stand face to face with Martin Luther King, Junior. "Yes, I am that fan," King beamed, "and I wanted to tell you how important your role is". He revealed to her that Star Trek was the only television show that he and Coretta allowed the children to stay up late and watch as a family and was completely taken aback by Nichele’s revelation that she was departing the program.

"You cannot and must not," demanded King. "You have opened a door which must not be allowed to close. You have created a character of dignity and grace and beauty and intelligence. For the first time, people see us as we should be seen, as equals, as intelligent people, as we should be. Remember, you are not important there in spite of your color. You are important there because of your color. This is what Gene Roddenberry has given us".

Nichols returned to Roddenberry on Monday morning to relay Dr. King’s message and retract her resignation. "God bless that man," Gene said while fighting back tears. "At least someone sees what I’m trying to achieve".

The Kiss

Before the series wound down to its fateful and unfortunate third season conclusion, it would shock the world with a provocative episode titled 'Plato’s Stepchildren'. It begins in a manner not dissimilar from 'The Squire of Gothos' [wherein Uhura is identified by the French-obsessed alien presence Trelane as "a Nubian prize"] as a landing party consisting of the crew’s principal players is manipulated for the amusement of their nefarious hosts. Here, a Utopian society has been founded on the planet Platonia by its leader Parmen based on the teachings of the ancient Greeks, namely Plato and Socrates.

Lt. Uhura and Nurse Chapel [Roddenberry’s wife Majel] are involuntarily beamed down to Platonia for inclusion in a stage play-equal parts dramatic, romantic, and sadistic-along with Kirk and Spock, all in Greek costume and under the influence of Parmen’s psycho-kinetic control. After Spock and Nurse Chapel have already done so, Kirk and Uhura have no choice but to comply with Parmen’s wish to see them kiss. This is commonly and mistakenly referred to as television’s first inter-racial kiss but the truth of the matter is that the British soap opera "Emergency Ward 10" beat Star Trek to the lip-smacking punch four years earlier.

Furthermore, the sequence, as aired, features the second alternate take shot at the insistence of Paramount executives where Shatner pulls a struggling Nichols toward him and their lips do not make direct contact. This measure was taken to placate southern network affiliates who threatened to black out the entire hour based solely on the presentation of "the kiss".

"And even when we shot this compromised version of the scene, I can clearly recall the network suits standing on the set watching us intently," remembers William Shatner, "making sure that before the two of us performed our simulated kiss, we fought against it intently, making it absolutely clear that in the case of Kirk and Uhura, this was an 'against their will' coupling. Completely devoid of any passion, romance, or sexuality". Nichelle Nichols raged that "It was bullshit! Bullshit! It was simply and clearly racism standing in the door…in suits. Strange how a twenty-third century space opera could be so mired in antiquated hang-ups".

Regardless, it was a mountain-moving moment in American television and one can only imagine that writer Meyer Dolinsky anticipated the furor this scene would arouse when he scripted the lines of dialogue beginning with Uhura saying, "I’m so frightened, Captain. I’m so very frightened".

"That’s the way they want you to feel," Kirk reassures her. "It makes them think that they’re alive". Uhura then declares affirmatively and defiantly that "I’m thinking of all the times on the Enterprise when I was scared to death…and now they’re making me tremble. But I’m not afraid. I am not afraid".

Down to Earth and Back to Space 

Many cast members happily accepted the challenge to "seek out new life and new civilizations" after they had shed their Starfleet insignia, tri-corders, communicators, and phasers [set to stun, of course].

Nichelle Nichols would use her sci-fi credibility to recruit engineers and astronauts for NASA, specifically appealing to females and minorities. Augmenting the encouragement she had received from Martin Luther King back in 1966, she would be further touched by the words of Whoopi Goldberg who would appear as Guinan on the last four seasons of "Star Trek: The Next Generation". Whoopi excitedly conveyed the story to Nichelle of how she had turned on the television as a child and seen Uhura featured prominently on the bridge of the Enterprise, screaming to her mother, "Come quick! Come quick! There’s a black lady on tv and she ain’t no maid". 

Leonard Nimoy campaigned for the dovish Eugene McCarthy and worked on behalf of the ACLU, Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers, and Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. One of the songs that appeared on Nimoy’s 1974 double-LP "Outer Space/Inner Mind" was a track entitled 'Abraham, Martin, and John', a musical tribute to Lincoln, King, John and Bobby Kennedy.

George Takei, an openly gay man with a decidedly wicked sense of humor, proudly uses his frequent appearances on the Howard Stern Show as well as his various social media platforms to advocate for LGBT rights and same-sex marriage legislation along with his husband Brad. The hit musical "Allegiance", starring Takei and based on his experiences in the Japanese internment camps, opened at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego and has played to great acclaim in several major cities with a recent run at Broadway’s Longacre Theatre.

Suffering terribly from a hellish combination of Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and pulmonary disease, James Doohan was honored shortly before his 2005 death with a convention called "Beam Me Up One Last Time, Scotty". The keynote speaker was Neil Armstrong who made a rare public appearance to express his gratitude for the inspiration that Star Trek had given him in his quest toward the moon. "I want a Chief Engineer like Montgomery Scott," Armstrong mused on a hypothetical return to the stars, "because I know Scotty will get the job done and do it right. Even if I often hear him say, 'But, Captain, I dinna have enough time!' So, from one old engineer to another, thanks Scotty". Doohan was cremated after passing away, his ashes successfully beamed up into near-earth orbit in 2012 - after two previously failed attempts-aboard the Falcon 9 rocket.

Live Long and Prosper!

Sources

Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories by Nichelle Nichols [1994, Putnam]

To the Stars: Star Trek’s Mr. Sulu by George Takei [1994, Simon & Schuster]

Warped Factors: A Neurotic’s Guide to the Universe by Walter Koenig [1997, Taylor Publishing]

Beam Me Up, Scotty by James Doohan with Peter David [1996, Pocket Books]

Star Trek Memories by William Shatner with Chris Kreski [1993, Harper Collins] 

I Am Not Spock by Leonard Nimoy [1975, Celestial Arts]