Messages in the Original Star Trek

For those of you who brought your copy of The Screwtape Letters, open to Chapter 1:

Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church. Don’t waste time trying to make him think that materialism [disbelief in the supernatural] is true! Make him think it is strong, or stark, or courageous — that it is the philosophy of the future.

This is relevant to discourse in general. Jargon means different things to different people; it is key to preventing meaningful communication. Social media is a gold mine of jargon, or a dilithium mine in the case of the original Star Trek. (Roddenberry hadn’t invented latinum yet.) Somebody will chastise the later spinoffs for being “woke” or “too political,” and someone else will claim that the show was that way from the start. Looking over the original series I find little in the way of allusion to real-world politics or ’60s liberalism, and nothing compatible with modern leftism.

In any TV show revolving around exploration in a universe teeming with intelligent life forms, tribalism is going to be a recurring trope, much of the conflict political in nature. In many cases the tribes in question had no identifiable real-world parallels. A few episodes featured direct parodies of historical entities: the Roman Empire (“Bread and Circuses”), Tombstone, Arizona circa 1881 (“Spectre of the Gun”), Prohibition-era gangsters (“A Piece of the Action”), the Third Reich (“Patterns of Force”). The Eugenics Wars referenced in “Space Seed” are an obvious nod to Nazi “master race” theory. In “The Omega Glory” the Yangs and Kohms have names derived from “Yankee” and “Communist” and the former have their own copies of the US Constitution and Declaration of Independence, but the two are just small warring tribes and not global superpowers like their quasi-namesakes.

Actual Cold War influence on the show is modest. Space Mongols and space Romans replaced the Soviets and Chinese, respectively. The show avoided the debate over how to contain the Communist (mainly Soviet) threat to the West, even in the outright Vietnam parable “A Private Little War,” in which the dilemma was couched solely in terms of continuous war vs. one tribe’s extinction, and not in terms of a Domino Theory-styled threat to that region of space or the long-term threat to the Federation. (And there’s no Starfleet Admiral Westmoreland ordering deployment of Federation troops there.) The Klingons were consistently cast as the aggressors; the segment of the “dove” faction that blamed Vietnam and the Cold War on the US would have written that differently.

Allegories to Communism itself are nowhere to be found, but totalitarianism is featured in “The Return of the Archons,” complete with a Festival with echoes of the Two Minutes Hate of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

“A Taste of Armageddon” is an apparent attempt at an antiwar message, featuring the sort of conflict that no real-life Earthlings support, not even online gamers.

A few times the show was topical without offering any opinions on the topic in question. At least one hopes that was the case in “The Mark of Gideon,” in which aliens address their overpopulation problem by importing a lifespan-reducing virus. “The Way to Eden” had nothing meaningful to say about the counterculture but illustrated yet again the dangers of unchecked authority, and had something to say about the perils of leaving the shuttlecraft before scanning the surface.

The miniskirt uniforms appealed to contemporary notions of female liberation (and to both Nichelle Nichols and Grace Lee Whitney), and were consistent with ’60s eye-candy depiction of women. I’m not sure if the show did much to challenge attitudes toward women in the workplace. Guest characters included a few women of high rank (e.g. the Romulan commander in “The Enterprise Incident”), but the female crewmembers were mostly nurses or in support roles. Uhura is a subtle exception; only those familiar with the role of a real-life naval communications officer would have recognized that she was more than just a receptionist.

And then there’s the subject of race. Since the Federation illustrates an ideal where tensions between Earth racies and ethnicities are a non-issue, racism is addressed directly via relations with (and among) aliens. McCoy’s occasional boorish epithets directed at Spock (e.g. “hobgoblin”) mimic real-life racial slurs, however he he is not averse to getting along with Vulcans and is not saddled with misconceptions about them other than underestimating their emotions that they keep under wraps. Anti-Vulcan prejudice comes from a different source in “Balance of Terror;” Lt. Stiles is suspicious of Spock when the crew learns that Romulans closely resemble Vulcans. (That does call into question how Vulcans failed to notice the exodus from their world that would later spawn the Romulan Empire.) Outside of Vulcans, nothing addressed racism as blatantly as “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield,” in which the planet Cheron’s mutual racism leads to mutually assured destruction, sparing no man, woman or child.

I’ve encountered a few misguided souls on Facebook who think that “The Cloud Minders” was a satire of segregation. The problem with that interpretation is that the Troglytes weren’t second-class citizens, they were slaves. Involuntary servitude didn’t have the popularity in the 1960s that it had in the 1860s. (The episode doesn’t cast nationalized mineral rights in a favorable light, either.)

Many on the political left like to believe that the left invented racial and ethnic harmony and the level of diversity that such an environment begets, and that most conservatives have always opposed that sort of thing. That prejudice drives the perception that even the original series was politically progressive. Then and now, support for and opposition to racism could be found among both left and right. A more thorough analysis of the differences between conservative, liberals, and the modern left would be worthwhile, but only one such difference need be addressed here: the notion of class warfare promoted by radical leftists from the ’60s onward, which sees the world in terms of entire classes inherently at war with one another, each class being either oppressor or oppressed and not a mix of both – a notion that even the most modern iterations of Star Trek reject. As applied to race, one consequence is the redefinition of “racism” as illustrated in Paula S. Rothenberg’s book Racism & Sexism: An Integrated Study, once prescribed in the syllabus of the E306 English composition course at the University of Texas:

[R]acism involves the subordination of people of color by white people. While an individual person of color may discriminate against white people or even hate them, his or her behavior or attitude cannot be called racist. He or she may be considered prejudiced against whites and we may all agree that the person acts unfairly and unjustly, but racism requires something more than anger, hatred or prejudice; at the very least it requires prejudice plus power.

“Battlefield” doesn’t jive with today’s “woke” standards, since Lokai’s people weren’t held blameless.

15 thoughts on “Messages in the Original <i>Star Trek</i>”

  1. I’m struck by how little Star Trek has to say about life outside of Star Fleet. Surely 99.9% of humanity were not out there Bravely Going. What did they do? What motivated them? What did they hope for and aspire to?

    If you stretch to include TNG you get a few more data points (heh). Picard’s family had been making wine for a long time. There was little interest in accumulating money. (So why work your tail off out in the hot sun?). But in general I guess people just wandered around in outfits that resembled pajamas, doing……what?

    It would have to be a society that had all material needs taken care of. And one where the diversions of the Holodeck and of assorted pharmacopia would offer limitless vivid virtual worlds. How would such a society rally to mobilize against the many real threats that lurked Out There?

    I think it would all collapse out of boredom and sub replacement birth rate. There would be no Next Generation.


  2. One common thread between modern leftists and the GI/Silent Generation liberals is zero-sum thinking. Both apply this bias to economic policy; its influence was absent in the original series but found its way into later spinoffs – you never heard the Ferengi cite Rules of Production.

    Both also think of class imbalances in zero-sum terms, but leftists take the principle a lot further than the old-fashioned liberals do. Both favor redistribution of such things as assets, jobs, and academic admissions. But the latter do not find it desirable and necessary to outwardly denigrate entire classes. (“Class” is used here in reference to any demographic grouping – race, sex, economic status, etc.) You would never see someone like Hubert Humphrey support something like Protocols of the Elders of Plymouth – er, the 1619 Project, or yammer on about “toxic masculinity” as if there were toxic behaviors exclusive to males.

  3. well it was a Cold war era show, with hornblower elements, the Klingons were pretty close to the Soviets, the Romulans more like the Chinese, in their inscrutability and deception
    the Omega Glory, showed what a nuclear war with China would yield after a 1000 years
    they didn’t start taking potshots at American politics, until Next Generation which was no longer in Roddenberry’s hands, all though as the house liberal on Chief Parker’s staff he was
    apt to such utopianism

  4. In The Star Fleet Technical Manual, there are ilustrations of SALADIN Class destroyers, and HERMES Class scouts, basically the same ship, but the HERMES only had one phaser bavk, with the space given to weapons on SALADINs devoted to sensors and research suites.

    I have long thought a show about the crew of a HERMES, doing the actual job of finding new life, and new civilizations, before a heavy cruiser like a CONSTELLATION showed up, to make official first contact, would be a great series.

  5. IIRC (and IANASTE) the Federation had long since passed the age of economic necessity. There was no scarcity–how could there be, if food could be created out of nothing?

    The Ferengi (i.e. Franks, i.e. Westerners) were meant to represent the acquisitive atavisms of the past, foils to the enlightened Federation.

  6. ” Picard’s family had been making wine for a long time. There was little interest in accumulating money.”

    And how exactly would they keep making wine after a bad year, or disease? And especially a crop like wine grapes where the cost of growing, harvesting, making, ageing and bottling stretch for years before any income. This is the truth of socialism.

  7. I make no claim to be any sort of expert on Star Trek, but I have spent a lot of time watching the franchise.

    Channel 50 in Detroit ran the original series every day at 6pm for years, so I saw every episode many times when I was a kid. To the extent there were any political themes I didn’t notice, and I don’t recall anything objectionable today.

    I watched TNG during the original broadcast run. I don’t recall anything overtly political in that show either. It was just cheesy entertainment. I recognize that the criticisms noted above are valid, I just wasn’t paying that level of attention to the show.

    Next was Deep Space 9. It was just stupid. I was a fan of some the actors, but I could never watch it for long or stay interested. I recall one episode had what was essentially infantry combat with the Star Fleet people wearing the same uniforms crew wore on starships using the same handheld phasor. Nope. Do better.

    Somebody will chastise the later spinoffs for being “woke” or “too political,”…

    Yep, me. Again, if DS9 had political overtones I didn’t watch enough to notice. But I will note that a certain writer named Ron Moore was involved in DS9. More about him in a few sentences.

    Star Trek Voyager was next. I tuned in for the two-hour series premiere. I was not especially impressed. Bad writing was the problem with this show, not politics. There was one episode in which the captain somehow turned into a salamander and mated with another officer who had also become a salamander because reasons.

    Thumbs down. The only potentially “woke” item I can recall was that they had a character who was “Native American” complete with “tribal tattoos.” No problem with that- just a character choice- but in retrospect it sure looks a lot like the recent fetish for “representation. ”

    Lastly, there was Star Trek Enterprise. It had Scott Bakula, a sexy model whose name I forget, and something that struck me as completely antagonistic to the timeline of the original series.

    That is, instead of humanity making it into the stars and succeeding all on our own, the Vulcans were there first and were somehow holding humanity back, somehow. The humans needed to convince the Vulcans to give them the tech to enable advanced space travel, just like how a gender studies graduate imagines people get jobs today- by begging your social betters.

    So Ron Moore. After he left Star Trek, he created a reboot of the 1980s TV show Battlestar Galactica. I remember tuning in to watch, expecting something awful. It wasn’t. The first two seasons were awesome. There was a significant online fanbase, multiple websites, spinoff series, etc – then Ron decided he needed to make a statement against the Iraq war. He diverted the entire course of the show to endorse suicide bombing. The fanbase collapsed and a likely multi-billion dollar franchise imploded because of the political impulses of the showrunner.

    I’ve long had the opinion that Star Trek Enterprise was cancelled because management was embarrassed at how much better BSG was in comparison to STE. But I admit I have no idea what the actual ratings were and I don’t care enough to try and find out.

    Regardless, the messaging in Star Trek and what Star Trek veteran Ron Moore created has progressed from something with lasting generational appeal to something that wrecked two franchises.

    This is not success.

  8. I will try not to get into a nerd fight woth Xenndy here, but DS9 did look into alternate human cultures, lives, even how things were on Earth. It had quality “political” shows (Duet) and it had some dud “topical” shows (Far Beyond the Stars).

    There is an interview with Ron Moore where he complains about trying to work on Voyager before going on to BSG.

    But he was just a writer. Ira Stephen Behr was like one of the main forces behind DS9. Jeri Taylor helmed a lot of Voyager and why you’ll notice the early seasons have Janeway be a lot more “girlboss” than later ones after Jeri left.

    Also if you’re baffled why Enterprise had to deal with the Vulcans to get into space, you need to watch the TNG movie First Contact. That was also the idea apparently of Rick Berman who was set to have ENT take place an entire season on Earth just to show them preparing for space travel.

  9. You could say that DEEP SPACE NINE was too inside, and it was too complex. It got too much inside of its own head to be accessible to people who just approached the show for the first time, but that is a reflection of deep passion and commitment to the show.

    Thanks for that link and no nerd fighting needed. This is a quote from Ron Moore and I think it neatly summarizes what inspired my reaction to the show. I intend no slam on anyone who liked it.

    Also if you’re baffled why Enterprise had to deal with the Vulcans to get into space, you need to watch the TNG movie First Contact.

    I wasn’t baffled- my complaint about ENT also applies to that movie. But I was entertained when I saw it in the theater. Again, I just didn’t think it fit in with setup from TOS.

  10. it was an odd choice, also beltran’s character was a member of the maquis, who were settlers, displaced by the Cardassians as part of certain deals made with those powers,
    that was increasingly more clear from next generation to voyager, the Federation looks less friendly in those interactions, and more a Delian type alliance,

    of course, there was certain pointed commentaries like the ones about the sanctuary districts and the bell riots, which from the perspective of the 90s, sounds much like ‘the summer of love’ we saw four years ago,

  11. …the Federation looks less friendly in those interactions, and more a Delian type alliance,

    Yes, I recall that. It makes me wonder even more how humans became so important in the Federation, considering that they needed technological help from the Vulcans to get very far into space. It’s as if France somehow became the leading power of NATO.

    …which from the perspective of the 90s, sounds much like ‘the summer of love’ we saw four years ago,

    I also remember this. Somewhere on the internet I saw a picture comparing the Star Trek vision of a dystopian San Francisco circa 2020 with the real thing.

    They were amazingly similar.

    Wait, maybe we live in the Star Trek universe after all.

    Whew! Everything will be fine!

  12. yes they retcon their own timeline, the Vulcans handed over their technology like the Greeks to the Romans, and then…profit, reading between the lines, in the hundred years since Archer, the Vulcans sublimated their more violent impulses further, something that doesn’t work in the real world,
    one would wish the major cities had sanctuary districts,

  13. of course the mirror universe arc of enterprise, with it’s own martial theme intro, was pretty entertaining, some branch time line when America became a brutal hegemon, and hence conquered the world,

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