It’s a strange thing to see whenever a new star trek the series or character is advertised and revealed as containing some form of current social commentary, that there is inevitably some commentary from a disgruntled person. Such comments are phrased in different ways, but often come back to someone saying they won’t watch again star trek because it has become so political.
The original series (known as TOS-era hiking) was released in the 1960s, a time of upheaval in the cultural fabric of the United States. Campus kids protested the war in Vietnam, hippies expanded their minds with all kinds of new drugs, and America was in turmoil over the burgeoning civil rights movement. star trek was born into this world. Like all great science fiction, it was a reflection of its time, not just mere speculation about the future.
Gene Roddenberry, the creator of star trek, Schlepped the show all over town. He presented his concept as a combination of Horatio Hornblower (adventures on the high seas; think of the original Master and Commander) and Train car, about a group of different space explorers, all part of a unified crew. The characters would take the risks explorers of old took, but within the vast frontier of space itself. It was ultimately the production company Desilu, run by the first lady of TV comedy and daring entrepreneur Lucille Ball, who took over the show, and the rest was history.
When Star Trek debuted, it broke new ground in all sorts of ways. The first and most obvious was in the composition of its hard core, the bridge crew of the Enterprise itself. There was a black woman, Lieutenant Uhura (Nichelle Nichols); there was a Japanese, Hiruku Sulu (George Takei). It not only cemented the show’s notion that everyone was created equal, but it was groundbreaking and daring.
To introduce a Japanese pilot just two decades after America buried Japanese people after a kamikaze attack on Pearl Harbor was a huge statement. So was showing an African American — especially a woman — in a powerful position during the civil rights movement. The show would make another statement by introducing Pavel Chekov (Walter Koenig), a Russian co-pilot, in Season 2. This was during a time when the Cold War was raging. Russians were still regularly portrayed as villains, and would continue to be so through reactionary movies like Red Dawn in 1984 (the cold war ended in 1989). Two decades after the Holocaust, lead character James T. Kirk (William Shatner) was played by an actor of Jewish descent, and so was his best friend, Spock (Leonard Nimoy). The crew of the Enterprise portrays a united human race.
Gender was represented in the same way as race. Women were not only part of the main bridge crew, but they served everywhere on the ship and never took over the seats of the male actors. Nurse Chapel (Majel Barrett) is an equally memorable character as Dr. “Bones” McCoy (DeForest Kelley). Even the costumes worn by the crew were revolutionary. While go-go boots and miniskirts in women’s uniforms may seem retrograde today, they were bold for the time according to stars like Grace Lee Whitney, who played Yeoman Janice Rand (famous for her woven beehive hairstyle) .
The year the show was released, 1966, was another eight years before a woman could get a credit card without a man co-signing one for her. Feminism was in its infancy. The women on TV wore big, ruffled skirts, which made them the perfect housewives. At such a time, star trek allowed women to dress in a very modern way, and one that reflected the youth of the time, rather than the matriarchy of the war years. There was also no sexualization of women by the male characters because of the way they dressed, which was absolutely cutting edge for the time.
In Uhura’s particular case, her Darkness, besides being female, was of the utmost importance. Nichelle Nichols tells a story in which she was at a party, talking to none other than Martin Luther King, Jr. himself (a man who, with his assassination in 1968, would not live to see star trek‘s cancellation in 1969), and said that star trek didn’t do much for her and she was thinking about moving on. King, according to Nichols, backed her up and told her she was playing a character who was not judged for being female, but not judged for being black; that unlike every other woman in pop culture, she had broken the mold of being a TV maid and had to keep going. She took him at his word, much to the delight of the audience and the undying gratitude of history. NASA will eventually use her image to advertise for female volunteers.
Although Roddenberry hoped his series would make it through the five years needed to reach syndication at the time, the series only lasted three before the animated revival in the 1970s and subsequent films, when Paramount tried to compete with star wars‘ An unprecedented success. From the start, the show featured luminaries of great science fiction, from Robert Bloch (whose career dates back to the days of HP Lovecraft and enjoyed great success with Hitchcock’s psychology) to Harlan Ellison writing episodes. These big names took what could have been a goofy little pulp show and brought gravity and drama to it, and won Emmys for it.
The stories themselves can be luscious; Kirk fighting the Primitive Gorn is one of the most famous. Equally famous are the episodes where Kirk and company battle supercomputers mind-controlling their populations in episodes like “Return of the Archons”. In others, Kirk and his team go after old friends Kirk knew from Starfleet who became actual space Hitlers, such as in “Patterns of Force”. And in case someone still can’t catch this star trek was political – even after seeing episodes about free thought without centralized control, or how bad Nazism was – couldn’t deny stories like “Let this be your last battleground”. Obviously statements are being made in this episode, which features literal, halved, half-black/half-white aliens fighting a half-white/half-black alien to the death. All the while, the crew of the Enterprise tries to encourage peace because they are basically the same. Anyone who couldn’t see the political statements here could never see it. To refuse to understand what is being said here is simply ignorant.
star trek, and science fiction in general, is and has always been political from its inception. The vast contributions of cast and crew over the years have only cemented this; Besides, star trek it’s better when it’s politically bold. It was never of his time, but of all times: the objectives of harmony between the peoples of the Earth, of exploration, of striving to be better transcend generations and are a beacon for humanity itself. -same. It is up to viewers to reach these stars.
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