Fifty years of Star Trek – a socialist perspective

By Sasha Simic | 5 September 2016


Four thousand throats may be cut in one night by a running man
–– Klingon proverb quoted in “Day of the Dove”

Thursday 8 September 2016 marks 50 years of Star Trek. The first episode (“The Man Trap”) was broadcast by NBC on 8 September 1966.

The original series finished just under three years later with “Turnabout Intruder” (June 1969). But of course the series survived. Along came Star Trek: The Animated Series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek Deep Space Nine, Star Trek Voyager and Star Trek: Enterprise, taking us up to 2005.

In addition there have been 13 feature films based on the franchise since Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). It would take someone 546.25 hours (23 days) to watch the existing Star Trek canon back-to-back. In January 2017 Star Trek Discovery will return the series to television.

In half a century Star Trek has become a cultural phenomenon. It has been shown in 75 countries and even people who have never watched Star Trek are aware of its basic characters and catch-phrases.

There is an argument to say that socialists – regardless of whether they actually like the programme – should welcome its longevity and popularity on the grounds that Star Trek is a progressive show with a progressive agenda.

More significantly Star Trek is the only utopia with mass appeal that the 20th and 21st centuries have produced.

The one word that comes up more than any other when academics, or cultural commentators, or journalist and fans describe Star Trek is “optimism”. Its future is unfailingly described as an “optimistic future”.

Barbara Adams, juror in the Whitewater trial

Barbara Adams, juror in the Whitewater trial

This can express itself in strange ways: In 1996 Barbara Adams turned up for jury service in the not-insignificant Whitewater trial in full Star TrekThe Next Generation uniform, including a model phaser and tricorder. The trial was about the Clinton’s financial irregularities. Adams said she wanted to represent Star Trek’s “values” of “tolerance, peace and faith in mankind”.

The fictional universe that Star Trek is set in is one where modern day economic and social problems have been overcome. In “Broken Bow”, the first episode of Star Trek: Enterprise, set in 2151, engineer Trip Tucker boasts to the Vulcan T’Pol that Earth has eliminated: “…war, disease, hunger…in less than two generations”.

In the original series story “Let that be your last battlefield”, broadcast in 1969, the racially persecuted alien Lokai has the following conversation:

LOKAI: “…you are from the planet Earth. There is no persecution on your planet. How can you understand my fear, my apprehension, my degradation, my suffering?

CHEKOV: “There was persecution on Earth once. I remember reading about it in my history class.”

There is no war, disease, mass hunger, or oppression by Star Trek’s 23rd century. Many have concluded that Star Trek doesn’t merely show a progressive future of equality and plenty – it shows a specifically socialist utopia. And this argument doesn’t just come from the Left.

The 5 October 2015 issue of Forbes magazine ran an article titled: “Star Trek ecomonics is just true communism arriving” by Tim Worstall. Now Worstall is no socialist. He’s a senior member of the Adam Smith Institute and supports UKIP. He stood for them in European Parliament elections in 2009 and has acted as their press agent.

Worstall argues that Star Trek’s world is:

…the sort that Karl Marx was talking about. For the basic premise of the Star Trek universe is that we’ve conquered scarcity. And as Marx was most insistent about pointing out, communism couldn’t arrive until the absence of scarcity…The economics of Star Trek is thus True Communism. Fortunately, without the intervening bit of socialism that anyone has to suffer through.

Is that true? Or is Star Trek not as progressive as many of its fans insist it is?

If Star Trek shows a future where “actual existing socialism” is at work, why does the programme appeal to so many who are anything but socialist? Ted Cruz, Al Gore, Alex Salmon, Colin Powell, Richard Branson and Bill Gates are all Star Trek fans.

When Tory Sajid Javid became culture secretary in April 2014 he declared himself a Star Trek fan. In his first ministerial speech he argued: “What we do in this country is great because, far from being ruled by central diktats, our culture is based on freedom and self-determination.” He was quoting Captain Picard in “The Best of Both Worlds” (1990).

But we shouldn’t approach a cultural product with a check-list of how politically correct or not it is. As the Russian revolutionary Trotsky said: “It is nonsense that we demand that poets should describe inevitably a factory chimney, or the uprising against capital.”

To understand a work of art you need to locate it in the more general historical circumstances it was created in.

Gene Roddenberry

Gene Roddenberry

Capitalism encourages an individualistic perspective about creativity. The legend that’s built up around Star Trek is that it was the exclusive creation of Eugene Wesley “GeneRoddenberry.

But Star Trek is the product of a number of complicated, converging factors.

One of those factors was a science-fiction film release in 1956 by MGM called Forbidden Planet. In many ways it is a “visionary” and “optimistic” film foreseeing a future where humanity survives the very real threat of nuclear war and goes out to colonise the universe.

Set in the 23rd century, the plot followed the crew of the United Planets Cruiser C57D and its mission to the planet Altair IV. The C57D is a military space ship under the control of Commander JJ Adams.

The film opens with the C57D coming out of faster-than-light speed. It goes into orbit around the planet Altair IV. Does this sound familiar?

Forbidden Planet is still an impressive film in many ways. It had a huge budget for a science-fiction film. The special effects hold up well 60 years on and it takes itself seriously. But it is very much a film shaped by its time.

As the Canadian architect Wytold Rybezynski said “Nothing ages faster than yesterday’s vision of the future.” In Forbidden Planet we are shown an advanced but socially frozen vision of the future.

JJ Adams’ crew is all white and all male. The nuclear family has survived into the future. Robby the Robot’s ability to synthesize any meal is described as “a housewife’s dream.” There are still “housewives” in the 23rd century…

It’s a 1950s future.

Star Trek was, and is, as much a product of its time as was Forbidden Planet. The defining historical event of the period was the Cold War. The first Star Trek pilot was filmed in 1964 – only two years after the Cuban Missile crisis.

Star Trek was in development as the “Space Race” was accelerating. Space was part of Superpower competition. This is clearly formulated in J F Kennedy’s 1962 “We chose to go the Moon” speech, in which he describes the exploration of space as an “enterprise” and calls it the “final frontier”.

It was a period of colonial struggle and liberation, and a period of proxy wars by the Superpowers, first in Korea and then in Vietnam.

It was a period when black people would no longer accept second-class status in the US. Star Trek was still in development when Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965 and was on the air when Martin Luther King was murdered in 1968.

It was a period of the re-birth of the feminist movement, and of structural changes in the working class across the world that would crystallise into a period of unprecedented post-war struggle in the late 1960s.

It was a period when the oppressed stood up and refused to be oppressed any more. The last episode of the original series, “Turnabout Intruder”, was aired on 3 June 1969. At the end of that month, the Stonewall riots heralded the arrival of a new, militant, gay liberation movement.

These were the influences working on Gene Roddenberry when he was putting Star Trek together and which Star Trek would reflect.

But the fact is Roddenberry was a jobbing writer. He had served on bombers in the Philippines during the Second World War and had joined the LA police department after the war. He began writing television scripts in his spare time and found he earned more money than his policeman’s salary that way.

He was a progressive in the context of the times. He was anti-racist, largely as a result of seeing his Policeman father – “a Texan bigot” – at work.

But he wasn’t an activist. He was a writer making a commercial product in an attempt to earn a living. Television was big business in the US. Between 1962 and 1968 the gross profits for the US television industry rose from $1.3bn to $2.5bn.

US television drama had become very formulaic by the early 1960s, dominated by cop shows, doc shows and – above all – by Westerns. Roddenberry had the good fortune to be pitching ideas for new television series at exactly the right moment in time when the networks were looking for new formats.

In the early 1960s Roddenberry had discussed an idea with colleague about a TV series set aboard a Victorian airship staffed by a multi-racial crew. That idea later morphed into Star Trek which he registered as his concept with the Writers Guild of America in April 1964 for the sum of $2.

The legend that built up around Gene Roddenberry during the original series and after and through the sequels and up to his death in 1991 and beyond is that he was a social visionary who disguised hard-hitting social commentary in a science-fiction programme.

But I don’t think Roddenberry created Star Trek because – primarily – because he “had something to say”. I think the origins of Star Trek are more to do with the political economy of television production of the day. Roddenberry’s great innovation wasn’t ideological – it was working out how to make a weekly science-fiction television serial on the model of Forbidden Planet on a much smaller budget.

Forbidden Planet's ship

Forbidden Planet’s ship

Roddenberry clearly borrowed Forbidden Planet’s scenario of a Space Navy assisting mankind’s exploration and colonisation of space.

Many of the technicians who had worked on Forbidden Planet would work on Star Trek but the film shaped the series in a much deeper way.

Forbidden Planet is loosely based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest but there’s also a core Freudian theme which argues that humanity is deeply flawed with a violent nature that can be controlled and sublimated but which will never disappear – even in the far future. It’s about the “secret devil in every soul”.

The first draft of the Star Trek concept, written on 11 March 1964, put the bare bones of the show in 16 pages. It would be “A one-hour dramatic television series. Action- Adventure – Science-fiction. The first such concept with strong central lead characters plus other continuing regulars.” It was not a utopian vision of the world of tomorrow.

When Star Trek was up and running it had, (as had most TV series), a “bible” for potential writers that laid down the essentials of the show and the parameters writers should follow. The first rule for Star Trek was: “Build your episode on an action-adventure framework. We must reach out, hold and entertain a mass audience of some 20,000,000 people or we simply don’t stay on air.”

Way down on point the page is: “Yes, we want you to have something to say, but say it entertainingly as you do on any other show. We don’t need essays, however brilliant.”

Forbidden Planet was a 1950s future – technically advanced but socially frozen. Roddenberry’s other great innovation was to reject that. His future was going to be socially progressive as well as technically advanced.

Rodenberry’s star-ship was to be “completely international and multiracial in its make-up” and one where “approximately one third” of the crew “are females” where “there is complete equality between members of the crew, between sexes and races, as well as between humans and aliens”.

Here we have the first of many of Star Trek’s contradictions: Starfleet operates a strict hierarchy of military ranks…

BAILEY: Sir, we going to just let it hold us here? We’ve got phaser weapons. I vote we blast it.
KIRK: I’ll keep that in mind, Mister Bailey, when this becomes a democracy.
–– “The Corbomite Manoever”, (1966)

The first draft of Star Trek was set on the star ship SS Yorktown whose mission is not: “To seek out new life and new civilisations and to boldly go where no man has gone before”. It’s more reflective of the Cold War:

(a) Earth security, via exploration of intelligences and social systems capable of a galaxial threat, and (b) scientific investigation to add to the earth’s body of knowledge of life forms and social systems, and(c) any required assistance to the several earth colonies in this quadrant.

Roddenberry offered Star Trek to MGM (the studio that had made Forbidden Planet) but they didn’t want it. The only place prepared to make it was Desilu Studios, owned by Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball.

Given how quickly Star Trek went from a 16-page outline sketched in March 1964 to production on 27 November 1964, it’s amazing how much the pilot show ”The Cage” is recognisably Star Trek. That’s largely down to set designer Matt Jefferies.

jeffr ship

Jefferies designed the shape of the Star Ship Enterprise, the bridge all its interiors and many of the crew’s equipment like phasers and tricorders and the rest. It’s very familiar now but the design of the Enterprise was absolutely radical at the time. Space-ships before Star Trek were saucers like the C57D or cigar-shaped rockets.

“The Cage” is set in the year 2254 and opens on the bridge of the Enterprise. There is a Captain Christopher Pike (played by Jeffrey Hunter), his first officer is Number One played by Majel Barrett, and the crusty Doctor Boyce was played by Jon Hoyt. It’s not a hugely multi-racial crew. Jose Ortega had become Jose Tyler played by the clearly non-Latin Pete Duryea.

There is one non-white crewman seen in the course of the story – an Asian assistant briefly seen in the transporter room.

Mr Spock (played by Leonard Nimoy) is there. He speaks the first line in the history of Star Trek: “Check the circuits”

NBC famously turned down the pilot as being “too cerebral”, “too intellectual” and “too slow (with) not enough action” and they were also worried about its “eroticism”.  However, the studio did like the show enough to commission another pilot but demanded a) more action b) that they get rid of Number One c) Get rid of Spock.

The next pilot “Where No Man Has Gone Before” was filmed in July 1965. Jeffrey Hunter refused to return as Christopher Pike and was replaced by young Canadian actor William Shatner as Captain James R Kirk.

Mr Spock survived to the second pilot (and lost his emotions in the process) but most of the rest of the crew from the first pilot were jettisoned.

It was a more obviously multi-cultural crew than “The Cage”. Black actor Lloyd Haynes played Communication Officer Alden and George Takei joined as series regular Sulu. Takei is from a Japanese-American heritage and as a boy George was one of 120,000 Japanese-Americans who had been interned by the US state during WW2. Only 23 years later he was cast as one of the series central characters.

The show also added the “Captain’s Log” voice over and the incomprehensible Star date references.

NBC liked the second pilot and green-lit Star Trek as a series.

Star Trek begins

Star Trek begins

Star Trek began its run on TV with “The Man Trap” adding De Forest Kelley as ship’s Doctor Leonard McCoy and Nichelle Nichols made her first appearance as Communications Officer Lieutenant Uhura.

Of the 29 episodes that made up the first season of Star Trek Gene Roddenberry only wrote two episodes and gave three stories to other writers to make into working scripts. But he re-wrote most of the scripts which were submitted to the show.

And then, mid-way through the first series Gene L Coon came on board as writer and producer. Coon was from the same generation as Roddenberry, had served in the pacific in WW2 like Roddenberry, had joined the LA police force after the war and left to work as a writer in television. Coon wrote some of the best episodes of Star Trek (“Devil in the Dark”, “Metamorphosis”) and the very worst episode (“Spock’s Brain”).
unWhere Roddenberry’s future was vague, Coon’s Star Trek was much more concrete. Under Coon:

• The Klingons were first introduced (“Errand of Mercy”, 23/03/1967)
• The United Federation of Planets (UFP), the political entity Kirk represents, was first introduced (“Arena”). The UFP is both a stand-in for the UN (compare the flags) and a vision of future America.
• Starfleet Command, the military wing of the UFP was first introduced. The UFP are clearly the “good guys” the audience is meant to identify with
• The Prime Directive, the law of non-interference in the affairs of non-UFP planets was introduced (“The Return of the Archons”)

Coon made Star Trek a much clearer reflection of 1960s America and its geo-political problems. His refinements may have produced some exciting drama but they seriously compromised the claim that Star Trek shows an “optimistic” future.

In “Space Seed” (1967) we learn that Earth had experienced a bloody eugenics war in the mid-1990s. Later in the series Spock reminds McCoy of the “..thirty seven million who died in your third (world war).

In “Conscience of the King” (1966) we learn that Kirk survived a Holocaust-type massacre in his childhood on the colony on Tarsus IV.

Star Trek’s 23rd century was not really optimistic, it was more business as usual. The Romulans had been introduced earlier in “Balance of Terror” ( 1966). With the addition of the Klingons, space became less “the final frontier” and more a region of imperial competition.

Reflecting the geo-political situation on Earth could also push Star Trek from allegory and into agitprop – and not necessarily progressive agitprop. “A Private Little War” (1968) written by Roddenberry, is a clear comment on Viet Nam with the UFP and the Klingons fighting a proxy war on a undeveloped planet.

It’s hard not to interpret this story as anything other than a reluctant endorsement of the Vietnam War. It was screened (though they couldn’t have foreseen it when they were making it) just a few days after the Tet Offensive of 31 January 1968.

It’s also an example of Kirk violating the Federation’s Prime Directive, a law preventing Starfleet from interfering with the worlds they visit. It’s a recognition that they don’t “have the right or the wisdom to interfere, however a planet is evolving”.

This is another of Star Trek’s glaring inconsistencies. The fact is that Kirk and his crew do little else except go through the galaxy overthrowing civilisations and social systems they don’t approve.

Even less grounds for “optimism” is the recurring theme that war and killing are inevitable aspects of an unchanging human nature.

I think this was very much what it borrowed from Forbidden Planet and its theme of “the secret devil of every soul”.

As a result of this deeply cynical position the original series of Star Trek is very sceptical about utopias. After rejecting another false Eden in “This Side of Paradise” (02/03/1967) Kirk declares:

Maybe we weren’t meant for paradise. Maybe we were meant to fight our way through. Struggle, claw our way up, scratch for every inch of the way. Maybe we can’t stroll to the music of the lute. We must march to the sound of drums.

And Kirk especially can’t stand collective utopias – Landru’s paradise in “Return of the Archons”, or Vaal’s in “The Apple”. And of course the biggest enemy Starfleet ever encounters is the Borg whose speciality is assimilating individuals into their collective:

We are the Borg. Lower your shields and surrender your ships. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Your culture will adapt to service us. Resistance is futile.
––“First Contact” (1996)

For Star Trek, individuals are controlled killers and collectives are soulless herds. Neither seems very progressive nor optimistic.

But doesn’t Star Trek show us a future where there is no sexism or racism?

To some degree it does, but it’s qualified and contradictory, and was so from the start. Women are clearly in positions of responsibility on the Enterprise. But the rest of the script isn’t great when it comes to gender. Pike’s not comfortable with his newly assigned Yeoman – Janice M Colt (played by Laurel Goodwin). He confides to Number One:

She does a good job all right. It’s just that I can’t get used to having a woman on the bridge. No offence, Lieutenant. You’re different, of course.

sexism cocktail dressCasual sexism became a defining feature of the original series. When the series proper started, Starfleet Command – in its wisdom – decided to put all the women in its service in very short cocktail dresses.

In “The Man Trap” (1966) we first meet Yeoman Rand (Grace Lee Whitney). She was the latest in the “Captain and his sexy yeoman” scenario that Roddenberry wouldn’t let go of.

Rand is very domestic, carrying trays of food to various men across the Enterprise in the course of her career. In “The Corbomite Manoeuvre” she serves up hot coffee during a power cut by using a phaser as a percolator. Rand was dropped early in the show. One reason was the writers wanted Kirk to chase other space-women.

That’s pretty much how many women are treated in the programme – as romantic interest for the male leads, or as victims who need saving.

The original series’ claims to diversity and racial harmony within its fictional world don’t quiet measure up either. By the 23rd century, we’re assured racism has disappeared. Certainly within human society it seems to be a distant memory.

But as with imperialism, it just seems to have been projected onto non-human species. The Southern gentleman that is Doctor McCoy gets a lot of pleasure in mocking Spock’s pointed ears and green-blood.

In “Balance of Terror” (1966) Navigator Stiles hates Spock because Vulcans look like Romulans and he lost family in the war fought with them a century before. When his resentment of Spock becomes obvious Kirk has to reprimand him: “Leave any bigotry in your quarters. There’s no room for it on the Bridge. Do I make myself clear?”

It’s clear that racism directed against non-humans persists. Some of the crew on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine call the Cardassian’s “Spoonheads”.

Lieutenant Uhura, played by Nichelle Nichols

Lieutenant Uhura, played by Nichelle Nichols

In his defence Roddenberry also gave the series Lieutenant Uhura – a black woman Starfleet officer played by Nichelle Nichols – who was introduced in the first episode of the original series. Lieutenant Uhura often had little to do in the series apart from saying her catch-phrase – “Hailing frequencies open” – but her character was nevertheless tremendously influential.

There are two stories about Nichelle Nichols’ time on Star Trek which sum up its achievements and its contradictions. The first involves her decision to leave the show mid-way through the first season to go back to singing. She explained what happend.

I went in to tell Gene Roddenberry that I was leaving after the first season, and he was very upset about it. And he said, take the weekend and think about (it) …On Saturday night, I went to an NAACP fundraiser in Beverly Hills. And one of the promoters came over to me and said, Ms Nichols, there’s someone who would like to meet you….And I turn, and…there was the face of Dr Martin Luther King and he said “Ms. Nichols, I am your greatest fan”…I thanked him and said something like “Dr. King, I wish I could be out there marching with you.” He said: “No, you don’t understand… You ARE marching. You are reflecting what we are fighting for.”

She then told King she was leaving Star Trek.

And he said “You cannot do that. For the first time, we are being seen the world over as we should be seen. Do you understand that this is the only show that my wife Coretta and I will allow our little children to stay up and watch.”

Nichols withdrew her resignation the following Monday.

It is also generally held that the first “interracial” kiss broadcast on a US television drama was between Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura in the episode ‘Plato’s Stepchildren’ (1968). I don’t think we can see the kiss as a significant breakthrough in the depiction of race relations by the mass media.

In the context of the story both characters are coerced into an embrace by the mental powers of the villains of the piece – the decadent Platonian’s. Both Kirk and Uhura try to resist and are unhappy with an act that is clearly distasteful to both them.

It’s hardly a celebration of love and intimacy between black and white people.

Nevertheless the impact of Uhura can’t be overestimated. The original series can be accused of tokenism. Characters like Uhura and Sulu weren’t even given first names until decades after they first appeared (Nyota and Hikaru).

But the effect on their audience – particularly on people of colour was profound. Whoopie Goldberg has this anecdote about seeing Star Trek in the 1960s:

Well, when I was nine years old, Star Trek came on, I looked at it and I went screaming through the house, ‘Come here, mum, everybody, come quick, come quick, there’s a black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!’ I knew right then and there I could be anything I wanted to be.

Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman to travel in space, was inspired by Uhura as a little girl

Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman to travel in space, was inspired by Uhura as a little girl

Mae Jemison, who was the first African-American woman to travel in space, has also spoken about how Uhura’s character “helped to fuel my whole idea that I could be involved in space exploration”.

Star Trek in the 1960s ended under the leadership of Fred Freiberger. He was made producer of the third season when it was clear that Star Trek’s days were numbered. Freiberger had to make do with smaller budgets and the show was moved to a Friday night slot that guaranteed lower ratings. But even without these factors Freiberger would have killed the show.

He just didn’t get the difference between allegory and agit-prop. Star Trek descended into a number of heavy-handed comments on contemporary affairs and their message was more often right-wing than not:

  • Hippies were in the news so Star Trek did a dreadful space-hippy episode, “The Way to Eden”, (1969).
  • The civil-rights movement was stitched-up in “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” (1969) where a half-black, half-white alien is persecuted by a half-white, half-black alien. Kirk makes rude comments about the “eloquence” of the oppressed alien (clearly meant to represent Martin Luther King/Malcolm X).
  • Class exploitation was touched on in “The Cloud Miners” (1969)
  • Overpopulation in “The Mark of Gideon” (1969).

The plug was finally pulled on the show with “Turnabout Intruder” (1969). Generations of Star Trek fans have despised Fred Freiberger ever since as the man who killed their favourite programme.

Star Trek really built up a cult following in the years after its original run. The BBC didn’t start showing it here until 1969.

But, “Nothing ages faster than yesterday’s vision of the future.” Even as it attracted an expanding fan base Star Trek’s future was being left behind. Building the character of Uhura in the early 1960s, Roddenberry wrote:

Uhura is torn between the idea of someday becoming a wife and mother and the desire to remain in the service as a career officer.

How conservative that would sound set against the ideas that were coming out of the women’s liberation movement in the 1970s.

Roddenberry wrote the script for the Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), a dreary affair that tried to cash in on the fad for big screen Sci-Fi in the wake of the phenomenally successful Star Wars (1976). There were numerous film sequels but the studios kept him at arm’s length as an adviser. In 1987 he re-launched the series as Star Trek: The Next Generation with an entirely new cast.

The first season of The Next Generation was dreadful and it only stayed on the screen because the studio had agreed to a non-cancellation clause. It was saved by the 1988 Hollywood writers’ strike. By the time the strike was over, a reshuffle had side-lined Roddenberry to an advisory role.

By 1990 political and social reverses in the real world were reflected in Star Trek’s universe. Twenty years of neoliberal reaction had created a different future.

Roddenberry died shortly after watching a preview screening of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991). This was the last film to feature all the original crew of the first series. He hated it. The story was based on the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of Stalinism. The story had been pitched by Leonard Nimoy:

[What if] the wall comes down in outer space? You know the Klingons have always been our stand-ins for the Russians…

The film was about how opposing sides become reconciled with each other. But to do that the crew were given lines which were completely out of character,

The Klingons

The Klingons

Kirk calls Klingons “animals” and admits, “I’ve never trusted Klingons, and I never will.” They gave the incendiary line, “Guess who’s coming to dinner?” to Uhura – but Nichele Nicholls refused to say it, so the line was given to Chekov.

Roddenberry wrote a detailed critique of the film but his objections were dismissed by the writer and director of the film Nicholas Meyer:

Mr Roddenberry really believed in the perfectibility of man, of humans, and I have yet to see the evidence for this. So “VI” is a film in which the crew of the Enterprise has all kinds of prejudice, racial prejudice, vis-a-vis the Klingons. And some of their remarks, including how they all look alike and what they smell like, and all the xenophobic things which we grappled with — that was all deeply offensive to him because he thought there isn’t going to be that.

The 1960s future had given way to a 1990s future.

Deep Space 9 was an incredible assault on the original “optimistic” structure of Star Trek. In the course of the series we learn that Starfleet has a black ops division called Section 31 which creates a genocidal weapon to use against the Changelings.

Come the DS9 episode “In the Pale Moonlight”, Captain Sisko violates every moral code Kirk lived by in order to make the Romulans allies in the Federation’s war with the Changelings:

By the time Star Trek: Insurrection was filmed in December 1998, Starfleet is the villain of the piece with the evil Admiral Dougherty prepared to forcibly evict the population of a planet to get his hands on its rejuvenating properties.

The difference between how the original series treated the character of Zephram Cochrane (“Metamophosis”, 1967) and how the writers and director portrayed him in Star Trek: First Contact (1996) speaks volumes as to what had happened to that “optimistic” future in 30 years.



Zephram Cochrane is the inventor of Star Trek’s warp drive nearly 200 years before Kirk’s day. Kirk, Spock and McCoy unexpectedly find him alive when they’re marooned on an asteroid. Cochrane is part of a nice story about love and acceptance. Cochrane rejects adulation and honours to live in seclusion with a woman he has come to love.

In First Contact, the Borg go back in time to sabotage Cochrane’s first warp flight. That flight attracted the attention of a passing Vulcan Star ship which led to humanity’s first contact with aliens and Star Trek’s utopia:

TROI: It unites humanity in a way no one ever thought possible when they realise they’re not alone in the universe. Poverty, disease, war. They’ll all be gone within the next fifty years.

But the Cochrane we meet in 1996 is a cynical, selfish, vulgar, drunk. He’s also very uncomfortable with the hero-worship the Enterprise crew show him and the news that he’ll have statues and universities and planets named after him.

COCHRANE: You all look at me as if I’m some kind of saint or visionary or something. … You wanna know what my vision is? …Dollar signs! Money! I didn’t build this ship to usher in a new era for humanity. You think I wanna go to the stars? I don’t even like to fly. I take trains. I built this ship so that I could retire to some tropical island filled with …naked women. That’s Zefram Cochrane. That’s his vision. This other guy you keep talking about. This historical figure. I never met him. I can’t imagine I ever will.

The series built a three-film arc around the slogan “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few…or the one” (Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, 1982) only to refute it with the counter-proposal that “The needs of the one…outweigh the needs of the many.” (Star Trek: The Search for Spock, 1984)

This might explain why Star Trek has so many fans who are on the other side of the barricades. This ability to equivocate – to be politically vague enough to appeal across the board – undermines the inflated claims about Star Trek’s progressive agenda.

I don’t think the Star Trek’s future is the socialism we’re fighting for. There is nationalism in Star Trek’s 23rd century. There is racism. There is clearly sexism.

There is imperialism and militarism as practiced by Starfleeet and the UFP. There is an insistence that progress means nothing because we we’re all “killers” at the end of the day.

In Star Trek’s future, property ownership persists – Picard’s brother farms ancestral vineyards in France and Spock’s fiancé, Tpau, is after his family estate. It’s a liberal paradise that has been handed to the human race by outside forces. The human race didn’t have to struggle to burn off the muck of ages and become fitted to re-found society anew. It fell into our laps when the Vulcans landed.

I agree with Brent Spinner, who played Star Trek‘s Data:

I think there is an illusion about it. You know, if you ask somebody, why has STAR TREK lasted so long, they always say the same thing: because it has a positive vision of the future. But to tell you the truth, I don’t know what is so positive about it. We are still blowing people away. We carry guns. It’s a joke. It’s like that illusion that it is somehow all about peace. It’s really not. It is a western, it is a shoot’em up.

But it does have elements that are nice, like the fact that all people are celebrated for who they are, their differences rather than their similarities, and I think that’s a very positive thing. The positive thing about it is that it depicts a future, and that is somehow reassuring, that there is going to be a future. I don’t think it necessarily depicts a future that’s better or worse than where we live right now.

If Star Trek was an early 1960s utopia based on a Kennedy-era progressiveness, its optimism and modernity was looking very shop-worn by the 1990s. Star Trek‘s future as seen in Deep Space 9 and Voyager was a much bleaker place than Kirk’s 23rd century had been.

There’s very little Star Trek in Star Trek Beyond (2016). There’s an early scene between Kirk and McCoy that echoes similar Captain-Doctor heart-to-hearts throughout the series and was right there in the original pilot. But that’s a brief nod to the rich texture of the original series before we get, what is in effect, a video-game that pits the cardboard Enterprise crew against a two-dimensional villain.

The sheer lack of imagination in the film is unforgivable. It’s without charm. A few weeks ago former Conservative prime minister David Cameron stepped into the dustbin of history with the words, “I was the future once.”

That’s what Star Trek Beyond seems to be saying about Star Trek – that it was the future once.



  1. Sasha Simic said:

    The legend says Gene Roddenberry by-passed the censorship that bedeviled writers who wanted to ‘say’ something by coming up with a modern version of GULLIVER’S TRAVELS in STAR TREK and through it presented a mass audience with a better future that was optimistic and humanist:

    “For me science fiction is a way of thinking, a way of logic that bypasses a lot of nonsense. It allows people to look directly at important subjects.”

    I think that legend suits Rod Serling better. Like Roddenberry, Serling (25/12/1924-28/06/1975) was a combat veteran who broke into radio and television in the mid-50s. He wrote award-winning plays in the Golden Age of US television including the extraordinary boxing drama “Requiem for a Heavyweight” (1956). He also wrote “A Town has turned to Dust”(1958) about a racist lynching. He was a serious dramatist but by the late-50s he was getting disillusioned with the level of censorship he was experiencing.
    He did a version of “Judgement at Nuremberg” (1959) about the Holocaust, but couldn’t mention gas chambers because a gas company was a sponsor of the network he was working for. He found commercial television problematic:

    “It is difficult to produce a television documentary that is both incisive and probing when every 12 minutes one is interrupted by 12 dancing rabbits singing about toilet paper.”

    His solution was THE TWILIGHT ZONE – a series of one-off science-fiction/fantasy stories. They were weekly parables about greed and racism and militarism and other issues which escaped many of the restrictions he encountered trying to write straight drama. THE TWILIGHT ZONE ran for five years between 1959 and 1964 and Serling wrote 94 of the 156 episodes they made (and appeared as the narrator in every episode). He also co-wrote the script for PLANET OF THE APES (1968). Small wonder he died of a heart attack in 1975 at the ripe old age of 50.

    6 September 2016 at 10:08am
  2. Sasha Simic said:–obMHqY_A.facebook

    1 October 2016 at 8:25pm
  3. Philip Kanellopoulos said:

    Thank you for writing this! I thought I knew every angle of classic ‘Star Trek’, but you’ve revealed to me more new insights about the show than I would’ve considered possible.

    18 February 2022 at 8:14pm

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