star trek

The Message Behind the Legacy

an essay written by
Darrel W. Beach
March 11, 1997

I can just barely remember the first time I ever watched an episode of the original Star Trek series: I must have been about 8 or 9 years old, and science fiction was not a particular interest of mine.  In fact, I'm pretty sure I wasn't even aware that it was Star Trek I was watching, as I had caught it in the middle of the program.  The cheesy alien costumes and campy special effects were unimpressive to say the least, and the show itself, which featured creatures that looked like fried eggs attacking people, creeped me out enough to turn off the show completely.  Today, I am not only a devout fan of the Star Trek programs, movies and novels, I have even ventured into writing Star Trek fan fiction which I share with other Trekkers over the Internet.  I can even look through my copy of The Star Trek Encyclopedia and find an episode summary of "Operation - Annihilate!", the program that gave me the creeps over fifteen years ago.  So what is it about the legacy of Star Trek that has endeared itself to millions of people across the span of the globe?  One can certainly provide several answers to this question, and there's no doubt in my mind that they would all be right.  What I choose to focus on here is some of the types of messages Star Treksends to its viewers, the messages Gene Roddenberry wanted to make in order to achieve a firmer grasp on his vision of the future.

The American population of the 1960's was in many ways in conflict with itself: still recovering from the brink of oblivion over the Cuban Missile Crisis, suspicious of a communist Soviet Union, facing resentment over the dispatch of troops to Vietnam, and trying to cope with Martin Luther King and the Black Civil Rights movement.  When NBC aired the first episode on September 8, 1966, Star Trek was boldly going where no other television show dared to go.  The main cast of characters consisted of a true mosaic of cultures: Africans, Asians, Americans, Russians, even extra-terrestrial beings, with the demonic-looking features of a Vulcan named Spock.  What a shock it must have been for the public, to see peoples of all races, colors, religions and species working together as equals!  But behind all of the strange costumes and goofy effects, creator Gene Roddenberry introduced an appealing vision of the future, one of prosperity and hope for the Human race rather than misery and despair.  Man had an indomitable spirit, able to achieve anything if he has faith in himself and his fellow man.

Star Trek accrued an immediate following of fans who embraced Roddenberry's vision, even amid the constant turbulence of the show's presence on the air and NBC's lack of interest in continuing the show.  A successful campaign by the fans extended the show's life for a time, but eventually continued low ratings forced the show off the air after three seasons.  Ironically enough, however, being pulled from network prime-time was probably the main reason why Star Trek became as huge a phenomenon as it did: the number of people who watched the show in syndication was greater by orders of magnitude, sending it on its way to being an undeniable part of our culture.  Through three spin-off series, eight motion pictures, hundreds of published fiction and non-fiction books, and numerous scores of unpublished materials, Gene Roddenberry's dream of the future lives on, and is showing no signs of faltering.  And as entertaining as Star Trek has been from a science-fiction standpoint - "the TV equivalent of comfort food"1, as Michael Logan calls it - it frequently manages to speak out on important social issues relevant to its intended audience.  In fact, the comments present in the original series are so timeless as to have merit thirty years after the episodes were first aired.  Amid all the aliens and fantastic technology, Gener Roddenberry cleverly managed to instruct the public audience about itself.

One particular social simile sticks out in my mind from all the documentaries and biography shows I've seen, and that is the use of the Klingon Empire as a manifestation of the Soviet Union.  In the original series, the Klingons were cast as foes to the United Federation of Planets, comparable in power but having an advantage of cloaking technology which could render their warships invisible to Federation starships' sensors.  One can make a stark comparison to the Cold War situation at the time, with the invisible threat of Communism lurking among the American people.  Roddenberry, however, used the Klingons for a more important message in episodes like "Errand of Mercy" and "Day of the Dove".  Situations were devised such that cooperation between the Enterprise crew and their Klingon adversaries was required in order to escape.  The underlying message was simple: coexistence with the Russians was possible if both parties were willing to make the effort.  In the early 1980's we saw this happen when President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Mikhail Gorbechev established friendly ties between the two nations.

These continuing friendly relations were reflected accordingly in Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Now, the Federation and the Klingon Empire were allies, and we were also introduced to Lieutenant Worf, the first Klingon to join Starfleet.  The simile was carried on further still, however, when Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country premiered in theatres in 1991.  The timing of the movie's release couldn't have been better in Leonard Nimoy's opinion, who helped write this story about the beginnings of peace between the Empire and the Federation after a cataclysmic explosion leaves the Klingons with only 50 years of survival remaining.  It was around this time that the great wall of Communism fell in the Soviet Union, and it was in large part the assistance of the United Nations that helped this once powerful and fearful nation from falling into complete anarchy.

However, there have been many other important issues addressed by the Star Trek series.  "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield" (TOS)2 dealt with racism using an overtly obvious tactic: the aliens visiting the Enterprise were pigmented black on one side of their body and white on the other, only opposite to each other.  Their racial intolerance to each other was the primary reason why their civilization became extinct.  The episodes "The Naked Time" (TOS) and "The Naked Now" (TNG)3 make a statement about the serious effects of alcohol, in which a virus that simulates the effects of intoxication thrust the crews into a deadly situation where clear judgement is needed most.  The homosexual issue was somewhat referred to in "The Host" (TNG): Dr. Crusher falls in love with a Trill ambassador, not aware that Trills are a joined species (i.e. one lifeform has a symbiotic relationship within another lifeform).  When the host succumbs to an illness and the symbiont is transplanted into a female host, Dr. Crusher becomes uncomfortable when the newly joined Trill seeks to continue with the relationship.  This subject surfaces again in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's "Rejoined", again using Trills.  In this instance, Lieutenant Dax meets a Trill scientist to whom she had once been married as a previous male host.  Even though both symbionts now inhabit female hosts, their passion for each other is rekindled, and they must choose between their relationship and exile from the Trill homeworld.

Other episodes deal with the right-to-life issue, often in unique ways.  For example, Lieutenant Commander Data, the android second officer of the Enterprise-D, must prove his sentience before a court hearing to keep from being dismantled for research in "The Measure of a Man" (TNG).  In Star Trek: Voyager's "The Swarm", Kes fights to protect the personality profile of the ship's doctor - a holographic program - from being completely erased.  However, we also get to see the other, uglier side of this debate in "Tuvix" (VOY)4: after a freak transporter accident merges Lieutenant Tuvok and Neelix into a single being (Tuvix), Captain Janeway makes a decision not unlike euthanasia to restore them, despite the pleading protests of Tuvix.  Native American issues were very well portrayed in "Journey's End" (TNG) to reflect our own shameful history, when a Federation-Cardassian treaty finds a colony world inhabited by American Indians in Cardassian territory, and Captain Picard is left with the unpleasant task of trying to remove the natives from their home.  Even environmental issues like ozone depletion are addressed, as in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Force of Nature", where regulations are placed on the use of warp propulsion to reduce the rate of deterioration in the fabric of space.

The producers of Star Trek have done alot in the way of presenting a future of equality and enlightenment, from the very first interracial crew of the original series, to Deep Space Nine's first African-American commander, Captain Benjamin Sisko, to featuring the first female starship captain and Native American first officer on Voyager.  They've also tackled a number of tough issues, from the first interracial kiss on prime-time television (TOS) to the first lesbian kiss on prime-time television (DS9)5Star Trek has endeavoured to educate as well as entertain for three decades, and as we head toward the new millenium, Star Trek will continue its exploration, not only the expanse of the unknown universe, but of ourselves as well.

Back to the corner

1 Logan, M. "30 Years of Star Trek", p. 16. TV Guide, Aug. 31, 1996.
2 Abbreviated notation for Star Trek (the original series).
3 Abbreviated notation for Star Trek: The Next Generation.
4 Abbreviated notation for Star Trek: Voyager.
5 Abbreviated notation for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.