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Star Trek: Cultural vector and Hollywood cash-cow (Part One)

By Mark Wegierski
web posted May 18, 2009

With a new Trek movie now on the big screen, this will be a multi-week examination of the whole phenomenon.

Star Trek, conceived by Gene Roddenberry, officially premiered on NBC in September 1966, with the very psychologically appealing core of half-human/half-Vulcan science officer Spock (reason), Dr. McCoy (emotion), and Captain Kirk (the reconciler of the two). The earlier-produced pilot-episode, "The Cage" -- with Captain Pike and a female first officer ("Number One") -- had been considered as "too cerebral." ST has grown into a worldwide media super-phenomenon, despite the cancellation of the original series (TOS or "classic Trek" or "Trek Classic" to current-day enthusiasts) after only three years. In 1973-1975, there was the animated series (TAS). A year's worth of episodes were written for a proposed revival in 1978 (Star Trek II), but none were ever produced, although certain script elements from these were incorporated into later efforts. Star Trek was decisively revived with a succession of big-screen movies, beginning in 1979, and three new television series, ST: The Next Generation (TNG) (September 1987-May 1994); ST: Deep Space 9 (DS9) (January 1993-May 1999); and ST: Voyager (January 1995-May 2001). In September 2001, a new Star Trek series, Enterprise, had premiered, which came to a conclusion in May 2005.

Born in the period of the Sixties' revolutions, Star Trek has evolved along with the liberal zeitgeist. While TOS may look "old-fashioned" by today's standards, it was initially seen as very "cutting edge" and "dangerously modern." Reading about some of the problems Roddenberry encountered in getting his show underway, one is struck by what today would seem the almost unbelievable conservatism of senior television people, a group rarely thought of as conservative. Nevertheless, Roddenberry persevered in putting forth his then-radical ideas, nearly all of which (ironically) seem completely tame and uncontroversial when considered from the current-day context. For example, the first interracial kiss on network television occurred in Star Trek. (And it was actually portrayed as occurring under an alien's "mind-control compulsion." It may indeed be difficult to believe how stubbornly conservative and prudish American society appeared to be, little more than forty years ago.) Spock's rather "devilish" appearance was also extremely controversial.

The choice of the name Spock was interesting in itself. Whether deliberately so chosen, or as a curious synchronicity, it recalls the Dr. Benjamin Spock whose liberal child-rearing ideas were an important though infrequently discussed contributing factor to the whole concatenation of 1960s revolutions. One may indeed speak of both Dr. Spock's and the Star Trek Spock's "children" or "generation." (It may be somewhat amusing that on at least one occasion in TOS, Spock was addressed as "Doctor Spock" -- as he is said to have a degree in astrophysics.)

The extent to which we may see TOS as "socially conservative" today shows the precipitous evolution of the spirit of the current age. One of the most obvious differences between TOS and later series was fewer aliens in the former, especially among Federation crewmembers, as well as the more pronounced national identifications of the human crew (e.g., Scotty, Chekhov, Sulu, Uhura). Some conservatives have termed the more recent Star Trek series "a freakshow." The feeling is that the parade of aliens undermines the sense of a natural human image.

TNG introduced a whole new set of characters, which could easily be expressed in liberal stereotypes. Jean-Luc Picard was a far more intellectual Captain, a sort of enlightened CEO. His First Officer, Riker, was a sort of JFK clone (two similar political figures in Canada today would be those dynamic liberals, Allan Rock and Gerard Kennedy). Deanna Troi was the psychological counsellor. Dr. Beverly Crusher was the hard-as-nails female physician. Tasha Yar was the feminist warrior. Geordi La Forge, black and visually-impaired, was one minority figure. Data, the android, was the machine in search of humanity. The other minority was Worf, a Klingon. Although, as somewhat of a token "conservative" or "traditionalist" he often protested the liberal actions of the other crewmembers, he always seemed to go along in the end. Somewhat later in TNG's evolution, Whoopi Goldberg came on as Gainan, the all-knowing, infinitely wise black woman.

Over the decades, the Klingons had evolved, in a process very typical of Star Trek, from a villainous, imperial race (with few redeeming qualities), to something more akin to ancient warrior-societies (with a pronounced sense of honor), although, as part of the metamorphosis, they were actually initially made far more physically ugly (in the first Star Trek movie). In what is perhaps an attestation to the ultimate triviality of a show sometimes taken so seriously, one of the reasons cited for the uglification of the Klingons was a surplus in the movie's make-up budget! Another anecdote pointing to ultimate triviality was that, at one point, the Klingon ceremonial weapon was apparently copied from an earlier trading card image. (It had made a brief appearance it an earlier Trek production.) Another attestation to ultimate triviality is that many of the Klingon uniforms were based on recycled outfits from The Planet of the Apes movies (i.e., the uniforms of the evil gorilla soldiers, of which huge numbers had apparently been produced). This probably turned the portrayal of the Klingons in a more savage and barbaric direction, than otherwise might have been the case. It was a curious process by which the Klingons were physically uglified and then somewhat redeemed, as a great warrior-race. To NOT physically uglify them in the first place was something that would have gone against the grain of the typical American mindset. 

To be continued. ESR

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.

 

 

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