|Star Trek: The Original Series|
Star Trek: The Original Series
Hey Scott, we’ve both been Star Trek fans since it first came on television in 1966. What do you say we travel back in time and revisit each of the Star Trek television series and how they portrayed heroism?
As people often say to me, “Beam me up, Scotty”. I’m in, I’m down, I’m eager to boldly review what we’ve never reviewed before.
Let’s look first at Star Trek: The Original Series (ST:TOS). It lasted from 1967 through 1969. Set in the 23rd century, it featured a multinational crew – quite revolutionary for the time. At the helm of the Starship Enterprise was Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner). His second in command was Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) – a pointy-eared alien, void of emotion and dedicated to logic, from the planet Vulcan. Kirk’s chief medical officer and advisor was Dr. “Bones” McCoy (Deforest Kelly).
The original concept for the show was a “wagon train to the stars.” Kirk was supposed to be a futuristic cowboy – bringing justice to the “final frontier” and romancing green alien women. As the show developed, however, the secondary characters of Spock and McCoy became advisors to Kirk. Spock was always reminding Kirk of the logical consequences of his actions, and McCoy emphasized their emotional effects.
Greg, I’m old enough to remember feeling devastated when the series was cancelled, feeling ecstatic when it enjoyed a revival in syndicated reruns during the 1970s, and feeling beyond giddy during the 80s and 90s when Trek movies and new TV series proliferated our screens. Somehow, ST:TOS was able to tap into something psychologically powerful in millions of viewers.
As experts on heroism, you and I have a pretty good sense of the heroic dynamic at work on the Bridge of the USS Enterprise. Although it was Kirk’s ship, the Enterprise boasted an ensemble of character archetypes that blended together in a way that appealed to viewers’ hearts and intellects. Spock was all logic; McCoy was all emotion; Scotty was skillful competence; and Kirk as the leader was an amalgamation of all these traits. Plus Kirk had good looks and charisma.
True enough, Scott. One of the things I most appreciated about the show was that it was an anthology series – but with a constant crew. With this platform, ST:TOS was able to tackle current-day problems – but safely “transported” to the future. Episodes dealt with racism (Let That Be Your Final Battlefield), beauty (Is There In Truth No Beauty), the Vietnam conflict (A Private Little War), overpopulation (The Mark of Gideon), existentialism (The Enemy Within), and many more.
While creator Gene Roddenberry had a prescient sense of social justice, he also had a 1960s mentality about men and women. Kirk, in particular, portrays a nearly toxic masculinity that verges on misogyny. His alpha-male quality reflects the age in which the show was produced. The women were expected to wear skimpy outfits and succumb to Kirk’s charms.
I’m glad you brought up this point about the importance of placing any evaluation of the original series in historical context. Of course the series seems dated to us now, with our 2020s sensibilities. But 55 years ago, the idea of airing an interracial kiss on television was unheard of. After all, in the US, interracial marriage was illegal until 1967. So when Kirk kissed Uhura in an episode in 1968 (Plato’s Stepchildren), the series broke a remarkable barrier. It turns out that the vast majority of fan mail about the kiss was positive, with only an occasional objection such as this fan response: “I am totally opposed to the mixing of the races. However, any time a red-blooded American boy like Captain Kirk gets a beautiful dame in his arms that looks like Uhura, he ain’t gonna fight it.”
The main social issues of the series centered on feminism, racism, and most especially war and peace. Kirk and his crew often found themselves helping other alien societies achieve peace with their adversaries — despite the prime directive forbidding such interference. Or they found themselves on the brink of war with the Klingons, who may have symbolized the main US rival at the time, the Soviet Union. Roddenberry wanted to show his audiences that humanity has the ability to get along, despite all our differences.
Greg, I would love for you to tell us about the contributions of ST: TOS to technological advancement. As a computer tech geek, you are in the perfect position to enlighten us about the myriad ways that the series may have helped jumpstart the technological revolution.
Well, while we don’t have warp drive or flying cars (wait – that was The Jetsons), a lot of what we saw on Star Trek not only came true, but has influenced modern technology. In the days of the 1960s a computer was a mammoth machine that only major corporations, universities, or the Department of Defense could afford. And a computer that would respond to voice commands was still a dream. Today, computers are everywhere in our culture and we routinely talk to computers not only in our homes, but online and over the phone.
The “communicator” was the inspiration for the “flip phone.” It’s been reported that the designers of the first flip phones “didn’t have to design it that way.” They were inspired by Captain Kirk’s casual way of flipping his wrist to open the speaker and talk into the device. The “replicator” would spit out hot food at a moment’s request. It inspired food vending machines and the microwave oven.
The first space shuttle, although not air- or space-worthy, was named “Enterprise” after Kirk’s ship. The ability for the landing party to have access to the ship’s computer foreshadowed both the internet and wireless data communications. The “PADD” was a device Enterprise crew members carried around as input / output devices that pre-imagined the iPad (the later Star Trek: The Next Generation PADD would be even more prophetic). There are even advances being made in quantum mechanics in which information is being “transported” in the same way that the Enterprise’s “Transporter” would send people to the planet surface.
As much as technology was influenced by Star Trek, moreso were personal lives and careers. For myself, Mr. Spock represented the ideal computer scientist. In other areas of my life I looked at Kirk or Scotty as a role-model for leadership or engineering excellence. There are many, many stories of young people who pursued a career in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics because they were inspired by Star Trek. Indeed, when Nichele Nichols admitted to Martin Luther King, Jr, that she wanted to leave the show because she was tired of Uhura just saying “hailing frequencies open, captain.” King implored her to stay saying: “For the first time on television, we will be seen as we should be seen every day, as intelligent, quality, beautiful people who can sing and dance, yes, but who can go into space, who can be lawyers and teachers, who can be professors — who are in this day — yet you don’t see it on television until now.” She stayed.
Well said, Greg. Getting back to heroism, I’d like to point out that Captain Kirk possessed all eight of the “Great Eight” traits of heroes — he was smart, strong, reliable, charismatic, resilient, caring, selfless, and inspiring. Not many heroes can lay claim to all eight of these heroic attributes. Spock’s heroic personality was intriguing because he lacked emotion. Rather than limit his appeal, Spock’s stoicism and constant struggle containing his feelings were the source of his appeal, particularly with women fans. It is said that Shatner felt some jealousy that Nimoy received more fan mail than he did.
Scientists who study heroes have found that heroism serves several important psychological functions. Heroes protect and defend us; they model morality for us; they inspire us; they give us wisdom; they help us achieve our goals; and they elicit positive emotions in us. Our heroes in Star Trek did all of that. Kirk, Spock, and Bones made us feel good about the future of humanity, and they accomplished that by role modeling the highest moral standards and inspiring us with their courage and wisdom.
You’ve identified the great heroic traits of the Original Series leads. And I wonder if heroism is subject to the eddies and flows of time? The type of role model that Kirk portrays, with his machismo and devil-may-care attitude, seems antiquated in the new millennium. Still, people close to me see that type of heroism in Donald Trump. The President exudes that same sort of “lead by the gut” and swagger of a man “dares takes what he wants” in Captain Kirk. Times change, and so do our perceptions of what makes a great leader – or a great hero.
Regardless, Gene Roddenberry’s optimistic view of the future included men and women of all races and creeds. He was well ahead of his time. We’re still looking for that future – where a person is judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.
And still, it would be another two decades before people of alternative sexuality and gender identity would get even a mention in the Star Trek universe. I hope readers will tune in for our next blog post when we review Star Trek: The Next Generation and consider the next iteration of Roddenberry’s vision of the future.
For an optimistic future and engaging stories, that have almost stood the test of time, ST:TOS gets 4 out of 5 Reels. And for heroes who have become both mythic and iconic in scale, I award 4 out of 5 Heroes.
Greg, I can totally see the comparison of Kirk to Trump. As you said, both have swagger and act from gut instincts. The main differences are that Kirk never evaded serving because of bone spurs, and Kirk never tried to divide people. He always tried to unify people, which I believe is a hallmark characteristic of our best heroes.
I see you gave our beloved original trek series a rating of 4 out of 5, and I completely get that. When I’ve gone back and re-watched the series, I find that about a third of the episodes are bad, a third are mediocre, and a third are exemplary. It’s a strange, inconsistent mix, and one that frustrates me. This hit-and-miss factor makes rating the series very difficult.
But I’m going to give the series a ‘5’ rating because the best of ST: TOS is as good as any science fiction that has ever been made. I’m thinking especially of episodes such as Amok Time, Journey to Babel, and City on the Edge of Forever. These eps would make our Reel Heroes Hall of Fame, were we to judge them individually.
Our unique ensemble of heroes on the bridge of the Enterprise also merits a rating of ‘5’. The archetypal mix is as rich as we’ve ever seen, and again, the sparks and chemistry among the trio of stars (Kirk, Spock, McCoy) are unmatched in any science fiction before or since.
|Star Trek: The Original Series|