In step with the seemingly endless franchise, Paramount Home Entertainment has recently released the entire first season of Star Trek in a handsome set made to resemble a Tricorder. While the first season has been available as single discs of two episodes each, the new collection features a variety of extras, including five documentaries and retrospective interviews with William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. These features may enlighten the casual viewer, but they lack in-depth analysis or new information for the connoisseur.
Several episodes, even after almost 40 years, remain thought-provoking and relevant. However, despite the crew’s calculated cultural diversity, the world of Star Trek still operates within 1960s U.S. structures of sexism, patriarchy, and capitalism. Women are often presented as submissive, or even too incompetent to have major responsibilities aboard the starship. Lieutenant Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), the series’ highest-ranking female officer, is relegated to communications and almost faints at the sight of an alien monster in “The Corbomite Maneuver”; in “Charlie X” and “Mudd’s Women,” the one-off women characters are objects for male pleasure.
Such conservative sexual politics is quite fully embodied in Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner). More than an action-driven buccaneer, however, Kirk is also an ambassador, representing the noble values of the Federation of Planets. Throughout the series, just as Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) is the embodiment of science and reason, and Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) represents compassion and spirituality, Kirk stands for the Federation’s political ideologies. As commander, he negotiates reason and spirituality into action, all on behalf of interstellar politics.
This usually takes the form of a social utopia of equality and acceptance, conditioned by the famous “prime directive,” a Federation decree supposed to protect “underdeveloped” alien civilizations. Often cited by Captain Kirk, the prime directive ordains that the crew of the Enterprise refrain from intervening in any way, shape or form with alien affairs, especially when their actions may affect the natural development of the local culture.
Star Trek‘s message of “tolerance” is highlighted in the few episodes that explicitly showcase the dangers of racism and bigotry. In “Arena,” Kirk and crew are proved wrong when they believe that a race of reptilian creatures are evil incarnate just because of their appearance. And in “Space Seed,” the Enterprise accidentally revives a group of genetically engineered humans sleeping in suspended animation. Led by the astonishing Kahn (Ricardo Montalban), they are remarkably strong and highly intelligent, and responsible for the devastating “Eugenic Wars of the late 20th century.” When Kirk realizes that Kahn and his crew plan to hijack the Enterprise for their racist designs, he strands them on a desolate planet.
Even if Star Trek proclaims respect for other cultures, it also asserts American ideologies as universal truths. Democracy and capitalism are the ultimate social paradigms and Kirk is always eager to confront whoever dares to challenge them. These confrontations are hardly surprising. After all, Star Trek encodes Cold War politicking in the conflicts between the Federation, the Klingons and the Romulans. The episode “Errand of Mercy” portrays the Klingons as a powerful empire bent on conquering, enslaving, and destroying democratic societies. And in “Balance of Terror,” an episode loosely based on the World War II classic film The Enemy Below (1957), the Federation and the Romulan empire maintain a “Neutral Zone” reminiscent of the regional demilitarization imposed on North Korea.
This type of displacement of 1960s American anxieties into a cultural “other” is actually at the heart of Star Trek. The Enterprise and its crew live in perfect harmony, while the aliens found by the starship are always the cause of peril and struggle. This is perhaps not entirely surprising as Gene Roddenberry originally envisioned Star Trek as “Wagon Train to the stars”, and therefore the show inherited some of the racial ideologies found in the American Western.
The aliens are thus allegorically aligned with the American Indians and are presented as irredeemably primitive, even if they are technologically superior to humans. Several of the advanced alien cities seen in Star Trek contain gothic (“The Squire of Gothos”) and feudal (“Errand of Mercy”) iconographies, in contrast with the “futuristic” look of the starship Enterprise.
It is not completely surprising that such primitivism is encoded in terms of economic and technological differences. After all, the Federation venerates capitalism. )The name of the ship, the Enterprise, suggests as much.) The most dramatic example of interstellar capitalism is found in “The Devil in the Dark,” where a mole-like monster is killing miners on a planet containing rich mineral deposits. Because part of the mission of the Enterprise is to protect the human colonies that are exploiting the mineral resources of distant planets, Kirk and Spock investigate. They find out that the monster is merely protecting thousands of eggs the miners are destroying as they work. Kirk resolves this conflict by proposing a simple imperialistic policy that borders on slavery. The miners are told to let the eggs hatch, while the monster agrees to use its innate digging abilities to help in the efficient mining of the planet. In order to survive, the monster must work for free, helping the Federation to decimate the natural resources of its home planet.
While Kirk’s actions could be excused because he was looking out for the safety of the mining crew, less life-threatening situations have compelled him to “bend” the prime directive. In “The Return of the Archons,” a powerful computer that has managed to avoid wars and famine for centuries controls a peaceful world. Brainwashed by the computer, all the members of this society appear to live in a state of perpetual bliss. But because the aliens refuse democracy and do not conform to the capitalistic scheme of production and commerce, Kirk quickly dispatches the computer in order to “free” the aliens from its control. Kirk’s righteous attitude, enforcing ideology by means of superior firepower and technology, is seen again and again over the course of the series.
Produced during the Vietnam War, Star Trek trivialized the complexities of the conflict by suggesting that primitive-looking alien cultures are problematic, while reassuring viewers that the ultimate victory of democracy and capitalism could be won by warfare.