Saturday 13 April 2024


“Even historians fail to learn from history.”
- Professor Gill, 'Pattern of Force'

History has Its Gravity (Future Classicism)

The Romulan commander in 'Balance of Terror' is never actually given a name. But he's still one of the classic 'Star Trek' characters, much better-drawn than there seems any functional requirement for him to be. Compare him to Kor, the first Klingon adversary in 'Errand of Mercy'. Kor is, it’s true, more than a mere pano villain. By his own culture's codes, he is honest and even valiant. But, in a complete inversion of the two, Kor is named though he's there just to be a Klingon - to represent to us what Klingon culture is.

While the Romulan drives the plot one way while all the time wishing there was another. In a story clearly based on World War Two submarine films he’s a recognisable type - the good German general. Battle-weary and worldly wise, he can see straight through the cult of war, and recognises Kirk as not just stuck in the same slot as him but as cut from the same cloth. Yet he’s too embedded in his culture to extract himself now, and the way things are going he’ll be dead soon. His last words are: “We are creatures of duty, Captain. I have lived my life by it. Just one more duty to perform...”

So if the Klingons are the Reds the Romulans must be Fascists. Simples, right? Not really. Much like the Daleks and the Cybermen, things aren’t that reductive. Yes, Fascism was forever keen to borrow the iconography of Classicism, from its Italian birthplace. But the Romulans are frequently portrayed as more Classical than anything appropriated by Mussolini. Take the uniforms, or the bird of prey motif. Events takes place between the planets Romulus and Remus, just in case the name Romulan alone wasn't enough of a tip-off for us. (Something set to repeat. The later episode ’Elaan of Troyus’ is blatantly Helen of Troy playing the telephone game.)

And 'Mirror Mirror' ostensibly set in a parallel universe where the Federation are imperious and backstabbing, is as full of classical references. The Starfleet insignia, an upward-pointing arrowhead is transmogrified into an unsheathed sword running through a planet. It's almost akin to one of those alternate histories where Rome never fell, so elements of our world get mixed up disconcertingly with theirs.

Partly this is a grab for gravitas. Previously, much televised SF in America had been juvenile and Gene Roddenberry was keen to establish some counter-credentials. Proper SF authors were recruited as scriptwriters. When, disliking being rewritten, Harlan Ellison wanted his script credit to revert to the generic Cordwainer Bird he was refused by Roddenberry. Much of his script went, his name remained. It was of more value than the words he wrote.

And speaking of namedropping, there’s the penchant for classical or literary quotes to be employed as episode titles. ’Plato’s Stepchildren’ even begins with the helpful explanation “Plato, Platonius, see?” (Oh yes, right!) Shakespeare is cited in 'Conscience of the King'. At the outset, ex-dictator Kodos is wanted for war crimes and hiding out. The particular hiding spot he chooses being a travelling theatre troupe, appearing before different audiences each night across the galaxy. So much for the believer in eugenics being a superior life form. Except of course it's not happening that way round. It seems a safe enough bet that the Shakespearian players in space, with the lead actor himself in disguise, was the impetus. This was to be a 'phasers on impress' episode.

So it logically follows they're performing 'Hamlet', despite there being no-one in the troupe who could really play the Dane. 'Forbidden Planet' borrowed the plot and theme of a Shakespeare play, 'The Tempest', without mentioning it explicitly. 'Star Trek' does precisely the opposite. The title comes from the line “the play's the thing/Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King”, referring to 'Hamlet's' play-within-a-play structure. Yet there's no mirroring of that in the plot. They merely use the play title most people will have heard of (and not, say, ’Pericles Prince of Tyre’), in the same way they used the best-known playwright. And naturally the name is taken as permission to justify some truly scenery-chewing acting.

...While Time Has Weight

But another means, by which SF might more genuinely emulate the historical sweep of Classicism, is time travel. Which allows for future history, surely a branch of historical fiction. As any fan knows, Asimov’s Foundation series came from his reading Gibbons’ ’Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’. Kim Stanley Robinson even went so far as to define SF as "an historical literature... In every SF narrative, there is an explicit or implicit fictional history that connects the period depicted to our present moment, or to some moment in our past.”

Which couldn’t help but raise an intriguing question? Mostly we consider history subjectively, the way we do evolution - it was all about us, a timeline designed to get to here, at which point it handily stops. By extending the timeline further, into dates not yet on calendars, does SF open our minds beyond that narrow notion? Or by ostensibly setting dates in the future where the same shit happens (people commute by jet-pack, but of course there’s still wage labour) does it actually reinforce it?

Time travel was one means by which science fiction conveyed these connections, or general historical sweep. Which means it's probably significant that the original series had more episodes with the word “time” in the title than it did actual time travel episodes. (Seriously, where did 'Amok Time' ever get its handle from?) Just like ‘Shakespeare’, ‘Time’ is a word with connotations.

But let's look at the two actual time-travel stories...

‘City On the Edge of Forever’ has something of a metafictional undercurrent. This was when TV’s primacy had become embedded in our culture. TV now gave you your history, alongside your news and your entertainment and telling you when to go to bed. So history became a movie you already knew the ending to. The crew see history through the lens of a black-and-white screen (showing actual film footage), which they then find the magical power to enter. For a screen entices more than the pages of a book.

This heightens a prevalent question. What if you could jump through that border, and punch out the bad guys before anyone contemporary to them got wise? But like a cursed magic object from a folk tale, the portal only offers the appearance of that power. All you can do is watch from close up as the course of history happens. (More on that sort of thing here.)

'Tomorrow is Yesterday', whose 'Friends' title would be 'The One Where The Enterprise Ends Up Back On Earth In The Present Day, Sparking The UFO Craze', makes an element implicit in 'City' into a definite rule. Most of history, you see, is just busywork. You and me are like the extras in the ships' corridor scenes, walking up and down, ostensibly doing stuff but really just making up the numbers. Only a few important individuals have an actual historical impact. Providing the Enterprise gets involved only with us historically insignificant types, it can head back to the future with no harm done. It's like offing red shirts. There’s no consequence, everyone just forgets they were there.

So when they beam up pilot John Christopher and he first seems insignificant, all looks fine for the future. But the twist is that he's carrying historical importance like a recessive gene, as a descendent will have a major role in developing space travel. To underline this point a second character gets beamed aboard, a base guard. Clearly not an alpha type but a B lister, he spends his whole time on the Enterprise in stupefied awe. Luckily, they're able to fix everything by putting time back where it was when they found it.

And this dividing people up into the historically significant and insignificant, doesn't it sound rather close to Kodos self-aggrandising doctrines about superior beings, despite his being the ostensible villain of 'Conscience of the King'? When there's insufficient food to stave off starvation on the planet he ruled, he worked out a programme where only the important will be permitted to survive. As so often ’Star Trek’ liberalises this, expects more benevolence from its Alphas, but doesn’t question the division.

All of which sounds a good deal like the 'great man' theory of history. In 1840, Thomas Carlyle helpfully explained:

“The history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the History of the Great Men who have worked here. They were the leaders of men, these great ones: the modellers, and in a wide sense creators, of whatsoever the general mass of men contrived to do or to attain; all things that we see standing accomplished in the world are properly the outer material result, the practical realisation and embodiment, of Thoughts that dwell in the Great Men sent into the world.”

Alphas make history, not just in the sense of getting their names on the statues and portraits but in the sense of creating it. And the Great Man theory makes history into an adventure story, where we’re enlisted troops permanently in the throes of battle and the great perpetually triumph over adversity.

Leaving The Past Behind

But there’s also an insistence on the linearity of history. It aligns with the conceit of the Federation having a Richter Scale of Cultures, against which anyone they run into can not only be mapped but assigned a number from a progress chart. (Cultures might progress through this at different speeds, but it’s specified the points are fixed.) More primitive societies are presented as being like children, needing our guidance. And just as history is assumed to be linear, lack of progress is associated with arrested development, like time's on freeze frame. (The classic example here would be 'The Apple', but there's no shortage to choose from.)

Let's look at an apparent exception. 'Errand of Mercy' feigns to be another episode where a primitive culture (the Orgonians) requires an appropriate adult to beam down to them and give them a big of a leg-up. The story spends much time contrasting the free West against the Evil Empire of the East... sorry, the Federation against the Klingons, then spanners its own works by throwing in a perspective which makes that distinction merely trivial.

We find we're the ones who need the appropriate adults, and Kirk and his Klingon adversary are effectively told “if you children can't play nicely together we shall have to take your toys away”. This time the 'Friends' title would be 'The One Where the Vietnam War Was Won By Buddhism', and in Buddhist terms the Organians are off the wheel – beings of pure light, opposed to any form of physical violence… in fact anything physical.

But crucially, the standard perspective is reversed not undone. In many ways it's reinforced. The story ends with Spock speculating that they took millions of years to evolve as far as they have, and so in time might we. Their revealing their true form looks similar to the transporting effect, as if they were one day ‘energised’ and saw no reason to revert. And his assertion is given weight by the Orgonians asserting that in the future the Federation and Klingons will become friends.

It’s teleological and techno-utopian at once. Are there strange new worlds, new life and new civilisations out there? They say yes but they mean no. The future can just be predicted through extending the curve of a graph. But at the same time, the Orgonians are effectively angels, just from a heaven which has been displaced from above us to ahead of us. And heaven has always been where you could leave your imperfect physical existence behind.

Most of this story takes place within an illusion created by the Orgoniains, which the viewer shares. Shouldn't that make them similar to the Talosians of 'The Cage'?  Yet one is coded as destructive and the other as positive. Something achieved by emphasising how the Talosians are the remnant of an ancient civilisation which became degenerate. The Organians are beings of pure energy who only take on human form to make other people feel better. The Talosians have a misshapen version of the human form, most notably with enlarged craniums. While outside events impact upon the Organians, disturbing their serenity until they feel they're left with no choice but to step in and resolve them, the Talosians need to lure and trap humans for their survival.

In other words, the Organians are the - possibly our - future while the Talosians are stuck in the past. They spend their time doing nothing but bathing in memories, made tactile by the power of illusion. It's vitality, “primitive emotions”, with which the tough young Pike is still in touch, which have the power to defeat them.

Similarly, in the ’Outer Limits’ episode ’The Sixth Finger’ (1963) a character evolves on speed dial, to the point he first decides to wipe out us primitive creatures, then later to the point where he decides not to any more because now he’s above being above things, that had just been a phase he was going through. Which is again associated with leaving behind bodily form. Evolution will take us to a point “when the mind will cast off the hamperings of the flesh and become all thought and no matter – a vortex of pure intelligence in space.” Physical existence in inherently tainted. But don’t worry, we will evolve out of it.

And in case we didn’t get the point the first time we go through it all again with ’The Empath’, except this time it's Kirk raging against a dying alien race of bigheads. “You don’t understand what it is to live. Love and compassion are dead in you. You’re nothing but intellect.”

Getting Out the Garden, Staying on the Road

So history is teleological, leading to some kind of utopia. But beware of utopias you meet along the road lest they stall your progress. This is made clear enough by titling an episode 'This Side of Paradise'. “Our philosophy is a simple one” say the planet's rustic commune-dwellers, ”that men should return to a less complicated life. We have few mechanical things here. No vehicles, no weapons. We have harmony here. Complete peace.” They’re even vegetarians, an indication of subversion if ever there was.

In fact they’ve hit upon such a state of indolence that they don’t have to tend their dope plants or roll their own joints. Instead the plants obligingly wander up to them and blow spores in their faces. Cool, man. Not entirely unsurprisingly, the Enterprise’s crew has soon tuned in and dropped out too, leaving the Captain alone on the Bridge.

Despite the presence of these handy plants, the commune-dwellers aren’t an indolent lot, picking at the low-hanging fruit. It’s specified they’re farming, a form of labour. But, and this is underlined, they’re merely producing enough for their own subsistence. As they don’t have anyone to trade with, or even give stuff away to, this doesn’t seem all that daft. But surpluses here have become some sort of moral imperative, proof that the Protestant work ethic is present. (Similarly in ‘Plato’s Stepchildren’ Platonius acknowledges “we have become bizarre and unproductive,” like the two are synonymous.)

The target's about as clear-cut as the Klingons. The back to the land movement, undergoing a revival in this era, saw modernity as a mis-step, and the urban landscape as inherently dehumanising, somewhere to escape from. The downside of this is the obvious one. A wage labourer, dreaming of an alternative to the daily grind, might romantically imagine himself lolling in an idyllic farmyard. But show up at one and it soon becomes clear it’s another workplace.

Yet not everyone gave up at that point of discovery. The Whole Earth Catalogue, first issued about eighteen months after this episode aired, is usually seen as the Bible of this movement, with its various editions the chronometer. And it's purely practical in nature, based around getting hold of and using tools (ie mechanical things). Including, in point of fact, early computers. Their supplements used the by-line “difficult but possible”, and never hid the fact there’s no clocking off at five.

True, back to the land overlapped with hippy subculture. And hippies, not necessarily the world’s biggest realists, were wont to blissfully imagine somehow returning to Eden. (Think of Joni Mitchell trilling “we’ve got to get ourselves back to the Garden”.) But rather than undermine this romanticised ideology the episode inflates it, the better to counter with an ideology of its own. “We must live in a state of nature” versus “we must continually progress, at whatever cost”. Each exists only as an antonym for the other. “Maybe we weren’t meant for paradise,” Kirk rages. ”Maybe we were meant to fight our way through... Maybe we can’t stroll to the music of the lute. We must march to the sound of drums.” Shame they never made more than two musical instruments.

Which, for an American TV show made in the Sixties, seems strangely close to the Whig view of history, which took history as “teleological (or goal-directed), hero-based, and transhistorical narrative[s]… histories that present the past as the inexorable march of progress towards enlightenment… putting its faith in the power of human reason to reshape society for the better, regardless of past history and tradition. It proposes the inevitable progress of mankind.”

There’s a presumed association of political with technological development, and both with prosperity, in a kind of positive feedback loop. Arguably the whole doctrine relies upon a cod-materialism induced by the Industrial Revolution, where bigger and better machines equates to bigger and better people. (Hence the joke in ‘1066 and All That’ about history having only two memorable dates to it. In this history dates are no longer events, merely milestones set along the way of an already-mapped path.)

But don’t these two contradict, history as the long arc of progress and as something hammered out by the sinews of Great Men? In theory it would seem so, but putting them together has a… you know… a history to it. The popular phrase “cometh the hour, cometh the man” was most likely coined to paper over these problems. iA succession of Great Men ‘proves’ British superiority was something innate, our Empire inevitable and all the rest of it.Note the use of “hero-based” in the quote above. While Wikipedia boils Whig history down to five bullet pointed assumptions, one of which is: “Presenting political figures of the past as heroes, who advanced the cause of this political progress, or villains, who sought to hinder its inevitable triumph.”

In History, as an academic discipline, this theory was scuppered some time ago by pesky interfering evidence. Though of course it lurches on undead in popular histories, and as a general rule the more populist they are the greater the degree to which it appears. (Sometimes reaching a risible terminus.)

”The Old Doth Fall”

Yet there's also an important difference. The Whigs saw, for example, ancient Rome as a prototype for their more advances civilisation. Yes there were problems with it, but only because it wasn't as far advanced as we are. Besides, it's since obligingly vanished off the map, so there's not much point focusing on those flaws now. Whereas in 'Star Trek' effective Romans plague our heroes no less than three times.

Despite Claudius’ speech mocking the Prime Directive (a favourite of clip shows), 'Bread and Circuses' is the one episode where the Directive holds. (Well, just about.) Kirk is clearly not just willing to die for it, but sacrifice Spock and McCoy into the bargain, and even earns Claudius’ respect for sticking to it. At the end they essentially escape rather than cure things. And this is possible because we’re on a parallel Earth. The rise of Christianity and its notions of ‘brotherhood’ is seen as proof the Roman empire will fall anyway, just as it did on Earth. (Actual students of the era please look away now.)

All the Shakespeare quotes the show bandies about, and one it noticeably doesn't use is Edmund's from 'King Lear' - “the younger rises when the old doth fall”. To Shakespeare this was the voice of villainy, when even the prospect of power passing down generations felt precarious, risked breaking the natural order. Whereas to 'Star Trek', this is the voice of inevitability.

Though 'Man Trap' had not been intended as the opening episode, in one way it's fitting. Its ruins turn out to be Gothic ruins, not as dead as they seem. And its adversary is an ancient vampire, a creature which by natural law should have died, which perpetuates its existence by snatching life from those which should be its heirs.

As Darren of The M0vie Blog comments: “Star Trek returns – time and time and time again – to the image of dying ancient societies…. Their decay and collapse (and even their withdrawal from the universe) is contrasted with humanity’s energy and enthusiasm as the Federation begins to truly claim their place among the stars. There’s a sense that the old world is passing, and a new world is dawning.” In short the series is riddled with, and obsessed by, decadence.

This is at it's dullest when the new world is simply a like-for-like replacement of the old. In 'The Paradise Syndrome' the Preservers have been remotely watching over a planet of Space Noble Savages, placing an obelisk to keep marauding asteroids at bay. The Federation first show up to deflect the asteroid themselves, then repair the obelisk. Kirk is... wait for it... mistaken for a God. Except 'mistaken' isn't really the word. Not only is the God's name strangely similar to his (Kirok to Kirk, what are the odds?) his “Kirk to Enterprise” line triggers the obelisk into action. They're so much the New Preservers they can comfortably step straight in the old shoes like worn-in slippers.

This isn’t even a a story about that, which we’re expected to take for granted. Instead its about Kirk, about his shaking off the white man's burden to live in some fictitious primitive paradise, shacking up with a nubile savage in a fetchingly short poncho. It could really be called 'The Last Temptation of Kirk'. Which just makes it worse. We're so secure in the knowledge we're preservers, the tale’s focus naturally falls on us. We're the next crop of parents, and they're our children. Children you get to shag, who can even bear children of their own. But children nonetheless.

Things can get more interesting, however, when the Old Ones don't disappear obligingly offstage but rub up against us. 'Star Trek' is full of dimming suns, ancient ruins with strange and powerful alien technology left lying about for us to stumble on. Underground chambers and tunnels abound, SF’s version of crypts and catacombs. “When they moved from light to darkness”, we're told of one lot, “they replaced freedom with a mechanistic culture.” (It's from 'What Are Little Girls Made Of?' but could be applied to many other episodes.)

The series has avowedly Gothic episodes, such as ’Catspaw’, or 'Little Girls', which even starred Ted Sasidy from 'The Addams Family’. But these can act as a kind of decoy, suggesting Gothic was an extra - something the show sometimes went in for. Whereas in fact it’s there in the DNA. Like in the Gothic novel, those chambers and catacombs are ever-present and always work as metaphors for decadence and degeneracy.

And in the post-war world who were the old ones? Of course they’re us, the old-world Europeans, those imperial Romans as hubristic as Ozymandias. We may have given them their conception of history, but now it belongs to them. Yet here we are hanging about obstinately rather than getting offstage while we should. The Platonians in ’Plato’s Stepchildren’ are Ancient Greeks, so naturally they speak with English accents. American dramas in general love an English villain, but its science fiction allows the trope to reunite with its source.

“You’re half dead,” Kirk rages, effectively at us. “You’ve been dead for centuries! We may disappear tomorrow. But at least we’re living now.” The ancient European God Apollo concludes in 'Who Mourns For Adonias?' “The time has passed. There is no room for gods.” Except that's a lesson that needs re-learning week by week, the coffin lid re-nailed down on the old vampire, history inevitable yet continually pressed into service.

(Noticeably in ’Earth vs. Flying Saucers’ (1956), ostensibly a red menace film, the invaders come from a dying solar system, so physically frail they need space-suits-of-armour to stand up and who assume an American-led Earth will submit to their demonstrations of superior power. To be told: “When an armed and threatening power lands uninvited in our capitol, we don't meet him with tea and cookies!”)

And we’re frequently represented by incongruity, something which really has no place in this world and yet appears anyway. This is perhaps most effectively conveyed by 'Who Mourns For Adonias?', in the surreal moment where a giant hand reaches out in space to grab the Enterprise. (Which of course also represents stalled development.)

Note in the quote above Kirk emphasises “we may be gone tomorrow”. It’s the brevity of life which makes you seize it. ’The Mark of Gideon’ perhaps goes furthest in associating sex and virility not just with life but also with death. Gideon is a planet of un-life, populated by shuffling shades lacking both life and death. After perhaps the most elaborate blind date arrangement in galactic history, building Kirk the habitat of a full-scale replica of the Enterprise, they get him to mate with a daughter of Gideon. But rather than conception what they hope for is a disease, not new life but death, which will helpfully decimate their population.

Diegetically, this bizarre switch goes largely unexplained. Third season episodes often lose their way, like someone’s forgotten why they’re telling you this and is hoping to stumble back on their purpose. No wonder Spock finds the whole thing so exasperating.

But if we see the thing symbolically, as Kirk injecting a shot of adrenaline into their culture, it works better. By jolting them back into life he also reintroduces death. It’s similar to ’Zardoz’ (1974) where a savage appears in a sterile utopia, simultaneously stimulant and infection.

Historically, monotheism did not originate even in Europe but goes back to the early civilisations of the Middle East. Honest, its on Wikipedia and everything. Yet 'Star Trek' seems particularly keen to label it “new” and appropriate it as American, thereby associating the polytheistic Old Gods with the Old World. Old Gods to be treated literally the way they have been culturally, we must tell them to their faces we are breaking up with them.

'Return to Tomorrow' features… you’ll never guess... ancient all-powerful aliens. This time they’ve been reduced to disembodied energy fields hanging out in glowing globes, and keen to borrow our bodies. The theme of the old unnaturally usurping the place of the young was recurrent throughout the Sixties, such as the 1967 film 'The Sorcerers'. But this episode adds a religious element to it. It's suggested the aliens are effectively our Gods, having seeded life throughout the universe. In a reverse of ’The Paradise Syndrome’ they refer to us as “our children”. 

Darren at the M0vie Blog claims this "draws rather heavily from The Book of Genesis [with] some biblical name-dropping.” And certainly Kirk speaks of Sargon in terms of experiencing God-like benevolence - “for an instant we were one. I know him now. I know what he is and what he wants, and I don't fear him.”

Yet while lead alien Sargon intends to keep to the bargain of borrowing short-loan, he is deceived by Henoch. Who could be associated with the betraying Lucifer, justifying Darren's description of him as “Satanic”. Yet in all the millennia up to now he appears to have been trusted by the others. The show's keenness to portray him more as a trickster than an 'evil one' would make him part of an older tradition, the antagonist who is also family member, something more like Loki in Norse mythology. (There's a brief, unexplained reference to him being from “the other side”.)

Perhaps the point is that in the past the Gods could be embodied, but must now be beings of spirit. They should leave this material realm to us. “We now know we cannot permit ourselves to exist in your world, my children.” (There isn't an automatic link between monotheism and an immaterial God, but the association is strong.)

The plot of ’Deadly Years’, accelerated ageing until everyone gets better again, is somewhat hackneyed. And as characters keep walking off and back on again with more grey slapped on, it’s hard not to find the whole thing comical. But the competency panel scene, where it becomes increasingly clear to everyone but Kirk he’s no longer who he was, and they respond by merely falling silent, is both awkward and tragic. Just like when it happens with real friends and relatives.

True, you need a double-think. Old age’s trick is to creep up on you by stealth, leaving you oblivious. Shrink that process down to a few days and you’d find it hard not to notice. You need to pretend at points that this is a future episode, that Kirk has reached this age the long way round, and then at others that it’s been induced and so can be cleared.

But it reads quite differently if seen in the overall context of the show. In a nice but easy to miss touch, they originally speculate this to be a weapon of the Romulans. But it turns out the cause of old age is… well, old age. The death trap there’s no leaping clear of. The show’s near-obsession with debilitating disease is the inevitable phobia of its philia with youth and virility. And here seems the point where they just come out and say it.

No escaping mortality? As things turn out, there is.

Chekov’s grumble, that they solve the problem by scraping bits off him, proves prophetic. What gave him immunity was adrenaline, which they then feed to the others. Somewhat tautologically, the cure for old age is a shot of youth. This makes scant story sense. Even if that warded the virus off him initially, why should giving it to the others later reverse the ageing process?

But, as we may have grown used to, it has a certain symbolism. The sheer ancientness of the universe is in itself enough to destroy you, by subjecting you to its scale. But whatever we are as individuals, our race is young and vibrant. The cure is found literally within ourselves. The Enterprise survives boldly going out there precisely because it boldly goes.

We saw last time how the show’s view of the Cold War was conflicted, and considered how that may have been inherent to a multi-writer show. Yet when it comes to history it’s remarkably consistent. Where there’s paradoxes in the show’s view of history, they tend to exist overall rather than be created in the friction between different episodes. While storylines are often based around moral dilemmas, so much of what’s outlined here is simply assumed - American exceptionalism, technology bringing development, history as the march of progress and so on. This happened inside an era when America seemed the dominant global force.

At the same time the Cold War was at its height, and had dragged the country into a war which would ultimately prove unwinnable. Yet rather than competing, culturally speaking the two things allied, insisted on the nation’s manifest destiny all the more strongly. When questioned, double down on your doctrines with greater fervour.

Saturday 6 April 2024


“I have no belief that Star Trek depicts the actual future. It depicts us, now.”
- Gene Roddenberry

In Space Reds Go Brown

Continuing our series on the original ’Star Trek’, let’s note its oddly bifurcated reception. It's seen by some as a beacon of progressive liberalism, giving us an enlightened future to aim for. And by others as a byword for cultural imperialism, where America first remakes the world in its image, then gets started on the rest of the universe. As counter-examples you could cite ‘Star Trek Has Always Been Woke’ by Joshua M Patton and ’Starve Trek’ by the radical cartoonist Polyp, which took over an issue of ’New Internationalist’ magazine in 1991. ("It's five year mission to exploit strange new worlds, to rip off new life and new civilizations and to boldly take what’s barely been paid for.”) If you were to read these without having ever seen the show, you’d find it hard to conceive they were talking about the same thing.

Yet for all this the Cold War is surely a clincher. Surely the show was partisan, if not propagandistic in its Red scaremongering. Who cares how diverse was the crew who carved out such a space empire, their phasers forever set on re-educating the natives into their own image? Its the same argument as over the Tory cabinet. Notably, the ‘progressive’ camp have become more vocal, and the ‘cultural imperialists’ quieter since the Cold War ended.

While ’Star Trek’ is steeped in the Cold War, so steeped it can be hard to frame. An episode like ’The Alternative Factor’, where someone is trapped in perpetual conflict with an oppositional version of himself, which can only be resolved by the destruction of the whole universe so must be perpetually deferred - it’s not about the Cold War the way other stories are, but could scarcely have been created at any other time. But if we went with ‘stories informed by the Cold War’, that would quite possibly be the whole three seasons. So lets restrict ourselves to the direct analogies, the Cold War in space…

Naturally this takes us straight to the Klingons. In an American SF show broadcast during the mid to late Sixties, naturally the chief antagonists were the other side, were stand-ins for…wait for it… the Commies.

The first use of the name comes from Kirk’s log at the opening of ‘Errand of Mercy’:“Negotiations with the Klingon Empire are on the verge of breaking down. Starfleet Command anticipates a surprise attack.” And as things turned out negotiations with the Klingons remained in a permanent state of breaking down without things ever quite reaching open hostilities. Much like… oh, you guessed.

Other, more primitive planets are either strategically important or contain a vital resource unvalued by the locals. (In ’Errand’ Organia is a chessboard square, with “little of intrinsic value” but “ideally located for use by either side”. In ‘Elaan of Troyus’ the jewels decorously adorning the titular Queen’s necklace turn out to be vital dilithium crystals.) The Federation and the Klingons are effectively the adults in the room, the good and bad parents. The primitives can either remain in their state of innocence, or fall under the guardianship of one or the other. Just as the Cold War was waged by proxy, the hands-off illicit arming of either side to stir up Third World conflicts while both powers stood before the UN General Assembly whistling innocently.

The other scenario is espionage stories, where a Klingon plot involving secret agents is gradually exposed, such as ‘Trouble With Tribbles’. In both, Klingons tend to operate on the periphery of the story, often in disguise, scheming and meddling. Which would seem to reinforce the point.

Aaron Angel’s ‘Cold War Images and the Enemies of Star Trek’ sums up the widespread view: “Star Trek enemies and the actual enemies of the Cold War era share many similarities. The Klingons, antagonistic and warlike, truly portray the American image of the Soviet Union. The parallel is strongly reinforced by the continual threat they, the Klingons, were to the Federation.” The Romulans, meanwhile, are the Red Chinese.

It all seems so obvious, so clear-cut. Everything readily assignable, every nail nailed down. In fact, the more of that piece I read, the more I found myself mentally screaming “curse this witless literalism that passes for material analysis!”

Let’s focus on the Klingons here, the Romulans can lurk around awaiting a future instalment. First, a story is not its scenario. What of the Klingons themselves? Beyond military aggression the dominant feature of Cold War depictions of the Soviet Union was deindividualisation. Its society was a mechanism where every person was reduced to a cog in service of the state. Daily life had the paranoia of a spy movie, everyone permanently professing loyalty while treacherously conspiring to betray everyone else. These darn commies spout a lot about loyalty, yet are primarily exercised about saving their own skins.

In ’Errand’ there’s one reference which might match this when Klingon chief Kor comments: “Do you know why we are so strong? Because we are a unit. Each of us is part of the greater whole, always under surveillance. Even a commander like myself, always under surveillance.”

But take that out and it would leave no kind of hole in the story. And there’s little in succeeding episodes. The scenarios may well be Cold War, in which the Klingons fulfil the requisite antagonist role, but there’s little to make them actual ‘commies’ as normally depicted.

In fact, from the first they’re a warrior culture. Mostly they’re found insisting they’re so strong because they’re so brave. They respect the stuff even when found in their antagonists. Kor for example disdains the unresisting Orgonians and relishes in Kirk’s defiance. (“You are much like us... We are similar as a species. Here we are on a planet of sheep. Two tigers, predators, hunters, killers, and it is precisely that which makes us great. And there is a universe to be taken.”) And warrior cultures are very much individualised, not ranked by decree but arranged in a dynamic pecking order of personal status.

Rather than Reds, it would be truer to say that the Klingons are Cossacks. In fact Chekov twice calls them Cossacks, in ‘Trouble With Tribbles’ and ‘Day of the Dove’. Which is odd. Because, rather than representing the Soviet Union, the Cossacks were repressed by it, to a degree which quite possibly bordered on genocide.

Also, the Cossacks were a Caucasian group. While Soviet leaders were, and looked, Caucasian. Brezhnev, General Secretary at the time of transmission, had been born in what’s now Ukraine. Yet the Klingons are brownfaced to the hilt. Make-up designer John Colicos based their look on Genghis Khan.

In ‘Errand of Mercy’, the Klingon’s main job is to be so oppressive that us viewers naturally side with Kirk, swayed by the urgency of his actions, and so we are implicated when the rug is pulled from under him. Unsurprisingly, they were at that point conceived as a one-off antagonists. (In a series which, up till then, had only dealt in one-off antagonists.) The problem is, they don’t change much even when we get past this.

We meet two Romulan commanders, who are not only very different but through those differences power the story. We meet a different chief Klingon every time, and this only confirms how interchangeable they are. Even their names are chipped from the same gutteral block as Khan – Kor, Krell, Koloth… Kraw will probably be along in a minute. They never really lose that original function, to be the lurking heavies of the cosmos.

As such, they’re depicted in broad strokes. We never, for example, see their homeworld. Inasmuch as we know, they have always been as they appear - antagonists to the Federation.

And these strokes are broad enough to allow for some both-ways fuzzy logic. The Klingons are simultaneously a centrally controlled expansionist empire and roving bandits, showing up places and kicking things over. They’re built out of signs of Banditry, a generic enemy made up of off-the-shelf parts – moustaches, even those tasseled sashes look somewhat like gun cartridge belts. Making them dark and swarthy just went with that. (In ’You Only Live Twice’, Bond yellows up as a local and looks remarkably like a Klingon. Despite the fact he’s supposedly passing for Japanese.)

And, for a series so keen to proclaim loudly how opposed to anti-black racism it is, ’Star Trek’ has remarkable trouble with Asians. There was Khan in ’Space Seed’. Or ‘The Savage Curtain’ (‘Arena’ with celebrity guest stars) where the ‘evil’ team enlisted to battle Kirk includes Kahless, founder of the Klingon empire, Genghis Khan, Zora and Colonel Green. (These are so generic that it’s the same line-up as the bad guys in ’Superman II’, - criminal mastermind, bad babe and lurking heavy.) Which brings the Klingons together with their original inspiration. It means Kahless and Khan are both brown-skinned, with the dusky, feral brunette Zora scarcely a world away.

But inevitably it’s the one white guy, Green, who’s the natural leader. Khan, a supreme military strategist who carved out an empire of unprecedented size, is reduced to lobbing rocks on command. He and Zora get precisely no dialogue whatsoever. These Asiatics are inherently bad. But they need a white guy around to show them how to be bad. They’re history’s henchmen, the equivalent of the Penguin’s stripy-jerseyed heavies in the Batman TV show.

But the significance of this is not that it disregards actual history. Folk histories overwrite actual events all the time. After all, at this time “the Russians” and “commies” were often used as interchangeable terms. But there’s no Klingon equivalent to, for example, the Russian revolution. Which abandons one of the chief Cold War arguments, that such a revolution had been a rupture, a break with the natural order which inevitably turned out badly. What’s normally seen as a winning card isn’t even played.

If the Cold War conflict is hard-coded into race-essentialism this is at its strongest in Omega Glory’. AA Gill has described this as “really where Star Trek comes clean about what it actually was all about.” The infamous scene where Kirk finds a Stars and Stripes on an alien planet then starts waving it while reciting the Declaration of Independence, it feels like the Peace Corps sequence in ‘Airplane’ without knowing that it’s funny.

It’s not a well-regarded story, commonly dismissed as an aberration. Yet with its opposition of caucasian Yans (Yankees) and Asian Cons (Communists), one so white even their furs are blonde, the other described by Spock as “Asiatics”… in too many ways it fits right in. There’s no intra-story seeding or cargo culting (as used elsewhere), the implication is that every society has those divisions, even ahead of the two superpowers showing up.

Kirk insists to the Yans that their sacred “worship words” such as “freedom… must apply to everyone or they mean nothing”. Yet there’s no indication within the story these words will ever penetrate the hard, foreign faces of those Cons. It’s just that the inability to succeed doesn’t stop you from having to attempt the Sisyphean task. Freedom and democracy are Western values, born in the New World of America. Yet at the same time they’re held to be universal (“inalienable and self-evident”, as the Declaration of Independence put it), so must be made into universal exports to be sold with evangelical zeal. The story is best understood as an articulation of these contradictions, rather than any kind of attempt to resolve them.

Tell us About the Talking Cure 

So should we dismiss the show’s fabled liberalism out of hand, as a mere fig leaf? Roddenberry himself said: 

“It troubles me that there are no programmes on television, at least none that I've seen, that point out that the world is operating in a very primitive way on the basis of hate. Our own president hates the Commies, and he and his henchmen believe that therefore everything they do to defeat the Commies, whether it's illegal or not, is justified because of their hate. If we are ever to turn the corner away from that, we need our artists and poets and entertainers pointing it out.”

While Zac Handlen at the AV Club commented:

“Again and again on the series, we see that communication is the solution to problems, and that understanding your enemy (if they even are an enemy) is the only way to resolve a dangerous situation. It’s a concept that seems to belie every piece of Cold War doctrine foisted on the American public. The Red Menace was a danger so insidious, so malignant, that even trying to understand its beliefs and systems meant a form of surrender. This wasn’t just a physical force, but a kind of philosophical brain snatcher whose tendrils, if left unchecked, would lay waste to the free world.”

True, Roddenberry was a great mythologiser of the show, ever-willing to tell fans what they wanted to hear. And I suspect that 1986 interview represents his 1968 thought processes partially at best. But even if we want to qualify this (which is pretty much what Handlen goes on to do himself) it’s still something rooted in the series, too rooted to be dismissed as a mere disguise.

If there was little call to develop the Klingons much there are a couple of exceptions to this rule, and they happen near the end. ‘Day of The Dove’ was the last-but-one Klingson appearance. And it’s the only time a Klingon story returns to the original concept of facing your most natural enemy and learning not to fight them. It’s almost ‘Errand of Mercy’ in reverse, where an outside element brings not peace but war. (The Orgonians are discovered to be coloured lights, the entity is one throughout.) The entity feeds off hatred, like the frequent stories which use disease as a metaphor.

The Enterprise hurtles out of known space into a void, a spatial metaphor for what’s being done to them psychologically. There’s a similar purgatorial notion of war to ‘Omega Glory’. There the people lived almost immortal lives. Here you recover even from severe injuries, in order to get up and back in the melee. Yet they’re forced to fight with swords, and it’s this fighting up close which allows them to address one another, and finally refuse to do the entity’s bidding. In the original series, it’s the best we ever got to knowing the Klingons. They even have more than one character. Okay there’s only a second, Marta the Science officer. (Hi, Marta!) But from tiny acorns…

And Marta explains “we have always fought. We must. We are hunters, Captain, tracking and taking what we need. There are poor planets in the Klingon systems, we must push outward if we are to survive.”

Which segues quickly between two things. First it reiterates the Klingon identity – they’re warrior people, it’s in their nature. But then, more unusually, it almost sounds like a genuine description of the Soviet Union. There were vast areas of underdevelopment within it, and a largely hostile world outside. Stalin had said “We are a hundred years behind the capitalist West. We must catch up with them in just ten years… or they will crush us.” And much of what the Soviets did to catch up, such as forcing peasants from the land into the factories, was loudly decried despite more or less mirroring what (for example) Britain had done during its own industrial development.

It’s no more than a hint, but it’s the only hint we get. If the Federation is a young emerging power in an old, decadent and somewhat Gothic universe, the Klingons are younger still. As with the Soviet Union, for the Klingons a strong military and an expansionist drive are prerequisites for survival.

Yet something haunts ‘Day of the Dove’ more than the malevolent entity. Its mission seems to be to make the Klingons more than generic heavies. But it’s hard to shake the feeling that it doesn’t want to burn its boats to the next time the show needs them to be generic heavies again. (Which turned out to be six episodes away.)

Kirk insists to Mara that tales the Federation torture their prisoners are mere propaganda, but notably there’s no such reassurance the other way round. Things might have worked better had the antagonists not been the Klingons but some newly encountered species, where there’s lots of mutual suspicion in the place of hard facts, which is finally revealed as only fear of the unknown.

Also, the entity is such a perfunctory non-thing it feels a bit of a cop out. It simultaneously has too much and too little of a presence, given too much screen time and plot function when it has little to fill it with. Really, the Mysterons in ’Captain Scarlet’ had more personality. The moral becomes about as trite as Culture Club’s ‘War Is Stupid’. The two sides are stupid to fight each other when the sole beneficiary is a voyeur. But mostly war is stupid, like it’s a thing in it’s own right. The original concept, that resolution would come through a peace march, is one of those ideas that’s simultaneously brilliant and terrible.

Josh Marsfelder points out: “The script… doesn’t talk about the origins of violence or why people might be pushed towards it, or how power structures provide a climate where violence is not only allowed to exist but encouraged to… it just says ‘fighting is bad’ and that it strengthens the real enemy, which is...fighting, I guess?” 

And he’s right. War and violence are seen as intruding on our society from without, like freak storms, rather than arising from within. At the very least there could have been an explanation the entity showed up after sensing the conflict, like a shark scenting blood. While at the same time the one episode which could have suggested conflict is not some eternal rule instead implies that they’re going to start fighting all over again, they’re just going to wait for when that nasty light thing isn’t around to gloat about it.

And ultimately, what this does is take its own simple-minded thinking and projects it. As Sebastien Roublen says “What binds these episodes together is their treatment of war as a product of animalistic hatred and paranoia — primitive emotions that could be overcome through rational analysis, compassion and communication.” Communication isn’t employed so much as fetishised. It’s Churchill’s “jaw, jaw is better than war, war.”

Yet ’Errand of Mercy’ (the first, let’s not forget) Klingon appearance is designed all around techno-utopianism winning out. Pure creatures, the Orgonians exist purely to dish out the moral. Which is that one day, if we keep doing our best, we can put our warlike nature behind us and unite:

”Millions of years ago, Captain, we were humanoid like yourselves, but we have developed beyond the need of physical bodies… eventually you will have peace, but only after millions of people have died. It is true that in the future, you and the Klingons will become fast friends. You will work together.”

We will solve the problems of the Cold War by evolving out of them. We will become things of spirit. The technological goes with the teleological.

Which bumps straight into the central question. How can ‘Star Trek’ believes in a techno-utopian future where racism’s a thing of the distant past then create an ethnically defined enemy? But a crucial difference between ideology and theory is that ideology is uninterested in consistency. Point out a logical flaw to an ideologue and they’ll shrug it off uninterestedly, like Donald Trump caught out in a lie. And America was at war throughout the production history of the series. The more the actual war occupied the headlines, the more of an imperative there was to push their warlike actions onto another.

Furthermore… In ‘Slaughterhouse Five’, Kurt Vonnegut claimed an actual reading of the story of the crucifixion would come up with the moral “before you kill somebody, make absolutely sure he isn't well connected.” And similarly, ’Errand of Mercy’ would insist on the importance of detailed research before you invade anybody. The story only works if we don’t ask what would have happened if Orgonia had been a primitive planet.

If fans favour ‘Errand of Mercy’ and dislike (often detest) ’Omega Glory’ that may tell us more about fans of the show than the show itself. Both Gill’s critique and their defence come from selective example. The point is that these are not antonyms so much as opposing poles, with a lot of other episodes strung between them. ’Star Trek’ is some chimera creature made of Hawk and Dove, even if it's desperate to be more Dove-like.

‘Star Trek’ is, citation not needed, fond of pop psychology. So just as there can be a bad Kirk, there’s a bad Federation. In fact, the only difference between the Klingons and the Bad Federation of ‘Mirror, Mirror’ is the actors playing the roles. If anything the Klingons come off better, their warrior nature and ruthless discipline resulting in conquest and empire building. If nothing else, they’re good at what they do. Whereas with the Bad Federation these qualities turn inwards – into feuds and back-stabbing. We’re told explicitly they will destroy themselves.

The No-Men of No War 

'A Private Little War', though widely seen as the Vietnam episode, works better representing just about anywhere else in the Third World. As said earlier the norm for the Cold War was proxy war, open conflict only occurring when the gloves were involuntarily pulled off. America got involved in the conflict in Vietnam only gradually, reluctantly and with great concern over its effect on popular opinion.

And even the Korean war, despite directly involving American troops, had been for the most part kept out of the headlines to the point it came to be known as the forgotten war. Finding an analogy for America’s secret, hands-off approach to wars on a popular TV show, suggests this was more a conspiracy of silence than an official secret.

And, perhaps the prime directive episode, its predicated on the reluctance of Kirk's interventionism. He previously visited the planet when it was an innocent paradise and is almost desperate to keep it like that. A plot contrivance sends Spock to sick bay so Kirk’s mostly left to argue alone against the emotional McCoy. “Not what I wanted”, he says of arming his side. “What had to be”. McCoy has to admit he sees no alternative.

Perhaps the strangest thing is how easily it maps to religion. When in ‘Day of the Dove’ Kirk says to the Klingon Kang “go to the devil” it seems more than a chance expression. Like 'The Apple' or ’The Paradise Syndrome’, ‘Private War’ takes place in a kind of Eden. The Klingon (yes, in the singular) only appears in one quite fleeting scene, mid-way through the episode. He's like the Devil in a Christian drama, tempting the weak and manipulating events from offstage. (One of the ‘evils’ of communism was atheism, which was – with characteristic irrationality - associated with diabolism. Though ’Star Trek’, while it dips into this, only uses it symbolically.)

Yet unlike ’Paradise Syndrome’, this Eden is despoiled before the story starts. The first event they come across is an ambush by the Villagers of the Hill People. Plus there's scheming brunette Nona as the counter to the innocent Miramanee, an Eve not with a snake but a phaser. There’s the sense all of this was primed to happen anyway. A Villager tells the Klingon “I thought my people would grow tired of killing. But you were right. They see that it is easier than trading and it has pleasures. I feel it myself.” All of which leads up to Kirk’s famous closing line where he refers to the guns they’ll be running as “...serpents. Serpents for the Garden of Eden. We're very tired, Mister Spock. Beam us up home.”

Reviewing ’Private War’ Darren at the M0vieBlog pointed out how “the Second World War is treated as the beginning of the future.” And of course that is, or was popularly conceived as being, when once-isolationist America got thrust into in its interventionist role. Notably Surak in ‘Savage Curtain’ has almost exactly the same roles as the Thals in ‘The Daleks’ five years earlier, to demonstrate the innate nobility but practical uselessness of pacifism.

So war has a start date. Yet can never have an end one. The unusually spy-fi ’Outer Limits’ episode ’The Hundred Days Of The Dragon’ (1963) ends with the line “there is no war as we know it.” It is futile and yet perpetual. How could it ever end if it didn’t start? Yet it can never start. “The bomb” was then a common expression, not even distinguishing between the weapons of the two sides, as if rather than being a human product it had some innate existence. It was like a nightmare, where you keep running but you go nowhere.

The orthodoxy line was that ‘communism’ was an unviable ideology at odds with ‘human nature’, its adherents hopeless fantasists upholding their beliefs through fanaticism alone. It was like a jigsaw of forced pieces, with real people as the pieces. And yet in this way that unviable system came to seem undefeatable. At best it could be held at bay like some Manichaean version of geopolitics.

So the Cold War came to be seen as a psychological state blown up to planetary (or here interplanetary) proportions. Jung wrote “our world is… dissociated like a neurotic, with the Iron Curtain making a symbolic line of division. ... It is the face of his own evil shadow that grins at Western man from the other side of the Iron Curtain.” This feeling was widespread. As seen with ’Omega Glory’, hawks had it too. But doves were likely to feel it more acutely.

The advantage of science fiction as analogy is often seen to be its scaling up. In ’Last Battlefield’ a private grudge which should never have got started extinguishes life on a whole planet. But with the Cold War it’s slightly different. If the world isn’t just in conflict but inevitably divided, then the same is likely to apply to the whole universe.

Far from a critique of the Cold War, ‘Private Little War’ doesn’t even qualify as self-doubt. Kirk doesn’t doubt what he has to do, he just doesn’t want to do it much. And yet neither does it fit the other popular picture of ‘Star Trek’ as a self-justifying propaganda piece. In fact it makes most sense if it’s taken at its word, where the angst Kirk expresses is simply a mouthpiece for the angst of his scripters. His tiredness is real, not feigned for the cameras.

The Red Scare films were made in the early Fifties, when the Cold War was still young enough to seem winnable like other wars. But over time the honest and open fisticuffs, the clash of supposed right and wrong, gave way to the world of espionage, perpetually played games of mutual deception, the light swapped for the shadows. In ’The Hunt For Red October’ (1990), while putting on his best Russian accent, Sean Connery articulates this shift:

”I miss the peace of fishing like when I was a boy. Forty years I’ve been at sea. A war with no battles, no monuments, only casualties.”

Let’s reduce techno-utopianism, just for a moment, to an ascending line of innovation. Then the Cold War to an endless round. What does that give us but the classic clash of the irresistible force and the immovable object? And how does that play out? Of course the ceaseless effort makes the force tired, even if it doesn’t let up. While the immovable object just has to stay there.

And this sense of entrapment, of being robbed of decisive action, of every gesture merely pulling you deeper into this murky modern world, brings with it a moral weariness, a feeling of being contaminated by your surroundings, greyed by a grey world. Connery has lived a life banished from living.

This isn’t anything propagandist. This is the voice of the liberal who is confronted by the brute realities of their world and genuinely wants things to be better, but can see no way out. You're very tired, but there's no beaming up out of this. This may well be because the liberal is too constrained by their own world-view, but this is still how things seem from their perspective. And its their perspective we're hearing.

Compare it for example to the Cold War spy stories of John le Carre. Control, the head of the Secret Service, explains his system of morality in ’The Spy Who Came In From The Cold’ (1963):

”We do disagreeable things, but we are defensive… Of course, we occasionally do very wicked things… And in weighing up the moralities, we rather go in for dishonest comparisons; after all, you can’t compare the ideals of one side with the methods of the other, can you, now?… I mean, you’ve got to compare method with method, and ideal with ideal. I would say that since the war, our methods – ours and those of the opposition have become much the same. I mean, you can’t be less ruthless than the opposition simply because your government’s policy is benevolent, can you now?”

But such calm divisions can only be made inside Control’s office. Once out in the field they corrode. And Kirk’s victory that feels so much like defeat seems remarkably similar to Smiley’s response to finally bringing down his Iron Curtain antagonist, Karla, in Le Carre’s later ’Smiley’s People’ (1979):

“ unholy vertigo seized him as the very evil he had fought against seemed to reach out and possess him and claim him despite his striving, calling him a traitor also; mocking him, yet at the same time applauding his betrayal. I have destroyed him with the weapons I abhorred, and they are his. We have crossed each other’s frontiers, we are the no-men of this no-man’s land.”

Notably, both ’Private War’ and ‘Spy’ had an impotent conscience character: McCoy, the raging heart unconnected to a head, and the youthful idealist Liz Gold. And notably both Le Carre stories end up in No Man’s Land. While ’Private War’ doesn’t end up the standard way - with Kirk back in command position on the bridge.

And that’s the irony, that in a bifurcated world we don’t end up locked in opposing camps, able to communicate only by recrimination. It’s that we all become trapped in No Man’s Land, caught in a conflict so deep it’s effectively within ourselves. It’s now the universe which has become dissociated like a neurotic.

You wouldn’t necessarily assume ‘Star Trek’ was something coherent. It was not cut from whole cloth, but a motley array. It didn’t just have multiple writers, it didn’t really even have a single creator. (Gene Roddenberry got his name on the credits, but the smart money is on his being the Stan Lee of ’Star Trek’, to Gene Coon and DC Fontana’s Ditko and Kirby.)

But least so here. To quote one last time from the M0vieBlog: “Star Trek is very much a product of its time, a snapshot of sixties America captured on film. The sixties were a confusing and chaotic time, it makes sense that Star Trek would be just as confused and chaotic... Sometimes that confusion comes within the same episode.”

One of the reasons ’Star Trek’ could be polarising was that it was such a ‘message show’. (‘Doctor Who’ could have messages too, but they were less foregrounded.) It always wore its heart on its sleeve. But that heart was in itself conflicted. And never more so than over the Cold War.

Coming soon! How ’Star Trek’ made history…

Saturday 30 March 2024


“Nowhere am I so desperately needed as among a shipload of illogical humans.”
- Spock, ‘I, Mudd’

Logic Thinking And Its Discontents

It’s time to boldly go into a multi-part look at the original ’Star Trek’. The crux of which is of course the Kirk/Spock/McCoy triangle. Formally this is yet another of its inheritances from the film 'Forbidden Planet', with the Commander, Lieutenant and Doctor. But if both are interested in psychology the film's paradox is to be unconcerned with characterisation. As a one-shot of course it has less running time to build characters, but even so it seems content to paint in broad types. They're cast in the film in pretty much the way they carry out their duties, according to rank, and certainly don't spend much time debating philosophy.

Whereas, a show of limited sets gives a conference room over entirely to the three's debating. (Though for a Doctor, McCoy sure seems to hang around on the Bridge a whole lot.) 'Star Trek' has a reputation as a pedagogical message-of-the-week show, a mouthpiece for Kennedy-era interventionism – showing up somewhere and doing the right thing in the allocated fifty minutes. But Spock and McCoy will squabble about that right thing on almost a weekly basis. There’s a sense that they can't just serve up instant answers, that they need to be teased out.

Yet Kirk is at the apex of this triangle. He's able to draw on both of them, knowing when to listen to logic or draw from intuition. As a leader needs advisors, Kirk needs Spock and McCoy, but also needs to make the final decision himself. They're brain, heart and head. It's a model which professes to achieve diversity of thought and unity at the same time.

And okay, drama dramatises things, which often involves personifying them.But this model seems fixed on the notion that heart and head can’t exist in the same body, and can only be combined via the workings of an external force. Perhaps relatedly, our society has a tendency to associate intellectual brilliance with emotional coldness, a ‘rule’ proven through being regularly applied to fictional characters. Such as Sherlock Holmes, or… oh, you guessed.

The third season episode ’The Tholian Web’ gives us a Kirkless situation, where Spock and McCoy have to manage without him. It rather shamelessly supposes this to be something new whereas by this point we’ve lost count of the times. But it plays the concept for all it’s worth, by focusing solely on Spock and McCoy, with no counter Kirk subplot. In fact even the ghost images of him don’t appear until late on.

Instead it has the tape he leaves them. Spock is advised “temper your judgment with intuitive insight. I believe you have those qualities, but if you can't find them in yourself, seek out McCoy. Ask his advice”, and McCoy told to follow the new Captain. In other words, even when Kirk is missing presumed dead the necessary interlocutor between their opposite poles is still Kirk.

For the first Kirkless situation we need to jump back to the early 'Galileo Seven’. Its designed around demonstrates the limits of logical thinking. Abandoned on a hostile planet against primitive locals (essentially id-creatures, impervious to if not the opposite of his logic, never properly seen on-screen) Spock makes mistakes and lives are lost. And yet he never falls prey to panic, keeps his head when all about him are losing theirs - and gets the majority of the crew home. As it's an unusually hard science story for 'Star Trek', quite deficient in omnipotent alien beings, we can more-or-less follow the rationalism of his decisions.

Yet instead of McCoy having to admit that Spock’s decisions proved right in the end, them being alive and all, it turns out Spock was in the wrong. He's gleefully told by McCoy and Kirk he acted illogically, an accusation which is... well, quite illogical, Captain. He jettisons their remaining fuel, causing a signal flare the Enterprise sees and responds to. Its a gamble. But had he not taken this chance their lives would have been prolonged by only a few hours. Calculation was his thought process. They then go through exactly the whole debate again, in the later episode 'Gamesters of Triskellion', and still McCoy hasn't learnt to have any confidence in him.

While in 'Corbomite Manouvere', Kirk corrects Spock's chess analogy to poker – which allows him to go save the day. And poker is more McCoy's game. Why load the deck so? Because at some point, logical thinking and ideology are going to clash. Intuition and ideology aren’t the same thing but they can seem the same, the things we’ve always assumed will “feel right” to us. But in the modern world a degree of logical thinking is necessary. So it needs to be invoked, but in such a way its forever subordinate to feeling. The brain can’t be done without, but must be constantly mistrusted. Thinking is like a powerful but potent drug, only to be messed with when the antidote of feeling is close to hand.

Though, like any rule, exceptions apply. 'Devil in the Dark', unusually is a horror story. Which makes it much closer to 'Doctor Who',even to the point where the horror is inverted and the 'monster' found not to be a monster at all. And it's Spock who plays the Doctor role, not only guessing the truth but managing to communicate with the monster. McCoy scoffs and Kirk plays the skeptical role of the Brigadier, but they come round.

‘Spectre of The Gun’ has a plot resolution which literally relies on Spock making the others see the world as he does. Cross aliens transport them into a Wild West set to re-fight the battle of the OK Corral as the losing side. And it is demonstrably a Wild West set, the Hollywood tradition of building streets out of theatre flats is given a Brechtian foregrounding. Their adversaries, the Earps, are about as robotically remorseless as Yul Brunner in ‘Westworld’. Though slightly absurdly, no-one among the crew seems to notice this and they carry on insisting they’re in the 1880s.

Then, at the very end, Spock realises the solution is to transcend. Ostensibly he persuades the others via the Vulcan mind meld. But it works like no other occasion. It’s more like a Zen master preparing his novices for a ritual involving treating the ‘real world’ as samsara. (“Unreal. Appearances only. They are shadows. Illusions. Nothing but ghosts of reality.” Strictly the bullets are unreal whereas samara is more akin to ‘merely real’. But the comparison is there.) After which the Earp’s bullets can no longer harm them. In contrasts to Kirk, whose lineage we’re told stems from the Wild West. As Spock points out, they’re enveloped in “the violence of your own heritage”, the very thing they need to rise above. After which they are permitted to meet the bodiless aliens, the Melkotians.

But there's not really any corresponding points where McCoy's heart fails him. In ‘Man Trap’ Kirk snaps at him: “You could learn something from Mr. Spock, Doctor. Stop thinking with your glands.” But it’s incidental to the story. In 'City on the Edge of Forever' he causes all the trouble by getting so hyper-emotional, but only via going mad. There was no particular reason why it should be him. (And in fact in Harlan Ellison's original script it wasn't.) And it's noticeable that when Spock turns out to be right it’s often when he’s not pitted against McCoy, for example in 'Arena' where he questions Kirk's aggressiveness towards hostile aliens.

In short, in the ceaseless tug-of-war between Spock and McCoy the game is rigged, the deck loaded. It's simply assumed that his logical approach is deficient (even as we rely on it). Then, with the plot conceit of his being half-human, it’s equally assume he's kidding himself about being non-emotional anyway. Hence the dodge that, if he does something that worked out, it couldn’t have been logical in the first place.

There isn't a single other Vulcan character in the whole first season, and when we do finally see them, in 'Amok Time', it's a traditionalist, ritualised society, not a logic-based technocracy at all. His father shows up now and then. But a full-on Vulcan, a completely logical being, is not something the show takes any interest in.

At times, the show uses the motif of the computer talking metallically. But at others ‘readings’ are relayed by Spock, as he peers into what I can only think to call a peeroscope. Spock may be the tech guy on the team who spends the Xmas party telling you the merits of various operating system. The interlocutor with the computer is something of a computer himself.

Certainly computerised systems are treated with mistrust, in episodes such as ’The Ultimate Computer’ where the running of he Enterprise is mechanised. As we literally see the lights go out across the ship, we realise this will leave the Federation like all those dead worlds its crew has encountered, with only programmes pointlessly left running. It’s a different threat to the commonly encountered mad computer, the menace doesn’t come from machine hubris but logic pursued to its limit. We should also remember Spock’s effective replacement in ’Next Generation’ was “synthetic life form” Data.

But if Spock was intended to prove on a weekly basis the limits of all that thinking business, there was a twist to the tale…

Spockmania Strikes

The Captain’s Log conceit is mostly there to allow for a post-advert catch-up. But it does at times stray into Kirk’s ‘thought voice’, the pared-down equivalent of a theatrical monologue. Whereas Spock just holds his impassive poker face.

Analysing Frank Millers’ comics in ’The Importance of Being Frank’ (in 'The Daredevils' 1) Alan Moore noted “Miller’s creation Elektra has never utilised thought balloons to expand upon her motivations. Thus, much of her characterisation is in the reader’s mind.” Spock does have one moment, in ‘Cloud Minders’, where we get to hear his thoughts. And it’s strangely jarring.

Much like a sitcom, ‘Star Trek’ comes alive in the casting. Shatner's idiosyncratic, histrionic, scene-stealing performance is infamously over-the-top. But in many ways it has to be for the thing to work. Kirk has to push himself into the foreground, by sheer act of will, or he'd merely be the referee between Spock and McCoy. Had they stuck with Jeffrey Hunter as Pike, as in the pilot, it's unlikely we'd be talking about 'Star Trek' now. The fun to be had with Shatner and Kelly comes through performance. There’s never a moment where they lose themselves in their character, but that doesn’t matter when you can enjoy them being themselves.

So its their overplaying which enables and highlights Nimoy's underplaying, achieving considerable expressiveness just by raising an eyebrow. He’s not just the best but in the precise sense the only actor. So when he comes to do the heavy emoting which is so commonly associated with acting, it has greater effect. He’s like the best player in the band who knows it, so deliberately rations his solos. It becomes something you wait for.

And those ‘solos’… initially at least they came from Nimoy himself. Worried about the part’s effect on his reputation, he was insistent Spock couldn’t just be “a walking computer who gives scientific data” and required repeated assurances from Roddenberry.

But there was something further which cemented Spock’s popularity. Hilariously, even as the scripts stipulated Kirk getting the girl on a weekly basis, it was Spock who proved to have the girl appeal. And that’s not a small thing in the history of this show.

As the M0vieblog has pointed out: ”Although the importance of female fandom has been somewhat downplayed in favour of stereotypes about male nerds, female fans were hugely active and important from the very beginning of Star Trek.” These female fans weren’t necessarily tuning in for their Spock fix alone. But Nimoy’s fan mail soon surpassed Shatner’s and the term ‘Spockmania’ was coined, leading the production to play into this.

But what was the basis of this appeal? Particularly when it was Shatner getting his shirt off on a near-weekly basis. Gene Roddenberry “believed that female viewers would find a slightly dangerous and taboo character more attractive. This was supported by female visitors to the set who seemed to be immediately drawn to Nimoy.”

Not uncharacteristically, he may well be claiming lucky break as masterplan. But there is insight in his comments. There’s a strange accord between Spock and both Peter Cook’s stand-offish pop star Drimble Wedge in ‘Bedazzled’ (1967) and Gary Numan’s career-launching ‘Top of the Pops’ debut in 1979. The two aren’t identical. Numan, seemingly separated even from his own band, plays someone convinced he’s emotionless while you can see he’s actually vulnerable. (“And just for a second I thought I remembered you.”) Whereas Cook just plays the facade, culminating in the pay-off line “I’m not available”. But it’s the same equation, unavailability creates appeal.

We should remember that in this era it was still uncommon for women to have careers. Domesticity was presumed to be your realm. And if your life reduced to your husband, then a steady, loving, reliable husband becomes the equivalent of a McJob – rote and dull. Aged nineteen, Sylvia Plath, wrote in her journal “I must pour my energies through the direction of my mate. My only free act is choosing or refusing that mate”. In which case, why not use that one free act to at least give yourself something of a challenge? A confident alpha male with good prospects, Kirk might have been what women were expected to look for in a man. But the female audience voted with their pens, and they went for Spock.

We can take a stab at plotting the development of Spock past the walking computer with the logic chip. He’s not at all like himself in the pilot, where the remorselessly efficient second-in-command role went to Number One. You can see fore-tremors even here, even if they’re pegged to another character. The mindreading aliens state to Pike: “Although she seems to lack emotion, this is largely a pretence. She has often has fantasies involving you.” Though her on-screen behaviour never openly confirms this, she does manage a logically-deduced but waspish put-down to Vina. (Who those aliens are grooming as her rival for Pike.)

It may start with Uhura’s song about him in ‘Charlie X’. (Which not only relies on the explanatory song trope, but comes in the second episode broadcast - where we might expect character elements to be described diegeticially. The original script had her mimicking others.) Bizarrely, this both references an old, abandoned idea that he would have a full-on Devil look (“devil ears and devil eyes”) and looks forward to his babe magnet future. Here his allure’s presented as intentional (“at first his look could hypnotise… his alien love could victimise/ And rip your heart from you”), a warning to space-faring gals. And Spock smiles as he (literally) plays along. It’s hard to work this out from here. Is it that the cold exterior character is not yet developed? Or is it already being melted down?

Then, in the fourth episode ‘Naked Time’, a space virus causes everyone to lose their inhibitions. But here Nurse Chapel confesses her love to him while he’s unable to respond. He breaks down, but precisely because he couldn’t tell his mother he loved her. (Nimoy has since said little was scripted for this scene, and most of his dialogue was extemporised.)

It was ‘This Side of Paradise’ that first had Spock fall in love. A role originally been slated for Sulu, but switched to him. And if we were to guess when those fan letters first took effect…

As time went on Spock’s breakdowns became about as much a ‘Star Trek’ cliché as Kirk getting the space girl, with predictably diminishing returns. (“Spock, your feelings are showing again.”) Seeing him throw teenage tantrums on ’Amok Time’ was risible stuff. (Nimoy himself grew disappointed by the treatment of the character, leading to strained relations with Roddenberry.) But there were other ideas too, which better grasped the concept…

The Vulcan Mind Meld, introduced in ’Devil in the Dark’, parallels telepathy – often used to portray a deeper form of contact than mere speech, underlining the notion of Spock possessing uncharted depths. While in ‘Return to Tomorrow’ they meet a benevolent alien race who have over time lost their bodies. So, as a temporary solution, they ask to borrow the crew’s. Kirk hosts their benevolent leader Sargon, like going to like. But Spock is assigned Henoch, who proves to be a scheming Loki figure. Watching Nimoy dressed as Spock but playing the malevolently smirking, insouciant Henoch is easily the most memorable element of the story. If this wasn’t the original motivation tfor the script it should have been.

As so often, it may be a unique combination of chance circumstances that gave us the Spock we have. The imposed post-pilot rethink. Nimoy’s insistence on a more substantial role. Letters from the female fanbase. And without the Spock we have, there’d be no ’Star Trek’ as we have it. That’s only logical, Captain.

Coming soon! More boldy going...