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History Through Two Lenses: On Watching Star Trek/TOS

Until very recently, my Star Trek literacy was shockingly low, at least by the standards of my uber-nerdy social group. I had conscientiously watched the two new JJ Abrams movies, more-casually watched two original movies (so casually, in fact, that while I’m sure that I’ve technically seen Wrath of Khan, I couldn’t tell you what the other one was), and caught a scattered handful of episodes from TOS, TNG, DS9 and Voyager. So when Husband and I found ourselves in search of a new show for our weeknight evenings, I suggested we start Star Trek from the beginning. If nothing else, I figured, it’d give us a nice long stretch before we had to worry about choosing another show.

We’re still in the earliest stages at this point, Season One of the original series, and I’ve already noticed my Star Trek literacy increasing. I know what a Vulcan nerve pinch is now; I also feel much better able to appreciate the satire of John Scalzi’s fabulous novel Redshirts. That said, I find that my purest enjoyment of the show is happening on the meta level — in fact, on two different meta levels. Whenever we hit hit one of those inevitable moments that cause people to roll their eyes at TOS, Husband cringes, turns to me and says “I promise it gets better!” And every time, I shrug and say “Sweetheart, I’m a storyteller and a sociologist. I’m fascinated by all of it.”

Some of the conscious liberal philosophy built into the original Star Trek seems to be fairly common knowledge even outside the Trekkie fan base. I already knew, for example, that TOS was the site of TV’s first interracial kiss. I also knew about Roddenberry’s carefully considered decision to make the bridge of the Enterprise a multiracial, multinational place, and I’d heard Nichelle Nichols’ fabulous retelling of her meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., where he talked about the importance of the American people’s seeing a black actress playing something other than “a black role.” But there were other elements of show design and storytelling that I wasn’t aware of until I started watching. In the first pilot episode, which features an almost entirely different crew, we see that Roddenberry originally intended for the Enterprise to have a female first officer who (gasp!) wore the same uniform as the men.That level of equal treatment might not have made it into the later series (I’m looking at you, miniskirts and go-go boots), but there’s still plenty of ideology in TOS that I don’t think was par for the course in 1960s TV. One early episode, “The Arena,” boldly suggests that even “bad guys” rarely see their own actions as evil-for-evil’s-sake. Another, “The Menagerie,” features a character with substantial physical disabilities, who can’t easily communicate with his peers, as one of the judges in a court-martial, implying that his judgment is as sound as anyone else’s. The episode isn’t perfect — there’s some unexamined disabilism elsewhere, and the ending’s  pretty problematic — but coming more than 20 years before the passage of the ADA, it still seems very forward-thinking.

In addition to marking the places where the show was ahead of its time, I’m having fun picking out moments where the attempts at progressivism haven’t aged quite so well, or where it didn’t occur to the creators to question their base assumptions. There’s one episode, “Mudd’s Women,” where the walk-on heroine ends up living happily ever after because she just has to BELIEVE she’s beautiful to be desirable to men. In an era when women were still expected to wear makeup every day, I see what they were trying for, but it looks dated to modern eyes. And don’t even get me started on Kirk’s endless string of nameless love affairs: I’ll just go out on a limb here and guess that even if Majel Barrett‘s first officer had remained a part of the series after the pilot, she would not have been engaging in such “wanton” behavior. As entertaining as the social commentary is, though, what I find most interesting is unpacking the plot tropes.

Unsurprisingly, TVTropes.com has a lot to say about Star Trek, but I found this passage particularly illustrative:

The show’s writing was good, the cast had great chemistry and the characters themselves were very memorable, to the point of creating three new archetypes: The Kirk, The Spock, and The McCoy. In fact, this series created so many new tropes that it has left an unmistakable mark on both television and pop culture ever since. Not to mention inspired a lot of mostly affectionate parodies.

Whenever I’m watching an episode, I can’t help but feel like I’m seeing the norms of sci-fi storytelling developing before my eyes. In the evil twin episode, “The Enemy Within,” when a transporter malfunction basically splits Kirk into id and superego, “evil Kirk” spends most of his energy screaming and attacking people, making him eminently distinguishable from “good Kirk”; it’s only at the end of the episode that we begin to see the writers playing with the idea of not being able to tell them apart. When the Romulans make their first appearance in “Balance of Terror,” where the Enterprise is forced to violate the Romulan “neutral zone” in a presumed act of war and then discovers that the Romulans look a little too much like Vulcans (certainly not an allegory about either the Cold War or the suspicion that fell on Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor), after Kirk’s brilliance leads to their successfully outmaneuvering the other ship, the enemy captain blows up his own ship and crew after saying poignantly to Kirk, “You and I are of a kind. In a different reality, I could have called you friend.”

I recently discovered that one of my local nerd cronies is also doing her first TOS watchthrough right now; when we discussed it, she said that the thing she likes best about the show is that the stories don’t turn out the way she expects. Star Trek created so many storytelling tropes, she argued, that contemporary writers seeking to avoid cliches have no choice but to go in a different direction. I agree with this in part, but I also don’t think it’s the only explanation for the change; one recent episode got me thinking about how broader norms for “likeable” characters have changed in the last 50 years.

In the episode, “Court Martial,” Kirk is called to task by Starfleet High Command on charges of negligence causing the death of an Enterprise crewman. For most of the episode, we’re treated to video and computer evidence suggesting that Kirk genuinely made a mistake, pushing the wrong button in a tense situation and flushing the crewman out into space. But in the end, it becomes clear that the crewman faked his own death; blaming Kirk for an earlier incident that derailed his career, he was determined that The Great Hero should meet a similar fate. When we finished the episode, I looked at Husband and said “wouldn’t it be more interesting if Kirk really had made a mistake?” **

Thinking about it later, I remembered a film studies course I took in college where we learned about the New Hollywood movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. The filmmakers from this era, whose famous movies include Bonnie & Clyde, The Godfather and The Graduate, made a point of demonstrating the moral ambiguity of their protagonists, telling stories that weren’t so clearly “black and white”; the change is generally viewed as drawing its inspiration at least in part from the changing American zeitgeist after the Vietnam War.

Contemporary audiences are used to gray heroes. Whether we’re talking about Walter White, Greg House, or Tyrion Lannister, modern characters make complicated choices, and sometimes they do bad things. On purpose. But even though Rick Blaine let the Nazis drag Ugarte away at the beginning of Casablanca, and Rhett Butler slept with ladies of ill repute and ran the Union blockade, both of them ended up clearly on the side of the “good guys” by the ends of their stories. I suspect that earlier audiences weren’t so keen on ambiguity in their heroes.

So all in all, I’m enjoying my Star Trek education so far, and looking forward to seeing what other sci-fi tropes I can trace back to this universe — and for what it’s worth, the experience is confirming my earlier belief that it’s worth our time as storytellers to dig into the history of our genre. If nothing else, knowing what came before will stop you from being like a friend of mine who reportedly got about 100 pages into Lord of the Rings on a first reading and then threw it aside, saying, “This is the most cliched book I’ve ever read.”

Know your book’s genealogy: something can’t be a cliche if it came first. Go forth and read and watch and think, and your writing will be better for it.

**(For the record, Husband’s answer to my question about whether the other way of ending the story would be better was “You’re going to LOVE Next Gen.” I’m looking forward to it.)

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