I watched the 1960s on my parents television
Gene Roddenberry created Star Trek, and was involved in some way in its various TV and movie incarnations right up to his death in 1991 at the age of 70. During that time, he or his creation was often described in the press as "optimistic", a view I'm not sure jibes with his own output on the show. Determining who did what on a TV show can be a bit tricky. Scripts are constantly re-written, and when you have a "producer", an "executive producer", and an "associate producer", as well as a "story editor", anyone of them can have a say on the finished product. Still, going by the names in the credits, I have some idea of who did what. Roddenberry was the line-producer, or as it's called in the trade, the "showrunner", meaning he made the day-to-day decisions, for the first two pilots and ten subsequent episodes, after which he promoted himself to executive producer, which he remained for the rest series' three-year run. As a writer, his name appears on 11 episodes, including the first pilot, though in some cases he only contributed the story whereas someone else wrote the actual script. Let's see what we have:
"Oh, please, don't let them take me. I can't even touch them! Janice, they can't feel. Not like you! They don't love! Please, I..want..to..stay!"
From one kind of horror to another.
The remaining eight episodes Roddenberry directly oversaw in that first season aren't quite that chilling, but only the aforementioned "The Cobermite Maneuver" (not aired, perhaps tellingly, until another line producer took over) treats the Unknown as anything other than a nasty surprise. It's not for nothing you have to boldly go where no man has gone before. Monsters, the criminally insane ('Dagger of the Mind"), mad scientists ("What Are Little Girls Made Of?"), enemy aliens ("Balance of Terror"), and pimps lurk around every asteroid. Actually, "Mudd's Women", the one with the pimp, ends rather sweetly, but as it deals with prostitution, assumes outer space has a seamy as well as a scary side. As for future technology, the transporter malfunctions and we get a good (but wimpy) and evil (but macho) Captain Kirk! All Roddenberry's fatalism, as exciting as it was to watch in the comfort of one's own living room, couldn't help but have a negative impact on the way the character of Spock was written. If aliens couldn't be trusted, why trust him?
Before he became a TV writer, Roddenberry (above, center) was a cop. He worked for the Los Angeles Police Department from 1949 to 1956, around the same time another TV writer-producer (as well as actor) Jack Webb was extolling it as the very finest law enforcement had to offer in the radio and TV versions of Dragnet. Roddenberry, at first a motorcycle cop, was promoted to sergeant in 1951, and eventually became a speech writer for LAPD Chief William H. Parker. A policeman can have a skewed perspective. They deal with criminals much more than the average person (assuming the average person doesn't live in a crime-ridden neighborhood.) As Robert Ryan tells Ida Lupino in the 1951 film On Dangerous Ground: "You get so you don't trust anybody." Cops tend to be conservative in the dictionary sense of the word. Sometimes in the political sense as well.
Though it has fans across the political spectrum, Star Trek has often been described as a "liberal" show, due to such factors as women serving along side men on the Enterprise, a multicultural crew, and that Earth in the future, when it's mentioned at all, is now at peace. I think this is basically true, but it's a highly qualified liberalism.
13 years before Star Trek first went on the air.
Six years before Star Trek first went on the air.
Roddenberry indeed may have had an enlightened view toward women. A former secretary of his, D. C. (Dorothy Catherine) Fontana, wrote many episodes, served as story editor for the second season, and was involved with several later Star Trek incarnations, including a Saturday morning animated version. That was behind the scenes. On-screen, the show's famous opening informed us that the Enterprise gang was going "...where no MAN has gone before". Now, you can chalk that up to the times (the same times that led Fontana to use initials and sometimes male aliases, such as Michael Richards), except that Star Trek is often lauded for being ahead of its time. Less than 21 years ahead. That's when Star Trek: The Next Generation changed "man" to "one". It is true that on the original series women were allowed to serve alongside men on the Enterprise, as long as they were beautiful, had great figures, and wore thigh-hugging mini-skirts. You may have objected to me referring to Susan Oliver as a "hot chick" when describing "The Cage" in Part 1 but the show pushed female pulchritude wherever it could, the various women Kirk and crew encountered on alien planets tending to dress like they came right out of a Victoria's Secret catalog. I don't want to make too much a big deal about this. The entertainment industry has always excelled at providing us with an endless parade of beautiful females, and, with less fanfare, handsome males. If we're honest with ourselves, it's one reason why we go to movies and watch TV. And, lest we forget...
...there was a Sexual Revolution going on at the time. A revolution that Star Trek couldn't help but reflect, even if the only thing NBC's Standards and Practices would allow was not the picture immediately above but merely the suggestion that Captain Kirk got some needed satisfaction on a regular basis, and especially during sweeps. I myself think the Sexual Revolution was a good thing, even a progressive thing. However, if you're not careful, the gains of one progressive movement...
...can sometimes interfere with those of another. How careful was Star Trek? Read on.
The last original Star Trek episode to air had an arguably anti-feminist slant as well as a "story by Gene Roddenberry" in the credits. Answering a distress signal from an archaeological planet that's been devastated by disease, Kirk beams down and finds that one of three survivors is an old flame from Starfleet Academy days, Dr. Janice Lester. Seems they split up when Kirk got to be a starship captain and she didn't. Trapping Kirk in an alien body-switching machine that she found as part of the dig, he becomes she and she becomes he. A rather radical response to thwarted ambition. Could it be that Lester suffers from gender dysphoria, that she's what was once known as transsexual, now defined as transgendered, à la Chaz (Chastity) Bono, Caitlyn (Bruce) Jenner, or if you go far enough back in time, a Bronx youth named Christine (George) Jorgensen? That Lester's a man trapped in a woman's body, and this is a kind of high tech gender reassignment surgery, once known in the vernacular as a "sex change operation", that she's just performed on herself and an unwilling James T. Kirk? Except that throughout this episode she-as-he acts hysterically, or, in male chauvinist jargon, as "a typical woman", while he-as-she remains calm and resolute, i.e. stereotypically masculine, in the face of mascara-blush-and-lipsticked danger. So, in this episode's rather unique view, is Lester's real problem that she's a woman who wants to be a man but is trapped in a (stereotyped) woman's personality? I'm not even sure what that means. She could be merely a crossdresser, the alien machine the only way to get her hands on Kirk's clothes. Maybe we're better off with thwarted ambition, after all. Of course, an evil male who flunked out of the academy might behave in the same abominable manner. As a woman, however, Lester can always blame sexism. With some justification. The future here is portrayed as being just as disadvantageous toward women as the era in which the episode aired, which contradicts the more feminist view of Star Trek. As Roddenberry only wrote the story and not the actual script, and maybe wasn't around to oversee things, this originally could have had a feminist message, and that message itself got reassigned. The episode as a whole doesn't really tell you if a subservient role for women is a good or bad thing. Once he's a man's man again, Kirk states, "Her life could have been as rich as any woman's. If only... if only..." If only what? If only Starfleet had been less sexist? Or she had stayed in the kitchen? That's not a force-field but a glass ceiling that's got hold of the Enterprise.
12 years before Star Trek first went on the air.
Three years before Star Trek first went on the air.
The show's on firmer ground when it comes to multiculturalism. On board the Enterprise you had a black female communications officer (Lieutenant Uhuru, played by Nichelle Nichols), an Asian senior helmsman (Sulu/George Takei), a Scottish engineer (appropriately named Scotty/James Doohan), starting in the second season, a Russian navigator (Chekov/Walter Koenig), and, of course, a Vulcan First (as well as Science) Officer. That may seem to put the show ahead of its time, until you consider the times. It was the Civil Rights Era, and that was starting to effect what you saw on TV. Bill Cosby may be a controversial figure nowadays, but a year before Star Trek first went on the air, liberals applauded the comedian as the first black man to co-star (opposite Robert Culp) in a dramatic series, I Spy. And while Hogan's Heroes may seem a couple notches below Star Trek on the profundity scale, it premiered the same year as I Spy with its own multicultural cast, which included a Brit, a Frenchman, and an African-American. The last was Ivan Dixon as Kinch,who usually did more in an average episode of his series than did Nichelle Nichol's Uhura in Trek. However, Nichols did have a groundbreaking moment that may have trumped every one of Kinch's espionage missions. She and Shatner shared network television's very first interracial kiss. Not that the characters they played wanted to as they were forced into it by a bunch of telepathic voyeurs. As for a bright future where the different races, and ethnic groups now got along as one, that was true as long as they were races and ethnic groups that had originated on Earth. In outer space they showed the same fears and distrust of the aliens they encountered as a suburban cop does toward a teenager in a hoodie. Nor was the alien they encountered every day on the deck of the Enterprise immune to such xenophobia, as Spock often faced verbal abuse by one character in particular, whom I'll get to in a later installment. This abuse may have been in the interest of good drama (and occasional comedy), which I'll also get to in Part 3, but it did make the future a bit less open-minded (but maybe more believable.) New worlds, new civilizations, new prejudices.
Four years before Star Trek first went on the air.
Two years before Star Trek first went on the air.
When talking about war and peace and Star Trek, we shouldn't overlook this fellow, Captain James Cook (1728-1779). What does a real-life historical figure from the 18th century have to do with the fictional exploits of a bunch of fictional people living in a fictional future? Just this. It's how Gene Roddenberry derived the name "James Kirk". Furthermore, Cook left this entry in his diary: "Ambition leads me not only farther than any other man has been before me, but as far as I think it possible for man to go" which Roddenberry simplified to "where no man has gone before." In 1966, and perhaps these days as well, Cook was best known as an explorer who discovered (i.e. mapped) in whole or in part the Hawaiian Islands, the Southern Sandwich Islands, Australia (the eastern half), New Zealand (he was the first Westerner to circumnavigate it), Southeastern Alaska, the mouth of the St. Lawrence River, and thousands of miles of a then-uncharted South Pacific, along the way making numerous contributions to botany, biology, and anthropology. It's easy to see why Roddenberry might want to model his fictional protagonist on Kirk. However, what Roddenberry may not have known (though I suspect he did) is Cook didn't just discover strange new lands and new peoples, but, acting as a representative of the Royal Navy, claimed them for the British Empire, claims that occasionally came at the end of a musket or cannon. In fact, Cook was killed when he attempted to hold a Hawaiian king hostage. Now, Captain James Kirk never did anything of that sort. Still, like his quasi-namesake, he rarely came across a strange new culture ("The Return of the Archons", "A Taste of Armageddon", "This Side of Paradise", "The Apple", "A Piece of the Action", "A Private Little War", "Patterns of Force", "The Omega Glory", "Spock's Brain", "The Cloud Minders") that he didn't think could use a little improvement.
Two years before Star Trek first went on the air.
On January 14, 1967--halfway through Star Trek's first season--somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 people showed up for The Human Be-In that was held in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, a stone's (or stoner's) throw from the low-rent neighborhood of Haight-Ashbury. What exactly was this Be-In? A few months earlier, California had banned lysergic acid diethylamide, a psychoactive drug better known as LSD that allowed those taking it to visit strange new worlds without having to first book passage on a starship, and so this was a protest of sorts, though pictures of the event shows very few people carrying signs. Mostly they're dancing and appear to be having a very good time. Maybe that was their way of protesting. Whatever they were doing, it caught the attention of the national, and even international, media, which tentatively portrayed the event as a humorous sideshow to the serious issues of the day. There was a problem, though. What to call all these young people? Well, just calling them young people sounds OK to me, but perhaps that wasn't good enough copy. According to the writer Tom Wolfe, who kept close tabs (no pun intended; he was strictly an observer) on this scene, a good many of those young people liked to refer to themselves as acid heads. That wouldn't do for a family publication. Nor would another term they like to use, freaks. Newspaper Readers might get the mistaken impression that 20,000 Siamese twins, hermaphrodites, and bearded ladies had shown up in Golden Gate Park. A 50-years old local columnist by the name of Herb Caen came up with a suitable alternative: hippies, and the term stuck beyond a Madison Avenue copywriter's wildest ad campaign. Within a few weeks, "hippie" had become a household word, even used by those who wouldn't let a hippie in their tool shed much less their house. The only people who weren't using the term were the hippies themselves, and even they eventually had to give in rather than disappoint all those teenage runaways now arriving weekly in Haight-Ashbury by the busloads, thanks to all the publicity the low-rent neighborhood had gotten (indeed, it soon became the most famous low-rent neighborhood on the planet.) Though he certainly helped popularize it, Caen didn't actually invent the term "hippie". The words "hip" and "hep"--both meant you were in the know--had been in use in the African-American community since the early 1900s. White kids were introduced to the terms via swing music during the '30s and '40s. As a minority of those white kids got older, especially if they were artistically inclined, or maybe were just different from anybody else (otherwise, what's the point of a subculture?) they moved to places like Greenwich Village, or North Beach in San Francisco (before rents went up and they all had to relocate to the more affordable Haight-Ashbury) where, since the middle of the 19th century, they were called bohemians. Not that that's what the Bohemians called themselves, at least not in the beginning. Those who didn't like artists, or people who were just different, sarcastically compared such folks to Gypsies, in the mistaken belief that the latter group had originated in Bohemia. Yet that label had gotten old by the middle of the 20th century, and so a few Bohemians took to calling themselves hipsters ("angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection" as one young poet put it.) "Hippie" was coined around the same time, probably by some unsung beatnik. Not that the unsung beatnik would ever have called himself a "beatnik" (at least not until the teenage runaways began arriving in Greenwich Village and North Beach by the busloads.) That term, too, was coined by the enterprising Herb Caen, though a friend of Jack Kerouac's by the name of Harold Huncke had come up with the "beat" part a decade earlier. So many terms, so many ways to attract teenage runaways, so many ways to scare the hell out of Middle America.
Though many of its adherents would find much to like about the show, Star Trek wasn't always kind to the Counterculture. Peacenik graffiti is one sign of the insanity that's overtaken the crew in "The Naked Time". An extraterrestrial love-in is overtaken by bad vibes in "This Side of Paradise". Much more odious, though, is "The Way to Eden" in which a bunch of hippies led by a defrocked academic (think Timothy Leary) knock out the crew of the Enterprise with a supersonic blast (think "Purple Haze") and hijacks the ship to a supposedly paradisaical planet called Eden (think Haight-Ashbury) where one of the young bohemians succumbs to a poisoned apple (think bad trip.) This episode could have been written by Rush Limbaugh, but it wasn't. He was still in high school. It may not have even been written by someone who thought of themself as conservative. Actually, D.C. Fontana (b.1939) wrote the first draft, but had her name taken off when it was re-written by an older fellow by the name of Arthur Heinemann, who got his start in show business by story-boarding Disney animated features in the 1940s. Roddenberry was phoning in his executive producer duties by this time, so maybe had nothing to do with this one. But I'm not sure he would have had a problem with it, even though he considered himself a liberal.
34 years before Star Trek first went on the air.
Of course a person can change, their views can evolve. Take a look at this ad that appeared in the back pages of a Star Trek fan magazine. Please read the small print:
Well, maybe there was some commercialism involved. Like any science-fiction series, Star Trek's small but loyal fan base skewed young, and Roddenberry must have intuited that at least some of the young fans were the long-haired types that "The Way to Eden" had warned about. That episode itself had hedged its bets by having Spock give a closing word of encouragement to the future bohemians ("It is my sincere wish that you do not give up your search for Eden. I have no doubt but that you will find it, or make it yourselves.") With its freaky planets and freakier aliens, Star Trek may have been as close to a psychedelic experience as you could get on network television in 1968 (a psychedelic experience that led to brief recording careers for two of the series star players, neither one of whom ended up at Woodstock, but, hey, it's the mind expansion that counts) I've spent much of this post so far focusing on Trek's reactionary streak, but there was, depending on what producer was calling the shots, an idealistic, pluralistic streak as well, one that's proved much more enduring, that survives in even the most reactionary of reboots. That idealistic streak isn't really represented in any of the scripts that Roddenberry wrote himself, but in the end he was won over by it. Read these statements he made in the years, decades, after the original series went off the air, and tell me he doesn't come across as some kind of hippie guru:
“Star Trek was an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in life forms. […] If we cannot learn to actually enjoy those small differences, to take a positive delight in those small differences between our own kind, here on this planet, then we do not deserve to go out into space and meet the diversity that is almost certainly out there.”
"I'm in a period of growth and expansion. I'm taking long, hard looks at the world and what's happening in it, analyzing and thinking. I'm trying to become acquainted with the universe--with the part of it I occupy--and trying to settle, for myself, what my relationship with it is."
"Reality is incredibly larger, infinitely more exciting, than the flesh and blood vehicle we travel in here. If you read science fiction, the more you read it the more you realize that you and the universe are part of the same thing. Science knows still practically nothing about the real nature of matter, energy, dimension, or time; and even less about those remarkable things called life and thought. But whatever the meaning and purpose of this universe, you are a legitimate part of it. And since you are part of the all that is, part of its purpose, there is more to you than just this brief speck of existence. You are just a visitor here in this time and this place, a traveler through it.”
Groovy! But back in the '60s, Roddenberry blinked.
(Then again, Reagan had his own Age of Aquarius moment, didn't he?)
Roddenberry finally got a chance to put his latter day idealism into motion when Star Trek: The Next Generation came along in 1987. Though he doesn't seem to have been involved in the series on a day-to-day basis, as Executive Producer he had a large say over what happened in this new update. He decided this generation's Enterprise should be family-friendly, so he allowed children aboard (fans of TNG--ever notice how the kids disappear whenever the starship's in any real danger?) He also wanted as little violence as possible, never mind the original series rather high mortality rate ("He's dead, Jim.") In fact, Roddenberry now wanted the Federation and Starfleet to be so utopian in nature that he sent memos to showrunner Rick Berman and others forbidding any arguing on the bridge of the Enterprise, never mind that some of the most entertaining moments of the original series had Spock and another character sniping at each other like two plaintiffs standing before Judge Judy. This led to a rather bland first season that often had Captain Picard and his crew sitting around a big table as if they were Board of Directors for a company that manufactures mothballs, calmly discussing various options no matter how dire the threat. The following is a mere approximation (meaning I made it up), but should give you an idea of what I'm talking about. Imagine it's Captain Picard speaking:
"Well, it now appears that the gelatin monster is about to consume this ship whole with us in it. Data, do you have any ideas how best we can extract ourselves from this
predicament?...Hmm...Interesting...Thank you, Data. Now, let's hear from you, Worf...Hmm...That is indeed a novel solution. I will definitely take it under consideration, but first let's hear from Counselor Troi. Oh, I see La Forge has his hand up..."
(No reflection on Patrick Stewart, a wonderful actor. It's just what he had to work with early on.)
Also, if you present the Federation/Starfleet as being utopian in nature, and anything bad or unsettling as coming from the outside, you may end up making a compelling argument in favor of imperialism, whether you meant to or not.
I know I've been kind of hard on Roddenberry, but I actually think he was a very talented guy. Several episodes with his name as writer--"The Cage"/"The Menagerie", "Charlie X", "Mudd's Women", "Breads and Circuses" and--dubious as I am about its politics--"The Omega Glory", as well as an episode he did not write but directly oversaw as line producer, "The Cobermite Maneuver", are among the best the series has to offer. (There's also the somewhat awkwardly constructed "Assignment: Earth", actually an unsold pilot for another series, that had Kirk and Spock along for the ride. I'll talk a little bit about that one in a future installment.) But in trying to figure out what made Star Trek Star Trek, and, more specifically, what made Spock Spock, how did he go from the vaguely antagonistic character of "Where No Man Has Gone Before" to the more noble figure he eventually became, I feel I have to look elsewhere. Of course, I do give Roddenberry credit for creating both Star Trek and Spock. I should have mentioned it earlier, but Spock is said to have been based on someone Roddenberry actually knew. No, he was never abducted by Vulcans. The fellow he knew was an Earthling, William H. Parker, chief of the Los Angeles Police Department from 1950 to his death in 1966. Parker was known for his taciturn style, a style that admirer Jack Webb infused into his famous Joe Friday character. Indeed, the program Friday appeared on, Dragnet, which ran first on radio from 1949 to 1957, and then on TV from 1950 to 1959 (there was also a late '60s version), and even made into a movie, was on the whole pretty logical and unemotional. Every character in it, including the guy arrested for disturbing the peace, talked in a flat monotone. Spock seemed like Jerry Lewis by comparison. As his speech writer, however, Roddenberry knew Parker better than Webb did, and seems to have had mixed feelings about him, mixed feelings that could explain his gradual shift from just-the-facts-ma'm-just-the-facts propagandist to New Age philosopher. Remember me telling you in Part 1 that it was a female character played by Majel Barrett in the first Star Trek pilot who was originally supposed to be logical and unemotional? When his time came to immortalize Parker, Roddenberry gave his old boss a sex-change operation. Freud would have had a field day.
Nine episodes into the first season, Roddenberry decided to promote himself to executive producer, relieving him of the day-to-day grind of running the show. And it was his replacement, an ex-Marine a decade-and-counting past the age of 30, who may have been the true hippie guru of Star Trek.
Next: A Different Gene