Tom Harris MP has written a post about Star Trek. He admits that he isn’t actually much of a Trekkie. He prefers the (mostly godawful) films to the TV series, which in my book is always indicative of slightly odd taste. It perhaps also explains why he has failed to pick up on the fact that one of the most appealing aspects of Star Trek is its promotion of progressive values. It’s not just sci-fi nerds who should appreciate the cultural signifiance of t’Trek!
The basic premise of the programme was radical. Creator Gene Roddenberry wrote those original storylines against the backdrop of explosive racial tensions in the U.S and the spectre of Cold War divisions threatening to breakout into a nuclear conflict. And what did he come up with? A TV series based on the adventures of a space ship in the future populated by various races living together in harmony and representing the United Federation of Planets.
Remember aliens were mostly represented in popular culture as dangerous ‘foreigners’ who had come to invade America ( just like the Commies wanted to). By contrast the mission of the Star Trek crew is essentially to bring about greater peace and understanding in the universe – how lovely is that? When speaking of socialism Oscar Wilde once said “A map of the world that does not include utopia is not worth looking at”. The sheer utopianism of the show is endearing.
Ok, so the format was fairly traditional, in that the structure was meant to be similar to the Wild West shows that were popular at the time and every episode was basically some sort of morality parable. But luckily the Star Trek moral code was one which envisaged humanity growing up and leaving behind petty squabbles of race and nationalism. Roddenberry later revealed that through creating “a new world with new rules, I could make statements about sex, religion, Vietnam, and intercontinental missiles. Indeed, we did make them on Star Trek – we were sending messages and fortunately they all got by the network”.
Lieutenant Uhura was played by Nichelle Nichols (a black woman) and Lieutenant Sulu by George Takei (Japanese-American). Unlike most contemporary television at the time Star Trek did not portray ethnic minorities as stereotypes and did not have them cast in lowly, servile positions.
The famous interracial kiss between William Shatner and Nichols was one of the first ever seen on screen and was hugely controversial (although the fact that the characters were being momentarily manipulated by alien mind control somewhat spoils the poignancy of the moment!). Apparently when Nichols was considering quitting her role to move on to something else Dr Martin Luther King Jr. advised her not to.
We should also remember that Shakespearean thesp and loyal Labour man Patrick Stewart starred as Captain Picard in the excellent Star Trek: The Next Generation. Stewart once recalled a journalist telling Roddenberry: “Look, it doesn’t make sense. You got a bald actor playing this part. Surely, by the 24th century, they have found the cure for baldness.” Roddenberry replied: “By the 24th century, no one will care.”
I will admit my argument that Star Trek was a TV show of high principles and great cultural significance is undermined by the production studio’s ruthless financial exploitation of the franchise, by some of the abysmal film plots, and by the ever weaker TV spin-offs (Deep Space Nine was very good, but Voyager was poor and Enterprise I find unwatchable).
I will go to see the new film but I am pessimistic. I think Star Trek was at its best when it reflected upon matters of contemporary relevance in an imaginative and sometimes daring manner. This is obviously best done on television rather than in a blockbuster movie designed to make maximum profit. Yet for its historic challenging of social norms and for its portrayal of such an optimistic future for humanity, Star Trek still deserves to be taken seriously.
p.s I have a girlfriend and have never been to a Star Trek convention