After 50 Years on the Final Frontier … sadly still relevant

September 3, 2016

September 8 marks the 50th anniversary of the first broadcast of Star Trek. Needless to say, I am a huge fan. My first exposure to the show was watching it on Sunday after church on WGN channel 9 (and sometimes on WFLD channel 32) while the family ate brunch at home. It was a show that my dad and I watched … though given my father’s inability to learn some simple messages from the show, I never understood why he liked it so much. Maybe he realized that his attitudes were different, and that he hoped he could be more idealistic.

Trek‘s most enduring trait will be that it showed a world of hope … a future where differences didn’t matter, and that no matter how bad the late 60’s were … things were going to get better for humanity.  In some ways things have gotten better, and in other ways we still deal with some of the same crap.

Trek was science fiction, and had its share of monsters and B-movie plots, but when it was at its best, like all good science fiction, it was commenting on society in ways that could not be done so overtly on film and television without censorship or boycotts.

I celebrate by sharing a list of episodes … not necessarily my favorite, or the best episodes, but those that stood up and said something relevant … ideas that were timely and in some cases ahead of its time for 1960s television … and in many cases very much important today.

 

1. Don’t buy into propaganda about “the enemy” (“Balance of Terror”)

In any war, even a cold one, it is important for the government to get the support of the people, and the easiest way to do that is to dehumanize the enemy, making it easier to hate the enemy and support a war. In World War II, it was a staple to hate “Krauts” and “Japs” … in the Cold War, anti-Communist propaganda was everywhere. Even in modern times, anti-Muslim speech is hard to avoid, and even more recently, a governor of our most northeastern state has made it routine to dehumanize all of his opponents.

More educated people avoid this. In “Balance of Terror”, we first meet the secretive Romulans, and when intercepting a transmission from a ship that has attacked peaceful Federation science outposts near the border between the Romulans and the Federation (the “good guys”), we learn they are related to Mr. Spock’s Vulcan race. A crew member takes it out on Spock, questioning his loyalty because pointed ears, and Kirk needs to slap him down. Many scenes are set aboard the escaping Romulan ship, and we learn that they are an honorable intelligent, feeling people, even if they are a bit xenophobic, and have fears based on assumptions about humans that are all wrong. This is not a stereotype or caricature of an enemy, but rather a way of showing that the other people on the other side of the gun can be just as noble, fearful, and competent as the good guys … if only we could sit and talk things out, things might end better.

 

2. One of humanity’s greatest traits is mercy (“Arena”)

One of the great scenes in film history occurs in Schindler’s List, when Oskar Schindler very subtlety tries to teach (and influence) the Nazi commandant that power is not found in the ability to take life, but in the ability to grant life through mercy.

Arena” is not a phenomenal episode, and mostly relies on great music while Kirk engages in a fight to the death against the captain of an alien vessel (a giant lizard man). Using his ingenuity, Kirk manages to defeat his opponent, and this is where the episode elevates itself.  To save his ship he is ordered by some technologically superior aliens to kill the lizard-man. Kirk instead refuses. The aliens are impressed that mercy, an advanced character trait, was being demonstrated by primitive humans, and allows both ships and crews to leave in peace.

In an era where there are people who think that power comes from a gun, and that it is some kind of religious rite to own and keep and display guns … this episode reminds us that this is not power. The ability to show mercy is power.

 

3. Blind obedience is a really bad thing (“The Return of the Archons”)

Star Trek gets accused in some circles of being blindly left wing, but in an era where Chinese communists were killing and imprisoning intellectuals and Pol Pot and his radicals were coming to power … not to mention the oppression seen in Cuba and Eastern Europe, it would be difficult to say communism and state socialism were wholly good.

In “Return of the Archons”, the good crew investigates the disappearance of a ship (the Archon) which was lost near a planet that is ruled by an unseen leader named Landru who keeps perfect order in what is shown to be a dead, static society free of creativity and normal emotion. To prevent the citizenry from going crazy, once a day there is a Red Hour where raping and pillaging is state sanctioned (kind of like “The Purge” 45 years before the film). Kirk and company need to solve the mystery of the missing ship while avoiding being absorbed into this cult like society (we should mention that this Landru turns out to be a computer … so a bonus lesson on the dangers of technology too!).

Whether you are talking about blind allegiance to a religion, a philosophy, or a political party, or an individual … this episode shows the danger of not thinking when thinking is so paramount.

 

4. You are more likely to support war when you don’t understand its horrors (“A Taste of Armageddon”)

In World War II and Korea, television wasn’t around, and people got their news from carefully edited newsreels at the local theater. However, as Vietnam started picking up, the front line horrors of the war were being broadcast nightly … and the US government saw that as this was happening, their key pro-war demographic was diminishing.

“A Taste of Armageddon” is one of my favorites because it doesn’t hammer the media slant over your head. The ship and crew come across a planet that is in the midst of a centuries long war with a neighboring planet, yet the planet is pristine and beautiful, showing no signs of destruction. They learn that the two sides long ago realized that real war destroys culture and decimates environments, so they use computers to launch virtual attacks on each other, allowing the computers to decide who has died in each attack, and then asking those people to report to sanitized execution centers where they willfully die for the state. Kirk initially can’t get involved (that whole Prime Directive thing), but when his ship and crew are declared “casualties”, he must destroy the computers that run the war, forcing the two planets to contemplate real destruction, or to finally talk peace.

On the one hand, it is a ludicrous premise, but the point is very far from ludicrous – it can’t be a mistake that places like Europe and Japan throughout the end of the 20th century were consistently less willing to support war. They lived that, they didn’t so much see war as actually felt it, and having experienced real horror, were unwilling to live with it again. When a nation like the United States, blessed with peaceful remoteness from the rest of the world, doesn’t experience that horror, there is a higher likelihood that they will support war without inconvenience of fear of loss of their culture (even more so when the kid down the street isn’t the one dying). Is it coincidence that recent wars have seen correspondents “embedded” with military units for realism … but only under the watchful eye of military minders the whole time? If you want to wage war … the first rule is to reassure your population that everything will be OK, even if the front line looks like a scene from your worst imagining of Hell.  If your population gets too close to the action, their appetite for destruction might suddenly disappear.

 

5. Differences are not evil (“The Devil in the Dark”)

It has been a dark mark on the soul of our species that we have a tendency to be xenophobic. Perhaps it is evolutionary?  People who look or who act different are generally not welcome, and even if they do move in, they are looked at suspiciously. Their motives must be of the worst kind.

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The Devil in the Dark” takes place underground in a mining colony. Several miners have been killed by an unseen phantom lurking in the endless corridors drilled into the deep rock. Kirk and Co. arrive to solve the crimes, and soon find that the killer is an amorphous silicon creature who can excrete acid to move through rock, and kill humans. It seems cut and dry, the beast must die (at one point, Spock even emotionally pleads with the Captain to kill the thing to save his own life) … until we find out that this creature is in fact highly intelligent, and is also a mother … her eggs have been getting destroyed by miners who didn’t know what they were. Eventually a truce is worked out … the creature and her children dig through the rock, and the miners keep the minerals.

This was the 25th episode of the series, and while not the first one, it is one of the first emotionally gripping episodes. The Vulcan “mind meld” was invented for this episode so Spock could give voice to the tremendous pain of this creature who has been living with the death of her children, and the need to kill to protect them.  The writers did a good job of making this look exactly like a standard B-film “kill the monster” show up until nearly the very end,when they do an excellent job of giving this monster a very human face. Here, the monster is as different as it can get … even its biochemistry is different from ours … yet in the end, all of the prejudice and assumptions were wrong. Perhaps only Star Trek could make a rocky shag carpet-like creature seem sympathetic.

 

6. Sometimes, even good people with good intentions can be wrong (“The City on the Edge of Forever”)

One of the better films I’ve seen in the last five years was Lincoln with Daniel Day-Lewis. I really like it because it portrays Lincoln not as some Greek deity as the seated statue in Washington portrays him, but rather it shows him as a human being who was indeed capable of wonderful, glorious things, but equally capable of deceit among a host of other weaknesses. Bad things happen to good people is something that was largely missing in a lot of 50s and 60s drama, and only really came out in the 70s (I think “Bad things happen to good people” is on Stephen King’s family crest … its a hallmark of his writing).

“The City on the Edge of Forever”, widely considered one of if not THE best episode of the series, sees Dr. McCoy, in a fit of drug induced madness, pass through a time portal and change history, such that the Enterprise never exists. Kirk and Spock must pursue him to put time back in place. They arrive in New York in the middle of the Great Depression, and move into a homeless shelter run by one Edith Keeler. They discover quickly that Keeler is a great idealist, who accurately predicts that the time will one day come when poverty, disease, and war will be abolished, and that mankind will move on to the stars. Even Spock appears moved by her prescience, and Kirk falls in love with her. Soon, Spock learns the truth. McCoy will save her from being killed in an auto accident, and she will go on to gather a great many followers, striving for pacifism and a focus on helping humanity. She gathers enough power to influence Franklin Roosevelt to stay out of World War II, but in delaying US entry to the war, the war drags on, and Germany completes construction of nuclear weapons before the US, and conquers the world. In the end, Kirk finds McCoy, and stops the doctor from saving his beloved. For those who think Shatner always overacts, the ending to this episode proves he can get it right.

Life indeed can suck … we’ve all been there. These circumstances are not judgment on being a poor person … as the Gospel of Matthew says: (He) sends rains on the just and the unjust alike.  This episode was a landmark for television drama … there was no simple solution, no deus ex machina happy ending.  It also reminds us that we need to be careful in judgement … sometimes good intentions can have poor outcomes, and not every poor outcome is the result of evil thinking.

 

7. Getting involved in civil conflicts, like Vietnam, always manage to fuck things up more (“A Private Little War”)

Very few TV shows (or films for that matter) would risk touching Vietnam in the 1960s, unless it was to show a purely pro-war stance (See: Green Berets, The). Star Trek was rare in that it not so subtlety talked about Vietnam, but really showed what a shitshow it was becoming … and this was smack dab in the middle of 1968!

“A Private Little War” opens with the Kirk and Co. visiting a lovely primitive planet with lovely stone age people whom Kirk had visited, covertly, years earlier, and who promptly shoot Spock with a flintlock, something centuries ahead of their technology. After saving Spock, Kirk and McCoy go back to get to the heart of the mystery. After some misdirection, Kirk learns from one friendly tribe that their rivals got the guns about a year ago. Kirk and his new friends recon the enemy village and find forges and other technology too advanced for them. Then they see Klingons, and it becomes clear: the planet has a lot of resources, and the Klingons are arming their allies to get control of the planet.

Kirk doesn’t want to interfere (Prime Directive), and contemplates his options. Later, the tribe’s medicine woman gets a hold of Kirk’s phaser, and decides to work a deal with the enemy tribe, because a phaser is a hell of a lot more powerful than flintlocks. They instead try and rape her when she can’t get the weapon to work, and she is killed. With the medicine woman killed, the friendly chieftain, in a fit of anger, demands more weapons to seek revenge. Kirk provides flintlocks that will restore a balance of power, but realizes that all he has done has begun an arms race. They leave, realizing that they have done what they had to, but have likely sentenced paradise to destruction.

Even for all of Star Trek‘s advanced ideas, most episodes ended with a resolution that was favorable to the “good guys”, sometimes with bubble gum music cues and laughter on the bridge. This one wasn’t one of those episodes (even if it isn’t one of the better episodes … it has its faults). It was very much a damned if you do or damned if you don’t scenario, and at no time was there an easy deus ex machina way out. In the end, Kirk saved the village from getting wiped out … but at a huge cost. At one point, in discussing what is happening, Spock mentions the similarity to the “brush wars” that occurred in Asia during the 20th century, so the comparison of this episode, and the destructive nature of superpowers arming far more technologically primitive societies (like Vietnam) was not at all subtle. It was a gutsy episode to make in a time when a large swath of the country was not in the mood to hear anything that was anti-war.

 

8. Racism is really bad (“Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”)

In “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”, the Enterprise picks up a pair of aliens, one a law enforcement officer, and the other an escaped terrorist. While they claim to come from the same planet, one of them is white on his left side, and black on the other, while the other is white on his right side, and black on the other. Since their planet is so far away, and has no extradition treaty with the Federation, Kirk needs to wait for instructions from Earth before proceeding. Until then, the pair are guests. The police officer, Bele (played by Frank “the Riddler” Gorshin) is a calm man, speaks intellectually, and describes the horrible acts of wanton destruction and murder that his quarry has committed. Meanwhile, the more excitable, passionate Lokai finds a sympathetic ear, from of all people, Spock, as he explains that while he is guilty of these crimes, his people have been systematically persecuted, and murdered in acts of genocide by Bele’s people, and that he committed them only to stop senseless killing. Kirk and Co. have a hard enough time believing that they are so different, the only difference being which side of their bodies is white, and which is black. Both Bele and Lokai agree that the differences are stark!

Sick of waiting, Bele gets control of the Enterprise, and pilots it to their home planet. Lokai escapes to the planet, with Bele in pursuit, only to find the planet has been completely destroyed by war, and their people all dead. Unwilling to listen to anything but their own hate, the pair are abandoned on the cinder of what is left of their home.

This is a great episode except for the fact that it is in no way dramatically subtle about its subject of racism, and it pulls out the hammer, and hammers the audience over the head.  If you watch that clip above, you can hear in Bele’s discussion the same tired arguments used by Confederate apologists to this day.  In this way, the episode has not aged so well, but for its time, when Jim Crow was still the order of the day in the South, it was a ballsy episode to put on the air, with the simple message that racism (or virtually any prejudice) will eventually be destructive.

 

9. Inequality is a bad thing (“The Cloud Minders”)

The discussion over the poor and the rich, the haves and have nots (or as Mr. Romney once not-so-eloquently put it, perhaps, 53% vs 47%) … inequality has been around for a long time, and continues to be a problem today. Star Trek showed a future where humanity had grown past that … but not every planet in Trek‘s future was so nice and kind.

In “The Cloud Minders”, Kirk and Co. arrive at a planet dominated by a floating city, Stratos. The planet has a rare mineral that is needed to manufacture a drug to stop an agricultural plague on another planet. Stratos is a wonder of the galaxy … an intellectual center of peace and tranquility. It is thus shocking to Kirk and Spock when they need to be rescued by security forces when they arrive on the planet surface and are attacked by miners. Once safely on Stratos, they witness a miner, guilty of defacing art, leap from the city to his death after being captured. We learn that the miners (called Troglytes … yeah, not to subtle) are dullards who are only good for mining, and have been in a state of rebellion of late against the dwellers of the cloud city. While waiting for the mineral shipment to be prepared, a woman kidnaps Kirk … she is a Troglyte leader, and is convinced that Kirk’s presence is to support the city dwellers against the rebellion. Kirk is freed and the woman is tortured for information. Spock connects the lines: Troglytes who come to the city seem to get control of their mind back. The mines are producing a mind altering gas. Kirk orders gas masks down to protect the workers, but they capture Kirk again, and force him to dig. Kirk eventually overpower the woman, seals them into the cave, and orders the ship to transport the city leader to the mine. The city leader and the rebellion leader soon realize that this invisible gas is real, and that the city elites now have to deal with a large segment of the population that will have fully functioning minds and a grudge against their former masters.

This isn’t the best episode of the series, but its message is clear: over time, as so-called under class citizens are permitted opportunities to improve and grow through laws, unions,  etc … don’t be shocked if they also harbor some degree of resentment. Perhaps the best way around this is “don’t oppress in the first place”.

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Hopefully, one day something like Star Trek will itself be declared prescient of a new era when we were able to take care of each other first and not give in to fear and hatred so readily.

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