Writing@CSU Home Page | Writing Gallery | Talking Back | Issue 1

logoThe Never-Ending Mission

Jeff Dodson

            Star Trek’s motto, “To boldly go where no man has gone before¼,” deeply touches the driving force behind all four series (and the series that are yet to come). It brings to life creator Gene Roddenberry’s most extraordinary vision of the structure of the future. Star Trek: The Original Series broke the cultural mold for television and challenged the idea that it wasn’t proper to see minority and superior figures interacting peacefully and equally. While the show didn’t completely evade the racial and sexual stereotypes of the time, it did accomplish a degree of equality which should be acknowledged. One of the main reasons that Star Trek is still being aired today is that it deals effectively with everyday moral conflicts that each of us face. It is a show that deserves much praise and respect as it has led the way in accepting cultural diversity.

            Star Trek: The Original Series is based around a starship named the U.S.S. Enterprise and her crew who are on a five year mission facing all sorts of alien species and overcoming life-ending disasters. The show takes place in the 23rd and 24th centuries when there are solutions to all poverty, sickness, and war.  The original show aired from 1966 through 1969 and was the subject of much criticism. The multicultural cast was very different from what TV audiences had previously experienced. The crew was a part of a United Federation of Planets, an organization that governs the space that includes Earth and displays peaceful cooperation with many of the surrounding alien species. James Tiberius Kirk is the fearless captain who always breaks the rules to get the job done and save his ship. He is backed by his science officer, a Vulcan and trusty sidekick, Mr. Spock. The paranoid medical officer, Dr. Leonard H. McCoy, completes the trio of lead characters and adds to the humor of the show. Although The Original Series fails to put any minorities in control, as one of the lead trio members eventually saves the day in every episode, most of the minor characters in the show are minorities. Scotty, the engineering officer, is of Scottish descent and loves his scotch whiskey. Pavel Chekov is the navigator on the ship and always speaks in a strong Russian accent. Hikaru Sulu is of Asian descent and started out as the physicist, but was later moved to the position of helmsman. Uhura (meaning “freedom” in Swahili) carries the most minority influence on the show. She is the chief communications officer and an African-American woman.  The ship and crew are the pride of the Federation.

            Star Trek: The Original Series helped alter the ideas and beliefs of society by saying that it was okay to have many races and cultures working together peacefully towards a common good. The show pushed the door open for other multicultural series that we now see on TV. It was one of the first radical shows in that it had many cultures represented, and on top of that, working for a greater good. Nichelle Nichols played Uhura, the head communications officer, who relayed any messages straight to the captain and gave insight on any situation when asked. She acted as a telephone operator for the ship, a gender role in which she was placed. The role was very stereotypical in what it considered women’s work, holding the actress inside her gender boundaries. She considered dropping out of the role after the first season, but then had a chance meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He told her that she couldn’t give up; she was a vital role model for young black women in America. Her decision to stay with the show followed shortly thereafter and she said that that particular meeting had to be the most profound and influencing moment in her life.  She had become an influential black woman on TV. Nichols now uses her voice to promote minorities in the space program for NASA.

             At a time when U.S. relations with Russia were on the downswing, Chekov's presence on the show challenged every American. His Russian smarts and wit helped get the captain out of trouble more than once, and he proved to be a trustworthy friend and officer. His character helped the public to see past belief differences and his role in the multicultural side of the show helped to alleviate cultural tension in the American people during the Cold War. The Original Series drew viewers from around the world and was hailed by many minorities. The show reinforced the idea that when we can get by all the problems that we face now, the world will be able to work together to promote peace. The symbolism of having a Russian born officer and an American born officer working together helped create a picture on which to base reality. In a sense, the show gave its audience something to hold on to, to hope for.

            Although Star Trek: The Original Series helped shape the world that we now live in, it was also enforcing cultural norms. By reinforcing stereotypes it was sending a mixed message to viewers. While they saw a black woman on the bridge on the Enterprise, she was still doing the cheap labor. She was placed in a sexist role as a telephone operator. None of the women on the show held any rank of importance and were oftentimes portrayed as sex objects. The uniforms that the crew wore were indicative of this. Men wore a shirt, pants, and low cut boots, while the women wore a short one piece dress with knee high boots.  Scotty played the part of the engineer, a role into which Irish and Scottish persons traditionally fit. In the 1800's, during the Industrial Revolution in America, many Scots and Irish men took over engineering jobs, providing the cheap labor. Scotty provides all the manpower for the ship’s engine and uses ingenuity to solve mechanical problems, leading him to be called a “miracle worker.”

Sulu fits the assumed ancestral Asian stereotype described by early European explorers, that of a barbarian. The Mongols of Asia were known for their ruthlessness and tempers. In the episode, “The Naked Time,” Sulu contracts a virus which enhances his inner desires. Sulu takes up a sword and begins fighting everyone. Even the alien Mr. Spock was stereotyped into his role as a science officer. We all can picture aliens being active in the study of science; they have to be, or else we wouldn’t have been able to make contact with them. So while the show did bring together many races, it kept them in their stereotypical roles. It told the audience that everything will be fair; we will have ended all problems on Earth, except for our stereotyping of race and sex. Even though the show was filled with stereotyping, it did give hope that we might attain racial equality and understanding.

            Despite some of its shortcomings, Star Trek appeals to so many people because it directly relates to moral conflicts  that we face in our social culture. There are always hard decisions that Captain Kirk has to make in order to save his ship and crew, and they parallel the decisions that many of us need to make. 

In the episode “The City on the Edge of Forever,” the crew must make a tough decision. After McCoy accidentally gave himself a shot making himself delirious, he goes back in time through a portal and changes history, making the Enterprise vanish.  A rescue party made it to the portal allowing Kirk and Spock to go back in time to fix things so they could return time to its place.  In doing this, Kirk must allow a woman that he has fallen in love with (a typical thing that happens every episode) to be killed by an automobile. She is a strong supporter of a pacifist movement.  If he allowed himself or McCoy to make the same mistake that McCoy had made earlier, the effective pacifist movement would delay the U.S. from getting involved in the Second World War.  This would allow Hitler to develop the atom bomb first and, in effect, the Federation would never have formed. Kirk has to let a bad thing happen in order to ensure the future. 

In “Amok Time,” Spock needs to return to his native planet to gain a mate. He must battle Kirk to the death as part of a cultural tradition. Spock refuses to kill his best friend despite his duty to his culture, taking friendship over his cultural beliefs. He sets an example to viewers by saying that one should interact with others peacefully even if it ignores tradition. These are two great examples of how Star Trek deals with social moral dilemmas that even today can still be seen. When is it right to interfere with events in nature (photographers, scientists)?  When is it right to get involved with other matters (wars, uprisings, hunger)?  Is it noble to give up traditions and set beliefs in order to do the right thing (instill racial equality in other countries)?  Every episode addresses an issue going on in culture, and many times writers for the show have integrated moral conflicts. Star Trek began as an art canvas for dealing with these tough questions of how people should conduct themselves in difficult times.

            Star Trek not only challenged traditional cultural norms in 1966, but continues today to be a media source for conflict resolution.  It is the only series that has survived into the 21st century after nearly four decades of air time.  People still watch the show and it remains relevant to subjects at hand, not to mention that the episodes are entertaining.  They provide a release from reality and promote imagination and creativity.  The shows are well written and the character developments that occur are impressive.  Characters are average beings who defend humanity, a role in which many people would like themselves to be seen.  All too often you can hear children who watch the show (and adults for that matter) say that their hero is a character off of one of the series.  The Star Trek phenomenon is not something to be mocked, but something to be praised.  People need to see past the goofiness or the nerdiness of the show and understand how well it addresses issues at hand.  I think Star Trek is still the best show on television today.