See You, Space Cowboys...
Essays Culture Television

See You, Space Cowboys...

Hannah Long

The original Star Trek was too wise to be cynical.

Bright gold: James T. Kirk, dashing and romantic. Firehouse red: the working class chief engineer, Beam-Me-Up-Scotty. Deep blue: the alien logician with pointed ears and bespoke catchphrase, Mr. Spock.

Star Trek is one of those things where, even if you've never seen it, you could easily pick out its primary story colors—and associated characters—just by cultural osmosis.

Everyone knows them. And I mean everyone. In a 2006 interview, Leonard Nimoy described how, at a Paramount event, he felt a man’s rough hands descend onto his shoulders from behind. The stranger drawled, "I recognize you. Yuh had yer ears fixed.” When Nimoy turned around . . . it was John Wayne.

Wayne, of course, was a man of far broader tastes than he liked to pretend (he once sheepishly admitted he could recite Hamlet “right down to ‘Goodnight Sweet Prince’”). But on the other hand, Star Trek wasn’t so far out of the Duke’s own red-blooded Western milieu. At the heart of the original Star Trek series was something that would later disdainfully be termed “cowboy diplomacy” by the French Jean-Luc Picard. The term was, one suspects, code for “American.”

The show’s Americanness, its “cowboy ethos” as it were, its thoroughly optimistic but not Utopian view of the future, its embrace of a masculine martial camaraderie, and above all its clear-eyed view of a flawed humanity—all of these things lend the original Star Trek television series a subtlety, maturity and profundity that makes it seem remarkably fresh even now. But what about the cardboard sets? The “aliens” in rubber masks? Shatner chewing the scenery? It doesn’t matter. All of this falls away because at heart, Star Trek is about a serious question, one quite at odds with its time.

Captain Kirk, American hero, is described in the Writer’s Bible as “constantly on trial with himself.” The central question in that trial: how to govern? How can a man be good and powerful? In a 60s counterculture which was all about overthrowing authority, Star Trek is about how to justly use authority: how to be a good leader and a good man.

A Bright Future

Beaming onto American television screens in 1966, Star Trek was a promise, a projection of a glorious inclusive future where multiracial and united mankind reached for the stars. Courageous optimism is the tone of the program from its opening moments. The first notes of the Trek theme chime one after another over a dark field of stars, a little too far apart, like echoes back from a distant space. “The final frontier.” It’s enormous, vast, tantalizing. Terrifying it may be, but space is also wondrous. Anything could happen.

The sheer size and vastness of space was an important textural element of the original series lacking in The Next Generation (and I’d guess from the other spinoff shows—and certainly from modern sci-fi and superhero flicks). It created, for the characters, a sense of isolation and distance, and enhanced the deep loneliness which bound the crew together. Missions to deep space take a long time. Warp speed may render it manageable, but it’s still not conquerable.

The Enterprise isn’t popping back to Earth every other episode. In the 79 original series episodes, they only visit Earth a handful of times, and that is always through the lens of time travel. What our planet is like in the future is left to the imagination. The isolation of deep space grows even more oppressive when nature is faceless and ruthless. From ravenous space amoebas to hallucinogenic spores, these natural forces battered away at the ship and its crew. Like 19th century vessels on journeys which took years to complete, the Enterprise made up an entire world of its own. A little floating Earth with Captain Kirk as its god-king.

Kirk’s status as near-absolute authority is particularly interesting given how many false gods there are in this immense universe. Repeatedly, the Enterprise encounters illusory Edens, ruled by tyrannical deities. Kirk’s first conflict in the show’s (technically second) pilot, Where No Man Has Gone Before, is over whether to kill a friend, Gary Mitchell, who’s been driven insane by suddenly achieving omnipotence. “Command and compassion is a fool’s mixture,” the possessed Mitchell observes. Spock actually agrees with Mitchell, seeing Kirk’s mercy as illogical.

But is good authority always logical? Mitchell isn’t a villain because he has power, but because he does not have the moral maturity that should go with this development. You can always tell a false god by its lack of mercy and humanity. Anti- or transhuman perfectionism imposed by omnipotent forces is always a bad idea.

“Above all else, a god needs compassion,” Kirk counters. By skipping millions of years of development to achieve power in a stroke, Mitchell has bypassed the necessary time to obtain wisdom. It’s true that Kirk’s comments imply that mankind could achieve such power and such wisdom, but requiring millions of years for this development to take place effectively pushes it in the realm of fantasy. In the world of Trek, optimism is duty; utopianism—achieving perfection in a moment—is folly. (You can make the obvious inferences about Cold War politics.)

“A god, but still driven by human frailty,” the very young—boyish even—Kirk exclaims. “Absolute power corrupting absolutely.”

Men Must Be Governed

Memes and faulty public memory have done William Shatner a disservice. From this first confrontation, desperately passionate and heroic, Shatner is riveting as Kirk. Having cut his teeth as a promising understudy for Christopher Plummer in Henry V—and playing Alexander the Great in an unsuccessful TV pilot, Shatner slipped comfortably into the commanding role. He exudes dignity, bonhomie, and star power.[1] He was guilty of the occasional overwrought performance, but for the first two seasons his baseline was far more restrained, witty, and (yes!) literary.

Watching him evokes Russell Crowe’s charming maverick Jack Aubrey far more than a lascivious and sleazy James Bond. (In fact, I’d bet Crowe drew as much inspiration from Shatner’s Kirk as he did from the original, rather more jovial character in Patrick O’Brian’s novels. And Master and Commander the film is itself concerned with the exact same question as Star Trek: how must men must be governed? For they must be.)

This is in stark contrast with the popular stereotype of Kirk as an undisciplined womanizer. Shatner has been famous in his own right for so long that the public conflates his blowhard celebrity persona with Captain Kirk’s. This conflation is so powerful that the 2009 J.J. Abrams Star Trek remake made it canon, writing Chris Pine’s Kirk as a wastrel and a playboy, instead of the measured diplomatic officer of the original series. Shatner’s Kirk was no playboy. When McCoy needles him about a female yeoman, Kirk responds, “I've already got a female to worry about. Her name's the Enterprise.” It’s a bit of a deflection, but it’s mostly true.

Instead of skirt-chasing, he exhibits the sort of mature qualities necessary to lead 430 men on an expedition to the stars. One of those qualities—essential when half your job is out-talking insane supercomputers—is being well-read and poetic. “All I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,” recites Kirk wistfully, echoing his historical predecessors.

Trek’s ideal man of the 23rd century is hopeful and sophisticated. Kirk is described as a “walking stack of books'' at one point (a hint of Alexander here, the explorer tactician who studied under Aristotle). That humankind would continue to grow was taken as a matter of faith; that its cultural past was both a valued source of strength and identity was also taken for granted. Bigotry was not welcome on the bridge, but neither was iconoclasm. To the contrary, this envisioned humanity had discarded shallow televisual culture and memorized Milton, Dumas, John Masefield, Shakespeare (in the original Klingon, no less), and, most frequently of all, the Bible. It’s hard to imagine, given today’s cult of relatability, a sci-fi hero now who’s so equally a man of action and of letters.

Admittedly, Trek’s literary pretensions were not terribly deep, but Tony Stark and Steve Rogers reference Point Break or The Wizard of Oz, not Hamlet or Paradise Lost. James T. Kirk’s future was one where democracy had not battered us into a lowbrow homogeneity. A world where our improvement includes knowledge of the liberal arts and not simply technological evolution. Technology will not save us.

It is Very Cold in Space

Indeed, quite the opposite: Trek is profoundly cynical about techno-utopianism. The Enterprise’s extraordinary computers, warp drives, tricorders, and phasers are wonderful—but only to a point. The computerization of humanity is an ever-present threat to the flourishing of life. Even Spock, who admires the glistening heartless perfection of a machine, admits, “Computers make excellent and efficient servants, but I have no wish to serve under them.”

Frequently the Enterprise crew are confronted with the capacity of technology to overthrow human wisdom, to set itself up as a tyrannical false god. The further they travel into “new” worlds the more they find dangerous remnants of human frailty and hubris. Doomsday machines float through space, seeking what they may devour. Author David Marshall has written that Trek episodes are frequently remakes of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Kirk and company venture into exotic “new” territory which turns out to be rife with the same old human tyrannies and insanities always lurking underneath the surface. Often they find themselves on worlds suspiciously similar to Earth, slightly obscured by science fiction trappings.

The series’ most prominent alien villains also offer an opportunity for humanity—and Kirk, and America—to examine its conscience. Frequently the Enterprise encounters ancient civilizations and distant, elemental powers. But there are two races in particular which are more like peers to the fledgling human explorers. The austere and unknowable Romulans as well as the war-like Klingons. The Romulans function at first as the ultimate foreign enemy, unable to communicate across the Neutral Zone, invisible enemies in a war that no one can remember. The folly of this conflict is self-evident.

The Klingons are the more obvious black-hat bad guys, savage and war-like, a direct and obvious challenge to the Federation. But they’re still inscrutable in a way, a collectivist mass of villains hungering for glory. “Do you know why we are so strong? Because we are a unit,” explains a Klingon commander in their first appearance. They pose a threat which, from the first, causes Kirk to indulge in his most war-like instincts, an impulse which we’re meant to question.

Kirk’s mental balance is all the more important to maintain in a galaxy full of madness-inducing horror. Darren Mooney has highlighted the prevalence of Lovecraftian themes in the recurring horror-inspired plots. The Immunity Syndrome, a story of the crew facing a giant amoeba, might seem facile on the surface, but in fact reflects a deep struggle over how to see ourselves within the universe—as the center of the universe, or one constituent part? The mind is fragile in the vastness of space, with insanity and hostile psychic forces a step away. In the same way that the ocean is astonishingly beautiful and deadly and maddening, so is the black immensity of the final frontier.

A hostile natural world. The ruins of ancient, passing civilizations. Mad gods and insane computers. Strange, collectivist masses of villains. An ambient infectious horror. This is what space is like. How could one to survive it?

The solution to all of this faceless antipathy is a single man, boldly going, claiming his freedom with self-discipline and courage. In The Immunity Syndrome, the characters have a breakthrough when they realize they have to start acting like the antibodies of the universe, seizing an active stewardship role towards nature. Man may be part of the universal whole, but there’s always something unique and vital to remaining human and free. After criticizing computers as masters, Spock adds, in a compliment to his friend and superior officer, “Captain, a starship also runs on loyalty to one man, and nothing can replace it, or him.”

But how to earn such loyalty? The underlying question: How to be a good man—how to be a good human?

Vulcan Nature

Spock is not the only one asking that question. And the answer is even more difficult to discern when you’re only half-human. Just as Kirk has become a playboy in the public imagination, a similar cultural flattening has happened to Leonard Nimoy’s Mr. Spock. Spock as a character took a while to develop, starting as a red satanic figure in Gene Roddenberry’s imagination and gradually growing more and more human. What many people remember is the rather distant, solemn take on the character which Nimoy usually employed in the films. This isn’t Spock in the original show at all. He was younger, more naive, more conflicted.

As with his archetypal (and if Star Trek VI is to be believed, literal) ancestor, Sherlock Holmes, Spock’s name has become a shorthand term for a dispassionate, machine-like man. Yet as Stephen Fry has observed, Holmes was a deeply emotional man, his passions and his intellect closely intertwined.

Similarly, First Officer Spock is deeply emotional. Spock, the character, is effective not because he's alien, but because he's half-human—and at war with himself. Spock’s dual nature offers the show the opportunity to reflect on humanity, not alienness. This is almost always how the character is used in the show—as someone relatable, struggling with humanity—rather than an "advanced" being to whose alienness we should aspire.

He channels his emotions into his duty—his devotion to his ship, its crew, and its captain. With each of those relationships becoming more intimate than the last, the more torn Spock becomes. To be devoted to a job or a group is one thing, but to a human man? Early in the series, under the influence of a space virus, Spock miserably admits that feeling friendship for Kirk makes him ashamed. “It’s never been done!” he exclaims, in a sequence of cleverly intercut dialogue. Torie Atkinson and Eugene Myers note how it’s unclear whether he’s talking about the unusual technical solution the Enterprise requires, or the achieving of emotional-logical balance. And yet the friendship is clearly deeply necessary to his security and, whether he’d admit it or not, happiness.

One man may boldly go, but never alone. Kirk and Spock are rightly considered one of the great fictional friendships. I rewatch episodes of the show not so much to reexamine their ideas, but to spend more time with the comfortable, rather sitcom-family-like Enterprise crew. Indeed, the rhythm of the show feels like its Desilu cousin, The Andy Griffith Show, as much as contemporary sci-fi like Doctor Who. Like the Griffith show, it’s primarily a boy’s universe. Which is as it should be. Much as I wish Uhura got more to do, the masculine tenor of the show lends it much of its emotional power, drawing from traditional martial tropes of loyalty, loneliness, and deep brotherhood.[2].

The familial nature of the bridge crew grew even stronger as the aging stars returned for one film after another. The supporting cast never received the same development as the leads, but they projected just enough personality and charm that they felt substantial. James Doohan provided us a magnificently stolid working class archetype as Scotty, the eternally stressed “miracle worker” engineer. He was probably the best actor of the supporting cast, working meticulously to get little details right, like concealing the finger which he’d lost thanks to a bullet wound at Normandy. His range and natural authority is obvious whenever he takes the captain’s chair, shedding the deference which his role normally imposes on him.

Uhura deserved better material, but her composure and seriousness lend her great dignity. When she gets to seduce Evil Sulu in the Mirrorverse she’s tremendously tough, smart, and compelling. Even in those tights, she seems smart. For representation in the ’60s, that’s a lot. As for Sulu, Chapel, Chekov . . . they’re perfectly serviceable, if not exhibiting great range.

I Have Been, and Always Shall Be—

Still, it’s easy to see why Kirk and Spock are the pair everyone remembers, as a pair. For one thing, the Shatner-Nimoy chemistry leaps off the screen. (“Bill is the only actor with whom I have that spark,” Nimoy later said.) Each provides what the other lacks, and despite their vastly different backgrounds, they’re bound together by a common devotion to duty—subject to the requirements of the service.

They’re perfectly counterpointed melodies. Kirk is everything conventionally handsome: blond, broad-shouldered, with bright brown eyes and a smile that lights up his whole face—easygoing, charming, extroverted. A poker player and a strategist, a man who loves duty more than his friends, but only by a hair. He's from Iowa.

Contrast this with Spock, a sharp-edged, austere scientist who grew up attending state dinners and hiding from bullies on an alien planet. Stoic and remote. Superior and sarcastic, yet at times terribly earnest and socially awkward. Aristocratic, snide. Vulnerable.

Kirk intuits that behind Spock's air of superiority, he is at heart afraid of his own humanity. Kirk, therefore, coaxes him out gently, with great fondness, amusement, and occasional frustration. Despite all of Kirk’s traditionally alpha male qualities, he has great compassion, which comes out in his friendship with Spock. He's clearly attuned to Spock's oddness and loves him for it instead of thinking him an object of fun.

Spock needs that support. In the Trek films, Nimoy plays the character by turns dutifully somber and humorously oblivious. In the show, he could seem astonishingly young, emotions bubbling to the surface when he felt cornered. With Spock’s strict bowl cut and darting uncertain glances, there are times when the lanky, athletic Nimoy looks like nothing so much as a callow schoolboy. This is only for brief moments. Generally, Spock is a man of immense personal dignity and competence, lending him a natural authority well-suited for command.

Still, Spock can’t be captain, and he knows it. Spock lacks Kirk's easy confidence and social graces. His ability to effortlessly command his men’s trust. As Kirk grapples with how to use his authority in a just manner, Spock seeks to determine how to balance logic and loyalty in his own soul. “Being split in two halves is no theory with me,” he says. “I survive it because my intelligence wins over both, makes them live together.” Spock is a fascinating parallel example of a character struggling with the show’s central question, but who finds it impossible to achieve Kirk’s successful balance.

Kirk was born to master this balancing act—in Wrath of Khan, Spock calls this leadership Kirk’s “first, best destiny.” Life in space requires a complicated mixture of human virtues—leadership, valor, self-discipline, emotion, compassion. It’s no job for a weakling. But it’s not simply a matter of intrinsic talent. It has to do with character—with code—not just charismatic individualism. The Kobayashi Maru isn’t about expressing oneself in a futile Trolley Problem situation, it’s about how one handles the crucible of command.

Doctor’s Orders

And that requires the input of more than just logic. Which is where the Enterprise’s dyspeptic doctor comes in. If people misremember Kirk and Spock, they don't really remember Leonard “Bones” McCoy at all. This is a shame, because DeForest Kelley’s curmudgeonly Georgian physician was an essential component of the show. Kirk is the golden boy—he needs opposition from someone who is unconstrained by hierarchies of duty, an attitude Bones provides in spades.

The humanist gadfly of the Enterprise crew, an astronautical Stephen Maturin-cum-H. L. Mencken, Bones is no respecter of rank—nor of anyone who asks him to do anything he considers immoral. This anti-authority streak often moves the wiry little physician to actions of great courage, coolly defying a genocidal eugenicist who grabs him by the throat—or announcing “I will not peddle flesh” to a powerful alien force who wants him to violate his Hippocratic oath. His deep humanism isn't simply aesthetic; he really believes in intrinsic individual value and will wager his life in its defense.

No wonder a utilitarian alien rubs him the wrong way. Spock’s “logical” scientific distance is like a red flag to the passionate “old country doctor” McCoy. He sees in it all the elitist snobbery that led to the insane machines that they encounter . . . surprisingly often on their travels (to encounter one insane computer could be regarded as a misfortune, to encounter five sounds like carelessness). Much as he insists on his status as a specialist—he once exclaims to Kirk, “I’m a doctor, not a mechanic”—he’ll just as quickly tell off a local tyrant, “Better make me a mechanic, so I can treat little tin gods like you.”

The galaxy is indeed full of malevolent technological threats, collective mindless proto-Borgs seeking to crush all individuality. These things usually originated in a laboratory somewhere, when one cocky scientist thought, hey, wouldn’t it be cool if we . . . McCoy will continue to rail against this sort of hubris in the films. He acidly summarizes the Genesis terraforming project in Wrath of Khan: “According to myth, the Earth was created in six days. Now, watch out! Here comes Genesis, we'll do it for you in six minutes.”

McCoy considers Spock the embodiment of this technocratic arrogance, and his solution is to batter away at the Vulcan officer’s defenses. He wants a confession that Spock’s distance, his social oddness, his differentness is all a sham and he secretly wants to be human. Which, of course, it partly is, and he partly does. Kirk sees and loves Spock’s oblivious social awkwardness—which is real, but Spock can also be a snotty bastard. He’s self-aware enough that when he says he doesn’t suffer from petty vanities and jealousies, he’s lying. Taking the opposite tack from Kirk, McCoy’s instinct is to pepper Spock with tart critiques. McCoy is often shooting from the hip (he can be written as nonsensically obstinate for plot reasons). As good a character as he can be, he’s also often the plot device barrelling into town, firing an opening volley to get the conflict going.

It’s notable, though, that whenever he genuinely does get Spock on the ropes, he takes a step back. In Bread and Circuses, the two are trapped in a jail cell worrying about Kirk, who’s been taken away by their captors. Bones literally forces Spock into a corner and takes him to task for his obviously feined indifference. “Do you know why you're not afraid to die, Spock? You're more afraid of living. Each day you stay alive is just one more day you might slip and let your human half peek out. That's it, isn't it? Insecurity. Why, you wouldn't know what to do with a genuine, warm, decent feeling.”

There’s a beat as Spock, who’s been very quiet throughout this speech, turns to look at McCoy. Then he responds, “Really, Doctor?” McCoy, suddenly meek, glances away. “I know. I'm worried about Jim, too.”

Saving Bones from being a mere plot device is that there’s an understated pathos to him too—he’s as isolated as Kirk and Spock in his own way, though since he is rarely an episode’s main character it’s not as obvious. He’s talkative but he’s not revelatory about his own background. Gratitude doesn’t come easily, nor does expressing honestly how much he cares for his shipmates.

His finest moment in the series sees him make a surprisingly earnest speech to Kirk about the value of human life. It's staged beautifully—tightly framed on a moody red background. Kelley's shy and quiet delivery—unable to even look directly at Kirk—make it all the more dramatic and affecting. The normally brusque man awkwardly goes into the monologue with a half-joke, calling Jim a “customer” instead of a friend. This shyness holds true on other occasions as well. His most touching confession to Spock is one he makes while his friend is in a coma. “It seems,” he falters, “I’ve missed you. And I’m . . . not sure I could bear losing you again.”

New Worlds and Gordian Knots

It’s now a cliche to analyze the trio as the McCoy-id, the Spock-superego and the Kirk-ego. The heart, the brain, and the will. Kirk is torn back and forth between the passionate hedonist doctor and the cool and dispassionate scientist, but he must be the one truly balanced actor. This analysis works in broad terms, but in practice, the three men swap roles easily. When Kirk and Spock are stubbornly charging ahead in pursuit of a military goal, it’s Bones who provides the voice of reason. And it’s Spock who, free of partisan loyalties, can offer the bleeding-heart doctor advice on how to be more empathetic. He’s an excellent ethical check on Bones and Kirk when they succumb to nostalgic admiration for historical strongmen.

Yet neither McCoy nor Spock are up to the task of command. Kirk needs McCoy to remind him of the human cost. He needs Spock's advice, his outside view, his analysis. But he can get by without them if he needs to. He’s a full, a whole, man, in a way that the divided Spock can’t be, and he’s suited for authority in a way McCoy isn’t. Kirk must be stable, given his mighty responsibility. In deep space, far beyond the reach of radio transmissions to Earth, Kirk isn’t just a member of Starfleet. He is Starfleet. And Kirk is, despite his flaws, the measure for what a good authority should be.

He’s hopeful. Sophisticated. Able to balance reason and passion. Compassionate. What allows him to do this? The Enterprise officers make decisions about how to be good men not just by exerting their will randomly, but by acting out of deeply-seated worldviews. Looking at the original series now, despite its progressive and (given the times) heroically diverse casting, it seems downright conservative. The things that Kirk and Spock and even McCoy care about are expressed in terms of duty and honor and code, not self-defined identity or self-expression.[3] Torie Atkinson makes the great point (in an essay worth reading in full) that this is the rare example of a show which believed that idealism and maturity were not exclusive. Normally, “we associate idealism, optimism, and sincerity with immaturity and youth, as if we must lose these things as adults—as if they’re no longer important or relevant.”

Kirk, Spock, and McCoy care about individuality, sure, but these are men with ideals. They were too wise to be cynical. Their sense of duty was even more strict than a cowboy Code—it’s a law more like that of Napoleonic-era sailors.

No accident, of course—in the Writer's Guide for the show, a remarkably rich document full of savvy writing advice and meticulous worldbuilding detail, Roddenberry called Kirk a "space-age Horatio Hornblower." Pretty clever, to have a series set in a progressive future with a hero whose archetypal “sort” was designed to appeal to a right-wing audience. (J.K. Rowling did the same with Harry Potter, a bespectacled jock. And that’s the entire secret to Ted Lasso.) It was easier to create a mass-appeal character then, of course. Watching original Trek is like time-traveling to a more optimistic time, but also a more united time.

A time when a hero could be America. And America could be a hero. I’m talking about Jim Kirk from Iowa, of course. Spock, love him as we all do, is far too cold-blooded to be the embodiment of the American spirit, even if he weren’t from the planet Vulcan.

Everyone remembers Spock’s final words: “the needs of the many. . .” “. . . outweigh the needs of the few.” “Or the one.” But fewer recall Kirk’s answer—deeply illogical as it might seem to his friend—that sometimes, “the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many.” Spock’s utilitarianism saves the ship, but his friends don’t hold to the same philosophy, risking their careers and lives to bring him back from a fiery underworld. (Unfortunately for Edith Keeler, they’re not altogether consistent.)

The two philosophies tugging for Kirk’s attention—utilitarianism and humanism—each receive a hearing in the pursuit of his best destiny: to be a good captain but more importantly, a good man who makes tough decisions and sacrifices for the common good. An American hero, out in the world, trying his best to learn, reason, and help.

Cowboy diplomacy at its best. As I wrote above, the presence of the cowboy ethos—free but flawed men devoted to a code—is the key distinction between original Star Trek and attempts to recapture its success. Original Trek may have pretended to be a progressive Utopian vision of the future, but its true essence is far more cowboy. The Original Series aboard the Enterprise supposedly contained enlightened pacifists, but unlike the “vegetarian space socialists who are always right” of The Next Generation, Captain Kirk’s crew is decidedly old-fashioned.

One last thought: The original series was, despite great success and ambitions, also prone to the cheesiest sort of pulp fiction.[4] That is partly its charm: The show’s genius brightly shines through the camp, even still today. Its secret is that its realism stayed grounded in human nature. The Writer’s Guide takes great pains to emphasize that the stories must be grounded in relatable drama, not technobabble or fancy special effects.

Thus, in Star Trek’s future, humanity is far from perfected. As enlightened as 23rd century man will apparently be, he is still stumbling into the same old traps of arrogant colonialism, quixotic tyranny, and misguided repression. Yet in its vision of human nature, friendship, and greatness, Trek cuts against the grain of much popular culture today. It was too wise to have lost faith in ideals, which means its optimism doesn’t feel cheap. McCoy’s humanism, Spock’s outside voice, Kirk’s compassionate pragmatism. It’s a show about ideas, and how they’re translated by a powerful man, in a story from a time when we believed just authority was possible.

Trek asked: when everywhere there are Molechs and HALs and mindless forces of nature warping the mind . . . in a world of false reflections, mirror images, evil doubles, schizophrenia . . . can we be genuine? Can we be good? And the resounding answer was yes. It is still possible to be a hero, even in such a world.

  1. Plummer, himself a devoted Trek fan, later said that when he saw his understudy not copying but contradicting his lead performance, “I knew that son of a bitch was going to be a star.” Shatner remembers it a bit differently, explaining that since he hadn’t been able to rehearse at all, much of his seemingly inspired choreography was simple ignorant flailing. It still would have required great talent to pull the part off effectively with no rehearsal, as he seemed to have done. Shatner’s role as Alexander the Great is interesting in retrospect given how often the Kirk-Spock friendship is compared to that of Alexander and Hephaestion. Roddenberry acknowledged the similarity, but emphasized its platonic expression. ↩︎

  2. These strictly drawn gender boundaries also lent the relations between the sexes a tension and charge which isn’t as present on the egalitarian bridge of The Next Generation. It’s a benefit which comes with its own, uniquely 1960s problems, as when Kirk and Bones try to sort out Scotty’s anti-female sentiment by taking him to see...belly dancers. Trek is very definitely a creation of the 1960s, from its psychedelic colors and iconic Old Hollywood mood lighting to the sweeping bopping theme song that starts once the timeless opening fanfare ends. ↩︎

  3. Spock once put it thusly: “I object to intellect without discipline; I object to power without constructive purpose.” ↩︎

  4. As Rod Serling said of it in a 1970 interview, Trek was “a very inconsistent show which at times sparkled with true ingenuity and pure science fiction approaches. At other times it was more carnival-like, and very much more the creature of television than the creature of a legitimate literary form.” ↩︎

Featured image: Leonard Nimoy, William Shatner, James Doohan, and DeForest Kelley in Star Trek (1966) via IMDb.

Hannah Long is an Assistant Editor at HarperCollins Publishers and a freelance writer based in New York City. Her writing can be found at Longish95. She invites you to follow her on Twitter.