Dom Jot Hustler: Why Star Trek Matters – Part 5
Welcome back to Dom-Jot Hustler, comicbooked’s all-Star Trek column , where we talk Trek (since the stupid game of Dom-Jot hasn’t been invented yet).
This is the fifth entry in the Why Star Trek Matters series. In the first part, the case was made that expanded universe of Trek could be seen as less about the overall story in and of itself, but more about how it adds to history that characters share together to make their friendships stronger and so that their journeys have more weight. In the second part, the case was made that Star Trek has it’s own storytelling style, its own conventions, and when it finds itself resorting to the well of cliches (as happens with every franchise) it goes to its own unique story-telling conventions.
Then, Why Star Trek Matters starts to get into “the really good stuff,” such as its forays into “hard science fiction” (part 3) and it’s well-developed fictional cultures (part 4). now, we come one of the big reasons why Star Trek has always mattered: social allegory.
Put yourself in the mid-sixties: imagine that you are a television writer or producer and you have an idea for an episode that deals specifically with inequality between whites and blacks. Truth be told, you won’t get that far. Even after Martin Luther King told the world about his dream, it would still be too much of a hot-button issue for the networks to allow it to see light of day. Yet, the producers of the Original Series (you know, that show that has Captain Kirk and Spock and the really cheesy effects and music) did just that: he made an episode about the inequalities between whits and blacks, and it got through even the most stringent network executives – the suits who just want to play it safe and not rock the boat at all. Remember that old episode form the 60’s where Frank Gorshin (who, comic fans would note, was the Riddler back in the 60’s Batman show) played the member of a race where half his face was white and half of it was black? In that episode, there was a member of a different “race,” different only in that other side of their faces were white while the rest was black. One of these races clearly had more power on their world than the other, yet the absurdity that this would be the case because one has black on a different side of his face is readily apparent, and the producers of Star Trek didn’t make much of an attempt to hide the allegory. Hit the nail on the head as they say, but it still got through, and it still aired, right in the midst of racial upheaval in the real world. I don’t even remember if Gorshin’s character had white on the left or right side of his face, and (since I haven’t seen it in a while) I don’t even recall if his character was in power or not.I do remember that the ultimate grudge between his character and that of his adversary was made trivial when they find out what happened to the rest of both of their races, as their world was destroyed. I remember the ending, even as their conflict can in no way matter, that very conflict is all they have left, and they continue to fight each other despite how pointless the fight ultimately is.
And there was another episode, “A Private Little War” that concerned the Klingon-Federation conflict but it was really intended to be an allegory for the Viet Nam war, one of the other hot button issues of that time period. Star Trek has always managed to make social commentary by not being directly about those issues: setting the stories in the future, in space, and with interesting characters that use fantastical devices allows viewers to look at such issues with a certain detachment.
Of course, if made today, or even fifteen to twenty years ago, the “aliens” as well as their dilemma in “Let that Be your Last Battlefield” would seem really on the nose, but that ultimately didn’t matter. The producers of the original show had limited resources (namely time and money) and they still wanted to tell relevant stories. They set the precedent, not just establishing that Star Trek would tackle social issues, but that other science fiction endeavors could as well.
For Trek, this tradition has continued. All of the spin-offs have addressed social issues in at least a few episodes, some relevant to the time and context in which they were produced, and some that are dilemmas that will always exist as long as there are humans around on this earth. In Deep Space Nine, the relationship between the Cardassians and the Bajorans is not too dissimilar from the relationship between Nazi German and the Jews in World War 2, with the Cardassian Empire occupying a peaceful planet, largely because they can. There’s also a DS9 epsiode called “In the Hands of The Prophets” wherein the conflict between faith and science as well as creationism vs. evolution (the latter conflict is actually discussed in the episode) and both sides of these topics are given a fair amount of development and respect.
Often, Trek touches on social issues that will become more prominent in our time after the episodes were made. You want examples? Try the excellent Next Generation episode “The Drumhead,” a show about condemning a man for a crime merely because of the need to pin that crime on someone, and using his associations and a past lie rather than on any substantial evidence that connects him to the crime itself. The episode delves deeply into the dangerous precedence that such practices set. At the conclusion of the episode, Picard says some words that pry deeply into the fallacy that the state makes when it takes away a citizen’s civil liberties in an effort to make people safe. These issues are so very relevant in a post-9/11 world, where sweeping legislation to broaden the powers of government have been voted into existence. The topic of safety and security as it relates to civil liberties is brought up again later in the fantastic two-part episode “Homefront/ Paradise Lost” from DS9. This is an episode in which the military seizes control of the state (in this case Starfleet takes over the Federation) in order to quell an unknown threat and to test citizens against their consent. Remember, these episodes aired before 9/11 made these issues as relevant as they are today.
It seems that some kind of social issue is tackled almost every other week when Star Trek aired, and the weeks in between some other interesting moral dilemma was being tackled. Yes, Star Trek matters, it always has. It was unafraid to probe into some serious topics, and its ability to do this made it different than Star Wars, a saga which drew its inspiration from fantasy and ageless mythological archetypes as opposed to headlines and issues of ethics.
Whatever Star Trek’s future turns out to be, the franchise has made huge waves that have affected the way stories are told to this day.