Star Trek, the Original Series (TOS): A Necessary Social Commentary, Part 3
Axiom: Star Trek is the most influential Science Fiction television program in history!
In Part 1, I gave an introduction as to my argument and why I felt it needed to be made.
In Part 2, I demonstrated how Star Trek has influenced technology by citing examples. There were more examples than the ones I cited, but I made a conscious choice to refrain from being tedious and redundant.
In Part 3, I will show how Star Trek has influenced societal mores on race relations.
One of the most widely cited reasons why people love Star Trek is the positive view towards harmonious race relations. Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, envisioned a racially mixed, multi-ethnic crew, including a black communications officer from Africa, A Scottish Engineer, a Japanese helmsman, a Russian navigator/tactical officer, and an alien — the half Vulcan and enigmatic Mr. Spock.
Understanding that the show aired in the late 1960’s, it is imperative to note the cultural milieu that birthed some of the most controversial aspects of the series. The Civil Rights movement had begun. Congress had passed numerous constitutional amendments to benefit African Americans, including the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act specifically aimed to benefit disenfranchised populations. This amalgamation of characters, though viewed in the current climate as a positive, at one time was considered quite the opposite.
Montgomery Scott, the quirky and hard-working engineer came from a long line of Scottish engineers. He was a stereotype, but for the most part, a benignly positive one. Pavel Chekhov was a Russian officer at a time when the Cold War began between the Soviet Union and the United States. Hikaru Sulu was a Japanese American who in a post World War II America received a significant resistance for being part of this optimistic future. The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor had not been forgotten; as well as the Japanese internment. Pain on both sides remained. Nyota Uhura was a black princess from East Africa fluent in Swahili. I can’t stress enough how bold it was to have a black character on the bridge of the Enterprise during the 1960’s.
In fact, Uhura, whose name means “freedom,” was given a complicated backstory meant to be explored during the course of the series. Unfortunately, network censors often reduced her story lines to simple support lines like, “Hailing frequencies open, Captain.” She became so frustrated with her part that she sought to quit the show, but Dr. Martin Luther King convinced her otherwise. He said that Star Trek was the only television program he let his children stay up to watch. Lt. Uhura wasn’t a maid or a servant, as most black actress roles were at the time. She was a Starfleet officer, equal to every person on that bridge, and even though she spoke few lines, her role was important. She was the conduit for communication. She was a black woman working alongside white men, according to Dr. King, this furthered the goal of racial equality. Needless to say, she kept the role and on 11/22/68 during the episode, “Plato’s Stepchildren,” Captain Kirk and Lt. Uhura made television history in what is acknowledged as the first televised interracial kiss.
I left Spock for last because I want to comment about the racism that is usually masked and rarely talked about on Star Trek — that being the one directed toward Spock. The biggest culprit of this behavior is one of his closest friends. Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy was constantly verbally jousting with Spock, and when he would invariably lose, he would resort to name-calling: Green-blooded, Pointy-eared, cold, unfeeling, callous… You get the picture. In episodes like “The Omega Glory,” and “Balance of Terror,” the racism toward Spock is overt and blatant. It is difficult to understand how such behavior could be tolerated and really serves to underscore how subtle bigotry can creep into even the most ardently zealous proselyte.
There are many episodes that can be used as evidence of how Star Trek attempted to underscore the arbitrary nature of race and how inconsequential it should be as a determinant of ability and skill. Can you name or describe any episodes that fall into this category? I deliberately left out the biggest one. Come on. Press like and add a comment. I know you want to.