Star Trek, the Original Series (TOS): A Necessary Social Commentary, Part 5
I proposed as an Axiom: Star Trek is the most influential Science Fiction television program in history.
Part 1 was an introduction.
Part 2 was a demonstration of technologies influenced by Star Trek.
Part 3 showed how Star Trek advanced positive race relations.
Part 4 was a commentary on Star Trek’s attempts and successes at progressing gender equality and feminism, in particular.
In this part, I will argue that Star Trek’s major theme, the one it seems to spend the most time debating, is militarism and peace. Once again it is imperative to consider the historical backdrop of Star Trek’s broadcast in the 1960’s.
The war in Vietnam was escalating and civilians back home were anxious. News from Vietnam was not just being disseminated in print via newspapers and periodicals, but was being beamed directly into their living rooms in stark black and white visual images that were both real and terrifying. The horrors of war were colliding with the American psyche in waves of raw and unfettered angst. United States governmental authorities insisted that the war was being won, while all mediated realities argued contrarian views with mounting evidence supporting the truth: Vietnam was becoming a black hole sucking away at the American Dream, transforming it into an imperialist nightmare.
Relationships among the nations were fraying, just like the will of the American people. The populace no longer had the intestinal fortitude to send young Americans to a foreign land to die for political ideology growing increasingly hazy.
Although Star Trek was created as entertainment designed as a diversion from the harsh realities of day to day existence, it is easy to draw corollaries and parallels to the historical milieu. The United Federation of Planets is an organization that governs the Star Trek universe. Its military service is called Starfleet. If the Federation represents NATO and Starfleet is its allied forces, then the Klingons are symbolic of the biggest threat to the West, the Soviet Union.
The Klingons are a war-like race of would-be conquerors that are ruthless in brutality and violence. They are colonizers wishing to aggrandize the Klingon sphere of influence. They call it an empire and because of its proximity to Federation space, there is constant conflict. In the episode “Errand of Mercy” viewers are treated to a primer on how worlds are colonized by Klingons. Kor, the Klingon commander in charge, issues orders which ban things as inconsequential as public gatherings and other oppressive measures. In “Day of the Dove,” when the Klingons have taken over engineering on the Enterprise, Kirk threatens to kill Kang’s wife. Kang tells Kirk that his wife knows the cost of victory and is willing to pay with her life to further the cause of glory. It is the hope of every Klingon to die in battle.
It appears that the Klingon Empire and the United Federation of Planets are locked in a Cold War themselves. The Federation is committed to preventing Klingon colonization of newly discovered planets, allowing planets to decide for themselves whether they wish to join the Federation or be subjects of the Klingon Empire. Generally, the thought process is that the Klingons are always the aggressors, and they are, but there are also times when the Enterprise is not completely passive regarding Klingon hostility. In “The Trouble with Tribbles,” Chief Engineer Scott teleports all the tribbles on the Enterprise onto a Klingon ship just before going into warp.
In the episode entitled “A Private Little War,” the landing party finds that the civilization has been tampered with by the Klingons. The Hill-people and the Villagers are engaged in a war, but the Villagers are armed with flintlocks, a relatively sophisticated weapon when compared to the bows and arrows of the Hill-people. As a remedy, Kirk opts to arm the Hill-people with the exact weaponry of the Villagers in order to restore a balance between the groups, in defiance of the Prime Directive.
The Klingons are not the only adversaries to the Federation. The Romulans are also a conquering race. It seems that before the series timeline, the Romulans and the Federation fought a war to a draw, then they negotiated a treaty where they established a neutral zone as a buffer between them. The Romulans are a race of beings that are a lot sneakier than the Klingons in their attempts at expanding their domain. However, they are creatures of pure duty. In “Balance of Terror” the Romulan Commander destroys his disabled ship to avoid the disgrace of capture.
Finally, there is an episode that includes neither Romulans nor Klingons called “A Taste of Armageddon.” In this episode, we witness a thriving civilization unaffected by a war that has been going on for generations. The enterprise discovers that the war between two planets is anesthetized by a treaty which governs battles via simulated attacks. Those citizens injured in the simulated attack report to stations where they are disintegrated via the most humane way possible. Kirk is appalled at the painlessly reductive nature of the war. War without destruction of property, governed solely by numbers becomes sterile and easier to put up with; consequently, Kirk again violates the Prime Directive and destroys several disintegration stations forcing the civilization to either deal with the reality of war or establish a treaty of peace.
There are numerous Star Trek episodes that address issues of war and peace. It is clear to me that the willingness of the show’s creators to confront the issues of its day within the confines of a television program as metaphor and parable is one of the reasons the show was so influential. It is also important to note that war and militarism continue to be relevant objects of discussion and thought. What was then, still is now.
I will conclude my argument in Part 6 with a wrap-up and some final points. Thanks for reading this.
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