Star Trek is a modern allegory and mythology for late Western Civilization. The series worked best when Captain Kirk stood for willful impulse; Mr. Spock for aristocratic reason; and Dr. McCoy for democratic passions…
The Fifty-Year Mission: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Trek by Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman (St. Martin’s, 2016)
As a boy growing up in the exact center of the United States in the 1970s and 1980s, I came to care about things either deeply or not at all. Though my family life was chaos, I grew up around a strong people and in a stable and admirably tolerant culture. Throughout much of my childhood, my closest friend (and hero) was my brother, Todd, five years older. Not only did he first make me aware of a larger world (we used to stare at our globe, and he would quiz me about the continents, the oceans, etc.), but we also bonded over our love of all things in and out of our immediate solar system. We especially loved science fiction. In the mid-1970s, amazingly enough, our local, central Kansas PBS station would air the original episodes of Star Trek (1966-1969) early, every Saturday morning, commercial-free. Some of the episodes terrified me at age six or seven, but I found much to admire. The commanding presence of Captain James T. Kirk, the cool logic of Mr. Spock, and the passion of Dr. McCoy hit me hard as a kid. I came to care about these three men and their ship deeply.
I suppose four decades later, I still do.
Though last year officially marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Star Trek franchise, such dating is more for PR and marketing than for history and reality. As it turns out, Star Trek is several years older than the first appearance of the first episode, “The Man Trap,” on September 8, 1966. The creator, Gene Roddenberry, had produced a sixty-four-minute Star Trek movie/pilot entitled “The Cage” in 1964. The studio, however, owned by Lucille Ball, thought the show excellent but too intellectual for the public. That movie, which revolved around an exhausted Captain Christopher Pike (played by Jeffrey Hunter of The Searchers fame), involved an exploration of a planet controlled by Oz-like characters, with immense and mildly abusive telepathic powers. While ‘The Cage” is certainly Star Trek, the only major character to carry over from the 1964 version to the 1966 version was Leonard Nimoy’s diabolic-appearing Vulcan, Mr. Spock (according to naval tradition, “Mister” is a common title). One might, I suppose, also include the carryover of the actual starship, the U.S.S. Enterprise, NCC-1701, as well. Still, while the Enterprise was the same on the outside, the inside was more mechanical and less stylized than the 1966 version, and Mr. Spock smiled and got excited in his earliest incarnation.
In a nearly unprecedented move, the studio not only paid for that original movie (not aired as originally produced in 1964 until 1988) but paid Roddenberry to write a second one, a pilot for a T.V. series. Ball, as it turned out, loved science fiction and prophetically believed that it would prove the future of television and film. Sadly, she herself became so involved in her own divorce and failed married life that she had to sell her Desilu Studio to Paramount before ever making any money on her investment. Star Trek, of course, would go on to become one of Paramount’s greatest money-makers, though it had been Ball who had initially supported Roddenberry and his then rather wacky concept of a western set in space, Wagon Train to the Stars (the original name for the Star Trek series).
From the beginning, Roddenberry wanted the show to be allegorical, dealing with real-world problems and the struggles of civilization. In the original series, he very consciously wanted Kirk to represent John F. Kennedy and his “New Frontier”; Spock to be the good Roman Stoic and republican; and Leonard “Bones” McCoy to be a (no joke!) H.L. Mencken. In the first five-year mission of the Enterprise, the ship would explore the farthest reaches of known space, barely scratching the surface of the immense complexities of the galaxy. The stories worked best when Kirk stood for willful impulse; Spock for aristocratic reason; and Bones for democratic passions. From the beginning, Roddenberry attracted some of the best writing talent available, including Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and Harlan Ellison.
More than 1,400 pages in length, the two-volume The Fifty Year Mission is not for everyone. A hard-core Trekkie might even tire after a bit. I, however, never did. From the foreword of volume one to the concluding acknowledgements of volume II, I was riveted. The two authors—Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman—do an admirable job of compiling an immense amount of information and putting it in chronological order. Nearly ninety-nine percent of the book is a reprinting of long paragraphs of oral testimonies from those involved with the various incarnations of the franchise over the past half of a century. To give these coherence is no ordinary feat, and the two authors must be congratulated. Additionally, the personalities of Star Trek become very real. In the first volume, for example, Roddenberry comes across as bizarre, dysfunctional, and gifted; William Shatner (Kirk) as a highly accomplished professional, who was either loved or despised by those around him; Leonard Nimoy (Spock) as extremely intelligent, but a bit manipulative; DeForrest Kelly (Bones McCoy) as loveable and avuncular; and Harve Bennett (the producer of the second through fifth Star Trek movies) as driving but overlooked.
If there’s a flaw in the two volumes, it’s that too many people talk about the “diversity” of the original Star Trek cast and the ever-pressing need to promote diversity. By diversity, they don’t mean the diversity of individuals, minds, and souls, sadly, but the diversity of groups, most of which are just artificial constructions. Had I been born a decade earlier, this drive to promote such diversity might impress me. Born in 1967, however, it seems like a lot of words for no real purpose. When I watch Star Trek, I don’t think, “Oh, Uhura is black. How wonderful.” I simply think, “Oh, she’s a great character.”
And, I suppose, there’s a second flaw as well. To keep the narrative going, the two authors focus too much on the tensions that existed within the Star Trek family. It’s somewhat of a paradox: To the outside world, Star Trek represented diversity; to those on the inside, it was, seemingly, one fight after another.
Still, these flaws are minor in the big scheme of things.
While there’s no need for an Imaginative Conservative to like Star Trek—and there are many, many reasons not to—it would be foolish to ignore the role of Star Trek as a modern allegory and mythology for late Western Civilization. Truly, it is space opera. And, who could rightly argue against its success? While the first series only lasted for one TV movie and seventy-nine episodes, it soon became an animated series, a series of movies, a “Next Generation” series, a “Deep Space Nine” series, a “Voyager” series, an “Enterprise” series as well as a vast number of novels and comics. Over the last decade, it has become yet another series of movies and, as of this coming fall, yet another TV series.
Pretty impressive at age fifty, or fifty-one, or fifty-three… or whatever age it is. No matter, since in truth, Star Trek is an ageless work of art.
Books by Bradley Birzer may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.