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Star Trek and the Frontier: Dealing with the Final Frontier’s Problematic Legacy

 

The question of appropriate, justifiable, and morally correct military intervention is one that has come crashing to the fore recently with the escalation of the crisis in Syria.  Though this is a relatively new issue, the competing perspectives at the heart of today’s debate have been explored in some detail by writers, artists, thinkers, historians, and scholars for decades.  In the above clip from a 1968 episode of Star Trek, writer Gene Roddenberry tackles the problematic nature of such situations head on.  The original episode made allusions towards the American frontier and the Vietnam War but in the above clip it is that latter conflict which is dealt with directly.  On the left, James Kirk (William Shatner) represents the opinions and views of those who supported that ill-remembered conflict.  On the right (literally and figuratively – bravo, director Marc Daniels), Doctor Leonard McCoy (DeForest Kelly) represents all those who demanded American withdrawal.  In the original show, McCoy often expressed passionate empathy and in this scene that characterization resulted in him furiously disagreeing with the decisions and inclinations of his captain – the conversation had by pair was meant to mirror the real life discussions and emotions which surrounded Vietnam.  McCoy makes an impassioned plea for his Captain not to interfere in the alien conflict which they had discovered, whilst Shatner’s Kirk, in one of the least over-acted scenes of his career, spits back logical retorts which McCoy struggles to answer.

 

In truth, neither character is able to best the other; both speak from the heart and both (appear) to make valid points.  Crucially, the character of Spock, an individual defined by logic and reason, was absent from most of this episode.  The issues Roddenberry dealt with were to be discussed only in the most heated of emotional terms.  Gene Roddenberry was not just the writer of this episode – he was also the show’s creator and a noted liberal thinker who was no doubt expressing his own views in McCoy’s voice.  That this conversation essentially ends in a stalemate is a fascinating insight into how Roddenberry perceived the conflicted nature of the issues at hand.  Though not shown in the above clip, Kirk insists upon intervening in the conflict into which he had wandered.  Kirk is so committed to intervention that it is only in the very last moment of the show that he orders the Enterprise to retreat.  This is as close as the original Star Trek ever got to depicting their heroes in a state of utter defeat.  Although pulpy shows like this maintained as much tension for as long as possible, Star Trek almost always left room at the end of each episode for a few concluding thoughts -often moral- or friendly character interactions.  That is not the case here.  Almost as soon as Kirk orders his ship to withdraw, the credits roll.  No long speeches, no moral grandstanding.  Kirk made what was the decision which obviously reflected Roddenberry’s own views but the silence at the end of the episode is a space filled with much that remains unsaid and emotions which must surely have been running high.  For obvious reasons this episode cannot be taken as a comment on the specific events unfolding in Syria but it is interesting that something as seemingly disposable as an episode of Star Trek could touch upon a moral nerve that is so very relevant today.

 

[Please Note, the above section has been added to the original article w.  The original appears below, which is entitled, ‘Star Trek and Frontier: Dealing with the Final Frontier’s Problematic Legacy’, appears below]

One of the advantages of keeping this blog is that it lets me talk about subjects I would normally relegate to the back of my mind.  Chief among these is my obsession with twentieth century popular culture and how it interacts with my primary area of research – the American frontier.  In this case, Star Trek and the frontier.  As noted in my last blog entry, the twentieth century produced no shortage of frontier-inspired works of fiction but perhaps the most enduring, having spawned an ever-increasing list of sequels and spin-offs, is the 1960s television series Star Trek, a show initially pitched as a “Wagon Train to the Stars.”  To be sure, Star Trek was about space but it was also about the exploration and mastery of an untamed wilderness that is directly, and consciously, linked to the America’s frontier experience.  Captain Kirk may have become a household name, but earlier brainstorming sessions had seen Captain Boone in command of the Enterprise.  The series’ recurring motto, “Space, the final frontier,” may be an overused cliché now but it was a statement of intent – of ideological orientation – upon its initial broadcast which implied much about how the series would deal with the United States’ frontier past.  It was, however, something of a misnomer.  Space may have been cast as a new frontier by the series but the writers approached this idea in a way which reflected the changing attitudes of the time.

The idea of a “manifest destiny” probably won’t be an alien one to most readers of this blog but for the benefit of those who aren’t familiar with the concept, suffice it to say that it was essentially a nineteenth century philosophy which justified the expansion of the United States across North America.  In brief, this idea suggested that the American people had a manifest destiny to build a country that stretched from coast to coast.  Such a concept naturally suggested that the expansion of the US was an altogether natural, justified, and inevitable event.  In the post-holocaust world of the 1960s, however, the assumptions which underpinned such attitudes were beginning to crumble in a fundamental way, a process which encouraged producers on shows like Star Trek to begin dealing with larger questions surrounding the dubious legacy of the American frontier.

 

Not the least of the issues raised by this reassessment was the need for a more sensitive engagement with Native American history.  This is an issue that remains relevant today – see my article on Cowboys, Indians, and Videogames for a little insight – but in the 1960s popular culture was starting to shift away from the stereotypical “savage” fostered by previous generations.  As a show which hinged upon the idea of a frontier in space, Star Trek was ideally placed to engage with these changes.  Unable to deal with this issue directly, the show’s writers and producers instead introduced the concept of a “Prime Directive,” a piece of legislation which restricted the crew of the Enterprise from interfering in the “natural development” of the species they encountered.  In a real sense, this was a frontier in which the native inhabitants of newly discovered worlds were protected, at least in principle, from Earth’s astro-pioneers.  In this respect, the producers of the show cast the crew of the Enterprise not as a space-bound cavalry led by an analogue of General Custer, but as a Lewis and Clark of the galaxy.  Exploration, not conquest, was the name of the game and, in that sense, the show’s producers presented their audience with a redeemed frontier.  Star Trek did not idealise the frontier as it was, it idealised the frontier as it could have been: in Star Trek’s recasting of the frontier, aboriginal peoples were protected from the mighty and technologically advanced, not by force of arms but through force of ideology.  Star Trek and the frontier -an idealised version, to be sure- were bound together.

 

The issue, however, is not that Star Trek attempted to depict a redeemed frontier.  Rather, what is important is that Star Trek was produced during a time when that redemption was possible and increasingly necessary.  Perhaps no episode in the original series reflects this more than “A Private Little War” in the show’s second season.  In this episode the Enterprise visits a planet inhabited by a “primitive” population which, much to Captain Kirk’s horror, had come to develop flint lock rifles.  Or, more precisely, one group – “The Villagers” – had access to this new technology whilst the more aboriginal group, the one to which Kirk is personally connected, remained armed only with bows and arrows.  By having Kirk so appalled by the appearance of flint lock rifles and the changes they threatened to bring, the show’s creator, Gene Roddenberry (who penned the teleplay of this episode), made a strong statement regarding the legacy of the frontier and the use of violence in America’s past.  As Kirk informs one of the aboriginals asking for his crew’s help against The Villagers, “We once were as you are – spears, arrows.  There came time when our weapons grew faster than our wisdom and we almost destroyed ourselves.  We learned from this, to make a rule during all our travels, never to cause the same to happen to other worlds…We are wise enough to know [that] we are wise enough not to interfere in the way of a man – or, another world.” In short, history had taught humanity that neither improved weaponry nor a proactive interference in other cultures was a viable path forward – the contrast between this new frontier and the historic setting which provided its inspiration could not have been starker.  The relationship between Star Trek and the frontier was not always a comfortable one.

 

Such sentiments, which recurred throughout the show’s brief three year run, reflected significant changes in how America was coming to view its frontier – and Native American – past.  Whereas the concept of a manifest destiny, underlined by an assumed white superiority, was enough to justify American expansion throughout the nineteenth century it was, by the sixties, far more problematic.  “A Private Little War” may have been written to deliver a sharp commentary on the Vietnam War, but its method of execution and subject matter helped to ground it in the show’s broader themes and, ultimately, this episode provided Captain Kirk with an opportunity to simultaneously de-glorify the technological advantage yielded by white settlers over the Indians in addition to criticising American policy in Vietnam.  Rather than providing a narrative framed by glory and righteousness, America’s past was instead used as a counterpoint against which hard lessons were learned.  Space, then, was not just the final frontier.  It was a chance to redress the controversies and practices of the previous frontier (and, indeed, other mistakes in American history).

 

In that sense Star Trek reflected significant changes in how the public conceptualised the frontier and the role it played in American history.  Whereas the Indians had proven only a limited impediment to the construction of a national narrative before, changing attitudes reflected in shows like Star Trek demonstrate that the largely positive story which surrounded the frontier and, ultimately, the development of the United States, was beginning to falter.  Of the frontier, shows like Star Trek tell us little or nothing of value.  They do, however, highlight how the concept of the frontier changed in the popular imagination in the post-World War II world.  Manifest destiny, at least to Star Trek’s producers, no longer represented a suitable justification for the United States’ expansion across North America – the link between Star Trek and the frontier was antagonistic as it was symbiotic.  Rather, it was an outmoded ideology which they intended to challenge, through allegory and fantastic settings, in the public domain.

 

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3 responses to “Star Trek and the Frontier: Dealing with the Final Frontier’s Problematic Legacy”

  1. Interesting post! I’m a huge fan of all the series. do you think that the notion of the frontier changed in subsequent series? I can’t remember now if it was Next Generation or Voyager, when one of the captains explicitly stated that all social problems on Earth–hunger, greed, etc–had been wiped out after the nuclear war and they had to start over, working collaboratively (without a monetary system, which makes no sense). So the expressed need for exploring space as a frontier seemed different–more glowing. Did they have the prime directive in Star Trek?

    • admin says:

      I don’t know if the notion of a frontier changed but I do think that subsequent series did build upon it substantially. In particular I am thinking about several episodes of The Next Generation in which Native Americans are dealt with directly. It’s been a while since I saw these episodes but, if memory serves, a group (or groups?) of American Indians colonized several worlds that would later become the subject of a peace deal between the Federation and the Cardassians. In brief, the Federation (of which Earth is a founding member) agreed to give a swap a number of planets with the Cardassians in order to end a long running war between the two powers. The result was that the inhabitants of those worlds, including the Indians, would have to undergo (another) forced relocation.

      In the show this ultimately leads to the creation of a paramilitary group known as the Maquis who would go on to play quite an important role in the series’s broader canon. Indeed, Chokotay in Star Trek: Voyager, an American Indian, was a member of this group so there was definitely an attempt to deal in a more direct manner with the show’s frontier legacy. In a broader sense, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was pitched as a kind-of frontier outpost in space so the notion of the show’s frontier origin remained a key feature throughout.

      I think the point you make about the show’s philosophy is really important – I can’t remember when it was first stated that Earth’s social problems disappeared because of space travel but I have the impression that it was always an undercurrent that almost certainly appeared in The Next Generation. It certainly appeared in the movie Star Trek: First Contact where the Enterprises’s crew explicitly explain this. I think in general terms Star Trek always presented a positive image of the future and though some early episodes featured some non-forward facing sexism they generally reflected a positive future in which white Caucasian men did not necessarily dominate. I think you are right to point out that this positive vision of the future is given much more depth when we think about its fundamental connection to the exploration of a new frontier – frontier experiences could, Star Trek argued, be inclusive, promoting cooperation and understanding. That being said, Star Trek still depicted a ship called Enterprise as one of its primary positive forces, something which takes on a deeper meaning when you consider the Cold War context of the original series.

      As to the Prime Directive, yes the original Star Trek featured this quite a bit. In fact many episodes set out to demonstrate that the worst events to occur on a planet did so when members of the Federation (usually humans) attempted to direct the culture of another people. In the show’s second season, the Enterprise encounters no less than three worlds that have been brought to the point of ruin because this rule was not adhered to – they include the world described in this blog (from “A Private Little War”) as well as planets which adopted the cultures of the Chicago gang wars and the Nazis. Those are just examples I am pulling from the top of my head – there may have been more in that season and there were certainly more in the show as a whole.

      Hope this helps and thanks reading the blog :)

  2. Very interesting post. I think you are correct that Star Trek reflected an increasing ambivalence about the nation’s frontier origins. And while that discomfort with manifest destiny grew stronger in the post-WWII years, I believe its roots go deeper. In my book, Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard, I argue that the Johnny Appleseed myth is largely promoted by late 19th century reform-minded Yankees as a sort of counter origin story to more violent frontier myths, like those of Davy Crockett and Mike Fink. Johnny Appleseed was also about remaking the “wilderness” into a place suitable for Euro-American families by planting old world apple trees, and many of the myths go to great lengths to describe his gentleness and his alleged close and friendly relationships with the native peoples he was helping to displace. In the 20th century, reformers and writers of a liberal or even socialist bent took up the Johnny Appleseed story. American Communist Party member and prolific writer of historical fiction Howard Fast even made Johnny Appleseed the hero of his first young adult novel, The Tall Hunter. After WWII, the Appleseed story was taken up by Cold War liberals who were uncomfortable with how the violence in the Crockett and Fink myths fed into the way the communist world told the story of American imperial aggression. For Cold War liberals, Johnny Appleseed becomes the model of the other approach to combatting communism–the “winning hearts and minds” approach–through Foreign Aid and programs like the Peace Corps. Still, there’s no denying that the Crockett version of the frontier story had more appeal that the Appleseed version throughout the 1950s and into the early 1960s. By the late 1960s, discomfort with America’s violent and exploitative frontier past has clearly grown as seen in Star Trek’s approach to stories about contacts between newcomers and indigenous peoples.

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