SPACE…The Final Frontier

I remember the very first time I ever saw Star Trek; it was 1974, I was 10 years old and my family had just moved to England where we had, for the very first time, a colour TV. One of the first colour shows I ever remember seeing was Star Trek, which I’d never seen before, even in black and white.

The bright primary colour scheme is obviously designed for the primitive colour TVs of the 60s/70s. Subtle it was not, but the comic book palette, hammy lighting, and the spaceships and aliens, made a vivid impression when I was used to black-and-white and only 10 years old. I was inspired to build a crude model of the starship Enterprise, using bits of junk around the house: 2 aluminium pie-tins as the saucer, some ’Smarties’ tubes as the nacelles, and a paper-towel roll as the fuselage, all connected with Icy pole sticks. Despite the hilariously naff image you must now have in your mind’s eye as a result of that description, the Pie-Tin Enterprise was the sleekest and fastest starship in the TeeveeRoom quadrant of the OurHouse galaxy.

The first episode of Star Trek I ever saw has the memorable image of the starship Enterprise being menaced by a giant HAND in space. The hand is attached to none other than the Greek god Apollo, who was in actuality merely another alien for captain Kirk to clash wills with. I credit this episode for a ‘Chariots Of The Gods’ fixation that kept me reading cheesy paperback theories about aliens building the ancient world, from ages 10–13 (to the amused disgust of my father, the classical humanist). Of course, I’d missed the point; the message of Star Trek is that we HUMANS are capable of big things, and in this very episode we learn that no trumped-up Greek God is a match for James T. Kirk and the humanism of Star Trek. Despite his pompous posturings, Apollo gets a regulation Starfleet boot up his Olympian toga.

Starfleet encountered a lot of robe-and-sandal wearing aliens influenced by the ancient Greeks and Romans, when captain Kirk swaggered about the galaxy in the Enterprise. In fact, many aliens and locales encountered by the human race in the 23rd century looked coincidentally very much like whatever the Desilu/Paramount prop department already had lying around from old shows in the mid 1960s. Kirk and crew warp away to the Turkish-harem planet… Then teleport down to the Medieval-castle planet, visit the 1940s Nazi planet, or drop in on the Cowboy planet, Or the 1930s-Chicago-Gangster planet.. ..well, you get the idea.

In the 1960s, the most famous Star Trek alien villains, the Klingons, were just swarthy, ambiguously-ethnic dudes with Fu Manchu moustaches. In the later movies and spinoff TV series from the 1980s and 1990s, Kirk’s nemeses were made to look properly alien, and had their own language and customs, but in the 1960s show, Klingons were merely a race of nefarious ‘Ming the Merciless’ types. This had long been the formula for baddies since the beginning of pulp literature; make them remind the audience of non-specific foreigners, and you’re done. This may have been budget limitations, as such lazy xenophobia is at odds with the inclusive casting of the crew of the Enterprise, who represent many races and nationalities. This was quite forward-thinking in a 1960s America which had not long ago been in a World War, was currently in a both a hot AND a cold war abroad, and wrestling with civil rights conflicts at home.

Leading the Enterprise crew is none other than James T. Kirk, sitting in his Starfleet captain’s chair like a smirking king upon his high-tech throne. I imagine a ‘real’ starship captain would never leave his command post, and would control things from afar, like modern commanders do, but like any good warrior king, captain James T. Kirk spends as much time on the battlefield as in the throne room. He accompanies many an away-team mission, where the red-shirts inevitably get charbroiled, while Kirk’s tunic gets torn in pec-revealing two-fisted judo action. My friend Steve once made the hilarious observation that captain James T. Kirk was essentially President John F. Kennedy in outer-space. Perhaps J.T.K’s strutting-rooster showdowns with Klingons, and slap-and-tickle sessions with green alien babes were indeed inspired by J.F.K shagging Marilyn Monroe while playing games of nuclear-chicken with Kruschev.

That same cocktail of political tensions, machismo and sex created James Bond too, so it must have been a 1960s thing. (Apparently, Ian Fleming was President Kennedy’s favourite fiction author, and it’s a scary thought that Fleming’s overblown and undercooked James Bond novels of the 1950s influenced real-world 1960s politics, by way of an avid fan becoming the US President.) James T. Kirk would have undoubtedly approved of John F. Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis. “Well played, Jack.” “Thanks, Jim.” Then the two of them could have met James Bond at the Playboy club on StarBase Alpha for some 3-dimensional Venusian Baccarat and zero-G hanky-panky with Orion cocktail waitresses.

In a few episodes, we see that some women have joined Starfleet just to bring James T. Kirk coffee in his captain’s chair. This show is set in the 23rd century, but we are often reminded that the writers themselves lived in the 1960s; the era of Mad Men. Female Enterprise crew rarely have leadership roles, mostly being nurses rather than doctors, and assistants rather than department heads. Lieutenant Uhura is indeed a Starfleet officer, and I am told that it was revolutionary at the time to have an African American female bridge officer as a main character. Yet, in the 1960s, even the imaginative powers of science fiction writers could not envision a 23rd century female Starfleet officer as doing anything more useful than essentially answering the phone and operating the switchboard. But, I have to remind myself, for a 1960s audience the fact that there were women AT ALL on a military vessel was progressive; the US Navy did not have a ship with a mixed male-female crew till 1972.

The Star Trek pilot from 1966; ‘The Cage’ can now be viewed on Netflix or DVD. It was never broadcast in this form, though re-cut as the 2-part ’Menagerie’ episode from season 1. The original ’Number One’, the Enterprise’s first officer, was envisaged by series creator Gene Roddenberry, as a capable and logical woman; a wise, captain’s counsel role, not unlike that which ultimately went to Spock. (Interestingly though, the original captain was a goon). The original female Starfleet uniforms were closer to the more practical unisex style of the later Star Trek spinoffs, and it’s clear that earlier than 1966, Roddenberry wanted not just a racially integrated show but with an attempt at progressive gender roles too. But the network (or perhaps mid 1960s focus groups) wanted this changed. So we have bee hive hairdos, go-go boots and mini skirts, and this decision to make the show more ‘hip’ to the standards of 1966 makes the portrayal of females the most dated element of Star Trek by far.

In Star Trek episodes, it is often mentioned in passing that 23rd century Earth has defeated poverty and racism. That would seem more of an achievement than the Star Trek adventures themselves. I would certainly like to see the solutions to these problems that have beset the human race since day one. In fact, it is remarkable how little about Earth we actually know, given how many episodes of Star Trek and its various spinoffs there have been over the almost 50 years since it first aired. Future Earth is apparently ‘fixed’, but we only see that world through the eyes of a regimented military organisation patrolling the fringes of human interstellar civilisation. Ultimately, which political solution worked? For obvious reasons, they kept the details vague, in the TV show at least.

Star Trek gives me nostalgia for an old idea of the future. I have an unmistakable affection for this show, despite, or perhaps because of, all its cheeseball budgetary limitations, and its dated vision of quaint, retro-futuristic optimism. There’s a strange blend of forward-thinking, and old-fashioned, cold war bone-headed machismo. Starfleet is ostensibly out there in space, to learn from the universe, but smugly bustles about the galaxy telling aliens what to do and bashing heads with them if they don’t see things our way. “Prime Directive” PC cultural sensitivities rarely hampered James T. Kirk from cockily brawling his way from one end of the galaxy to the other, and shagging his way back again. Yet, there’s an underlying likeable quality, a confidence that the human race will prevail, and we’ll eventually solve our problems with rationalism. There’s no problem we can’t fix with a technological dingus, no alien so powerful we can’t lick, or better yet, make friends with.

And if the manifest-destiny of Starfleet eventually meets THAT God a few galaxies over, and discovers that it too is an alien, will it be Yahweh or the highway for our favourite starshipful of ‘boldly-going’, busy-body humanists? Stay tuned for next week’s thrilling episode!

Originally published on my FALLOUT blog, May 2014. If you liked what you read, be sure to follow James S. Baker for more comics, retrospectives, and art. As always, be sure to follow Panel & Frame for more emerging voices in Comics, Literature, Art, and Film.

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