Star Trek is Not Progressive

Star Trek (the Original Series) has been mythologized as being about a hopeful, positive, Utopian future in which class differences have evaporated, war between peoples of the Federation is unknown, racism and sexism extinguished and money is a curiosity of the past, thus showing a way forward for humanity. However, actually looking at the content of the Original Series quickly belies these ideas.

Sexism is rampant on the show, perhaps nowhere worse than in “The Enemy Within” when it’s suggested that Yeoman Rand enjoyed nearly being sexually assaulted by evil Captain Kirk. (Grace Lee Whitney, the actress who played Rand, specifically called this out in her memoir as being truly horrible, so let’s be clear that any claim that this is “of its time” is actually saying “of the sexist men running Star Trek of its time”.) As for racism, yes, Uhura is on the bridge (albeit as a glorified switchboard operator) and Sulu is at the helm, but as almost every story revolves around the 3 white men of Kirk, Spock and Bones, and as these other characters tend to get less than a handful of lines between them, it seems less progressive than tokenism. (And one version of the creation of Star Trek indicates that it was DesiLu Studios that dictated the multiracial crew, not Gene Roddenberry, who would have been happy with the far whiter crew from the original pilot “The Cage”.)

But most importantly, far from showing a path to a better future, again and again Star Trek ridicules and skewers progressive ideals or the idea that people could reach a place of material social progress without it becoming a dystopian nightmare or autocratic dictatorship. The numerous examples include “The Return of the Archons”, “This Side of Paradise” and “Space Seed”.

Nowhere is this point clearer, though, than in the episode most often lauded as the “best” episode in all of the the original series, “The City on the Edge of Forever”. The climax revolves around the idea that Kirk must let Edith Keeler die because if she doesn’t she’ll start a pacifism movement that will lead to America not entering World War II and Hitler conquering the world.

Let’s think for a second about this. This episode aired in 1967, while protesters were out on the White House lawn chanting “Hey Hey LBJ how many kids you kill today”. In other words, the subtext here is expressly against the anti-war movements of the 1960s and in favor of those who felt that we had to fight in Vietnam to contain the Soviet Union. Pacifism, Star Trek is telling us in the midst of Vietnam, is an idea whose time has not come and is in fact dangerous in the present. Far from being a show in touch with the youth and representing the unbridled optimism of the 60s, this is a show that’s actively telling the youth to shut up and let the old hawks run things.

And yes, by the time we get to the movies and the Next Generation the mythologized version of Star Trek’s ethos was in ingrained in the fabric of the Star Trek Universe, to the point where we get Star Trek IV where the crew are basically idealistic hippies wandering around Reagan’s America and pointing out how horrible all the crass commercialism and commodification is and how they’re destroying the environment. This doesn’t change the fact that Star Trek: The Original Series is a fundamentally reactionary mess.


Star Trek was first and

Star Trek was first and foremost a TV show.... and as you've pointed out, aired episodes in 1967 ! TV shows cost, ahem ... money to produce and the concept of a sci-fi show was already a stretch to begin with.

Now, lets move onto your unattributed accusations about Roddenberry preferring a 'whiter' crew...perhaps you are unaware that the civil rights act was passed only in 1964, the fair housing act in 1968 and so on .... why was this relevant you wonder ? Its because America (the audience of said show) was getting it's first taste of equality and not everyone was sold on the idea. The producers and writers need an audience you agree ? Nielsen ratings account for the fact that everyone's money (prejudiced and non prejudiced alike) is green.

Do you forget the hoopla about the first black president of the United States elected more than 40 years after the show first aired, yet hold Gene Roddenberry to an impossible standard ?

The show had Uhura, Sulu, Chekov and other characters who were famous in their own right. Isn't George Takei a modest cultural icon because of his role in Star Trek ? Of Nichelle Nichols, who Whoopi Goldberg considered a role model and famously remarked "I just saw a black woman on television; and she ain't no maid".

'Plato's Stepchildren' was incidentally oNE of the first scripted American shows to depict an on scrwen interracial kiss (uhura and kirk) al of which were dramatic developments in television in THAT era.

Unmoored from the social and political zeitgeist of the time, it's easy to level criticism from 4 decades later.

There were also episodes where conventional notions of religion was portrayed in a less than charitable manner (who will mourn for adonais). This episode incidentally featured a string distaff lead, who saved the day by sacrificing the love of a God to save the entire crew (the kirk, bones, spock triumvirate included) Roddenberry was quoted as saying "We must question the story logic of having an all-knowing all-powerful God, who creates faulty Humans, and then blames them for his own mistakes." Again, staggering concepts for the 60's.

The show was pushing the envelope for its time and even if it ain't perfect, it's show-biz

Your comment focuses on the

You comment focuses on the race issues, and doesn't address at all the more pivotal point about Star Trek: TOS not actually offering a hopeful, Utopian future (like we all are supposed to think it does), and instead being more reactionary and anti-Utopian.

Some Good Points Taken Way Too Far

As far as the author is pointing out that the mythologized version of Star Trek is just that and did not comport perfectly with reality, I think there is something here. The commentary on The Enemy Within is quite effective in this regard. But I think most of the author's other claims and his conclusions are fallacious - or at least not justified by what was written. For example, I take exception to the purported message behind City on the Edge of Forever. I would imagine that the most likely defense to the claim that the episode was a commentary against those protesting against the Vietnam War would involve timing - hence the LBJ chant reference. But is not not at least as likely, indeed more likely, that the episode was about exactly what it said it was about on its face: World War II and Hitler? Perhaps some would argue that even that was an unjustified war but I would find that claim difficult to defend. Furthermore, returning to sexism, while I do (and have above) concede that this was an issue in the TOS, perhaps the author forgot that the first officer of the Enterprise in the original pilot The Cage was a woman who (gasp!) wore pants and was as logical as the early Spock. I would also take exception to characterizing Spock as white although Mr. Nimoy obviously is. It seems a little convenient to leave out the issues explored around Spock's dual "racial" composition. Even more curious is completely ignoring other issues of race courageously taken up by the series in episodes such as Let That Be Your Last Battlefield. Or we could consider the fact that Star Trek featured the first inter-racial kiss ever aired on American TV. I also am disappointed that the author brings up "one version of the Star Trek creation story" as having an account that Roddenberry would have been fine with a whiter cast without citing any credible sources. Most fundamentally, I believe the author commits a fallacy by taking (some) evidence that ST: TOS was not as perfectly left-utopian as was often made out to be the case to mean that it is, therefore, a reactionary mess. This seems obsurd if one looks at the series in total, the social and political context of the times, what it evolved into, etc. Cherry-picking the evidence is not convincing. In my opinion, this is exactly what is wrong with a lot of my fellow progressives: they are too blinded by an extreme version of Marxism, post-modernism, and post-structuralism and when they make claims that Star Trek was not "progressive enough," you are essentially surrendering in the war of ideas to the real reactionaries. Normal people are just going to shut you out.


"If you believe Gene Roddenberry, this was his idea and a favourite story of his to tell in later years on the convention circuit was how he had to fight Desilu and NBC tooth and claw to keep the Enterprise diverse because they wanted a “suitable”, i.e. white, cast. This popular claim is contested, however, by Bob Justman and Herb Solow (two Desilu executives and production associates who helped Roddenberry create Star Trek and who became producers themselves once the series proper began) in their 1997 book Inside Star Trek, which became an invaluable source for debunking myths and lore the franchise had accumulated up to that point and *especially* during the notoriously insular and self-congratulatory mid-90s fandom. According to Solow and Justman, NBC in fact requested that Roddenberry make the Enterprise crew multi-ethnic as they encouraged diversity in all of their TV shows. Once again like the addition of female characters, I believe this was at least partially Roddenberry's idea: There is a line in one of the very early treatment scripts where the captain, then named Robert April, chews out a crewmember for firing on friendly life-forms because they “looked hostile” and dismisses him in disgrace. However, it's very clear the idea is not *entirely* Roddenberry's, nor is it even unique to Star Trek, and to cast Roddenberry as some prodigy ahead of his time fighting valiantly for Diversity against the oppressive forces of Old and Evil is not only an oversimplification, it's a fallacy."

He does say that he thinks the multi-ethnic crew was partially Roddenbury's idea, so perhaps I was being uncharitable.

I cannot, however, give any ground on "The City on the Edge of Forever". From the Wikipedia article on the episode:
"When the associate producer Robert Justman was asked if the episode was intended "to have the contemporaneous anti-Vietnam-war movement as a subtext", he replied, "Of course we did"

So no, in 1967 you don't get to have Americans make a story about how the world isn't ready for pacifism and have it not be pro-Vietnam.

As for sexism, yes, "The Cage" had a female first officer, and Uhura was a black woman officer shown in one episode kissing a Shatner which was groundbreaking for the time. I get that. It still doesn't forgive the treatment of Yeoman Rand in "The Enemy Within", the rape of Palomas in "Who Mourns for Adonais", the treatment of space prostitutes in Mudd's Women, or how time and time again women are shown as being weak willed and easy to manipulate. I mean, here's Spock in "The Wolf in the Fold": "I suspect preys on women because women are more easily and more deeply terrified, generating more sheer horror than the male of the species."

Fuck you, Spock.

This isn't "picking and choosing" examples. This is inherent, systematic and unquestioned sexism. And yes, you can make all the apologias you want about this being the 60s, and say it "was just the time", but plenty of other shows from the 60s don't have this kind of attitude towards women. Even in science fiction, I don't think shows like "The Twilight Zone", "Doctor Who" or "The Prisoner" ever gave me the sexism heebee jeebees the way "Star Trek" does. "Doctor Who" in particular gets a series of strong women in the 60s who are major characters to the show in a way that no women are ever in Star Trek: Barbara, Vicki, Zoe. You can certainly find examples of sexism in "Doctor Who" too, but nothing to hold a candle to what you find in Star Trek. And I'll always have a soft spot for Zoe who, when confronted with a sexist character from the past, remarks, "He's got rather primitive ideas about women knowing their place." This from 1969.

Progressive? On Network TV? Not Likely

Firsf of all, Star Trek was progressive for 1966. It's hard for most people living today to understand the very narrow nature of American society in those days (basically if you weren't straight and WASP, forget it). And second, if you read the history, Gene's view of the universe was a lot more liberal than what he was allowed to show on TV. For example, the first officer was to be a woman (Majel Barrett), but the network nixed it (that's how we got Spock, thank goodness). George Takei wanted them to do an episode on gays, but of course he understood when he was told they'd be taken off the air if they even hinted at it. Gene was an atheist, and would have dealt with the issue of religion, but again, that would never have worked in mid-twentieth century America. The macho "space cowboy" aspect of the show was also ordered by NBC to assure that the average American would be able to relate.

And, think of today - how conservative is our public life and media compared to how most people actually view the world? The same folks are still running the networks 50 years on, and it's all about being cautious, not offending, and maintaining a broad appeal to viewers and of course the main audience, advertisers.

So give the show a break. The underlying message got through loud and clear to a lot of us.