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My First Love: Star Trek

2011 November 7

If you asked me what my favourite TV show was, I could pick any number of shows at this point. I’m a bit of a small screen geek, and I collect shows (and their associated fandoms) almost as quickly as I lose interest in them once I’ve milked them of all the interesting bits. But only a few shows have stood the test of time, and one of them is my first love. I bet it’s your first love, too. In fact, it’s the first love of so many people that there’s a whole name for people like me: Trekkie.

Wobbly Utopia

Let’s be honest, Star Trek has had some bad press over the years. Its gender politics were sometimes a bit wonky. Its racial politics also wobbled a bit. Its view of homosexuality was that it didn’t exist, and if it did, only aliens were gay (and if they were hot, semi-naked female aliens, so much the better). Most people in the Western world have seen at least one episode of the original series, and if they saw it at any point other than the ’60s, they may have formed some negative views. There were probably Forehead Aliens involved, and the sets probably wobbled a bit. Captain Kirk spoke… with many… pauses… and… gestures. Spock raised an eyebrow. McCoy said, “He’s dead, Jim,” and at least one redshirt died to prove it was serious. And maybe it was interesting at the time, and had some interesting ideas, but then ten million spin-offs followed, and then there was a film, and Zoe Saldana ran around in a miniskirt while Chris Pine fought Zachary Quinto in an erotically-charged episode of fisticuffs on the bridge.

This is all true, and the less said about the debacle of Enterprise, the better. But the thing is, none of this detracts from the achievements of the original series. I’ll start with this cast photo…

Original Trek, second season cast. Image (c) Paramount

Original Trek, second season cast. Image (c) Paramount

You’ll notice several things immediately:

1) everyone is wearing implausible outfits and has magical levitating hair;

2) the women are in miniskirts; and

3) the Russian guy is definitely wearing a wig.

But look a bit closer. This is a second season cast photo, so that places it in 1967/8, in a show marketed as “Wagon Train to the Stars”. There are people of different ethnicities and backgrounds, and there are also two women. Neither are secretaries.

I could talk at length about what Star Trek has done in promoting a vision of a multicultural, utopian future. The crew included a Russian crewmember at a time when the Cold War was going strong; it included a Japanese crewmember not so very long after WWII and not in a chop socky or waiter role. It featured the first interracial kiss on American television, when Kirk and Uhura are forced to embrace in the otherwise execrable episode, Plato’s Stepchildren. (In fact, the actors ensured that the actual kiss, rather than a simulated one, was shown, by pulling faces in all subsequent retakes.) The Federation itself is a multicultural utopia, where member nations hate each other and violently disagree on everything, and yet will work together for the common good just the same.

Living in the Future

I could focus instead on the technological impact. I could talk about classic Trek ‘inventing’ a cornucopia of future tech, from mobile phones to warp drive to transporters. Sure, warp drive remains an impossibility, and thus far transporters have only managed to send bits of plastic from one transporter to another, more akin to The Prestige than true teleportation, but how many people were thinking about it at all before Trek dreamed it up? Someone always has to dream up the idea before it can be invented. Sure, Trek only invented their Feinbergers because they didn’t have enough money and had to make do from scrounging through the waste bins of other shows, but that’s the beauty of it. Other people’s rubbish – when painted purple and hung on the wall – was enough to inspire people. Now that’s impressive.


Or I could discuss the creation of slash fiction, of how it came about in the 1970s in response to the cancellation of Trek. Of how fans – primarily female and in their 20s and 30s – loved the characters and missed them so much that they got together and wrote stories for them. Many of them got published and ended up on the New York Times bestseller list – AC Crispin’s Yesterday’s Son was a fanzine before it was a book, for instance. I could talk about how they took the names Kirk and Spock and made them into Kirk/Spock, the slash in the middle indicating a homoerotic relationship. I’ve read the early slash efforts, and frankly, they’re not terribly good: it’s primarily people writing about sex they’re not having, in plots that aren’t convincing, with art that is a bit lacking. But the thing is, it’s astonishing that those early fanzines existed at all, that communities sprung up with such fervour and dedication to focus on one little show, long-cancelled. These days, ‘slash’ means an m/m story, irrespective of fandom. Many young fans have no idea of the origin of the term and, influenced in equal measure by anime yaoi naming conventions, will mark the pairing with an x (eg. KirkxSpock), yet still refer to the relationship as ‘slash’. The name endures.

That’s not all that Trek decided online. When the internet started up, the Trek groups had a tricky problem: both classic and TNG‘s main characters shared letters. This was a disaster at a time when Usenet was the main source of contact, and subject lines were limited to a small number of characters. Naming and pairing conventions quickly sprang up, with the order of the letters indicating the pairing. American film rating systems were brought into use. [FIC] TOS: New Dawn, K/S, Mc, NC-17 (1/1) was instantly decipherable as a post title. Trek fandom has had a massive impact on fandom in general, its conventions and rules seeping through a multitude of others.

Making History

Then there are the people that Trek has influenced. How about Rev. Martin Luther King, for example? In a candid conversation with Nichelle Nichols, he expressed his admiration for her work as Uhura, and urged her to remain on the show at a time when she was considering quitting. Or maybe Dr Mae Jamison, the first African American woman in space. She, too, watched the show as a child and was inspired by the example that Nichelle Nichols’ Uhura set.

“I’ll protect you, fair maiden.”

“Sorry, neither!”

– Sulu tries to ‘rescue’ Uhura, but she’s having none of it in the first season episode, The Naked Time.

Mae Jamison, a young black woman with short cropped hair, poses happily by some machinery.

Mae Jamison, being awesome.

How can you NOT love a show that gives you this much awesomeness?

“Ah,” I hear you cry, “but you’ve only talked about the impact of the show, not the show itself! I distinctly recall some dodgy gender politics at work…”

A Handy Viewing Guide for the New Recruit

Yes. OK, I admit it. Star Trek, like many shows at the time, had its writing farmed out to a pool of writers that took story outlines and turned them into scripts. Maybe they knew and loved the show and its characters, maybe they didn’t know them from Adam. Sometimes you had Harlan Ellison delivering City on the Edge of Forever, and sometimes you had Arthur Heinemann’s The Way to Eden, where space hippies sing songs and the viewer writhes in agony. So what? No show out there can claim to have 100% hit rate, and when Trek got it right, they really got it right. So here are a few episodes to check out, mostly from Season 1, but a couple from the later seasons:

  1. Where No Man Has Gone Before: where two members of the crew develop god-like powers and the inevitable happens. There is gratuitous eye-candy, in the shape of Kirk’s bared chest. Meanwhile the lead female character is dressed in exactly the same uniform as everyone else, down to the ridiculous bell-bottoms. She’s the ship’s psychiatrist, and ends up saving the day… sort of.
  2. Charlie X: where a young boy with god-like powers… yes, OK. But this is a creepy, scary little episode, with eye candy provided by the semi-naked Kirk wrestling for no apparent reason. More disturbing is Charlie’s attempted rape of a crewwoman, his reactions coarse and demanding and selfish, and hers grown-up and mature. He may be the one using violence, but she never once relinquishes her control.

    “There’s no right way to hit a woman.”

    – James Kirk to Charlie X, after the latter slaps Yeoman Rand’s bottom, Charlie X.

  3. The Menagerie: where the original pilot is reworked. Trek does loyalty, captivity, mind-control and extreme measures.
  4. Balance of Terror: the Cold War episode, where Kirk informs a crewmember that bigotry has no place on his bridge.
  5. Devil in the Dark: where the crew learn not to make assumptions about appearances.
  6. City on the Edge of Forever: where Harlan Ellison disavows all knowledge of this rather excellent episode. Kirk, Spock and McCoy end up in 1930s Earth, where Kirk meets Joan Collins, a peace activist who runs a homeless shelter. She’s strong and independent and a visionary, and is unmistakably the love of his life. (Therefore, according to the requirements of drama, she must die.)
  7. Mirror Mirror: Where Uhura wears an even more revealing uniform, and evil!Spock mind-invades McCoy.
  8. The Enterprise Incident: where the opposing Romulan commander is female, and is tricked in the expected way. What isn’t expected is her dignity throughout. Kirk and Spock treat her throughout as their equal.
  9. Is There In Truth No Beauty?: Where Trek had a blind character, and had her as the lead guest character for the episode.
  10. Turnabout Intruder: where Kirk and an old flame – who has a grudge – trade bodies. This episode, for all its flaws, is fascinating. Janice Lester was a contemporary of Kirk’s, and they were briefly involved. However, she never got command, something she attributed to her gender. In Trek-world, she has no argument: her gender is irrelevant. In 1960s America, this is something so obvious that it was rarely mentioned: of course her gender stopped her from getting command, no woman could possibly be a military commander! Lester’s fury is so intently realised that you can’t help feeling sorry for her, for all her insanity… and rooting for her, just a little.

“Your world of starship captains doesn’t admit women.”

– Janice Lester, Turnabout Intruder

Trek and Me

Pop-art style face portrait of Valentina Tereshkova, a young white Russian woman in an orange spacesuit with a cream coloured helmet. CCCP is on her helmet in red lettering. Image by Flickr user phillipjbond, shared under Creative Commons licence.

Valentina Tereshkova, by Phillip Bond, 2009

And yet. I’ve talked at length about classic Trek, and I still don’t think I’ve explained why I love it so much. Maybe there isn’t a reason. Maybe I just saw it at the right time, with the right mindset. I’d just arrived in the UK, and English was a struggle. I didn’t really understand what was going on, and I don’t think I understood that Spock was an alien. But what I definitely understood that Uhura and Chapel and Rand and Number One – they were women, and they were astronauts. Having grown up on a diet of Valentina Tereshkova, it was natural to add them to my list of space-going women. And with so many women setting an example, how could I NOT want to be an astronaut myself?

So, there it is: my deepest, darkest secret. I studied maths and music as a child because of Trek. I got into fandom because of Trek, trying to navigate newsgroups in a cybercafe at age 13 when an Amstrad was the height of luxury. I have the DVDs, and a few of the books, and many of the friends. And above it all, when people ask what I want to do when I grow up, my immediate, unspoken reaction is, “I want to be an astronaut.”

Tell me that’s a bad thing.

5 Responses leave one →
  1. ribenademon permalink
    November 7, 2011

    “nd there are also two women. Neither are secretaries.”

    I don’t remember the blonde woman, but I am pretty sure Uhura gets to answer the “phone” and that is basically it.

  2. Viktoriya permalink
    November 7, 2011

    The ‘blonde woman’ is actually Majel Barrett Roddenberry, who was gener Roddenberry’s wife. She was initially cast as Number One (the female first officer) in the pilot, but the studio insisted that the character be eliminated. Majel dyed her hair blonde, and got the part of Nurse Christine Chapel. She also voiced the Enterprise (and most other Federation vessels’) computer for pretty much the entire run of all Star Trek incarnations. (Incidentally, she went on to play Lwaxana Troi in the Next Gen and DSN, who was that rare thing: an older, sexually active woman.)

    Uhura… well, one of the reasons why Nichelle Nichols wanted to quit was because at times she felt like a glorified switchboard operator. It’s true, her role as the communications officer did involve operating the switchboard… but then, so did Lieutenant Worf’s role in Next Gen, and I doubt anyone would accuse him of being a secretary. Moreover, there are examples of Uhura – who is a Lieutenant Commander – being a part of the landing party, using a weapon, and generally NOT falling into Captain Kirk’s bed. In the books and films, Uhura also gets a lot more character development.

    Fundamentally, though, the fact that she was on the bridge, having a voice and NOT being the Captain’s Yeoman (ie Yeoman Rand in the Charlie X episode mentioned above) was shocking all by itself in the 1960s, just as the mere presence of George Takei in a role that wasn’t a waiter or martial artist was shocking.

  3. kinelfire permalink
    November 9, 2011

    Dr. Mae Jemison appeared (albeit very briefly, in the background almost) as a transporter operator in an episode of the Next Gen. She might have had one line, I can’t clearly recall. But she looked like she might explode with happiness, and the producers made a big fanfare about the first black, female astronaut was honouring them by appearing.

    I loved ‘All Good Things’ for many reasons; one of which was that there were men in the minidress uniforms that Tasha was put in in Encounter At Farpoint.

    You can pick holes in every series of Trek, but they are of their times, and they all *try* to portray a more hopeful future. Considering it’s a product of a bunch of people, now, that’s not to be sniffed at.

    I feel the need to re watch all the Trek I can get my hands on now… Thank you!

  4. November 13, 2011

    I love all the Star Trek shows except Enterprise. The original series is groundbreaking for 1967 and DS9 showed at least the potential to be groundbreaking, although I don’t think it quite got there in the end. I don’t find any of the shows feminist at heart, although most of them have some moments and characters that can offer feminist perspectives, and Star Trek is always wonderful for providing material for posts about gender and pop culture!

    • Miranda permalink*
      November 14, 2011

      Totally- this post was originally going to be part of a mini series we ran about things we like that aren’t necessarily very feminist-friendly at heart at all (though I’ve never liked the “this is/this is not a feminist show” approach as I think it can narrow discussion down to whether or not a thing “is” feminist). But the team were asked to write on things they really loved that somehow – even incongruously- made them think about gender issues or provided a childhood “click moment”. People wrote on things from Helen Mirren in Excalibur to Revolutionary Girl Utena to Calamity Jane. I love hearing people wax lyrical about things they’re really into :)

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