Thoughts on Star Trek: The Original Series
Note: this post was written after viewing the first nine episodes of Star Trek: The Original Series. Subsequent posts on TOS will likely be based on individual episodes as I watch through the series in order.
I’ve been delighted with the recent addition of all the Star Trek series to Canadian Netflix (big endorsement for Netflix [pay me!]). I’ve watched most episodes of all of them except the original series. Since it’s there, I figure I’ll bite the bullet and finally watch it. I’d seen parts of a few episodes and I’m always turned off by the over-the-top acting, the cheesy effects, and the dated storylines. Now that I’m really watching, there’s so much more wrong with it than I would have imagined. It’s not fair to go in to a show from that era and expect the kind of tight writing and coherent story arcs that we’ve become used to in television now, but I’m continually amazed by how much TOS does not conform to what people say about it. I’m only nine episodes in, so maybe this will change. I suspect that “The Menagerie”, the episode that incorporates much of the show’s original pilot, will go a long way to locking in some of the rules of the universe as I’m aware of them from the later series. But, maybe a lot of it doesn’t get established until the movies; I know that the Klingons don’t become Klingons as we know them in the other series until the movies at least.
When people talk about Star Trek, it’s about how great a vision for the future the show had. It features an end to wars; to poverty; to political, racial, and religious antagonism; and the end of religion (and yet someone mentions an office Christmas party in episode nine!). It’s a meritocracy where everyone has their place. Humans have risen above their base nature and embraced an enlightened way of life. That’s how it is in TNG, so I assume it’s more-or-less the same in the original. I understand that a lot of hardcore Trekkies were upset with DS9 for undermining that vision, and Gene Roddenberry himself was on the fence about the original concept of DS9 because of how much that show revolves around political intrigue and the imperfections of a future human society. What a surprise when I finally went to watch TOS and none of this ideal is there! There’s so much to say about what’s wrong with this first batch of episodes in terms of their inconsistencies of character, of vision, and of internal logic. Where to begin?
Let’s start with one of the most striking and well known of the show’s betrayals of its vision: gender politics. To my surprise, Kirk is not the womanizer I was led to believe. In fact, the women throw themselves at him, but he’s married to his ship, and he’s too responsible in his duties to be distracted by feminine wiles. That’s really just an aside because the blind spots about gender are unforgiveable. For a show that’s praised for its forward thinking, it dwells far too long and too often on essentializing male and female differences. The sexualisation of women in the workplace has become a common trope in recent media set in the 50s and 60s. It’s a running joke about how quaint and misguided we used to be, and reminds us that lingering inequalities yet remain. It can be easy to watch something like Mad Men and imagine that these are exaggerations of women’s vulnerability and male privilege at the time. But when we see the same kind of stuff depicted even in a show like Star Trek, then perhaps these are not exaggerations at all. Star Trek, renowned for its deep thinking on numerous social issues, and celebrated for its progressivism on race – Ohura’s status as a black woman with a leadership position should not be understated – is so limited by the notion that women are creatures of passion, programmed to need male companionship and to be objects of desire.
The episode “Mudd’s Women” provides a humourous take on this, and even offers up an ostensibly pro-feminist message, one that might even have been considered empowering. Mudd is a con-man, offering to land his three female companions husbands. The women have an hypnotic effect on most of Kirk’s crew because of their beauty. As principle characters, Bones and Kirk are of course mostly immune, and they sense that there’s something artificial about the women’s beauty. Bones says as much. We soon learn that these women are actually hideous and that they take a pill that Mudd says enhances what is natural to women. IE: it makes them prettier. Men, he says, would become stronger if they took the same drug. At this point, I think the message is that women who use makeup are liars and cheats trying to trick men into loving them. Mudd’s plan is to dupe rich husbands and pocket a brokerage fee or something.
One of the women doesn’t like Mudd’s plan and runs off, ending up hiding out for a night in the home of a miner. The episode is already on very shaky ground up to this point because the implication is that beauty is the only thing women can provide a man. But this would-be husband is unimpressed by her looks and instead wants to know if she has anything practical to offer. There’s a brief glimpse of hope when the miner says he doesn’t need a woman to cook and clean for him. Then she talks back to him and shows him a trick or two about how to clean the dishes. So women are useful for more than looks, but only because men need them to run a nice home. In the morning, the woman is ugly again because she stopped taking the pill, and the miner is furious, glad that he hasn’t yet agreed to marry her. I’m a little fuzzy as to why she then accepts a pill from Kirk. This one is a placebo, but she becomes prettier anyway. Now the message is that if women believe in themselves and work for it, they can achieve beauty honestly. The miner is impressed with the woman’s good housekeeping and natural good looks, and they hook up.
The science fiction premise of this episode is that a drug can make women beautiful. The issue explored: true vs. artificial beauty. What’s implied? That in 300 years, men will still be swayed by a pretty face and women just need men to take care of them. The miniskirt uniforms female crew members wear are just the tip of the iceberg of how the show fails to imagine an enlightened future that is significantly different from the present. Not that men do any better. It’s amazing to me how poorly disciplined the male crew members are. They hit on just about every woman they encounter. When one female crew member rebuffs a helmsman, he calls her a “freezer box”, and she goes out of her way later to tell him that she is truly a warm and loving woman. It’s moments like these that occur again and again that have me questioning the show’s vision; I don’t expect the show to talk about workplace inequalities or rape culture per se, but certainly it could demonstrate a better show of professionalism in the interactions of male and female crew members.
Perhaps the most irksome aspect of the gender politics in the show has to do with how the women themselves confront the issue. Yeoman Rand, a character who shows up in a lot of the early episodes, has the potential to be a feminist voice, and she comes close to it at times. Rand gets more face time early on than does Ohura, which is disappointing because her role on board appears to be that of a secretary or waitress. She is seen delivering food to officers at least twice. Her big episode is the second of the series in which a teenage boy with godlike powers comes aboard. After meeting Rand, the boy slaps her on the butt. She’s naturally upset and tells him off, but she’s so apologetic about having to set him straight, giving him a pass because he’s grown up without parents. It’s what happens next where things get really uncomfortable. Rand tells the boy to ask the captain why that kind of touching is inappropriate. Kirk, taken aback, stammers as he tries to explain why this obviously offensive act cannot be condoned. Eventually, Kirk’s best answer is that “there’s no right way to hit a woman”, an answer that fails completely to get at the abusiveness and disrespect of the act. Kirk’s chivalric response undermines any ground the show has gained by granting women equal opportunity in the workplace. Though they may have opportunities on the ship, they are still thought of as fragile beings for male pleasure. Rand’s only recourse when sexually assaulted at the office is to ask her abuser to see the boss, who could himself use a seminar on appropriate workplace behaviour.
These problems with male-female relationships are exacerbated by a second problem that Star Trek encounters: the lack of professionalism on board the Enterprise. In TNG, it was always clear that the Enterprise operated as part of a larger organization, with clear hierarchies and codes of behaviour. These were also consistent from episode to episode. In TOS, it’s not always clear who Kirk answers to, if anyone. In an episode when he’s split into his evil and good half, he’s no longer capable of running the ship effectively, but Spock insists that he keep up a façade of competence because it’s imperative that the crew see him as a strong leader. Are we to assume that the only thing uniting these people aboard the Enterprise is the captain’s charisma? It seems at times that Kirk is commanding an independent vessel manned by a loose affiliation of scientists and crewmen. In the absence of the captain’s command, no one has any purpose. Crew members are also largely incompetent.
Kirk, Spock, and McCoy often have to tell crewmen how to perform their basic duties. Indeed, the main conflict of several episodes would have been averted if people just did their jobs properly. The virus that causes people to become extreme versions of their core personalities (another issue with the show’s insistence on essentializing human character) in “The Naked Time” spreads because the crewman who goes down to investigate the planet took off his gloves for no particular reason. Right after he is infected, Spock returns to remind him that he should not remove his safety gear. Clearly, this poor choice in logic was not an oversight, but just a lazy way to get the story moving. In a different episode, Kirk’s double would have easily been detected if the transporter engineer had remained at his post. But when McCoy tells him to stay, he says that the other guy will be back in a minute, and McCoy responds, sure why not. These kinds of things would never fly on Picard’s ship! These weak writing choices would be fine if they were few, but they’re ubiquitous. The show is in this way not at all forward thinking; it’s recapitulating the style and logic of contemporary science fiction, and which many of the writers had done before they came to Star Trek. None of this diminishes the show’s real accomplishments in crafting thoughtful and imaginative science fiction, of course.
An important premise of literary criticism today is that to understand a work, we have to understand the contexts of its production. We need to understand the history of time and place, and we need to know what other ideas were floating around at the time. This is based on a further premise that there are no objective terms for evaluating cultural products. A “timeless classic” is only deemed such through consensus built up over time. That is, our aesthetic values are artificial, and they are influenced by previous experiences of art.
Star Trek would be an utter failure today. Many of its values are dated and its lack of internal logic and consistency from episode to episode would be unacceptable in today’s TV market. For 1965, it was revolutionary. But even so, many of the flaws, by today’s standards, in the series relate to the shows roots in the B sci fi of the post-war era. A lot of that stuff is equally progressive on social issues and equally imaginative when using science fiction as analogy for social, political, and philosophical questions, and Star Trek seems committed to the style of those stories, especially the melodrama and the preference for novelty at the expense of narrative coherence.
Again, context matters here. I’ve watched little television from before the 90s. Internal logic has become essential to television series since the 2000s. We expect characters to behave consistently from episode to episode, and we expect the conditions of the world to remain constant, with each new episode gradually deepening the stakes or adding new information. Star Trek doesn’t do these things because TV didn’t usually do these things. We must accept this when we watch, but that should not prevent us from being able to look closely at what it all means. I’ve been very much entertained by thinking through how much the show would fall apart if we were to apply what we know of the Star Trek universe from the later series, and this point of view necessarily informs my perspective on the original series because it is the last of them that I am watching. As I watch and post my responses to individual episodes, I will no doubt find many more frustrating things to talk about.