Yesterday, for Throwback Thursday, I talked about that time when they remastered Star Trek: The Original Series. I just didn’t have time to get into my deeply-held beliefs on that subject, but today’s another day. On Fun Friday, I like to go way off topic and here’s a perfect opportunity.
The traditional narrative
At this point in 2022, it’s almost reflex to say that Star Trek was revolutionary, that it explored social issues in a new context, and that it was on the cutting edge of social equality. And in 1966, that is definitely true. Not only that, but the show introduced a generation to concepts like mobile communication, standalone portable computers, and medical diagnostics. Long before these things were reality, they showed up on your TV screens on the USS Enterprise.
But let’s admit there were problems
Having recently rewatched a large number of these shows, I can’t help thinking about them through a more modern lens. And when you do that, the cracks really start to show. I’ll give them a pass for 1960s production values, to start. The sets and props are ridiculous by today’s standards, but back then they were expensive and exotic. But that’s about as far as I’m willing to go, at least in the context of this article.
Diversity and representation
It’s often mentioned that Star Trek introduced diversity and representation into television. There was a Soviet crew member! Black officers and even a Black doctor! But let’s be honest here. We can say that the show went pretty far by 1960s standards. But, as Whoopi Goldberg famously said (and I paraphrase), yes there was a Black woman on the bridge and her job was to answer the phone. It’s no surprise that later Treks went much further here, including more aliens and more diverse humans.
In the last episode of the series, it was (sadly) stated that women can’t be starship captains. And realistically this wasn’t an outlying thought. It was pretty representative of how women were portrayed. Clad in the lowest-cut and shortest outfits the network would allow, the gogo-booted female crew members often embody some of the worse stereotypes of the day. They need rescuing, fall apart emotionally, and never seem to take things incredibly seriously.
Supposedly Gene Roddenberry, the executive producer, wanted women to have a truly equal role (and to wear pants) but was overruled here. Luckily things have changed both in the Trek universe and in our own.
That’s no way to run a federation
We tend to accept the general statement that the United Federation of Planets was sort of a weird hybrid between Greenpeace and the Marines. They were out there exploring, but they did it in a heavily armed battleship. There was no doubt this was a military operation, even if there was a peaceful goal to it.
Or was it? Because there is no way that a large paramilitary organization would ever run like that. Start with an overanxious and hormone-driven captain who puts himself in danger at every turn. There’s no consistency, no real rules unless they benefit the plot. Then add a crew that just sort of does what they want. The body count is so high that no one would ever want to serve on a ship like that.
It almost came as a surprise when someone actually followed orders, because it happened so rarely. Even in the episode where Kirk is literally being court martialed, he’s breaking the rules. It’s bordering on ridiculous.
Seriously amazing that it worked at all
I think the most amazing thing if you look at all of this realistically is that it worked at all. I mean, the ship broke down a lot. There were apparently no safety precautions of any kind, especially where medical stuff was concerned. You could just stroll into the engine room and start pushing buttons. Who does that?
Yes, it was an action-adventure TV show.
Certainly, Star Trek is far from the only show to stray far from reality for the sake of ratings. There’s barely one cop or medical show that looks anything like the way police officers or doctors operate. And Trek had an excuse, since it wasn’t supposed to portray anything realistic. But taken as a whole, it’s really not as inspiring as it should be.
A moment to talk about “canon,” by the way. Later years would see fans becoming increasingly picky about preserving the rulesets laid out by this show. And yet, you can see those rulesets are anything but bulletproof, especially in the first season. There’s contradiction after contradiction, and they can’t even get the terms right. The only “canon” in this show is really that they can do anything that advances the plot.
Of course, I remain a fan of the program and all of its sequels. But I do it with eyes open. There’s a lot to be inspired by, but there’s an equal amount to cringe over.