I am a Trekkie. I think it’s genetic. My parents watched all the science fiction when I was a kid, and now I pass that tradition down to my dog, who I force to watch 2001: A Space Odyssey with me on repeat. Star Trek is probably my favorite science fiction media, with TOS and Next Gen being my ultimate favorites, then DS9 and then Voyager, all in that order.
While watching a show set in the 23rd century, on a spaceship thousands of light years from where I am sitting now, dealing with aliens of all kinds, I have learned so much about what it means to be a human. Seriously. I think any student of sociology or psychology could learn a few things from Spock, Troy, and Data and their endless investigations of what it means to be an Earthling.
When Star Trek: The Original Series aired for the first time on September 8,1966 on NBC, a nine-year-old Whoopi Goldberg looked at the TV and went screaming through her house, “Come here, mum, everybody, come quick, there’s a black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!” Goldberg said that she “knew right then and there I could be anything I wanted to be.”
Race: The Final Frontier
Michelle Nichols, the actress to whom Goldberg was referring, made television history with her portrayal of Lieutenant Nyota Uhura, a black woman as the fourth in command of the Starship Enterprise.
From the first interracial kiss on television to having a female captain, Star Trek as an entire franchise has been one of the most culturally reflective and influential series on American television. Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS)’s portrayal of race and gender was groundbreaking. It was a commentary about society during those changing times: it tried to portray a post-racial and post-sexist culture where the crew of the Enterprise represents all of mankind. However, despite the unprecedented treatment of minorities and women on the screen, TOS is, at the same time, a reflection of the inequality of the sixties.
Over time, the show adapted and responded to the changing image of women and people of color. From the first interracial kiss on television, to portraying a female as Captain of the USS Voyager, the Star Trek franchise has been extremely monumental in combating racism and sexism on the screen, thus influencing innumerous viewers across the years.
While watching the television in 2016, it’s not abnormal to see a diverse group of people cast on different shows. However, putting Star Trek: TOS into perspective, one can see that the show was groundbreaking: a black woman, an Asian man, and a Russian character all held positions of power, working equally with the rest of the crew aired on national television during a time when women were still confined to secretarial desks, people of color had only been using desegregated bathrooms for about three years, and America was in the middle of the Cold War.
George Takei plays Mr. Sulu, the helmsman of the USS Enterprise in Star Trek: TOS. Takei, who is Japanese-American, was held in an internment camp for three years with his family when he was five years old. According to Takei in an interview, after his family was released from the camps, they still had trouble finding jobs or housing. The stigma surrounding Japanese-Americans after the war followed him until adulthood. When he was interviewing for the role with Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, told him, “the majority of the story will take place on this vast starship… and the strength of the starship is in its diversity, coming together, people from different parts of this planet, people from different cultures, races, languages, faiths and ideas, working together in concert and working out, you know, the differences and finding the common ground. And that’s what’s going to move this ship forward.”
After the popularity of the show boomed, Michelle Nichols met her self-proclaimed “greatest fan,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at a NAACP conference. She told him that she was planning on leaving the show after the first season, and according to Nichols, he urged her to stay, saying “you cannot do that… For the first time, we are being seen the world over as we should be seen.”
Unfortunately, though the show’s writers and producers wanted to portray an equal humankind in the future, TOS is still a reflection of the racism that was prevalent in the 1960s.
According to Daniel Bernardi in Star Trek in the 1960s: Liberal-Humanism and the Production of Race, there was an ongoing “tug-of-war” between the writers and the decision-makers who “attempted to curtail and control the creative staff’s liberal-humanist project.” This can be seen in the episode “Plato’s Stepchildren” (1968), to which the first interracial on-screen kiss between a black American and a white American is often attributed.
In the original screenplay, Captain Kurk was being manipulated by aliens and forced to kiss Uhura. According to Bernardi, “NBC was concerned with the fallout of such a ‘first’… and requested some less than subtle changes.”
Apparently, the network even requested Spock (played by Leonard Nimoy), a Vulcan, a “racialized alien half-breed” to kiss Uhura instead of Captain Kirk, the masculine, all-American white man. Years later, Michelle Nichols commented on the network’s reaction to the original script: “somehow, I guess, they found it more acceptable for a Vulcan to kiss me, for this alien to kiss this black woman, than for two humans with different coloring to do the same thing.”
Eventually, they aired the kiss. However, upon studying the clip, I can obviously see clear nuances within the acting and editing that make me question whether this was even a real kiss. Ask Kirk pulls Uhura towards him, her head blocks the screen right before their lips actually touch.
While they’re “kissing,” Kirk even keeps his eyes open and glares at the alien species. This entire clip insinuates that it was involuntary; a moment forced by telekinetic aliens, in order to avoid too much uproar against NBC. Apparently William Shatner denied that it was real, but Nichols says that it was.
The progressiveness that show exhibited by casting minorities in the first place may be slightly darkened by the racism displayed towards a different kind of minority… the minorities of the 23rd century: aliens.
Starfleet, the military, peacekeeping, and scientific-exploratory organization within the United Federation of Planets, the crews are diverse. The Enterprise crew, after all, did include an African-American woman as well as Japanese, Scottish, and Russian men, and even a Vulcan, who is played by a Jewish actor.
Despite this diversity within the Federation, how the alien races within the show are portrayed can be considered racist. Mr. Spock, the second in command of the USS Enterprise after Captain Kirk, is a half-breed. He is born to a Vulcan father and a Human mother. He has pointy ears, bleeds green blood, and is unable to feel any emotions. Nearly every episode has Dr. McCoy (also called Bones) teasing or pestering Spock: “green-blooded hobgoblin,” “pointy-eared bastard,” and when McCoy tests Spock’s blood he says, “assuming you call the green stuff in your veins blood” (IMDB Quotes).
Though Bones and Spock can be considered ‘beloved nemeses,’ and I really believe that they’re genuinely friends, those kinds of comments made by Bones against, say, a black person or a woman, or any other ‘Earthly’ minority would simply be unacceptable.
Also victim to a more intolerant and prejudiced viewpoint are the alien race, Klingons. In future seasons, Klingons and the Federation are able to become allies and Star Trek: Next Generation even has a Klingon on board the ship. However, in TOS, Klingons are considered violent and identical to all other Klingons. While Humans are able to be scientists, engineers, artists, and more, Klingons are ostracized from their own society if they do not fit the savage, soldier mentality as the other Klingons. They’re war-like, angry.
The Ferengi species is greedy, misogynistic, and insatiable. Yes, all of them, the entire species. All Cardassians are sneaky and militaristic. Then there are the humans: so obviously past that way of thinking. Using your imagination, you can draw similarities between these alien races and stereotypes of minorities on Earth (which, for obvious reasons, I won’t state here). The show was able to get away with a closed-minded viewpoint of minorities through alien metaphors, even though the 23rd Century is supposed to be open-minded and post-racial. This reveals how racist the mindsets of those in the 1960s really were.
Despite the stereotypes portrayed by some of the alien races, Star Trek: TOS did have some moments of breaking down racial barriers. In the episode, Let That Be Your Last Battlefield, the ‘moral of the story’ is rather striking.
The USS Enterprise comes across a humanoid alien named Lokai and they take him aboard. His alien features consist of half of his body being starkly black on one side, and starkly white on the other (divided by a straight line down the body). Lokai is from the planet Ceron, and he asks for asylum aboard the ship. Eventually, a chief officer from Cheron called Bele finds Lokai and says that he is a political traitor. There is an obvious hatred between the men.
Finally, Captain Kirk notices that though both men are from Cheron and are half-black and half-white, their colors are reversed. On Cheron, those that are colored the same as Lokai are seen as inferior to those colored the same as the Bele.
The episode ends with the Enterprise going to Cheron, only to discover that the planet has been long-dead, mutually-annihilated by an interracial civil war. There are stark parallels between this episode and what was happening on Earth in real life at the time with the Civil Rights movement. The hatred between Lokai and Bele can seemingly mirror the hatred between extreme black and white groups during the civil rights movement.
The moral of the story is clear: hatred of your own species for something so insignificant as skin color can only bring about destruction; an entire planet can be reduced to such hatred that they kill each other based solely on the color of their skin.
There are definitely moments of race portrayed negatively in The Original Series, and the show arguably could have done more to combat racial stereotypes. Sometimes while watching, I cringe at what is said about minorities, but I personally take TOS with a grain of salt because the show was groundbreaking for the era.
The study of race in terms of Star Trek: TOS, a show that came out fifty years ago, interests me a lot because though people say we currently live in a post-racial society, I believe that more was being done in the 1960s to combat racism in the industry than there is with today’s Star Trek reboots.
I think that the movies took a step back, though. The forward-thinking and open-mindedness towards minorities envisioned by Roddenberry was apparently short-lived. I think that more was being done to combat racism then, in the 1960s, than the supposed “post-racial” society that we live in today. Since the reboot movies came out, following the same characters as TOS, I have noticed that these have less diversity than the show almost 50 years ago.
Lieutenant Uhura in the new movies is the only female crewman aboard, and she’s in a relationship with Spock. She’s overly sexualized, and she’s also the only other person of color with Sulu.
These rebooted movies were a great opportunity for the film industry to combat racism and show that the 23rd century Federation represents all of mankind, and not just the white people. It’s disappointing to see that the vision of the original Star Trek series was taken back centuries to a time when women are solely there for romantic interests or to be one of the only minorities aboard the ship. Hopefully in the next movies, the original goal of Star Trek will be realized.
Star Trek is one of my favorite shows. I think that anyone studying sociology or psychology can learn a thing or two about what it means to be a human from the show that’s all about aliens.
Roddenberry’s original vision, to have a show about the diverse and progressive future, had a big impact on the viewers at home and especially on the civil rights movement. The show was culturally influential, but at the same time reflective of the mindset of the 60s.
With the underlying racism towards aliens, we can see that the 23rd century may not be as open-minded as we’d like to think. However, the groundbreaking casting of minorities and their treatment on the Enterprise has to be applauded. There is still a lot of room for improvement when it comes to breaking down racial barriers in the current movies, though. The famous opening words of the show says that space is the final frontier, but I believe that humans are still bound by the confines of racism.
(This post was adapted from an essay I wrote for my Sociology class at DePaul University)