I would hope that the premise, influence and enduring appeal of Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek need little introduction. The franchise, chronicling the exploratory and diplomatic adventures of various starship crews, has enjoyed phenomenal success due largely to its optimistic, uplifting portrayal of the future – a welcome change from the dystopian spirit that marks most televisual science fiction. This optimism has sustained the show’s popularity through the majority of its incarnations – the original series, The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, Enterprise and at least eight of its thirteen films – but it has never been the only level on which it may be analysed and enjoyed. Contemporary politics have also featured consistently in its plot lines and moral messages, the most prominent, at least in the original series (broadcast 1966–1969), being the global Cold War.
Star Trek has (almost) always been an aspirational franchise,1 shaped by an ethos of progressive humanism that it believes humanity as a whole will one day adopt. On the other hand, it is also inevitably a product of its time – a fact that is true of all its incarnations, but perhaps most evident in the original series. As Nicholas Sarantakes mentions, this is the Trek show that most clearly engages with the values, prejudices and anxieties that characterized the Cold War at its height.2 The following will therefore focus almost exclusively on the original series, save a few highlighted exceptions.
Face of the Enemy
Perhaps the clearest Cold War parallels in the show are embodied by its various alien species. In particular, the principal antagonist powers, the Klingon Empire and the Romulan Star Empire, are established as analogues of the Soviet Union and communist China, respectively.
The connection between the Klingons and the Soviets was confirmed at the time of the show’s original run, with producer Gene Coon remarking in 1967 that ‘we have always played [the Klingons] very much like the Russians’.3 Indeed, the original conception of Klingon society, according to one of the actors who portrayed them, was of a culture oriented towards ‘“the collective good” rather than “individuality”’, in a thinly-veiled reference to the Soviet communist social model.4 More fundamentally, however, the Klingons are characterized as the most dangerous recurrent menace to the security of the Federation, a description also applied to the Soviets for much of the Cold War. The Romulan-Chinese parallel, meanwhile, is less pronounced on screen, but as Aaron Angel points out, both powers fulfil the role of ‘the other enemy’ – not the principal foe or existential threat represented by the Klingons/Soviets, but still ‘a force with which to be reckoned’.5
These comparisons are given emotional resonance, however, only by the association of the United Federation of Planets (and therefore the show’s protagonists) with the USA. While it shares many of its characteristics with the United Nations,6 the picture we have of the Federation is more American than international. Just as the UN headquarters are situated in New York, so does Earth (more specifically, San Francisco) play host to the Federation’s president, its council and its military arm (Starfleet), of which most main characters throughout the franchise are members. The Enterprise crew itself mirrors this US-centric arrangement, with the multicultural senior officers – an African communications officer, a Russian security chief, a Scottish engineer, an Asian American pilot and an alien science officer – all working under the ‘enlightened but no-nonsense American leadership’ of Captain James T. Kirk.7
By Any Other Name
Of course, Earth’s privileged status within the Federation is also motivated by more fundamental storytelling concerns; it is to be expected that American audiences will find it easier to relate to a threat to the Federation if it has its sights set on San Francisco in particular. Pragmatic cultural and budgetary considerations also doubtless played their part in the producers’ decision to present their diverse, multi-planetary civilization primarily as an extension of the United States. Still, it is equally clear that such an approach gave the show considerable scope for political commentary, and that this was intended by the creators from the beginning.8
One of the most frequent targets of such commentary was the Cold War, and the way in which the US was waging it. Rick Worland, for instance, argues that despite its science-fictional trappings, the show ‘neatly duplicated the configuration of international Cold War politics of the 1960s’.9 This interpretation has been echoed by a variety of scholars, including Mark P. Lagon and Daniel Bernardi.10 Far from taking the contemporary political situation for granted, however, the producers were keen to take advantage of their show’s futuristic setting to interrogate, even criticize, US foreign policy. Many episodes do indeed ‘duplicate’ certain Cold War relationships and situations, but this duplication takes the form of deliberate and critical allegory, whereby the basic assumptions of Cold War politics are, for the most part, discredited.
Naturally, such subtexts should be seen as part of Star Trek’s broader progressive, liberal form of social commentary: the show frequently denounced militarism, promoted racial equality (though it had less time for sexual equality) and presented a future in which humanity had outgrown the capitalist system. Its critique of US foreign policy and Cold War politics was one pillar of this far grander vision – albeit one to which the producers attached considerable importance.
The Paradise Syndrome
It is of course possible to take such comparisons too far, and this may be reading too much into what is, after all, a science fiction/space fantasy franchise. In a (thankfully mild) social media controversy involving Star Trek politics, for instance, William Shatner himself went on record asserting that ‘Star Trek wasn’t political…. To put a geocentric label on interstellar characters is silly’ (@WilliamShatner, 23 July 2015).
Mike O’Connor, among many others, evidently does not agree with this stance, stressing in his work that the contemporary political undertones of the show are impossible to ignore. Nonetheless, he also acknowledges that Roddenberry’s original intention was to make his show ‘thoughtful and philosophical, rather than explicitly political’. In particular, he and his fellow producers were keen to avoid any specific mention of how humanity had achieved this state of technological, social and moral utopia by the twenty-third century, and of ‘which socio-economic system ultimately worked out best’.11 H. Bruce Franklin sums this up pithily when he notes that the show’s utopian future was ‘assumed’ but ‘never envisioned’.12
In short, the Federation’s standing in for the USA did not mean that it needed to mirror the US political system. Indeed, the few details of Federation society that are revealed on screen point to a culture in which such political differences have been transcended altogether, and in which the best features of both capitalism and communism have been combined in an almost dialectical way.
One such detail is the lack of money or private enterprise in Federation society. This remains implicit for much of the show, but comes to the fore when the Enterprise crew encounter humans from their past (that is, the audience’s present). Various stories involving time travel to Earth’s past, such as the film Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, or the later Next Generation episode ‘Time’s Arrow’, present humanity’s reliance on money as an obstacle: the Enterprise crew’s lack of ready cash leaves them powerless in this barbaric capitalistic society.
The idea is discussed more prominently in the Next Generation episode ‘The Neutral Zone’, a subplot of which sees a trio of cryogenically frozen humans from the early twenty-first century being discovered and revived on the Enterprise. One of their number, an overbearing, loud-mouthed financier, finds it particularly hard to adjust to a civilization in which money no longer exists. His disorientation is eased, however, by his conversation with Captain Picard, who urges him to move beyond such a blinkered world view and ‘enrich [him]self’ with all the new challenges the future has to offer. This endorsement of one of communism’s signature features in an otherwise liberal, Americanized society is striking.
Roddenberry’s Federation also bears some superficial resemblance to communism in its attitude towards religion. In most of its incarnations (aside from the later series Deep Space Nine, which deviated from the norm in almost every sense), the show is ‘aggressively secular’.13 When it features at all in the franchise, religion is usually revealed to be the result of either deception or naivety, and is certainly something that humankind has long since left behind. The parallels with the anti-religious Soviet form of communism in particular are apparent.
Despite these points of similarity, however, it is clear that the viewer is not meant to conclude that communism has triumphed on twenty-third-century Earth. As noted above, the future of Star Trek was always intended to be one in which such petty political divisions had been overcome. Neither capitalism nor communism has conquered the planet; both have been superseded by something far better.
A more obvious sign of this spirit of compromise, however, was the introduction in Star Trek’s second season of Ensign Pavel Chekov, a new main character of Russian nationality who, the show made clear, came from the very same society as his American (and Scottish) colleagues. There is some uncertainty surrounding the origins of the character. The most widely circulated explanation is that Chekov was devised in response to an editorial in Pravda (the organ of the Soviet Communist Party) complaining about the lack of Soviet characters on the show. The idea that Pravda wrote such an editorial is generally believed to be apocryphal, but there is evidence to suggest that whether it is true or not, Roddenberry believed it at the time.14 Regardless, Chekov’s presence in the main cast serves a similar purpose to that of the African Lieutenant Uhura and the Asian American Ensign Sulu – namely, to illustrate the inclusiveness of Roddenberry’s twenty-third-century world, and the extent to which he believed humanity would by then have conquered all the prejudices and inequalities that plague the present.
That Which Survives…
As O’Connor points out, Star Trek’s political message has grown less important to each new generation of fans, as the particular socio-political circumstances that gave rise to the show recede further into the distance.15 That is certainly true in my case: I began my foray into Trek fandom in the late 1990s with The Next Generation, and the real appeal of the franchise for me has always been in its imagination and its characters, rather than its political morals.
The fact that the show is a product of the politics of its time, however, is an integral part of its creative DNA. It is quite possible that only the 1960s, with their peculiar combination of steady liberalization and Cold War paranoia, could have given rise to a science fiction series as defiantly optimistic as the original Star Trek. While its television and cinematic sequels have echoed this optimism to varying degrees, the best of them have at least made sure to acknowledge and engage with this distinctive heritage. In essence, then, the show can be viewed as an indirect response to the social and moral questions posed by the Cold War. Though the questions have not been asked since 1991, Star Trek’s answer has lost none of its appeal.
This is a (slightly revised) version of a post I wrote for History to the Public in 2015. If this version leaves you unsatisfied, you can find the original here.
- I say ‘almost’ here as Roddenberry grew progressively more attached to this ethos as time went on, and it really became the governing principle of the franchise only between the cancellation of the original series and the launch of The Next Generation. See Chaos on the Bridge, directed by William Shatner (Wacky Doodle Productions, 2014); and Mike O’Connor, ‘A Relativist Utopia? The Politics of Star Trek: The Next Generation’, Society for U.S. Intellectual History (blog), 11 September 2016, https://s-usih.org/2016/09/a-relativist-utopia-the-politics-of-star-trek-the-next-generation/. Deep Space Nine, meanwhile, went on to test the optimism of the Star Trek universe to its limit, while the latest live-action series, Discovery and Picard, seem to have abandoned it altogether. This may well explain why the latter two series, along with the more recent ‘reboot’ films, lack much of the distinctiveness of their predecessors. [return]
- Nicholas Evan Sarantakes, ‘Cold War Pop Culture and the Image of U.S. Foreign Policy: The Perspective of the Original Star Trek Series’, Journal of Cold War Studies 7, no. 4 (2005): 74–103, 77. Mike O’Connor also takes up this point: O’Connor, ‘A Relativist Utopia?‘. [return]
- Sarantakes, ‘Cold War Pop Culture’, 78. [return]
- ‘Depicting Klingons’, Memory Alpha, accessed 21 January 2021, https://memory-alpha.fandom.com/wiki/Depicting_Klingons. [return]
- Aaron Angel, ‘Cold War Images and the Enemies of Star Trek’, Star Trek: WWW, accessed 21 January 2021, http://www.stwww.com/papers/coldwar.html. [return]
- Mike O’Connor, ‘Liberals in Space: The 1960s Politics of Star Trek’, The Sixties 5, no. 2 (2012): 185–203, https://doi.org/10.1080/17541328.2012.721584. [return]
- Mike Marqusee, ‘End of the Trek’, Prospect Magazine, 20 August 2001, https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/endofthetrek. [return]
- Sarantakes, “Cold War Pop Culture’, 74–77. [return]
- Rick Worland, ‘Captain Kirk: Cold Warrior’, Journal of Popular Film and Television 16, no. 3 (1988): 109–17, 112 https://doi.org/10.1080/01956051.1988.9943393. [return]
- O’Connor, ‘Liberals in Space’, 195. [return]
- O’Connor, ‘Liberals in Space’, 189. [return]
- H. Bruce Franklin, ‘Star Trek in the Vietnam Era’, Film & History 24, no. 1 (1994): 36–46, 36. [return]
- O’Connor, ‘Liberals in Space’, 190. [return]
- Bill Brioux, Truth and Rumors: The Reality Behind TV’s Most Famous Myths (Westport, CT and London: Praeger, 2008), 43–44; David Mikkelson, ‘Was Star Trek’s Chekov Inspired by Pravda?’, Snopes.com, 23 March 1999, https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/russian-crewlette/. [return]
- O’Connor, ‘Liberals in Space’, 186. [return]