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Now put some damn pants on.

28 March 2013

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Chill, everyone. This post will not be heavy; it won’t be about fear or apathy. It’s going to be about a TV show that went off the air 40-odd years ago.

There’s something disturbing running just under the surface of a fair number of original series Star Trek episodes. Most of the time, Kirk and crew are painted as intrepid explorers, there are several episodes where exploring is probably somewhere between “take out the space garbage” and “conduct employee sensitivity training” on their list of things to do that week (that is, pretty damn low).

Gene Roddenberry was an agnostic, and believed organized religion to be the cause of wars and suffering. Despite that, though, his show sure does spend a fair amount of time casting its main characters in the role of Space Missionaries.

On more than one occasion (as in The Apple, from which the above screenshot is taken — but also in This Side of Paradise, Return of the Archons, and even A Taste of Armageddon, among others), Kirk and his crew visit a planet on which the people live differently to the way the rest of human society does… and immediately goes about destroying that planet’s society and infrastructure to make them do things the way we do. They destroy machines that have been keeping the people healthy and happy for thousands of years. They force colonists who are totally content to pull up stakes, STFU, and GBTW. They even change the way two planets have been fighting a generations-long war so that there’s the possibility of more destruction, because that’s how we do it in ‘Merica… I mean, Starfleet. Starfleet.

It’s a quality that mostly changed around the time The Next Generation appeared in the late 80s and early 90s… but that was at the point where America started getting more “politically correct,” and there was at least some effort made to respect and understand other cultures. Humans aren’t shown as imposing their will, values, morals, and belief systems on other planets and cultures so much in the later Trek series, though they move from being sort of missionary or colonialist to being completely unaffected by any alien race they encounter, no matter how strange.

Now, for all its faults, I still love the original series. And for every example I talked about above, there are probably four or five examples of the crew doing good, of them not destroying entire civilizations just because they were different. There’s plenty of time when Star Trek shows us the better side of human nature, the will and adaptability of our species. The Devil in The Dark will always be one of my favorite episodes for just this reason, because Kirk decides to stop some Starfleet miners from destroying a creature just because they don’t understand it. It just makes the flip-side episodes all that much stranger.

And at the end of it all, no matter what the outcome, Spock just shakes his head while everyone else laughs until the credits roll. He knows what’s up. Spock always knows what’s up (as evidenced by him being the lone voice of dissention in almost all of the “let’s totally fuck up this culture” episodes).

What other strange undercurrents have you noticed in the stories of your favorite science-fiction? And though sci-fi has a great ability to comment on the issues of the day, does the time when sci-fi is made also show us unintentional cultural markers of the time it was produced? Are some of the messages flawed or marred because of when the material came out?

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