In response to my post about nostalgia for the future, Sally wrote: “Star Trek is just cops in space. Gene Roddenberry worked for the LAPD. Think about it, the Enterprise crew flies around in a “cruiser” fighting intergalactic crime, but IN SPACE and with no donuts.”
The original Star Trek was an important show in the evolution of television, but not as a cop show. The prime directive generally prohibited “solving crimes”, but the story goes much deeper than that.
On its most basic structural level, Roddenberry’s “Wagon Train to the Stars” (his term) was very much a Western. As I’ve noted here before, there are only two kinds of Westerns: (1) A stranger rides into town, and (2) We ride into a strange town. Star Trek was both kinds.
But the clues to what Roddenberry was really up to can be found in his previous show “The Lieutenant”, which focused on a military man in peace time. I suspect that show was influenced more by Roddenberry’s experience as a fighter pilot in WWII than by his later stint with the LAPD.
In addition to Gary Lockwood as the lead character William Tiberius Rice (Lockwood would later famously guest on Star Trek in the iconic episode “Where No Man Has Gone Before”), the show featured appearances by Leonard Nimoy, Nichelle Nicols and Majel Barrett.
One episode, featuring Nichelle Nicols in a mixed-race relationship, was never aired, because NBC decided that race was too controversial a topic for television. This sad incident motivated Roddenberry to make his next series — Star Trek — into a vehicle for progressive social commentary. As in a Western, the displacement of the story out of our own contemporary world gave him license to make political points that would otherwise be unacceptable in the heavily censored TV of the 1960s.
The airing of Star Trek was very much a political breakthrough for television, opening the door for a slue of later socially progressive shows from Norman Lear, Larry Gelbart and others.
In a sense Star Trek was the very opposite of a cop show. Rather than being a show about going around arresting bad guys, the overriding message of the series is understanding and acceptance of others, no matter how different they may be from ourselves.
By the way, I think Tiberius is a wonderful middle name, don’t you?