Where one man has gone before

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?

6 thoughts on “Where one man has gone before”

  1. To my knowledge, the first “wagon train to the stars” was “The Voyage of the Space Beagle” by A. E. van Vogt. Many of the chapters were made into Star Trek episodes, including in particular that show’s pilot. (The second one, that was actually aired, with the salt monster.)

  2. But everyone knew her as Nancy. 🙂

    Yes, just as most of the Twilight Zone episodes were originally sci fi short stories. There was a mini-movement — an exciting one in my view — of mining the best of written science fiction for TV. I think it helped move the medium of television forward.

  3. That’s not an analysis Sally, it’s an assertion. I am beginning to wonder whether you have actually seen the show.

  4. That “mining short stories for TV episodes” was resurrected not too long ago by the modern incarnation of “Outer Limits”. It still works from an artistic point of view, but because of the lack of multi-episode story arcs or even a constant cast of characters, it seems to attract less of a following, and get less commercial traction, than poorly-written “space opera” style shows like Farscape or Star Trek Whatever.

  5. Ironically, the recent “Outer Limits” is much more the progeny of the original “Star Trek” than of the original “Outer Limits”. The 1963 “Outer Limits” was essentially a monster of the week show, whereas “Star Trek” was, as you have pointed out, a version of van Vogt’s Space Beagle, which was itself inspired by Charles Darwin’s voyage of the Beagle.

    Being primarily a journey of scientists, on a mission of scientific study, Star Trek was in the tradition of the scientist explorer, as were the stories of Jules Verne and H.G. Welles before it.

    The recent “Outer Limits”, like the original “Star Trek”, examined the societal ramifications of technological change, a trope which was so radical to the world of television when “Star Trek” first aired that most people didn’t understand at the time just how different a vision it was.

    We now take the idea of the “scientist hero” on television so much for granted that we tend to forget just how transformative it was for that medium in 1966, but it is important to honor historical context. After all, you wouldn’t dismiss ENIAC because it was slower than your iPhone.

    I think it’s important to distinguish the original show from the various later spin-offs. None of those subsequent incarnations of “Star Trek Whatever” were agents for radical change of television itself, the way the first series was.

    Speaking as someone who puts a lot of effort into helping kids to discover just how cool science and intellectual exploration can be, I think it is important for the original “Star Trek” to get its due.

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