Star Trek: TOS … progressive and regressive

By Lyle Bateman
Contributing Writer, [GAS]

The original version of Star Trek, the 3 season show from the late 60’s that introduced us not only to Spock, Kirk, and McCoy, but an entire universe made up of Kilngons and Romulans, Star Fleet and Warp drive, has been hailed by many TV historians as a ground-breaking series that shattered many taboos and stereotypes of 1960’s TV and America at large. And rightfully so … Star Trek was decades ahead of other programs in the area of racial integration and harmony as the first TV program to regularly include black actors (and, shock of shocks, a black woman no less) as integral parts of the cast. And even if the circumstances render the effect less powerful than it might have been, ST:TOS must also be hailed for the first ever inter-racial kiss on television, from the episode “Plato’s Stepchildren.”

But even given its’ progressive nature in certain areas, Star Trek also happily strengthened stereotypes in other instances, most notably issues of women’s equality. As I’ve mentioned before, while Star Trek may have done a decent job of portraying a world where the racial tensions of 1960’s America didn’t exist, it failed miserably in many issues related to the status of women. Even while Uhura was a vital member of the bridge crew, she was still “Communications Officer,” little more than a glorified receptionist. Nothing wrong with being a receptionist of course, but given that in the 1960’s, reception and secretarial work were one of the only avenues for women in business, its a very stereotypical position for a woman on a “progressive” show. Consider the uniform as well, a mini-skirt that barely covered their asses while standing and walking, and its easy to see that women weren’t always treated with the greatest respect and dignity without even looking at the plots of episodes like “The Man Trap” and “Turnabout Intruder.”

But there’s another area that TOS tends to fall a bit short on the progressive scale, and that involves religion. I happened to catch one of the more “forgettable” TOS episodes yesterday on Canada’s Space Channel, Bread and Circuses, and it reminded me that as progressive as the show was, it was still very much rooted in the society that created and aired it. One of the main reasons Bread and Circuses is forgettable doesn’t even address the religious issues I mentioned … rather, it is a weak episode because of an implausible premise to begin with (the idea of parallel cultural development doesn’t even pan out on earth that closely … that it might on an alien world light years from earth is truly unbelievable). This is a good example of the ethnocentrism of the 60’s … earth must have evolved the “best” societies, so other worlds would naturally emulate our “example.”

Part of the sub-plot of the episode involves the religion of the “Roman” slaves they encounter on the planet they are visiting. While the main plot is a fairly typical story of gladiators and attempted escape from the clutches of the Praetorian Guard, the subtext of the “religion of peace” based on Sun worship. It is only at the end of the episode that the crew realize its not Sun worship at all, but “Son” worship, as in Jesus, the Son of God from Christianity. Uhura ends the episode by explaining it to the crew … “I’ve been listening to their broadcasts, and they are trying to ridicule it, but they can’t. Don’t you see, its not the sun up in the sky … its the Son of God.”

I can see how a plot twist like that might play to a certain segment of the audience in the late 1960’s and it’s really little more than an extension of the theme of human supremacy of the galaxy that permeates Star Trek:TOS. It’s an example of ethnocentrism of the worst kind as far as the story line is concerned, as well as pandering to a specific group in real-time. For a show that was so progressive in certain areas, it always surprises me when I am reminded of all the ways it was actually regressive. Later incarnations of Star Trek made a very good effort to avoid any sort of religious preference, to their benefit … one of the other aspects of the universe that Star Trek inhabits would have to be religious tolerance, and the majority of TOS manages to work without any reference to religion. It’s just a shame they had to pander to the Christian religious crowd in this episode … it just adds one of the dark spots in a series that should be held up as progressive and forward thinking. For the most part it was, but I think it’s important to recognize where it fell short as well.

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26 Responses to Star Trek: TOS … progressive and regressive

  1. Pingback: Star Trek: TOS … progressive and regressive … @ Geeksaresexy.net « View From the Edge

    • Thats a good point … it was also a "forced" kiss in the sense that it wasn't what either of the characters wanted, and was imposed by outside. And while the plot of the episode makes Kirk's displeasure at kissing her a result of the situation, the simple fact that the first "almost" inter-racial kiss is so "disgusting" to Kirk is an indication of how far they still had to go. Its pretty sad when that scene is held up as a paragon of racial harmony, lol.

    • Thats a good point … it was also a “forced” kiss in the sense that it wasn’t what either of the characters wanted, and was imposed by outside. And while the plot of the episode makes Kirk’s displeasure at kissing her a result of the situation, the simple fact that the first “almost” inter-racial kiss is so “disgusting” to Kirk is an indication of how far they still had to go. Its pretty sad when that scene is held up as a paragon of racial harmony, lol.

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  4. "Bread and Circuses, … reminded me that as progressive as the show was, it was still very much rooted in the society that created and aired it."

    Of course it is. Do you propose that to have any value, a thing must transcend its environment? Certainly, something can be progressive within its time. Progress is dialectical, as we know.

    Otherwise, you are measuring against an absolute, and everything falls short.

    ST isn't the alpha and the omega. It was simply a decent and interesting show in a golden age of television. Judge it on those grounds.

    • I agree … which is why I like to point to both the positive and the negative in Star Trek. But like all "literature" Star Trek has deeper meanings to explore as well, and its worth discussing the specific ways they both exceeded, and fell short of progressive. Even the positives were guided by the culture … even as it was a huge advance in racial harmony, Uhura was still relegated to secretary, and most other black cast members got the dubious pleasure of becoming an "Ensign Expendable." From today's perspective, they did a piss poor job of depicting racial harmony as well, but given the tenor of the times, even the modest gains the achieved are notable. Thats why I think its important to point to the places they DIDN'T even try to depict a progressive position, such as in women's equality, and some religious/ethnocentric issues.

      Thanks for the comment :)

      • While I agree with you that Uhura got short-shrift as a woman, I disagree that "Star Trek" somehow "failed" blacks generally when it came to positive, progressive depictions of them.

        Let's start with Uhura herself. OK, so you can make the argument she was a glorified secretary, and that just enforced the gender stereotype of women being fit only for clerical jobs.

        However, that stereotype only applied to *white* women; black women on television in the 1960s weren't even white collar workers; they were usually maids or washer women, and almost always "uppity" comic relief – a stereotype that would hold fast well into the 1970s, probably best exemplified by Maude's maid, Florida. So even as a "space secretary," Uhura was head and shoulders above her TV contemporaries, and would remain so far at least another decade.

        Black men fared better that you're giving "Star Trek" credit for, too, Commodore Stone, Kirk's superior in "Court Martial," is a black man. Richard Daystrom, the "father of the duotronic computer" from "The Ultimate Computer" is a black man. The Enterprise's other surgeon, Dr. M'Benga, who appeared in multiple episodes during the show's third season run, is a black man.

        It's worth pointing out in both M'Benga and Uhura's case that these aren't just blacks, they're *Africans* – show me one program on prime time television today with a single recurring African character and I'll eat my hat.

        I agree with you about Star Trek's unfortunate tendency to pander to Christianity, however. It's even more obnoxious in "Who Mourns for Adonis?" where Kirk tells Apollo that the reason humans don't need gods anymore is because "We find the One most sufficient."

        On the other hand, when you consider that NBC would airbrush Spock's ears in promotional materials because they were afraid he looked "too satanic" for their audience, it's not hard to understand why Christians were tossed an occasional bone.

        • Excellent comment … Thank you. Truth be told, I'd forgotten about M'Benga, so thanks for reminding me. I did recall Daystrom's role, as well as Commodore Stone. Those were all solid roles, but also "token" ones when put against the fact that by default, the Enterprise was a white ship in that time. Given the size of the crew, and the percentage of humans with black skin, Enterprise should have had more black crew members and officers (not to mention asian, Indian, etc). While producers made reasonable efforts to include blacks and other minorities in higher numbers than any other show (its not hard to beat 0, lol) and they did a pretty good job of putting them in non-stereotypical roles, they still didn't even come close to making Enterprise "representative of humanity as a whole" or even the USA as a whole at that time.

          So while I agree they were better than most, they still fell short. Uhura had to show off her ass and be a secretary to make it to the bridge. M'Benga had a "decent" role, but also a very small one … he doesn't appear in every episode. And by and large, the only place where significant number of black actors got work on Start Trek was through "Ensign Expendable" roles, security staff, and background characters. Other than Daystrom and Stone, I can't think of another "guest star" role given to a black actor over the three year series.

          I do agree with you that it was prgressive for blacks … I'm just saying that from our perspective they were pretty small steps. When we take them in the tenor of the times, they make more sense, and in many ways, its remarkable that Rodenberry got as much as he did out of the show given the difficulties he had with NBC. But I think its still worth pointing out that as great as it was for its time, it still falls short of "racial harmony." And, the way they treat women in general throughout the show is pretty regressive … even main female characters like Uhura were prone to fits of screaming in a dangerous situation … would have been very nice to see at least ONE "Tasha Yar" type character in the original series. I still feel that as progressive as they were, they fell short in most areas where they strove for egalitarianism. We can write that off to the times it was produced in, but I still think its worth doing the analysis of what went right, and what went wrong.

          Thanks again for the comment … very thoughtful :)

      • And one other thing … I agree about Who Mourns for Adonis. That is, IMO, the worst episode they ever produced, and the religious references are only one problem with that one.

        Its also another good example of the poor roles they gave to women … even highly trained scientists are on staff for no reason except to fall in love with evil aliens and get the crew into trouble. Granted, they come around at the end of the episode, but one of the biggest themes of TOS throughout the series is the idea that women have to rise above their instincts to scream and act irrational to be useful … in almost every case of a strong female character, they included scenes of irrationality to highlight the "female" nature. Even Nurse Chapel, probably the strongest woman in the original show IMO, spends most of the series in puppy dog love with Spock … can anyone really imagine them using that as a theme for a male character? I can't.

  5. “Bread and Circuses, … reminded me that as progressive as the show was, it was still very much rooted in the society that created and aired it.”

    Of course it is. Do you propose that to have any value, a thing must transcend its environment? Certainly, something can be progressive within its time. Progress is dialectical, as we know.

    Otherwise, you are measuring against an absolute, and everything falls short.

    ST isn’t the alpha and the omega. It was simply a decent and interesting show in a golden age of television. Judge it on those grounds.

    • I agree … which is why I like to point to both the positive and the negative in Star Trek. But like all “literature” Star Trek has deeper meanings to explore as well, and its worth discussing the specific ways they both exceeded, and fell short of progressive. Even the positives were guided by the culture … even as it was a huge advance in racial harmony, Uhura was still relegated to secretary, and most other black cast members got the dubious pleasure of becoming an “Ensign Expendable.” From today’s perspective, they did a piss poor job of depicting racial harmony as well, but given the tenor of the times, even the modest gains the achieved are notable. Thats why I think its important to point to the places they DIDN’T even try to depict a progressive position, such as in women’s equality, and some religious/ethnocentric issues.

      Thanks for the comment :)

      • While I agree with you that Uhura got short-shrift as a woman, I disagree that “Star Trek” somehow “failed” blacks generally when it came to positive, progressive depictions of them.

        Let’s start with Uhura herself. OK, so you can make the argument she was a glorified secretary, and that just enforced the gender stereotype of women being fit only for clerical jobs.

        However, that stereotype only applied to *white* women; black women on television in the 1960s weren’t even white collar workers; they were usually maids or washer women, and almost always “uppity” comic relief – a stereotype that would hold fast well into the 1970s, probably best exemplified by Maude’s maid, Florida. So even as a “space secretary,” Uhura was head and shoulders above her TV contemporaries, and would remain so far at least another decade.

        Black men fared better that you’re giving “Star Trek” credit for, too, Commodore Stone, Kirk’s superior in “Court Martial,” is a black man. Richard Daystrom, the “father of the duotronic computer” from “The Ultimate Computer” is a black man. The Enterprise’s other surgeon, Dr. M’Benga, who appeared in multiple episodes during the show’s third season run, is a black man.

        It’s worth pointing out in both M’Benga and Uhura’s case that these aren’t just blacks, they’re *Africans* – show me one program on prime time television today with a single recurring African character and I’ll eat my hat.

        I agree with you about Star Trek’s unfortunate tendency to pander to Christianity, however. It’s even more obnoxious in “Who Mourns for Adonis?” where Kirk tells Apollo that the reason humans don’t need gods anymore is because “We find the One most sufficient.”

        On the other hand, when you consider that NBC would airbrush Spock’s ears in promotional materials because they were afraid he looked “too satanic” for their audience, it’s not hard to understand why Christians were tossed an occasional bone.

        • Excellent comment … Thank you. Truth be told, I’d forgotten about M’Benga, so thanks for reminding me. I did recall Daystrom’s role, as well as Commodore Stone. Those were all solid roles, but also “token” ones when put against the fact that by default, the Enterprise was a white ship in that time. Given the size of the crew, and the percentage of humans with black skin, Enterprise should have had more black crew members and officers (not to mention asian, Indian, etc). While producers made reasonable efforts to include blacks and other minorities in higher numbers than any other show (its not hard to beat 0, lol) and they did a pretty good job of putting them in non-stereotypical roles, they still didn’t even come close to making Enterprise “representative of humanity as a whole” or even the USA as a whole at that time.

          So while I agree they were better than most, they still fell short. Uhura had to show off her ass and be a secretary to make it to the bridge. M’Benga had a “decent” role, but also a very small one … he doesn’t appear in every episode. And by and large, the only place where significant number of black actors got work on Start Trek was through “Ensign Expendable” roles, security staff, and background characters. Other than Daystrom and Stone, I can’t think of another “guest star” role given to a black actor over the three year series.

          I do agree with you that it was prgressive for blacks … I’m just saying that from our perspective they were pretty small steps. When we take them in the tenor of the times, they make more sense, and in many ways, its remarkable that Rodenberry got as much as he did out of the show given the difficulties he had with NBC. But I think its still worth pointing out that as great as it was for its time, it still falls short of “racial harmony.” And, the way they treat women in general throughout the show is pretty regressive … even main female characters like Uhura were prone to fits of screaming in a dangerous situation … would have been very nice to see at least ONE “Tasha Yar” type character in the original series. I still feel that as progressive as they were, they fell short in most areas where they strove for egalitarianism. We can write that off to the times it was produced in, but I still think its worth doing the analysis of what went right, and what went wrong.

          Thanks again for the comment … very thoughtful :)

      • And one other thing … I agree about Who Mourns for Adonis. That is, IMO, the worst episode they ever produced, and the religious references are only one problem with that one.

        Its also another good example of the poor roles they gave to women … even highly trained scientists are on staff for no reason except to fall in love with evil aliens and get the crew into trouble. Granted, they come around at the end of the episode, but one of the biggest themes of TOS throughout the series is the idea that women have to rise above their instincts to scream and act irrational to be useful … in almost every case of a strong female character, they included scenes of irrationality to highlight the “female” nature. Even Nurse Chapel, probably the strongest woman in the original show IMO, spends most of the series in puppy dog love with Spock … can anyone really imagine them using that as a theme for a male character? I can’t.

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  7. “one of the other aspects of the universe that Star Trek inhabits would have to be religious tolerance”

    So your religion is the religion of tolerance? Everything goes, ignoring all logic and all historical fact?

    There is nothing “religious” about mentioning the historically factual person of Jesus, any more than there is something religious about mentioning the name of Martin Luther King Jr.

    You cannot just ignore history and ignore truth and claim to be “enlightened” and “futuristic”. Thankfully Gene knew history and didn’t feel threatened by the truth.

    Facts are facts, and truth is truth. Putting a label on the truth so you can ignore it may fool the ignorant, but it isn’t fooling anyone else. You obviously don’t understand that Jesus criticized religions even more than you do. He emphasized the fact that religion was not important. He criticized the pharisees more than anyone else.

    His message freed people from the legalism of rules and regulations, and the blood sacrifices … He was the final sacrifice.

    But He also said that “few would find it”. And look around today … has there ever been a time where so many are so lost, and their lives devoid of purpose and meaning? Few indeed.

    Those following the broad road to destruction will be uncomfortable hearing that – and they will be the ones offended by historical truth. They will even deny logic and facts to remain living in their fear.

    This was my favourite TOS episode. Gene provided the one glimmer of light to acknowledge historical truth instead of being totally fictitious. Whether in another universe or another planet (it is science fiction after all) and lends to a better story line than time travel.

  8. "one of the other aspects of the universe that Star Trek inhabits would have to be religious tolerance"

    So your religion is the religion of tolerance? Everything goes, ignoring all logic and all historical fact?

    There is nothing "religious" about mentioning the historically factual person of Jesus, any more than there is something religious about mentioning the name of Martin Luther King Jr.

    You cannot just ignore history and ignore truth and claim to be "enlightened" and "futuristic". Thankfully Gene knew history and didn't feel threatened by the truth.

    Facts are facts, and truth is truth. Putting a label on the truth so you can ignore it may fool the ignorant, but it isn't fooling anyone else. You obviously don't understand that Jesus criticized religions even more than you do. He emphasized the fact that religion was not important. He criticized the pharisees more than anyone else.

    His message freed people from the legalism of rules and regulations, and the blood sacrifices … He was the final sacrifice.

    But He also said that "few would find it". And look around today … has there ever been a time where so many are so lost, and their lives devoid of purpose and meaning? Few indeed.

    Those following the broad road to destruction will be uncomfortable hearing that – and they will be the ones offended by historical truth. They will even deny logic and facts to remain living in their fear.

    This was my favourite TOS episode. Gene provided the one glimmer of light to acknowledge historical truth instead of being totally fictitious. Whether in another universe or another planet (it is science fiction after all) and lends to a better story line than time travel.

  9. I think part of the problem here is that people are trying to judge a show made 40 years ago by current standards. TOS was so amazing to people at the time because it was so unprecedented in terms of forward-thinkingness. Roddenberry might have wanted it even more so, but how much further could he have pushed the envelope and still been able to get Star Trek on TV? It seems like the composition of the group of higher-ranking personnel on the Enterprise was quite diverse. Uhura, of course – as someone mentioned, here was a black actor (female, no less) who was for once not a stereotype. She was not a cultural punchline, she was intelligent, dignified, and regardless of whether you choose to see her as a glorified secretary or not, hers was a highly progressive and novel character for a black woman at the time. And nobody has mentioned Sulu, also an important character who did not own a laundromat or use a servile bowing to sell “flied lice.” These characters were not caricatures, nor were they comic relief. Spock himself was half Vulcan, and even though he was played by a white male, the character was created at a time when being half ANYTHING other than white was often a significant social barrier. The deeper meaning behind the episodes took on issues of prejudice of all kinds: social, gender, cultural, international (or in this case intergalactic). It took on war, peace, morality, how humans might relate to each other and to our world in a more enlightened manner. And, to be fair, how many of today’s mainstream hit shows achieve a truly progressive amount of diversity? Aren’t the three Desperate Housewives white (and rich, I might add)? At least Cashmere Mafia managed to get an Asian in there – how enlightened. And even these still feel like tokens – OK, to be acceptable, you have to have a black character and an Asian and a Latino/a, but how many of those characters seem really to belong there as opposed to being just placeholders for our guilt? How far have we really come as a society? I don’t believe that we are nearly as progressive at heart as fashion makes us feel we have to APPEAR to be. I think racism and sexism are just as entrenched today as they were 40 years ago, it has just gone a lot further underground. Laws and social pressures may have changed behaviours, but don’t really seem to have made a significant dent in beliefs. Deeply ingrained attitudes toward women and minorities don’t change overnight – even in forty years, TRUE significant progress is debatable in my opinion. That Roddenberry even managed to get a show that incisive on 1960s TV is pretty amazing, if you really think about it. So view it as it was viewed in its own time, and don’t apply current standards in trying to appropriately judge its interstitial value.

  10. I think part of the problem here is that people are trying to judge a show made 40 years ago by current standards. TOS was so amazing to people at the time because it was so unprecedented in terms of forward-thinkingness. Roddenberry might have wanted it even more so, but how much further could he have pushed the envelope and still been able to get Star Trek on TV? It seems like the composition of the group of higher-ranking personnel on the Enterprise was quite diverse. Uhura, of course – as someone mentioned, here was a black actor (female, no less) who was for once not a stereotype. She was not a cultural punchline, she was intelligent, dignified, and regardless of whether you choose to see her as a glorified secretary or not, hers was a highly progressive and novel character for a black woman at the time. And nobody has mentioned Sulu, also an important character who did not own a laundromat or use a servile bowing to sell "flied lice." These characters were not caricatures, nor were they comic relief. Spock himself was half Vulcan, and even though he was played by a white male, the character was created at a time when being half ANYTHING other than white was often a significant social barrier. The deeper meaning behind the episodes took on issues of prejudice of all kinds: social, gender, cultural, international (or in this case intergalactic). It took on war, peace, morality, how humans might relate to each other and to our world in a more enlightened manner. And, to be fair, how many of today's mainstream hit shows achieve a truly progressive amount of diversity? Aren't the three Desperate Housewives white (and rich, I might add)? At least Cashmere Mafia managed to get an Asian in there – how enlightened. And even these still feel like tokens – OK, to be acceptable, you have to have a black character and an Asian and a Latino/a, but how many of those characters seem really to belong there as opposed to being just placeholders for our guilt? How far have we really come as a society? I don't believe that we are nearly as progressive at heart as fashion makes us feel we have to APPEAR to be. I think racism and sexism are just as entrenched today as they were 40 years ago, it has just gone a lot further underground. Laws and social pressures may have changed behaviours, but don't really seem to have made a significant dent in beliefs. Deeply ingrained attitudes toward women and minorities don't change overnight – even in forty years, TRUE significant progress is debatable in my opinion. That Roddenberry even managed to get a show that incisive on 1960s TV is pretty amazing, if you really think about it. So view it as it was viewed in its own time, and don't apply current standards in trying to appropriately judge its interstitial value.

  11. Depending upon your POV, "Bread and Circuses" also had the first homosexual character: R. M. Merik. After the scene with the slave girl the Proconsul explains he wanted to give Kirk one last time as a man (have sex). He then tells Merik behind him, "Would you leave us Merik? The thoughts of one man to another cannot possibly interest you."

    Alternatively it could mean that Merik's a eunuch, but it's more likely that the Proconsul was referring to Merik's sexuality, especially considering how Kirk watches Merik leave, as if in curiosity.

    It is annoying how TOS pandered to Christians and is almost as bad as several TNG episodes that pander to atheists. There also seems to be a lack of religious diversity among the recurring cast members; you never see a Jew or a Muslim or a Hindu on the bridge.

  12. Depending upon your POV, “Bread and Circuses” also had the first homosexual character: R. M. Merik. After the scene with the slave girl the Proconsul explains he wanted to give Kirk one last time as a man (have sex). He then tells Merik behind him, “Would you leave us Merik? The thoughts of one man to another cannot possibly interest you.”
    Alternatively it could mean that Merik’s a eunuch, but it’s more likely that the Proconsul was referring to Merik’s sexuality, especially considering how Kirk watches Merik leave, as if in curiosity.
    It is annoying how TOS pandered to Christians and is almost as bad as several TNG episodes that pander to atheists. There also seems to be a lack of religious diversity among the recurring cast members; you never see a Jew or a Muslim or a Hindu on the bridge.

  13. At last – another fan who interprets Bread and Circuses as indicating Captain Merik was homosexual! I’ve been all alone with that opinion for 34 years…was beginning to fear it was my overactive imagination.

  14. At last – another fan who interprets Bread and Circuses as indicating Captain Merik was homosexual! I've been all alone with that opinion for 34 years…was beginning to fear it was my overactive imagination.