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.