Star Trek and the 1960s

trek-photoLeonard Nimoy and William Shatner, 1968 (Publicity photo via Wikimedia Commons)

When John F. Kennedy delivered his inaugural address on January 20, 1961, Gene Roddenberry was 40 years old and already a reasonably successful television writer. He had worked on the kinds of dramatic shows that dominated 1950s television – police procedurals, westerns – and had done well in both with scripts that displayed youthful energy, boundless optimism, and, whenever allowed, social justice. He dreamed of writing science fiction that celebrated an American future based on these ideals. So Roddenberry must have been inspired on that cold January morning as he heard this new president, a man not much older than he, proclaim the passing of history’s torch to their generation. Kennedy’s speech soared with an almost utopian vision: a country enriched by volunteerism, bravery, science, and social progress boldly facing humanity, seeking to remake the world in its image. This spirit found its way into Roddenberry’s modernist television masterpiece, Star Trek. But by the time the show finally debuted on September 8, 1966, Kennedy-era optimism had buckled under protest, misstep, and hubris. Star Trek was left to defend those ideals to a country that no longer recognized them.

When Roddenberry first pitched Star Trek in 1964, it seemed like there was nothing the United States couldn’t achieve. Americans were surrounded by and obsessed with technological advancement: the modern world was awash in it. The Jetsons had flying cars that folded into briefcases; Disneyland’s Tomorrowland showcased both an interstate highway system and a moonbase as visions of the future. Star Trek grew out of this sense of a nation on the brink of a technological golden age, where scientific advances would unlock humanity’s potential. The show imagined a humanity so exceptional it had reached out to the stars: a great interplanetary alliance called the Federation, a union of planets that represented all Roddenberry believed human civilization could achieve.

Yet Roddenberry’s show also reflected dark fears of science. The nuclear age was one of wonder but also of terror. Star Trek’s early episodes were full of cautionary tales of science warped by hubris: Artificial intelligence run amok, weapons of mass destruction, computers that ruled entire civilizations. Only through a fierce commitment to human independence and ingenuity were the heroes of the Enterprise generally able to emerge victorious. This was Cold War allegory at its finest: technology could lead us down the path to destruction if in the wrong hands, but if combined with a belief in the individual human spirit it could take us to the stars.

Star Trek also reflected a Kennedy-era commitment to safe multi-culturalism. The crew was a rainbow of humanity and inhumanity: Iowa-born Captain James T. Kirk was supported by a half-human, half-Vulcan science officer named Spock (played by Jewish actor Leonard Nimoy); the southern doctor Leonard McCoy; Communications officer Lieutenant Uhura, a black woman; Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott, an aptly named Scotsman; Hikaru Sulu, the Japanese helmsman; and Ensign Pavel Chekhov, the Russian wunderkind navigator. Each character spoke to a barrier overcome: racial rifts, geographic rifts, political rifts. The cast was Roddenberry’s way of projecting Kennedy’s vision three hundred years into the future: technology, combined with the human spirit, would bring us all together toward a common human mission of exploration and understanding.

Roddenberry’s vision was not unnoticed by wider society. Nichelle Nichols, who played Uhura, is fond of telling the story of her meeting with the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., who urged her to stay on the show because of the positive power of the Uhura character. He saw the character as equal to all white men in this bold future, and a role model. Star Trek consistently spoke out against racism, and was as activist as a show could be in the difficult atmosphere of the mid-1960s; the show devoted several episodes to anti-racist messages, and included television’s first scripted interracial kiss. Yet despite these progressive moments, it is important to remember that the command of the ship remained with Kirk – the bold, daring, Midwestern white man, supremely confident and made for leadership. It is also necessary to be critical of the show’s sexual politics, already becoming outdated by the time the show went to air: Star Trek always portrayed women in a subservient role, dressed provocatively, and objects of male lust as a matter of plot and course.

Just as Star Trek’s gender roles often found themselves lapped by events, so too did its politics. Star Trek was Roddenberry’s vision in the early 1960s, when the country saw itself, almost uniformly, as a moral leader on the world stage and, increasingly, as the Civil Rights Movement achieved victories both symbolic and real, a champion of justice at home. But by 1966, when the show went to air, that consensus had begun to split apart. Over the course of Star Trek’s run, the country became further mired in the Vietnam conflict, leading to an unprecedented protest movement that swept the nation. Northern cities burned every summer with unrest brought on by de facto segregation and police violence. Kennedy’s vision itself seemed under attack by forces on every end of the spectrum.

Star Trek made several forays into centrist political advocacy during its run. The most famous and notable was in the episode “A Private Little War,” a direct analogy to the Vietnam conflict. The Enterprise visited the peaceful jungle planet Neural, only to discover that their Klingon enemies had begun to provide weapons to a political faction, essentially creating a client state on the planet. Kirk grappled with the problem, and eventually decided to arm the other side: better to create a war in a peaceful land than let it fall under the sway of your enemy. The episode is a defense of intervention, though a rueful one, as Kirk realized his actions would doom the planet to violence. The optimism of Kennedy-era interventionism had given way to pessimism, but not abandonment.

This was true even in the face of a growing peace movement that called for American withdrawal from Vietnam. By 1969, the youth movement at the center of anti-war and free love movements troubled many in Roddenberry’s generation, who saw in them an unwillingness to uphold the strong, patriotic stances of their parents. Roddenberry’s answer to the trouble was the episode “The Way to Eden,” which featured a wandering band of space hippies who followed an enigmatic doctor toward a mythical planet called “Eden.” The travelers denigrated authority, and spent their time on music and entertainment rather than on a serious examination of their circumstances. Only when the doctor was unmasked as a fraud do they realize the error of their ways, and are returned to “civilized” life. For Star Trek, hippies were no better than misguided and entitled brats who needed to be shown that authority brought order and safety.

Star Trek was canceled in 1969, after its third season. The show had never been a ratings hit, though it had enough of a cult following to revive it and propel it into the twenty-first century. In three short years, Star Trek had run the full spectrum of the American sixties: from the muscular, optimistic liberalism of the Kennedy years to the challenge and tumult of the Nixon era. In the end, the future it had sought was proven to be a myth: humanity had shown itself to be bolder, newer, and more complex than even Gene Roddenberry’s fantasies.

About the Author

Andrew Lipsett

Andrew Lipsett teaches United States History at Billerica Memorial High School in Billerica, MA. His interests include race, identity, and membership, and he blogs about history, memory, and memorialization at Graves of Note.

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  1. Not sure why it was necessary to point out that Spock was played by a Jewish actor, when none of the other actors’ ancestry was mentioned. But since it was mentioned, perhaps it should also be noted that William Shatner, who played Captain Kirk, is also Jewish, as is Walter Koenig, who played Ensign Chekhov.

    1. I included this to underline the multiculturalism of both the fictional crew and the cast, but you’re right that I could have included the same for both Shatner and Koenig. Thanks for the correction.

  2. Wonderful post! My husband and I just finished watching the original series’s first season, and its racial progressivism, for its era, was startling and disappointing at the same time. Non-white characters don’t have huge amounts of dialogue, to be sure. But they are scientists, eerily ineffective security personnel, communications officers, admirals, commanders, pilots, etc. And there is diversity in the show’s diversity. I see Southeast Asians, Japanese Americans, Latin Americans, African Americans, etc. There is not just one token POC character.

    The show TRIES and fails with gender! In one first season episode, Kirk is put on trial. The male officers all wear fancy (and colorful) dress uniforms for the court martial. The female officer prosecuting Kirk wears the same salacious miniskirt all women in the Federation wear.
    Every alien society the crew encounters has leaders who are older (usually white) men.
    Women Star Fleet officers are foolish creatures who throw away all their professional responsibilities when an attractive man is around.

    But what a show. There was an episode where a mining colony was losing miners due to a creature that is not a life form humans recognize as a life form…who we discover is a sentient creature, laying eggs to perpetuate her species. Inoffensive. Nonviolent. This episode showed how terribly, tragically wrong colonizers could be about indigenous life, by implication indigenous people. Any kid studying early encounters in North America, watching this episode, would have given her/his history textbook a more rigorous read.

    1. Your reply really encapsulates what I find so fascinating about Trek from a sociopolitical angle. You’re right that the cast is really almost startlingly multicultural. One of my favorite episodes features Dr. Daystrom, the Federation’s foremost scientist, portrayed as a black man when that would have been shocking to more than a few viewers. I hope choices like that expanded a few minds. Yet it’s also surprisingly regressive – gender is a huge part of that.

      This isn’t just true of the Original Series, but if The Next Generation as well. Part of what make Deep Space Nine in the end my favorite of the Trek series is its inherent progressivism – on race (Far Beyond The Stars should be required viewing) and gender (early same sex romance for syndicated TV, incredibly strong female characters in Kira and Dax) but also simply because it’s the only Trek show that truly examines the Federation as a force of good, challenges and interrogates that idea, and sometimes even find it wanting.

      You make me want to do a full rewatch too – awesome idea, in anticipation of Discovery in the spring!

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