Star Trek: A Post-Structural Critique of the Original Series
Click on image to enlarge.
by Michael Hemmingson
Category: Science Fiction
Description: Well-known writer Michael Hemmingson offers a history and critique of the original Star Trek TV series, and the impact it has had on our culture, language, and science. Also included is the first coverage in book form of the 2009 Star Trek motion picture.
eBook Publisher: Wildside Press/Borgo Press, 2009 USA
eBookwise Release Date: June 2009
2 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [164 KB]
Reading time: 84-118 min.
NBC first aired Star Trek on September 8, 1966, with "The Man Trap." The starship Enterprise's plucky, low-budget crew visits the planet M-113 on a routine check-up. Dr. Carter and his wife Nancy, a former paramour of Dr. McCoy's, are studying the remains of an ancient civilization on what they believe is an unoccupied world. A member of the landing party is killed (the disposable extra landing party character, often referred to as a "red shirt"), his body drained of salt, peculiar marks left on his face. While this was the first aired episode, it is the sixth storyline in the original line-up, with a Stardate of 1513.1 (the chronology of ship time while in space).1 The tenth episode to air, "The Corbomite Maneuver" (11/10/66) is chronologically set Stardate 1512.2, whereas the sixth, "Mudd's Women" (10/13/66) precedes at Stardate 1329.8.2 This lack of a broadcasted linear timeline had to do with postproduction progress per episode; scripts needing less special effects were aired when ready.
I was two months old on that original airdate. I did not catch it the first time out. I did not start watching the series until I was seven or eight, long after its cancellation. Star Trek had three seasons and plenty of history by then; to me it was new, just like reruns of other science-fictional shows My Favorite Martian, Land of the Giants, UFO, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, and Time Tunnel were "new" to children of my generation during syndication. I was not seriously interested in science-fiction until Star Wars (1977), when Star Trek was immensely popular in re-runs across the globe. The success of Star Wars generated a new set of fans--and rekindled interest from old fans--in entertainment set in the future, another galaxy, and among the stars. Series such as the original Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century also found an audience among these post-Star Wars fans.
Why did Star Trek have a tough time staying on the air in the late 1960s, was cancelled and revived, and the Enterprise's five-year mission cut short? There have been a number of explanations: a corporate bias against science-fiction, a negative reaction by the network toward the multi-cultural cast and the "utopian" view of the future ("utopia" in quotes will become apparent later), the network continuously changing the date and times when the show aired, so viewers did not know when the next episode would air. Despite these challenges, Star Trek's post-broadcast life has been an anomaly of the business and a phenomenon of television history.
Looking back, there is much to find amusing and even ridiculous: cheap alien costumes with visible seams; the Enterprise model dangling on strings or moving through "space" in a jagged, awkward manner; Styrofoam and plywood sets; melodramatic and over-the-top acting; absurd storylines (entire planetary civilizations resembling Chicago in the 1920s, Nazi Germany, or ancient Rome); repetitive themes (humans being tested by superior alien races); questionable science and technology.3 These attributes must be taken into context, however: perhaps "silly" today, when compared to the evolution of television content and special effects, but progressive in the late 1960s when science-fiction was still relatively new territory and the popular dramatic programming were westerns and courtroom dramas.
Star Trek fans ("Trekkies" or "Trekkers") can watch episodes of what is referred to as "TOS" (The Old or Original Series) over and over; they know the plots inside-out, can recite monologues, soliloquies, and dialogue verbatim; they find wisdom in the self-righteous, bombastic pontifications of Captain Kirk when he either wax philosophizes about human nature, peaceful exploration, and freedom, or tricks a robotic machine with fuzzy logic and reasoning, coupled with actor William Shatner's trademark verbal inflections, hand gestures, and facial expressions that have now become an institution for the actor and iconic for the series. The viewer knows all is in good hands when it comes to the hegemony and agency of Kirk, because he will save the ship and save the day--the Galaxy!4--and off they go on the next adventure.
* * * *
This monograph is an examination of the original series (herein "TOS") only, with the occasional sidebar on the animated series, feature films, the four off-shoot series, and related original novels. Within the context of television studies, my argument consists of two parts:
(1) No other show in the history of broadcast television has affected and influenced society, science, language, psychology, fan culture and consumerism (combined, "the real world") the way Star Trek has. The show is an example of Jean Baudrillard's theories of hyper-reality and simulacra--Star Trek is a fiction that shapes reality outside the television screen; its signs and images penetrate the culture that created it, infiltrate psyches and living rooms; implants itself inside and outside the mind and re-shapes that world; by way of cultural mimesis, Star Trek acquires new fans every generation who are often the off-spring, siblings, nephews, nieces, and cousins of older fans who tune into re-runs or play old episodes on DVD, indoctrinating these new viewers. Next to Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings (2001-03) trilogy, no other fictional entertainment is imitated, through acts of hyper-reality, by hundreds of thousands of fans, encompassing clothing, philosophy, personal and spiritual beliefs, communicative gestures, and ideology.
(2) Although Star Trek is set in an alleged galactic utopian society led by human beings, with earth as home base for the Federation, the storylines, and general atmosphere of the universe the characters live in, do not always resemble the concepts of the typical utopia where equality, peace, and freedom of choice reign. The Federation and its military arm, Starfleet, are not as pious as its PR machine would like aliens across the galaxy to believe. The Enterprise is an armed warship; Captain Kirk and crew kill alien life and others humans alike when it suits their purpose. The Federation has an imperialist philosophy within its ambitious expansion and colonization efforts, spreading the English language and human morals across the solar systems, often forcing a narrow ideology on other cultures. The first rule the Starfleet officers supposedly live by is a non-interference mandate, the "Prime Directive," yet we see the rules of the Prime Directive continuously violated as societies of the Other are infiltrated and forced to accept Federation dogma and human (American) notions of democracy and freedom.
* * * *
I call this a post-structural critique because I reject older views of television criticism that purports to hold an "absolute truth" in the critical methods and theory when approaching televisual texts. Just as the structure of a series episode in the 1960s is quite different than one in the twenty-first century, so must be the critic's gaze of television's past. Media studies in television suffer today from almost modernist methods with both the visual text and the written text that critiques it. Post-structuralism rejects the idea of any text having a single purpose, a single meaning, or one singular existence; the single reader creates a new and individual purpose, meaning, and existence for a given text. We shall see this is true for the Star Trek fans that have created a reality where the imaginary Star Trek universe has more meaning than the physical universe they live in.