When the “Star Trek” TV show first aired in the late 1960s, the program was far from the syndication and sequels slot machine it later became. The grades were low. Only science fiction geeks cared.
But in the 1970s, fans watching reruns helped breathe new life into the franchise, in part because they appreciated the way the series took risks, sometimes tackling the more controversial issues of the franchise. daytime.
Like the Vietnam War.
The show’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, says placing the drama in space gave him the distance to tackle hot cultural topics. “It seemed to me that maybe if I wanted to talk about sex, religion, politics, make comments against Vietnam, etc. little green people – indeed, he might get away with it. And he did.
Kill the pacifist
In the first few episodes, Roddenberry and the show’s other creators seemed to more or less support America’s interventionist role in the world, says cultural historian and author H. Bruce Franklin, professor of history emeritus at the University. Rutgers and author of four books on the Vietnam War. Franklin was also the guest curator of the 90s exhibit “Star Trek in the Sixties” at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.
On April 6, 1967, for example, the producers aired “City on the Edge of Forever,” in which Enterprise Captain James T. Kirk prevents his chief medical officer, Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy from saving his life. Edith, a prominent peace activist. . His reason? Because if she lives, she will prevent the United States from entering WWII in time to stop the Nazis. It’s an episode where Kirk goes back in time to try to correct the timeline, while also falling in love with the woman who has to die to correct it.
The Vietnam War episode’s subtext came to the fore in the script review process, Franklin says. While the original script focused on the tragedy of doomed love, without any reference to Edith’s peace activism, the revised script changes the focus of the story. In it, First Officer Spock speculates that if Edith were to live, she could spread her pacifist ideas, slowing America’s entry into World War II and thereby altering its outcome.
In the episode that aired in 1967, Spock’s speculations became a major part of the plot whose subtext was the growing anti-war movement of the time. When asked 25 years later if broadcasters intended the episode to contain contemporary anti-Vietnam War references, producer Robert Justman replied, “Of course we did.”
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Support to contain communism
In “A Private Little War” (aired February 2, 1968), the crew of the Enterprise discover that their Klingon enemies have armed a tribe on a primitive planet with flintlock muskets. After Kirk gives muskets to the other tribe, claiming it would create a balance of power, Doctor McCoy vigorously opposes it. This excerpt from an episode transcript echoes the tensions between the Cold War superpowers that led to America’s containment policy – and its ultimate implication – in Southeast Asia. Kirk even refers directly to the Vietnam War:
MCCOY: I have no solution! But providing them with guns is certainly not the solution!
CHURCH: Bones, do you remember the 20th century brush wars on the Asian continent? Two giant powers involved, much like the Klingons and ourselves. Neither side felt she could withdraw.
MCCOY: Yes I remember. This lasted bloody year after bloody year.
CHURCH: What would you have suggested – that a camp arm their friends with an overpowered weapon? Humanity would never have lived to travel to space if they had. No. The only solution is what happened at the time: the balance of power.
“This is what the United States was trying to do in Vietnam,” Franklin says, referring to American efforts to limit Soviet expansion and prevent a nuclear showdown between the Cold War superpowers.
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As the nation turns sour, so do the show’s creators
In early 1968, American public opinion on the war underwent a significant change.
In February of the same year, North Vietnam shocked the United States with the Tet Offensive, a massive surprise attack on American and South Vietnamese strongholds. A month later, American soldiers committed atrocities against Vietnamese civilians during the My Lai massacre. Take-out was difficult: the war was increasingly impossible to win. The US government lied about this fact by sending more young men into battle. And the Yankees haven’t always been the right ones.
Around the same time, the show’s creators seemed to be going through their own drastic change. Concrete example: “The Omega Glory”, episode 23 of the second season of the series, which is openly anti-war. To make his point, Roddenberry places the Enterprise crew on a planet with two bitterly warring tribes, the Yangs and the Kohms, with sub-texts on biological warfare and the immorality of meddling. exterior. If these names weren’t obvious enough, the Yangs (Yanks) have somehow in their history obtained an exact copy of the original US Constitution, and revere it as a sacred text, although they do not understand it.
In the climactic scene, Kirk holds up the Constitution in front of the leader of the victorious warring faction, declaring that the document and its basic human rights principles were written for everyone, even their enemies.
But while Kirk touted America’s ideological superiority, Franklin said, declaring that the Communists (or Kohms) deserved the protections of the Constitution was a dangerous risk to take on television at this point in history.
More than a decade after U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy convened Senate hearings in 1954 to identify and convict anyone suspected of having Communist sympathies, tens of millions of patriotic Americans still viewed Communists not just as enemies, but as toxic carriers of an ideological disease: “red fever.” And even though mass anti-war protests erupted across the country in 1968 – wondering why young American men were being sent across the country. world to fight and die to repel communism – there were still many who thought these protesters were the most dishonored, heroic, generous and decent nation on the planet.
The episode aired just days after the Tet offensive ended, leaving nearly 4,000 US troops dead in just one month of fighting. Roddenberry’s message was timely.
“The Omega Glory” could have ruined Roddenberry, who was already pushing the show upstream against terrible ratings and pressure from NBC executives. In 1968, “Star Trek” was losing $ 15,000 per episode, the equivalent of $ 500,000 per episode today, says Marc Cushman, author of These are the trips, a history of the show.
“Later, when it was hugely successful, ‘Star Trek’ grew into a huge industry, with a completely different set of values than they had at the beginning,” Franklin explains. “But at first they tried to say something.”