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L.I. Underhill is a media critic and historian specializing in pop culture, with a focus on science fiction (especially Star Trek) and video games. Their projects include a critical history of Star Trek told through the narrative of a war in time, a “heretical” history of The Legend of Zelda series and a literary postmodern reading of Jim Davis' Garfield.

7 Comments

  1. trekker709
    July 29, 2013 @ 5:10 am

    Enjoyed the analysis. Among other things, the way you trace the mindset changing from soldier/police to diplomat through these episodes…would make for an interesting course / book (?) Seems like Trek intentionally gives only bits and pieces of the Federation’s organization, and shows its flaws as well as strengths: as you note there is a constant distrust of bureaucratic politics. To me though, Trek typically located the potential for evil in each individual—the Enemy Within, rather than demonizing any and all forms of government, as if anarchy or libertarianism would work. Maybe I’m misreading you on that issue.
    Kirk’s speech on humans ‘needing obstacles to strengthen us or we weaken and die’ is a recurring TOS theme, yet Cochrane didn’t get lonely for the first 150 years –? doesn’t quite work.
    I can understand why you might describe the plot as “heteronormative” but to me the term Companion could also suggest homosexuality, especially since Cochrane fully accepted merging with the entity until he was told it was a female lover. The union could be gay or interracial marriage. On the other hand, Zefram and Nancy remain isolated from society, showing the limitations of the time. Nice treatment of the spiritual union / mysticism aspect. The scene near the end with Hedford holding up her multi-colored scarf to the light was a beautiful touch.

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  2. Jacob Nanfito
    July 29, 2013 @ 6:09 am

    It's interesting that although Star Trek was, as you note, being made during the rise of the youth and anti-war movements but still seems to be extolling 1950s style Cold War "Containment" values — militarism and heternormativity as the means to stabile societies; a patriarchal overtly "traditional" form of masculinity; oversexualized women as a source of chaos and destruction, etc.

    Being (I presume) older men and of that earlier generation, do you think Rodenberry and Coon were purposefully resisting the increasing radicalization of US culture? Or do you think they were just writing what they knew or trying to appeal to a mass audience (many of which were firmly against radicalized movements)?

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  3. Josh Marsfelder
    July 29, 2013 @ 7:25 am

    That's a good take on it. I picked up the heteronormativity mostly from Kirk and Spock's behaviour (along with Commissioner Hedford's comments) but Cochrane's actions could certainly be taken the way you see them. Of course, this would probably also add a "going back into the closet" subtext to the resolution when he decides to stay with the transformed entity.

    As for the political critique, I wish the show was actually a bit more clear on this issue. I agree it's probably first and foremost about individuals, but the thing for me is that ignoring the setting on the one hand and then calling it a utopia on the other(as it is wont to do) causes it no shortage of serious problems in the mid-late 1960s (as the next episode will rather grimly demonstrate).

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  4. Josh Marsfelder
    July 29, 2013 @ 7:39 am

    I think Gene Roddenberry didn't give a toss, to be honest with you. His writing reveals him to be so willfully blinkered and clueless at this point in time I'm not sure he was aware of the implications and consequences of anything he said or did.

    Gene Coon I think was as progressive as he could get for the time and place he was writing: Mid-1960s United States mass-market television. He may not have been blatantly radical, but he does strike me as someone comfortably centre-left, which still says a lot on 1967, and the episodes he writes are consistently the very best ones the show produces. My primary issue with him is that he doesn't always go as far as I'd like him to, but laying the groundwork to completely transform what Star Trek is and has the potential to be is more than enough for me in most cases.

    (Though there are a pair of writerXproducers who actually did manage to get straight-up leftist counterculture on mass-market US TV around this time, but their success is mostly a combination of sleight-of-hand and unbelievable dumb luck. I'll talk about them a bit once we get to 1969).

    The sticky point is, of course, "The City on the Edge of Forever", which remains the only instance I can think of where a conscious decision was made to give a script a more reactionary tone than it had originally (an argument could be made the same is true of next episode, actually, but I chalk that one mostly up to Gene Roddenberry being Gene Roddenberry). Regardless of whether this was done to soak Harlan Ellison, as the result of a hectic and frenzied rewrite schedule or simply because the staff didn't think through the implications of what they were saying, it's still an incredibly upsetting and problematic story.

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  5. Adam Riggio
    July 29, 2013 @ 12:07 pm

    I'm going to be a bit of a devil's advocate, but also a little philosophically charitable, on the term 'diplomat.' Yes, actual diplomacy is basically the art of polite lying, manipulation, and smuggling of secrets. But the term here is raised as an activity in contrast to that of the soldier.

    If the activity of the soldier is war and fighting, then the meaning of diplomat, when contrasting with that of soldier, is to settle a dispute diplomatically. That's one of the stereotypes I've come across of TNG: Picard looking at every conflict they encounter and wondering if there's a diplomatic solution. So the soldier settles conflict by violence, raising the intensity of the conflict until the violence settles itself. If diplomat is defined in contrast, then the diplomat works through negotiation, compromise, mutual respect in listening, and working to a peaceful consensus among conflicting parties for a solution.

    That's the duality of Star Trek's slowly growing utopian vision: within the same ship, and the same person (Kirk) is a soldier and a diplomat, a warrior and a peacemaker.

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  6. Josh Marsfelder
    July 29, 2013 @ 3:06 pm

    Certainly the strict logical contrast of the terms "soldier" and "diplomat" can be read that way. However, I'm going to stick with at least the meat of my analysis here because McCoy expressly says Kirk is "trained as a diplomat" in his line: This would imply to me McCoy is in fact talking about actual political diplomacy in this instance.

    That said, I'm glad you brought up the TNG stereotype of "Picard is a diplomat", because that's definitely a theme I want to talk about once I get up to that point. As you can probably ascertain, this isn't entirely the way I read his character.

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  7. trekker709
    August 2, 2013 @ 3:42 am

    I see your point about the subtext– sorry that got misconstrued. Seems to me the script was more about getting past xenophobia in general, rather than gender issues as such. It’s kind of ironic that Kirk tells Cochrane “the ideas of male and female are universal constants” –that statement in TOS is disputed by a number of episodes in TNG and beyond.

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