Eruditorum Press

The struggle in terms of the strange

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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.

10 Comments

  1. trekker709
    June 14, 2013 @ 1:14 am

    It does seem like Gene Coon’s direction away from militarism deserves a lot of credit – he spent more years as a Marine than Roddenberry did in the Air Force. Your post reminded me of another big influence on GR which maybe you’ve already mentioned(?)– Heinlein’s Space Cadet (1948) about a boy from Iowa joining Space Patrol, whose purpose was keeping peace in the solar system. Apparently it inspired an early 50’s TV series, “Tom Corbett: Space Cadet.” Roddenberry said the novel was so important to him because it “deals with the need to act in a conscious responsible manner with all this technology. I remember thinking when I was creating Star Trek that our people would have a similar code…a band of brothers” (which he later revised to “and sisters too, of course”). TOS was becoming a family ensemble where the continuing characters felt great loyalty and affection for each other. I love how Spock defends the captain during the trial — “Vulcaneans (!) do not speculate. I speak from pure logic…human beings have characteristics just as inanimate objects do. It is impossible for Captain Kirk to act out of panic or malice. It is not his nature.”

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  2. Cleofis
    June 14, 2013 @ 7:32 am

    Man, I cannot wait to see how you handle "The Menagerie", which has always struck me as one of the strangest TOS episodes, aside from being explicitly meta and the original series' only two-parter.

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  3. Josh Marsfelder
    June 14, 2013 @ 11:44 am

    I agree Heinlein's influence is definitely all over Roddenberry's Star Trek: This ties in quite well to the technoscientific futurism that the series seems to me to be most remembered for. In fact, that may be where some of what becomes the Prime Directive comes from, which gives me no shortage of headaches as a cultural anthropologist. But that's another post.

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  4. Josh Marsfelder
    June 14, 2013 @ 11:45 am

    "The Menagerie" was…interesting. And fun to write about.

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  5. Alex Wilcock
    June 15, 2013 @ 12:42 am

    Hi Josh

    I said a few weeks ago that I’d comment on some of your articles here… But I’ve been trying to get out a few pieces of my own, very slowly, and your output rate is so impressive it’s difficult to catch up! But I have been reading you, and finding your arguments fascinating. You’ve done three episodes that I remember rather liking so far – liked two and panned the other – and, especially, though I’ve always noticed writer credits from being a voracious reader all my life, I didn’t know all the behind-the-scenes shuffling, so that’s been casting an interesting new slant on the developing series for me. I thought I’d dive in today as displacement activity for what I meant to write this morning…

    I feel the need to apologise in advance for future comments, as they’re unlikely to be terribly deep analysis. With Doctor Who, I love the series and know much of it inside-out, so I’ve tended to think a lot about it; my relationship with Star Trek is very different. I’m a casual viewer rather than a fan, and if I catch an episode I tend not to watch it as intensively. I suspect much of my reaction to the series is formed by the emotional reaction I had to it when I first saw it in late ’70s re-runs when I was at primary school. So, unlike you I think, this series was my jumping-on point in the Star Trek universe, and it still has a certain vivid appeal for me that the various later versions never have – less the plots than the three main characters (well, four: my Dad’s Scottish, even if Scotty isn’t, so as a family watching it I remember we tended to cheer him on), with both the performances and the costumes in bold primary colours.

    So, trying to think back to how I’d have felt about it when I was about eight, all the other boys at school watched it, and it was exciting but mockable, too. I’m quite certain that I wasn’t a paragon of political virtue at that age, though I always instinctively sided with the underdog, but it’s the first series in which I became aware of sexism, though again I’m sure I didn’t call it that. I just remember one of the main things that we laughed at being Kirk always ‘getting the girl’ and that the only women who ever appeared in the show were there to be Kirk’s-of-the-week – and I remember liking Uhura in part because she wasn’t. So whether that was the ‘Uurgh! Kissing!’ reaction of pre-pubescent boys, or that I was already sensing that that was never going to be for me, I can recognise both that it was one of the things that distanced me from the programme a bit and meant that I always understood that it was sexist and just wrote it off from an early age. So while if I catch an episode at random today I might go ‘Oh, dear god!’ at some egregious example (I think there’s one coming up next), I’ve not had the same reaction as your horror at some episodes you’ve already written about: I’d recognised decades ago that that was just something I’d ignore about the series if I were to watch it, which isn’t exactly heroic, but it’s interesting that it’s the one programme I remember watching as a boy that was so obvious about it that I noticed and mocked. That and that it was unfair that they were always laughing at Spock for being a Vulcan (or Vulcanian, here, I notice), though it just seemed mean at the time rather than racist.

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  6. Alex Wilcock
    June 15, 2013 @ 12:43 am

    [Continuing: my overlong comment has just been challenged to enter the nearly-word “shwOff”. I think it may be trying to tell me something.]

    The other thing that was obvious to all of us at school was that it was a military ship. Loads of people in uniform, all armed, with big exciting space-phasers on the spaceship? What else could it be? So when many years later I started reading debates about this in magazines I was getting in the ’90s, I remember just being incredulous. Surely it was always the US Navy in space? As I’ve written in my infamous How Doctor Who Made Me A Liberal, that was just one of the reasons that I felt Doctor Who was for me and that Star Trek was just something I watched.

    Oh, and we did notice that the exciting ray-beams and, especially, the teleport effect was much more exciting and expensive and wished the BBC could do it, but otherwise it didn’t seem like the same sort of thing as Doctor Who at all. Though analysing which stories I liked on seeing them again these days, I did tend to respond to ones with a touch of horror, which I’d probably got a taste for from Doctor Who (theatricality, too).

    Anyway, I’ve gone on too long without mentioning the episode above yet, so I’ll just say I can recognise how I feel about Star Trek still goes back to when I was about eight: entertained by the vivid bits but slightly distanced. Then it came to DVD and my other half and I decided to get it and watch the lot, finding in both of our cases that there were episodes that we’d seemed to have seen about a dozen times and felt like they were what Star Trek always was, and others we couldn’t have seen because we didn’t remember them at all (or perhaps they weren’t sufficiently – entertaining). But I did make a few notes when we watched them, if usually of the less deep and more sarcastic variety, so I feel at least partly armed to make comments in future, if I get round to it.

    End of introspective waffle (but take it as excuses if I ever go back and make shallow comments on your previous posts).

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  7. Alex Wilcock
    June 15, 2013 @ 12:44 am

    So, finally… Court Martial! I can’t say I chose this on purpose – it’s not an episode I remember until seeing them all on DVD, and I don’t rate it much, but I happened to be catching up with you this morning. It does, though, fit in with the big things I remember being slightly alienated by and just deciding to put to one side / send up: as you say, “the Space Navy” (and gosh, I’d never spotted that this established Starfleet), and the quite ludicrous Lt. Shaw. And you’re right, of course – it’s a great idea for world-building. My problem is that it seems to be such a terrible legal drama. Obviously Lt. Shaw ought to recuse herself, of course, but the only women that recuse themselves from being in Star Trek are the ones that wouldn’t suit clingy space dresses, sexy space music and a past, present or future entanglement with a space captain. But the procedures are just so inconsistent: speculating is good / bad; testimony about computers ruled in, then ruled out when it’s helpful to Kirk; and in general just outrageously biased to the prosecution.

    Watching on DVD, possibly for the first time, our biggest mirth was for Kirk’s buttons on his big command chair (I really wanted one of those when I was a kid and we didn’t have remote controls): ‘Let me ring for a coffee – whoops! The “eject” button was right next to it, squeezed in with the auto-destruct!’ It makes me appreciate modern computers (Samuel T Cobbley snarls) and their ‘Did you really mean to do that?’ option. I suppose the ‘Undo’ function for an ejection would be a sort of bungee-jump. And I’d forgotten – the other thing everyone knew about Star Trek when I was little was that everyone hated computers and made them blow up, obviously. I have some sympathy with that, but I think I’d prefer the computers to all the flag-knitting this week.

    Much as I like to see an actor from one of my favourite movies, I can’t help wishing today that the new CGI version doesn’t replace Elisha Cook Jnr with Denny Crane.

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  8. Alex Wilcock
    June 15, 2013 @ 1:57 am

    Oops! Sorry for posting yet more, but I clearly changed my mind about the structure of the last sentence half-way through typing it and so published gibberish. What I meant to say was something like:

    Much as I like to see an actor from one of my favourite movies, I can’t help being disappointed today that the new CGI version doesn’t replace Elisha Cook Jnr with Denny Crane.

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  9. trekker709
    June 16, 2013 @ 5:25 am

    I haven’t read Space Cadet, but somehow thought GR was less interested in its technoscientific futurism" than its ideals of character and essential optimism….sort of in line with Robert Justman saying Star Trek was always a morality play.

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  10. Josh Marsfelder
    June 16, 2013 @ 6:10 am

    Actually IMO he was fundamentally interested in neither. He wanted Star Trek to be believable, hence his interest in Golden Age concepts, and the show naturally ends up dealing with humanistic concerns by virtue of its original structure. But as I've argued a number of times, Roddenberry was at heart not a utopian, at least he wasn't when he created the show.

    IMO What Star Trek probably inherits from Space Cadet is the basic trappings of setting (a space patrol) and the idea one could use this setting as the backdrop for morality plays. I still think we need to take anything Roddenberry says with a significant amount of salt. However, Star Trek frequently gets the reputation for being about technoscientific futurism from a certain subset of the fandom due to a combination of these factors, so that's what my comment was about.

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