If you haven’t already read my other posts, I’m currently taking a course on Star Trek and it’s cultural impact. Is that geeky? Sure, but so am I.
The most current question that’s been posed in this class is: Which pilot best addresses the contemporary societal issues from when it was produced while taking the most advantage of the television format on which it was shown? Rank the episodes you watch in numerical order where 1 is the episode that best answers the question prompt.
If you watch any episode of Star Trek, from any series, you’ll be almost guaranteed to find some sort of remark about societal issues. The specific pilot episodes that were part of this assignment all speak about what it is to be human and how we treat both other humans and other species.
#6 – Star Trek Enterprise: “Broken Bow” – I personally love Enterprise, even though I know a lot of Trekkies don’t. I’ve got to put it at the bottom, however, because I think this was more about nostalgia and finding a way to keep the franchise going by looking back than about any societal commentary.
#5 – Star Trek Voyager: “Caretaker” – While overall I ended up loving this series, I thought the pilot was pretty boring. It could be said that the issues the Federation and the Cardassians have with the Maquis are a commentary on the various wars that were still happening overseas in 1995. In that year, the telescopes in the Keck Observatory spotted the most distant galaxy yet found at that point, at 15 billion miles away. Could that have been inspiration for a ship being flung to the furthest, unknown reaches of the galaxy? I think so.
#4 – Star Trek Discovery: “The Vulcan Hello” – While I don’t feel this pilot did much to comment on current societal issues, I do think it served to take advantage of its television format. This speaks to the entire series, considering its only available through a paid streaming format. The producers took this change to make a Trek series that is rated TV-14 or TV-MA (depending on the episode). It’s a show that’s more adult-oriented instead of the other family-aligned series, which gives it the chance to pull in entirely new fans.
#3 – Star Trek Deep Space Nine: “Emissary” – It seems to me that the newly freed planet of Bajor–which Benjamin Sisko is charged with bringing into the Federation “at all costs” while serving on the nearby space station–could represent the constantly changing issues in the Middle East in the early nineties.
#2 – Star Trek The Original Series: “The Cage” – This wasn’t an episode I’d watched before, so I pulled it up on Netflix. It’s got the family-oriented format that network television (particularly back in the 60’s) demanded. It’s the original pilot of the series, and it features Captain Pike instead of James T. Kirk. The episode comments on women in a position of power when Pike says, “I just can’t get used to having a woman on the bridge.” The crew lands on a planet that had been left unable to sustain life on the surface after thousands of years of war, which could certainly point to an anti-war message in the era of Vietnam. Another anti-war message I spotted was the fact that the aliens were essentially putting Pike and another woman in a zoo to be studied. This is incredibly similar to a plot point in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. I think it must be coincidence, given that the show was made in 1966 but never aired until the 80s, and the book was published in 1969. I can’t help but think there must be some message there that I simply don’t get because I wasn’t around in that time.
#1 Star Trek The Original Series: “Where No Man Has Gone Before” – Here we have the pilot that truly started it all, featuring James T. Kirk and all the other characters we’ve come to know and love. The crew looks for a lost ship and finds its ejected recordings, which could speak to the large number of plane crashes that were happening at the time. There’s also a scene where Dr. Dehner comments, “Women professionals do tend to overcompensate.” This is obviously a statement about feminism. The family-friendly format of the show launched it into a franchise that would become absolutely massive, so I think this definitely deserves a #1 spot.
What do you think about Star Trek’s social commentary? Which series or pilot is your favorite? I want to know!
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Ashley O’Melia is an independent author and freelancer from Southern Illinois. She holds her Bachelor’s Degree in Creative Writing and English from Southern New Hampshire University. Her books include The Wanderer’s Guide to Dragon Keepingand The Graveside Detective. Her short stories have been published in The Penmen Review, Siren’s Call, and Subcutaneous. Ashley’s freelance work has spanned numerous genres for clients around the world. You can find her on Facebook and Amazon.