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From the New Frontier to the Final Frontier: Star Trek From Kennedy To Gorbachev

Rick Worland

Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies, Volume 24, Numbers 1-2, 1994, pp. 19-35 (Article) Published by Center for the Study of Film and History DOI: 10.1353/flm.1994.0001

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Film & History, Vol. XXIV, No's. 1-2, 199419

From the New Frontier to the Final Frontier:

Star Trek From Kennedy To Gorbachev

Rick Worland

In 1962, two weeks before John Glenn orbited the Earth in Friendship Seven, scientist Werner Von Braun was scolded by a woman for his space work: 'You folks ought to stay at home and watch TV like the Lord intended for people to do'.1 Today it seems difficult to imagine life without Star Trek. While the original series continues as a syndication war horse, two spin-off programs, Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, prosper in the ratings, six theatrical films have been produced, and Paramount will begin a Next Generation movie series in late 1994, initially uniting the casts of both old and new TV shows. A third series spin-off, Star Trek: Voyager, begins in early 1995. Indeed, Star Trek has become an expanding, freefloating post-modern text that has proliferated simultaneously as original fiction, comic books, computer games, toys, and numerous other licensed products including Christmas tree ornaments, the last very nearly elevating Star Trek to the realm of the sacred. The show's popularity is led by, but is not restricted to, a core of devoted fans whose activities, including writing amateur fiction and organizing conventions, have become the paradigm for "fan culture" which has received intense scrutiny from journalists and academics. Thus the immensely popular text of Star Trek has thrived through nearly thirty years of rapid, often tumultuous changes in the society that originally produced it. As historian Richard "Slotkin and others have argued, the major terms of a coherent mythic system such as the American Frontier Myth-itself highly germane to Star Trekonce, established and disseminated, are varied, even reversible, permitting a wide variety of permutations, uses, and implications.2 The enduring popularity of Star Trek is illuminated through the varied sources of American historical and cultural mythology it
evokes and negotiates.

Throughout the twentieth century the Frontier Myth and American science fiction have enjoyed a closer ideological kinship than has been generally recognized.3 Star Trek explicitly connected with the Western in the opening title sequence which defined outer space as "the final frontier." The metaphor's attractiveness here is enhanced
Rick Worland is an Assistant Professor of cinema at Southern Methodist University. His

teaching has included courses on the Hollywood Studio Era, Film Theory, Documentary, relationship between popular media and social history of the Cold War era.

Film Genres and the Films of Alfred Hitchcock. His current interests include the


Worland / Star Trek From Kennedy to Gorbachev

by the limitlessness of this particular frontier, one certain to remain open forever. During Star Trek's original production in the 1960s, more direct impetus for the popular generic shift from the Western to science fiction was provided by the national prestige and public attention devoted to the manned space program that culminated in the first lunar landing in 1969. The conception of Star Trek as a latter day successor to the Western was consciously articulated by Gene Roddenberry who described it to network programmers in 1960 as "Wagon Train To the Stars."4 Yet Roddenberry also acknowledged a debt to CS. Forester's Captain Horatio Hornblower novels, which describe the exploits of the captain and crew of an eighteenth century British naval vessel. "Hornblower In Space" was an alternate designation for the series indicating that, in addition to scientific exploration, starship Enterprise frequently acts as a powerful gunboat in the service of a vast socio-political organization, eventually known as The United Federation of Planets.5 "Wagon Train To the Stars" (the Western) plus "Hornblower In Space" (romantic tales of the British Empire) combined to make Star Trek a distinctly American parable of international politics and domestic social issues of the 1960s.
The Cold War Context

Originally telecast on NBC from 1966 to 1969 at the height of the Vietnam war, Star Trek allegorized the geo-political Cold War conflict: Captain Kirk and the Federation represent America and "the Free World" locked in Cold War struggle with implacable ideological enemies-the Klingons and Romulans-analogous to the Soviet Union and Maoist China. Containing the spread of "Klingonism" increasingly occupied the starship crew as the superpowers of outer space competed militarily and politically for the allegiance and resources of Third World planets.6 The historical figure uniting these
various ideological and thematic lines with the fictional world of Star Trek is President

John Kennedy, who began the decade with the promise of a New Frontier, pursued an activist foreign policy aimed at challenging Communism in the Third World, and championed a massive effort to advance national prestige through the manned space program. Converted to the cultural realm through the generic tropes of science fiction and the Western, genres proven adaptable to many historical and ideological shifts, Star Trek carried the mythos of the New Frontier to the final frontier, virtually reincarnating John F. Kennedy as James T. Kirk. Star Trek's connection to the Western was explicitly divulged in "Spectre of the Gun" (originally aired 10/25/68). Seeking to understand human behavior, an alien race drops Kirk and his top officers into a morality play drawn from images in the Captain's mind. The designated genre of the test-drama is revealing: Their phasers replaced by holstered six-guns, the Enterprise men are cast as the infamous Clanton gang in a replay of the "gunfight at the O.K. Corral." The action takes place in an eerie, dream-like frontier town, its mood enhanced by noir lighting, oblique camera angles, and obviously

Film & History, Vol. XXIV, No's. 1-2, 199421

which is to say bits of history and movies-from Kirk's consciousness. Yet what's most remarkable is that when aliens probe the mind of the earthmen's leader (Kirk makes pointed reference to "my ancestors") they find...the American Western.

artificial sets devoid of back walls. The setting visually conveys fragmented impressions-

Star Trek's evocation of the O.K. Corral was a revisionist version of John Ford's My Darling Clementine (1946). Inverting the saga of the kindly Earps versus the wicked Clantons in Clementine, our heroes are cast as the bad guys while the Earps and Doc Holliday are portrayed as vicious, unsmiling killers. Strangely, too, the townsfolkchuckling over the unfailing wit of the "Clantons" who now insist they are really space travelers-openly urge Kirk to rid Tombstone of the oppressive Earps once and for all. Most important here is Kirk's attitude toward the Western. From the moment they are plunged into this bizarre "Tombstone," these eminently rational men realize it's only an illusion. Kirk's dismissal of western lore as an historical curiosity is in essence a judgement on the genre itself as obsolete and irrelevant, and in any case deceptively romanticized, hence the "corrected" reading of My Darling Clementine that demystifies Wyatt Earp. In retrospect, this particular segment might be noted as the point at which science fiction began to supplant the western directly in popularity while reworking and assimilating many of its core themes and problematics. Whether new or old, frontier iconography, language, and thought was so central to the cultural and political life of America in the 1960s that both sides in the growing national schism increasingly drew on it even as they tried to renounce or redefine it, as "culture" and "politics" grew increasingly indistinguishable.7 John F. Kennedy and James T. Kirk. Alongside Lincoln, John Kennedy has become one of our most mythologized Presidents. Yet historical interpretation of the promise versus the record of the Kennedy presidency remains contradictory and unresolved. He served less than three years in a period we now recognize as a watershed in our history, with his assassination marking the beginning of a traumatic decade of violence and disillusionment. Yet since his murder, this very indeterminacy, indeed impossibility of ever coming to definite conclusions about so many aspects of his tenure has rendered the historical Kennedy a figure eminently malleable to a variety of political and cultural ends. In his insightful study of the Western film, Phillip French distinguishes the stylistic and ideological orientation of post-war westerns by retroactively identifying the films with the public personae of four influential politicians of the 1950s and 1960s-Kennedy, Lyndon
as follows:

Johnson, Barry Goldwater, and William F. Buckley. He argues that the ideological

currents that informed westerns of this period were variously represented and embodied by these four prominent political figures as well. French describes a "Kennedy Western"


Worland / Star Trek From Kennedy to Gorbachev

The content of a Kennedy western would tend to feature the following ingredients: a slightly diffident hero, capable of change and development, with a rather unostentatious professionalism, though prone to a sense of minorities and aliens would be viewed sympathetically, compassionately; opposition would be expressed to the notion that man is essentially or necessarily violent; there would be an implication that one should look to the past for guidance toward the creation of a new and better condition in the future; the underlying argument would favour a wry optimism about the future development of society.8
Though French had in mind the liberal Anthony Mann/James Stewart westerns anguished failure; there would be an accent on the need for community;

of the 1950s when he proposed this schema (e.g., The Far Country [1954], The Man From Laramie [1955]), Star Trek is perhaps the ultimate "Kennedy Western." French's line about sympathy for "aliens" is particularly droll in regard to a science fiction show in which a pointy-eared Vulcan became the emblematic character. When added to his elaboration on the style of a Kennedy western--"...its rhetoric would be elegant, ironic, laced with wit...its moral tone would be sharp and penetrating; its mood would be cool with an underlying note of the absurd or tragic sense of life..."--it would be difficult to derive a more insightful description of the ethos of Star Trek and especially the character of Captain Kirk.9 Science fiction would seem the most logical form for the Kennedy Western given how JFK skillfully re-conceptualized traditional frontier symbolism in ways meaningful to modern people in the most advanced industrial nation of the mid-twentieth century. One of Kennedy's first uses of the phrase that defined his administration was explicitly connected with space. In a 1960 campaign article in the scientific journal Missiles and Rockets, he wrote, "This is the age of exploration; space is our great New Frontier."10 Since Sputnik, the space race had been widely recognized as an important front of the multi-faceted Cold War struggle, and from this grew the young President's decision to go to the moon. Star Trek similarly envisioned space exploration bound up with a security

The Kennedy administration's flair for deploying culturally evocative metaphors was perhaps best demonstrated by its creation of particular heroes who were variations on the theme of the New Frontier. Attracting the most media attention were those twin symbols of excellence and elitism so strongly identified with Camelot, the Mercury astronauts and the Army Special Forces, or Green Berets. Both groups first took shape in the Eisenhower years, yet Kennedy made them his own. In The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe argued that following the Bay of Pigs disaster in mid-April 1961 (only three
months after the inauguration), Kennedy consciously embraced the Mercury astronauts

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possible from the exemplary heroes.11 Perhaps more importantly, less than a week
before the Bay of Pigs, the Soviets had scored a major technological and political triumph
in space:

as "the knights-errant of the New Frontier" to generate as much political capital as

...when Yuri Gagarin went into orbit, the Soviets were able to present to the world just the image that Kennedy desired-that of a young, vigorous, successful nation reflecting the characteristics of its leaders. "Kennedy could lose the 1964 election over this," warned [NASA Director] Hugh Dryden in the aftermath of the Gagarin flight.12 Though the Army Special Forces had been created in the Korean War, the group came into its own under the auspices of JFK's defense doctrine of "flexible response," specifically in application of the counter-insurgency theory to Vietnam. Kennedy personally authorized the unit to wear its trademark cover, prompting Army traditionalists generally opposed to elite forces to malign the Green Berets as "Jacqueline
Kennedy's Own Rifles."13 The Green Berets touched a nerve in 1960s America; to arm

and train the storied frontiersman with modern technology and send him alone and in small groups to convert the "wilderness" of the Third World provided explanation and rationale for American involvement in southeast Asia that was both satisfying and persuasive. These new frontiersmen in Vietnam thus drew on our deepest cultural myths and ideals, translating the complex historical and political dilemma of a foreign land into the familiar and conventionalized narrative terms of the key myth of American historical and cultural experience. In most Star Trek scripts involving conflicts with the Klingons over less developed-planets such as "Friday's Child" (12/1/67), Captain Kirk promised altruistically to bring scientific, economic, and political progress to those most in need of it, yet this was in any case backed by a tacit threat of vast military power, and with the Federation's own interests foremost in importance. Given the allegorical tendency of science fiction, Star Trek eventually produced
a Vietnam War parable called "A Private Little War" in which the treacherous Klingons

attempt to subvert an Edenic planet by arming one native tribe and inciting them to

attack their peaceful neighbors. The situation seems to force Kirk to supply the other

side with a proportionate amount of weapons in a classic containment strategy. The episode originally aired February 2, 1968, which happened to coincide with the fierce combat of the Tet Offensive, now considered the turning point of the war, and by which time Vietnam had completely polarized American society. Though not without some soul-searching, Star Trek finally endorsed America's Vietnam policy and its official justifications. A scene in which Captain Kirk, clad in fringed buckskins, taught the primitive "Hill Men" of planet Neural to shoot a flintlock rifle created a culturally revealing pastiche of Natty Bumppo Meets the Green Berets in Outer Space.14 Aside from the fact that Jack Kennedy and Jim Kirk have the same initials, they


Worland / Star Trek From Kennedy to Gorbachev

share other attributes as heroes. Describing common characteristics of the New Frontiersmen in A Thousand Days, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., sometimes called the "court historian" of Camelot, listed four major aspects, traits which suggestively parallel the characters and mission of Star Trek. First, the New Frontiersmen "...brought with them
ideas of national reconstruction and reform."15 Star Trek, is of course, unflaggingly

liberal, promoting social, sexual, and racial equality, putting strong faith in rationality and expertise, championing individual freedom and promoting democracy. These ideals are personified by the multi-ethnic, sexually mixed Enterprise crew, which implicitly reflects the united Earth of the twenty-third century. Though America was increasingly riven by racial and political conflict in the late 1960s, the Enterprise crew and mission conveyed an
idealized projection of contemporary American society.

Second, the New Frontiersmen "...aspired, like their president, to the world of ideas as well as to the world of power."16 Like FDR before him, Kennedy surrounded himself with a coterie of intellectual advisers, "the best and the brightest." Continuing this tradition of Uberai leadership Kirk employs a brain trust of his own~the Science Officer, the Doctor, the Engineer, and an entire crew of specialists who lend their is crucial. The stereotype of Star Trek fandom as a refuge for "nerds" is in one sense easy to explain: This is one of the rare forms of popular culture in which intellectuals are heroic, effectual, and sexy; accordingly, Mr. Spock, the show's most intelligent character, is also its most compelling. Moreover, like JFK, Kirk is characterized as an erudite man who wears his learning easily, an exceedingly scarce attribute of heroic figures in American culture, real or imaginary. Schlesinger speaks of Kennedy's "...desire to bring the world of power and the world of ideas together in alliance~or rather, as he himself saw it, to restore the collaboration between the two worlds which had marked the early republic."17 Commanding the bridge of his formidable starship, surrounded by his expert advisers, Captain Kirk oversees a potent combination of the worlds of ideas and power at work in the interests of the Republic, or here, the Federation. Third, Schlesinger proudly records that a majority of the New Frontiersmen had fought in World War II.18 They were the most celebrated of their contemporaries of whom the President described as "...born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage~and unwilling to permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed..." World War II and the resulting tensions of the post-war years were much on the minds of the Star Trek characters. In "The City on the Edge of Forever", Kirk and Spock must travel back to Earth of the 1930s to correct an accidental tampering with history that
would have allowed Hitler to win the war; in "Patterns of Force" Kirk re-enacts the expertise to the Captain as needed. For the subsequent reception of Star Trek, this aspect

defeat of Nazism on a planet where a misguided Federation historian has recreated the Third Reich in the name of "efficiency." (So much for elevating intellectuals!) References to World War II occur in many other episodes, often in the context of providing relevant "lessons" from the past that can guide us in the future.

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him from stating directly, is that Kennedy and his lieutenants were Renaissance Men. Clearly Captain Kirk and the Enterprise crew merit this appellation as they must act by turn as explorers, soldiers, scientists, diplomats, and cultural emissaries throughout the galaxy. Kennedy and the poet-soldier-expert-politicians of Camelot are further reflected and varied in overlapping and complementary ways with the unconventional warriors of the Green Berets, the idealistic volunteers of the Peace Corps, the space pioneers of Project Mercury, and eventually, the fictional crew of the Enterprise. Reading Star Trek as a cultural echo of the New Frontier, we can even pin-point a particular story in which the torch is passed from John F. Kennedy to James T. Kirk. "The Savage Curtain" (3/7/69) presents another alien race testing the mettle of the Federation. This time Kirk and Spock are teamed with what are in essence fantasy projections of their respective heroes-Abraham Lincoln for Kirk, the Vulcan holy-man Surak for Spock. To compare the human conceptions of good and evil, the aliens pit them against some of (Star Trek's) history's worst bad guys including Ghengis Khan, a fictional twenty-first century tyrant, and Kahless, the original nasty Klingon. Surak is a strict proponent of non-violence, Gandhi with pointed ears, whose example and leadership set the warlike Vulcan race on the path to peace and rationality. Lincoln's role as moral and political exemplar is similarly reinforced and enlarged. When the contest is over, Team Evil is vanquished but Lincoln and Surak have sacrificed themselves for their proteges. Kirk says solemnly that even though he never completely believed in the reality of this "Lincoln," it was still painful to watch the great man die all over again. When this episode was first telecast in March 1969, many viewers would have associated Lincoln and Surak, the martyred men of peace and progress, with the murdered Kennedy brothers and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., just as pop singer Dion had connected the struggles of "Abraham, Martin, and John" in a melancholy hit single in 1968. We no longer have Lincoln, the Kennedys, King, or even Surak/Gandhi to guide us. But implicitly, Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock will follow in their footsteps and continue working for (truly) As the Vietnam War was ending in a pervasive atmosphere of frustration and despair, revisionist historians began to wipe the shine off the brief, shining moment of Camelot. Studies such as The Kennedy Promise (1972), The Kennedy Doctrine (1972), The Best and The Brightest (1972), and America In Our Time (1976), took a fresh and sobered look at the New Frontier and found in its words and deeds the blueprint for the Vietnam debacle. The ringing oratory of the inaugural address with its challenges to the young people of America was seen by the revisionists as culminating logically in defeat and dishonor in southeast Asia. "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country," serves as the bitter epigraph to paralyzed veteran Ron Kovic's Vietnam memoir Born On The Fourth ofJuly (1976).20 Yet however valid such revisionist
universal justice.

Schlesinger, detailing the literary, scholarly, artistic, and vocational sidelines of Kennedy administration officials.19 What he means of course, and modesty ever so slightly forbids

The fourth vital attribute of the New Frontiersmen was their "versatility" says


Worland / Star Trek From Kennedy to Gorbachev

histories may be, the legend of Camelot endured culturally and politically. In his May 1961, address to Congress on "Urgent National Needs," Kennedy pushed for the lunar landing program saying, "...Now it is time to take longer strides-for a great new American enterprise-for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement which in many ways may hold the key to our future on earth."21 In Star Trek, it is as if a few years after his murder, the fallen skipper of PT-109 was reborn as the Captain of the great new American starship Enterprise, the bearer of pluralist democracy and free enterprise throughout the galaxy.
Star Trek in the Seventies.

Considering the prominence and popularity of the movie and TV Western in the post-World War II period, the most profound change in American cinema after Vietnam was the stalwart genre's precipitous fall from favor. Declining numerically since the mid
1960s, Westerns had all but vanished from American movie and TV screens by 1976.

Genre analyst Carlos Clarens spoke succinctly on the demise of the Western in the wake
of Vietnam:

It was inevitable that the western would eventually disappear...from the American screen as soon as the response of the mass audience ceased to be predictable. To a large segment of the American public in the sixties and seventies, the Western suddenly stood for everything imperialistic and genocidal about America.22 Yet it was at precisely this moment in the early 1970s that Star Trek fandom began snowballing rapidly until the world of Star Trek became a permanent fixture on the cultural landscape, its beginning often marked by the first fan-organized convention held in New York City in 1972.23 It's instructive to recall that Star Trek garnered only mediocre ratings during its network run and was nearly cancelled in 1967 after its second season. The Star Trek cult initially surfaced and grew just as Americans were being shaken by the overlapping crises of Watergate, the energy shortage, and humiliating defeat in Vietnam, a trio of dislocating shocks that reverberate in our political life today. The show's renaissance was less a search for "innocence" or escapism than for the nearly unassailable confidence (or hubris?) of the very recent past. Moreover, as the optimistic and heroic Star Trek generally went against the grain of the mainly pessimistic cinematic science fiction of the early 1970s-the Planet Of The Apes series (1968-73), A Clockwork
Orange (1971), Silent Running (1972), Soylent Green (1973), Zardoz (1973) etc.-the enormous success of the neo-traditional Star Wars films would not have been possible or Blake Tyrell remarked in 1977:

at least as intense without the growing influence and visibility of Star Trek fandom and the shift in ideological perspective and generic preference it portended. As critic William

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Star Trek is a product of the dreams and nightmares of the '60s. It came to those who needed the triumph of confidence of the American past, while fearing a present that foreboded the disappearance of the American way. The need has become stronger in the diffident '70s...Star Trek creates a future world where the glories of the past are pristine and failure and doubts of the present have been overcome. It gives us ourpast as ourfuture, while making our present the past which, like any historical event for the future-oriented American, is safely over and forgotten (emphasis added).24 Originally produced in an era when real space explorers were officially lionized as national heroes, by the mid 1970s, as the jargon and iconography of the series became widely disseminated, Star Trek began to turn back and influence both Americans' conceptions of space flight and NASA itself. Since 1974, the twelve-feet long Enterprise model used for special effects shots in the series has hung in the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, the same building that houses the Wright Brothers' first airplane, Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis, and the Apollo 11 Command Module. No one intends a TV show spaceship to be thought of as equal in importance to the Wright Brothers' flyer, but the presence of that old prop in the same museum attests to the power of popular art to shape people's impressions of space exploration; the starship Enterprise has thus assumed an important, distinctly American place opposite the Myth of Icarus in popular chronicles of the dreams and realizations of human flight.25 In 1976, Star Trek fans launched another grass-roots letter-writing campaign like petitioned NASA to christen the first space shuttle orbiter Enterprise. When the spacecraft was publicly exhibited to the press in the fall of 1976, Gene Roddenberry and several original cast members were present as honored guests.26 As there were no U.S. manned missions between 1975 and 1981, one suspects that in the face of severe budget cuts in those long, dry years as the space agency worked outside the limelight to ready the complicated shuttle system, NASA was only too happy to gather as much free publicity and goodwill as possible from association with the most famous science fiction show ever. To that end, in 1976, actress Nichelle Nichols (Lt. Uhura) began to work for NASA using her celebrity to help recruit women and minorities for the shuttle program.27 Though an interested observer of the space program, like most Americans lulled into complacency by the many shuttle missions of the early 1980s with their larger and increasingly faceless crews, I paid no particular attention to the January 26, 1986 launch of shuttle Challenger beyond noting that this was the mission when they were sending up the grade school teacher. In the aftermath of Challenger's destruction, however, as the networks, newspapers, and magazines repeatedly ran photos and films of the ill-fated crew, I was struck by nothing so much as their demographic resemblance to the principal officers of starship Enterprise. Continuing the fugue-like exchange between Star Trek and
the one which flooded NBC in 1967 to save the series from cancellation, and successfully


Worland / Star Trek From Kennedy to Gorbachev

NASA, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, released in November, 1986, began with a title dedicating the film to the memory of the Challenger crew. Star Trek has thus assumed a certain casually accepted place in "explaining" space travel to Americans in a fashion analogous to the way the Frontier Myth was marshalled to make ideological sense of the Green Berets mission in Vietnam. This suggests once more not only how the science fiction genre has become the logical successor to the American Western, but further underscores how popular culture as narrative can be easily adapted to and co-opted by changing historical circumstances and expressly political uses. At Theaters Everywhere. The truly stellar box office performance of the feature films in the 1980s marked the next phase of the historical and textual transformation of Star Trek, whose ideological orientation changed perceptibly when shifted to the big screen. While the original NBC series was imbued with the liberal rhetoric of the Kennedy-Johnson years, the Star Trek movies seemed more of a piece with the age of Reagan. In Star Trek II: The Wrath ofKhan (1982), whenever middle-aged Admiral Kirk self-consciously dons wire-framed reading
glasses, the film quietly alludes to the famous scene of Captain Brittles' Qohn Wayne's)

army retirement in Ford's She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949). The subtext of both films
asks whether the aging heroes of bygone days can yet endure and act effectively in a

changing world. For Star Trek, the answer is of course that they can, but only by going back to the past. After literally returning from the past in The Voyage Home, Kirk's and given what he really wants, command of a starship once more. "My friends, we've

salvation of the entire Earth rates a demotion-he's busted from Admiral back to Captain

unreliable starship Excelsior and sight the new/old Enterprise. Both The Wrath of Khan and Yellow Ribbon ultimately side-step the age issue. After heroic effort to avert full-scale war with the Indians, Nathan Brittles is spared from his forced retirement by a deus ex machina promotion to Chief of Scouts, becoming a kind of elder statesman to the Cavalry. Kirk, like Brittles, is supposed to pass command to a younger generation of officers but similarly must step in to save them, proving his continued effectiveness and vitality. Just as Democratic opponents in 1980 and 1984 tried unsuccessfully to disqualify the septuagenarian Ronald Reagan as too old to be an effective Chief Executive, the character of James T. Kirk thus effectively bridged the Kennedy/Reagan dialectic: Maturity, retrenchment, and defense of tradition became valued over youthful vitality, progress, and the new. Soviet Union as an "evil empire," he was characteristically drawing on phraseology from popular culture, traceable to sources in pulp science fiction such as Emperor Ming the Merciless in the Flash Gordon comics and Darth Vader's wicked Empire in Star Wars.
Yet the link between the nemeses of Flash Gordon and Luke Skywalker was Captain When Reagan in an address to fundamentalist Christians in 1983 described the

come home," says the new Captain as he and his officers bypass the newfangled, hence

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Kirk's old foes, the Klingon Empire. When the Klingons first appeared in "Errand of Mercy" (3/23/67), the omniscient beings of planet Organia predicted that humans and Klingons would one day become friends and allies. Throughout the Star Trek movies of the 1980s, this seemed no more possible than it had in the 1960s. If anything, the altered from the early days to give them a surly reptilian appearance. Hostility between the Federation and the Klingons in the movies centered on control of the awesome Project Genesis. Introduced in The Wrath ofKhan, in Star Trek III: The Search For Spock (1984), Genesis was finally proven a failure in its intended function, the creation of life ex nihilo; instead, it devolved to an apocalyptic weapon of mass destruction. While Kirk referred to "the Genesis technology" or "device," the Klingons, recognizing the tremendous destructive capacity, not irrationally dubbed it "the Genesis torpedo." When the torpedo was fired into a barren moon in a stunning special effects sequence, the resulting surface impact assumed the ominously familiar shape of a hydrogen bomb cloud. As with the contemporary controversy over Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, there was a peculiarly semiotic conflict as to whether one was considering how the original Star Trek had routinely denounced the nuclear balance of terror as mankind's ultimate folly in the bad old days of the twentieth century (i.e., the post-Cuban Missile Crisis era of nuclear detente), Genesis represented a re-invention of The Bomb and renewed dedication to the Cold War in the 1980s. Reverting to type, the Klingons were prepared to lie, cheat, and kill to possess the weapon that would ensure
the Federation's final destruction.28

Klingons became irreconcilably Other, even animalistic, their make-up design significantly

describing Genesis or Armageddon, a "Peace Shield" or "Star Wars." In any case,

The Reganesque thrust of the features was further pronounced in how the government and bureaucracy of the Federation, once the proud and assured solution to galactic problems, suddenly became part of the problem itself.29 This unusual denigration of Starfleet and the Federation as meddlesome, out of touch bureaucracies was perhaps best symbolized in The Search For Spock by the imposing starship Excelsior which threatened to obsolesce the Enterprise and its aging heroes. Touted for cutting edge technology, larger, faster, and better armed than the Enterprise, staffed by a novice crew and smug bureaucrat of a Captain, Excelsior might be seen as a metaphor for the stumblingly ineffective liberal "Big Government" Reagan and his supporters so detested.30 Accordingly, the wondership is easily sabotaged by the resourceful Engineer Scott before it can even leave space-dock to overtake the fugitive Enterprise. Cupping three tiny widgets in his palm, Scotty says with a broad grin, "The more they over-think the plumbing, the easier it is to stop-up the drain." Indeed, the large and diverse Enterprise crew receded in importance in the films until the seven central cast members remained the only force that could ever truly be counted on. Increasingly functioning as an outlaw group, their moral authority now derived less from the ideals of the Federation than from personal loyalty to their leader. In The Search For Spock, the protagonists actually became fugitives from the no longer


Worland / Star Trek From Kennedy to Gorbachev

enlightened Federation authorities. In the midst of a new Cold War, once-benevolent Starfleet Command has turned paranoid, as witnessed when irascible Dr. McCoy becomes a security risk, shadowed and nearly arrested by a plain clothes agent because he's seen the power of Genesis and may be mentally unstable. Of course we know all about governments that declare dissenters mentally ill, so we cheer when our heroes literally steal back the Enterprise in order to search for Spock, deny Genesis to the Klingons, and
save the deluded Federation from itself.

in late 1991, the complete disintegration of the Soviet Union and the eastern European communist bloc had unexpectedly superseded the GUsnost theme of the story. Beginning with a tremendous explosion on a Klingon moon devoted to the Empire's energy production-transparent allusion to the 1987 Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster that aided Gorbachev's reformers against Stalinist hardliners-the film chronicles the efforts of Klingon Chancellor Gorkon (get it?) to conclude an epochal peace opening to the Federation before the Empire collapses from the energy shortage. Yet peace is not easily accepted by suspicious forces on either side, perhaps most surprisingly by Captain Kirk. In the end, Kirk of course repents his hatred, Klingon and Federation reactionaries are defeated~by good old-fashioned space battles and fist-fights-and the Cold War is declared

open in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991). By the time of the film's release

Star Trek's allegorical relationship to the Cold War at last came fully into the

Produced in a considerably altered geopolitical climate from that of The Search For Spock, which came at the high-tide of Reaganism, The Undiscovered Country could assume a lighter, more self-conscious tone that explicitly admitted the Cold War subtext that had long underpined Star Trek despite constant talk of "adventure," "progress," and "exploration" without historical or political dimension. When Kirk demanded to know why Spock recommended him to meet Gorkon's peace mission, Spock replied, "There's an old Vulcan proverb: Only Nixon can go to China." The script generally is a selfconscious catalog of intertextual references and jokes that simultaneously point up

"allegory" itself as the meaning of Star Trek while critiquing the belligerent attitudes of

the original series, now viewed as outdated.31 Yet even in ending the Cold War, Kirk

Appropriately, Captain Kirk's final order from the Enterprise bridge ("Second star to the

remains on the side of the angels. In the penultimate scene, after Kirk's flying tackle saves the President of the Federation from a Klingon assassin (a significantly inverted allusion to The Manchurian Candidate [1962] and/or the Kennedy assassination?), the Captain quips to his officers: "Well, once again we've saved civilization as we know it." That this romantic-ideological aspect of the series is both celebrated and slyly satirized finally indicates that these characters and their world have at last nowhere else to go.32 right and straight on till morning") sets her course for Neverland.

Film & History, Vol. XXIV, No's. 1-2, 199431

Given the seven prosperous seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation and its anticipated leap into features in late 1994, indications are that Star Trek will do what once seemed unthinkable-continue indefinitely without Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, let alone Gene Roddenberry, who died in 1991. The question repeatedly asked by all commentators is "Why is Star Trek so popular?" Considering the format's textual multiplication over the past thirty years, there can be no single or simple answer to that, and as this analysis has suggested, the question in any case must be addressed historically. Members of "Generation X" are unlikely to detect the vibrations of New Frontierism in Captain Kirk. That which attracted Star Trek fans of the late 1960s may or may not engage contemporary viewers of The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, or the authors of
recent fan fiction.33 Yet even as the new show reaches out to younger viewers,

presenting greater possibilities for women and minorities within the format, The Next Generation reserves particular room for the altered concerns of a certain segment of older fans as well. In addition to hosting regular drop-ins by parents of the main characters, the new Enterprise carries dependents-spouses and children of crew members who often
figure in the stories. While Kirk's brief fatherhood was never convincing, the new series

increasingly accommodates the generic territory of Family Melodrama as most of the principals have experienced troublesome parent/child psychodramas in the course of exploring outer space. In one episode, The Next Generation tellingly adapted a situation straight from Thirtysomething in which Lt. Worf, the scowling Klingon crewman, rushes from a meeting with his troubled son's elementary teacher to arrive sheepishly late for a briefing room conference. That family versus career pressures have replaced allegorized anxieties over Cold War and nuclear holocaust may be decried as more Yuppieism, but on balance, is not altogether a bad thing. The original Star Trek remains an historically and culturally revealing document that forcefully expresses the unbridled confidence and optimism of mid-century America, a reveling in power and capability that was at once unprecedented and taken for granted. Consider that when the series premiered in 1966 America was at once the technological leader and economic engine of the world; pledging to eradicate poverty and social inequality at home; maintaining international political leadership through a global strategic military policy; waging a (paradoxically) massive and "limited" conventional war in Asia; and lofting one successful manned space mission after another toward the moon. In retrospect, that this widespread empire was simultaneously threatened with collapse from hubris, over-extension, and massive internal contradictions that ignited broad-based social protest movements seems almost inevitable. In The Wrath ofKhan, Kirk receives a birthday present of A Tale of Two Cities, whose famous first line, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," says much about the larger context that produced Star Trek and the subsequent fan phenomenon. Enduring mythologies are founded on just such historical contradictions, so it's fitting that Captain Kirk seems to have so much in common with President Kennedy or rather, the "Myth of Kennedy" within the larger "Myth of the Sixties," and its volatile combination of near-utopian idealism, traumatic


Worland / Star Trek From Kennedy to Gorbachev

failure, and ossifying nostalgia. Its narrative and dramatic givens firmly anchored to the
key cultural and social concerns of American life, what will the many worlds of Star Trek

tell us in subsequent decades about America at the end of the twentieth century?

1 Patt Morrison, "25 Years Later, Mercury Team Launches New Task", Los Angeles Times 5 May 1986
sec I: 1+

2 Richard Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (New
York: Antheneum, 1992) 5-16.

3 The Western was perhaps first shown to lead directly to science fiction in Edgar Rice

Burrough's initial adventure of John Carter, Under the Moons of Mars (1911). While battling Indians on the frontier. Carter is somehow magically transported to Mars and embroiled in a planetary struggle with pointedly racialist overtones there. Slotkin 197-207. It's worth noting that Roddenberry had previously worked as head writer on the successful western Have Gun Will Travel (CBS, 1957-63) starring Richard Boone, and that Star Trek was conceived and developed in the midst of the period 1957-64 in which Westerns dominated the network schedules and regularly topped the Neilsen ratings.

5 Stephen E. Whitfield and Gene Roddenberry, The Making of Star Trek (1968; New York:
Ballantine Books, 1972) 21-28.

6 Regarding the Cold War subtext of the series, note that the first appearance of the Romulans

in "Balance of Terror" (12/15/66) explained that humans and Romulans had fought an inconclusive

war a century before Star Trek's setting. That, coupled with the visual and cultural coding

of the aliens as "Asiatic" might suggest an evocation of the Korean War. The Korean connection was reinforced by the episode "The Enterprise Incident" (9/27/68), adapted from the North Korean seizure of the U.S. Navy spy ship Pueblo in 1968. For more on the series as a political allegory of the 1960s, see my article "Captain Kirk: Cold Warrior", Journal of Popular Film and Television 16.3 (1988): 109-117. For further discussion of the Frontier myth culturally and politically in the Vietnam era, see Slotkin 441-ff. For analysis of the Frontier myth in popular films of the period, especially the notion of the "corrected genre film," see Robert B. Ray, A Certain Tendency of

8, "The 1960s: Frontier Metaphors, Developing Se If -Consciousness, and New Waves" 247-95.

the Hollywood Cinema, 1930-80 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), especial Iy chapter

829. Phillip French, Westerns: Aspects of A Movie Genre (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977)
Though it's less apparent today (especially after Patrick Stewart's subdued portrayal of Jean-Luc Picard on The Next Generation clashed with William Shatner's increasingly manic take on Kirk in the movies) but the original Captain of the Enterprise was clearly designed to be more thoughtful than hot-headed. Ever the professional, in private moments, the Captain was still known to confess his self -doubts and second-guess his own decisions, especially when lives were lost. Such a scene occurs early in the first Star Trek pilot, "The Cage" (1964) in
which Captain Christopher Pike (Jeffrey Hunter) anguishes over battle casualties with Dr. Boyce (John Hoyt): "Sometimes a man will tell his bartender things he'd never tell his doctor," says Boyce, consoling his troubled Captain with a convivial drink. There is a very similar scene between Kirk and Dr. McCoy in "Balance of Terror" and exchanges in this spirit in other early episodes. Recall too that this characterization of the Captain preceded the popular elevation of Spock to prominence in the series, which altered the subsequent depiction of all three major

Film & History, Vol. XXIV, No's. 1-2, 199433

10 John M. Logsdon, The Decision To Go To The Moon: Project Apollo and the National Interest
(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1970) 66.

Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff (1979; New York: Bantam Books, 1983) 227-29. Logsdon 158. Logsdon, who interviewed many of the principals in the lunar landing decision

and had access to previously confidential NASA records, supports Wolfe's assessment of

notes however, 100-101, that explicit mention of the failed invasion cannot be found in the major documents of Kennedy's decision. Both Wolfe and Logsdon set great store by the success of the Gagarin flight (April 12, 1961) as a major impetus in Kennedy's relatively quick commitment to Project Apollo (May 25, 1961). Army Special Forces (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1983) 63.

Kennedy's need to use the astronauts to recover politically after the Bay of Pigs. Logsdon

13 Charles M. Simpson III, Inside the Green Berets. The First Thirty Years: A History of the U.S.
In another odd coincidence, actor George Takei (Lt. SuIu) had taken a leave of absence from

Star Trek around this time to appear as a hardened ARVN officer in John Wayne's The Green Berets (1968). Also, see The Gene Roddenberry Collection, Box 18, folder 2, "A Private Little

War", UCLA Theater Arts Library, Los Angeles, for a number of internal letters relating to the scripting and production of the episode. Everyone involved understood the script as a Vietnam allegory which seemed to present no problems as such. Treatment, however, became the issue. The top executives of the series (Roddenberry, Robert H. Justman, Gene L. Coon) frequently discuss the allegorical story with reference to the politics of the Cold War and containment strategy, producing quite conflicted analyses in trying to sort out how the script should depict American commitment to Vietnam. Coon took the standard Cold War line about falling dominoes, emphasizing that the Soviets were the real enemy in Vietnam: "We have always played [the Klingons] very much like the Russians.. .In the current situation in Vietnam, we are in an intolerable situation. We are doing what we are forced to do, and we can find no other way to do it. ..If we are to honor our commitments, we must counter-balance the Klingons. If we do not play it this way, the Klingons will take over and threaten the Federation, even as the situation is in Vietnam, which is as I remember, if Vietnam falls all southeast Asia falls." Letter from Gene Coon to [original script writer] Don Ingalls, p. 7, August 21, 1967. Regarding a revision of the original script by Ingalls, Robert Justman chafed at an implied moral equivalency between the Federation and the Klingons vis a vis power politics on an underdeveloped planet: "I fail to see the sense of setting up the Klingons to be nasty fellows who are interfering in the affairs of this planet and then setting up our own Captain Kirk and crew as nice fellows who are interfering in the affairs of this very same planet. I also resent the fact that Captain Kirk has full realization of the fact that he is doing what he doesn't want the Klingons to do." Letter from Bob Justman to Gene Coon, September 5, 1967. Gene Roddenberry's initial reaction seemed to forget the Federation's Prime Directive, which supposedly forbids interference in the natural development of alien worlds. Reading the original draft, Roddenberry fumed in a letter to Coon, "What is [Ingalls] saying here--don't screw up simpler societies? If he is aiming for a Vietnam theme that certainly can't be it. The things at stake in Vietnam are much more important and powerful than a charitable attitude toward simpler people in the world." Letter from Gene Roddenberry to Gene Coon, May 8, 1967, p. 2. The letters collectively suggest that the top executives of the series were highly uncomfortable with American policy in Vietnam but in producing their own Vietnam parable could propose no other solutions beyond the conventional arguments offered by the government itself. The paradoxes are laid bare in another part of Coon's long letter to Ingalls: "At this point, it should be evident to everyone that we have essentially been talking about Vietnam. . .What we are trying to sell is the hopelessness of the situation. The fact that we are absolutely forced into taking steps we know are morally wrong, but for our own enlightened self-interest, there is nothing we can do about it. Plus the fact that it is also to Tyree's [Kirk's friend and leader of the Hill-Men] own best interest that we are doing these things." Coon to Ingalls, August 21, 1967, p. 13.

M. Schlesinger, Jr., A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House (Boston:


Worland / Star Trek From Kennedy to Gorbachev

Houghton, Mifflin Co., 1965), 210.


Schlesinger,210-11. Schlesinger,109. Schlesinger,211-12. Schlesinger,212-13.



20Henry Fairlie, The Kennedy Promise: The Politics of Expectation (New York: Doubleday and Co.,

1973); Louise Fitzsimons, The Kennedy Doctrine (New York: Random House, 1972); David Halberstam, The Best and The Brightest (New York: Random House, 1972); Godfrey Hodgson, America In Our Time (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday and Co., Inc., 1976); Ron Kovic, Born On The Fourth of July (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976).

21Logsdon 128. 22Carlos Clarens, Crime Movies: An Illustrated History (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1980),

23Joan Winston, The Making of the Trek Conventions (1977; Chicago: Playboy Press, 1979), 1727.

24William Blake Tyrrel, "Star Trek As Myth and Television As Mythmaker." Journal of Popular
Culture X (1977): 711-19. Tyrrel also develops other intriguing connections between Star Trek
and the Western describing the series in terms of Fenimore Cooper's Frontier myth with the Romulans and Klingons representing the good Indian/bad Indian dichotomy. This distinction is essentially complementary to my reading of Captain Kirk's enemies as the Chinese and Soviets.

25The Enterprise model has been on almost constant display since its donation in 1974. In
February, 1992, The National Air and Space Museum presented an exhibition curated by Mary Henderson simply titled "Star Trek" that featured over eighty props, costumes, and artifacts its historical context of the Vietnam years. In early 1993, the exhibit traveled to the Hayden Planetarium in New York and returned to permanent exhibition at the Smithsonian in 1994. Interview with Mary Henderson, Curator of Art, National Air and Space Museum, November 8, 1993.
from the series along with filmed interviews with the cast members discussing the series in

26Allan Asherman, The Star Trek Compendium (New York: Pocket Books, 1986) 151. Star Trek's

association with NASA actually began during the show's original run. In March, 1967, Leonard

Nimoy attended the Robert H. Goddard Memorial Banquet in Washington, D. C. at the invitation
of the space agency, and was seated at the head table alongside John Glenn, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, and NASA Director James E. Webb. Later, NASA cooperated in the production of the episode "Assignment: Earth" (3/29/'68), a time travel script set in 1968. Gene Roddenberry Collection, Box 37, folder 13, "NASA". UCLA Theater Arts Library, Los Angeles.

27Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home: Official Movie Special (New York: starlog Press, 1986), 28.
in The Search For Spock. Lloyd's star persona, beginning with his portrayal of Rev. Jim Ignatowsky on TV's Taxi, was as a half-mad and thoroughly unstable man with an implied hidden
Actor Christopher Lloyd notably was cast as Kruge, the Klingon captain trying to nab Genesis

dark side. Thus the thought of this fellow as a Klingon in possession of the ultimate weapon automatically ruled out hope of any rational negotiation between the Federation and Klingon Empire. Accordingly the issue was settled by a brutal fist-fight culminating in Kirk kicking Kruge back into a virtual pit of hell.
Ronald Reagan set the ideological tone for his tenure when he declared in his first inaugural

address: "In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem. Government

Film & History, Vol. XXIV, No's. 1-2, 199435


is the problem." Reagan's First Year, (Washington D. C: Congressional Quarterly, Inc., 1982),

30Excelsior's captain was portrayed by James B. Sikking, then currently playing Lt. Hunter,
portrayal in both Wi 7 7 St. and The Search for Spock, may have offered a subtle intertextual Undiscovered Country [1991], SuIu was the presumably worthy commander of Excelsior.)
the SWAT commander on NBC's Wi 7 7 St. Blues. Though a conservative, militarist figure, Lt. Hunter was explicitly characterized as a Vietnam veteran, and his buffoonish, martinet indictment of the failure of "the liberals' war" in Vietnam. (By the time of Star Trek VI: The

31Interestingly, if Kirk were once implicitly "Kennedy" (whose cold warrior credentials were

in any case secure) by 1991 he had explicitly become "Nixon": the staunch anti -communist and red-baiter who nonetheless made the historic opening to Maoist China. Either way, the contemporary textual and popular consensus seems to favor the exit of this character and his particular ideological style. See note nine above. in the fall of 1991, similarly involved the character in an effort to aid a reformist faction among the belligerent Romulans, who replaced the Klingons as the major threat to the Federation
in The Next Generation.

32Leonard Nimoy's appearance as Spock in a two-part episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation

33For varied discussion of the Star Trek fan phenomenon see Robert Jewett and John Shelton

Lawrence, The American Mono-myth (Garden City, N. Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1977), and Henry Jenkins, Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture (New York: Routledge,