Boldly Rewatching the Voyages: Star Trek The Original Series

Welcome to my rewatching of Star Trek: The Original Series. This project was inspired by a recent rewatching (or, in some cases, original watching) of all Trek TV series up through Discovery season 1. (As much as I appreciate Discovery’s cast, the show itself reminded me that nothing from 2009 forward feels like Star Trek for me. But that’s an argument for another day.) I had seen all of the TOS episodes several times over the years, but this was the first time I watched the entire series in order. I read a few other online review sites, and it seems to have been a while since someone of Trek’s age has revisited this classic program. So here we are.

Title screen from Star Trek The Original Series

When I say I’m of an age with Star Trek, that doesn’t mean I saw the series when it first aired. My first exposure to TOS came from syndication like a lot of you. But I was born not long after the series premier in September, 1966. If you didn’t live through those times, it may be more difficult to put the show in the context of its era, and to understand how much we believed Star Trek was a blueprint for the future that the rest of the world would find irresistible. All the more devastating, then, to see the current state of human affairs. TOS offered a promise of a world that, while still flawed, had overcome poverty and discrimination, choosing to explore the galaxy together rather than wallow in bloody conflict among ourselves.

So as much as I appreciate the intentions of Discovery and Picard, even while being disappointed with the end results, no version of Trek has ever breathed fire the way TOS did. Reigniting some of that fire is my goal here.

There will certainly be some nit-picking, but my main focus will be examining TOS in the context of both its time and ours, and to consider how the episodes demonstrate, or contradict, what I consider to be Star Trek’s main themes. The show may have been set in the 23rd century, but thematically it was very much a product of the years in which it was born. It’s also glaringly relevant to our own early 21st century.

I. Exploration

This is the most important Trek theme, spelled out in the show’s mission statement: To seek out new life and new civilizations. True exploration is an inherently dangerous undertaking and that fact provides much of Star Trek’s conflict. In one episode Kirk reminds his crew, “Risk is our business.” The Enterprise crew has agreed to risk their lives to blaze a trail that might benefit the overall Federation. (This theme is also explored in the outstanding 2013 movie Europa Report.) Like a good social democracy, Starfleet intends its exploration to be beneficial not only in material ways – via access to rare resources and shared security with allies – but in the more intimate sharing of knowledge, art, and, let’s go ahead and say it, a more intriguing dating pool. The United States and Russia were in full exploration mode in the 1960s and there was no reason at the time to believe this wouldn’t continue. Both governments were planning manned lunar missions, and unmanned probes had flown past Mars and Venus by the time Star Trek premiered. Jacques Cousteau led efforts to develop underwater habitats throughout the 1960s, and his TV series The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau first aired on ABC in 1966. Marlin Perkins’ Wild Kingdom debuted in 1963 and won its first Emmy in 1966. In 1963 Jim Whittaker became the first American to scale Mt. Everest.

Two photographs, with ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau on the left, and a Gemini astronaut in earth orbit during a spacewalk on the right
We were a world of explorers: Jacques Cousteau and a 1960s Project Gemini spacewalk

All of this physical exploration mirrored artistic exploration. Thanks to the “British invasion” of America, rock and roll was maturing and mingling with blues, folk, and country. Jazz blended with rock to form fusion. Andy Warhol held his first West Coast exhibit in 1962, while Roy Lichtenstein created two of his best known works, Drowning Girl and Whaam!, in 1963. Movie screens had room for everything from Mary Poppins to Dr. Strangelove, both released in 1964.

II. Prime directive / Noninterference:

All things being equal, it’s often best to let sleeping dogs lie. The specifics of Starfleet’s Prime Directive are not carefully spelled out in TOS, but the purpose is clear: even with the best of intentions, we sometimes cause more harm by meddling than if we just minded our own business. Consider what a disaster the Bay of Pigs was in 1962. By the time TOS aired, the Vietnam War was already an American-led fiasco. By June, 1965, 35,000 American boys were being drafted every month. During the war’s first large-scale battle in November of that year, 300 Americans were killed in the Battle of la Drang Valley. By 1966, the U.S. had over 400,000 troops on the ground and air raids on northern cities of Hanoi and Haiphong began in June. While most Americans at the time weren’t thinking about the impact on the Vietnamese we were supposedly defending (civilian South Vietnamese casualties during the war are estimated at anywhere from 195,000 to 430,000), even long-time hawks were questioning both the human and financial cost of the war. This came on the heels of the Korean War (1950 – 1953) that caused the deaths of over 170,000 Americans and South Koreans. At the same time, elements of the counter-culture wanted, as much as anything, to be left alone to live life on their own terms. It’s easy to understand how noninterference came to seem not only appealing, but the valid basis for a guiding philosophy.

III. Sacrifice:

This was spelled out eloquently in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982): “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.” It was expressed in a grander context, if a bit more awkwardly, by the Federation president in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991): “Let us redefine progress to mean that just because we can do a thing, it does not necessarily follow that we must do that thing.” There are interests greater than the individual self and sometimes the world is best served by taking one for the team. Sacrifice ties in with Theme I (the risk of exploring the unknown in pursuit of knowledge = sacrifice for the betterment of humanity), but it also derives from friendship and camaraderie: a benchmark for how much the Enterprise crew cares for each other is how often they are willing to give their lives for their fellow crew members. Sacrifice is also the basis of volunteer military service and is the intent of limited-term political service – effort for the common good and posterity, rather than financial or other gain. Lest some forget, it is also the entire foundation of Christianity (“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son…”), and a character trait that most nonprofit organizations depend on.

IV. Life first:

This theme both expands on and challenges Theme I. The Federation is not a group of collectors or conquerors. While it’s not always perfectly implemented in TOS, Starfleet’s intent is to learn, negotiate, and share; brute force should be a last resort. A live ally is better than a dead enemy. Unlike simplistic pro-life political propaganda, quality of life also matters. The Federation is not driven by money; individuals now have much greater freedom to choose their own path. We also see this in the Vulcan philosophy of IDIC (Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations): We may not all look or act the same, but diversity is not only acceptable, it’s essential to a sustainable society.

Photo of Freedom Riders outside burning bus in 1961
The struggle never ends – Freedom Riders in 1961

The civil rights and equal rights movements throughout the 1960s had more people thinking about the value of human life and how much capitalism lay at the roots of segregation and discrimination: the Freedom Rides through southern states took place in 1961, one of numerous Civil Rights Acts was passed in 1964, the Voting Rights Act followed in 1965, the Equal Pay Act amended the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1963, the Supreme Court confirmed the legality of using birth control pills by establishing a right to privacy in Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965, and in 1966, Mississippi, of all places, became the first state to allow abortion in cases of rape. Some of this was a response to the dehumanizing operations management school of thought that was taking over corporations (Black and Decker was the first U.S. company to implement material requirements planning, or MRP, in 1964). Corporations that grew more mammoth by the year were becoming terrifyingly efficient at supplying arms and weapons for the Vietnam War, chemicals to harm our bodies (it was during the late 1950s and early 1960s that pregnant women taking the drug thalidomide in 46 countries gave birth to over 10,000 children with physical deformities), and pollution that was laying waste to land, sea, and air (Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring was published in 1962 and the Land and Water Conservation Fund was established in 1965).

The Federation also prioritizes life over technology. The world in 1960 did not quite have the collaborative relationship with technology as it did in the 1980s, when video games and desktop computers were proliferating and The Next Generation presented an android crew member with equal rights as his shipmates. And it certainly did not have our schizophrenic 21st century relationship of willfully giving up hours and privacy to mobile devices with addictive apps while simultaneously being made redundant by ever more capable automation. Our 23rd century spacefarers consider societies run by machines to be little more than slave camps crying out for freedom, putting the crew afoul of the Prime Directive.

A life first philosophy creates other challenges, at least as expressed by the Federation, where our crew tends to forget that “human rights” is a limiting term. This is given clear voice in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country when Rosanna DeSoto’s Azetbur says, “The Federation is no more than a homo sapiens only club,” but is perhaps most daunting in TOS when Spock is often (really, this happens a lot) referred to as a half-breed. Additional Prime Directive tension is created by rescue/assistance missions, where it’s assumed that noninterference should not require mass suffering.

V. Power corrupts:

Black and white photo of Joseph Stalin holding a pipe
Joseph Stalin, architect of the Great Purge and other atrocities

Despite its military-like hierarchy, there is a system of checks and balances among the Enterprise crew. Even Kirk is not above being questioned, leading to shocked expressions on those occasions when he declines to justify orders. While Star Trek was somewhat a response to the state of affairs in the West, the monolithic appearance of the USSR and China were very much on the minds of a society that was only one generation removed from the evils of Hitler and Stalin. The Berlin Wall had gone up in 1961. China was a major player in the Vietnam War and the Soviet Union had encouraged the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, in a country where Fidel Castro provided another example of unchecked national power. So when the Enterprise encountered worlds ruled by despots, as with those controlled by machines (see Theme IV), the crew felt justified in intervening (and often had to, in order to avoid enslavement themselves).

VI. We weren’t meant for paradise:

Photo of Levittown housing development
Levittown, the original suburbia

Kirk makes this very statement in the season one episode “This Side of Paradise.” Spock offers the Vulcan equivalent in the season two episode “Amok Time”: “Having is not so pleasing a thing as wanting. It is not logical, but it is often true.” We are flawed creatures living in an indifferent universe that will not accommodate our every whim. And even if it did, the result would not be the contentment we anticipate. Did the post-war housing boom and consumer goods revolution save us from Vietnam? Did it subdue a rebellious youth dancing to rock and roll and marching in the streets? Did civil rights legislation restore balance to a racially divided country? Suburbia, car culture, and TV dinners didn’t save us, and they were never going to. As much progress as humanity has made by the 23rd century, there will always be conflict, especially for a crew bumping heads (or ships) with civilizations that have different attitudes and sometimes don’t want to be found at all.

A corollary to this is that change is inevitable, and while we didn’t begin to appreciate this until our crew struggled to find their place in the world in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), change is very much reflected in TOS. Life, particularly an explorer’s life, equals struggle. Trekking through the stars will always lead us to another hostile ship, another unstable planet, and another ailment that needs curing. It was as true during the five-year mission as it was when Kirk reminded us in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country: “We haven’t run out of history quite yet.”

Those are the primary, but not the only, criteria by which I’ll be evaluating the episodes. The majority of TV viewers don’t care about behind-the-scenes production details. For example, the first filmed use of the Vulcan nerve pinch was “The Enemy Within,” but viewers first saw it in “The Naked Time.” For that reason, I’ll be watching the series the same way the world first saw it, in the order the episodes originally aired. My primary references for cast information and production background are: Memory Alpha, Wikipedia, the Mission Log Podcast, and Tor’s first and second TOS rewatch. Of course, all opinions and errors are my own. I won’t waste a lot of time on plot summaries. Presumably you’ve already seen the episodes or you wouldn’t be here.


Photo of U.S.S. Enterprise model from Star Trek: The Original Series

TOS is blissfully uncluttered with the obligatory self-awareness of all later Trek iterations. This is a show that wasn’t concerned with legacy or canon, just telling tall tales with compelling characters and some food for thought. While that resulted in inconsistent world-building that was clearly being made up from week-to-week, it also freed writers and producers from being slaves to continuity. For three years, TOS was a rollicking ride through space that urged us to rise above our worst traits and fulfill our extraordinary potential. That being said, let the voyages begin again!

Next: The Man Trap