Friday, August 10, 2007

Racism and Improving Race Relations in the Star Trek Universe

Part 2 of "Star Trek: A Phenomenon and Social Statement on the 1960s," by J. William Synder, Jr.

One area where Star Trek made considerable progress and incorporation into its substance was its regard towards minorities. Of course, by the late 1960's. the Civil Rights Movement in the United States was in full swing and much progress had been made in that area. By the time the first episode of the series aired in 1966, Congress had passed numerous Civil Rights Acts, the Voting Rights Act in 1965, and constitutional amendments outlawing the poll tax and extending the right to vote in Presidential elections to the residents of the District of Columbia, where the majority of the population is Black. Thus, Star Trek was ripe for emphasis on the equality of all people regardless of race. Still, because of the population in the South that watched the show, and other factors, elements of racism and racial inequality still appear in the series. Lastly, Star Trek has one episode that appears to make a clear statement regarding America's Civil Rights Movement.

To begin with, the crew of the Enterprise was racially mixed. "The ship had to be interracial because it represented all of mankind. How can the human race ever hope to achieve friendship with alien races if it can't even make friends with itself?" (Gerrold 152). The series has two regular characters that represent American minorities rapidly gaining status in American society, Lt. Sulu and Lt. Uhura (previously discussed in her role as a woman).

Mr. Sulu, played by George Takei, is the helmsman of the USS Enterprise. He first appeared in the second pilot "Where No Man Has Gone Before" as "physicist" Sulu where the character had very few lines that were not indicative of the "adventure-loving, vital individual into which he would develop" (Compendium 18). He is described in the episode "Errand of Mercy" (airdate 3/23/67) as a "capable combat officer" by Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock as Sulu is left commanding the Enterprise in battle against a formidable Klingon attack force. He is also a bit of an adventurist and a swashbuckler as is evident by his chivalrous swordplay in "The Naked Time" (airdate 9/29/66). To have a Japanese-American in such an authority position was indeed a big step forward. Though hostile feelings in America towards Japanese-Americans due to World War II had cooled off significantly, some concern existed as to whether a Japanese-American character would cost the series viewers in Indonesia (Stine 160). Still, George Takei, like the other minority actors for Star Trek, fought and lobbied hard for his character. He was never happy with the lines and actions the writers had for his character and Takei pushed so hard for his character that producers and writers learned to watch out when he came around (Interview 63). Gene Roddenberry never viewed Sulu as a "token Asian", even at a time when it seemed everyone was against him for insisting on a major role for his minority character (72). Lt. Sulu thus became an indispensible member of the Enterprise crew. It is difficult to imagine anyone else at the helm of the USS Enterprise that could perform the duties of helmsman as well as Sulu.

The other minority regular on Star Trek was, of course, Lt. Uhura, communications officer of the Enterprise. Again, it must be stressed that it was a bold step on the part of Star Trek to have a Black character in such an important position on a television show during the 1960's. Uhura, whose name means "freedom" (Compendium 28) was a Black-African princess from East Africa who was fluent in Swahili, not an American Black woman, and this added a certain mystique to her character. Just as Sulu was never intended to be a "token-Asian" for the benefit of certain viewers in the audience, Uhura never intended to be a "token Black", and both Ms. Nichols and Gene Roddenberry sought to make sure of that (Interview 72). Unfortunately, pressure from network censors and writers often reduced her to simple lines like, "Hailing frequencies open, Captain" or "Captain, what is it?" However, of the major groundbreaking steps involving Lt. Uhura that Star Trek made in television history was television's first interracial kiss (widely acknowledged as such in the literature). The controversial kiss occurred during the episode "Plato's Stepchildren" (airdate 11/22/68) where Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy, Nurse Chapel, and Lt. Uhura are held captive by admirers of Earth's ancient Greek society who are also endowed with telekinetic powers. The script called for either Captain Kirk or Mr. Spock, under control of his alien captors, to kiss Lt. Uhura. According to Fred Freiberger, producer of the episode, the show was caught in a bind- if they had Spock kiss her, the critics would say the show was too scared to have a White man kiss a Black woman, and if they had Kirk with Uhura in the scene with no kiss, then they would have gotten the same reaction. He and his colleagues made the decision to "...have Kirk do it, and go as far as [they could] in terms of censorship and all the rest of it" (Interview 164). The kiss between Uhura and Kirk did make it on the air, and it apparently turned a lot of heads, but Ms. Nichols felt that the kiss was not all it was cracked up to be. She remarked once that Kirk was forced to kiss Uhura and, moreover, he was trying to fight against the pressure. Fan male after the episode was critical of the kiss, saying basically that if Captain Kirk had a beautiful woman in his arms, he would not be reluctant to kiss her (Gerrold 80). As is apparent, Star Trek did attempt to make bold steps with its minority regulars, but the steps fell far short of their intended effect.

Star Trek does have a strong vein of racism running through it, but this racism is not directed towards the minority regulars (that would have caused major problems). Instead, this racism was directed towards Mr. Spock (portrayed by Leonard Nimoy), the half-Human half-Vulcan first officer and science officer of the Enterprise. Spock is the only one of his people aboard the Enterprise. His pointed ears, green blood and devotion to pure logic set him apart from the rest of the crew. As a Vulcan, a fictional race of beings, scathing comments regarding his ethnicity (and especially his pointed ears) could have been made with virtual impunity while similar comments directed toward recognised minority groups would have been greatly frowned upon. The relationship between Mr. Spock and Dr. McCoy makes this point clear. During practically every episode, McCoy badgers Spock about everything from his pointed ears to his green blood. During the episode "Bread and Circuses" (airdate 3/15/68), Spock saved McCoy's life during a gladiator battle. McCoy later tries to humbly thank Spock for saving him, but he was put off by Spock's concentration on finding a way out of their jail cell and resorts to going back to his typical scathing remarks regarding Spock's physical characteristics (I forget the actual line, but it goes something like this: "I'm trying to thank you for saving my life, you pointy-eared Vulcan!!"). McCoy is not the only one to attack Spock's ethnicity. During the episode "The Omega Glory" (airdate 3/1/68), Captain Ronald Tracey of the USS Exeter points to Spock's pointed ears and tries to convince his captors the Yangs that Spock is Satan, an endeavour that fails. And finally, in "Balance of Terror" (airdate 12/15/66), "Lieutenant Stiles, a barely-concealed racist and reactionary who lost several ancestors in [the human's first war with the Romulan Star Empire], accuses Spock of being a Romulan sympathiser simply because Vulcans and Romulans have pointed ears. (In the end, Spock risks his life to save Stiles and the bigot is instantly chastened and reformed.)" (Worland 112). Attitudes like this towards Spock were tolerated because Nimoy was a White and his character a Vulcan, not a Black or a Hispanic or an Asian. Roddenberry had originally wanted to cast a Black man in Spock's role (Interview 8), but it seems rather doubtful if the same remarks could have been made about Spock were he played by a Black.

Lastly, one episode of Star Trek is a clear statement on racism and its inherent disutility. "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield" (airdate 1/10/69) is about two half-white half-black beings from the planet Charon who bring their senseless racial struggle to the Enterprise. Lokai is the first to come aboard the Enterprise - he arrives in a stolen shuttlecraft asking for asylum. His pursuer, Bele, soon afterwards arrives on the Enterprise asking to take Lokai back to their home planet to stand trial for political crimes. Bele explains to Captain Kirk at one point his reason for wanting to take Lokai back to Charon. Apparently Lokai and others like him are considered inferior because they are black on the right side of their bodies while Bele's people are white on that side (the difference is not apparent to Kirk and the rest of the crew until Bele points it out, and the way it is pointed out makes it look silly and arbitrary). He attempts to justify his people's treatment of Lokai by saying they are well treated and well cared for by his people, but because of their inherent inequality, they are not able to take care of themselves and require paternal guidence from the "superior" members of their society. Later in the episode, Lokai gives a lecture to members of the bridge crew on racism and persecution - the bridge crew emphasising that racism and persecution existed at one time but was a thing of the past in their society. Bele eventually hijacks the Enterprise to Charon when his extradition request is denied by the Federation, but when the Enterprise reaches Lokai's and Bele's home planet, they find the entire population dead from a major war. Instead of putting aside their diferences, the two blame each other for the war and they end up beaming themselves back down to the planet to continue their senseless race war. The episode ends with Captain Kirk not acknowledging that either of them was right or wrong, but "all that mattered to them was their hate". The parallels between this episode and the Civil Rights struggle in America are uncanny. In the United States, in addition to people like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who were advocating peaceful change and Senator Stromm Thurmond of South Carolina who was advocating the status quo, extremist groups based on hatred and anger existed on the playing field. Malcom X, a radical Black activist, advocated a violent uprising by Blacks against Whites (in essence, "Kill Whitey!). There was also the Black Panthers, a militant Black organization that was prepared to seemingly start another civil war with all the weaponry it managed to procure. On the other side of the spectrum, there were the Ku Klux Klan and other White hate groups. What all these individuals and groups have in common is a fierce, uncontrollable hatred of those opposed to them, much like Bele and Lokai in this episode. The message to them is simple: hatred and violence will bring about everyone's destruction. Indeed, it was peaceful change that eventually brought about the major reforms in civil rights in this country, not the violent uprisings or suppressions that the extremist groups advocated.

Thus, Star Trek appears to have made many contributions to the improvement in race relations in America. Minority characters in clearly important positions emphasising the equality of minorities were combined with a "safety-valve" in the form of Mr. Spock to act as an outlet for racist attitudes. And of course, one episode does get to make a direct comment on race relations in America. More than likely it is Star Trek's quality of remoteness of time and location that gives it the ability to do this without overtly appearing to be a social commentary.

*original article published here. Permission granted for academic purposes. Visit J. William Snyder's homepage