Sunday, September 09, 2012

That Star Trek Google doodle and the Cold War


I thoroughly enjoyed Google's recent Star Trek birthday doodle. Especially the tip of the hat to the eternally suffering red shirts I sometimes sympathized with as a child during the late Cold War.

Television was pretty much a sparsely populated desert as far as sci-fi back in the 80s, so reruns of the classic 1960s Trek was where it was at as far as getting a regular fix of intelligent, if campy speculative fiction. As a teen I liked the Next Generation, but I never felt the same kind of affection for it as I did the original, and I wasn't able to get into any of the later series. Both Next Gen and those that followed felt a little too smooth and polished. It wasn't necessarily the lack of delightful camp or cheese, but they were bland in a way that I really couldn't put my finger on at the time. Maybe they were a little too politically correct, which was odd as the original series was definitely a product of the Civil Rights Era, and was very much on the pro side of the movement's issues.

These days I wonder if some of the differences between the atmosphere of the original and its successors might be found in the backgrounds of two very different generations of writers and producers. I need to do some more research, but I strongly suspect that Gene Roddenberry's wartime experiences as a B-17 pilot as well as his aviation background contributed to the original Trek's granular hard edges--ones that lent the first show an atmosphere that felt more real world-ish. That, and his experiences may account for the show's unapologetic and entirely non-ironic opposition to totalitarian ideologies and warrior societies.

It's an opposition that never equivocated liberal democracy with what feels like the show's stand-ins for the blood-drenched ideologies of the mid and early 20th century. The "Balance of Terror" episode that introduced the Romulans has strong Cold War overtones, complete with a demilitarized zone, weapons of mass destruction, and the dread of a renewed far-reaching war. In "Space Seed" Kahn casts a pro-eugenics shadow from the setting's past, much as the all-too-recent memories of Nazism did at the time when the series aired.  I've also often wondered if the atrocities and glory-or-death warrior-cult of Imperial Japanese militarism colored the early Klingons. Especially as in their original incarnation they had a decidedly East Asian look, and the script of the episode that introduces them describes the Klingons as "oriental" in appearance.

I also suspect that Roddenberry's combat experience is the reason why the pilot for the first series has darker feel to it than the more jovial version that eventually made it to network television.

I still enjoy going back and watching Classic Trek these day, but I appreciate it on levels that I never did as a child. With a historian's eye and my own real world experiences I now see attitudes and worldviews from the period that the show was shot in. Ideologically, I see a very clear distillation of the old school liberalism that had been embraced at the voting booth by the generation that had fought or served in World War II as enlisted personnel and company grade officers.

The show first aired at a time when liberal Democrats were midway through their sixty-year domination of Congress. It was a period when a much of the population in the United States hoped that the future would be a place where rationality and science had brought about a world free of want, as well as one free from the economic turbulence that had blighted the years of their youth and the lives of their parents or grandparents, reaching back into the late 1800s. It was one that reflected the tensions of the Cold War, but which still dared to hope that humanity would achieve a lasting peace within itself, laying to rest the demons of ethnic strife as well as the social turbulence caused by the mass poverty that had given rise to the extremist ideological views of Nazi German and the Soviet Union in the first place.

These days to watch the series is to touch a period when the future of humanity felt as though it hung suspended between a technological paradise and a hell of unending totalitarianism. 

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