In "A Journey to Babel" (1967), the crew of the
U.S.S. Enterprise, the flagship of the United Federation of Planets, is charged
with bringing delegates from different worlds to an interstellar conference at
Babel, the code name for the planet that is their destination. In this episode
of Star Trek, the audience is treated to a variety of extraterrestrials,
sentient beings casually labelled alien "races" by members of the Enterprise
crew. Like the animals of Noah's ark, the aliens are prominently shown in pairs.
They wear distinct garb and have multicolored coiffeurs. We see Vulcans, with
their fiendishly pointed ears and eyebrows. There are gold-skinned small people
and blue-skinned, antennae-bearing Andorians. There are a couple of Tellarites
with pig-like faces, their noses turned up like snouts. We even see glimpses of
two African-American actors dressed in nomadic apparel, apparently the delegates
from a black world. The title and narrative of the episode explicitly draws upon
the biblical story of the Tower of Babel in which, according to the Old
Testament, the descendants of Noah attempted to unite the "scattered" peoples of
the world by building a tower that could reach to heaven and God Himself. Not
unlike the biblical story, the Enterprise's journey to Babel, its mission to
unite scat-tered races, is marred by the confusion of tongues—in this case, by
peculiar-looking aliens with conflicting, disruptive, and sometimes violent
In the secondary storyline to "A Journey to Babel,"
the character of Spock (Leonard Nimoy), the Enterprise's Science Officer, is
defined and complicated. We find out that his childhood was fraught with
prejudice: "neither Human nor Vulcan," his human mother (Jane Wyatt) explains.
Spock is a "half-breed." We also find out that Spock's father, Sarek (Mark
Lenard), is unhappy with his son's enlistment in the mostly human Federation of
Planets. The two have not spoken in years. As the episode progresses, this
storyline intensifies as Sarek becomes deathly ill and requires a blood
transfusion from his son. Because of both an injury to Captain Kirk (William
Shatner) inflicted by an Orion spy intent on sabotaging the mission to Babel and
a threat posed by a mysterious vessel tracking the starship, it becomes
necessary for the Vulcan Science Officer to take command of the Enterprise. As a
consequence, he refuses to save his father's life. His first duty is to the ship
and its mission. Spock is a loyal "half-breed."
As the episode comes to a close, the main and
secondary storylines merge neatly in a "happy ending." In order to help Spock
save his father, Kirk over-comes the intense pain of the knife wound and
miraculously resumes his command of the ship. He mounts a heroic defense against
the now-attacking ves-sel. This frees Spock to donate his green blood, once
"purified" of its human elements, to his ailing father. In a medium shot, we
actually see the green blood of Spock pour through the tubes that lead to his
father—a clear signifier of his innate difference. Thus, not only is the enemy
plot thwarted by Captain Kirk, but Spock and Sarek both survive, literally much
closer to each other than they were before. Narrative resolution is achieved
with the Enterprise and crew still en route to Babel, the optimistic trek for a
more harmonious uni-verse available for future episodes.
There are perhaps more famous Star Trek
episodes that represent and narrativize racial difference and conflict, such as
"Let That Be Your Last Battlefield," which features half-black and half-white
humanoids who battle and attempt to kill each other because they are oppositely
colored. Nevertheless, "A Journey to Babel" reveals in obvious and perhaps less
than obvious ways many of the functions of race that run throughout the entire
Star Trek series. First, it keeps the cast of color, notably the black
delegates and Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), the Swahili Communications Officer, in
the background— visible but not essential. Sulu (George Takei), the
Japanese-American Helmsman, is not in this episode. Second, through the allegory
of Babel, the episode foregrounds the diversity of the galaxy, and some of the
ways in which that diversity causes conflict and hinders universal harmony.
Star Trek is renowned for imagining an egalitarian Earth—absent of racism,
sexism, and capitalism— that exists in a hostile galaxy overcrowded with
uncivilized and violent alien worlds. Third, through the character of Spock, the
episode draws upon the tension and conflict caused by being a "half-breed."
Star Trek is also renowned for addressing the experiences and ideologies of
physiognomic and cultural difference via science-fiction metaphors like aliens.
Finally, the resolution of the episode, its return to narrative stasis, leaves
both the hope and struggle for universal peace intact. James T. Kirk, the white
captain who is at least allegorically linked to the biblical Noah, can continue
to humanize the universe.
This essay aims to uncover and critique the
relationship between the meaning of race and the liberal-humanist project in
Star Trek. While there are no doubt many factors informing this
relationship, I want to concentrate on the activities of institutions and
decision-makers responsible for the making of the series.1 This
includes NBC, the network on which the series aired, Gene Roddenberry, the
creator and executive producer, as well as various writers, directors, and
actors. These "authors," I hope to show, were consciously and thus intentionally
involved in a liberal-humanist project very much mindful of such 1960s
experiences as the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, and the Cold
War. A value and belief system that espouses political equality and social
egalitarianism, liberal-humanism emphasizes individual worth and freedom, racial
and gender equality, and the importance of secular human values. It suggests
that humans, with their rational minds, can comprehend all problems—earthly or
galactic—by systematic action from within established institutions such as a
united federation of states and paradigms such as liberal democracy. Progress
for the liberal-humanist discourse of the 1960s, the zeitgeist of the decade,
and certainly for the makers of Star Trek, is determined by the extent to
which the government, in this case the United Federation of Planets, and the
people, in this case the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise, serve to expand liberty
and civility to all people and, as the case may be, to all aliens.
Contrary to what is commonly said about this
science-fiction series, I will argue that Star Trek's liberal-humanist
project is exceedingly inconsistent and at times disturbingly contradictory,
often participating in and facilitating racist practice in attempting to imagine
what Gene Roddenberry called "infinite diversity in infinite combinations." The
varied and contradictory aspects of the series are perhaps ultimately due to
what cultural studies scholar David Theo Goldberg recognizes as the historic
paradox of liberalism: "The more ideologically hegemonic liberal values seem and
the more open to difference liberal modernity declares itself, the more
dismissive of difference it becomes and the more closed it seeks to make the
circle of acceptability" (6-7). This paradox informs the activities—the writing,
directing, and network gatekeeping—of the decision-makers responsible for the
making of Star Trek.
Before beginning my analysis, it is perhaps
important to stress that, in analyzing the project of key decision-makers, I do
not mean to imply that they simply pour their ideology into a Star Trek
container that is then guzzled whole by a passive audience. I am not suggesting
that the meaning of Star Trek texts is singularly or even dominantly
caused by institutions such as networks and individuals such as creative
decision-makers. In my view, the relationship between the intent to imbed
ideology in a text and the ideology of a text is never direct or
without contradiction. A dialogical understanding of television authorship as
well as a dialectical understanding of ideology resists such reductive and
I agree with semioticians such as Mikhail Bakhtin
and Roland Barthes that texts are polysemic, or intertextual and dialogical, and
that the reader is ultimately the site of signification: "a text," Barthes
writes, "is made of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering
into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation, but there is one place
where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader" (148). Texts
are more complex, made of multiple "writings," than simple reflections of
authorial intent. Moreover, readers are a psychologically active and socially
complex group that bring their own identities and histories, their own values
and protocols for interpretation, to texts. Indeed, audiences are far too
heterogeneous and complex to be duped into complete or unconscious
interpellation; for that matter, the unconscious is too enigmatic and Hollywood
far too dysfunctional to produce a uniform ideology.
Yet I also recognize that entertainment
institutions and decision-makers, network executives and craftspeople, do imbed
and attempt to fix meaning. And this agency has a significant impact on the
broadcast texts themselves. As cultural studies scholars Tony Bennett and Janet
Woollacott point out:
deliberations, calculations and policies which actually inform the making of a
film (or television series) have a direct and discernible bearing on the
processes through which ideologies are worked over and transformed into a
specific filmic form. (202)
For instance, if the character of Spock and the
storyline that reveals his complexity had been cut from "A Journey to Babel,"
then the duality of Spock, his half-breed condition, would not be a space for
signification. Moreover, while we cannot ascertain all the possible readings of
episodes like "A Journey to Babel," we can say with confidence that it would
have been different had the decision-makers relied upon Native-American myths
instead of Judeo-Christian ones. Indeed, the Judeo-Christian allegories in
episodes like "A Journey to Babel," as intertextual references which are
nonetheless intentional, guide our readings of Star Trek's imaginary
universe as a diverse, overcrowded, and dangerous place. In their attempts to
effect signification and fix meaning, television authors both limit and enable
reading probabilities. They both facilitate and set boundaries to
It is precisely for this reason that scholars
interested in analyzing and coming to terms with the meaning of race in film and
television ought to consider more fully the production process and thus the
institutions and individuals responsible for helping to make race in American
popular culture meaningful.
The Practice of Liberal-Humanism.
The articulation of race in Star Trek— from its casting of actors to its
metaphors and allegories—was uncommon in network television of the 1960s. The
meaning of race in the 1950s and early 1960s was dominated by a segregationist
tone, a separate but unequal trajectory. Television was what television
historian J. Fred McDonald called "white." This is evident in the network
programming of the period, which was governed by an overt policy of exclusion
and segregation. When African- Americans and Native Americans were represented
in such series as Amos 'N Andy (1951-1953) and The Lone Ranger
(1949-1957), they were characterized as either shiftless and unintelligent or as
obedient servants to white men. Representations of Asian and Latino Americans
were almost non-existent, although they received similar treatment when present.
A case in point is Sammee Tong in Bachelor Father (1957-1962), an Asian
"house boy" who spoke, walked, and expressed himself in stereotypical ways.
The dominant meaning of race in the 1950s and early
1960s was openly and massively contested in the mid to late 1960s. Civil rights
advocates such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, the American-Indian and
anti-war movements, among others, struggled to push the meaning of race toward a
more egalitarian ideal. As sociologists Michael Omi and Howard Winant have
shown, during the 1960s new conceptions of racial identity and its meaning, new
modes of political organization and confrontation, and new definitions of the
state's role in promoting and achieving "equality" were explored, debated, and
fought on the battlegrounds of politics. (95)
The civil rights movement had its successes,
including the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and the 1968
Fair Housing Act.
The mid-to-late 1960s was also a time when the
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the United States
government agency responsible for space exploration and the development of space
technology, was completing successful flights into outer space and landings on
the moon. With the Gemini and Apollo missions, NASA came to embody the hopes and
aspirations, the future and potential, of the United States. It also provided an
ironic juxtaposition with the contemporaneous domestic and international
injustices that dominated the latter part of the decade. United States citizens
dying in the rice paddies of Vietnam and in the streets of urban America,
massive protests against the federal government, and Cold War tensions made the
future look bleaker than the optimistic images of Neil Armstrong's "giant step
for mankind" might otherwise suggest. NASA symbolized future hope and
represented immediate contradiction.
Images and stories of civil rights and anti-war
demonstrations flowed into the homes of millions of viewers from both print and
electronic news sources, forcing the American people to confront a contestation
over race. At issue was the racism inherent in segregation, the politics of
stereotypes, and the ideals of integration. Producers, directors, writers, and
network executives capitalized on this socio-political struggle. For the first
time in television history, programs like East Side, West Side
(1963-1964), I Spy (1965-1968), and Julia (1968-1971) employed
African-Americans in major roles that were not patently stereotypical.
Decision-makers responsible for the production of such series drew on domestic
and international politics and experiences in the hope of selling their programs
and advertisements to an audience very much sensitive to race relations.
Yet, even with the relative boom in programs that
employed African- Americans, integration in late-1960s television was
consistently problematic. Network programs with people of color tended to be
segregated as "race" shows or hidden at the edges of prime-time. Moreover,
Asian, Latino, and Native Americans were largely absent from television screens
during this period, as civil rights ideals tended to be interpreted by the
networks in black and white terms. When these other minority groups were
represented by characters such as Hop Sing in Bonanza (1959-1973) or any
of the number of white actors in red face in other westerns, it was often in the
form of de-sexualized servants, loyal sidekicks, or unthinking savages. Even
producers attempting to engage social issues felt that they must appeal to the
majority—the European-American and Protestant middle-class—and not "offend."
Indeed, the television programming of the period suggests that the goals,
values, and ideologies of the networks were ultimately conservative, resisting
change and unrestricted integration in order to maintain a stable—and dominantly
While the majority of network programming remained
white, Star Trek was one of the few series that embraced and consistently
spoke to the shifting meaning of race that contextualized its production and
initial reception. As I suggested earlier, this effort to engage the politics
and experiences of the 1960s can be traced to the efforts of a number of
creative and network decision-makers involved in crafting the series. Of course,
the most notable of these decision-makers was Gene Roddenberry. An avowed and
outspoken "humanist" very much concerned with the "message" of his work,
Roddenberry wrote many of the episodes and was involved with almost every other
aspect of the show's development (casting, selecting and revising scripts, and
so on).2 In a 1991 interview with magazine editor and Roddenberry
biographer David Alexander, Roddenberry acknowledges that he is both a humanist
and a liberal. "I think my philosophy," he states, "is based upon the great
affection I have for the human creature. I mean a tremendous affection" (30). He
also explains that: "One of the underlying messages of both series [Star Trek
and The Next Generation] is that human beings can, with critical
thinking, solve the problems that are facing them without any outside or
supernatural help" (8). This liberal-humanist philosophy is also evident in
statements more contemporaneous with the original series. "Intolerance in the
23rd century?" he rhetorically asks in 1968:
Improbable! If man survives that long, he will have learned to take a delight in
the essential differences between men and between cultures. He will learn that
differences in ideas and attitudes are a delight, part of life's exciting
variety, not something to fear. It's a manifestation of the greatness that God,
or whatever it is, gave us. This is infinite variation and delight, this is part
of the optimism we built into Star Trek. (Whitfield 40)
"We must learn to live together," he says with a
touch of civil rights and Cold War concerns, "or most certainly we will soon all
die together" (Ibid. 112).
Roddenberry's liberal-humanist ideals are also
present in the primary evidence surrounding the production of the series. In
developing Star Trek, the creator-producer insisted that a progressive
and unified earth, a one-world government, be foregrounded in the
science-fiction universe. Moreover, racial harmony and tolerance were to be the
norm rather than the exception in the on-going Star Trek universe. In
effect, he called for a multi-cultural future. For example, the original series
treatment, which the creator-producer used to pitch Star Trek to various
networks, describes a one-hour show with an integrated cast of characters that
included a Latino navigator, a woman as second-in-command, and an alien science
officer replete with red skin and a forked tail (a character who eventually
became Spock). The treatment goes on to pitch the show as "Wagon train to the
stars," an action-adventure of optimism fraught with human conflict (Whitfield
23). Unlike the science-fiction series Lost in Space (1965-1968), in
which the characters are an all-white family and the aliens are almost always
the villains—and dark—Roddenberry's vision of the future is clearly integrated.
Roddenberry's liberal-humanist vision articulated
in the original treatment for Star Trek is not without its contradictions
however. This is particularly the case in the description of the Latino
navigator, José "Joe" Tyler, which is laden with stereotypical traits. The
lengthy passage from the original treatment is worth quoting in full:
(Joe) Tyler, Boston astronomer father and Brazilian mother, is boyishly
handsome, still very much in the process of maturing. An unusual combination, he
has inherited his father's mathematical ability. José Tyler, in fact, is a
phenomenally brilliant mathematician and space theorist. But he has also
inherited his mother's Latin temperament, fights a perpetual and highly
personalized battle with his instruments and calculators, suspecting that
space—and probably God, too—are engaged in a giant conspiracy to make his
professional and personal life as difficult and uncomfortable as possible. Joe
(or José, depending on the other party) is young enough to be painfully aware of
the historical repute of Latins as lovers—and is in danger of failing this
challenge on a cosmic scale. (Whitfield 29)
José is written as a racial half-breed: one part is
brilliant, a trait that comes from his Bostonian, presumably European, and
paternal line; the other part is irrational, a failed Latin lover, a trait that
specifically comes from his Latino and maternal line. This dichotomy is a
familiar one, playing on common racial essentialisms and stereotypes about
Latinos. It is also eminently entangled with naturalized gender hierarchies,
with the maternal side of José characterized as emotional and the paternal side
With the failed Latin lover on board, Roddenberry
attempted to sell Star Trek to a number of networks and studios. After
the show was rejected by CBS, he pitched and subsequently sold it to Desilu
Studios, then in its downswing after its status as a major studio when it
operated shows like I Love Lucy (1951-1957). Desilu eventually secured
interest from NBC, which was looking for the next Lost in Space. NBC
provided Desilu and Roddenberry with capital to turn his treatment into a pilot.
The eventual result was "The Cage," which featured highly evolved, giant-headed
humanoids who "caged" other aliens for their material needs and intellectual
pleasures. A metaphor for slavery, among other things, the pilot provided
Roddenberry with an opportunity to say "something" about humanity.
NBC had problems with the pilot. Network executives
at its screening— who reportedly included Grant Tinker, Vice President in Charge
of West Coast Operations, and Mort Werner, Vice President in Charge of
Television Programming—apparently liked the overall feel of the program, but
rejected it as being "too cerebral." They also rejected a few of the characters,
including Number One (Majel Barrett, listed in the credits as M. Leigh Hudec), a
strong woman character who was the ship's second-in-command, and Spock, now a
half-alien with pointed ears and raised eyebrows. The executives felt that
neither character would be accepted by the television audience, and they made
the unprecedented decision of ordering a second pilot. This decision initiated
the on-going battle Roddenberry had with the network over the programming
content of Star Trek.
Despite the network's rejection of "The Cage,"
Roddenberry pursued his liberal-humanist project.3 While he cut the
character of Number One, he kept the character of Spock (whom he moved to
second-in-command). Moreover, he cast an even more diverse crew of characters
than before, including a European-American nurse, Christine Chapel (Majel
Barrett), a Communications Officer from the "United States of Africa," Uhura, a
Japanese-American Helmsman, Sulu, and a Scottish Engineering Chief, Scotty
(James Doohan). In the second season, a Russian "cosmonaut," Pavel Chekov
(Walter Koenig), was added. Throughout Star Trek's three-year run, the
crew was headed by European-American Captain James T. Kirk and included a
cantankerous European-American doctor, Leonard "Bones" McCoy (DeForest Kelley).
Hence, one of the characters was Japanese American, one was African, two were
distinctly marked as white European ethnics (mostly through their accents), one
was half alien and half Euro-Human, and three were suggested to be European
Americans. Though dominantly white, this was an integrated cast for 1960s
Roddenberry instructed writers and directors
working on Star Trek to utilize the multi-cultural crew in their stories.
In "The Star Trek Guide," a document which explains the series to
prospective writers and directors, the Enterprise crew is described as
International in origin, completely multi-racial. But even in this future
century we will see some traditional trappings, ornaments, and styles that
suggest the Asiatic, the Arabic, the Latin, etc. So far, Mister Spock has been
our only crewman with blood lines from another planet. However, it is not
impossible that we might discover some other aliens or part aliens working
aboard our Starship. (7)
The "Guide" goes on to advise: "We like ways of
using the crewmen (extras as well as actors) to help suggest the enormous
diversity of our vessel" (7).
The fact that the series is generically science
fiction gave Roddenberry and the rest of the creative decision-makers space to
address contemporary issues and to avoid network censorship. As John Meredyth
Lucas, a writer, director, and producer of several episodes, reminisces:
was great to work on Star Trek, because working in the science fiction
genre gave us free rein to touch on any number of subjects. We could do
anti-Vietnam stories, or civil rights stories.... Set the story in outer space,
in the future, and all of a sudden you can get away with just about anything,
because you're protected by the argument that, "Hey, we're not talking about the
problems of today, we're dealing with a mythical time and place in the future."
We were lying, of course, but that's how we got these stories by the network
types. (Shatner 243)
Even Leonard Nimoy remarked in 1967 how the
character of Spock enabled him "to say something about the human race" (Raddatz
Despite science-fiction conventions that privilege
metaphor and allegory, network decision-makers attempted to curtail and control
the creative staff's liberal-humanist project. Perhaps the most famous example
of this tug-of-war surrounds the production of "Plato's Stepchildren" (1968), in
which a pre-shooting script calls for Kirk, manipulated by Greek-god-like
aliens, to kiss Uhura. According to most speculations, this would have been
network television's first interracial kiss between a black American and a white
American. Apparently, NBC was concerned with the fallout of such a "first,"
especially among its affiliates in the South, and requested some less than
subtle changes. A memorandum from Jean Messerschmidt of NBC's Broadcast
Standards Department made the network's position explicit: "it must be clear
there are no racial over-tones to Kirk and Uhura's dilemma" (2).4
While many creative decision-makers resisted the network's capitulation to
racism, NBC nevertheless continued with their aim of censoring the interracial
"dilemma." Apparently they even requested that Spock, the racialized alien
half-breed, be the one to kiss Uhura. Nichelle Nichols explains: "Somehow, I
guess, they found it more acceptable for a Vulcan to kiss me, for this alien to
kiss this black woman, than for two humans with different coloring to do the
same thing." She continues: "It was simply and clearly racism standing in the
door...in suits. Strange how a twenty-third century space opera could be so
mired in antiquated hang-ups" (Shatner 285-86).
The scene that was aired shows Kirk paired with
Uhura and Spock paired with Nurse Chapel. It begins with the telekinetic Greeks
controlling the physical movements of these characters, making them walk and
dance in contorted and humiliating ways for the pleasure and amusement of their
captors. Soon a chorus of the powerful beings watch as their leader forces Spock
to kiss Nurse Chapel several times. We actually see the Vulcan Science Officer
kiss the blond nurse in three drawn out medium shots. The chorus also watch Kirk
and Uhura diligently resist their forced coupling. These shots are also drawn
out, dramatizing the extratextual racial tension surrounding their pairing. The
Greek aliens applaud Kirk and Uhura's struggle; some even derive prurient
pleasure from the anticipation of its "forbidden" outcome. Eventually the power
of the aliens begins to overtake Kirk, and, in a slow dolly into a close-up,
moments after Uhura gasps, the Captain pulls her closer to him. He turns her
body toward the camera, the back of her head taking up most of the bottom half
of the screen. Kirk is still shown diligently resisting, his eyes glaring at the
omnipotent aliens, his lips pursed in anger and resentment. Their mouths are
only millimeters away from each other when the camera cuts to the alien chorus
in rapt attention, a seemingly self-conscious play on and reference to the
imagined attention of the actual television audience. NBC's Office of Broadcast
Standards and the creative decision-makers compromised: the interracial kiss was
only implied.5 Either way, of course, the coupling between black and
white is coded as undesirable and even perverse—a thing to be resisted or kept
Fundamental contradictions in the liberal-humanist
project are also apparent in the use of actors of color. In fact, throughout the
series, the integrated supporting cast, despite Roddenberry's call to use them
"to suggest the enormous diversity of our vessel," was kept at the margins of
most of the stories and in the background of most of the shots. This is
especially the case in the way the character of Sulu was conceived and utilized.
Indeed, he is only supposed to look Asian. In "The Star Trek Guide," he
is described as a white-identified Japanese American, preferring French customs
over Japanese traditions. Worse yet, he is described as being confused and
mystified by Asians:
oriental in ancestry, Japanese predominating, Sulu is contemporary American in
speech and manner. In fact, his attitude toward Asians is that they seem to him
rather "inscrutable." Sulu fancies himself more of an old-world "D'Artagnan"
than anything else. (23)
Sulu's intended integration into the space of the
starship comes at the expense of a recognizable identity with Japanese culture;
that is, the character was conceived as having "successfully" assimilated into
the Euro-American melting pot of humanity's future.
This pattern continues in the actual broadcast
texts, where, despite the fact that Sulu's position as helmsman places him in
the foreground of many shots, he is relegated to the background of most of the
stories. Out of the seventy-nine Star Trek episodes, Sulu is not once the
focus of a main storyline. One of the few times he does make it out of the
background is in "The Naked Time" (1966), where he is shown as a rampaging
swordsman on the lookout for a duel. The secondary status of Sulu is especially
problematic in the second and third seasons, after Chekov joins the crew. During
this period, the Russian character is given substantial roles in comparison to
the Japanese helmsman. Chekov is even left in charge of the crew when Kirk,
Spock, Bones, and Scotty are off the ship. Though of the same rank, Sulu is left
in charge of the ship only once, in "The Omega Glory" (1968), an episode in
which he has very few lines and Chekov is not featured.
The description and representation of Uhura also
demonstrate the contradictory nature of Star Trek's liberal-humanist
project. Like Sulu, Uhura is relegated to the spatial and narrative background
for most of the episodes, making her more a token than a truly integrated
character. Nichols comments on the use of her character:
I'd get the first draft, the white pages, and see
what Uhura had to do this week, and maybe it was a halfway-decent scene or two,
sometimes more, and then invariably the next draft would come in on blue pages
and I'd find that Uhura's presence in the show had been cut way down. The pink
pages came next and she'd suffer some more cuts, then the yellow, more cuts, and
it finally got to the point where I had really had it. I mean I just decided
that I don't even need to read the FUCKING SCRIPT! I mean I know how to say,
"hailing frequencies open."... (Shatner 212; author's emphasis)
The utilization of Uhura as "background color"
evolved from the description of the character in "The Star Trek Guide,"
the first document that mentions the character:
is also a warm, highly female female off duty. She is something of a favorite in
the Recreation Room during off duty hours, too, because she sings—old ballads as
well as the newer space ballads—and she can do an impersonation at the drop of a
As a singing, "highly female female" African, she
is written as a performance, an icon, of black beauty. In a 1967 interview for
TV Guide (15 July 1967) entitled "Nichelle Nichols Complains She Hasn't
Been Allowed to Leave the Spaceship," the actress commented on the dilemma: "My
problem is being a black woman on top of being a woman" (10). In the episode
"Mirror, Mirror" (1967), for instance, Uhura is eroticized by the camera, as
several scenes show her scantily clad body in tight close-ups: her long legs,
smooth stomach and large breasts—scopophilic fragments of her body—are
emphasized for their womanly and exotic "beauty." It is as if her blackness is
made safe and appealing when it is performed in fragmented and fetishized forms;
when, in other words, it is as exoticized as it is eroticized.
The use of Spock is another site in the original
series where contradictions can be seen functioning within the liberal-humanist
project. The tradition of the alien in science fiction involves the
foregrounding of Otherness, particularly in reference to the difficulties and
conflicts stemming from physiognomic and cultural difference. Science-fiction
aliens work as metaphors, as an implicit means by which human experiences and
likeness are imagined and fictionalized. Spock, especially because he is a
"half-breed," serves this traditional science-fiction function. Yet the
character is often contained so as to be neither too literal nor too obvious
about the nature of the universe and the politics of the 1960s. Even in
metaphors and allegories involving aliens, the decision-makers take the racially
"safe" way out.
In "City on the Edge of Forever" (1967), for
example, the original script by Harlan Ellison has Kirk and Spock materialize in
1930s New York. As New Yorkers begin to notice the odd pair, Spock becomes
encircled by an inflamed mob agitated by a bitter racist:
kind of a country is this, where men have to stand in bread lines just to fill
their bellies? I'll tell you what kind...a country run by the foreigners! All
the scum let in to take the food from our mouths, all the alien filth that
pollutes our fine country. Here we are, skilled workers and they want us to sign
up for CCC camps. Civilian Conservation Corps, men—is that what we're
gonna do? Work like coolies inna fields while these swine who can't even speak
our language take the.... (23-24; author's emphasis)
Later in the script, Ellison's technical directions
stipulate that in order to conceal Spock's alien features, "he has been made up
to faintly resemble a Chinese" (28). Here, the writer is trying to comment on
the history of racist discrimination against Chinese Americans during the
Depression, using Spock as both a connotative and a denotative signifier. His
goal, it seems clear, is to reveal the racist elements of class politics during
this era of American history.
In the aired version of "City on the Edge of
Forever," the indictment against racism was removed in favor of a comic scene in
which a 1930s police officer and a few city people stare curiously at Kirk and
Spock. There is no bitter racist trying to incite violence and no angry mob
threatened by a "foreigner." Instead, the policeman simply looks at Kirk and
Spock, as the Captain stammers out an explanation for his First Officer's
physiognomic difference: "My friend is obviously Chinese. I see you've noticed
the ears. They're actually easy to explain." With a slight suggestion from
Spock, the Captain continues: "The unfortunate accident he had as a child. He
caught his head in a mechanical rice picker." As film and television scholar
Rick Worland has pointed out, the indictment against racism in this episode
takes the form of a racial joke (117). The history of racism against Chinese
Americans is not foregrounded but deleted. The intended reference to the history
of American bigotry is not televised.
Case Study: "The Paradise Syndrome" (1968).
Like "The City on the Edge of Forever," the conditions of production surrounding
"The Paradise Syndrome" reveal a contradictory racial project—this time one that
stereotypes Native Americans as noble savages and whites as "normal" and even
divine. The basic storyline has Captain Kirk, suffering from amnesia, becoming a
medicine chief for a tribe of Native Americans on a planet far from Earth. The
tribe was placed there centuries ago by a "super race" who wanted to "preserve
them." A story clearly susceptible to the noble savage trope, primary evidence
surrounding the production of the episode reveals that responsibility for the
stereotyping points directly to the liberal-humanist ideals and practices of
Gene Roddenberry and other creative decision-makers. Which is to say that,
irrespective of the tug-of-war between Roddenberry and the network gatekeepers,
it is the creative decision-makers in this episode of Star Trek that
participate in and facilitate racist practice.
Originally titled "Pale Face," the story outline by
Margaret Armen uses explicit racialized adjectives and clichés to construct the
Native-American tribe as noble savages. Kirk, Armen writes, "has found this
tribe gentle, kind, and in complete attune with nature" (4). Armen has
Kirk accepted into the tribe and marrying one of the women, Miramanee. This
emphasizes the mythical structure of the story, that of the "paradise syndrome,"
which typically involves a white man escaping civilization to or lost in the
wild, befriending a wise but simple tribe of natives, falling in love with a
submissive—and often scantily clad—native girl, but, after saving the natives
from an event or person bent on destroying them, eventually determining that
living among them is not his life's mission. The white man—not the native—has
evolved, and he must accept his role as a complex, civilized human. In Armen's
outline, Kirk realizes that Miramanee
never fit into [his] world. Simple and gentle as she is, her only place is the
idyllic tribal environment of her people. Gently, he tells her that he no
longer fits into her world either, that the ancient prophecy has been fulfilled
and he must go on to fulfil his further duty. (8)
The outline concludes: "He knows a part of him—the
part of man that is always pagan—will always remain behind, that a poignant
longing for the idyllic life of the noble savage will never leave him" (8).
The noble savage stereotype found in the
development of this episode of Star Trek functions as a sort of fetish,
much like its eighteenth-century predecessor analyzed by metahistorian Hayden
belief in the idea of a Noble Savage was magical, was extravagant and irrational
in the kind of devotion it was meant to inspire, and, in the end, displayed the
kind of pathological displacement of libidinal interest that we normally
associate with the forms of racism that depend on the idea of a "wild humanity"
for their justification. (184)
All three aspects of White's noble savage fetish
can be found lurking in Armen's outline. First, the Indians are associated with
magical qualities, especially in the stereotypical representation of them as
mysteriously connected to—"in complete attune with"—nature. Second, the
representation of the Indians as existing in some pristine and unchanging
condition—on another planet, no less—reveals an irrational devotion to a
particular image of Native Americans as "noble," an image that is "fixed" in
time like the fetish. This is perhaps most prominent in both the "super race's"
efforts to "preserve" them and in Kirk's nostalgic longing to become one of
them. Finally, the noble savage stereotype is strongly suggestive of a libidinal
displacement, perhaps most clearly projected in the relationship between Kirk
and the "squaw"—in which the Captain has nothing less than a "wild" time.
The use of the noble savage theme in "The Paradise
Syndrome" ultimately has less to do with the lifestyle and customs of Native
Americans than it does with the evolution of whiteness. In his analysis of the
noble savage fetish, White goes on to argue that it ultimately "draws a
distinction, in the nature of an opposition, between normal humanity (gentle,
intelligent, decorous, and white) and an abnormal one (obstinate, gay, free, and
red)" (188). Hence, the "abnormality" of an otherwise noble humanity cannot be
understood outside the notion of a wild/savage humanity (Indians), which itself
cannot be understood outside the notion of a "normal"—and, at least
rhetorically, superior— humanity (whites).6 Such an opposition thus
becomes a way to define the "civility" of whiteness, which in the development of
"The Paradise Syndrome" is especially evident in Roddenberry's efforts to ensure
that the Indians, despite centuries of unencumbered evolution on a far-off
planet, haven't really evolved:
the Indians were brought here many centuries ago, it is likely that even though
they retain much of their terrible custom, they would have advanced somewhat
along the scale of civilization. Perhaps not to firearms, or not that fast, but
perhaps added on to the Indian culture, it is a growing mastery of mechanics,
which has resulted in the wheel, possibly the crossbow.... Not enough to deprive
our tale of the wonderful simplicity of life here, but enough to stay true to
the premise and to logic. (8)
Roddenberry's insistence on representing the tribe
as having advanced only far enough to invent the wheel reveals a discourse on
humanity that at least implicitly includes a hierarchy of "civilizations" that
has whites "naturally" on top of an evolutionary ladder.
Roddenberry's interest in representing Kirk and
crew as more advanced than the Indians stems from his interest in the myth of
the "paradise syndrome" (it is Roddenberry who insists that the original title
of the script, "Pale Face," be changed to "The Paradise Syndrome"). In a
memorandum to Fred Freiberger, the Producer of Star Trek during its third
season, Roddenberry states his case in explicit terms:
story here, the essential and I think the most interesting and different one for
our series, is whether a Herman Melville theme, i.e., modern man finding his
"Tahiti," that natural and simple and happy and untroubled life all of us dream
about some day finding—and having found it and having held it in his hand, he
learns he's incapable of closing his hand around it and keeping it because all
of us are innocent prisoners of our own time and our own place. And, as with
Melville's "Typee," neither can our modern man (or his clerk from Boston) take
his woman from this simple life back to his land and his time, since she would
be as destroyed by it as he would be if he stayed there. This is the premise and
theme, a strong one if used properly and certainly a most powerful and enduring
one in Western Literature. (2)
As this statement might suggest, Roddenberry's
interest in a tribe of noble savages had more to do with defining the problems
of whites in a modern, civilized, and complex world, here both metaphorically
and literally represented by Kirk, than it did with describing the treatment or
cultures of Native-American peoples.
The NBC censor was also concerned with the notion
of the "paradise syndrome," but in the way in which it might affect the star
persona of Captain Kirk. A letter from Stanley Robertson, Manager of Film
think that it is a major mistake to have our star, Kirk, "marry" the lovely
native girl, Miramanee, to have a child by her and then to return to "his world"
with the Enterprise when a rescue is affected. I realize that your feelings are
that you can "justify these actions" by establishing Kirk as a man engrained in
the customs, mores, and social patterns of the planet's culture. However, I
think that we must remember that even though our series takes place at a time in
the future, we still have contemporary people with contemporary views on morals,
manners, etc., viewing our shows and, while we are able to portray others than
our heroes in opposition to these conventional points of view, we should not
ever depict our leads as having such thoughts. (2)
The censor, aware of the logic of science fiction,
was less interested in the stereotyping of Native Americans than with
maintaining the "superior" morality of the white hero.
The interest in representing whiteness as morally
atop the evolutionary ladder in the making of "The Paradise Syndrome" goes
beyond the noble savage fetish. In the memorandum to Freiberger, Roddenberry
rationalizes the notion of the benevolent "super race" and, in the process,
links these aliens to Kirk. He writes:
are saying arbitrarily for purposes of this script that there was once, or still
may exist somewhere, a race of highly advanced and kindly humanoid aliens, who
had great love and affection for all forms of life and all levels of
civilization and hated to see the fresh and different potential of primitive
cultures absorbed and changed, such as happened on Earth with the Egyptians,
Crete, American Indians, etc. Undoubtedly, the same sort of thing happens on
other planets, too—it is a demonstratable law of progress in civilization that
richly interesting primitive cultures die out and their particular values are
lost when stronger cultures absorb or destroy them. (3)
Roddenberry's interest in the "super race," a logic
clearly derivative of the social Darwinian notion of "survival of the fittest,"
continues, as he tries to explain why the Indians believe Kirk is God-like: "it
is obvious that the Indians have never seen an Enterprise landing party member
before and, therefore, more believable they believe Kirk is a sort of God" (7).
The "demonstratable law of progress" implicitly assumes that "white"
phenotypes—which is all that separates Kirk from the Indians at this point in
the story—would be construed by "primitive cultures" as God-like, thereby
linking Kirk, not to the Indians— that is, members of his own species—but to a
divine "super race."
The Kellam DeForest Research Company, hired by
Roddenberry to verify facts in pre-production stories, cites errors in "The
Paradise Syndrome" script that would ultimately produce an essentialist
representation of the Native Americans. The report suggests changing the tribal
mixture of the peaceful Indians, which already had been changed from simply
"Mohicans" in the story outline to a "A mixture of Navajo, Mohican and Mandan"
in the initial script, in order to be more authentic: "The Mandans were among
the most violent, intransigent of all the American Indian tribes. They made war
on everyone, on any excuse. Suggest Pawnee or Cherokee." The report also notes
"Mohican" is a very bad tribal name to use for several reasons: it is not really
an Indian name (Mohegan or Mahican is close). It brings to mind immediately
"Last of the..."; and they were also very war-like. Suggest: Delaware. (The
Delaware were related and sets and props would be correct for either culture.)
Finally, the research report notes that the script
is not authentic in its call for Indian costuming: "feathered cloaks are
associated with the natives of Polynesia and with the Aztecs. Some feathers were
used by the California tribes in particular, as decorations. Use by northern and
eastern tribes is not valid" (3).
Despite the Kellam report, the aired version of
"The Paradise Syndrome" reproduces the noble savage stereotype with little
change. The episode begins with Kirk, Spock, and McCoy beaming down to a planet
that lies directly in the path of a huge asteroid which threatens an ominous
collision that will ultimately kill all the planet's inhabitants—"A mixture of
Navajo, Mohican, and Delaware," as Spock describes them. Upon seeing the
Indians, Kirk fantasizes about their "peaceful, uncomplicated" nature, and McCoy
chimes in: "Typical human reaction to an idyllic natural setting. Back in the
Twentieth Century we referred to it as the Tahiti syndrome. It's particularly
common to over-pressured leader-types like starship captains." Soon after the
landing party finds evidence of the conscientious "super race" who wanted to
"preserve" the Indians—the Noahs of the galaxy as it were—Kirk accidentally hits
his head, gets amnesia, and is subsequently separated from his friends. After
diligently trying but failing to rescue their Captain, Spock and McCoy return to
the Enterprise to deal with diverting the impending asteroid. On the planet's
surface, the Captain, unaware that he is a "more evolved" human than the
Indians, befriends the tribe—eventually "rising to the top" of his "natural"
ability by becoming a medicine chief and, as the Tahiti syndrome would have it,
marrying, in a feathered cloak no less, one of the tribe's beautiful squaws,
Miramanee (Sabrina Scharf).
Like the production documents, the noble savage
stereotype in the broadcast text emphasizes the superiority of whiteness. In one
scene, for example, Miramanee tries to figure out how to pull Kirk's shirt off,
as she can't find any lacing. Portrayed as simpleminded, she is not that bright.
Moments earlier, Kirk has saved a boy by using mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and
fashioned a lamp from an old piece of pottery. Despite his amnesia, he is shown
as naturally and technologically superior. The text seems to say: you can take
the white man out of civilization, but you can't take civilization out of the
white man. Given the impossibility of the white man's "return" to the simplicity
of paradise, the ending in particular plays out the so-prescribed evolutionary
sophistication of whiteness and, in the process, resolves Kirk's Tahiti
syndrome. When the Indians realize Kirk is no God, they stone both him and
Miramanee (it is the Indians who are violent and brutal in this version of the
noble savage stereotype). Spock and McCoy eventually intervene, but only Kirk
survives. In a standard Euro-Indian miscegenation narrative, the native girl
dies so that Kirk, the white male hero, isn't shown unheroically and immorally
leaving her and their unborn baby behind; in other words, so that Kirk can come
off as a morally superior being. The starship Captain is left unencumbered in
his trek towards a liberal-humanist future.
Towards a Conclusion.
In its attempt to imagine "infinite diversity in infinite combinations," the
network and creative decision-makers behind the production of the original
Star Trek participated in and facilitated racist practices. First, the
tension between NBC executives and the creative decision-makers transformed the
more literal and bold articulations of humanism—José, a female Number One, an
unprecedented kiss between a black and a white actor— onto the more metaphoric
and allegorical levels. Treatments that call for an integrated cast are
whitewashed; scripts that call for a radical critique of racism are diluted. The
cast was still integrated, but liberally kept at the margins of narrative cause
and effect. Second, the creative players themselves participated in racist
practice by relying on some of the myths and ideologies of what can ultimately
be described as white supremacy. In this regard, women of color are particularly
brutalized, serving the scopic desires of a male-centered humanity trying to
simultaneously fetishize and universalize an exotic future.
In "The Paradise Syndrome," as I have tried to
show, Native Americans are systematically objectified, sites of displaced
libidinal desire, metaphorically "caged" in pristine conditions on a faraway
planet by a benevolent "super race" which is implicitly linked to the very white
Captain James T. Kirk. In sum, despite their attempt to create a more
egalitarian universe—to resist network capitulations to racism and engage and
critique social issues—the creative decision-makers behind the production of
Star Trek failed to escape the paradox of the liberal-humanist zeitgeist.
NOTES. I would like to thank Vivian Sobchack
for her valuable suggestions and insights.
1. For a more comprehensive analysis of the various
processes informing the meaning of race in Star Trek—including narration,
intertextuality, chronotopes, advertising, and reading—see my book-length study
of the entire Trek phenomenon, Star Trek and History: Race-ing Toward
a White Future (forthcoming from Rutgers UP). For a comprehensive analysis
of the broadcast texts of the original Star Trek, see my article,
"Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations: Diegetic Logics and Racial
Articulations in Star Trek," Film & History 24:60-74, Feb-May,
2. The Gene Roddenberry Papers housed in Special
Collection at the UCLA library include an extensive assortment of scripts and
related production documents associated with the making of Star Trek. I
would like to thank Majel Barrett for allowing me access to this collection and
Brigitte Kueppers for her valuable assistance and on-going work with this
3. Almost as if to rub NBC's decision to reject
"The Cage" in their faces, Roddenberry incorporated the footage from the failed
pilot into a two-part episode, "The Menagerie" (1966).
4. This memo also attempts to censor any material
of a sexual nature: "Caution on the postures and actions of our four principles
so that no impropriety can be suggested. The embraces must not be such as would
embarrass a viewer, and there must be no open-mouth kissing."
5. There are several accounts of "the kiss" from
the various actors involved. In her autobiography, Beyond Uhura: Star Trek
and Other Memories (NY: Putnam's, 1994), Nichols claims that she and Shatner
kissed numerous times (193-97). Nonetheless, the shot broadcast doesn't actually
show a kiss (as do the shots with Spock and Chapel).
6. White also argues that the noble savage fetish
in the eighteenth century transformed into a critique of nobility rather than a
critique of the treatment of the Indians. The referent for the fetish, he
writes, "is not the savages of the new or any other world, but humanity in
general, in relation to which the very notion of `nobility' is a contradiction"
(191). In the primary evidence surrounding the making of "The Paradise Syndrome"
there is no trace of concern for class differences and conflicts. Instead, the
noble savage fetish and Kirk's white skin reveal an advanced humanity that
resembles divinity. There is also no underlying criticism of the "nobility" of
advanced human/ white society in this episode. Instead, the referent most
commonly articulated is the evolutionary superiority of whiteness en masse.
According to Star Trek's liberal-humanist vision, humans have evolved
beyond class or racial difference into what I would suggest is a white-washed
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