Earth Date: 18th April, 2019
I have been asked to rank, from most to least, which pilots of each live action Star Trek series have best addressed the societal issues from when they were produced, while taking advantage of the media of television. I intend to do this, but first I want to go through each one chronologically and discuss how each pilot does this.
First, we have The Original Series, which took place from 1966 until 1969. This series had two pilots, so let’s look first at “The Cage.”
This episode revolved around everything not being what it seemed. I had the idea that perhaps this stemmed from the idea that at the time the episode was released, society and social norms were not as benevolent as said society would have us believe, but instead were holding us captive. And you could either accept the illusion or, like Pike, fight against it to find the truth.
What that truth is, however, depends on your interpretation. Certainly one could find their own biases of what was wrong with society reflected in the episode. But surely what wasn’t reflected was the Cold War, manifested at the time in the Vietnam War. That would not be reflected until “Where No Man Has Gone Before”.
In “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” we have the Enterprise crew as we later came to know it, outfitted with crewmen from different races and nationalities. We had, notably, a Russian in Chekov, as well as a Japanese crewman and a black communications officer. In other words, Star Trek suddenly represented a future in which these petty wars with each other was put in the past, and the human race is unified and working together.
This is important, especially given the wars going on when the episode was released, as it gives hope for such a future. As for the content of the episode, it centres around corruption, the dangers of being seduced by it, and how best we should respond to it. The antagonist is one who gains special abilities, and those abilities change him. This was an old friend of Kirk’s, but in light of how he changes, Kirk finds himself fighting against him. Perhaps this represents how soldiers in the Vietnam War didn’t come back the same, or perhaps it represents the government who allowed it to happen, but either way, it seems a more relevant reflection of the times than “The Cage”.
Next, we have The Next Generation, and “Encounter at Farpoint”. This first aired in 1987, two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and this wall is certainly represented by Q; he tries to block the Enterprise from advancing further, as he claims, humans are nothing more than a barbaric species constantly at war. This was certainly relevant at a time when tensions of nuclear annihilation were ever-present. So then, it becomes Picard’s responsibility to prove Q wrong, and where does Q choose as his courtroom but a post-atomic dystopia, a reflection of human history of that universe.
However, Star Trek being what it is, Picard claims that humans have changed, become better, and asks for a chance to prove it. Q takes him up on the offer and allows him to advance. In the adventure ahead, Picard almost proves himself wrong and attacks the creature only trying to save his mate. But ultimately he proves the opposite, and frees them both. So, like “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” an apt reflection of the times.
After that, we get to Deep Space 9, and “Emissary.” Now, here’s where it gets interesting. On November 24, 1992, US forces left the Phillipines, and then on January 3rd, 1993, “Emissary” was released. I believe that the Cardassians are meant to represent the US forces, and the Bajorans meant to represent the Filipinos. It certainly makes sense: the US forces were forced to leave the bases they had there, such as the Subic Bay naval base and Clark Air Base, and this was at least in part due to rebel coups, but also due to governmental decisions; also, the name order that Filipinos go by formally is surname first, given name last, and this is also the Bajoran naming order. Given all this, it seems to be a pilot representing perhaps a less prescient issue in the minds of the public, but a no less current one.
The Cardassians in this episode, then, represent a segment of US military history that is best left relegated to the past, and Starfleet is the more benevolent future. It shows Starfleet aligning themselves with the Bajorans, although not sharing their religious beliefs, which it turns out has some legitimacy proved by the wormhole and the aliens within it. Even more than this, though, it shows the new commander of the station interacting meaningfully with these aliens, making peace, sharing knowledge, and ultimately becoming their emissary. This shows a Starfleet connection to local religion and gives that religion importance. Ultimately, that connection even creates an ally in what is to come.
Next, we have Voyager‘s pilot, “Caretaker.” This, too, requires some background: on March 4, 1994, four people were convicted related to bombing the World Trade Centre, years before 9/11 happened. Then, “Caretaker” was released the following year on January 16. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the Maquis are meant to represent the terrorists and Starfleet the establishment. And make no mistake, the Maquis we’re introduced to in the opening sequence are non-white, so that certainly makes a statement.
However, they aren’t the enemies. In “Caretaker,” these terrorists join forces with Starfleet to fight for a common goal; such is a very Star Trek feature. The Caretaker in question is one who takes care of the Ocampa, fatherly and almost God-like, but he is dying, and must ensure his ‘children’ survive his coming death. To me, he represents the state of the government in the 90s, trying to shield the masses from the dangers outside their safe bubble, but ultimately doomed to fail eventually. We are the Ocampa, the shielded masses, and the Kazon are the enemies outside waiting to get in. Certainly a relevant commentary to the time period.
After that, is “Broken Bow,” the Star Trek: Enterprise pilot. This was released later the same month that 9/11 happened. This is a pilot that takes us back to the beginning, and closer to our time than any Star Trek before it. We are first introduced to the series through a memory of a young Jonathan Archer, which tells us that the Vulcans have been holding back the humans from space exploration. This seems reminiscent of the Caretaker from the Voyager pilot, but as this pilot continues, we see that Star Trek: Enterprise is actually the opposite of Voyager: rather than going too far into space, this crew have gone not far enough; rather than, like the Ocampa, being mostly contented with being shielded, Archer and the other humans want to break out. This seems to be in line with the period this show was released: everything changed after 9/11, and people were no longer able to be content with the world as it had been. Something had to change.
Also introduced in this episode was the temporal cold war. On the surface this seems like an irrelevant plot, but the series was released ten years from the end of the cold war, and the beginning of a new one: the war in Afghanistan, the so-called War on Terror. With rhetoric like this, is it any wonder the Star Trek of this period was about breaking away from terror?
Finally, you come to the most recent pilot, “The Vulcan Hello” from Star Trek: Discovery. This was released in 2017, one year after the election in which Donald Trump became the American president. This event led to the rise of hate groups that included neo-Nazis, and triggered a comeback of rhetoric to ‘punch Nazis’ which originated in the second World War. “The Vulcan Hello” deals with a similar rhetoric when Michael Burnham decides that the best way to deal with Klingons, and to prevent war with them, is to strike first. But much like modern counter-rhetoric that claims Nazi propaganda is nothing but a ‘difference in opinion’ rather than a destructive force, Burnham is stopped from this action.
Like Enterprise before it, Discovery sets its series in the early days of Star Trek in order to tackle the issues it means to address. This is likely due to the impression that we have progressed backwards from the optimistic future we’ve been working towards, that the first Star Trek promised, so this earlier era of Star Trek is the one we must return to. In this episode, it is established that Klingons have not been seen for 100 years (i.e. since Enterprise), and this credibly aligns to the Nazis, who first came to power a little under 100 years ago. In addition, the episode informs us that Starfleet only makes fleeting contact with the Klingons, which reflects real-world history of having avoided giving the Nazis power until recently. But in recent times, there’s been a shift in power to the prejudiced and the hateful. Discovery‘s pilot addressed this through the Klingon leader’s speech opposed to peace that opened the episode, as well as Burnham’s desperate acts to counter them.
So, here are my rankings:
1. “The Vulcan Hello”
2. “Encounter at Farpoint”
3. “Where No Man Has Gone Before”
5. “The Cage”
6. “Broken Bow”
As for why my rankings are like this, it isn’t to do with series bias; DS9 is in fact my favourite series, because it handles the issues brought up so well, and because of the nuance written into it. This is based on nothing more than how well it ties into real events, and how prescient in the minds of the audience these issues seem to be.