Star Trek: How I Traded My Horse and Six-Gun for a Starship and Phaser.

” Caveat Emptor”. Buyer beware. I’ve been a trekkie since the first season of the original series in 1966. I’ve seen every show of the original series in it’s brief three year run, and most of the Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes (seven seasons), Deep Space Nine and Voyager’s six seasons each, as well as the “prequel” to the original Star Trek series, Enterprise. I’m not going to talk about the 11 Star Trek movies, I’ve seen ‘em all, and many on their opening day.

Why? A good and fair question. Is it just a question of enduring adolesence, or something more? As a kid I was in love with Westerns.The mythos of this vast, empty, pre-industrialized landscape where individuals and not societal institutions were in charge of their own destiny and interactions, stirred something in my soul. The level of personal responsiblity, because of the inherent lawlessness was captivating, and facilitated the elevation of daily life to the mythic. There was also always something of the outsider that I identified with. The image of the lonely, wandering Samurai, both of the time, but also standing somewhat removed, spoke deeply to me. Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry explicitly talked about making a Western in Outer Space. The original series’ shows were most often, obvious allegories about contemporary culture. Themes about altruism, authoritariansim, rascism, imperialism, sexism, war, and peace were abundant. In the mid 60′s these were often counter-culture rallying points, and very much in the context of the Vietnam War and the fight for racial justice. Star Trek was also the pop culture and television leader in promoting a multicuturalism of races and genders. Like most Westerns, the shows usually revolved around bullies and bad guys taking advantage of hardworking, good, ordinary folks. Someone had to stand up on their behalf, and often against a larger force of evil. By wits and bravery, good triumphed over evil.

Here are the heroic captains, their crews, and enemies.

Captain James Tiberius Kirk, the phlegmatic, instinctual, and charismatic Captain of the Enterprise. Highly emotional, he was like a barely broken stallion, but always with a sense of humor. The heat of his personality was perfectly balanced by his alter ego and second in command, the Vulcan science officer, Mr Spock. Spock, half human, half Vulcan, was a creature of logic, always trying to purge himself of the last traces of emotion from his human side. As well as a perfect foil and complement to Kirk, Spock was a powerful example of the quest for self knowledge and how to define yourself when you exist between two worlds. Joining them on the bridge of the Enterprise, among others, was Uhura, the communications officer, first of an endless stream of attractive female crew members. Romance was an element that usually balanced the action in the Star Trek universe. There was also, always a parade of interesting and memorable villains to threaten humanity and the galaxy at large.
( Below, Spock, Uhura, and Kahn.)

Appearing in the original series and the second Star Trek move, Khan Noonien Singh was one of my favorite villains. He was a product of a discredited attempt at human genetic engineering and posessed a psychotic superiority complex with a full host of sociopathic delusions of grandeur and omnipotence. He wanted to recreate humanity in his, “enhanced” image, and he had a deep, personal vendetta against Kirk. Kahn was like Ahab willing to sacrifice anything for blind revenge on the great whale (here, Kirk), who had wronged him.

The first Star Trek series lasted only for three season, and was ,”cancelled,” after each one. It was not commercially successful at the time, although it had a dedicated, cult following. In syndication, however, it became huge. Although there were a series of Star trek movies, it was 18 years until the  next Star Trek TV series arrived. This one was Star Trek; The Next Generation.


(
Picard, Data, Troi, The Borg Queen)

The captain of the next version of the Enterprise was Jean Luc Piccard. If Kirk was an untamed mustang, Picard was an Arabian. He was cultured, dignified and intellectual, as well as a resourceful man of action. He exuded gravitas. The character, Data, was the mirror image of Spock. He was an android with a computer brain who was programmed to evolve and sought constantly to understand and feel emotion. Deanna Troi was the ship’s counselor. She could sense the basic emotions at play in all all life forms. Their primary antagonist, was the Borg, led by their “Queen”, above.

The Borg were a collection of  beings that had been “assimilated” into a “collective.” They were fitted with cybernetic, mechanical, additions which changed their physical and emotional make up. They lost their individuality and became part of a “hive” mind. Their sole purpose was to “assimilate” useful life forms, and destroy the rest. Their motto was “resistance is futile.” To my mind they were the best villans of any Star Trek incarnation. The metaphor of the mechanized and dehumanized force that strove relentlessly to assimilate every life form it came across, squashing any individuality in it’s path can be associated with many aspects of modern life and culture. The battle of the individual against the forces of homogeneity has so many correlatives. Even the shape of their ship, a cube, fed the metaphor.

Deep Space Nine was unique in that it took place on a space station, not a starship, as had the earlier two shows. It was located at the entrance of a strategically important  ”wormhole” which allowed instantaneous travel to far reaches of the galaxy. The station had a large group of recurring characters as well as enemies and allies. Below are Captain Sisko, and officers Odo and Dax and Worf. Their antagonists were varied and because of their important strategic position, guarding the “wormhole,” the enemy would usually come to them. The story arcs and characterizations could get quite elaborate because of their fixed position in a station with a large population. Their existence at such an important  crossroads location meant they were forced to deal with many different cultures that required and wanted access to what they protected. This situation has many similar aspects to our own world’s agonizing multi-cultural, geo-political turmoil. So many mistrustful and misunderstood cultures at often violent discord.



Deep Space Nine overlapped The Next Generation for a couple of years, as it did with the next incarnation, Voyager. Voyager takes us back to a starship again, this time one that was stranded in the far reaches of space, by an anomaly, some 75 years away from their home quadrant . The ship, Voyager boasted the first female captain.



Captain Kathryn Janeway was deeply intelligent and reasouceful. She could be warm and understanding, but never lost her calm or steely nerve, no matter how great the pressure. B’elanna Tores, half human and half Klingon ( a violent race of warriors) struggled as had so many other Star Trek characters, to contain the conflicting aspects of her bi-species heritage. Voyager was a motley crew. Tores and Commander Chakotay had been members of a rebel group whose ship Voyager was chasing when they were marooned. The crew combined their efforts in the name of survival, although the balance of friction and dedication to common cause was often in play. Seven of Nine, above, was formerly part of the Borg Collective whose implants had mostly been removed. She too struggled  constantly with the remnants of her former identity as she fought to reclaim her humanity. Luckily, she was still able to sense the presence of the Borg, an ability which helped Voyager immensely in several encounters. Voyager is a story of survival in a hostile environment where the drive to get home is always front and center. They faced numerous forces trying to stop them and had to creatively find allies and resources. The strength of the cellular imprint to find your way home when lost at sea is such a powerful force.

The most recent Star Trek addition is simply called, Enterprise. It is a prequel to the original series with an earlier version of the famous starship. It is set in the beginning years after earth’s discovery of “warp drive”, i.e. interstellar, faster than light, travel.



Above is Captain Jonathan Archer, Commander T’Pol, his Vulcan second officer, and Archer’s chief engineer and friend, Trip Tucker. Below, is one of their main antagonists, Sillick. In this series, the team is trying to write the rules as they go. They are new to space and all its challenges and complex interactions with many new species. They are still trying to iron out the right blend of diplomacy and power. When is it appropriate to use force and how to appropriately represent earth? They live in a universe with both more and less technologically advanced civilizations.This aspect seems particularly relevant today with our struggle with “wars of choice” as opposed to “wars of necessity.” Enterprise takes place before the founding of the United Federstion of Planets, which is the organization under which all subsequent Star Trek ships and series operate. The federation was an uber U.N. dedicated to peacekeeping and the helpful development of all civilizations. T’Pol, is a representative of Vulcan, a more advanced civilization, which is basically monitoring Earth’s ability to act responsibly in space. (Would that we had such a thoughtful monitor now.) The idea of learning how to grow into your new found power and abilities is a central theme here. It’s like watching a gifted adolescent emerge into adulthood, with all the stop and starts, and issues, that are common to human development. This quality of Enterprise gives the show a real sense of watching an evolving person on a larger scale.

In the Star Trek universe, the horse may have been traded in for a starship that can travel faster than light, and the six gun for a phaser or photon torpedo, but the issues and archtypes all have the same feel as a Western. The drama of people trying to find their way in a vast landscape facing frontier obstacles, resonate just like in a Western. The good guy riding into town, helping the abused or oppressed, and like in the mythos of the Old West, riding off into the sunset, a nomad on his unending quest, lives on. Our need for certain kinds of heroic, mythological characters, embodying our universal struggles and aspirations, does indeed, reach across space and time.

 

 

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25 Comments on "Star Trek: How I Traded My Horse and Six-Gun for a Starship and Phaser."

  1. Craig Simon says:

    Nice summary! Was addicted myself to the original, but my interest waned with every iteration. I think the original was unique at the time, and later versions were not. My two cents anyway.

  2. Helen says:

    Oddly enough, my husband is watching an old “Lone Ranger” episode on DVD as I type this. The William Tell Overture is blasting away in the background.

    We both traded in Westerns for Star Trek many, many decades ago. Personally, I liked Picard (I call him “The Picard”) and Q most of all. Yet, the original cast and crew are the gold standard for all that followed and Shatner & Nimoy are icons.

    Here is an irony: my husband met his own Western idol Roy Rogers while serving in Vietnam. He actually drove R.R. somehwere in a jeep and we have a photo of it. Imagine meeting one’s Western hero on the war front? It seems surrealistic to me. Daniel Boone…Dale Evans…The Cisco Kid…Gunsmoke…such is the stuff our dreams were made of. Of course, he loves Star Trek for the same reasons you state.

    Your summary is excellent. Sorry to say I have not seen the very last addition. Star Trek will live forever in one form or another!

    • David Leeds says:

      Helen, what a wonderful story.Those were, indeed the Westerns I grew up on too. I loved The Roy, as well. Luckily, I was in the first draft lottery and had a high enough number not to go. I got an MFA from UCLA in film, and my favorite class was “editing.” It was the tradition there to give every one the same raw footage from a Gunsmoke episode and then see what each student did with it. What fun! Your husband, you, and I also may be the only three people I know who probably saw the Klinton Stillsbury version of The Lone Ranger in a theater. I’m currently the only one I know. Thanks for your response. All best to you both.

  3. Craig says:

    Star Trek does two positive things for men. It gives them a strong role model in Captain Kirk as a man with altruist values… a man with a true sense of good versus evil and one who will not be swayed by the attraction or lack there of, to beautiful women.

    • David Leeds says:

      Craig, I thought about including exactly the things you mention. Your dead on about Kirk as a role model. That whole unique constellation of his personality is very central to the enduring nature of Star Trek.

  4. Richard McCluskey says:

    I remember being up all night watching Star Trek and trying to finish a term paper on ethics; can’t remember what leaked into my paper. Don’t know if they created the caracters from meyers-briggs, but Kirk, Spock, Bones, and Scotty were intuition, intellect, emotion, and sensing. Finally, you forgot to mention the greatest Trek film: Galaxy Quest.

    • David Leeds says:

      I admit, Galaxy Quest was hysterical, and like coming home, for us trekkies.
      Part of the joy of the new Star Trek prequel movie is the unbelievable way they nailed the whole central Enterprise crew. i’ve already watched it three times since the theater.

  5. Jennifer Kelley says:

    I was born during an episode of the Original Star Trek- January 31, 1969- MY father -pregnant pause-and I have been fans since forever- seen all the episodes countless times, been a fan of all the series, and still watch the movies when I can. I am the SF geek of my house- my kids are so proud-embarrassed- LIVE LONG AND PROSPER

  6. i really did like the first star trek, spock was always so”logical”. it was plane and simple with good acting and stories.there wasnt a lot of special effects as in the newer ones.the characters were easy to look at without strange marks on there foreheads.i can see how it relates to the old westerns they were both new frontiers. thank you david for posting this

    • David Leeds says:

      It is amazing how clear, well defined characters with a simple story line can work so well without elaborate special effects. The original series is definitely a testament to the power of character and story. I like many of the later Trek special effects, but nothing could touch Kirk, Spock, Scotty, et.al.

    • kathy says:

      Margaret,
      We seem to be of the same mind – the “special effects” turn me off. I love older science fiction, without all of those distractions.

  7. Lisa says:

    Just spent the weekend cooking meat and watching Star Trek. Clearly a man was involved;).

  8. Ida says:

    Hee hee you have us roaring with laughter here in the UK!!

    My hb read your post and sends you the vulcan sign both hands…I can’t do it!! he was a great fan of the original Star Trek we use to get it about a year after you chaps.

    Remember Clint Eastwood as Rowdie Yates..Rawhide,Laramie,Gene Autrey etc,etc hb is on a roll now…..thanks for the memories. Ida

  9. Since “Star Trek” was never my thing, I really enjoyed hearing your description of what it meant to you. It really has been a phenomenon and I agree that its appeal is that it feeds our universal need for a hero in our stories, and a sense of justice. Thanks for a very interesting post on a cultural phenomenon.

    • David Leeds says:

      Kathy could never understand why I loved it so. The post was an attempt to explain it to her. It really does seem to be primarily a guy thing, though. But the pervasive need for popular identification to basic mythological transference his pervasive. I’m waiting for more Anglophilia.

  10. kathy says:

    Like Sunday Taylor, Star Trek was never my thing either. But, I was always so curious about why every man I knew was such a fan. Your post really explained a lot to me, and I love the idea of a Western in the sky. I’m a bit more curious to see one of the movies now.

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Sculptor, painter, poet. Currently living in Los Angeles and Martha's Vineyard