“I’m Not Tryin’ To Cause A Sensation…”

The main cast of Star Trek: The Original Series, led by (a very young) William Statner starring at Capt. James T. Kirk

“…Just talkin’ ’bout my generation.”  Well, not my generation exactly.  The Sixties were long over by the time I was born, but they perpetually hold my fascination.  The music and literature of the decade speak to a mass culture of protest and political awareness that (as something of an idealist and would-be rebel) I find irresistible.

As a student of history, I also think that the way people “talk about their generation” in the 1960s provides some of the most interesting primary source documentation around.

Take the original Star Trek series for example.  I am not a “Trekkie” by any means; prior to this week, I don’t think I’ve ever seen more than a half-dozen episodes of any of the series and I couldn’t distinguish Captain Kirk from Captain Picard if you asked me to.  However, curiosity got the better of me and I ended up watching three episodes in a row—partly because some of the old “special effects” are just hilarious, but mostly because Star Trek turns out to be a surprisingly poignant social commentary.  (Okay, not every episode is oh-so intelligent, but many are.)

In “Turnabout Intruder,” for example, the overambitious Dr. Janice Lester overpowers her former love-interest Captain Kirk, exchanges bodies with him and commands the Starship Enterprise until her erratic actions and attitudes in the body of Capt. Kirk raise the suspicions of the hyper-logical Mr. Spock, the loyal Mr. Scott, and the cautious Dr. McCoy.  By sheer will-power, the real Capt. Kirk (in the body of Janice Lester) interrupts the life-transferance and wins the battle to reclaim his body.

Throughout the episode, Dr. Lester is portrayed as a hyper-emotional, power-hungry, and bitter feminist who refuses to be content with her own womanhood.  The men in command are, by contrast, always rational, steady, and courageous, and all possess a strong sense of loyalty and duty.  This strength of character apparently allows them to finally overcome Janice Lester, who collapses into a puddle of tears when she returns to her own body.  As she is led away by her co-conspirator, another man who agrees to “take care of her,” Capt. Kirk muses: “Her life could have been as rich as any woman’s.  If only…”

“If only” she had behaved as dutifully as the mini-skirt clad women of the Enterprise crew who obey their orders to administer sedatives and record court-martial proceedings (i.e., basic nursing and secretarial duties)?

The episode aired in 1969—arguably at the height of the Women’s Liberation movement.  Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique in 1963, women were on the front lines of nearly every social movement (civil rights, prison reform, Vietnam protests) throughout the decade, and by 1969 the National Organization of Women (NOW) was bringing lawsuit after lawsuit against businesses who discriminated against women laborers.  Intentionally or not, “Turnabout Intruder” was clearly responding to that movement in fascinating, and seemingly very hostile, ways.

Mr. Spock “reaches” the equivalent of “space hippies” as they explain their search for the planet Eden.

Interestingly, other episodes broach the subjects of civil rights (Stratus-dwellers vs. Troglites in “The Cloud Minders”) and the “hippie movement” (see “The Way to Eden”) in far less conservative (and often interestingly complex) ways.  In the former, Capt. Kirk fights tooth and nail against the oppression of the Troglites and the general assumption that they are an inferior species.  He eventually wins some political sway and new respect for the cave-dwelling race.  The latter episode clearly wishes to display social movement leaders as devious, selfish, malicious persons whose obsession with creating a “new world” trumps basic concern for other people.  The musical, free-spirited, idealistic (and of course scantily clad) followers, however, are portrayed as the hopeful, if easily misled, creators of a better life for all.  On the whole, a rather flattering portrait of the “space hippies.”

This is by no means an original discovery; the commentary is too overt to go unnoticed.  Still, Star Trek: The Original Series is, as it turns out, a fascinating lens through which to view the conflicts and transitions of the late 1960s.  I think it’s too soon to tell what 21st century media will prove to be so enlightening—though I’m not holding out any great hope that Twitter will be considered as interesting as Captain Kirk and company.

**My apologies for not crediting the images to anyone–I am unable to find the original sources, but discovered all of them through a quick search on Google Images.

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