It’s fascinating to observe dated notions slip through the facade of the futuristic visions offered up in science fiction. No matter how ambitious and forward-thinking any future-oriented premise is, the fact is it remains a product of its time. Why, for instance, long ago in a galaxy far, far away, did Luke Skywalker and Han Solo have that distinctly ’70s-style feathered shaggy hair?
This phenomenon is particularly pronounced in the original “Star Trek” series. To be sure, there are some wildly imaginative visions of the future that must be acknowledged, the foremost being Gene Roddenberry’s conception of a universe with vast racial diversity that’s evident within the microcosm of the USS Enterprise. Viewers in the 1960s were exposed to Vulcans, Andorians, Horta and dozens of other alien species that, while completely fabricated, seemed as natural on the set as the healthy mix of white, black, Asian and Hispanic faces we’re familiar with here on Earth. And the women, while horrendously objectified by today’s standards, do find a place in the working world of the Enterprise crew.
But, it was the 1960s, and you can bet your last quatloo that the men had crew cuts, the women wore short dresses and the captain was a white male earthling. That was, after all, how society was organized at the time. But digging deeper, you find a lot of episodes devoted to the upheaval of that culture. More than a few touch on the hippy/drug movement, women’s liberation, racial bigotry and an overriding concern with the Cold War. This last theme typically played out in the United Federation of Planets’ ongoing existential struggle with the Klingon Empire, or alternately the Romulan Star Empire. Unapologetically brutal and ruthless, the Klingons most obviously represented the future’s version of the Soviet Union, while the equally savage but more mysterious Romulans might have been closer to the Chinese.
Interestingly, it wasn’t until a recent viewing of “Balance of Terror,” which details the Enterprise’s first encounter with the Romulans, that I caught an unmistakeable parallel to a defining episode of the ’60s, the Cuban missile crisis. In a nutshell, a boundary scuffle between the Enterprise and an intruding Romulan vessel threatens to escalate to intergalactic war. Because of the Enterprise’s remote position, communication with Federation leadership is sluggish and guidance is unavailable, leaving Capt. Kirk to confront decisions with “millions and millions of lives hanging on what this vessel does.” He finds himself under immense pressure as the stakes grow and the consequences of his actions, or inaction, become increasingly grave. Add to this a crew that’s beginning to splinter as frayed nerves give way to heated bickering and flashes of bigotry. Through it all Kirk holds it together, although he admits in a private moment with Dr. McCoy his wish for a simpler calling.
I’ve read numerous accounts of President John F. Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban missile crisis to a peaceful resolution. It never ceases to amaze me how close we came to a global nuclear conflict that likely would’ve claimed hundreds of millions of lives. By all accounts only two men, Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, were able to prevent it from happening. Had others been in their place, the world as we know it would not exist and a good many of us would have perished, or would never have been born. It’s hard to imagine the pressure on Kennedy as the crisis spiralled out of control, the calls for war mounting from all quarters while he desperately sought a way out. But a look into the future — through the eyes of the past — may have given us our best glimpse yet.