Exploring political issues in Star Trek’s universe doesn’t come as a shock to loyal fans. Its vast narrative canvas spans time, space and most importantly the human equation, in a cosmic quest to entertain with cerebral sci-fi. Indeed, one of our most enduring sci-fi franchises was initially dismissed as too cerebral after network executives viewed the original pilot. Thankfully, creator Gene Roddenberry was given a second chance to film another. Ultimately, his ‘Wagon Train To The Stars’ lived long and prospered.
Former LAPD cop Roddenberry never anticipated his space opera would become a worldwide phenomenon or global cultural institution, but as it did, stories of Starship crews gained complexity and real significance in every major area of human endeavor. Science, the arts, philosophy, and spirituality are all explored memorably. Often, complex human politics or alien political intrigue is well trod ground for television and also feature films. While I was writing and pitching stories for Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, plots focused on politics were always handled seriously by the producers.
Original Series – Conscience Of The King
The play’s the thing in this TOS episode. It comes straight from the bard himself – William Shakespeare. When Enterprise transports an acting company to their next play date, Kirk realizes one of the actors may have been the brutal dictator Kodos The Executioner responsible for genocide.
Using the suspected dictator’s actress daughter Lenore as linchpin, the real drama plays out of the theatrical kind. Ultimately, we see although the savage crime of genocide can never been explained away easily, it like most other human foibles comes from the machinations of real men or women – not overblown caricatures or supernatural demonizing of those responsible for such heinous deeds.
Original Series – Space Seed
Ricardo Montalban’s intense portrayal of Khan Noonien Singh from original series episode, Space Seed, prompted producer Harve Bennett and director Nicholas Meyer to select him as villain for the 2nd Trek feature film – Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan. The choice proved a wise one, as Khan consistently remains the most popular of Trek’s many larger than life villains. Time and again, he’s the one we most love to hate.
On every conceivable level, Khan’s wrath is truly a wonder to behold. It stems from ancient political underpinnings on his homeworld, Earth, as one of several genetically superior “supermen”. Before they can be brought to justice for crimes against humanity, this villainous band blasted off in sleeper ships. When the Enterprise encounters Khan’s ship, the SS Botany Bay, Captain Kirk’s crew revives Khan and his confederates only to soon find them trying to hijack his starship.
One scene above all underscores how dangerous and fascinating Khan’s political philosophy appears. While dining with Kirk and Spock, Khan comments that although their time has brought forth marvelous technological advancements, man himself has changed little in his fundamental capabilities. It’s this Nietzsche like “superman” ideal and accompanying military mindset, behind real life dictators like Hitler, which see them crash and burn so flamboyantly. Although Khan fails to best Kirk in the episode, it’s ultimately for the better dramatically. His triumphant and vengeful return in Meyer’s feature film makes for the foundation of one of the great, classic Star Trek films of all time.
Star Trek: The Next Generation – Redemption
As Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s Enterprise 1701-D travels to the Klingon home world to see Gowron officially elected as head of the Klingon high council, it’s learned there’s a conflict brewing which endangers the stability and security of the entire Klingon empire itself.
Starfleet officer Worf is a Klingon whose family was dishonored years ago by clan Duras – now headed by the savage Duras sisters. Along the way, we learn Klingon politics is just as rough and tumble as the more brutish of the aliens themselves.
Though Worf doesn’t clear his family name just yet, he makes steps to see to it that one day his own family name will once again be uttered with respect. In any bloody revolution, there are many casualties – both in terms of political weight and human life. Worf’s family’s sacrifice of their good and honorable reputation, in some ways, can be viewed as even more damaging than the physical loss of life.
Star Trek VI: Undiscovered Country
Directed by Nicholas Meyer, this is the sixth classic Star Trek film and it brims with lots of political action and intrigue.
After the Klingon moon Praxis explodes with such deadly fury it nearly takes Starship Excelsior – commanded by Captain Sulu (George Takei) – along as a casualty, the Klingon empire is forced to reach out to their sworn enemy, the United Federation of Planets, for assistance.
Klingon Chancellor Gorkon (David Warner) is the honor obsessed alien diplomat. He plans to engage in peace negotiations with Earth. Captain Kirk must escort the famous politician to the peace talks. What follows is political intrigue at its most entertaining. When the assassination of the intelligent, peace loving Gorkon, prompts the arrest of Kirk and McCoy, the investigation into the mysterious political killing goes into high gear. Spock and the remaining Enterprise crew must do all they can to clear Kirk and McCoy’s names.
The 1991 film is chock full of authentic political references. To remind Kirk of his special place in these negotiations, Spock tells him, “Only Nixon could go to China.” what he terms as a Vulcan proverb. In reality, on good old 20th century Earth, it’s the way our world saw the American President Richard Nixon’s trip to China as being so successful in a substantive political arena, but also cloaked the diplomatic venture in a highly metaphorical manner.
Note: A version of my article was published on Yahoo! Contributor Network in 2008