How Star Trek Addressed the Subject of War

Wed, 28 Feb 2024

Everywhere I turn, there's another story about fighting in the news. It reminds me of a concept often explored in the original series of Star Trek. Even in their optimistic way of envisioning humanity in the future, they still found ways to explore the complexities of war.

The original Star Trek was a futuristic series that dealt with the day's issues. One of the favorite subjects of Star Trek was war. This article looks at how Star Trek addressed matters relating to the Vietnam War and war in general.

Though set in the 23rd century, the original Star Trek series (1966-1969) was a social commentary on the 1960s in many ways. It's precisely because of the futuristic storyline that the series was able to speak to the issues of the day. By dressing the plots in the garb of science fiction, the writers could aim for the attitudes and problems of the second half of the 20th century.

The favorite issue addressed in the Star Trek series was war. During the time of filming, the Vietnam War was raging. It was also at the height of the Cold War between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Plus, World War II and the Korean conflict were still recent memories. Against this backdrop, Star Trek produced episodes dealing with the morality of war, the arms race, and third-party interference in local disputes.

In many respects, the Klingons represented the American perspective of the Soviets. The Klingons were ruthless conquerors intent on expanding their territory. They occupied a galaxy section neighboring the "good guys," the United Federation of Planets.

In an early episode entitled "Errand of Mercy," war was declared between the Klingons and the Federation. Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock traveled to the neutral planet of Organia on a diplomatic mission to persuade the Organians to side with the Federation. The Klingons arrived, however, and immediately seized power as an occupying force. The obligatory struggle between the Federation and the Klingons ensued. By the end of the episode, the Organians taught both sides a lesson about the violent, wasteful, and senseless nature of war.

In one of the most famous episodes, "The Trouble with Tribbles," a Klingon was discovered to have undergone reconstructive surgery to infiltrate the Federation as a Klingon spy. Another episode, "Day of the Dove," portrayed the Klingons as war-hungry patriots for whom the most significant honor was dying for the glory of the Empire. These types of episodes reflected the Americanized caricature of the Soviets as violent automatons willing to give their lives for the cause of their motherland. While the Klingon society was presented as much more complex and honorable in the subsequent series of the Star Trek franchise, the original series promoted an "us vs. them" relationship between the Federation and the Klingon Empire.

At times, the references in Star Trek to contemporary issues were subtle; at other times, they were difficult to miss. One of the most apparent commentaries on events of the 1960s came in the episode "A Private Little War," which was illustrative of the Vietnam War and the Soviet involvement in the conflict. This episode featured Kirk, Spock, and Dr. McCoy beaming down to a primitive planet where Kirk had previously been stationed. When they arrived, they discovered two previously peaceful tribes, the Hill People and the Villagers, were at war. The Villagers were using flintlock rifles in the conflict, weaponry much more advanced than when Kirk had been stationed there. Kirk suspected that the Klingons were secretly arming the Villagers. Kirk decided to arm the Hill People with similar weaponry when his suspicions were confirmed to preserve the balance. He even referenced "20th century brush wars on the Asian continent" to support his decision. By the end of the episode, Kirk questions whether he has made the right decision. The episode leaves that question unanswered.

While the Klingons drew comparisons to the Soviets, the Romulans appeared to be more representative of the Nazis. A century before the series' events, the Federation had fought an intergalactic war against the Romulans. Since that time, there had been little contact between them.

The Romulans were much more refined and civilized than the Klingons. As creatures of duty, they operated within a highly structured hierarchy. The episode that introduced the Romulans, "Balance of Terror," involved Kirk and the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise waging a "cat-and-mouse" battle against a Romulan Bird of Prey starship. This episode was reminiscent of World War II submarine battles. Indeed, the plot for the episode drew from the movies Run Silent, Run Deep, and The Enemy Below, which were set during World War II.

In "The Enterprise Incident," the Romulans took on the role of the North Koreans. In the wake of a U.S. spy ship - the Pueblo - being captured off the coast of North Korea, this episode featured the U.S.S. Enterprise being captured in Romulan territory and accused of spying.

Beyond those involving the Klingons or Romulans, other Star Trek episodes also addressed the topic of war. "A Taste of Armageddon" dealt with the horrific reality of war. "A Piece of the Action," reminiscent of the days of Al Capone, dealt with the problem of gang warfare. "Patterns of Force" took place on a planet ruled by a Nazi-like regime. In "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield," the destruction of an entire planet shows the devastating result of a war based on racial hatred.

Though dated, these episodes continue to impact viewers today. By dealing with real issues within the context of science fiction, Star Trek swayed personal and public opinion.