What IS Star Trek?

StarTrekTheOriginalSeriesintrotumblr_loyv0pxXD51qboo5qo1_r2_500Of the several threads woven into the ancestry of Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, one -- and I think the most important one -- can be traced all the way back to John W. Campbell's Astounding Stories by way of Forbidden Planet and Dianetics. There’s a wide variety of opinion on how to look at Star Trek (and we will confine ourselves to just the original three seasons of the first series, Roddenberry’s core idea in its purest distilled form).

Roddenberry himself referred to it semi-sarcastically as “Wagon Train in space”. Others have called it a planet-of-the-week story. As with many science fiction and fantasy programs, it was at core a series of morality plays.

The common joke is that the basic Star Trek idea is they meet God, and --

  • He’s a child.
  • Or an idiot.
  • Or a machine.
  • Or some combination thereof.

Much truth is said in jest, and I think the core of Star Trek, the philosophical heart and soul, as it were, is really a much more profound question:

"How then shall a god behave?"

Yes, I know Roddenberry was an atheist; they frequently as the best questions.

Here are the episodes that I consider to be in the "How then shall a god behave?" theme:

“The Cage” a.k.a. “The Menagerie” “Where No Man Has Gone Before” “The City On The Edge Of Forever” “The Squire Of Gothos” “Charlie X” “Shore Leave” “Arena” “The Return Of The Archons” “Errand Of Mercy” “Who Mourns For Adonis?” “The Changeling” “The Apple” “Catspaw” “Plato's Stepchildren”

Quite a number, and several of them crucial to the series' impact / success / longevity. I hold that if you remove these episodes, particularly the first five on the list (which include the two pilots), you remove what makes Star Trek “Star Trek”.[1]

Star-Trek-The-Original-Series-image-star-trek-the-original-series-36390304-1024-768The stories cited above involve characters who are either capable of altering the fabric of reality (“The City On The Edge Of Forever”, as opposed to other time travel stories in the series, is about a moral choice that will drastically alter the future instead of merely creating a mild disruption), creating an illusion so universal that it might as well be altered reality (as opposed to fooling just one or two individuals), or overtly demanding to be worshipped as a god.

STTOS ForeverThe difference between these episodes and those where characters possess superhuman abilities (including shapeshifting), are extremely powerful but in a conventional manner, or use illusion to attempt to gain what they want is that the latter still fall inside the range of recognizable human conflicts and behavior while the core stories involve to one degree or another human interaction with a being who, whatever their origin, is now several degrees of magnitude above and beyond humanity.[2]

The quintessential Star Trek story, it appears, is basically a 20th century retelling of the Book of Job. It is humanity staring God in the eye and asking, “What gives?”

Okay, so how did Star Trek arrive at that particular equation? What led Roddenberry and his staff in that direction?

Roddenberry made no bones about drawing inspiration from the published science fiction of the era.  Star Trek is certainly chockablock with pulp sci-fi gadgetry and concepts; it’s not that far removed from Space Patrol or Rocky Jones.

And the episodes themselves certainly drew inspiration from older science fiction stories.  “Arena” notoriously ripped off Frederick Brown’s short story of the same title, and purely unintentionally: Line producer Gene L. Coon, needing a script in a hurry, dredged up the idea from his subconscious, having forgotten he’d read it in college. The moment Desilu’s legal department realized the similarity, Coon contacted Brown and purchased the story rights from him.

And where was that story first published?

From the ur-source of 20th century science fiction: The pages of Astounding Science Fiction and the editorial offices of John W. Campbell.


art by Hubert Rogers

Frank Kelly Freas ???????John W. Campbell by Frank Kelly Freas

Before we get to Campbell, we’ll make two brief stops.

First is Forbidden Planet, one of the clearly acknowledged inspirations for Star Trek, and itself derived from Campbell’s pool of creative talent.

Forbidden Planet was the last big budget film of the early 1950s sci-fi craze, arriving just too late to catch the crest of the wave. A B-movie from MGM, an A-list studio, Forbidden Planet stood head and shoulders above most science fiction films of the era.

While it’s origins were decidedly B-movie, Forbidden Planet received two creative streams through screenwriter Cyril Hume.[3]

Hume melded in Shakespeare (by way of The Tempest) and popular sci-fi (by way of whatever was on the stands at the time). He found the sweet spot for the story, the perfect blend of corn and cosmic consciousness.

For those not familiar with Forbidden Planet, it involves a starship arriving at a remote planet where a mad scientist has been playing with a now extinct advanced race’s brain boosting machinery, giving him the god-like ability to create a super-sapient robot, a menagerie of living animals and, in the film’s great unanswered question, possibly even his own daughter.


The studly young space captain falls for the daughter (of course) and arouses a Freudian fit of incestuous jealousy in the scientist that finds form in the infamous Monster Of The Id, which in the end can scarcely be constrained long enough to allow the daughter to escape with the captain and his crew before the entire planet blows up.

forbidden planet monster from id

Is that or is that not as perfect a Star Trek episode as one could hope for?

Despite a mediocre performance at the box office, Forbidden Planet remains a touch stone of literate science fiction.

Hume’s dip into the depths of literary sci-fi doubtlessly occurred at Campbell and Astounding’s end of the pool.

Campbell and Astounding had already provided the foundation for two of the 1950s earliest sci-fi successes: The Day The Earth Stood Still, based on “Farewell To The Master” by Harry Bates (originally published in the October 1940 issue of Astounding Science Fiction) and The Thing From Another World, based on “Who Goes There?” by Don A. Stuart (originally published in the August 1938 issue).

“Don A. Stuart” is the pen name of John W. Campbell.

Campbell is arguably the single most influential person in the history of American science fiction. A writer of slam bang adventure in the early pulp era, once he ascended to the editor’s desk of Astounding he demanded writers jettison early cardboard characters, formula writing, and dubious science to produce stories that were sound as both science and as fiction.

His high standards almost immediately propelled Astounding to the top of the pulp sci-fi heap; it remains in print to this day as Analog Science Fiction / Science Fact. If he didn’t find the all great writers of the 1940s and 50s, he certainly championed and challenged them, leading to some of their best stories.[4]

But for all his strengths, Campbell also had one weakness, one type of story he was a sucker for.

As a young college student at Duke University, he was aware of the research of J. B. Rhine and his Parapsychology Laboratory.

Rhine was an enthusiastic believer in parapsychology, but he approached the field with a basic set of scientific controls. While Rhine’s results were never duplicated by other researchers, he at least made an effort to weed out frauds and attempt to find genuine examples of parapsychology.

At Astounding, Campbell revived his interest in parapsychology in the form of “psionics”, originally parapsychology through electronic means but eventually any form of the phenomena, including through human evolution.

Campbell was far from the only person interested in the field, but his influence and guidance led to the publication of the Lensman stories by E.E. “Doc” Smith[5] which in turn provided inspiration (i.e., was ripped off by) the 1950’s revival of the Green Lantern, “Slan” and “The World Of Null-A” among others by A. E. van Vogt[6] which in turn provided inspiration for the X-Men and other Marvel mutants, James H. Schmitz’ Telzey series about a teenage girl with psionic abilities[7], and a little thing by Frank Herbert called “Dune”.

Unfortunately, Campbell also promoted a lot of other iffy ideas, proving yet again that the most hardened cynic is really a dashed idealist. Among other ideas he promoted as rooted in reality were the Dean drive, a reactionless drive that never worked as advertised, the Heironymus Machine, a psionic device so powerful one didn’t need to actually build it but just possess the blueprints, and a new “science of the mind” called Dianetics.

Yes, that Dianetics, by author L. Ron Hubbard, one of Campbell’s regular stable of writers and an eager promoter of his own ideas regarding the outer limits of human abilities and perception.

For all the hard science nuts & bolts stories that Campbell published, he also included a good stiff brace of more fanciful ideas.[8]

So the realm of science fiction, even in the 1940s, was already deeply into the question of superhuman ethics. Ayn Rand’s best selling books (and "Atlas Shrugged" is borderline sci-fi) clearly advocated the right of the strong to tyrannize the weak, while a legion of more altruistic writers saw a possibility of human morality through psychology and not religion.

That was the heady cultural mix that Roddenberry drew from when he first pitched Star Trek in 1964. From that starting point he, as did Rod Serling with The Twilight Zone, used the genre of science fiction to examine certain assumptions about the human condition.

But while Serling clearly believed there was some underlying sense of karma dealing out justice in the universe, Roddenberry clearly believed humans had the right and ability to choose their own fate.

Star Trek certainly celebrated that yin, but it also recognized the yang of the equation, that without some sort of moral and ethical governance, the temptation for absolute power to corrupt absolutely is strong, the serpent, as it were, in a new garden of Eden.

God and Satan frequently get blamed for things they’re not responsible for, with human beings quick to shift their own guilt to other shoulders.

And while Roddenberry and Star Trek celebrated a triumphant humanist culture, they still needed to deal with that dark part of the human soul, and rather than face it directly, used the metaphor of the insane god-child machine.

That’s not a condemnation.

Sometimes it’s hard to face the reality before us, and we find metaphors more acceptable, more comforting.

Star Trek’s metaphor is that those who wish to be gods must also be eternally vigilant against the temptation to not be vigilant, to drop our guard, to let the worst of our natures rise to the surface.

It is not a warning but a caution.

And it’s what gives Star Trek the depth and resonance that previous space opera lacked.




[1] And, yes, these aren’t the only kind of stories Star Trek could do; there are a lot of really top notch episodes in a variety of sub-genres and themes which are good stories to this very day. Even the most lackluster 3rd season episodes had their brief moments of incandescent wonder. Nonetheless, those stories are not what gives the show its life.

[2] Episodes like “The Paradise Syndrome”, “And The Children Shall Lead”, and “Spectre Of The Gun” brush up close but don't cross the line into this particular theme.

[3] Allen Adler, a blacklisted writer, and Irving Block, who co-owned a special effects company that specialized in low budget films, came up with the idea of a planet of invisible monsters to appeal to low budget film makers. MGM was having none of that and promptly elevated the budget and scope of the film considerable.

[4] Of all the great names in the golden age of magazine science fiction, only Ray Bradbury traveled outside his orbit.

[5] He had a PhD in making donuts. Seriously.

[6] He also wrote “The Voyage Of The Space Beagle” which in turn led to the films Night Of The Blood Beast, It! The Terror From Outer Space, and Alien.

[7] Somebody is leaving money on the table by not reviving this series today.

[8] There’s nothing wrong with such flights of fancy when they are clearly just flights of fancy ala They Might Be Giants core conceit. Campbell thought too many of them were bona fide and eventually enough of his writers and readers said, "Really, John...?" and he backed off a bit, though he still published stuff like Herbert’s and Schmitz’ work, among others.

Aren't You Reading ASHES TO ASHEVILLE Yet?

"Vada a bordo, cazzo!"