"Star Trek" and the Cold War

Star Trek (NBC, 1966-1969) can be considered a perfect example of the space craze, camp television, and network ownership that was a staple of 1960s American television. It has, however, a surprising amount of cultural commentary. The most important, and at the time, the most relevant, was its view of the Cold War. Rick Worland, and virtually no one else, has done extensive study into this very topic: “I want to devote more attention to what I believe to be one of the least discussed aspects of the Star Trek phenomenon—the relationship of the series to the Cold War subtest” (109). This paper will try to decode this relationship between the beloved NBC series and the Cold War. Most importantly, this paper will show the connection between Star Trek regular villains, the Klingon Empire, to the ever-present 1960s threat of the Soviet Union.

Star Trek began its trek on television as another planet-jumping adventure series. “In the first season, the galaxy is depicted as the infinitely large and unexplored realm, the ‘final frontier’ of Kirk’s opening voice-over” (Worland 109-110). The spaceship that the series would revolve around, Starship Enterprise, and its cast of Captain Kirk, Doctor McCoy, Mr. Spock, and Engineer Scott routinely flew around space in typical science fiction fashion. “First-season shows typically find the Enterprise crew probing uncharted space, discovering previously unknown worlds, and generally engaging in disinterested scientific research” (110). Few things distinguished the early Star Trek episodes from other science fiction series at the time, such as Lost in Space. Its portrait of alien worlds had little creativity or originality. “Alien worlds are often shown to be cold and barren, wracked by atmospheric and geological rumblings and barely suitable for human life to survive” (110).

Season Two brought to life a new political side of Star Trek, the creation of the fictious Federation, an institution that remains in Star Trek to this day.
“The invention of ‘the United Federation of Planets,’ a large and powerful socio-political system linking many words into a pluralist democracy. Earth… and numerous other planets as Federation members were subject to its laws, benefits, and obligations”

The Federation itself was not as important as what it would come to represent. “The heroic Federation stands in for the American view of itself” (Chvany 112). The Federation had rules and regulations that sounded suspiciously similar to American Constitutional values. The democratic focus of the Federation itself lends to comparisons to American politics. However, the Federation should not be confused with Starfleet, the space navy to which Kirk and the Enterprise belong. “The Federation was not… an outer space United Nations… but was more akin to the Cold War concept of ‘the Free World,’ with Starfleet as its NATO” (Worland 110).

Starfleet itself was “…understood to be the military arm of its government rather than the space force of the united Earth government” (110). The Federation needed Starfleet to defend it from its enemies. The first-season ideas about space exploration bound together with Cold War politics to create a double mission for the Enterprise and her crew: to explore new worlds and protect them. “Thereafter, the Enterprise’s dual role as exploration vessel and warship came more and more to emphasize the latter function as Kirk and company were repeatedly locked in Cold War struggle with … an evil empire, the Klingons” (110). In the initial series, the Klingons represented the greatest threat to security that the Federation would face.

The Klingons were portrayed as a fierce warrior race of evil aliens intent on destroying the peace and harmony of the Federation; this was a thinly-veiled reference to the Soviet Union. Western powers had experienced the arguable height of the Cold War during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis which brought the superpowers within 20 minutes of a nuclear bombardment. Displacing this fear into Star Trek seems only logical. The Klingon-Federation conflict was similar to that of Soviet-American, as seen through Western eyes.

“Although roughly equal to the Federation in political and military power, the Klingons represent its every antithesis—military dictatorship and glorification of war, conquest of weaker planets, and murder of civilians” (110).

American fear about the strength of the Soviet Union was replicated when creating the Klingon Empire. Their first appearance was in 1967. “The swarthy, bearded Klingons first appeared near the end of the first season in an episode titled ‘Errand of Mercy’ (March 23, 1967) and, in the ensuing years, became Star Trek’s institutionalized villains” (110).

“Errand of Mercy” centers on what Worland calls a “Third World planet”, a world that is not industrialized in the way that the Federation is, meaning, a world that lacks spaceships. The Enterprise responds to a distress signal from a distant planet, Organia. It is being invaded by the Klingons, a race of people intent on conquest. The Enterprise crew finds the Klingons to be “…cunning, amoral schemers who use spies, sabotage, proxies, propaganda, or, as a last resort, direct military force to bedevil the peaceful Federation” (110).

The outcome of the episode is odd. Another, invisible inhabitant of the planet stops Kirk and his Federation crew from fighting the Klingons, led by Kor. The god-like being forces the two groups to agree to a treaty pledging not to openly fight each other. However, this can be read as another thinly-veiled look at the Cold War, specifically at the M.A.D. theory. “Pax Organia would seem to substitute for pax atomicia, the fear of mutual annihilation that had produced an edgy peace between the superpowers since World War II” (113). The lack of total war between the Federation and the Klingon Empire would be a cornerstone of the series. “The combination of the evil, aggressive Klingons and the Organian peace treaty tended to institutionalize the Cold War in Star Trek’s vision of the future” (113).

The introduction of the Federation of Planets in Season Two, coupled with the Klingon menace from Season One, enables Star Trek to focus directly on Cold War analogies. “The Klingons and the Federation were firmly established as two ideologically opposed superpower blocs that compete for the hearts and minds of Third World planets” (110). This took the Star Trek series from formula space adventure into the realm of political commentary. “The Klingons caused the final frontier to shrink dramatically. Once the Federation mission became basic to the series, many stories began to revolve around an ideological competition” (110).

This “competition”, as Worland calls it, is not necessarily overly military but a fight of values and intentions to win, as President Johnson put it best, the “hearts and minds” of the Third World. On Star Trek, this fight did not take place “on barren little rocks in the far corners of the galaxy but on … populated planets of varying industrial development where the Federation had important economic, political, or military states” (110). It is easy, then to see a clear and deliberate analogy between the Soviet-American and Klingon-Federation cold wars.

The program also went to lengths to delineate the differences between the Federation and the Klingon Empire. “[Klingon’s] appearances… mark them as non-white, indeed, nonhuman… Trek tactic of inexpensive alien-making and a routine Trek conflation of cultural differences with visible, physical ones” (Chvany 108). Star Trek came to be known for its unique, artistic renditions of alien peoples and cultures. The Klingons were from the outset a stereotype of Russian militarism, seen through an American lens during the height of Cold War paranoia. “[Klingons] were played… by actors of ‘ethnic’ heritages known for playing ‘ethnic’ roles” (108). This was a deliberate attempt made by the program to show the Klingons, and thus the Russians, as different to the Federation/United States. “Colicos [a Klingon actor] was called to play the part of Kor… the Cold War was going on, and the general thought was that of the Russians verses US. He suggested to the makeup artist to make him a futuristic Mongol” (108).

Although in the first-season these physical differences stood out, they would become less apparent over time, as more and more attention would go into creating alien species physically different from humans. “Racial difference asserts itself in dealings with the Romulons but never occurs in stories about the Klingons, who simply represent an imperialistic power” (Worland 112).

The Klingon Empire was the Federation’s chief enemy but the Romulon Empire represented a constant threat to galactic peace. “It became clear that the Federation controlled a definite sphere of influence and vital interest, continually challenged and threatened by the Klingons, the Romulons, and lesser powers” (110). As if the Federation did not have enough to deal with, the Romulon Empire shows up after years of peace, ready for a fight, in “Balance of Terror”. “The Klingons weren’t the only problem. Introduced in the first-season episode ‘Balance of Terror,’ the Romulons, too, became a regular element of the Star Trek format” (110).

The Romulons are much more difficult to fit into this analysis of Star Trek as Cold War analogy. They can be seen as a 23rd century Cuba, a foe to the Federation but not as powerful as the Klingons. Another, possibly more valid approach, and one that Worland supports, is that the Romulons represent Cold War Communist China.

“Like the Soviet Union, the Klingon Empire is a vast system roughly equivalent in power and influence to the Federation. Like China in the two decades following the communist revolution, the Romulons are a secondary but nonetheless formidable regional power… Star Trek neatly duplicated the configuration of international Cold War politics of the 1960s”

American concerns seemed to rest more with the Soviet Union than with the People’s Republic of China. This is replicated in Star Trek. “The Klingons rather than the Romulons seem to be the major threat to the Federation illustrates just how strongly engrained … the perception of a monolithic communist world firmly under the guidance and control of the Soviets” (112). In America, this had led to Cold War paranoid films like The Manchurian Candidate (Frankenheimer, 1962), which showed Communist China under the firm control of Soviet Russia, which, after the fall of the Soviet Union, has been proven to be more or less a total myth.
This myth was lent to the Klingon-Romulon alliance in the episode “The Enterprise Incident”. “’The Enterprise Incident’ (September 27, 1968) … contained alarming evidence of what we might refer to as the monolithic Klingon-Romulon conspiracy” (112). The Enterprise is led into the Romulon Neutral Zone, a demilitarized region of space set up after a long and brutal war between the Federation and the Romulon Empire. Captain Kirk slips aboard a Romulon ship in order to steal its newest weapon, a cloaking device that allows the Romulon fleet to be invisible.
Interestingly enough, this episode had some basis in the realities of Cold War espionage.

“[Episode] writer D.C. Fontana conceived the original idea for this story from the Pueblo incident of February 1968, in which the American spy-ship was captured off the coast of North Korea” (112-113). The fear that Communist countries of the world, like the Soviet bloc and Communist China, were uniting against the United States and her allies was the focus of this episode. “The galactic political situation had become so threatening now that the two foremost anti-Federation powers were in league and that the naked espionage and violation of treaties had become a vital imperative” (113). Over the next decades, this paranoia would prove to be unfounded.

The changes within the Soviet Union of the 1980s and its breakup in 1991 greatly impacted Star Trek. By this time, the series had been long over but revived through a number of films, beginning with Star Trek: The Motion Picture (Wise, 1979). By 1991, it had become apparent that the Soviet Union would not last long, and would crumble before the year was out. This makes the 6th and final Star Trek film with the original crew that much more interesting, since its story centers on the death of the Klingon Empire as a separate entity and as a threat to the Federation. “The sixth Star Trek feature film, The Undiscovered Country, extended the old cliché analogy between the Klingon Empire and the Soviet Union by imagining the Empire beset by energy crises and pollution, and open to both perestroika and détente with the Federation” (Chvany 109).

In a few short years, the Russians had gone from being the enemy of the United States to a friend. The same held true of the Klingons. “Klingons had become allies, rather than enemies, of the show’s ‘United Federation of Planets’” (108).

The Star Trek franchise has not seemed to know what to do with its Communist characters. Whereas before “Klingons were basically Russians in space, and Romulans were essentially Chinese” (Worland 112), now they have become allies against galactic terrorists. The excitement generated by the appearance of the Klingons in the original Star Trek series has been lost, now that the Soviet Union, so obviously the basis of the Klingons, has dissolved. The lack of interest and revenues for the most recent Star Trek productions, 2002’s Nemesis and the series Enterprise may have something to do with the lack of a substantial global enemy-nation on which to base a galactic foe. This could simple be more evidence that Star Trek was most defiantly a comment on, and reflection of, the Cold War.

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