Television has significantly influencedsocio-political debate for generations, challenging pre-established notions ofrace, gender and our shared societal norms and values. However, despite thesocial significance of television, some may claim that storytelling does notmaintain the substantial influence with Jason Holland claiming in the ‘Independent’that television is a ‘pale substitute’ when compared to cinema and, thereforelacks the social impact. In this analysis, we will be exploring the socio-politicalinfluence maintained by one of the most diverse and progressive broadcasts ofthe 1960s-‘Star Trek’ (NBC, 1966-1969). During the 1960s, at the time of ‘Star Trek’s’ release, Hollywood wasdominated by Anglo-Saxon men, retaining a large portion of roles within moviesand television. This absence of diversity lead to a considerable lack of rolesto be given to ethnic minorities causing a considerable gap in representation against thethriving Black, Asian and Hispanic communities (contributing to 11%, 0.
6% and3.5% in the 1960s respectively). This, however, seemed to change with the introductionof the original ‘Star Trek’ series, portraying strong, independent characterswho broke through the confines of race to be given a leading role: the seductive’Uhura’ (as played by Nichelle Nichols) to play the first black woman she sawon television that was not “a maid” and was even claimed to be an inspirationfor youth of colour, including the infamous Whoopi Goldberg, a nowentertainment tycoon. In fact, ‘Star Trek’, excluding a racially diverse cast, wasthe first show to portray an interracial kiss in 1968. This was highlycontroversial since Hollywood had banned depictions of interracialrelationships from 1930 to 1956 and U.S. laws forbade interracial marriages upuntil 1967.
Although only being a small step in the right direction, it sparkeddebate amongst communities to challenge racial prejudices brought about by generationsof systematic institutional racism and, henceforth, allowed for representation amongstdeveloping communities to offer as inspiration. However, despite this, many could arguethat the diversity in some characters could be for a more detrimental purposethan originally expected. The character ‘Uhura’ could be said to go through aprocess of fetishisation as explored by Marxist, Pietz, also known as commodity fetish, states that “falseconsciousness based upon an objective illusions…can turn material objectsinto commodities concealing exploitative social relations, displacingvalue-consciousness”.
Additionally, this view of fetishism issituated as the point at which objective institutional systems are”personified” by individuals. In short, the idea that ‘Uhura’ is thatof ‘forbidden fruit’ her strong role could just be diluted down to her beingthat of a sexual being, moreover a strong, black character. In terms of social relevance, ‘Star Trek’ has always been pushing theenvelope, as well as promoting people’s interest in science, many would claim thatthe focus of the show steadily deviated from that original intent and has movedaway from its scientific, to encourage a more politically correct, with theshow being centred a world where equality of gender and race was achieved. Whenthe show was created, Altman notes, NBC was very much pushing for diversity inits casting, in such shows as the Bill Cosby-starring ‘I Spy,’ which started in 1965- in part as a push from thenetwork’s Stanley Robertson, who was one of the few African American televisionexecutives.
“Diversity was important to him and he was dealing with racism,”says Altman. “In a way, he was the Sidney Poitier of television.” The series includedNichelle Nichols, who played the communications officer Lt.
Uhura, a rareposition of authority at the time for a black, female TV character. This ideapromoted, yet again the breakdown of established prejudices surrounding raceand gender and largely affected the accepted social norms and values of the60s, leading to further political discussion and debate and legislative reform. On the other hand, the show did perpetuateongoing thoughts and concerns regarding colonisation and exploitation. The showspremise was of teams exploring the universe on a ‘civilising mission’, wherebythey indoctrinate other galaxies into their alliance, furthermore, those whodid not comply were deemed to be that of enemy of the states and fought withinareas such as the ‘neutral zone’. This, despite ‘Star Trek’s’ marvellous attempt to create a diverse cast isforeshadowed by their imperialistic characteristic, further perpetuatingnotions of colonisation in a modern age, drawing the idea that, those who arenot integrated into modern western civilization are savages and brutes.
Furthermore, George Byron Koch, discussed the idea of the ‘Fear of the other’,whereby, as people, a key defining characteristic of human society istribalism: its tendency to gather in groups which define themselves by certaincommon characteristics, and differentiate themselves with other groups andindividuals who do not share these characteristics. The idea of ‘fearing the unknown’ from within ‘Star Trek’, however, could draw uponthe social and political attitudes maintained by America in the 60s to foreigncountries, as if acting like a metaphor by which individuals reflect and mask theirignorance of other cultures and the desire to conquer and Westernise third worldcountries. The show also explore notions of communismand a classless society. In the book ‘The Ultimate Star Trek and Philosophy:The Search for Socrates’ writers Kevin S. Decker, William Irwin, Jason T. Eberlall argue that the show challenges notions of materialistic possessions and aclassless society as originally explored by Marx, arguing that the show discussesnotions of ‘utopia’ and how, as a society we can transcend capitalist greed forthe greater good of exploration and travel. However, despite this, there stillmaintains traditional stereotypes and roles associated with race and gender,with no female lead ever taking charge of the ‘Enterprise’ in the original seriesretaining a white male lead to take the star role as Captain. In conjunction, eventhough there were more progressive elements to the show from my modern dayperspective, women still play a minimal role in the show, are often portrayedas weak or hysterical and emotional and supporting roles are occupied by the”people of colour” unlike the white male majority and two leading white males.
There are not any racial slurs tossed about though there are more than a fewjabs at women. Furthermore, despite having a cohesive societywith an abundance of different alien species, their still maintains a lot of prejudiceamongst humans and their respective peers. Kirk often mocks Spock for notconforming to the human standards of humour and sarcasm, and even pokes fun athis dual heritage in the sake of comedy. This again relates to the ‘fear of theunknown’ that, despite the integration of different species, there still maintainsa societal stigma against other cultures, offering an introspective function ofhow we view people as a whole. The 1960s saw the Cold War reach new, andpotentially cataclysmic, velocities. The Cuban missile crisis could conceivablyhave eradicated humanity.
The economic and political ideologies which causedthe conflict, Capitalism and Communism, inevitably became attached to nationalidentities; Russia for Communism and America for Capitalism. When the networkforced Roddenberry to include a young male character, in order to attract afemale audience, he created Pavel Chekhov. Portrayed by Walter Koenig, thecharacter of Chekhov was an inherently contentious cast member. In the midst ofthe Cold War, an era where it was entirely potential and in some likelihoodprobable, that Nuclear Warfare could break out over the most minuscule of misdemeanours,the inclusion of a Russian character in an American show was innovative giventhe insatiable American desire to demonize and vilify their Cold Warideological enemies. Gordon Allport argues that, through a process of generalisationand stereotyping, has suggested that people find it easier to understand ‘categorizedinformation’, thus draw these conclusions to make sense of varying cultures andnationalities. However, ‘Star Trek’ triedto break through these prejudices, as not to alienate and progress the misconceptionsregarding Russia, breaking down barriers in an extremely tense time. In contrast, the show, sometimes did nothelp in the way of progressing gender stereotypes, for example, the episode ‘ShoreLeave,’ our heroes beam down to a planet which, unbeknownst to them, turnswhatever fantasies they happen to be thinking of into a reality. For YeomanTonia Barrows, her fantasy includes being ‘dressed like a fairy-tale princess,with lots of floaty stuff and a tall hat with a veil.
‘ According to dialogue,she wants to be ‘a lady to be protected and fought for.’ Of course, thefantasies of the male members of the landing party are decidedly less passive(McCoy gets a parade of women, Kirk gets to fight his academy bully and bed anold flame, Sulu gets to fire an antique revolver, etc.). Eagly & Wood arguethat gender stereotyping and role allocation ’emerge during the preschool yearsand are deeply entrenched by adulthood’. This suggests that, to the audience,these are the maintained gender roles, with a considerable lack of challengefor more strong female characters which could both inspire and represent a generation.
So, to conclude, television drama can havean exponential effect on the socio-political debate, challenging notions ofgender, race and ideas of societal infrastructure. These had real effects onrace relations within both Hollywood, with a steady increase in ethnic minoritiesreceiving major roles in television, as well as breaking down preconceived stereotypesand notions of race established by outdated western values and sparking controversialconversation of the time. Despite this, the show did perpetuate certaingender roles, which may have proved detrimental to the fight of equality of thegender, maintaining outdated forms of gender identity and femininity. As wellas this, a large portion of the characters were still white and, although beginningto make strides, left a segment of communities unaccounted for and underrepresented