When the ’60s TV show “Star Trek” was canceled in 1969, and the Starship Enterprise ceased going boldly into the final frontier, the program was nowhere near the blockbuster money machine of syndication and sequels that it later became. Ratings were low. Only the sci-fi geeks cared.
“The series was a big flop at the time it ran, with only a small, cult audience,” says cultural historian and author H. Bruce Franklin, who served as guest curator for the Smithsonian Institute’s “Star Trek in the Sixties” blockbuster ’90s exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum. “It was only years later, thanks to the fans, that [movie and television executives] revived it.” He says those fans, watching reruns in the 1970s, helped breathe life into the franchise—at least in part because they fell in love with how the show took risks, sometimes wading into the most divisive issues of the day.
Like the war in Vietnam.
“It seemed to me that perhaps if I wanted to talk about sex, religion, politics, make some comments against Vietnam, and so on—that if I had similar situations involving these subjects happening on other planets to little green people—indeed it might get by, and it did,” said Gene Roddenberry, the show’s creator.
'City on the Edge of Forever': Killing off the pacifist
In early episodes, Roddenberry and the show’s other creators appeared to be more or less supporting the U.S. government, says Franklin, history professor emeritus at Rutgers University and author of four books on the Vietnam war.
On April 6, 1967, for example, they aired “City on the Edge of Forever,” in which Enterprise captain James T. Kirk stops his medical officer Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy from saving the life of Edith, a prominent peace activist—because if she lives, she will prevent the United States from getting into World War II in time to stop the Nazis. It’s a time-travel episode where Kirk goes back in time to try and correct the timeline—while also falling in love with the woman who needs to die to correct it.
The episode’s Vietnam War subtext came to the fore in the script-revision process, says Franklin. While the original script focused on the tragedy of doomed love, with no reference to Edith as a peace activist—much less to a peace movement that could disrupt history—the revised script shifts the story focus. In it, first officer Spock speculates that if Edith were to live, she might spread her pacifist ideas, slowing America’s entry into World War II and thus altering its outcome.
In the episode as it aired in 1967, Spock’s speculation became a major plot point whose subtext was the growing anti-war movement of the time. Asked 25 years later whether show runners intended the episode to contain contemporaneous anti-Vietnam-war references, producer Robert Justman replied, "Of course we did."
'A Private Little War': Signaling support for American involvement
In “A Private Little War” (aired Feb. 2, 1968), the Enterprise crew discovers that their Klingon enemies have been arming one tribe on a primitive planet with flintlock muskets. After Kirk gives muskets to the other tribe, claiming it will create a balance of power the ship’s doctor Leonard "Bones" McCoy strenuously objects. This excerpt from an episode transcript echoes the push-pull of Cold War superpower tensions that led to America’s containment policy—and ultimate involvement—in Southeast Asia. Kirk even makes a direct reference to the Vietnam War:
MCCOY: I don't have a solution! But furnishing them firearms is certainly not the answer!
KIRK: Bones, do you remember the 20th-century brush wars on the Asian continent? Two giant powers involved, much like the Klingons and ourselves. Neither side felt they could pull out.
MCCOY: Yes, I remember. It went on bloody year after bloody year.
KIRK: What would you have suggested—that one side arm its friends with an overpowering weapon? Mankind would never have lived to travel space if they had. No. The only solution is what happened back then: balance of power.
“It’s what the U.S. was trying to do in Vietnam,” says Franklin, referring to the American efforts to limit Soviet expansion and deter a nuclear showdown between Cold War superpowers.
'The Omega Glory': As the nation soured, so did the show’s creators
Sometime in early 1968, just as North Vietnam shocked the U.S. with the Tet Offensive and mass casualties, the show creators seemed to undergo a radical shift in their views about the war.
Case in point: “The Omega Glory,” Episode 23 in the series’ second season. Viewed from a distance, it reveals how cringe-worthy the campiness factor in some “Star Trek” shows can be—and how daring. The episode is blatantly anti-war.
To make his point, Roddenberry pitted two warring factions with eye-rollingly obvious tribal names: Yangs and Kohms.
At the climactic end, after the Enterprise officers nearly get killed by both sides, and while awaiting execution with their hands tied behind their backs, Kirk and Spock suddenly realize that those names sound much like...Yanks and Commies.
That ending can look awkward or obvious now, especially with Kirk’s overcooked speech about (spoiler alert) the glory of the U.S. Constitution. But the episode’s main point challenged not only the war but traditional American views of Asians and Communists. The Yangs on this planet have somehow in their history obtained an exact copy of the original U.S. Constitution, and revere it as a sacred text—though they don’t understand it.
In the climactic scene, Kirk literally holds up the Constitution before “Cloud,” the chief of the victorious warring faction, and lays down some serious galactic law:
KIRK: These words and the words that follow were not written only for the Yangs, but for the Kohms as well!
CLOUD: The Kohms?
KIRK: They must apply to everyone or they mean nothing! Do you understand?
CLOUD: I do not fully understand, one named Kirk. But the holy words will be obeyed. I swear it.
(Kirk leaves the Yangs to gaze at the old papers with new eyes.)
Pushing the limits
Even though he was preaching the idea of the United States winning the ideological war, saying that Communists (or Kohms) deserved the Constitution’s protections was a dangerous risk to take on television, in that month, in that year, Franklin says.
That’s because as the Cold War tensions raged on, Communists were regarded by tens of millions of traditional, patriotic Americans as not only enemies, but as the toxic carriers of an ideological disease. In 1954, Joseph McCarthy convened a Senate committee to identify and condemn anyone believed to have caught the “Red” fever. And even though mass anti-war protests had broken out around the country by 1968—questioning why young U.S. men were being sent halfway across the world to fight and die to stave off Communism—there were still tens of millions of Americans who thought the protesters disgraced the most heroic, generous and decent nation on the planet.
The episode aired just days after the Tet Offensive ended, leaving nearly 4,000 American soldiers dead in only a month of fighting. Tet would later be seen as a turning point in the public’s view of the war, when Americans realized that the conflict was likely unwinnable and that the government had been lying to them. Roddenberry’s messaging was timely.
“The Omega Glory” could have ruined Roddenberry, who was already pushing the show upstream against terrible ratings and pressure from NBC executives. By 1968, “Star Trek” was losing $15,000 an episode, which would be like $500,000 per episode today, said Marc Cushman, author of These Are the Voyages, a history of the show.
“Later on, when it became hugely successful, ‘Star Trek’ became an enormous industry, with a whole different set of values than what they had in the beginning,” says Franklin. “But in the beginning, they tried to say something.”