Captain Kirk on the Vietnam War (Part 1)

29 Sep

Space, the final frontier.

Today, use in every Star Trek spin-off series and movie adaptation has turned that line into a something of a cliché — but in 1966, at the time of the original series’ premiere, Kirk’s line communicated a specific political message:

Imagining an extension of the American frontier experience meant imagining a future in which fundamental beliefs in progress and the inherent goodness of the United States still maintained cultural hegemony (this time on an intergalactic scale) — no small feat in the era of the Counterculture, whose emphasis on alternative lifestyles and the overthrow of traditional values made for a slightly different vision of the future.

Converging in the cultural and political upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s, these diametrically opposed strains of thought playing out on the national stage also found expression on a Hollywood soundstage in April 1967: in “The City on the Edge of Forever,” Star Trek: The Original Series frames an alternate history in which World War II, the classic historical example of the triumph of “Victory Culture,” becomes a victory, instead, for the Germans — a result of the introduction of two hallmarks of the Counterculture, drug use and anti-war sentiment, into an earlier timeline.

Airing on network television April 6, 1967, “The City on the Edge of Forever” hit the small screen less than three months after San Francisco’s prelude to the summer’s subsequent cultural revolution in Haight-Ashbury: the Human Be-In at Golden Gate Park.  Counting among its 20,000-odd attendees such ascending stars as Timothy Leary and Jerry Rubin, the January event provided the first large-scale evidence of a live hippie scene in America. Perhaps the tagline of the event, Leary’s exhortation to “turn on, tune in, drop out” through the use of mind-expanding drugs such as LSD set the tone both for the psychedelic gathering and the subsequent portrayal of chief medical officer Leonard McCoy in “The City on the Edge of Forever.”

McCoy, accidentally injecting himself with an overdose of the fictional stimulant “cordrazine” when a “temporal distortion” disrupts the ship, embodies Leary’s ethos throughout the episode. In the show, cordrazine, like LSD, precipitates hallucinations and a mental dissociation between the user and the outside world — at one point, McCoy himself reflects that he must be “either unconscious or demented,” allowing the writers a commentary on those in contemporary America who chose to “drop out” of reality.

Notably, McCoy is the member of the crew who, hallucinating and paranoid, throws himself through the “Guardian of Forever,” the center of the temporal distortion and a portal into the human past — McCoy, the personification of the “turn on, tune in, drop out” mentality, is the one who alters the course of American history so disastrously.

This is a slightly retooled version of a paper I wrote for an American Studies class this semester: It had pretentious subtitle and far fewer parenthetical comments.  The only quotes are from the episode dialogue itself.  But remember kids, if you’re going to use any of my research, make lots of citations—they’re fun!  And if you don’t, you could go to jail for a long time because plagiarism, my friends, is a felony*

*That’s a lie, but the world “plagiarism” does come from the Latin “plagiarus,” which means “a kidnapper.”  That’s actually kind of cool.  Not the kidnapping part—the etymology.

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