Archaeology exists in science fiction and outer space as well as in the past of this world! Indeed, in her book chapter ‘Archaeology and Star Trek: Exploring the past in the future’, Lynette Russell (2002) identifies the importance of exploring how archaeology is represented in popular culture for developing models and understanding of archaeology’s audiences. She identifies archaeology in Star Trek as taking place on a ‘regular basis’, suggesting more robustly that ‘archaeological and historical themes’ have ‘dominated’ Star Trek since its inception. Russell subsequently focuses on Star Trek: The Next Generation, exploring the forms, roles and significance of archaeological knowledge and issues of ethics and control. She does this by looking at archaeological characters, the ethics and ownership of cultural heritage, and patterns of linear evolution and historical trajectories represented in the show. The colonial narrative and the imperialist character of the United Federation of Planets (and arguably other alien civilizations) are apparent, linked to perceptions that societies and their technologies evolve in a linear fashion from barbarity through stages of ‘civilization’. Archaeologists themselves are either trophy hunting pillagers or responsible truth-seeking scientists. She concludes by suggesting that, at the very least, it hints that archaeologists might still have jobs in the 24th century!
Complementing her review, I wish to here go back to the original series of Star Trek and narrate archaeological themes as I see them. My findings support Russell’s, as I found frequent encounters with archaeologists and archaeology in the original series of Star Trek. However, I wish to frame the ‘archaeology’ slightly different from Russell. As well as (1) archaeological investigators being key characters in the show, archaeology appears in many forms which can be crudely summarised as: (2) ruins of ancient civilizations and their legacies in terms of artefacts and technology, (3) models from past human societies manifest in the wider universe, and (4) imagined artefacts and relics of the human past in outer space: space junk. In this post, I survey the first 15 episodes, the pilot and first half of the original series 1 and identify these four dimensions. Finally, I introduce a final dimension: (5) created imagined material cultures, memorials and monuments based on the human past.
In The Cage, we see Captain Pike’s mind manipulated to create a race of human slaves by the inhabitants of Talos IV. First, he is forced to imagine himself fighting on Rigel 7. This is a quasi-medieval world with fur-covered barbarians who roar, equipped with later medieval weapons and armour as well as ‘castles’. Vina, the human girl who survived a crashed space ship and with whom Pike is supposed to breed, appears as a Rigellian princess with braids and a gown, a fantasy damsel in distress. This conforms to my Theme 3.
In The Man Trap we meet Professor Robert Crater and his wife Nancy, archaeologists on plant M-113. Crater is a solitary taciturn figure whose ‘wife’ is revealed to be something very different: a salt-sucking alien. We see plenty of random ruined masonry on the planet, seemingly a temple of some kind with a rampant griffin beside a monumental threshold. This is the setting of the action and Crater’s archaeological identity explains his exploratory, isolated existence. Hence, this is a combination of my archaeological themes 1 and 2: archaeologists investigation ruins.
In What Little Girls are Made of we meet a second archaeologist, Dr Roger Korby, an expert called the ‘Pasteur of ‘archaeological medicine’ whose interpretation of the medical records from the Orion ruins revolutionised immunisation techniques, explains Spock. It was ‘required reading’ at the Academy, retorts Kirk. He has been exploring underground ruins on Exo III, the former inhabitants of the planet who moved underground as the planet’s star died. They investigate the caverns which are clearly adapted for human use and Dr Korby is revealed as experimenting in achieving immortality using android technology acquired from the planet’s ancient inhabitants. He has learned this from an ancient android left by the ancient inhabitants, and he makes himself a new android called Andrea. Later, we learn that, when dying, he had transferred his identity into an android himself. The episode thus explores the boundaries of being human but also the curation and adaption of ancient knowledge to transcending corporeal mortality. The caverns but also the technology of the androids are artefacts of past times. Again, this is a combination of themes 1 and 2.
“Now this is marvellous, the most horrible conglomeration of antique architecture I’ve ever seen”, says McCoy. In the episode Miri the Enterprise investigates a distress call from a version of Earth with 1960s architecture in which the human lifecycle has been arrested following a failed experiment. In this world, only children survive, each hundreds of years old. Those that enter puberty rapidly develop a virus and die. The archaeology is in the ‘present’ of 1960s USA, where the children live in a Lord of the Flies-like anarchy of infantile violence and yet collaboration in the face of the violence of the adults when they ‘turn’ from the effects of the violence. We are back to theme 3.
Balance of Terror is a truly superb episode in which the Enterprise come to the aid of the stations along the edge of the neutral zone with the Romulan Star Empire. With naval Second World War and Cold War undertones, this tense episode of conflict introduces the Romulans and reveals that the Romulans and the Vulcans shared a ‘barbaric’ and ‘colonial’ past. Here, the Romans are a model for the Romulans, a petty militaristic expansionist civilization and Kirk must choose to either respect the century-old treaty since the last war with the Romulans and not enter the neutral zone, or take up the fight. The ‘Roman’-ness of the Romulans is manifest in their politics, their titles, their patriarchy and their titles (‘centurion’), (referring to Kirk as a ‘sorcerer’). The Romulan’s weakness is finally revealed in their inability to let go of the quest for military glory. And the prejudice against Spock is demonstrated to be ill-founded as it is he who saves the Enterprise and defeats the Romulan ship. Barbarian militarism is shown to be a universal ‘phase’ of multiple cultures’ past, something which the Star Trek series aspires everyone can move past and beyond. So we encounter theme 3 yet again.
I’ve reviewed the episodes above in chronological order, but I wish to finish on an archaeological theme that might have escaped others. In episode Where No Man Has Gone Before of Star Trek, the Enterprise finds the disaster recorder of the SS Valiant whose crew had been affected and whose captain ordered self-destruct in 2065 having been swept into the Galactic barrier. When the Enterprise itself enters within the barrier itself, they are similarly affected by its energies. Those crew members of the crew with high esper ratings are affected especially and killed, but two, Dr Elizabeth Dehner and Commander Gary Mitchell, acquire exponentially enhancing psionic powers. MItchell is transformed first and begins to experiment with taking control of the Enterprise and rapidly regards his former friends and crewmates as lesser species. Kirk and Spock perceive the same danger as the Valiant had faced. Yet, despite efforts to exile Mitchell on the planet Delta Vega, he escapes with Dehner.
Kirk pursues Dehner and Mitchell alone in an attempt to kill Mitchell with a phaser rifle. Overpowered by Mitchell’s psionic powers, Kirk is forced to pray before Mitchell as a god. Mitchell creates a grave for Kirk and is about to entomb him within, buried alive by a rock from a crag. He even creates a headstone for Kirk with the star-dates of his birth and death inscribed upon it. Oddly, perhaps revealing he doesn’t know Kirk too well (or it is a blooper?) the headstone reads JAMES R KIRK not ‘James T. Kirk’.
Having created a paradise for himself and Dehner, seemingly a seductive life of plenty, Mitchell reveals his true destructive power and megalomania. This convinces Dehner to realise the danger and that Mitchell will treat even her as a lesser being. She thus switches sides and uses her psionic powers to attack Mitchell, fatally wounding herself through his counter attacks.
Kirk uses this opportunity to strike back himself. He dives for the discarded phaser rifle. Firing it at the rocks above Mitchell, he dislodges the crag, a section of which falls on Mitchell. Thus, Mitchell is entombed within the grave prepared for Kirk, hit first by Kirk’s headstone and then the falling rock.
Despite his superhuman powers, Mitchell is proven weak and vulnerable because of his human flaws but also because he remains a construction of flesh and bone which will not only decay with time, but can be crushed and buried.
To be killed by a headstone and entombed in a grave created to kill Kirk is a particularly striking and definitive, and somewhat ironic, end for a man afforded the powers of a ‘jealous god’. His short-lived Eden becomes his Golgotha.
We are not shown how Dehner is interred on Delta Vega…
This is one of a series of instances of key character’s graves being created for them in science fiction; in this case not a vision of the future, but a crazed attempt by the superhuman Mitchell to focus on death rather than giving life, to contemplate and fixate on the death of an old friend rather than a new life. This narrow, petty dimension of humanity seals his doom.
This episode thus incorporates themes 4 (space junk) and 5 (a newly imagined material world and memorials inspired by the human past).
So, I’ve reviewed the first 15 episodes of the Star Trek Original Series 1. I hope to come back and review further episodes and their archaeological themes and archaeologists.
Russell, L. 2002. Archaeology and Star Trek: exploring the past in the future, in M. Russell (ed.) Digging Holes in Popular Culture: Archaeology and Science Fiction. Oxford: Oxbow: pp. 19-29.