Star Trek is packed with archaeology and concepts of the savage, the barbaric, and the civilised, focusing on anxieties regarding social control and the suppression of creativity and innovation. The past also harbours delusions and deceptions as well as dangers.
This is a follow-up post to my earlier ‘Star Trek Archaeology, OS1 Part 2’ post.
Building on Lynette Russel’s 2002 book chapter ‘Archaeology and Star Trek: Exploring the past in the future’, I review (1) archaeological investigators as key characters; (2) ruins of ancient civilizations and their legacies in terms of circulating artefacts and technology, (3) the human past on other planets, either through parallel evolution or interference; (4) artefacts and relics of the human past in outer space: space junk; and (5) material cultures, memorials and monuments inspired by the human past. Note, I aim to ignore the time-travel episode Tomorrow is Yesterday which makes no sense whatsoever and while it involves time-travel back to ‘our’ time, it has no clear connection to the past as a focus of reflection. Likewise, the time travel element of The City on the Edge of Forever in which Nazi Germany is allowed to win and alter the course of the human future is not considered. The idea of the innate ‘savagery’ of humankind and being a ‘barbarian ‘pervade the episode A Taste of Armageddon, about two warring neighbouring planets who prefer to wage their conflict via computers. War became too ‘neat and painless’ it isn’t worth stopping, although there are no specific archaeological themes.
In episode 15, Shore Leave, we encounter a ‘pleasure planet’ (an amusement park) where the imagination is manifest. The past reveals itself in multiple manifestations of literary fantasy, including Sulu finding an antique pistol, Yeoman Barrows finding medieval fantasy costume, Sulu fighting a samurai, a jousting medieval knight and a Second World War Japanese Zero fighter. Finally they meet the caretaker who explains that the experiences were intended to ‘amuse’ but somehow only realises that they were taken seriously after all the violence and even perceived deaths of crew members! Here we encounter a version of Theme 5, since they are inspirations of Earth’s past and the character’s own experiences replicated by alien technology.
The Galileo Seven (episode 16) sees the shuttle craft Galileo crash-landing on the planet Taurus II inhabited by giant apes armed with spearheads. Mr Spock recognises one of the spearheads used to kill crewmember Latimer as a ‘Folsom point’. Spock evaluates it as ‘this is a remarkable resemblance to the Folsom point, discovered 1925 Old World calendar, New Mexico, North America. A bit more crude about the shaft, I believe, not very efficient’. The hostile ‘tribal’ giant ape-men have lithic technology equivalent to Native Americans brings questions to the fore the conception of primitivism. This is one of many examples of the broader philosophy of the Star Trek universe regarding ‘parallel evolutions’ across the galaxy. We thus have an example of Theme 3.
There is also a reflection on appropriate/civilized treatment for the dead: there is a growing tension between Mr Spock and Mr Beaumont who wants the two dead crewmen to each receive a proper burial service, despite the inherent dangers posed by the local inhabitants.
The Squire of Gothos (in episode 17) we have an alien calling himself General Trelane who has researched the violent history of humankind but seems to only comprehend a dated, aristocratic militaristic appreciation with Earth’s past. In this fashion, the episode explores the idea that violent militaristic tendencies are a stage in human evolution which can be surpassed. The Enterprise crew are recognised for descending from distinctive military nationalistic heritages, exemplified through the inclusion of a geologist called Jaeger and navigator Desalle who are respected for their respective German and French ancestries. His sexism and racism show the Eurocentric nature of his perspective, calling Uhuru a ‘Nubian prize’, likening her to the Queen of Sheba and speculates as to whether she was taken on a raid by Kirk. Meanwhile the white female officer is likened to Helen of Troy.
The alien, General Trelane, the Squire of Gothos, has been observing the military traditions of different European countries 900 years past. Of course the details of his recreated historical past inconsistent with this explanation, since, as a mid-23rd-century time period, he has 15th/16th-century suits of armour and a mixture of early modern and late modern fittings, furnishings, material culture and costume. For example, the Squire has recreated a bust of Napoleon whom he claims to admire very much, as well as exhibiting awareness of early 20th-century German military traditions. He also exhibits battle flags and pennants going back to the time of Hannibal and the Crusades and a bust of a Roman emperor. He gleefully observes human behaviours with enthusiasm as ‘savage’ and ‘barbaric’. His childish enthusiasm for the human past is revealed as explicable by the fact that he is a child of powerful alien beings who end his ‘game’. Spock sums it up in his objections: intellect without discipline and power without constructive purpose. As such we again encounter a version of Theme 5.
In episode 18, Arena, the Cestus III colony is attacked by the Gorn who believe it to be an intrusion into their territory. The Enterprise gives chase to the Gorn ship. A higher lifeform, the Metrons, transport the captain of the Gorn ship and Captain Kirk onto a planet with the natural resources to construct weapons. The Gorn captain builds a trap and fashions an obsidian handaxe, but Kirk wins, despite the greater physical strength and endurance of the Gorn, by being more agile but also working out how to fashion a cannon using potassium nitrate, diamonds and a bamboo-like plant. Again, the galaxy is a medium for reflecting on stages of human technological evolution mapped out via tools and weapons. Contrasting against these primitivisms, the Metron who appears on the planet is some kind of extra-terrestrial Greek philosopher. He refers to Kirk as ‘still half-savage’ and Star Fleet as ‘not civilised’. In that sense it vaguely fits Theme 3.
Return of the Archons, episode 19, involves the Enterprise investigating the missing ship Archon. On the planet Beta III they find a society ruled by mind control by a computer called Landru. The henchmen of Landru appear as medieval monks while the society itself is a hybrid of 18th/19th-century material cultures. The ‘red hour’ is a festival of debauchery and lawless violence. Kirk and Spock determine that the Prime Directive of non-interference doesn’t apply when it is recognised that the society is not a ‘living culture’ but one kept under stasis. The archaeological dimension is therefore the concept that societies are always in evolution due to creativity, and that this is ‘natural’. In contrast, societies that are formulated around strict controls and conservatism, maintained over 6,000 years by a computer, cannot be regarded as ‘natural’. Lindstrom, as an anthropologist, is left behind to help return the society to a ‘human form’ once Landru is defeated. So here, pre-modern societies are cast as a venue for considering the stifling of the human spirit of progress. This is a further example of Theme 5.
In episode 22, Space Seed, Theme 4 is exhibited in both the ship and crew of The Botany Bay: an abandoned 20th-century earth ship found adrift. They revive the crew which leads to conflict with the leader, Khan, who was one of the genetically altered humans produced and causing the late 20th-century Eugenic Wars. As a product of selective breeding of a group of ‘Alexanders and Napoleons’, Khan is unstable, one of a group of super-strengthed ego-maniacs who took over the Earth 1993 before they were finally defeated. Khan Noonien Singh was the last and greatest of the genetically altered dictators. As Spock says: ‘superior ability breeds superior ambition’. They clearly escaped into the galaxy in cryogenic stasis.
As ‘space junk’, Khan’s ship and crew embody the dangers of the past preserved in the cosmos and threatening to unleash and repeat the dangers of the past. This danger is catalysed by the study of the past itself! Point 1 is thus revealed through the ship historian Lieutenant Marla McGivers, in whom we encounter the potential dangers of the past in seducing the present. McGivers is a poor historian, and very much the antithesis of an archaeologist. She is not ‘evil’, but she is seduced by Khan intellectually and sexually. Her weakness is already clear: she is obsessed by powerful men from the past. If that wasn’t apparent, she has busts of great leaders in her quarters, and she even paints portraits of them, including Leif Eriksson with ridiculous beard and horned helmet! Once she meets Khan, she takes his side, helping him take over the ship. Perhaps the space junk is as deceptive and seductive as the Squire of Gothos and his childish vision on human history. The past is deceptive, dangerous and deadly.
Episode 24: This Side of Paradise colonists on the planet Omicron Ceti III have a seemingly ideal lifestyle, returning to a pre-modern way of life and seemingly abandoning animal domesticates, vehicles or weapons. Learning that there are no animals whatsoever on the planet apart from the humans, Kirk and his away party next realise that the plant life creates spores that control the behaviour of the colonists, giving them health and peace of mind. The Enterprise crew become infected too and begin to transfer to the surface of the planet. As such it is a further example of Theme 5, but rather than a ‘savage’ past, the colony is a peaceful ‘Eden’, free of modern concerns and protected by the spores. Again, the idea is exhibited that without challenges, humans will stagnate. The anxiety regarding human arrested development by potential alien forces plays out as in Return of the Archons.
In Errand of Mercy, episode 26, another harmonious pre-modern world – Organia – is encountered and it becomes a battleground between Star Fleet and the Klingons. A rare example of a medieval castle is represented, with the people seemingly evoking a sense of peaceful Anglo-Saxon folk, with a council-leader called Ayelborne. Again, the idea of ‘stagnation’ in human development: as Spock says: ‘a laboratory specimen of an arrested culture’. Disconcerting to the evolutionary narratives of other episodes, we learn that the peaceful Organians are far beyond the civilizations of both the United Federation of Planets and the Klingon Empire. They have escaped the need of physical bodies millions of years ago and that their simple appearance is but an illusion: they are beings of pure energy! The world is therefore only an illusion to create conventional points of reference for the benefits of visitors! Again, we meet a version of Theme 5.
At last we come to an example of Theme 2. While I stated that I did not wish to pursue time travel episodes, in episode 28: The City on the Edge of Forever they encounter a ruined city on a hitherto unexplored planet. There is a talking time portal comprising of a ring of stone set amidst ruins with broken classical columns. So we have a giant version of Mên-an-Tol at the heart of Mediterranean classical past-inspired ruins. McCoy jumps through the portal and both Kirk and Spock follow him back to the 1930s Depression in the USA. They aim to stop McCoy changing the course of history and erasing them all from existence.
So, it should be clear by now that archaeology permeates the first series of Star Trek in many regards. At a time when the modern discipline of archaeology was emerging, it was being fictionalised as a key component of reflections and perspectives on the universe in science fiction. I’m sure I have missed stuff too!
This might come as no surprise, but the specific and varied interplays of past and present, savage, barbarian and civilization, can be seen cross-cutting these episodes more than the time-travel elements themselves. The past offers dangers and dilemmas for the crew of the Enterprise, reflections on the violence of human behaviour and societies past, and archaeologists and historians can prove morally compromised and with a failed moral compass.
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.