Star Trek, The Vietnam War and Orwell’s Political Dystopias

 

In the episode “A Private Little War” – broadcast in February 1968, Star Trek focuses most explicitly on the Vietnam conflict. After numerous rounds of revision and disagreements between creative forces on Star Trek’s team, the episode was revised to suggest that “the United States was attempting to do the right thing in a situation in which there really was no good course of action.” (94) The story begins with Kirk and Spock arriving at a planet to collect biological samples. They notice a group of “villagers using flintlock rifles” preparing to ambush Tyree, an old friend of Kirk (95). Kirk is perplexed by this occurrence; when he visited the planet thirteen years prior, “the inhabitants were just starting to develop primitive metal working technology.” (95) While investigating this development, Kirk and Dr. McCoy sneak into the village only to discover that Apella, the leader of the ambush, has a Klingon adviser. Furthermore, they find that the Klingons are secretly providing weapons to the villagers and are violating treaty provisions in doing so. In response, Kirk decides that the only way to challenge the Klingons’ illegal actions is to provide similar weapons to Tyree’s people, the targets of the ambush.

The allegory is quite clear – one superpower, the Klingons, corrupts and arms a native group in an undeveloped country, and poses Apella’s armed men against Tyree’s men, the remaining unarmed citizens. In response, the second superpower, the Federation, arms those who have not been corrupted by the Klingons – Tyree’s men. In essence, in the world of Star Trek the rival superpowers infiltrate a third party country, or planet in this case, and use its people as proxy puppets through which to fight one another.

The episode drives the analogy home with its closing dialogue. Kirk remarks “Remember the Twentieth Century brush wars on the Asian continent? Two giant powers involved much like the Klingons and ourselves. Neither felt they could pull out.” (95) While Star Trek approaches political criticism creatively, in this episode it also does so overtly.

 

Sarantake’s asserts that “the only reason Star Trek could deal with the (Vietnam) war was the program’s futuristic setting.” (90) This reason, however, applies to any of Star Trek’s social or political commentaries. The removed and disconnected setting allowed Star Trek to covertly but unsubtly communicate the creators’ political opinions. In a futuristic frame of reference, the show’s criticisms appear to be critiques on the political idea rather than an attack on the political reality. Likewise, it is the third party nature of science fiction or dystopian society that allows for glaring critiques to be relayed through culture and art rather than through direct words. This way, the critiques are up for interpretation and are presented as food for thought rather than as the only stance on the matter.

To my knowledge, the most renowned example of writing challenging political ideology are George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal House. While many of Orwell’s scholarly essays are critical of war, fascism, censorship, and imperialism, these literary works present his political opinions in a more elegant and creative manner. Additionally, the fictional context of his criticisms allows for the relevance of his ideals to go beyond the event and age about which they are written. Yes, it is clear that Animal House is a criticism of the Russian Revolution and that 1984 is a criticism of superpowers post- WWII. However, the abstract frame of reference broadens the scope of the stories’ impacts. Animal House speaks to the natural devolution of a revolutionary government and 1984 explores the fragility of falling into an authoritarian, censoring regime. It is the fantastical nature of his writing and setting that allows Orwell to challenge individual political movements as well as their larger and future implications.

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2 thoughts on “Star Trek, The Vietnam War and Orwell’s Political Dystopias”

  1. I agree that Orwell’s “1984” and “Animal Farm” are two of the most famous works of science-fiction that serve as allegories to social issues. I especially like how you acknowledge that by making the criticism set in a science-fiction setting, Orwell can also apply the moral beyond the specific incidents that he is critiquing. By using science-fiction to deliver the message, Orwell is reminding the reader of the possibility that such events can occur under different scenarios. It forces the reader to introspect and ensure that such events do not occur again.

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  2. You made good points about George Orwell’s pieces 1984 and Animal Farm. Adding onto what Matt said, I believe that structuring Animal Farm like a children’s story makes it especially effective in indirectly raising real world issues and challenging policy. Children’s stories often have simple ideas, ending with an evident moral of the story. The various contradictions and perversions of this model presented by Orwell in Animal Farm reveal that there is no single set of righteous morals absolutely followed by America or other powers. This reveal causes the audience to question American actions and whether they are truly consistent with the idealized principles of democracy.

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