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Andrew O'Day - Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek and metafiction

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Gene Roddenberry’s  Star Trek and metafiction 

Andrew O’Day

Without doubt, the most famous U.S. science fiction programme to date is Star Trek and it is the original series (1966-69) that is the focus here. Unlike The Twilight Zone, Star Trek is an episodic series which is where the main protagonists and their vehicle of transportation provide continuity between episodes since each episode (barring one two-part serial ‘The Menagerie’) is a complete narrative. This format was conceived as multi-generic, where the science fiction premise had close ties with the very American genre, the Western. This paper will firstly investigate this Derridean type of generic overlap and what it tells us about television institutions and American views of space travel in the 1960s. The second part of this paper will then look at how a metafictional episode of the actual series calls attention to its construction out of these multiple genres. However, the paper will then note the importance of not committing the fallacy of arguing that Star Trek’s format is solely that of a ‘Space Western’ or that each specific episode of Star Trek is like a Western. Furthermore, in another episode broadcasts are shown to be ideological, just as Star Trek was.

Star Trek’s format: ‘Space Western’?

It is important to begin by considering Star Trek’s format’s generic multiplicity in relation to its institutional context. Catherine Johnson (2005) argues that Star Trek is an example of ‘regulated innovation’. As Johnson writes, ‘National television broadcasting in the US developed out of the institutional structures of radio broadcasting as a commercial, profit-making business licensed to broadcast in the ‘public interest’’ (2005: 69). But this ‘public service requirement (set down in the Radio Act of 1927 and the Communications Act of 1934)’ differed from the British model of public service broadcasting since ‘the Federal Radio Commission – later the Federal Communications Commission FCC…did not have the power to determine what the public interest was or censor programme content’ (2005: 69). As Johnson notes, ‘Despite this, the early days of live television production in the 1940s and 1950s have been characterised as a ‘Golden Age’ of US television in which creativity and innovation were actively courted by broadcasters in an attempt to attract audiences to this new medium’ with anthology series drawing on recognised talent from the theatre (2005: 69). Johnson observes that there came about a decline of this ‘Golden Age’. There was a commercial domination of the television industry by the three-network oligopoly – of NBC, CBS and ABC – which financed programme production with sponsors and this gave the networks more power over production and led to formulaic programming designed to make a profit (2005: 69-70). The networks also owned holdings in television stations giving them power over scheduling at prime-time and airtime was sold to advertisers based on projected ratings by the A.C. Nielsen Corporation. But, as Johnson reveals, it has also been argued that product differentiation, as well as regulation, was a particularly important commercial strategy for independent studios – selling programmes to networks - with the financial situation of the studios being precarious (2005: 73-4). Star Trek was produced by the independent studio Desilu, which had produced I Love Lucy (2005: 74).

      Johnson argues that Star Trek was promoted as innovative, the first science fiction programme of its kind (likened in a promotional document to ‘intellectual’ narratives of literary science fiction and screened in colour), yet was also likened to formulaic action adventure programming (2005: 75). Star Trek was pitched as a certain type of action-adventure, a ‘Space Western’, in order to sell the network on the idea. As William Boddy  describes, not only was the cinematic Western, deriving from dime books, highly successful, but the television Western had been immensely popular from the 1950s until the early 1960s, with television programmes being screened like Gunsmoke (1955-75), Wyatt Earp (1955-61), and The Deputy (1959-61). ‘At the height of the genre’s popularity, between 1957 and 1959’, writes Boddy, ‘nearly one-third of network prime time consisted of Westerns’ even though ‘the decline of the TV Western only a few years later was…nearly permanent’ (2001: 14).

      As Stephen E. Whitfield and Gene Roddenberry note, Roddenberry originally pitched Star Trek as having the format of ‘Wagon Train to the Stars’ (1968: 23). This illustrates that the series format had a dualism, its starship having much in common with both the Western and its wagon train as well as with science fiction. As Roddenberry’s pitch indicates, Star Trek’s format specifically had connections with the Western television series Wagon Train (1957-65) where        each week a wagon train would proceed westward, focusing on a different group of travellers and a different set of problems.

      Pitching Star Trek as a ‘Space Western’ was facilitated by the comparisons made in America of the 1960s between space exploration and the exploration of the West. One of the primary impulses in America was of exploration harking back to the original settlers. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy described outer space as ‘the New Frontier’ and Gary Westfahl has argued that science fiction, like the Western, involved exploring and taming various frontiers (2000: 1). Jan Johnson-Smith (2005) has examined the ties between science fiction and the Western in some depth. Giving a history, Johnson-Smith writes that after Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 ‘Gettysburg Address’ in which he referred to the nation as having a new birth of freedom ‘A reinvigorated sense of purpose and national destiny found its home in the West, and a new unifying enemy was identified in the indigenous Americans…who fought desperately against the rapid white settlement and increased industrialisation of their lands’ (2005: 41). ‘After the frontier’s closure in the 1890s’, continues Johnson-Smith, ‘Americans sought to vicariously re-attain the spiritual essence of this short-lived version of their early society’ and ‘In the Western, they recreate a mythical narrative existing beyond a real time and place, where there are few social restraints, and where society can reinvent itself in a democratic or egalitarian form’ (2005: 42). In Westerns, it is the presence of the woman which indicates that ‘one day this new land will be a fine place for a home’ (2005: 47-8). Helping shape this romantic idealised mythology (the reality was somewhat inglorious) were Frederick Jackson Turner in the late 1880s and 1890s, a poet like Walt Whitman, and at the turn of the century Theodore Roosevelt (2005: 42-3). Johnson-Smith writes that ‘Science fiction and the “final frontier” of space offer an alternative progression to a potentially utopian future’ (2005: 5) and cites John Hellman who in his 1986 book American Myth and the Legacy of Vietnam ‘has argued…that writers and artists have found a new location for a free re-working of the frontier myth in science fiction’ (2005: 6). Johnson-Smith also makes a connection between the sublime and devotion in literature, painting and film representations of the West and science fiction’s potential to create a sense of wonder through, for example, effects (2005: 5; 44-7), but that is not the focus here.

      We can see how Star Trek’s format participates in the science fiction and Western genres. The opening words of the Star Trek title sequence are indeed ‘Space: The Final Frontier’, linking with President John F. Kennedy’s remark noted above. As Lincoln Geraghty has already put it, ‘Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek was a symbol of JFK’s progressive and liberal New Frontier politics’ (2009: 44). The voyage involves transplanting American values into another space. In the Western this occurred on land while in science fiction this occurs in space. But both genres feature the similar binaries of us and them, and home and non-home. The Enterprise is a metaphoric home breaching barriers which, as Gary K. Wolfe (1979) argues, is an important image in science fiction. John Tulloch and Manuel Alvarado write that in the science fiction film genre ‘The early spaceships were precarious and transitory homes, questing out but always physically and emotionally tied to mother Earth’ (1983: 71). But, according to Tulloch and Alvarado, ‘when located in space, the frontiersmen were…hampered…by the…air bubbles they lived in’ (1983: 71). The Enterprise, however, is no ordinary spaceship and resembles home even more closely. It is a comfortable star ship, with furnished living quarters on many decks in which characters will reside for the duration of the five year mission. Furthermore, the ship is led by an American Captain, and on board are an African-American Communications Officer (Lt. Uhura), and Japanese and Russian officers (Lt. Sulu and Mr. Chekov). Therefore, the ship is to a large degree a microcosm of Earth society. As Nick Lacey comments, the ‘basis of Star Trek is recognisably North American: a multiracial and multinational United Nations of the world promulgating the “American way of life”’ (2000: 187). And, as Geraghty has more recently stated, produced in the 1960s of Civil Rights movements, ‘The multicultural crew that sat aboard the Enterprise was representative of all that America should live up to’ (2009: 44), even though for example the African American female was only a Communications Officer. The transporter, beaming characters down to the surface of planets, enables characters to cross the boundaries of us and them, and home and not-home.

      The format of Star Trek further includes the science fiction Western binary of law and violation of law. As John Fiske (1990) notes, this opposition commonly shaped the Western explaining the recurring characters of sheriffs and outlaws. In America the sheriff had responsibility over areas of land, and often upheld law through gunplay. Captain Kirk is a space sheriff who imposes law over areas of space. His crew are always armed with phasers to protect themselves and others. In some narratives, Kirk transplants rules over entire societies, violating the Federation’s Prime Directive of non-interference in other cultures. In some other cases, Kirk imposes rules over individual criminals.  As Phillip Drummond notes, this binary of law enforcer and criminal is also apparent in the police series (1976: 22). But, unlike in Star Trek, the police series does not concern a voyage.

      In various Star Trek narratives one finds the image of criminals confined to quarters. This is a common image in the Western where at the jail house the Sheriff or one of his deputies sits at a desk guarding a criminal and where sometimes an attempt will be made to rescue that prisoner. In Star Trek, Captain Kirk, the space equivalent to the American sheriff, sometimes gives the order that a visiting character must be confined to quarters.

‘Spectre of the Gun’ as metafiction of the ‘Space Western’

Gene L. Coon’s Star Trek narrative ‘Spectre of the Gun’ (1968) involves the Enterprise (a science fiction vehicle) violating the Melkot area of space in an attempt to make first contact with the species and, as a result, the landing party being cast as the outlaw Clantons in a recreation of the Gunfight at the OK Corral. Star Trek dealt with a number of recreations (e.g. of gangster films and of Nazi Germany) but ‘Spectre of the Gun’ is a metafiction where not only is a narrative presented but where the narrative draws attention to its multi-generic construction. The narrative plays on the format’s multi-generic science fiction Western tendencies where values of law are usually implemented in outer space but by Kirk. There is a development of Mark Currie’s (1995) argument since he was not looking at metafictions reflecting on genre.

      Examining ‘Spectre of the Gun’ involves looking at the frame narrative, one of fiction’s most self-conscious artificial forms. The frame narrative has received much attention by literary critics like William Nelles (1997), looking, for instance, at Boccaccio’s The Decameron and Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. In this type of narrative, there is a process of layering. Traditionally, the frame narrative involves a series of ‘narrators’ telling a selection of narratives. As we have seen, metafictions collapse the boundary between the narratives and their creation, and the frame narrative draws attention not only to narratives but to their telling. Furthermore, in the frame narrative, there is not only a process of division between the frame and the inner narrative, but there is also a process of unification. It is in relation to the frame that the narrative functions and is given shape. Theorists of frame narrative, such as Jens Andersen (1972), have already recognised the connection between the frame and the inner narrative and the fact that the ‘frame’ is not merely a device upon which to hang a series of unconnected narratives.

      This theory of the frame narrative can be applied to ‘Spectre of the Gun’. In ‘Spectre of the Gun’, the constructed Western scenario is read in relation to the science fiction frame. In this narrative, science fiction and Western settings are presented but both connect, just as the genres are unified in Star Trek’s format. The fact that author-like figures construct this Western setting which is to be read in relation to science fiction make ‘Spectre of the Gun’ a metafiction where not only is a narrative told but where the narrative concerns ideas of construction.

      Commonly, setting acts to orientate the reader or viewer of a literary, film or television text, placing him or her in a firm location. As David McQueen (1998) notes, this also often has the effect of situating the text generically. In ‘Spectre of the Gun’, however, the Western setting has buildings which literally lack a proper frame. The Western setting is composed of fragments and lacks solidity. The Western setting is supported by the science fiction frame literally and thematically since it does not have an independent structure. On the one hand, there is a forcefield around the Western setting, erecting boundaries. Yet, on the other hand, the setting is not solid with complete boundaries erected around it but is supported by another genre. The setting is one of permeability. Boddy (2001) argues that because of the restrictions imposed on television production, unlike in the film Western, the television Western does not present vast outdoor landscapes. But in ‘Spectre of the Gun’ all notions of realism are deliberately discarded. Nicholas Abercrombie argues that iconography is important in establishing a genre (1996: 42). The Western scenario features important images of the genre. These include the Saloon and the Sheriff’s Office. The buildings, however, are literally incomplete, composed of, as characters note, ‘bits and pieces’, such as lone standing walls, and rooftops floating in the air. The television viewer is not firmly situated in the Western genre but, like the rooftops, would hover with disorientation, but for the bearing given by the science fiction frame. Allan Acherman points out that the Western setting is fragmented indicating that it is a construction (1983: 146), but does not explore the way that the science fiction frame gives this fragmented Western setting its structure both literally and thematically. Therefore, the multiplicity of genres are unified.

      The notion of setting both acting to divide the science fiction outer frame and the inner Western genre, yet simultaneously unify the genres, is emphasised through the way the narrative is filmed. Characters are not presented on a journey from the science fiction setting to the Western one. Rather, the impression provided is of their standing in exactly the same area while the setting around them changes. As characters from the Enterprise stand in a science fiction locale, there is a zoom-in shot upon the badge on a character’s uniform. This is followed by a zoom-out shot from the character’s badge, presenting the landing party standing in a new Western setting. The characters, then, do not move across borders from one setting to another. Since characters stand in exactly the same position while the setting around them changes, the science fiction genre can be seen blending into the Western one.

      An impression of the Western setting as constructed is indeed provided through the use of colour. The colour red dominates the Western landscape. The dominance of the colour not only symbolises violence but also gives the setting an unreal quality. This connects with the idea running through this discussion that the setting is to be read only in relation to science fiction.

      ‘Spectre of the Gun’ illustrates a thematic process of generic division yet unification. This is where a science fiction and Western scenario parallel each other with their common binaries of law and violation of law and law enforcers and outlaws. The drama played out through the construction of setting is mirrored thematically, the science fiction frame again supporting the Western scenario. In ‘Spectre of the Gun’s science fiction scenario, the Melkot order the Enterprise crew to leave an area of space. The inner illusion chosen is of the famous Western town of Tombstone in 1888, which is the setting for the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Events in this town concerned the common Western binary of law and violation of law. The town was patrolled by the law-enforcing Earps doing battle with the outlaw Clantons. This is the case even though there are suggestions that in real life Wyatt Earp was a heavy drinking policeman who turned to crime with ‘Doc’ Holliday. The science fiction frame gives meaning to the Western scenario of the Enterprise characters being ordered to leave the illusion of Tombstone by a certain hour or else be gunned down by law-enforcers in a rendering of the gunfight.

      Additionally, in the science fiction setting a time limit is imposed by law enforcers on the Enterprise characters to leave the area or else be killed. This idea is indicated by dialogue and also through the image of an hour glass floating in space, signifying the rapid passing of time and not only suggesting, as Acherman notes, suspense (1984: 146). It is the image of the hour glass, indicating the rapid passing of time, which gives meaning to the shots of a clock advancing towards the fateful hour in the illusion of Tombstone. The clock is zoomed in on to emphasise its importance. It follows the Enterprise crew to locations, indicating that its presence haunts characters. Therefore, this recalls, yet reverses the Western ‘get out of town’ film High Noon (1952). High Noon is set in the two hours around noon, at which time Sheriff Will Kane has the showdown with Frank Miller, an outlaw bent on vengeance, and must decide whether to flee town or fight. But in ‘Spectre of the Gun’ it is those cast as the outlaws, the Enterprise crew, who are ordered to ‘get out of town’. Also, because characters refused to leave the science fiction scenario area of space in which they trespassed, in the Western setting they cannot pass through the Tombstone City Limits force field. In ‘Spectre of the Gun”, in a reversal of the Star Trek format, then, the alien Melkot enforce their law against Kirk and his crew. The Enterprise landing party become cast as the outlaw Clantons, until the end of the narrative when Kirk’s authority is re-established.

      In ‘Spectre of the Gun’ we see that the Melkot are creators of this scenario and that not only is a narrative presented but also that the narrative is about its multi-generic construction which can get us to reflect on the programme’s format. It is worth examining theoretical ideas of doubling. Here ‘characters’ are projections by ‘creators’ and only in relation to science fiction does the Western function since the characters in the Western scenario are projections by the science fiction Melkot. Just as the buildings in the Western setting are fragmented, the double is a projection of a fragment of oneself by a creator figure, and is therefore separated from, as well as unified with, oneself. Here, the Melkot are creators in one genre, science fiction, casting themselves as fragments in another, the Western, in addition to casting the Enterprise landing party as Western characters. So, as noted, in a reversal of Star Trek’s format, the Melkot cast Kirk and his landing party as the law breaking Clantons because they violated Melkot space in the science fiction scenario. The Melkot have been presented as traditional science fiction aliens defined by their difference from humanity. They have a head, bright yellow glowing eyes, and a neck which ends in tentacles floating above the ground. The Melkot are personified as the Western Earps because, in the science fiction scenario, values of law have been associated with them, the equivalent of the space sheriff, who imposes law upon an area.

      As noted, at the end of the narrative, Kirk’s normal role as driver of the science fiction Western is re-established because he refrains from killing Wyatt Earp in the Western arena, and this also means that the science fiction doubles of the Western Earps, the Melkot are hospitable to the Enterprise crew and allow them to land peacefully. Through not destroying the illusion of Earp, Kirk becomes re-established as the science fiction Western double of the sheriff rather than his having eliminated this projection of his own role. The television technique of Earp being blurred out of the picture suggests his un-solid existence and the permeability of generic thresholds where Kirk replaces Earp assuming his values.

      It is important to note that there is a level of reality in the narrative where the central characters are made out to be real. For example, the solution that the Enterprise landing party arrive at, in their guise as the Clantons, to defeat the Earps, is that they must believe that the bullets are imaginary and cannot kill. This suggests that the Enterprise crew are themselves real since were they to believe in the bullets they could be killed. Therefore, the narrative does not explicitly lay bare the illusion that it is part of a fictional television programme. 

‘Space Western’ as problematic reading

The study of Star Trek’s format as a science fiction Western, however, is only the beginning of a study of Star Trek. Studying Star Trek‘s format solely as a science fiction Western is problematic. For example, Star Trek can be seen as action adventure more broadly when considering its institutional context. As Johnson notes, action adventure, with its emphasis on character, was important to the network with its concept of ‘regulated innovation’ since NBC’s audience research suggested that while women in their twenties and thirties were definitely not fans of science fiction, they were not opposed to action-adventure series (2005: 76-7). NBC were keen not to alienate this section of the audience, who were considered an attractive demographic by advertisers because of their perceived control over family spending (2005: 77). Johnson notes that familiarity is created through the presence of recurring character leads. As Johnson explains, ‘The three leads in the series are constructed as recognisable types’ where ‘Captain Kirk…is the determined action-adventure hero, Doctor McCoy…the humorous and cynical doctor and Spock…the intelligent and efficient second in command’ (2005: 79). Johnson argues that this point of identification is enhanced through the narrative device of the Captain’s Log where, in each episode, the voice-over narration by Captain Kirk not only orientates the television viewer providing exposition and indicating the rules of the fantastic, but also provides a point of intimacy between the character of Kirk and the audience (2005: 79). ‘This’, continues Johnson, ‘is reiterated through the frequent use of “asides” in which recurring lead characters direct dialogue away from the other characters and in the direction of (but not directly out to) the camera’ (2005: 79). So, as Johnson notes, ‘although this intimacy is balanced by action sequences, it is not unusual for the climatic cliff-hangers [at advertisement breaks] to end with a close-up of the face of a recurring character, rather than with a dramatic special effect or action sequence’ (2005: 79).

      Furthermore, Star Trek’s format can be likened to another genre, the sea voyage, in many ways, just as much as it can be to the Western. The language of Starfleet is one of Admirals and Captains, with settings of naval bases. The narrative device of the Captain’s Log further echoed the sea narrative genre, with Roddenberry indeed having likened Kirk to a nineteenth-century heroic sea captain such as Horatio Hornblower (see Tulloch and Jenkins 1995: 183 for a discussion of this).

      Seeing Star Trek as solely a ‘Space Western’ also ignores the point that most of the individual episodes do not resemble a Western at all, and also occludes the programme’s attempts to address more contemporary concerns in individual episodes, such as the U.S. invasion and occupation of Vietnam. So, a narrative such as ‘A Private Little War’ (1968) comments on the Vietnam War where Kirk, discovering that the Klingons have been supplying advanced weaponry to one side in a battle, justifies arming the opponents with the same weapons, by referring to the ‘20th century brush wars on the Asian continent’. Furthermore, episodes of Star Trek participate in numerous other genres like the gangster genre, in ‘A Piece of the Action’ (1968), like the anti-Nazi war genre, in ‘Patterns of Force’ (1968), and so on.

      ‘Patterns of Force’ indeed highlights the ideological nature of broadcasting (much as certain episodes of The Twilight Zone did). In ‘Patterns of Force’ an alien society is patterned after that of Nazi Germany with its racist policies and newsreel enforces the ideology. Geraghty calls attention to Star Trek’s more broad ability to tackle issues such as racism, in episodes such as ‘The Enemy Within’ (1966) and ‘Let That Be Your Last Battlefield’ (1969), which is significant since the programme was produced in the late 1960s, at a time of civil rights movements in the United States (2009: 44-5). However, as Geraghty points out, the treatment of race in the twenty-third century of the programme is still ambivalent (2009: 45). Therefore, the programme itself was able to deal with contemporary issues within science fiction, and is a precursor to other U.S. allegorical science fiction like Planet of the Apes (1974). 


Looking at ‘Spectre of the Gun’ as an example of metafiction, it fits in with Patricia Waugh’s (1984) and Currie’s (1995) definition of metafictions that take fictionality as a theme to be explored since in this narrative a Western scenario is created that is hung in place by a science fiction frame. This is not only highlighted through dialogue but also visually. ‘Spectre of the Gun’ shows how Star Trek could blend science fiction and the Western, although this is only the start of a study of the series. As can be seen, the programme’s very format’s genres are associated with U.S. programming of the 1960s but ideas of metafictions reflecting on their multi-generic construction would also be found in later British science fiction. Here metafictional techniques seen in ‘Spectre of the Gun’ would again surface: for example, in the Doctor Who narrative ‘Castrovalva’ (1982) a seemingly fairy tale castle would be held in place by a science fiction web – these are like the Western scenario in ‘Spectre of the Gun’: fragments or shards. Furthermore, Star Trek draws attention in ‘Patterns of Force’ to the ideological nature of broadcasts. 


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Text © Andrew O'Day and used with his kind permission. This page was compiled by Tim Harris.

This page was first published to the internet Saturday 2nd July 2011.