Thursday, December 01, 2016

Trek50: Exploration Within


The Enemy Within,” only the fifth original series episode to air, is a defining story in the Star Trek saga. To the adventures, discoveries and confrontations with strange new worlds and situations, this episode added the dimensions of metaphor and allegory exploring what it is to be human.

This became a thematic constant: the exploration outward was also the exploration within, and strange new worlds were to be found in both places.

 This became and remains particular, characteristic and essential to Star Trek. Fifty years later, this is even more clearly true. If not unique, this stubbornly repeated intent is rare in popular entertainment storytelling.

 This goes beyond the ethical dilemmas and “Gulliver’s Travels” layer of social comment often present in science fiction, familiar to discerning readers and viewers who are capable of experiencing these layers or levels simultaneously as part of the adventure.

 “The Enemy Within” is a direct and dramatic exploration of the human condition, and its clarity signals Star Trek’s intentions, so viewers are alerted to these elements in other stories where they may be less apparent.


Richard Matheson, science fiction author and writer for film and television, had recently adapted a series of classic Edgar Allen Poe stories for films by director Roger Corman. He realized that another classic tale he’d re-read, Robert Louis Stevenson’s story “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” could be the basis of a Star Trek story involving the transporter.

 But in his telling, and with significant contributions from Gene Roddenberry, “The Enemy Within” was more than yet another Jekyll and Hyde retread, or an Evil Twin story that also has classic roots, but has since been ground into mostly comic cliche by soap opera repetition.

 Stevenson’s story told of a doctor who felt burdened by unspecified but presumably ungentlemanly vices that he had to hide and repress to be accepted in his society. Though he was a mixture of “good” and “evil” impulses, he liberated his less acceptable tendencies by creating, through a drug he developed, another self—the younger, physically smaller and internally deformed Mr. Hyde who replaced him until the drug wore off or was counteracted. But eventually Hyde would not stay hidden and destroyed them both.

 Although some aspects of this split are similar (especially the identification of evil with the animal nature of humans), there are important differences in the situation aboard the Enterprise.

 Members of the Enterprise crew, including Captain Kirk, are on the surface of a planet, Alpha 177, on a specimen-gathering mission. When geological technician Fisher injures his hand in a fall, he is beamed aboard the ship. His transport is difficult, which Scotty—manning the transporter—attributes to unknown qualities of ore dust clinging to his uniform.

 While the transporter seems normal, Scotty sends the attendant to fetch an instrument to check it further. Scotty beams Captain Kirk aboard, who seems woozy and disoriented. Scotty helps him to his quarters, leaving the transporter room unattended. It is then that the transporter engages again, and a second Kirk materializes.

 This Kirk crouches, his nose twitching to pick up smells. He runs his fingers over the transporter panels. He is a creature of the senses, of the physical. He departs unobserved.







The “good” Kirk lies down in his quarters, exhausted, with a carved statue that appears to be from some “primitive” culture clearly in view on the shelf to his side.

 The “evil” Kirk storms into sick bay and demands brandy from Doctor McCoy, who reports to Spock that the Captain was acting like “a wild man.”

 After convincing Spock that he hadn’t left his quarters and McCoy was putting him on, the good Kirk joins Spock and Scotty in the transporter room where they see that in beaming aboard an animal from the planet, two animals arrived: one docile and one extremely violent.

Meanwhile, in the most controversial scene of the episode, the evil Kirk enters Yeoman Rand’s quarters and attacks her sexually. She scratches his face and she attracts the attention of a passing crewman, who attempts to report the incident until the evil Kirk attacks him and flees.

 After Rand tearfully reports what happened, Spock—mindful of what he saw in the transporter room-- concludes that a Kirk imposter is on board.

 We’ve seen that the evil Kirk is prey to his appetites. Now we see a quality of the good Kirk—his compassion for Sulu and the other crew members stranded on the planet below in danger of freezing to death as the temperature drops. The transporter can’t be trusted, equipment duplicates when beamed down, and apparently the Enterprise is not yet equipped with a shuttlecraft (as indeed the Star Trek series was not.)

 But good Kirk has also lost his decisiveness, “my strength of will,” and he feels it continuing to ebb. From Rand’s account, Spock has concluded that his double has equal knowledge of the ship. (We’ve also seen that he is cunning enough to cover his facial scratches.) Where would Kirk go to escape detection? The lower decks—engineering.

To this point the good Kirk seems puzzled; he is drawn to stillness and contemplation. He can barely understand the evil propelling his double. When they meet in engineering, he advances with the certainty of reason.

 His evil twin cowers, then strikes out. Though good Kirk pleads with him to accept that they are part of each other, evil Kirk—like Mr. Hyde—wants his complete freedom, and aims a phaser blast at good Kirk.

Spock’s well-timed Vulcan neck pinch spoils his aim, but the blast further damages transporter circuits. (Leonard Nimoy invented the neck pinch for this moment, although viewers had seen it in “The Naked Time” because that episode—seen immediately before this one—was actually made immediately after “The Enemy Within.”)

Noting good Kirk’s continuing indecisiveness, Spock makes these key description: “His negative side, which you call hostility, lust, violence, and his positive side, which earth people describe as compassion, love, tenderness.”

Then he asks, “What is it makes one man an exceptional leader? We see indications that it is his negative side that makes him strong---that his evil side, if you will, properly controlled and disciplined, is vital to his strength.”

 This is the first brave insight. So much of action adventure is the simplistic battle between Good and Evil. Here Star Trek boldly goes into the realities of human complexity. The split itself demonstrates that James T. Kirk is not entirely Good. He has Evil—or traits associated with evil—within him.


At first the difference between the two Kirks still seems as simple as Good and Evil. Good Kirk is governed by intelligence and reason. He is genial and gentle, and above all he is compassionate. He has the capacity for empathy—his concern for the marooned crewmembers for instance. Evil Kirk is all selfishness and uncontrolled appetite.

 But now Spock suggests the negative side contributes to the good that the positive side can do—to its effectiveness.

This is hard for the good Kirk to accept. In a key conversation with McCoy in sick bay, he is repelled by the idea that the evil Kirk is part of him. “I have to take him back inside myself, I can’t survive without him. I don’t want to take him back! He’s a thoughtless, brutal animal! Yet it’s me! Me!”

 “Jim, you’re no different than anyone else,” McCoy says. “We all have our darker side. We need it. It’s half of what we are. It’s not really ugly—it’s human. Yes, human. A lot of what he is makes you the man you are.” McCoy is forced to agree with Spock, “Your strength of command lies mostly in him.”

 “What do I have?” the good Kirk asks. “You have the goodness…” “Not enough!” “The intelligence, the logic---it appears your half has most of those, and perhaps that’s where man’s essential courage comes from. For, you see, he was afraid. You weren’t.”

 This is another unusual and intriguing idea. We often think of courage as being physical, as “animal courage.” But McCoy suggests it is a product of consciousness.

Meanwhile, Spock and Scotty have rigged the transporter to reverse the original process. But when they tried it out on the two animals, the re-integrated animal died. Spock insists the animal died of shock, frightened by the reintegration it couldn’t understand. “You have your intelligence controlling your fear,” he tells good Kirk.

 After McCoy insists this is only a theory, Spock retorts almost angrily: “Being split in two is no theory with me, Doctor. I have a human half as well as an alien half, submerged, constantly at war with each other...I survive it because my intelligence wins out over both, makes them live together.”

The split represented by the two Kirks becomes even less defined as good v. evil in the most passionate wishes each utters. “I can’t let them die!” good Kirk cries, referring to the crew freezing on the planet below. His compassion and responsibility are clearly good. But what of evil Kirk’s cry?—“I want to live!” This can be considered the most fundamental desire—and right—of any life form.

The evil Kirk has been restrained in sick bay, where he appears to be dying, even as the good Kirk continues to weaken. After another escape attempt is eventually foiled, good Kirk struggles onto the transporter pad with the appropriately unconscious evil Kirk.

The transporter magic reintegrates the two halves into the single decisive but good captain, who saves Sulu and the other crew freezing on the planet surface.

There are several ways to characterize this divide within.

Various religions explained evil as possession by the devil or evil spirits—that is, forces from outside. The Catholic Church provided the doctrine of original sin, which in some sense meant that humans were born with the internal capacity to sin. The remedy was faith, good works and obedience to authority.

 The terms used in this episode suggest an interpretation of human evolution from the mid 19th century, in which evolution meant a kind of progress upward. So evil tendencies—sensuality, appetite, acting on impulse rather than reflection—were associated with the earlier and “lower” attributes shared with animals, the legacy of our animal ancestry. Good tendencies were associated with attributes of intelligence, logic and reason, self-control and will, and sometimes including the compassion gained from religion or social contracts, and generally through education and following the rules of civilized society.

So when Kirk is repelled by realizing he contains “a thoughtless, brutal animal,” he is expressing this interpretation. More recent research into animals suggest this is somewhat simplistic (A preliminary sort of conclusion on this research is suggested by the title of a book by one of the leaders in the field, Frans de Waal: Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?)

 To further complicate matters de Waal has found in his own research that humans are heirs to the genes of primate species with two nearly opposite natures: the combative chimps and the peace-loving bonobos. This implies what other evidence also suggests: that the standard picture of evolution that stresses the “selfish gene” and “nature red in tooth and claw” is inadequate if not biased. In any case, the popular interpretation of evolution as progress has been suspect since Darwin. H.G. Wells in particular battled against it.

But humans as a combination—and crucially, as a balance—between the attributes associated with the animal or physical nature and the attributes of intelligence appears constantly in Star Trek, and in various configurations. The need to control conflicting tendencies was at the heart of the previous episode, “The Naked Time” and would be again in other stories such as “This Side of Paradise.”  It’s partly behind the McCoy/emotion versus Spock/logic conflict, that informs the mediating decider, Kirk.

 And as Spock indicates, it’s part of his own internal conflict. It is also a key to the conflicts the Enterprise finds in confrontations with other worlds. In “Arena” for example, Kirk had to prove that humans weren’t simple animals, but capable of compassion, or at least fair play.

 On the other hand, Kirk stood for the reality of the physical against the abstraction of war in an over-civilized society in “A Taste of Armageddon.” Kirk admits that humans were killers by nature, but that they could overcome it.

 It remains one of his most famous speeches: “It’s instinctive. But the instinct can be fought. We’re human beings with the blood of a million savage years on our hands. But we can stop it. We can admit that we’re killers, but we’re not going to kill today. That’s all it takes. Knowing that we’re not going to kill—today.”

 The “today” admits that these instincts are always present. (The language is strikingly akin to that used in addiction programs.)

 Again, more detailed and subtle knowledge of human prehistory and primal societies makes this a simplistic analysis of the sources of the internal conflict. But as the Enterprise encounters civilizations both much more advanced and much less technologically capable, the virtues of the human way, the middle way, between primitive superstition and soulless technology often recur. In accepting the dynamic combination of forces that may coalesce as good or evil, humanity finds freedom, equality, diversity and a necessary humility.

There are other, newer ways of seeing this internal division. The psychological terms most fashionable in the mid-1960s when this episode was created came from Freud. It was a conflict between the “superego” (the rules set down by society through parents, and by extension, any ethical or moral principles and restraints) and the “id” (the primitive instincts and drives.) The id in particular was identified with the unconscious (most dramatically in science fiction in the classic film Forbidden Planet.)

 Though Freud would make guest appearances on Star Trek: The Next Generation, the guiding psychological light of that series was C. G. Jung, who was especially popular in the 1990s. In Jungian terms, the two Kirk conflict is between consciousness and the unconscious, particularly eruptions from that part of the unconscious called “the shadow.”

 The shadow is a part of the unconscious where the unwanted and unapproved parts of ourselves reside. It is the dark, hidden counterpart of the human profile—it contains all that has been rejected by consciousness. That usually includes such “negative” feelings and behaviors as racial hatred, greed and rage. (This kind of dominant shadow was externalized in "Mirror, Mirror.")

 But if the society values greed and selfishness, the shadow may also include selflessness that society would consider stupid or self-defeating. Or if a certain kind of rationality is paramount in consciousness, the shadow might contain imagination and artistic yearnings.

 In other words, the shadow holds tendencies we usually call evil, but can also contain good qualities that our society forces us to repress, like the impulse to give away all your money to a homeless person who somehow touches your heart at that moment.

 The Jungian shadow emerges into the outer world through such mechanisms as projection and denial (words that have entered the common language, if not the common understanding) but which masquerade as rational, especially to the individual (or society) whose shadow it is. The human struggle is to integrate as much of the unconsciousness into consciousness as possible, where it can be evaluated and dealt with, while allowing the unconscious its integrity, and respecting its power.

For as in this Star Trek episode, Jung suggests that our shadows are not only part of us, but necessary parts of us. (A good explanation of Jung’s ideas of the shadow, as well as suggestions for integrating it into our lives, can be found in Robert A. Johnson’s short book --just over a hundred pages-- called Owning Your Own Shadow.)

 For Jung, this process is not just important to each individual: To understand the forces and workings of the unconscious is vital to our survival as societies and perhaps as a species.

He was especially insistent about this in the 1950s, in the early atomic age. “ The world hangs on a thin thread,” he said in a video interview. “That thread is the human psyche… We are the great danger. The psyche is the great danger.” But we know nothing about it, he added. Nobody gives credit to the idea that the psychic processes of the ordinary human have any importance. But, Jung maintained, the future of mankind depends very much on the ordinary human, on all humans, recognizing the shadow. This seems an appropriate point to emphasize at this moment in America.

 In “The Enemy Within,” the split is accomplished through what H.G. Wells would call “the magic trick” of the story: a transporter malfunction that can more easily be accepted than explained. (How does a matter/energy transfer system divide a human into duplicates with exactly these mysterious differences?) But accepted dramatically, it provides the means to usefully apply the concepts.

 Respecting the power of the unconscious and honoring its contribution while conscientiously applying consciousness and intelligence to guide behavior are central to Jung’s psychology and to this Star Trek episode.

 To take it all a little further than we’ve gone before, this balancing act, this harmonizing of instinct and thought, physical and spiritual, emotion and reason, is central to a concept of what the soul is—a concept common to early western thinkers as well as Jung and such contemporary post-Jungian writers as James Hillman (The Soul’s Code) and Thomas Moore (Care of the Soul.) So in this way, we’re really talking about the soul of Star Trek.

I have two more thoughts inspired by this episode—one about allegory, and one about the shadow.

The idea of humans hosting a dual nature is common enough (it’s essential to film noir, for example), and can lend itself to exploitation and sensationalism.

 But to deal with it in an explicit but fairly sophisticated presentation is decidedly unusual in popular entertainment. How Star Trek accomplished this in this episode is basically how it succeeded in telling other stories with allegorical and metaphorical dimensions.

 First of all, it tells a dramatically structured story that involves the viewer in dramatic questions and what happens next. Each incident and revelation suggests a question that, when answered, leads to another question. The story is both an exploration of those questions, and a series of problems to be solved and dangers to be dealt with.

 Drama is intensified by time pressures: both Kirks are weakening and may die. A solution must be found and implemented before they do. Meanwhile, that same solution is the key to saving the lives of freezing crew members on the planet’s surface, as the temperature gradually drops.

 The dramatic structure is in the writing. But other equally important factors involve not only the writing but the actors and all facets of production, beginning with the decisions made that apply to the series as a whole. Roddenberry grouped these under the term “believability.”

 They include the plausibility of the Star Trek technology and the Star Trek universe in general. It means a consistent universe—warp engines will always operate the same way, the phasers have the same settings, etc. This consistency grows throughout the series, as new elements are added—technologies, alien races, the Federation and its Prime Directive, etc. So now that the Spock neck pinch has been established, it will be used in basically the same way forever.

 The actors invested in their characters make them believable by both consistency and growth. How they played moments helped to define interesting characters in interaction with each another. (The responses of viewers as well as writers also contributed.)  Writers and particularly directors come and go, but the actors remain as the guardians of their characters, and to some extent, of the series.

 Star Trek’s tendency towards metaphor and allegorical storytelling was undoubtedly encouraged by the limitations of low budgets—the series couldn’t depend on flashy phaser fights and space battles. The stage experience of many of the principal actors also helped to make the most of simple if not cheesy sets.

 Acting in this kind of story is tricky—it combines a kind of expressionism with a naturalistic, believable portrayal. William Shatner in particular works on this dangerous line in this episode. Some viewers find it excessive but mesmerizing. Several viewings reveal how subtle it actually is.

 So in general, it was the dramatically structured storytelling in a believable and increasingly attractive universe that helped make stories like “The Enemy Within” memorable, and alive for several generations.

To create these stories and this series required many hands working together. That aspect was emphasized in many interviews given in the 60s and 70s especially. “There was a very good team feeling,” said Dorothy Fontana. “I don’t think I’ve ever encountered such a great team spirit on any other show I’ve ever worked on...The whole unity of everybody, from the top to the least important production person, was right there.”

  “I never had a problem,” recalled Al Francis, Star Trek’s director of photography. “I would go in and talk to Gene, and it was a big family. That’s the way I saw it. It was the closest relationship I ever had while making a picture, from the producers right down to the crafts servicemen.”

“We were very free creatively,” said veteran director Ralph Senensky. “Everybody worked together.”

 “It was a marvelous place to work,” said music editor Robert Raff. “We worked long, hard schedules on that show...During some long nights we would pop in on Gene to have a drink with him. He had a living room suite where he stayed, writing in his office. He kept his office open to all of us.”

 But there was another side to all of this, that erupted in quite different views and accounts in more recent years. The three years of the original series involved intense schedules, long work days and work weeks as well as career pressures. They all took a physical toll, particularly on Roddenberry and the other producers, but also on actors and other creative and technical staff, and their families.

 It all may have involved abuses of various kinds. It apparently also involved some bad feelings and resentments that erupted in the guise of new revelations. Participants who previously sang each others’ praises and expressed satisfaction with their contributions to Star Trek began to complain about various injustices and insults in books and videos—about lines stolen by another actor, scripts unnecessarily and badly re-written, credit for their work taken by another. In particular, the reputations of Gene Roddenberry and William Shatner have taken more than a few hits.

 It’s impossible to entirely know what is true and what isn’t, especially fifty years in the Hollywood past. It seems likely that some questionable if not unsavory behavior happened and was discreetly hidden. But some of the “revelations” lack credibility (though far too many consumers are prey to believing them) or smack of sour grapes that do the purveyors no credit.

 It’s possible and even likely that some of these revelations were prompted and shaped by profits and profile, but that’s more an element to consider in general than to apply specifically without evidence. Because the point is that it’s all likely evidence of the shadow side, both in the complex reality of making the series, and in the careers and lives of participants since.  As for the public, the tendency to hero-worship is often matched with the eagerness to believe the worst as it resonates with one’s own shadow.

What we have for certain are the episodes, which is what everyone concerned produced through their talents, hard work and conflicts.  As “The Enemy Within” maintains, humans have both sides within them. And the shadow side is not totally an enemy. It is part of the whole. This does not excuse bad behavior in anyone. But it is a fact of being human.

(Thanks again to Trek Core for screencaps.)

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Trek50: The Adventure Begins

Fifty years ago today, Star Trek viewers would be talking about last Thursday’s episode, “The Corbomite Maneuver.” According to Marc Cushman’s research (in These Are The Voyages), this episode was originally meant to be Star Trek’s first, so in many ways it was intended to tell the audience, this is what Star Trek is. In the following Trek50 post, I highlight it as an example of one way in which Star Trek revealed part of its character, as adventure. 

I t is August 1966, the rush to finish the first episodes of Star Trek and get them on the air is reaching a climax, and lost in the universe on Gene Roddenberry’s desk is a desperate memo from Bob Justman, one of Star Trek’s two associate producers. “It is important that you compose, without delay, our Standard Opening Narration for Bill Shatner to record.”

 But Roddenberry’s first attempt was cumbersome, sounding as stilted as the legal language of the Constitution. It even included the phrase “regulate commerce.” It did however contain the words, “explores strange new worlds and civilizations.” And it ended: “These are its voyages...and adventures.”

 He wrote a second but similar draft the same day and sent them around to Justman and his other associate producer, John D.F. Black.

 “Think the narration needs more drama,” Black wrote in his return memo that same day, and added “an example of what I mean.” His draft began: “Space…the final frontier…endless, silent, waiting.” He then incorporated elements of Gene’s draft, adding, “to seek out and contact all alien life.” And he included the title of Sam Peeple’s script for the second pilot story, “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” “…to travel the vast galaxy where no man has gone before…a STAR TREK.”

 Also that day, Robert Justman tried a draft. His began, “This is the story of the Starship Enterprise” and went on to define its mission. He put together Roddenberry’s “to explore strange new worlds” with “where no man has gone before.” Then he sent all the drafts back to Roddenberry with a memo begging him to write the final script.

 Gene started scribbling on Justman’s draft, then did nothing more on it for a week. By that time Justman was frantic. The words to the standard opening would complete one of the last elements yet to be finished before the first show could air.

 After a phone call and another pleading memo from Justman on August 10, Roddenberry took the best phrases from copies of the previous memos, cut them to the essential words, added what would become the world’s most famous split infinitive (“to boldly go”) and gave the words a reading rhythm. It was the final draft because it had to be.

Justman ran with it to the dubbing stage across the street. William Shatner rushed over from the sound stage where he was filming Star Trek’s ninth episode, “Dagger of the Mind.”  He read through the narration a few times and recorded two takes. That’s all they could do—they couldn’t hold up the day’s shooting for any longer.

 And these would be the words first broadcast on September 8, 1966, and repeated by several actors to introduce hundreds of episodes, as well as included in a few feature films. 

These were the words that would become one of the best-known poems of the twentieth century:

“Space…the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its five year mission: to explore strange new worlds…to seek out new life and new civilizations…to boldly go where no man has gone before!”

These words would also handily define the basic structure of Star Trek storytelling, placing it in an ancient tradition—perhaps the most ancient. Star Trek stories would be tales of adventure.

 “The oldest, most widespread stories in the world are adventure stories,” wrote literary scholar Paul Zweig, opening his 1974 book The Adventurer.

These stories are most often about “perilous journeys, encounters with inhuman monsters,” Zweig continues. Such journeys, often by ships in unknown seas (These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise) are made to unexplored regions (Space...the final frontier) where the adventurer encounters previously unknown beings (new life and new civilizations.)


Told in song, verse and prose, the adventure tale was a staple of world literature from Gilgamesh and Homer’s Odyssey to the time of Moby Dick and Huckleberry Finn.

While the structure of the adventure tale survived in Conan Doyle’s The Lost World and H.G. Wells The Time Machine in the late 19th century, Zweig writes that it was already disappearing from modern novels, as they became more domestic and introspective, dealing more with thoughts and feelings than actions.


Adventure stories did find a second literary life in popular and genre fiction—notably science fiction—that prospered especially in the 1930s of Gene Roddenberry’s youth.

The adventure tale also found a new home in the medium of motion pictures, from the Adventures of Robin Hood to the Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai. In adventure stories, character is revealed through action, which is perfect for the big screen.

But adventure tales were in some ways even more suited to television. Adventure stories are episodic, and TV programming provides opportunity for a new adventure every week, with continuing characters developing over many episodes.

 So beginning in the 1950s, television shows with “Adventures of” in the title included westerns (Kit Carson, Jim Bowie, Wild Bill Hickcock), historical or mythical figures (Robin Hood, Sir Lancelot, Sir Francis Drake), a detective (Ellery Queen), animals (Rin Tin Tin, Champion the Wonder Horse) and a suburban family (Ozzie and Harriet) as well as The Adventures of Superman.

Even without the word in the title, a great many more TV shows were (and are) basically adventures, whether primarily drama or comedy. And that’s a feature of adventure shows—they can be either, and usually they include elements of both. Few TV shows come as close to the classic adventure tale as Star Trek.

For Gene Roddenberry and some of the other Star Trek creators, the prototype for what they wanted to do was Gulliver’s Travels. In the fictional and fantastical places he imagined, Jonathan Swift examined aspects of his contemporary society.

 But Swift himself had used an ancient prototype: the fantastic voyage as adventure in strange new lands among unknown beings and civilizations. The closest prototype for Swift’s saga was the Odyssey, Homer’s tale of Odysseus—also called Ulysses—and his encounters with strange beings like the Cyclops during his 10 year sea voyage.

Swift invented lands as strange as any that Odysseus visited, Zweig observes. With the tiny Lilliputians, the race of intelligent horses called Houyhnhnms, and the proto-human Yahoos, Swift succeeded in creating tales that have fascinated children and others for generations. The society Swift satirized is long gone, but as a tale of adventure, Gulliver’s Travels lives on.

 Similarly, while the metaphorical or allegorical qualities of Star Trek episodes may emerge for viewers at different times in their lives or perhaps after several viewings, it is the basic elements of adventure that provide structure and story interest that everyone follows.

 By sharing a series of adventures, Star Trek characters and their relationships with each other develop and acquire familiarity. Moments of drama and moments of comedy are accommodated by the structure of adventures, and the characters remain credible. The same is true of the aliens and their worlds. Because these are adventures into the unknown, almost any alien can be believable, from a giant with one eye in the middle of his forehead to an intelligent shape-shifter who craves salt.

 While Roddenberry and other Star Trek producers and writers would work with the double nature of adventure and social or moral commentary as exemplified by Gulliver’s Travels, the actors and others who realized the stories for the screen first and foremost had to play the adventure. More than anyone else, that responsibility belonged to William Shatner as Captain Kirk.

Roddenberry envisioned the captain of the Enterprise as like Horatio Hornblower in the C.S. Forester series of adventures published from GR's adolescence in 1937 to Star Trek's 1967. (Forester died a few months before Star Trek’s premiere.)

 Hornblower was brave, resourceful and intelligent, but introspective and self-doubting. This description especially fits Jeffrey Hunter’s portrayal of Captain Pike in the first Star Trek pilot.

 But William Shatner added other qualities and another idea. He played Captain Kirk also as Ulysses—brave, resourceful and intelligent, but also with a mixture of energy, openness, confidence and cunning. When confronting the unknown, the quality Shatner tried to project more than any other was wonder.

 The word “adventure” comes from two Latin words (ad venio) which can be translated as “whatever comes.” Heroes of an adventure must be ready to respond to whatever confronts them.

 Through the years, the notion of an adventure acquired the qualities of danger and risk. As Captain Kirk famously said, “Risk is our business.”

 The template of adventure, and especially of Captain Kirk as a Ulysses-like leader, was on full display in the first season episode, “The Corbomite Maneuver.” (Thanks to TrekCore for screencaps.)

 According to Marc Cushman’s research (in These Are The Voyages), its story and production got special attention because it was originally meant to introduce the series. Gene Roddenberry wanted it to establish the Star Trek universe and the characters, especially Captain Kirk.

 Eventually it was decided that this episode, which takes place almost entirely on the Enterprise, didn’t display enough aliens, strange new worlds and the more colorful aspects of science fiction adventure to attract viewers to the series.

 In any case there were problems with visual effects that caused it to be postponed until the 10th episode aired. So by that time, the Enterprise crew had faced unforeseeable threats on alien planets and aboard ship that endangered their lives and their sanity—as did adventures of Ulysses’ crew in the Odyssey.

By contrast, “The Corbomite Maneuver” was seemingly a straightforward situation: “whatever comes” in this case was an unforeseen confrontation with a vastly superior and antagonistic alien ship bent upon destroying the Enterprise. It turned out to be exactly the situation for Captain Kirk to display the Ulysses aspect of his personality in a classic adventure.

The Enterprise is mapping an unexplored region of space when an object approaches at light speed, a large glowing cube that shifts to block its way. While second officer Spock deals with the situation on the bridge,  Captain Kirk is in sick bay undergoing a physical.

 We first see Captain Kirk shirtless, pumping a device with his legs to work up a sweat--a 23rd century stress test.  Informed of the problem he heads towards the bridge, still shirtless, a suggestion (however unintentional) of ancient heroes like Ulysses (or at least Kirk Douglas playing him in the 1954 movie.)

 Under Kirk’s command the Enterprise tries to evade the cube by heading back the way it came, but the cube moves towards it. When harmful radiation from the onrushing cube becomes too dangerous, Kirk very calmly orders phaser weapons to destroy it.

 Now Kirk is confronted with the decision of whether to leave the area or proceed. He reminds the bridge crew of their mission—to seek out alien life. So his decision is to continue into the unknown.

 But as the Enterprise proceeds it is confronted by an alien vessel many times its size. Its commander, who identifies himself as Balock, refuses to accept Kirk’s peaceful greetings and warns in a deep voice that because the Enterprise destroyed its warning buoy, the ship and crew will be annihilated in ten minutes. Meanwhile the alien vessel has rendered the Enterprise engines and weapons inoperable.

Doctor McCoy arrives on the bridge, and tells Kirk that Balock’s warning was heard throughout the ship. Kirk immediately addresses the crew on the intercom, in what essentially is the attitude governing the series:


“Those of you who have served for long on this vessel have encountered alien life forms. You know the greatest danger facing us is ourselves, an irrational fear of the unknown. There is no such thing as the unknown—only things temporarily hidden, temporarily not understood. In most cases we have found that intelligence capable of a civilization is capable of understanding peaceful gestures. Surely a life form advanced enough for space travel is advanced enough to eventually understand our motives. All decks stand by. Captain out.” 

 Kirk proceeds with this approach in mind. He contacts the alien vessel and again tries to explain that they didn’t understand the nature of the cube, and that he destroyed it because it threatened life aboard his vessel. But the aliens won’t listen.

 Kirk tries to signal good will by going back the way they came, but his ship is held motionless. Eventually Spock is able to show what the alien looks like: a stern, forbidding and very alien appearance.

 A subplot that runs through this episode involves Bailey, the young navigation officer, who evidently has not experienced alien contact before. At first he is mesmerized, unable to act, and finally he panics. Kirk relieves him of duty.





With minutes until their destruction, Kirk seems to have run out of options. That’s Spock’s analysis: in a game of chess it would be checkmate. Then McCoy complains that Kirk promoted Bailey too early and worked him too hard. He’s going to say so in his report, he says, and he’s not bluffing.

 Kirk responds with annoyance but the words of Spock and McCoy have given him an idea. He tells the alien ship that for many years, “Earth ships” like the Enterprise have been coated with an element called corbomite, that will reflect back any attacking force and destroy the attacker.

The bridge crew watches fascinated, as they know none of it is true. Kirk is making it up as he goes along but tells it convincingly. He invites the aliens to attack and cuts off contact.








“Not chess, Mr. Spock,” he says. “Poker.”

The ruse, worthy of the wily Ulysses, forestalls the attack but out of the huge alien vessel emerges a smaller one, a pilot ship that will tow the Enterprise to a prison planet.

 Kirk and his bridge crew calculate that after awhile, the towing will put a strain on the small vessel. With power restored, Kirk pushes his ship to the breaking point but, maintaining resolve, succeeds in breaking free.

 Then as they assess the damage to the Enterprise, Uhura intercepts a weak distress call from the small alien ship to the large one: engines and life support are failing. She believes the signal wasn’t strong enough to reach the mother ship.

Kirk alerts the crew that the Enterprise will attempt a rescue: “There are lives at stake—by our standards, alien life, but lives nevertheless.” He once again reminds them of their mission. “To seek out and contact alien life,” asserting that this is “an opportunity to demonstrate what our high-sounding words mean.”

This statement, as well as others in the episode, express a key difference between Captain Kirk and an ancient adventurer like Ulysses.  According to Zweig, adventurers in early stories did not operate on principle or according to a mission--they were most often self-centered and amoral, more interested in glory, dominance. riches and thrills than a goal.

There were later adventurers more like Kirk, or versions of the mythic heroes that saved their societies by their deeds.  But being motivated by a mission of peaceful exploration and contact was a crucial characteristic in Star Trek.  One way it is expressed is in this difference between Captain Kirk and Kirk Douglas--Ulysses, that is.

But Captain Kirk is also prudent and wily enough to anticipate this distress call from the alien ship might be a trap, so he leaves his first officer Spock behind in command of the Enterprise.

Kirk, McCoy and Bailey beam aboard the small vessel. There they find that the scary alien they saw was a puppet, and Balock, though a powerful being, is the size of a human child.  (Large differences in size were of course common contrasts in the Odyssey,Gulliver's Travels and other adventure tales.)

 Balock offers them a taste of his favorite drink (tranya), but they wait until he has sipped his. He tell them he was testing them and their intent. He proposes an exchange of information and culture, and Bailey volunteers to remain with him for a time. Balock tells Kirk that as proud captains of their vessels, they are very much alike.

As a skilled captain and a leader with a deep sense of responsibility, Kirk is probably more Hornblower than the self-centered and capricious Ulysses. Yet Kirk’s audacious adoption of the poker-faced bluff is a Ulysses-like move, an act of cunning and also a lie. His adversary, it turns out, also used deception to test him. In this also Kirk and the alien are “very much alike.”


Shatner would expand Kirk’s Ulysses-like swagger, confident energy and unpredictability in other episodes. Throughout the series and films, Kirk stubbornly and even joyfully refuses to give in, always looking for a way to survive and succeed. He approaches every problem, every challenge as an adventure, even if it is only a challenge to his curiosity.

 For Kirk, adventure is partly an attitude. He approaches the unknown as a potential adventure, embracing the challenges presented, using instinct and intelligence to shape the risks he takes. Yet what the unknown presents him—its challenges and dangers as well as opportunities—forces response.

Boundless space, like the open sea, is both a metaphorical and actual environment that offers both the danger of death and the potential of unknown wonders to discover.  That profound similarity deepens Star Trek's lineage as an adventure tale.

In a sense Captain Kirk has no choice in confronting “whatever comes.” In fact he must seek it out—it’s his mission. But it is how he chooses to confront each unknown that creates the adventure.

 This episode shows Kirk is grounded in basic principles of what will come to be known as Starfleet and the Federation. As we’ll see, they are also basic elements of the soul of Star Trek.

 It also shows Kirk as a leader who coolly employs knowledge and logic but when these fail, is creative and ready to risk, especially when facing the ultimate danger of destruction. Adventure itself is also part of the soul of Star Trek.

 For even though the adventure tale delights us with its wonders and heroic action, it is not less serious than other forms, partly because the adventure often involves a dance with death, and a test of principles, integrity and what each most values. It is heightened and yet it is grounded in that confrontation with the basic human moment of mortality, and the basic human need for meaning that transcends death.


The adventure is not Kirk’s alone, of course. He needs the advice and the efficiency of his crew. His loyalty goes beyond himself. When confronted with this alien threat, Captain Kirk’s first impulse is to warn other ships of this danger. This is his responsibility to the whole, and to the future. That is essential to this adventure.

 Adventure is not always an isolated life and death confrontation. It can be a commitment to a series of challenges and explorations that require effort and skill.

 Not only leaders but scientists and practitioners of any vocation apply themselves to what can be adventures, repaid with wonder as well as large or small contributions to a larger purpose.  All those on the Enterprise, for example, have different talents and functions, and may each be on personal adventures. But they are all also part of the same adventures.

 The attitude of adventure does not obsess on any perceived unfairness of circumstance. It identifies challenges to assess and address. It expects effort and perhaps sacrifice will be needed. It sees the commitments of a life—and life itself—as action.

"Be kind, be useful, be fearless," President Obama recently told a group of young White House interns.  It's a reminder that we all can approach life as an adventure.