When Star Trek: The Original Series made its debut on NBC in 1966, it didn’t take long for aliens to make an appearance. Gene Roddenberry’s first attempt at a pilot, “The Cage,” featured telepathic beings that could concoct realistic hallucinations. (Although NBC rejected that pilot, footage from that episode was later incorporated into the two-part story arc, “The Menagerie.”). The first aired Star Trek episode, “The Man Trap,” centered around a shapeshifting alien that drew the salt out of unsuspecting victims. Fifty years, hundreds of TV episodes, and nearly a dozen movies later — to say nothing of the books — the universe of Star Trek boasts legions of unique alien races of every conceivable shape, size, culture, and temperament.
Aliens in Star Trek serve a somewhat different purpose than those in Star Wars (see my post on Star Wars Races). In Star Wars, George Lucas saw aliens through the lens of popular appeal and, to a certain extent, merchandising: Ewoks, Wookiees, Hutts — and yes, even Gungans — were all created to wow audiences and sell action figures. By contrast, Gene Roddenbery saw aliens in Star Trek through a more cerebral lens, using extraterrestrials to deal with weighty political, ethical, and social issues. To this day, Star Wars rules the store shelf, but Star Trek’s moments are some of the most profound.
In this space we’ll briefly touch on two of Star Trek’s most well-known alien races, both of which serve as a case study in Roddenberry’s vision for the franchise.
Vulcans were the very first alien race ever featured on Star Trek. Green-blooded, pointy-eared, and capable of a few tricks (including a mind meld and a nifty neck pinch), Vulcans have appeared throughout the many iterations of the franchise: Tuvok from Star Trek: Voyager, T’Pol on Enterprise, and the longtime recurring character Ambassador Sarek.
It goes without saying, though, that no Vulcan is as iconic as Mr. Spock. Spock first appeared in the rejected pilot “The Cage” as an alien science officer, but one who was decidedly more emotional. When Gene Roddenbery reworked Star Trek for NBC, he remade Spock — and Vulcans in general — into a more logical sentient, unencumbered (at least, most of the time) by emotions. That Spock is only half-Vulcan (his mother being human) only serves to make him more interesting, as it gave Roddenberry the chance to explore the tensions between logic and emotion.
It’s clear that Roddenberry, who was a self-described humanist, saw Vulcans as having desirable qualities; it’s the Vulcans, for example, who save humans from their own self-destructive behaviors in Star Trek: First Contact. Yet Roddenberry stopped short of fully endorsing a Vulcan ideal. There are times, for example, that Captain Kirk’s intuition, not Spock’s logic, saves the day. And when Spock has the chance to rid the Vulcan rite of purging emotions in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, he declines to do so, instead leaving his home planet to aid his friends. Later still, in Star Trek: The Next Generation, the android Data becomes a sort of anti-Vulcan; where Spock sought to become less emotional, Data longs to experience what it means to be human.
Roddenberry articulated through the vision of Trek his desire that humans would one day grow beyond bigotry and conflict, but if the Vulcans are any indication, he grappled with what was the best way was to get there.
Klingons were not the first of Trek’s antagonistic races, but they are easily the most famous. Nearly fifty years after their initial appearance in the Original Series episode “Errand of Mercy,” Klingons now hold an unusual place in pop culture lore, known even to people who care little about science fiction. The Klingon language is a phenomenon in and of itself; in what other alien tongue can you find a full translation of Shakespeare?
Klingons have evolved more than perhaps any other race in Star Trek. At the outset they were little more than goteed humanoids, but when they hit the silver screen in Star Trek: The Motion Picture they took on — thanks to the bigger budget of film — ridged foreheads and more ornate armor. (Later Trek series, particularly Deep Space Nine and Enterprise, would concoct clever, straight-faced ways to explain this change.) They also underwent a shift in culture, from the conniving schemers of old to a militaristic, at times barbaric culture with a more imposing presence and a greater emphasis on honor and glory.
The evolution of the Klingons may have been, to an extent, a case of art imitating life. When Klingons first appeared on Star Trek: The Original Series in 1967, the United States was in the midst of the Cold War and was on the cusp of ramping up action in Vietnam. To most viewers of the time, the Klingons would have been Star Trek’s analogue, at least in part, to the Russians. (Roddenberry softened the blow somewhat by introducing a Russian character, Pavel Chekov, to the Enterprise bridge crew.)
On the other hand, when Star Trek: The Next Generation began its seven-year run in 1987, the end of the Cold War was in sight and would come to a close before the series finale. Accordingly, the Federation of the Next Generation era had forced an uneasy peace with the Klingons.
One Klingon, Lieutenant Worf, even found his way into service onto Jean-Luc Picard’s U.S.S. Enterprise. Worf, as it turns out, was orphaned after his parents were killed in a Romulan attack. He was rescued by a human Federation officer and raised as his own son.
That Federation officer, Sergey Rozhenko, was Russian. Draw your own conclusions.
Joshua A. Johnston grew up reading the grand masters of science fiction and still devotes more time to their endless galaxies than he really should. You can find him online at www.joshuaajohnston.com. And don’t forget to check out his debut novel, Edge of Oblivion.