I love Star Trek. I was a diehard Trekkie by the time I reached kindergarten, raised on the Original Series. I love Roddenberry’s vision of the future, some of which I have lived to see come true, and it continues to inspire me.
All that said, it can’t be denied that TOS has its issues. Sadly, Roddenberry’s vision was fettered by the time in which it was made, and some of the mid-twentieth century American prejudices did slip into the show occasionally.
Today’s hot take is that there is a recurring theme of dangerous children or the fear of youth in TOS. Science fiction has always been used as a mirror to society and being written in the 1960s, it was inevitable that some commentary on the youth movements of the time would make it into the show. But these stories were written by adults, and it’s painfully obvious. On no less than four occasions, the Enterprise encounters children or teens without parents, sometimes with extraordinary powers, sometimes just without any respect for authority. Each time, the youth are eventually shown to be corrupted or misled or out of control without the presence of parents/adults and Capt. Kirk and crew provide the necessary discipline to “save” them. It isn’t hard to see the societal fear of the youth rearing its head in these scripts.
The first time the Enterprise meets a child without parents, it’s young Charles Evans who miraculously survived alone from the age of three after a ship crashed. By the time he arrived aboard the Enterprise, he was seventeen and had only met other humans very recently. His first missteps – interrupting out of eagerness, showing blatant fascination with the first woman (“girl”) he sees – seem pretty harmless at first blush, the obvious fumblings of a child who never got to learn how people behave. But then it’s made clear that he also never learned self-regulation and he can’t handle his own emotions. Basically, Charles Evans is what happens when a child is never told “no”.
While Charlie’s limitless powers make him more dangerous than your average spoiled brat, it’s the lack of discipline that is the real problem. He doesn’t observe societal norms, he feels entitled to everything from Janis Rand to the ship itself, he lashes out and harms people at the slightest upset and shows no remorse. He responds to Kirk’s paternal manner, but only up to the point that Kirk tries to enforce rules. When it’s ultimately revealed that the incorporeal Thasians had given Charlie his powers so that he could survive on his own, they have to take Charlie away from other humans for everyone’s safety. Charlie begs to stay, because to be corporeal among incorporeal beings is torturous, but his end is presented as a justified, if tragic, sentence.
The moral of this story is pretty clear: children cannot be given power, because they cannot be trusted with it. There’s no mention of teaching Charlie to control himself or his abilities, just a few cursory attempts to explain manners to him and then the decision that he must be taken away. This story speaks to a pervasive fear in a time when teenagers were fighting to individuate from their parents more strongly than ever; the fear that children and teenagers given the power to make their own choices would only become irredeemable delinquents who would then have no place in society.
Our intrepid crew’s next run-in with dangerous children is on a planet that is a near-exact replica of Earth. An experimental project aimed at prolonging life caused all adults to die off centuries before, leaving only the children – the Onlies. The Onlies are violent, remorseless, destructive, impulsive, and see everything as some kind of game. Naturally, they have no sense of consequences since, despite their chronological age, they are developmentally just children.
It’s not wrong to point out that children left alone long enough will inevitably go Lord of the Flies. You only have to look at a sixth-grade class to see that. But the difference between the Onlies and Charlie Evans is that the Onlies don’t have any powers. They’re just kids who haven’t learned how to care about anyone and haven’t developed a fully functioning frontal lobe yet, and therefore, they can be saved. Kirk gives one big speech, telling them “Look at the blood on my face, now look at your hands. Blood on your hands.” And that’s pretty much all it takes for them to give up the game and be good little children, as far as the plot is concerned.
The point is well summed up in another line from Kirk: “I think children have an instinctive need for adults; they want to be told right and wrong.” In other words, in the absence of the “civilizing” influence of adults, children become monsters. In the 1960s, more women were entering the workforce, leaving more children without a full-time caregiver, and fears of what this might do to children abounded. This script offered what might have been seen as a cautionary tale at the time, with the hopeful message that childish rebellion could be cowed by strict parenting.
And The Children Shall Lead…
On the remote outpost of Triacus, Kirk and company find a pack of children playing happily in the wake of the collective suicide of all their parents. McCoy mumbles about a “defense against trauma” as an explanation of why the kids don’t seem upset, but they soon find out that the children have been granted mind control powers by an entity called Gorgan which is using the children to take it to another colony. Once Kirk makes the children realize that they killed their parents via mind control, the children cry and abandon Gorgan, who, powerless without followers, disappears without further incident.
Here we see the fear of children being corrupted. On Triacus, the children’s parents were all very busy with their work, and the children were left alone long enough to fall under the spell of Gorgan. In mid-twentieth century America, society was afraid of children’s susceptibility to corrupting influences like the hippie and beat movements that threatened their parents’ status quo. Again, the end message is that adults should just force children to see the destruction they’re causing, at which point children will immediately become remorseful and beg forgiveness. Pretty wish fulfillment for adults of the era, but it wasn’t very effective outside of Star Trek.
I don’t like to mention this episode, but it is relevant to this discussion for one line spoken by Roberta Lincoln: “I know this world needs help. That’s why some of my generation are kind of crazy and rebels, you know? We wonder if we’re gonna be alive when we’re thirty.”
This is the one time that Star Trek gives any credence to the point of view of the hippie generation. Their parents’ ways have brought the world to the brink of destruction, so why should they keep doing what their parents would do? It’s quite logical, really, and would carry quite a lot of weight if it weren’t undermined by Roberta Lincoln being a complete dingbat of a character.
The Way to Eden
Of course, this discussion wouldn’t be complete without the infamous space hippie episode. In fact, this is the last episode to touch on the fear of uncontrolled youth, and the most blatant parallel to the 1960s, almost acting as a culmination of the other scripts.
This episode gives us a small band of happy hippies who are determined to find the planet they call “Eden”. They are naïve, young, crunchy granola types following the insane and rather Charles Manson-like Dr. Sevrin (this episode first aired in February 1969, pre-dating the Manson murders by almost six months). Sevrin is shown to be a danger from the start, as he is a carrier of a virulent and deadly disease. Nevertheless, his followers break him out of quarantine and take over the ship, using ultrasonic waves to incapacitate the crew so they can escape in a stolen shuttle. Of course, the planet “Eden” turns out to be deadly to humans; everything from the grass to the fruit is highly acidic and poisonous. Dr. Sevrin dies after eating a fruit, as does the young man Adam (prime ham-handed Roddenberry allegory). The other hippies suffer some minor burns, but they’re returned to the ship and healed.
These were the hippies that people saw on the street every day, those who had left their parents and families and who were now following whatever “guru” caught their fancy. They started with simple sit-ins and protests, then began using violence against authority figures to achieve their goals, which sometimes led them to their deaths. And all the while, they were recruiting others to join them. Adults of the time feared that they were watching the younger generation destroy themselves. But in utopic Star Trek, the hippies are made to acknowledge that they need authority, that rebellion offers less than falling in line. That’s a very specific kind of utopia.
I find it a little odd that this show which up-ended so much of the accepted social status quo was still so afraid of young people. Perhaps Roddenberry agreed with the sentiments in these scripts or thought that there would be no generational conflict in the future. In any case, these scripts are obviously products and reflections of their time. I would imagine that scripts written today would either paint young people as a rescuing influence on society or as its destruction, depending on the writer’s political stripe. We are all, after all, products of our time and place.
Agree? Disagree? Got a better point to make?