By Robert O’Leary, JD, BARA
“Star Trek” has gone well beyond being a television show, envisioned by its creator, Gene Roddenberry, as a “Wagon Train” in space (referring to a Western-themed television show that was popular for several years prior, i.e., airing from 1957-1965 on NBC and ABC [See Wagon Train , https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0050073/]. It is now a franchise, a brand, iconic to some and ridiculed by others. And as with so many larger than life sci-fi franchises, such as Star Wars or Doctor Who, everyone you talk to will have their favorite characters or incarnations, and they are very passionate about them. For this article, I would like to peel away the years and the layers and talk about certain aspects of the show that impacted me from an early age.
In fact, I believe that some of the lessons I took from the show were woven like threads into my moral fiber and have, thus, helped me to become who I am today. So, in this month of March, during which Leonard Nimoy, the much-beloved and inspirational icon, actor, director and artist, has passed away, I offer this article in tribute, and as a thank you, to him as well as his family and friends who supported him in his endeavors and helped put him in the right time and place to be cast as “Mr. Spock” – a role to which he was able to bring his considerable acting skills and mystical presence. And thank you sharing this walk down memory lane with me.
The Show’s Backdrop: 1960’s Chaos and Promise:
Star Trek, the television show, premiered in 1966. I was born the same year. While it would be some years before I would become able to intellectually appreciate its gifts, its weekly airings resonated around our home and sunk into my consciousness. In my mind’s eye, I recall vaguely that my childhood mind felt somehow drawn to this show.
In 1969, the show went off the air. But soon, thereafter, the Starship Enterprise Crew continued their “5-Year Voyage” on Saturday Mornings in a children’s cartoon. I remember these shows more vividly, probably due to the fact that they were animated… 😉 The cartoon version lasted from 1973 to 1975 [See https://www.startrek. com/page/star-trek-the-animated-series] and then I began to notice the first version of the show appearing on our televisions again, a lot, and the word “syndication” became a new vocabulary word for my young mind.
Syndication allowed me to see Star Trek through maturing eyes. It began to draw me in even more. I noticed that the show included people of different “colors”, backgrounds, and languages all working well together, but still being themselves at the same time; much like I saw people acting in my neighborhood in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. And while I understood that James T. Kirk was the captain of the ship, I noticed that there was still a sense of “equality” among the crew. No one seemed to be being disrespected, each spoke freely, and each of the characters played an important role on the ship. No one told anyone to be quiet, you can’t eat in the ship’s mess hall, or only certain types of people can go to certain areas in the ship. Of course, we know that activists were literally living and dying over these issues in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
By the early 1970’s, shows began to become more representative of the different ethnicities in America: Sanford and Son, Chico and the Man, Good Times. Mainstream America and its media seemed to becoming more comfortable with people of ethnicities, other than Caucasian, on their television sets. Flip Wilson and his show was one of the shows that blazed trails in the 1960’s and opened things up for other shows to show that so-called minorities could carry a show and win in the ratings.
And in terms of political commentary, there were very few shows on television that really hit political issues even occasionally “head-on”. The only ones that I recall doing so were Laugh In and particularly The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Still, the latter show only lasted 2 seasons, from 1967 to 1969 and reportedly was cancelled because it was more political than its network, CBS, wanted them to be. These shows were courageous in the way that other comedians, like Dick Gregory, Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Redd Foxx and others were, in not being afraid to get political in a very political time, when people needed to be discussing important socio/econo/political issues. Nothing short of the country’s future, and by extension the world’s future, were at stake. These individuals had to know that this was an important time and found ways to make us think hard about the questions of the day, so we would not “screw up” the future.
How Star Trek Fit into and Impacted this “Backdrop”:
So, Star Trek, beamed on to our television screens within this context. Looking back on the shows of the 1960’s, Star Trek was pretty unique. Even in the 1970’s, I don’t recall a show that had such a rich demographic interaction on the same egalitarian basis as Star Trek. The show also had a way of dealing with issues very much in the news at the time, but not really making its way into television: racism, drug culture, imperialism, war, communism versus democracy. While the shows were topical, the storylines also seemed timeless and can even provide us with lessons today.
Although the show and its crew faced much that was new and undiscovered, they made commendable efforts to remain open-minded to different species, races, and cultures that they found on the various planets they explored. Their goal was a lofty one – to establish relations with these new worlds, learn from them scientifically and otherwise, and to invite them to join “the Federation” a peaceful union of planets.
Star Trek’s Lessons for a “Toddler” of the ’60’s:
As I grew, I began to learn about the concepts of “imperialism” and “neoimperialism” and how they were exercised by empires, including the United States, over other peoples and countries around the world. As I saw the shows in syndication, I began to appreciate how the Star Trek Crew and its Federation maintained a so-called “Prime Directive” mandating that no Federation officers would interfere with any cultures normal evolution and, under no circumstances, impose their culture or power over them.
What a concept?!? It was so different from imperialism and neoimperialism, which essentially meant that the victor would impose its will, ways and power structures upon others to the detriment and even destruction of the cultural, spiritual and other riches of the peoples and planets they encountered. Witness how our old missionaries indoctrinated American Indians, African Slaves and Hispanics – urging them to shun their ancient ways, rituals, religions, and languages. Spaniards and English conquerors declared themselves “civilized” and the conquered as “uncivilized savages” as a way to justify the systematic reprogramming of indigenous peoples and taking over their lands and resources.
And in the process of “civilizing” these peoples, we used such “civilized” techniques as swindling them out of huge tracts of land, “scalping”, giving purposefully diseased blankets to cold and needy American Indians, force marching them through winter trails, and all sorts of other atrocities – the usual raping and pillaging “spoils of the victor” crapola that is justified too facilely by the conquered when they write the history books. So, this show was a welcome change in perspective from our own history and that of other conquering hordes from history.
This show echoed the upbringing my parents gave my brothers and I – to not look down on people because of their sex, ethnicity, class, or belief system. My parents did not go out and protest in the 1960’s and 1970’s – having their first child in 1964 and their last in 1970 – as they had to stay at or close to home. Nonetheless, they were very much in support of what the protestors were generally calling for, an end to imperialistic war, an end to poverty, rights for women, African-Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans, etc.
This show taught me other important and value-laden lessons:
1. Mr. Spock showed me how being the strongest guy in the room did not mean that he perforce had to be a bully or put others down. Similarly, he demonstrated that he who was the strongest physically could have the greatest amount of control emotionally and spiritually. Later on, when I learned martial arts, these lessons hit home. My Grandmaster, Kalaii Kano Griffin, emphasized how making your way to a black belt level meant that you needed to grow into humility, be mindful to use your “powers” and skills only as a last resort, and that self-defense was emphasized as one of the most important aspects of his teaching. There was a prayer, the “Kajukenbo Prayer” that was very overt that the system was built on “christian” principles – not to teach people how to harm others – although martial arts practitioners know and respect what Kajukenbo and Kempo practitioners can do in a fight. In fact, I am a firm believer that most fights end with they way you carry yourself. Just as no one messed around with Mr. Spock; there is a way a martial arts practitioner carries him or herself that will let aggressive people instinctively know that this person is not the weak member of the herd you want to mess with.
2. Mr. Spock was said to be gifted intellectually so he could easily be the smartest person in any room into which he walked. Yet he was not one to make other people feel like they were stupid, or worthless. He could be cold and unapproachable, but not demeaning. This taught me to be humble. I was not into accolades, but did very well in school. Others recognized what I was doing, academically, and recommended me for awards, and I was humbled (okay embarrassed) and honored to get them. A girl friend at the time reacted with surprise that someone nominated me to be part of Phi Beta Kappa, and I asked her “what is that, and is it good?” I was also the first in my extended family to ever complete college, and then I went to law school, but I didn’t want accolades or anything. I tried to do some good with what my folks had helped me to achieve and I looked back to make sure that my brothers could also reach to their highest heights. I owe a lot of my humility to my parents and” Mr. Spock”.
3. Similarly, Mr. Spock could have been his own captain, but chose to be a second in command. This taught me that just because you could be a leader you can choose to play different roles within your social and work structures. This goes along with the cooperative nature of the show; everyone playing their role the best they can to ensure the success of the missions and the safety of the crew.
4. Mr. Spock and the others in the show showed that there were various ethnicities for whom being smart could be cool and inspired me to be so, despite what others round me, and at times the media, might say. In the over 50 years since the case of Brown v. Board of Education [See Brown v. Board of Education (1954), https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=false&doc=87], it is sad to see how much pressure children still endure not to do well in school. It shows up in Disney shows, shows on Cartoon Network and in other areas of popular children’s media. Celebrities could also do more to inspire kids to do well in school. Moreover, our schools could do a better job, too, being more open to cognitive learning, fostering lateral (and not just linear) styles of learning, encouraging creativity; and mitigating the obsession with “teaching to the test”.
5. Mr. Spock in particular inspired my interest in science and I did well in it. It did not become my vocation, but I continue to have an abiding interest in science and encourage my son to take an interest in this important subject. I am sure that other students of the time and since have been inspired by how Mr. Spock made science “look” cool.
6. Who was talking about the concept of “logic” on television shows in the 1960’s? Mr. Spock was. Even now, this is a somewhat esoteric subject taught in college-level courses, and thus out of reach of many of our students. For our forefathers, and their forebears, this was an important subject. Mr. Spock brought it into popular media and parlance. Mr. Spock had debates, of logic with his Vulcan father in the show, on more than one occasion. These scenes were some of the most dramatic in the series and movies, as Spock, who had a human mother explored the limits of logic when it came to the needs of his crewmates and friends. Mr. Spock’s interest in logic has helped me to approach problems that I have been faced with in my life with logic as a tool. In this way it has helped me to stay grounded and utilize a pattern, in approaching a problem, that makes sense.
7. The Enterprise Crew seemed very much aware that they were likely the first of their kind meeting new civilizations. And, so they tried to make a good first impression and show respect to the different cultures to which they were introduced. It was obvious that every meeting was well-planned and detailed so as not to insult new civilizations with cultural faux pas and thus jeopardize future possibilities for a constructive and mutually-beneficial rapport. In general, a major theme of the show had to do with how important it was to make your best effort to be good “universal” citizens. So, I felt urged by that example to be a better “world” citizen, myself.
Particular Lessons I Learned from the Crew’s Special Friendship:
As important as the above-mentioned lessons were, I found the friendship among Mr. Spock and the other crew members to be the most personal and poignant. For someone who strove so assiduously toward logical ideals, to an almost machine-like state of being, Mr. Spock still found ways – subtle to be sure but no less moving – to show how much he cared for Capt. Kirk, Dr. McCoy, Commander (“Mr.”) Scott, Lieutenant Sulu, Lieutenant Uhura, Lieutenant Chekov and all of the other crew members.
The Captain Kirk character was kind of a wild card, a rebel, who questioned and defied authority when he felt it appropriate to do so, especially for the sake of his crew. When his crew was in danger, he would not hesitate to defy authority to save them. Mr. Spock was in many ways the opposite: more “by the book”, logical, methodical, calculating, an for the most part predictable. Yet, he still found ways to bend logic to the will of his “human” heart and demonstrated his compassion toward the crew. He saved them from danger many times over. One could say that he did these things out of his sense of duty but the skill of Leonard Nimoy as an actor made it clear that he did these things as much out of friendship as anything else.
So, while Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock were opposites in many ways, ultimately in each episode their decisions came into congruence, thus showing how effectively people of different walks of life, perspectives – and even planets – could find common ground – and deep friendship. What a concept for a child barely awake in the 1960’s and growing up in the 1970’s – and even for us today when many of our leaders and much of the media lead us to believe that Blacks and Whites, or Americans and certain Middle Easterners, as well as other ethnicities are on opposite sides.
In one of the more powerful demonstrations of this friendship, Captain Kirk asked his bridge crew members if they wished to accompany him on a longshot, dangerous mission to seek to search for Mr. Spock after he was killed in the second motion picture, The Wrath of Khan. To Captain Kirk’s questions, the crew all answered, heartily, in the affirmative. This was no small matter as doing so, under the circumstances of the time, effectively made their actions criminal and subjected them to court martial.
Each of them did this knowing Mr. Spock was a friend who had been there for them on countless occasions.
Mr. Spock showed that you could be intellectually precise, creative and a valuable part of a team yet still have meaningful relationships with others. While Mr. Spock’s manifestations of friendship toward the crew were subtle, Leonard Nimoy’s characterization of those moments were so deeply felt that it would change your life. It changed mine and that of my family. When he died in Star Trek II; The Wrath of Khan, there was not a dry eye in the house. And then everyone started getting upset. Before people went out of the theater and stampeded the front doors of Paramount Studios in California, an announcement quickly came onto the screen that read Coming […in the following years] Star Trek III: The Search for Spock– a glimmer of hope that ultimately saw him brought back to life, to live on in others movies, in cameos and in the hearts of a toddler of the ’60’s, like me. May Leonard Nimoy Rest in Peace and our gratitude and may Spock Live Long and Prosper.
Robert O’Leary, JD BARA, has had an abiding interest in alternative health products & modalities since the early 1970’s & he has seen how they have made people go from lacking health to vibrant health. He became an attorney, singer-songwriter, martial artist & father along the way & brings that experience to his practice as a BioAcoustic Soundhealth Practitioner, under the tutelage of the award-winning founder of BioAcoustic Biology, Sharry Edwards, whose Institute of BioAcoustic Biology and Soundhealth has now been serving clients for 30 years with a non-invasive & safe integrative modality that supports the body’s ability to self-heal using the power of the human voice. Robert brings this modality to serve clients in Greater Springfield (MA), New England & “virtually” the world, with his website, www.romayasoundhealthandbeauty.com. He can also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org