Star Trek and History Needs Sharper Focus

Star Trek and History. Edited by Nancy R. Reagin. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2014.

5148lPFlpYL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_ Confession: I haven’t watched television since 2005, the year Star Trek Enterprise was canceled. I didn’t even like that show very much, but here’s my second confession: “My name is Rob and I’m a Trekker.” (That’s “Trekker,” a fanboy status that’s quite different from the costumed get-a-life “Trekkies.”) I’ve been a Trekker since I was a lad watching Captain Kirk (William Shatner) preen across the screen in TOS (The Original Series, 1966-69). To this day I tell everyone who will listen that the greatest sci-fi since Stanley Kubrik’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) was TNG’s (The Next Generation, 1987-1994) two-part cliffhanger “The Best of Both Worlds” (1990) in which Captain Picard was assimilated as Locutus of Borg.

All of this is to say that I was excited to review Nancy Reagin’s edited collection Star Trek and History (ST & H). I am less thrilled to report that it’s more of a serviceable shuttle than an academic starship. The work is an anthology of 19 essays, plus Reagin’s introduction and an afterword on fan culture from Rick Worland. Like most anthologies, the quality varies from writer to writer, though the book’s major shortcoming lies its imprecise treatment of its central concept: history. Do the writers mean the history of the franchise, the evolution of each product within the franchise, the way Star Trek played with concepts of time, or how Star Trek portrayed the human past? ST & H seeks to address all four of these, but it’s too fine a line to walk. The first approach appeals mainly to Trekkers, the second to television scholars, the third to sci-fi geeks, and the fourth to historians. I’m enough of a Trekker that I enjoyed most of the essays, but I’m too much of a historian to think that they’d all be useful in a classroom.

I would definitely assign Margaret Weitkamp’s essay on Nichelle Nichols, the African-American actress whose appearance in the secondary role of Uhura in TOS knocked down so many barriers that even the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. implored her not to quit over disputes concerning underwritten parts. Weitkamp reminds us anew of how far down the path to racial justice we’ve traveled, even though there’s a lot of road in front of us. The folklorist in me appreciated Alice George’s exploration of Old West motifs, and my history training steered me to Lori Maguire’s look at Star Trek and the Cold War, H. Bruce Franklin’s analysis of embedded Vietnam War themes, and John Putnam’s take on Trek terrorism. The last three were mined from TOS and appear in a section titled “Kirk and Spock Take on Earth History.” I wondered why the chapter wasn’t simply called “Star Trek’s Take on Earth History,” which would have allowed Christian Domenig’s essay on the medievalism of the Klingons and Amy Carney’s Cardassian/Nazi parallels to be moved to what Mr. Spock would have called a more “logical” part of the book.

Alas, for historians, the rest of the essays are of dubious use—not because they’re bad, which is true of just a few of them—but because they take us too far from our scholarly galaxy. This is especially true of the essays that dwell on Star Trek’s dual timelines or ponder over the internal logic of scripts. Cool stuff—but probably too arcane for classroom use. Therein lies a problem. Only about one-quarter of the book meets history’s academic mission, and it’s doubtful it’s the same 25% that would work for other disciplines. Put another way, unless one is also a Trekker, this book will frustrate as much as it illuminates.

We need to return to the book’s central concept: history. One need not insist upon rigid definitional boundaries, but there’s little utility in yielding to postmodern impulses to collapse and elide categories. If you will, they strand us inside intellectual nebulas. More to the point, a book on books about Star Trek would be a hefty volume in its own right. A tighter conceptual focus would have made ST & H more useful for academics, not just another Star Trek product.

Robert E. Weir

University of Massachusetts Amherst

 Postscript: Star Trek badly needs a new franchise soon, or this book’s utility will be limited further. Few of my students have more than a passing familiarity with Star Trek—understandable, as most of them were ten or younger when Enterprise went off the air. If they’ve seen any of the films, it’s likely to have been Into Darkness (2013), which requires some knowledge of TOS to appreciate.




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