Academic journal article Journal of Multidisciplinary Research

Star Trek – Where No Genre Has Gone Before: Application of Mittell's Television Genre Theory to the Star Trek Series

Academic journal article Journal of Multidisciplinary Research

Star Trek – Where No Genre Has Gone Before: Application of Mittell's Television Genre Theory to the Star Trek Series

Article excerpt

Perhaps no other television program has stirred the imagination of the world's audiences like Paramount Communications' Star Trek. First aired in September of 1966, Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS) established a storytelling universe that expanded to include The Next Generation (TNG) in 1987, Deep Space Nine (DS9) in 1993, Voyager in 1995, and a prequel, Enterprise, in 2001. Along with the television product, Paramount has released 13 feature films, and CBS will be launching Star Trek: Discovery in a streaming format, in 2017. While squarely situated within the science fiction genre, all the Star Trek series can be fruitful case studies to support Jason Mittell's groundbreaking theories of television genre analysis. Dr. Mittell is a Professor of Film & Media Culture and American Studies at Middlebury College, in Vermont (USA). Mittel's theory, which he developed in his 2004 book, Genre and Television: From Cop Shows to Cartoons in American Culture, proposes that "genres are cultural categories that surpass the boundaries of media texts and operate within industry, audience, and cultural practices" (Mittell, 2001, para. 1).

The ongoing success of the Star Trek universe rests on the shows' ability to tackle current sociological, political, and environmental issues within the framework of a spacefaring crew, thus giving credence to Mittell's idea that "generic categories are intertextual and, hence, operate more broadly than within the bounded realm of a media text" (Mittel, 2004, p. 11). When examined through Mittell's lens, the Star Trek series obliterate the bounded realm of television science fiction and become engaging commentary into the cultural framework of their respective airdates.

Gene Roddenberry initially conceived Star Trek (TOS) as a wagon train to the stars, with the USS Enterprise and its intrepid heroes encountering fantastical challenges every week, but from inception, found itself "instructively engaging the politics of the 1960s" (Bernardi, 1997, p. 61). Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek's creator, quickly saw past the reiterative concept of Western genre-based adventure television, and beginning with the show's first pilot, "The Cage," used Star Trek as a showcase of progressive ideas and challenged the status quo. "The Cage" introduced a multiracial, multiplanetary crew, and in an inspired twist, a woman as First Officer. The concept of a woman in command was so shockingly unfamiliar to the leadership of NBC that the network scratched the entire first pilot and commissioned a second pilot episode sans woman First Officer. Interestingly, it was not just NBC's leadership that had a problem with a woman possessing a "highly superior computerized and logical mind. When Roddenberry showed the pilot to a studio test audience of women, they asked, 'Who does she think she is'" (Foster, 2011, p. 38). Most telling, "The Cage" did not feature the iconic Captain Kirk, who William Shatner played. It is easy to speculate that the ultra-virile macho character was a direct counter to and reversal of a woman serving as First Officer. Captain Kirk thus remained, but prominent on his bridge was Lieutenant Uhura, a Black woman who was technically fourth in the Enterprise's command chain. The vision of an African-American woman in a command position on U.S. television in 1966 was totally foreign. Nichelle Nichols, who originally played Uhura, recalls that after the first season, she was thinking about returning to Broadway and leaving the show. Nichols did not herself understand the importance of her character until Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., approached her and told her, "Whether you like it or not, you have become a symbol. If you leave, they can replace you with a blonde haired white girl, and it will be like you were never there. What you've accomplished, for all of us, will only be real if you stay" (Ohlheiser, 2015, para. 6).

While scholars, particularly feminist scholars, have made much about subsequent oversimplification and objectification of women on TOS, in 1966,

it offered the American viewing public a fantasy vision of female astronauts very different from the only one offered by reality - the Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, whose appearance the American press characterized as mannish. …

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