Today in honor of Martin Luther King Day, TrekMovie takes a look back at some of the Star Trek episodes which most dealt with diversity and tolerance and those that most epitomized Dr. King’s dream of a future without prejudice.
Star Trek’s Top 10 Episodes Dealing With Tolerance
Star Trek was born in the era of the civil rights movement and while it was a controversial topic in the 1960s, creator Gene Roddenberry and his team embraced Martin Luther King’s dream of a future when people (and aliens) were judged by the content of their character. This vision was personified by the cast itself, which included men and women of difference ethnic backgrounds and nationalities working together as part of a united earth (and indeed a "United Federation of Planets").
Diversity was reflected in Star Trek’s first crew
It has often been said that this message of tolerance acted as a beacon of hope to many. In fact, Nichelle Nichols likes to retell how Martin Luther King himself was a fan of Star Trek and encouraged her to stay with the series because she had become a role model for so many.
Through its history many Star Trek episodes dealt with the the issues of diversity and tolerance. Today TrekMovie choses our picks our 10 favorites…
10. "North Star" (Enterprise)
While searching through The Expanse, the NX-01 Enterprise visits a planet that is inhabited by humans who seem stuck in the 19th century. While dismissible as an excuse to do a Wester-themed episode, the main plot of "North Star" has Capt. Archer and crew fight against how the humans are unfairly treating their former oppressors, the Skagarans. This episode could be seen as an allegory for post-Apartheid South Africa, except with Archer sweeping in to play Nelson Mandela and setting the planet on the course of reconciliation.
Humans and Skagarans together in a class – once the Enterprise sets things straight
9. "Remember" (Voyager)
While USS Voyager is escorting a group of seemingly peaceful aliens from a colony back to their homeward, B’Elanna Torres starts to have dreams about how these Enarans were oppressing a group of called the "Regressives" who refused to use technology. As it turns out these dreams were real memories of a period in Enaran history that were being telepathically sent B’Elanna. The Enarans had erased the Holocaust of these Regressives from their past, but in the end B’Elanna was able to convince at least one of them to do some research and bring the truth back into the light, sending the message that people should not forget the transgressions of the past. As the saying goes, "those who forget history are doomed to repeat it."
B’Elanna confronts the Enarans with their own past of intolerance
8. "The Enemy" (TNG)
Enmity between Romulans and Humans goes back for centuries, from the perspective of a 24th century human like Geordi LaForge. But in this episode LaForge finds himself stranded on a hostile planet with a Romulan who he finds out is just as scared as he is. In the end the two have to work together to survive, and along the way learn that they actually have things in common. Their partnership ends up stopping a bigger confrontation between the USS Enterprise and a Romulan Warbird. This theme (known in Sociology as The Contact Hypothesis) of old enemies learning to work together is seen in other Trek episodes, including "Day of the Dove" (TOS), "Duet" (DS9).
Geordi and his new Romulan pal Bochra
7. "Devil in the Dark" (TOS)
This classic Star Trek episode features the famed Horta who attacking the miners on Janus VI. But instead of turning into a show about fighting monsters, the crew of the Enterprise (with the help of a mind meld from Mr. Spock) learn that the Horta is sentient and she has been protecting her children who the miners have been killing (thinking the Horta eggs were useless silicon modules. In the end the miners and the Horta come to an understanding. The baby Hortas even help dig some tunnels, so everyone wins.
Clip: Mr. Spock gets to know the Horta’s pain
6. "Demons"/"Terra Prime" (Enterprise)
The final two episodes of Star Trek: Enterprise (before that "These are the Voyages" finale we are all trying to forget) dealt very directly with intolerance, in this case non-human prejudice. Just as Jonathan Archer’s dream Humans joining up with other species close to becoming a reality, a reactionary group called Terra Prime try and turn Earth into a Humans only zone. In the end Capt. Archer saves the day, the Terra Prime people are exposed as bigots, and Earth takes a big step towards the future within a "United Federation of Planets."
Vulcans, Humans, Andorians (and others) resist the forces of intolerance and take a step towards unifying together
5. "Measure of a Man" (TNG)
Being that Star Trek is science fiction, it looks forward towards future issues we may have to deal with (while reflecting our own past). One future issue is moving beyond human rights to sentient species rights. But then the question will arise: what is sentience? This is confronted head on in "Measure of a Man" when Commander Data’s freedom of choice is put on trial to determine if the android is sentient or property. This issue is also dealt with in the Voyager episode "Author, Author" (in that case Holographic rights are explored). The title of this episode is taken from a famous quote from Dr. King, and is a poignant reminder of the evils of slavery (and how slavery had been justified).
Clip: Picard argues for Data’s rights
4. "Nemesis" (Voyager)
Not to be confused with the film "Star Trek: Nemesis," this episode deals with how you can be taught to hate others through misinformation. The episode also uses audience misdirection with the bad guys turning out to be the human-like Vori and the good guys actually being the scary evil looking "beasts," the Kraden. The lessons here are to not judge people by their covers, and that intolerance is something that you learn (and can be hard to unlearn).
Trailer for "Nemesis" – Chakotay laments that it is hard to stop hating once you have been trained to hate
3. "The Outcast" (TNG)
Part of the diversity that is celebrated in Star Trek is between the genders (sometimes even more than two, sometimes just one). In the episode "The Outcast" Commander Riker is working closely with a member of the J’naii, who are (supposedly) genderless. However, apparently some of them actually do lean towards a gender and Riker has the hots for one that is feeling a bit girly. Unfortunately, such feelings are shunned by the J’naii. This episode (with the possible exception of Enterprise’s "Stigma") is the closest Star Trek has come to dealing with LGBT prejudice and rights.
Clip: Riker tries to help his friend find her sexuality
2. "Far Beyond The Stars" (DS9)
This episode is no allegory, telling the story of Benny Russell, an African-American writer who has to deal head on with racism in 1950s New York. His story about a space station and its Black commander (Sisko), was too much for the times. The episode also gave a nod to women’s rights in the form of the female writher Kay Eaton, who had to write under the pseydym K.C. Hunter to hide her gender (not unlike original Star Trek writer, Dorothy "D.C." Fontana).
DVD Special feature: Cast and crew talk about "Far Beyond The Stars"
1. "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield" (TOS)
The cautionary tale that is most often cited when talking about Star Trek and issues of race is "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield" from the original series. The USS Enterprise ends up in the middle of an old conflict when an alien fugitive requests political asylum from an officer who is perusing him. The two aliens from Charon are differentiated due to one being black on the left side and white on the right and the other being the opposite. While members of the enlightened 23rd century crew find this to be inconsequential, the aliens see it as reason enough to (as it turns out in the end) destroy their entire planet.
Clip: Racism in the future takes all sorts
…and for movie that dealt with tolerance "Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country"
Of the feature films, the one that most dealt with tolerance was Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. In this film we see Kirk and the crew deal with their own racism towards the Klingons. It takes Spock and a visionary Klingon martyr to break through the years of distrust and lead the crew to that "undiscovered country" of peace between the races.
Trailer: Kirk confronts his old enemy and his own prejudice