Star Trek and “The Other”: Race, Gender and the Cultural Imagination

Abstract: 

The television series Star Trek was intended by its creator Gene Roddenberry to address significant social and cultural issues of the 1960s. It can be seen as a place to begin looking at the paradigm shift between modern and postmodern thought. As an indicator of the change in the cultural imagination I look at the portrayal of the Other in this seminal piece of popular culture. The adventures of the multi-ethnic crew in the interstellar vessel the Enterprise can continue to function as a touchstone for considerations of the Other.

Table of Contents: 

    [By creating] a new world with new rules, I could make statements about sex, religion, Vietnam, politics, and intercontinental missiles.

    (Roddenberry as quoted in Johnson-Smith, 2005, p. 79)

    Introduction

    Heavily influenced by the cultural imagination of the time, Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek reflects the human condition and mentality of the 1960s. In this respect, Roddenberry’s statement “We must learn to live together or most certainly we will soon all die together,” remains as relevant a message in Star Trek today as it did over forty years ago (Whitfield, 1968, p. 11). In the research I present here I mainly focus on episodes of Star Trek: The Original Series, which overtly address the notion of the Other. Some portions of the analysis draw upon subsequent Star Trek television series and movies. I work with the writings of visual anthropologist and critical race theorist Fatimah Tobing Rony (1996) regarding her analysis of race and ethnographic film in The Third Eye. I also use socio-cultural anthropologist Arjun Appadurai’s (1996) concept of the cultural imagination, as developed in his Modernity at Large. I employ their concepts in my analysis of the American depiction and perception of the Other insofar as colonialism and post-colonialism largely influenced the latter part of the nineteenth and the early twentieth century.

    The study of hatred, intolerance, racism, and the oppression of the Other remains as relevant today as throughout the course of modern human history. These elements—along with xenophobia and the belief in progress and control over nature and the world through science and technology—characterize the late 1960s. This served as a bricolage mediated by the modern-postmodern paradigm shift. With the rise in availability of knowledge and expertise from other cultures, the demand for social change and equality, and the desire for a more ethical existence, the late sixties form a catalyst for this change as is evident in Star Trek‘s sometimes paradoxical messages.

    The 1990s are often referred to by Trekkies and Trekkers alike as the age of Star Trek. Never before had a television franchise had three running shows and four feature films at the same time. From The Next Generation (1987-1994), to Deep Space Nine (1993-1999), to Voyager (1995-2001), the nineties carry the height of Star Trek in the most liberal-humanist way as was meant by Gene Roddenberry’s Original series. His original message of peace, hope, and ethics was not allowed to fully flourish in his 1960s Original series due to the pressures of the time, as the interventions of the television network in the final production of the series reveal (see my section Uhura and Women in Space).

    Race, Technology and the Civilized

    As argued by Rony (1996), “‘race’ as we know it was an invention of the nineteenth century and became the defining problem for early anthropology. ‘Race’ consciously or unconsciously implies a competition involving time…  [hence] anthropology is premised on notions of time which deny the contemporaneity of the anthropologist and the people that he or she studies” (p. 10). In this respect historically ‘the Other’ and most notoriously ‘the Ethnographic Other’ has been deemed both ideologically and technologically primitive and undeveloped, and, ultimately savage and uncivilized. Therefore, the notion of “race” has historically served as the ultimate means to legitimize the control and oppression of non-European groups through historically brutal “civilizing” means. Appadurai’s primordialist thesis similarly attempts to compare the modern developmental states of European nations including the U.S. to the formerly colonized countries of the world (Appadurai, 1996).

    Star Trek portrays many of the predominantly modern fears of humanity: computer run societies, the replacing of man by machine, the loss of self, and, above all, the loss of control. These fears, however, prove not simply to be manifestations of the modern era, but in their own way depict what I refer to as Roddenberry’s critique of modernity. This critique serves to remind people that the very technology that has supposedly placed humanity at the ‘top of the food chain’ in many ways proves to be our greatest vulnerability. Furthermore, not only does Roddenberry question the superiority of the machine as the future of mankind, but in many ways he also questions the ethnographic superiority of man over the Other (in this case the Alien).

    Roddenberry makes multiple allusions to concepts and events that have perpetually influenced the mentality of the white, middle-class American public. According to Rony, the Other has historically been deemed “uncivilized,” “savage,” and evolutionarily “inferior/primitive,” all concepts which Roddenberry explores and ultimately reflects on the crew of the Enterprise. Rony’s analysis is most notably seen through Captain James T. Kirk and his second in command, science officer Mr. Spock. Both of these characters implicitly portray the ever-lingering concepts of modernity’s crusade to bring the Other to a contemporaneous state with the “civilized.” However, on many occasions, Roddenberry portrays the blonde, “ethnic American,” male-leader of the U.S.S. Enterprise as falling short of a full understanding of the universe. On occasion, Kirk is portrayed as a representation of the “savagery” of humanity as a holistic race as is shown in episode 18, “Arena” (Coon & Pevney, 1967).

    Arena and the Gorn

    “Arena” raises questions that depict the underlying shadow of the colonial period in which indigenous populations attack invaders in response to colonial encroachment. In the episode “Arena,” Captain Kirk faces a member of the alien species, Gorn, a bipedal reptilian humanoid from a technologically advanced race, in a battle to the death as imposed by the seemingly supernatural, advanced Metron race. In the case of the Enterprise/Gorn dispute, it is noteworthy that the Federation (Kirk and his Crew), are portrayed as transgressors by attempting to encroach into a Gorn planet. As is implied by the name, “Arena” brings forth the primal concept of survival amongst two captains, battling on apparently equal grounds. In the process of battling the Gorn, Kirk’s aside acknowledges the Gorn’s contemporaneous equality and concedes that he is a powerful adversary, acknowledging his own bias by saying: “I find it hard to conceive that this reptilian creature so different from me, is also an educated captain of a starship, not inferior but technologically advanced as well” (Coon & Pevney, 1967). In the end, Kirk is victorious after fashioning a rudimentary cannon and gunpowder from the resources made available to him on the planet’s surface and his use of modern natural science. Similarly, though ultimately defeated (but not killed), the Gorn manages to create an Oldowan-like axe made of stone. In this respect, Kirk is portrayed as superior due to his use of modern science by creating a projectile weapon as opposed to the Gorn who is placed in a more primitive state by his use of a stone axe, a symbol of the premodern human state of evolution. This episode does not, however, completely glorify Kirk or humanity, for that matter. The Metrons, the third alien race that forced the gladiator-like confrontation between Kirk and the Gorn, in the end both praise and criticize Kirk for his victory against the Gorn. This praise is mostly because of Kirk’s refusal to kill the Gorn captain. Kirk’s demonstration of compassion and the power to show such emotion ultimately leads to a concession by the Metrons towards humanity when they state “you are still half savage but there is hope” (Coon & Pevney, 1967). The statement made by the Metrons reflects Roddenberry’s criticism of humanity at the time, a concept that would become a recurring topic in much of his work.

    The episode “Arena” itself depicts many of the contradictory elements that are shown throughout Star Trek: imperialism, ethnocentrism, and, as always, race. Throughout his work Roddenberry implicitly invokes an often overlooked notion of imperialism at its full potential in the context of modernity. This is evident within the first few seconds of the show through the introduction of the Enterprise’s original mission statement: “Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before” (Roddenberry & Coon, Star Trek 1966-69). The introduction could be read to send off a message such as: “we have conquered ourselves and the world, the galaxy is next.” Roddenberry, though, very strongly attempts to stave off such a modern notion of control and colonialist mentality through the notion of the United Federation of Planets’ Prime Directive, which prohibits the meddling of any Federation member (Kirk) from interfering with alien cultures especially in less technologically advanced (pre-warp, capable) civilizations. Furthermore, the mission statement carries the implications of ‘man’ as the explorer, placing him as the “master over time,” and the Other. Also, here Roddenberry mediates this concept by often placing ‘man,’ (in this case Kirk) on a semi-equal ground with the Other. This complex mediation of the Other as equal, inferior, and at times even superior is evident through the character Spock, who in this case plays a crucial role in the understanding of Star Trek.

    Spock the Noble Savage

    Spock is the resident alien of the interstellar vessel Enterprise and the first commander of the ship. He might prove to be the most intricate character found in Roddenberry’s work. Spock is often said to have no place in this universe as a result of his hybridity, a concept that Roddenberry employs to bring light to the feared effects of interbreeding between the “civilized” and the Other. In The Original Series, Spock is son of a human mother and a Vulcan father. He is a child of two worlds and is therefore often said to have “no true place in this universe.” Spock’s hybridity becomes a reason for prejudice and racism as is evident through his childhood bullying problems and his strained relationship with his father as is shown in the 39th episode “Journey to Babel” (Fontana & Pevney, 1967). In this respect, his hybridity becomes a burden as opposed to a means of mediation between the human and the Vulcan. Spock attempts to adopt his Vulcan side over his Human half, which he strives to control and ultimately suppress. Through his adoption of the Vulcan way, Spock embodies the positivist epitome: logical, unemotional, in control over the subject matter, and always quick to devise a logical solution (even if somehow unethical). He is always willing to quantify life by mere numbers as opposed to intrinsic value. Therefore, Spock is not only depicted as not human and not Vulcan, but as without true feeling—he is ultimately the embodiment of the machine, modern to the core.

    Spock’s hybridity is worthy of scrutiny insofar as the cultural fears of the time expressed a high level of xenophobia. According to Rony (1996), early “ethnographic” cinema was characterized by both a fascination and fear of the exotic. Furthermore, Rony references the colonialist nightmare: the act of interbreeding with the Other in which hybridity is perceived as mongrel, a concept that becomes a key issue in Roddenberry’s Star Trek. In this respect the colonialist nightmare is best portrayed by the creation of Spock and Khan. The introduction of Khan in episode 22, “Space Seed,” further delves into the fears of the cultural imagination of the time, in which Khan, in this case a product of genetic engineering, is superior to Kirk in every possible way.

    “Space Seed,” inspired by the events transpired by the Nazi regime, presents the fear of Eugenics in a new manner. In the Star Trek universe Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalbán), is the perfect embodiment of this fear. If Spock is the Noble Savage, Khan is anything but noble. He is ignoble while at the same time superior to the blonde Kirk. In Roddenberry’s created universe, Khan is a product of the eugenics war, the last world war before Earth was unified without true borders or states. The eugenics war, much like the name suggests, was a battle between humans attempting to create a genetically superior race, which led to the creation of Khan. Roddenberry’s version of the eugenics war, however, contrasts with the Nazi ideology, which heavily influenced the whole concept at the time. Roddenberry strays from the traditional “pure blood” ideology that largely dominated the early concept of eugenics, and which implied a notion of the pure as supreme. Khan’s genetically modified crew is shown to be multicultural; the mixing of the races is present in his band. In this respect, Rony’s (1996) argument, that the mixing of bloods was perceived as the Colonialist Nightmare, manifests itself in the form not only of Spock as the noble savage, but of Khan as a monster. In keeping with this portrayal of both Spock and Khan it is important to analyze the relationship between the two.

    Spock, depicted as the half breed that he was, possessed both the civilized and uncivilized aspects of modernity and indigenous ritual. This dualism is ever present in Roddenberry’s construction of the Vulcans as both “masters of logic,” and having rituals that in the eye of humans may seem primitive, mostly due to the ritual of pon far (the Vulcan mating drive) (Okuda & Mirek, 1994). Pon far ultimately turns Spock into an ignoble savage due to his inability to overcome his more “primal” instincts. Khan, on the other hand, is superior not only to his arch-foe Kirk, but also to Spock who sacrifices himself to save the Enterprise and its crew in Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (Bennett, Philips & Meyers, 1982). In regards to the Other, Khan, the hybrid and ignoble savage serves as the manifestation of the Colonialist Nightmare. The product of hybridity is no longer just the other, but also supreme due to its mongrel state.

    In respect to Khan, however, it is important to attribute his superiority not to the mixture of bloods that is traditional in the colonialist nightmare, but to the effect of eugenics; hence he himself is a product of modernity. Khan is not simply the ignoble savage from the past, but the organic representation of the modern, a concept best represented when he states “there has been little advancement in human evolution aside from technology.” This depicts the notion of eugenics as the way to the future, a concept that Roddenberry himself refutes in the entirety of the episode when Kirk consequently exiles Khan to the secluded planet of Ceti Alpha V, with the aid of the same woman that had initially helped him take over the ship, Lt. Marla McGivers (Madlyn Rhue).

    Uhura and Women in Space

    Lieutenant McGivers helps exemplify Roddenberry’s dualistic portrayal of women as flaky and quick to change. Throughout his work, Roddenberry’s portrayal of women seems to follow the Madonna/whore concept: women are either glorified or detested. In both scenarios, women are objectified. The first concept of glorification is most evident with the creation of Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), Yeoman Janice Rand (Grace Lee Whitney), and Nurse Chapel (Majel Barrett). Uhura, Rand, and Chapel are all objectifications insofar as the concept of femininity and sexuality is concerned. Their depiction is often shown as oversexed and seductive, yet vulnerable and emotional. This is evident in the second pilot Where No Man Has Gone Before (1966) when Spock calls Dr. Elizabeth Dehner “emotional” by stating “she is illogical and emotional, I am not. I am purely logical.” (Peeples & Goldstone, 1966). This reveals the sexist dichotomies of the time—although Number One, the first commander in the original pilot The Cage was anything but emotional (Roddenberry & Butler, 1988). It seems that a main contributing factor towards the objectification of women throughout the series as secondary characters can be attributed to the cultural imagination and perception of the roles women at the time of the creation of Star Trek in the 1960s.

    Some insight into the cultural imagination of that era can be gleaned from material of the actual production of the series, which was not made available to the viewing audience. The original Star Trek pilot (to this day unaired on television) was rejected by the television network for being “too liberal” and “too cerebral.” In the original pilot, The Cage (Roddenberry & Butler, 1988), the first officer “Number One,” was a woman, a concept that Roddenberry was forced to change due to the social pressures and expectations of the time: to have a woman play such an important role on television was simply inconceivable because at the time a woman could not have held such a high rank. Casting Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Uhura, the communications officer on the Bridge of the Enterprise, caused Roddenberry much network opposition due to Nichols’ race and gender. In a behind-the-scenes interview Nichelle Nichols states that things often became so heated that Roddenberry threatened to quit the series: “Gene said, she stays or I go” (The Birth of A Timeless Legacy, 2004). Nichols specifies the ongoing network interventions and monitoring:

    I’d get the first draft, the white pages, and see what Uhura had to do this week, and maybe it was a half way-decent scene or two, sometimes more, and then invariably the next draft would come in on blue pages and I’d find that Uhura’s presence in the show had been cut way down. The pink pages came next and she’d suffer some more cuts, then the yellow, more cuts, and it finally got to the point where I had really had it. I mean I just decided that I don’t even need to read the fucking script! I mean I know how to say, “hailing frequencies open.” (Nicholls as quoted in Shatner & Kreski, 1993, p. 212).

    Nichelle Nichols’s statement in itself ultimately leads to a reflection on the cultural imagination of the 1960s, not only addressing the issues of race but also gender in the case of Number one. The 1960s, the birth of Star Trek, brings to mind a call for social change as in social movements, such as the civil rights movements, hippy culture and the rise of pop-music, and to an extent even in the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. These cultural sentiments are implicitly reflected throughout Star Trek insofar as Roddenberry’s ultimate teaching goal of “We must learn to live together or most certainly we will soon all die together” (Roddenberry as quoted in Bernardi, 1997). In this regard the machine, a symbol of modernity and progress is ever present, teaching a lesson on humanity and its frailty as can be seen through Uhura’s ever-present technological ear piece which brings forth a hybridity between technology, the other and the female.

    Modern Fears of the Machine

    Immersed in modernity and the modern mentality, the interstellar ship, Enterprise, is a paradoxical symbol that implicitly portrays both progress and potential demise. The crew of the Enterprise, a representation of the people of Earth including the Other in the form of Spock, is utterly dependent on a machine, the Enterprise, over which they have power, but which always has the capacity to fail in ways beyond their control. Fear over the loss of control of technology had already been explored explicitly in the early 19th century in Mary Shelley’s (1818) Frankenstein, The Modern Prometheus. A similar fear permeates Roddenberry’s Star Trek series. Furthermore, fear of the failure of technology is constantly resonating with other concerns such as sexism, racism, eugenics, and hegemony, as well as hybridity. In that sense, the Enterprise—or, technology as such—could be seen as holding the position of the Other.

    The relationship between the Enterprise and its crew is largely co-constituent: they are ultimately dependent on one another, forming a holistic unit. However, this co-constituency is not always the case. In episode 7: What Are Little Girls Made of? (Bloch & Goldstone, 1966) a mad scientist creates a group of androids whom he regards as “perfect” and plans on spreading them through the galaxy to build a perfect society. Later in the episode it is revealed that the doctor himself is an android. He makes an android version of Captain Kirk in order to take over the Enterprise. One could say Frankenstein’s creature is born; the machine is ready to embark on taking over the world. Kirk is, however, triumphant in the end due to his superior reasoning and ingenuity. He manages to out-reason the machine through the introduction of human emotion into its programming, something that the android could not understand. This in turn causes the mad scientist to realize that he has lost control. He destroys himself and his creation, realizing that creation and creator have become the other—neither logical machine nor fully human. Shelley’s Frankenstein has taken an extra turn here, as the machine has not only attained consciousness, but the creator has become no different from his creation. The themes of this episode depict crucial concepts of colonialist literature: the unintended consequence of interbreeding, with the unintended consequence of losing control over the product of one’s creation.

    Roddenberry’s portrayal of the machine is often anthropomorphized. Let me just mention two most notable examples. In Star Trek: The Motion Picture (Roddenberry & Wise 1979), a satellite surpasses its human creators by merging with a human and transcending to a higher state of existence; in Star Trek: The Next Generation (Roddenberry, Berman, & Pillar, 1987-1994), we see the creation of Data and the Borg. Star Trek clearly presents the machine as a possibly sentient being, not simply as the creation of man or mere technology. Hence the machine has the potentiality of becoming the Other. In the case of Data (Bret Spiner), the machine is turned into the noble savage through his longing to become more human and ultimately “dying” in Star Trek: Nemesis to save Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) as well as the Enterprise itself and the whole Earth. Data’s death as the portrayal of the noble savage is similar to Spock sacrificing himself in The Wrath of Khan (Bennet, Philips, & Meyer, 1982).

    The Borg, a colonizing race of cybernetic-humanoid aliens, depicts what happens when control over the machine is lost, and stand as Roddenberry’s metaphor for a notion of modernity as a colonizing entity. As colonizing power the Borg gives the Federation little choice: fight and die, or be assimilated, with their motto, “resistance is futile.” Again, this alludes to colonialist themes in which the indigenous people are forced to submit to their colonizers. Roddenberry not only portrays the Alien and the Machine as the Other, but turns the tables allowing the viewer to identify with the historical ethnographic other who was colonized in the past—a multi-perspective approach to view humanity, the other, and the individual self.

    Conclusion: The Paradigm Shift

    A depiction of the self from multiple perspectives comprises a postmodern view of the Other, the modern and the individual self. This multi-perspective “otherizing” accomplishes Roddenberry’s initial goals of liberal humanism. His message and legacy remain a part of the Star Trek franchise as is evident in the creation of Deep Space Nine and Voyager, the last two showcasing the first African American commander of a base (and main character), Commander Benjamin Sisko, and Captain Kathryn Janeway, the first female captain who succeeded in eliminating the Borg threat. These fulfill Roddenberry’s vision of racial and gender equality within a holistic technological setting. Roddenberry’s deep respect for the complexities of otherness, rooted in competing cultural imaginations of the 1960s, created an inspiring new cultural imagination.

    References

    • Appadurai, A. (1996). Modernity at large: Cultural dimensions of globalization. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
    • Behr, I. S., Berman, R., & Piler, M. (Producers). (1993 – 1999). Star Trek: Deep Space Nine [Television program]. CBS.
    • Berman, R., Taylor, J., Biler, K., & Braga, B. (Producers). (1995 – 2001). Star Trek: Voyager [Television program]. CBS.
    • Bennett, H., & Philips, W. F. (Producers), & Meyer, N. (Director). (1982). Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan [Motion picture]. USA: Paramount Pictures.
    • Bernardi, D. (1997). “‘Star Trek’ in the 1960s: Liberal-Humanism and the Production of Race.” Science Fiction Studies 24(2) (1997): 209-225. JSTOR.
    • Bloch, R. (Writer), & Goldstone, J. (Director). (October 20, 1966). “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” Episode 7. In Star Trek: The original series. NBC.
    • Coon, G. L. (Writer), & Pevney, J. (Director). (January 19, 1967). “Arena.” Episode 18. In Star Trek: The original series. NBC.
    • Coon, G. L. & Wilber, G. (Writers), & Daniels, M. (Director). (February 16, 1967). “Space Seed.” Episode 22. In Star Trek: The original series. NBC.
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    • Johnson-Smith, Jan (2005). American science fiction TV: Star Trek, Stargate and beyond. London: I.B. Tauris.
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    • Rony, F. T. (1996). The third eye: Race, cinema, and ethnographical spectacle. Durham: Duke University.
    • Shatner, W. & Kreski, C. (1993). Star Trek memories. NY: Harper Collins.
    • Shelley, M. (1818). Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. London: Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor & Jones.
    • Speigel, L. (2011). Gene Roddenberry’s son reveals unhappy “Star Trek” family life. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/29/gene-roddenberry-son-star-trek_n_1119119.html
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    Images

    The images in this piece are considered to be available under fair use provisions of copyright legislation. All the grey scale images are in the public domain. Each of the full-color images is a low resolution copy of a single frame of film, thus complying with the Creative Commons criteria for fair use. See “Wikipedia: Copyrights” at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Copyrights for extended explanation.
     

    Figure 1: Star Trek: The Original Series, episode 18, “Arena,” Kirk and the Gorn battling to the death on an unknown desert planet

    Figure 1. Star Trek: The Original Series, episode 18, "Arena," Kirk and the Gorn battling to the death on an unknown desert planet

    Figure 2: Star Trek: The Original Series, Spock. Spock doing the customary Vulcan salute, portraying, as always, the Noble Savage

    Figure 2. Star Trek: The Original Series, Spock. Spock doing the customary Vulcan salute, portraying, as always, the Noble Savage

    Figure 3: Star Trek: The Original Series, episode 22, “Space Seed,” Khan Noonien Singh, the Ignoble Savage and the antithesis of Spock

    Figure 3. Star Trek: The Original Series, episode 22, "Space Seed," Khan Noonien Singh, the Ignoble Savage and the antithesis of Spock

    Figure 4: Star Trek: The Original Series, episode 1, “The Cage,” Number One on the bridge of the USS Enterprise (played by Majel Barrett)

    Figure 4. Star Trek: The Original Series, episode 1, "The Cage," Number One on the bridge of the USS Enterprise (played by Majel Barrett)

    Figure 5: Star Trek: The Original Series, Lt. Uhura hailing frequencies on the Bridge of the USS Enterprise (Played by Nichelle Nichols)

    Figure 5. Star Trek: The Original Series, Lt. Uhura hailing frquencies on the Bridge of the USS Enterprise (Played by Nichelle Nichols)

    Figure 6: Star Trek: The Original Series, The original U.S.S. Enterprise, a symbol of modernity, science, and humanity