Archaeological themes in Star Trek (1966)


With apologies to Keith Chan, from whom I swiped the image.
With apologies to Keith Chan, from whom I swiped the image.

Over the last few months, my wife and I have been watching the original Star Trek on Lovefilm (or Amazon instant video, which is now the same thing). Only the first two seasons are available, but a few things have struck me about them. One is how changing viewing habits have really altered television storytelling. Viewed back to back, it becomes very apparent how similar the episodes are to each other: a godlike humanoid alien imprisons or chastises the crew, everyone does some soul-searching about Vietnam, a planet resembles Earth — there are maybe  half a dozen core plots repeated over and over.

One plot element that occurs once in each season we’ve watched so far involves archaeologists/anthropologists/ancient historians. There are two episodes in these seasons with historians or archaeologists as major characters: the first season episode “Space Seed,” and the second season episode “Who Mourns for Adonais?”

Let’s start with “Space Seed.” This was quite an influential episode. It introduced the character of Khan (Ricardo Montalbán), who would of course go on to be the villain in the second film and elsewhere. Khan is a relic of an earlier age, a genetically-engineered super-soldier type from a violent period of Earth’s past.

Because he’s from the past, Kirk puts Khan in touch with the ship’s historian,  Lt McGivers (Madlyn Rhue). McGivers is an interesting character. Here she is, in the traditional soft lighting enjoyed by every female character in at least one closeup.


Her quarters are full of paintings of manly men through the ages.


Naturally, when she meets an actual Manly Man from History, she falls for him …


… and tries to help him overthrow Kirk and steal the ship. But it doesn’t work out. She does get a new hairdo when Khan pulls her hair out of the hairstyle in the middle photo.

So the historian is obsessed with history, and specifically with the ways in which it’s both good and bad — she admires the resolution and will of these historical figures, but at the same time the show is aware of how they’re pretty bad guys. Which is interesting, because maybe one Star Trek episode in five ends with some guff about human will and the need to struggle and battle and survive. So: the historian is sentimentally attached to the past in a way that winds up with smooches (because it’s Star Trek and she’s a woman).

Now, let’s take a look at our second example, Season 2’s “Who Mourns for Adonais?” In this one, the Enterprise arrives at a planet occupied by a muscular dude in a chiton who claims to be the Greek god Apollo. Kirk beams down to the planet with his dudes and Lt Palamas (Leslie Parrish), who is both the ship’s specialist in archaeology and anthropology and Scotty’s love interest. This is she:


Once they get down to the planet, they spend a lot of time backity-forthing with Apollo, who takes a fancy to Palamas, and she to him. And they go off and canoodle, and he agonises and stuff, and he demonstrates his godly powers by giving her a new outfit:


However, in the end Palamas is persuaded to reject Apollo, breaking his heart and stripping him of his powers or something. She tearfully returns to the Enterprise.

So, basically, both of these two episodes have more or less the same plot:

  • The Enterprise discovers a muscular dude from an earlier era
  • Kirk points the ship’s history specialist, an attractive woman, at him
  • She falls in love with him
  • He uses their love to tempt her to switch sides
  • She does and is lost or doesn’t and the day is saved.

Now, I’m not too caught up with the idea that because history is a “soft” subject so these characters are female, because Star Trek will shoehorn in an attractive woman anywhere it can. I do think it’s interesting that in both cases Kirk expresses more or less the same idea: that history has to be destroyed in order for the Space Kennedy Era to happen, but that it’s sadly regrettable — Khan is brave and determined, Apollo is majestic, and it’s a terrible shame that they have to be got rid of (although Khan is more ambiguously got rid of).

I think that’s a very Star Trek – like attitude to take.

Archaeological themes in Star Trek (1966)

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