Star Trek: The Original Series – “Spectre of the Gun” (season 3, episode 6)
Written by Lee Cronin; directed by Vincent McEveety; first aired in 1968
The Enterprise is on a mission to make first contact with a mysterious race of telepaths called the Melkotians. The Melkotions want nothing to do with Starfleet, and warn the Enterprise off, but Captain Kirk is apparently under orders to make contact with the Melkotions whether they like it or not, for some reason. This goes predictably badly when Kirk takes an away team to visit the Melkotians uninvited, and they find themselves in a half-complete replica of 1881 Tombstone, Arizona … which, to be fair, would have been pretty tough to predict. The Melkotians have decided that the violence of Kirk’s pioneer ancestors will determine the away team’s fate, and they soon realize that they are expected to play the part of the Clanton Gang, who famously lost to Wyatt Earp and his fellow US Marshals in the gunfight at the OK Corral. They search for a nonviolent solution, but find that Tombstone and its residents are programmed to lead them into that gunfight, and are only as real as they need to be to accomplish that goal. That unreality turns out to be their salvation, when Spock mind-melds with the rest of the team to convince them that the bullets fired by the Earps can’t hurt them as long as they don’t believe the bullets can hurt them. Kirk finally subdues Wyatt Earp with good-old-fashioned fisticuffs, but spares his life, which convinces the Melkotians that Starfleet isn’t a threat to them. Back on the Enterprise, Spock calls out Kirk’s desire to kill Earp, which Kirk admits to, but says that overcoming such instincts is how humanity made it into space in the first place.
Star Trek: Enterprise – “North Star” (season 3, episode 9)
Written by David A. Goodman; directed by David Straiton; first aired in 2003
We open on what looks like an 1800s American town, where a mob of cowboys, led by the sheriff’s deputy, chase a young man who doesn’t look quite human, and lynch him. The next day, the local school-teacher pays for the dead man’s coffin, and argues with the sheriff over the town’s treatment of the alien “Skags”, or Skagarans. Watching this with curiosity are Archer, T’Pol, and Trip, incognito as cowboys and a cowgirl. They learn that the humans’ ancestors were abducted from Earth a couple of centuries earlier, and brought to this alien world as slave labor for the Skagarans. But the humans revolted and subjugated the Skagarans, who are now second-class citizens facing constant racism from the townsfolk, and threats from the skeezy deputy. When the teacher is imprisoned for daring to teach young Skagarans, Archer breaks her out of jail, but has to beam her up to Enterprise for medical treatment when she’s shot during her escape. With his cover blown, Archer finally makes formal first contact with the relatively open-minded sheriff, and promises to eventually send ships to bring them all back to Earth, if they can adjust to the way humans do things now, which means no more subjugating other species. But the deputy and his goons think Archer and his away team are in cahoots with the Skagarans, and an old-fashioned shootout ensues.
In the decades since the original Star Trek debuted, much has been made of Gene Roddenberry’s description of the show as “Wagon Train to the Stars” . In other words (for people, like me, who’ve never actually seen an episode of Wagon Train), he was selling Star Trek as ‘a Western, but in space’. And when I say “selling”, I mean exactly that. Like other often-quoted Roddenberry-isms, the phrase was meant, first and foremost, as a sales pitch, first to TV executives, and then to TV viewers. And like any sales pitch, it was designed to be pithy and evocative, not exhaustively accurate. A TV show following the crew of a starship might have been tough for TV executives to picture when it was pitched to them in the 1960s, and so Roddenberry, like countless Hollywood creatives before and after him, used the ‘It’s like X, but Y!’ approach, summing up his ideas in terms a 1960s audience would be more familiar with (just as I’m sure the show Seaquest was probably pitched, in the 1990s, as ‘Star Trek, but underwater!’).
As a result, the characterization of The Original Series as a Space Western has always felt incomplete to me, applying reasonably well to some episodes, but hardly at all to others, including many of the series’ best episodes, like “Balance of Terror” (an homage to submarine thrillers) or “City on the Edge of Forever” (pure high-concept sci-fi). And by the time The Next Generation came along – with a well-equipped, self-sufficient, city-like starship, and its comfortable crew of thousands – the old western frontier comparison hardly seemed to apply at all. Other, later sci-fi-adventure series, like Firefly and Killjoys, have tended to embrace the frontier grittiness of the space-Western concept more whole-heartedly than Trek ever did. Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Enterprise both started off trying to be more like “Wagon Train to the Stars”, at least in part; but again, both series soon pivoted away from that premise, and toward high-concept sci-fi (like the Borg, or whatever the Temporal Cold War was supposed to be) and allegories for contemporary current events (like Enterprise’s Xindi arc, a season-long attempt to process the events and aftermath of the 9-11 attacks).
In light of all that, it’s interesting to see Trek tackle the so-called Wild West directly, as it does in both The Original Series’ “Spectre of the Gun” and Enterprise’s “North Star”, though in markedly different ways. This difference is clear right from the beginning of each episode, in the way it introduces us to its Western setting. The setup for “Spectre of the Gun” is boiler-plate Original Series, with a nearly-all-powerful alien race forcing the away team into an elaborately constructed scenario meant to test them, or punish them, or both. As such, the version of Tombstone they find themselves in is explicitly artificial, looking not just like the setting of an old Western, but like the half-finished set of one, all free-standing storefronts with nothing behind them. At first sight, this seems like an extreme cost-saving measure – and, hey, it probably was – but it’s also in keeping with the resolution of the episode, in which the away team survives by refusing to believe that what’s happening to them is real.
“North Star” takes a very different approach, quickly establishing its own 19th-century-America-inspired setting as very much a real place, a home to real people facing real stakes. This is accomplished even before the opening credits roll, in a couple of ways. First, the episode opens on the town, putting us initially in the point of view of the locals, rather than the Enterprise crew; none of our regular cast even appear until several minutes into the episode, after we’ve already met the three guest characters from the planet who will play a major role in the episode (the deputy, the sheriff, and the teacher). And second, not only does “North Star” throw us right into its space-Western setting, it does so right in the midst of an act of horrible, bigoted cruelty – the lynching of a Skagaran, whose species we are introduced to through the deputy’s use of an obvious racial slur, “Skag”. This makes the violence of this place feel all the more real and impactful, by invoking not just the theatrical, stylized violence of a dramatic shootout (as we get later, in the climax of the episode), but the much uglier violence of historical real-world oppression.
Which brings us to another big difference between “Spectre of the Gun” and “North Star”. While both episodes explicitly condemn the use of violence to solve problems, they differ on the kinds of violence they’re willing to take on. The violence “Spectre” condemns is very much of the ‘eye for an eye’ variety, the individualized, person-to-person violence of an old-fashioned duel. While the episode acknowledges that the ‘settling’ of the American West was a violent affair – with the Melkotians judging Kirk, in part, for his ancestors’ involvement in it – there is no mention of that violence being a tool of oppression, against Indigenous Americans or other marginalized groups. But “North Star”, filmed decades later, deals with this subject in an impressively head-on manner, at least at first, by opening with the above-mentioned racially-motivated lynching. It acknowledges that when a society embraces the use of violence to enact justice and/or vengeance, that violence doesn’t just hurt individuals, but is used to enforce the status quo, keeping some groups in power at the expense of others. Of course, “North Star” substitutes the alien Skagarans for any real-world marginalized groups, as Star Trek tends to do, for better and for worse. But at least it doesn’t flinch away from showing the Skagarans as a subjugated underclass, deliberately denied their basic rights. When the relatively humane Sheriff MacReady insists that he would have preferred the Skagaran to be tried in court for the presumably trumped-up charges against him, the teacher, Bethany, points out that “the same people who lynched him would have been sitting on the jury.” Violence is just one tool this society employs to deliberately, systematically keep the Skagarans under the thumb of their human oppressors.
Of course, “North Star” walks this back a bit, by eventually revealing that the Skagarans (or their ancestors, at least) were the original oppressors, abducting and enslaving the humans who would eventually rise up and enslave them in turn. This works as an explanation for the existence of an Old West town in space, of course, but it does weaken the episode’s message, I think, bringing us back to an ‘eye for an eye’ take on the cyclical nature of violence. This takes away from the episode’s earlier willingness to acknowledge that real-world violence is often more lopsided than cyclical: to put it bluntly, the less power you have, the more likely you are to be a victim of violence (a fact which is often, and very conveniently, denied by those with more power). “Spectre of the Gun” kind of dilutes its own message of nonviolence as well, through the weird plot contrivance that Kirk’s orders require him to make contact with the Melkotians even if they refuse that contact. Not only would this first contact policy almost certainly get someone killed eventually, if not start an interstellar war, but it’s conspicuously close to the kind of ‘Manifest Destiny’ expansionism that motivated much of the violent history Kirk claims humanity has risen above. So much so, that I assumed this must be intentional, and kept expecting the episode to comment on that in some way. But no: by the episode’s end, Starfleet’s overly aggressive first contact policy has paid off, and the away team has proven that the Melkotians were wrong about humanity (albeit after pretty much proving them right, by violating their wishes to be left alone).
And of course, both “Spectre of the Gun” and “North Star” contradict their message on the importance of nonviolent problem-solving, by ending with some climactic violence from their respective leading men. “Spectre” does this through a classic Original Series slugfest between Kirk and Wyatt Earp, after Kirk has gone out of his way to find a nonviolent way to win their duel, no less. Granted, the episode uses this moment to make the point that 23rd-century humanity hasn’t completely eradicated its violent urges; humans have simply gotten better at deciding not to be violent. But it’s still strange to show Kirk struggling to stop himself from killing Earp, after an earlier scene of Kirk melodramatically shouting at the sheriff, “I can’t just kill them! I can’t murder them!” And “North Star”, after convincingly showing us the ugly underbelly of the much-romanticized Wild West, concludes with … an extended shootout scene, complete with fittingly cheesy, Western-tinged electric guitar accompaniment. Which brings us to the inherent limitation of these episodes: as much as they obviously have something to say, their premise offers a chance for fun that their creative teams simply couldn’t pass up. This is particularly obvious in “North Star”, with its truly impressive production values standing in stark contrast to the incomplete sets of “Spectre”. The space-Western setting of “North Star” is fully-realized in a way that exemplifies the potential Enterprise had, as a Star Trek series with a budget Gene Roddenberry could only have dreamed of on The Original Series.
What’s more, I came away from “North Star” feeling like Enterprise actually could have been – and maybe should have been – the “Wagon Train to the Stars” that The Original Series never really was. As I’ve written here before, I tend to have a hard time getting into Enterprise, something I largely blame on the character of Archer. I think the show often struggled to reconcile the forward-looking optimism and empathy of Star Trek with the conception of Archer – and, arguably, the casting of Scott Bakula – as a swashbuckling, take-no-crap action hero. But I found myself liking him much more in “North Star” than I often do, and as I watched, it occurred to me that this is the show Archer was truly written for. He was always meant to captain Firefly’s Serenity, not a ship called Enterprise. Like Mal on Firefly, Archer is more antihero than hero; but where an antihero works as the lead on a true space-Western like Firefly, I don’t know if Star Trek is built for that. (Not that the franchise hasn’t had its own antiheroes – Deep Space Nine’s Garak is one who works exceptionally well – but they tend to be supporting characters, with someone more upstanding and optimistic usually serving as the lead character) Much of my trouble with Archer stems from the fact that, while he feels to me like an antihero, Enterprise rarely acknowledges that he’s anything other than a straightforward Starfleet paragon. When it does, I tend to like the character much more, as I do in this scene, where he tires of watching the corrupt Deputy Bennings harass and intimidate Draysik, a Skagaran saloon worker:
Bennings, to Draysik: Why don’t you join us?
Draysik: You know I’m not allowed to do that, Mister Bennings.
Bennings: It’s Deputy Bennings, and I can bend a local ordnance if I choose. Have a seat. I imagine you could use a drink, after what happened last night. Let’s raise a glass to the dearly departed. To dead Skags. (Bennings drinks) Drink up.
Draysik: (sips drink, coughs)
Bennings: I thought you people could hold your liquor. Your friend had a few in him the night he killed Clay Stanton.
Draysik: He didn’t drink.
Bennings: Beg your pardon?
Draysik: I’d better get back to work.
Bennings: Oh, no, wait a minute. I don’t think I heard you right. You’re telling me that a sober Skag had the nerve to shoot a man? I find that hard to believe. Maybe you could demonstrate. (puts his pistol on the table) Pick it up, shoot me right here between the eyes. This is your golden opportunity. Don’t pass it up. I know you’d like to kill me. That’s what all you Skags want, isn’t it? Go ahead. Or maybe you need to finish that drink first.
Archer, to Draysik: Excuse me. Can I get some more coffee before you shoot him?
Bennings: Who the hell are you?
Archer: Name’s Archer.
Archer makes a lot more sense to me here, as the mysterious stranger in a space-saloon with a tough-nosed sense of justice, than he does as the protagonist in a Star Trek series. Enterprise would continue to experiment with different tones and formats throughout its relatively short run, finally settling, in its fourth and final season, on the approach I generally think worked best for it: a series of multi-part mini-arcs fleshing out existing Star Trek lore. But watching “North Star”, I almost found myself wishing the series really had doubled down on Gene Roddenberry’s sales pitch, and had gone more Firefly than Enterprise.
Next time, we’ll see that the good guys don’t always win, but they keep going anyway, when we look at Voyager‘s “Eye of the Needle” and Deep Space Nine‘s “The Sound of Her Voice”!