Star Trek’s 12 Best Morality Plays

Star Trek is well known for discussing serious issues. Here are the episodes where the show tackled them brilliantly...

Leonard Nimoy as Mister Spock in Star Trek: The Original Series

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

Star Trek: Discovery and The Orville are back, and we’re super excited because we love them both. Last year there was a lot of debate about not just which one was better, but which one was more like a new series of Star Trek. We aren’t going to answer that here – enjoy whichever shows you enjoy, folks! – but there is one way in which The Orville is unmistakeably more similar to previous incarnations of Trek than Discovery is. Of the two, so far only The Orville produces one-episode morality plays, with Discovery focused more on arc plotting and character work.

The original series of Star Trek included action episodes, comedy episodes, mini submarine moves disguised as stories about spaceships, a truly bizarre number of omnipotent alien entities, and a ghost story about Jack the Ripper (yes, really). But scattered among all these, the show regularly did short morality plays exploring a political or social issue of the time. Some were terrible, some were unbearably preachy, some were just odd, but some produced enjoyable and thoughtful hours of television, and all the subsequent series before Discovery followed suit. Here, we celebrate some of the best of them.

1. Who Mourns For Adonais? (Original Series)

Issues: sexism, women in the work place.

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Throughout its history, Star Trek has made admirable attempts to talk about sexism, many of which end up falling completely flat. Ever since Gene Roddenberry was told not to include a female Number One, although women have been present in the regular cast of every series, they have always been heavily outnumbered by men. Episodes addressing sexism have a tendency to go horribly wrong and are sometimes laughably executed (see The Next Generation’s “Angel One” for the real low point).

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“Who Mourns For Adonais” is also seriously flawed. Uhura squeals when alarmed and guest character Carolyn Palamas is ogled by everyone, sexually assaulted when she asserts her independence and duty to her job, and then spends the rest of the episode cuddling Scotty in terror. However, there are some good things too. Spock’s reassurance to Uhura that she is the best person to do the job in engineering may be patronizing, but it also presents the visual of a woman of color in engineering overalls, doing engineering work, which in the 1960s was a rare thing. Bones complains that every female crewmember on the ship will eventually find a man and leave the service, but Carolyn Palamas proves him wrong when she rejects Apollo and the chance to be the mother of a new race of Greek gods to do her duty. It’s also a fun episode for all sorts of other reasons (giant green hand in space! Real life Greek gods! Silly costumes!) so although it’s flawed, it’s well worth a look.

2. Bread And Circuses (Original Series)

Issues: Voyeurism, extreme entertainment, difficult television networks.

This is another episode that’s deeply, deeply flawed – two thirds of the way through, Captain Kirk is brought a woman who is a sex slave and told to have his way with her, and he does. Being in the 1960s is no excuse for this behavior – Spartacus was more noble than to do that in Kubrick’s 1960 film. It’s also fair to say that some of the complaints about the behavior of television networks are more personal concerns of the showrunners than widespread social issues.

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That being said, this is a fun episode, a classic of the ‘alien-planet-as-Earth-history subgenre (in fact, this is the episode that introduces Hodgkin’s Law Of Parallel Planet Development to excuse such stories). It’s neither the first nor the only story to embrace the idea of putting gladiatorial conquest on television (The Hunger Games is only the best known example of many) and executions are known for having drawn a crowd in times gone by before they were moved behind closed doors. Still, lack of originality does not make something inherently bad, and what this episode has to say about bloodlust and revelling in others’ pain through the television is worth saying, and said well.

3. The Counter-Clock Incident (The Animated Series)

Issues: ageing, treatment of senior citizens

The Animated Series went out on a high note with this final episode, the themes of which would be revisited in other excellent stories including Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan. While the idea of a universe running backwards would later get some classic comedy treatment in Red Dwarf, the beauty of the surreal nature of The Animated Series is that they can run this concept completely seriously and use it to tell a story with heart.

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Commodore Robert April – now, thanks to Discovery’s list of notable Starfleet captains, a canonical character – was the first captain of the Enterprise, and here he faces the same problem Kirk would later face in the films – he is due for retirement, but has always felt most at home on the bridge of a starship. However, when given the opportunity to live that life again, April realizes that a life well lived is not something to regret – though he does get to keep his honorary position instead of being forced into retirement. Of all the social issues explored by Star Trek, this is the one on which it has the best track record, and this is a solid early example.

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4. Relics (The Next Generation)

Issues: ageing, treatment of senior citizens

A much better reflection on ageing that doesn’t involve killing anyone is presented in “Relics.” This is The Scotty Episode, and when familiar faces are brought over to play in a new sandbox, it can be easy for the appearance to become gimmicky. That is not the case with “Relics,” however.

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This story could have worked with any random guest character. It’s a reflection on how frustrating it is to feel useless and out-dated, on how impossible it can be to recapture your youth and keep up with new developments indefinitely, and on finding a new role for ourselves as we get older. But it works so much better because that guest character is Scotty. We’ve seen this man in his heyday and we know what a brilliant engineer he was. We recognize his tactics and his methods. And for a long-time Trekkie, there’s something truly special about the thrill of seeing the bridge of the NCC 1701 (“no bloody A, B, C, or D!”). A beautiful tribute not just to Scotty, but to the original series as a whole.

5. Half A Life (The Next Generation)

Issues: activism, respect for other cultures

“Half A Life” is also about ageing, but since its guest character Timicin ends up deciding to undergo euthanasia for no other reason than having reached the age of 60, we think it’s safe to say this isn’t the key theme of the episode. Rather, there are two other issues brought up by Timicin’s situation. One is how difficult it is to bring about cultural change. Timicin agrees with Lwaxana’s arguments that his culture’s tradition is cruel, unnecessary and counter-productive, but he simply has no desire to be the start of a revolutionary new way of thinking.

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Lwaxana has to understand and respect that, and she also has to respect his cultural practices even when she disagrees with them. It’s a seriously flawed metaphor, since Timicin’s cultural traditions involve killing people, but the episode is carried by David Ogden Stiers and Majel Bartett-Roddenberry’s heartfelt performances.

6. Duet (Deep Space Nine)

Issues: War crimes, vengeance, racism, nationalism

“Duet” is the episode that made a lot of fans realize Deep Space Nine might really be something special. The real life parallels are pretty obvious – it’s about someone who stands for Jewish holocaust victims (Kira) confronting someone who worked in a minor administrative position for Space Nazis (Marritza). There are so many complex themes touched on in this episode, including guilt, vengeance, forgiveness, and the extent to which standing by and doing noting amounts to complicity, and all are treated sensitively and passionately.

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The episode concludes with a gut punch of an ending, which we won’t describe in detail for the benefit of readers who haven’t yet seen it. Suffice to say, it provides a reminder of the dangers of blind racism that ignores the fact that everyone in every culture is an individual with their own virtues and flaws, and you can’t judge anyone simply by their race or nationality.

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7. Far Beyond The Stars (Deep Space Nine)

Issues: racism, the Civil Rights movement, sexism

The Original Series may have been made at the height of the struggle for Civil Rights in the US, but the episodes it produced on the subject (most notably “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”) were not always its best, being both unsubtle and, sometimes, missing the point entirely (both races in “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” appear to have equal standing in their respective cultures). The Next Generation was similarly clumsy in its attempts to deal with race, not to mention at times outright offensive (“Code Of Honor”).

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By the time we get to Deep Space Nine, however, the writers have learned to be, if not more subtle – this episode literally screams “racism is bad!” at the audience over and over again – at least more sensitive. There are some issues with the episode (is all of Star Trek a dream in Benny Russell’s head? If not, what exactly was the point of the whole thing?) but as an hour of television, it’s an absorbing and lovingly put together story. The emotional and dramatic climax, in which Benny screams in frustration as his life falls apart around him, is a tour de force from Avery Brooks and will bring a tear to the driest eye.

8. Remember (Voyager)

Issues: Holocaust denial

Holocaust denial has been around since the Holocaust happened, and despite being illegal in several countries and the fact that no serious historian denies that the Holocaust happened, it is still very much an issue. In 1993, American author Deborah Lipstadt published a book on the phenomenon, Denying The Holocaust. In September 1996, just under two months before this episode aired, British Holocaust denier David Irving sued her for libel (the case was found in favor of Lipstadt in April 2000).

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Voyager’s take on the issue is a simple enough story and not one of the series’ most memorable tales, but as a meditation on shame and denial on a massive scale it works rather well. The story imagines a situation in which Holocaust deniers have won the day, and the fight against denial has to start from the beginning, with the memories of those willing to talk about it. One particularly effective choice was to give the story not to the empathic Kes, who might seem the natural choice, but to the passionate and frequently angry B’Elanna, whose justified rage drives the second half of the story.

9. Nemesis (Voyager)

Issues: racism and nationalism, propaganda and “fake news”, brainwashing

This episode aired well before the term “fake news” was coined, but it addresses many of the issues brought up by propaganda and passing on falsified information to large groups of people. In this case, Chakotay is forced to live out events that never truly happened and is brainwashed, which is a step beyond the mere spreading of propaganda, but probably its natural evolution, given the technology available in the Star Trek universe.

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There are many, many Star Trek episodes that deal with the moral that preconceptions can be misguided, especially when it comes to cultures that have been at war with each other. It’s the visceral nature of this particular story, forcing Chakotay to live the experience rather than focusing on talking heads discussing the past, that makes it a particular stand-out among numerous stories on this theme from across the franchise.

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10. Lineage (Voyager)

Issues: genetic engineering, racism, bullying

There are several episodes of Voyager that deal with B’Elanna’s mixed feelings about her mixed race heritage and childhood experiences of racism growing up in a human community, but this is the best of them. Here, the theme is combined with concerns about genetic engineering as B’Elanna, wanting to protect her daughter from her own bad experiences, goes to extreme lengths in her attempts to alter her foetus against the wishes of just about everyone else.

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This is a good episode on several levels, with a solid science fiction concept, good character work, strong performances and some sweet relationship moments for a couple whose focus episodes were distinctly variable in quality. It’s also a solid little morality play, in which the lessons may be obvious, but are no less worth learning.

11. Stigma (Enterprise)

Issues: AIDS, homophobia

It’s a bit obvious and preachy, but Star Trek’s best attempt at dealing with homophobia deserves a mention. The franchise had tried before, but with mixed results at best – most notably in “The Outcast,” which tried to talk about homosexuality but might have made a bigger impact if the supposedly genderless character who fell for Riker had been played by a male actor, and in “The Host,” in which Dr Crusher breaks up with her suddenly-female love interest because she doesn’t swing that way. “Stigma,” for all its preachiness (and without directly discussing gender or sexuality) does at least try to offer a respectful conversation about the subject, aired as part of Viacom’s ‘Know HIV/AIDS’ programming.

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Suddenly revealing a disease we’ve never heard of before can be problematic, but although Pa’nar Syndrome may be a new invention, the Vulcans’ reluctance to discuss medical issues to the point of endangering their own lives is well established and has affected all three previous regular and recurring Vulcan characters in the franchise (Spock, Tuvok and Ensign Vorik). As such, this works well enough as a starting place to make some long over-due points about stigma and prejudice.

12. Demons/Terra Prime (Enterprise)

Issues: anti-immigration, xenophobia, terrorism

The two-parter that many fans prefer to consider the true finale of Enterprise (as the following episode, its actual finale, proved divisive), this is also a Star Trek morality play at its finest. Fans had long thought that Enterprise might conclude with the formation of the Federation, and here we see that beginning to happen. We also see the inevitable difficulties involved, as a terrorist group determined to expel all non-humans from Earth’s solar system do their best to stop it before it can start, putting Trip and T’Pol through hell in the process.

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It’s a dark, sad story, though the scene where T’Pol awkwardly introduces herself to her infant daughter offers a welcome moment of light relief in a very serious two-parter. But it’s also a fitting (nearly) conclusion to a Star Trek franchise with a great guest cast, and it gives Scott Bakula the chance to exercise his old Quantum Leap skills in talking people into a better future one more time.