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Western Culture Lassos Eastern Hearts?


Thanks to the Beadle & Adams dime novels, the first Westerns became widely available in the United States around 1860.

Thus, the West’s mythic existence began before its history had fully unfolded, since the settlement of the Western territories by white Americans continued into the late nineteenth century. A growing popular culture focused on celebrities made Billy the Kid, Buffalo Bill Cody, Wild Bill Hickok, and George Armstrong Custer larger than life. Before most Americans had a chance to learn the facts about Western settlement, Cody was traveling the country with the Wild West Show, which featured Sitting Bull, the chief of the Sioux.

The West thus became performance art at the same time that it was becoming history.

Three years after the superintendent of the U.S. Census declared the frontier closed in 1890, historian Frederick Jackson Turner put forth his thesis that the unique experience of settling the frontier had played a pivotal role in molding the character and values of Americans. Although the frontier no longer existed, Owen Wister and Zane Grey furthered the Western narrative with their popular novels published during the early twentieth century, and Louis L’Amour and other writers created hundreds of new Western tales later in the century.

James T. Kirk is just one of many fictional characters shaped by the patterns that emerge from the Western mythos.

Star Trek’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, jokingly characterized the concept as Wagon Train to the stars,” and Kirk seems to be cut from the same cloth as the hero of Wister’s Virginianand Bret Maverick of TV and film. Kirk’s capacity for innovation is an essential skill as he patrols the galactic frontier, exploring uncharted paths, defending isolated outposts, and attempting to bring order to untamed sectors of space. In the traditions of the Western hero, Kirk does not shy away from trouble: he gallops toward it, eager for the exploits that await him. Like Western heroes, Kirk fights for freedom from domination and for the rights of the individual. As viewers see Kirk’s startled look when he becomes the first human captain to confront a huge alien spaceship, they are witnessing the same wonder found in the eyes of a frontier farmer who looks into the sky and sees a swarm of locusts bearing down on his little piece of the planet Earth.

The sudden intrusion of the unknown is an integral part of the frontier experience.

It is probably no coincidence that one of the synonyms for adventure is enterprise, the name of Kirk’s indomitable steed. The ship’s sensors and the universal translator are Kirk’s scouts, telling him what lies ahead and helping him to communicate with the natives of distant worlds. Two episodes explicitly occur in settings intended to mimic the Old West. “Spectre of the Gun” is blatantly a Western, with Kirk and his colleagues being forced to replay the legendary Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. “The Paradise Syndrome” approaches another side of the Western myth—the portrayal of Indians as noble savages. In this episode, Kirk loses his memory and joins Native Americans transplanted from Earth to a distant planet by a Preserver race. Over the course of a few months, Kirk marries and impregnates an Indian priestess named Miramanee. He revels in the simplicity of his primitive life. Eventually, of course, his colleagues relocate him. Because Kirk’s memory has been restored and because Miramanee has been killed, he is free to return to his life on the Enterprise. Media studies scholar Daniel Bernardi characterizes the decision to kill Miramanee as part of a standard Euro-Indian miscegenation narrative. “The native girl dies so that Kirk, the white male hero, isn’t shown unheroically and immorally leaving her and their unborn baby behind.” Bernardi believes that this episode, apparently intended to celebrate Native American culture, actually reveals racism among the show’s producers, who stereotyped the Indians as noble savages, showing no progress among them during the centuries since they had been moved to the planet. 

In this episode, the amnesiac Kirk crosses a line between meeting a new civilization and becoming a part of it.

Like some white drifters who found a home among Native Americans, he experiences a totally different frontier culture.

Barely disguised Western motifs surface in other episodes as well. For instance, in “Mudd’s Women,” the beautiful ladies are stand-ins for the mail-order brides of yore, and they are on their way to provide companionship for dusty dilithium miners who look very much like the eighty thousand ragged-but-hopeful forty-niners who swept westward in the California gold rush of 1849. The bar on Deep Space Station K-7 in “The Trouble with Tribbles” seems more like a Western saloon than an intergalactic way station. And in “Charlie X,” when the adolescent raised by aliens cannot fit into human culture, he is like the freed Indian captives who had trouble finding a place for themselves among whites after spending years in Native American cultures.

In his book, Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America, Richard Slotkin argues that the popular Westerns of the 1950s and 1960s provided the perfect backdrop for the Cold War era, in which all of the issues were presented in terms of black versus white, with little middle ground for shades of gray. Slotkin notes that Star Trek is particularly reminiscent of “empire” Western films of the 1930s and 1940s, where individual action is decisive in solving a cosmic struggle. He finds particularly strong parallels in the film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which follows an established format in which an evil chieftain, “half-savage, half aristocrat,” attacks, tortures, and massacres innocent beings, leading the forces of good to make a suicidal “charge” to save civilization. In the film, Khan Noonien Singh is a product of late-twentieth-century genetic engineering, marooned by Kirk years ago on a planet with other genetically enhanced humans. A change in the planet’s orbit and attacks by deadly indigenous creatures give Khan great motivation to plot his revenge against Kirk. When Khan escapes and gains control of a Federation starship, he almost glows with an obsessive need to defeat Kirk.

In their initial engagement, now Admiral Kirk fails to follow protocol and raise his ship’s shields when another Federation ship approaches without any communication. With the Enterprise’s shields down, Khan is able to cripple the ship, but Kirk’s riverboat-gambler persona outwits Khan and the Enterprise is able to escape, only to find that Khan has tortured and killed members of a scientific team working on Project Genesis, which is intended to turn a lifeless planet into a lush paradise. Kirk goes to the center of an asteroid where the actual Genesis experiment is under way, and again, he fools Khan, making him believe that there is no escape from the asteroid. As the film progresses, Kirk’s desire for revenge against Khan comes to equal Khan’s vengeful sentiments toward him. In the end, Khan dies, but in a final desperate act, he sets off the Genesis device, which will destroy all life within its range. The loyal Spock makes the ultimate sacrifice, exposing himself to lethal radiation to save the Enterprise and his friend Kirk.

The film ends with the famous Kirk/Spock farewell that includes Spock’s declaration that “I have been, and ever shall be, your friend,” and the axiom that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.”

Kirk, who has cheated death many times through cleverness, is paralyzed by his closest friend’s willing surrender to the Grim Reaper.

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