Star Trek (the Original Series) has been mythologized as being about a hopeful, positive, Utopian future in which class differences have evaporated, war between peoples of the Federation is unknown, racism and sexism extinguished and money is a curiosity of the past, thus showing a way forward for humanity. However, actually looking at the content of the Original Series quickly belies these ideas.
Sexism is rampant on the show, perhaps nowhere worse than in “The Enemy Within” when it’s suggested that Yeoman Rand enjoyed nearly being sexually assaulted by evil Captain Kirk. (Grace Lee Whitney, the actress who played Rand, specifically called this out in her memoir as being truly horrible, so let’s be clear that any claim that this is “of its time” is actually saying “of the sexist men running Star Trek of its time”.) As for racism, yes, Uhura is on the bridge (albeit as a glorified switchboard operator) and Sulu is at the helm, but as almost every story revolves around the 3 white men of Kirk, Spock and Bones, and as these other characters tend to get less than a handful of lines between them, it seems less progressive than tokenism. (And one version of the creation of Star Trek indicates that it was DesiLu Studios that dictated the multiracial crew, not Gene Roddenberry, who would have been happy with the far whiter crew from the original pilot “The Cage”.)
But most importantly, far from showing a path to a better future, again and again Star Trek ridicules and skewers progressive ideals or the idea that people could reach a place of material social progress without it becoming a dystopian nightmare or autocratic dictatorship. The numerous examples include “The Return of the Archons”, “This Side of Paradise” and “Space Seed”.
Nowhere is this point clearer, though, than in the episode most often lauded as the “best” episode in all of the the original series, “The City on the Edge of Forever”. The climax revolves around the idea that Kirk must let Edith Keeler die because if she doesn’t she’ll start a pacifism movement that will lead to America not entering World War II and Hitler conquering the world.
Let’s think for a second about this. This episode aired in 1967, while protesters were out on the White House lawn chanting “Hey Hey LBJ how many kids you kill today”. In other words, the subtext here is expressly against the anti-war movements of the 1960s and in favor of those who felt that we had to fight in Vietnam to contain the Soviet Union. Pacifism, Star Trek is telling us in the midst of Vietnam, is an idea whose time has not come and is in fact dangerous in the present. Far from being a show in touch with the youth and representing the unbridled optimism of the 60s, this is a show that’s actively telling the youth to shut up and let the old hawks run things.
And yes, by the time we get to the movies and the Next Generation the mythologized version of Star Trek’s ethos was in ingrained in the fabric of the Star Trek Universe, to the point where we get Star Trek IV where the crew are basically idealistic hippies wandering around Reagan’s America and pointing out how horrible all the crass commercialism and commodification is and how they’re destroying the environment. This doesn’t change the fact that Star Trek: The Original Series is a fundamentally reactionary mess.