If you fall on the Trekkie side of the Star Wars vs. Star Trek divide, and you’re not feeling the Force Awakens fever, rejoice for there is a new book out on your favorite galactic series. And it is entirely devoted to the exciting topic of sex in classic Trek.
When it came out almost 50 years ago in 1966, Star Trek broke the mold. Here was a multiracial, multinational (and even, interplanetary) cast of characters on prime time network TV, on a mission to seek out new life and new civilizations in an awesome starship. Wagon train to the stars meets Gulliver’s Travels. Star Trek was daring and intellectually stimulating. It pushed the envelope of what was deemed acceptable by the three networks that monopolized the airwaves at the time. It was the TV show of the space age and of America’s raucous 60s cultural revolution.
It was also incredibly sexy.
The original Star Trek had an unmistakeable “anything goes” attitude. It was kinky and really went where no one had gone before. In his book Star Trek Sex, celebrated Trek screenwriter Will Stape goes there, again. His credits include one of my all-time favorite Next Generation episode, Homeward, featuring the one and only Paul Sorvino (Paulie, the mafia boss in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, as well as Mira’s father). Like most Trek writers, Stape is also a fan and scholar of the show.
In his book, Stape explores how sex and sexual desire in all their permutations saturated the show. The first interracial kiss on network TV happened in Star Trek. Sex with aliens, sex among aliens, gender-swapping, hints of bondage and domination, intense homoerotic male friendships, birth control—all these and more made their way into the show under the nose of buttoned-up TV execs. Sometimes they were mere innuendos or hackneyed plot devices, and sometimes they were fairly direct.
The later shows retreated from The Original Series’ overt and adventurous eroticism. They adhered more closely to the conventions of family TV, careful to avoid too many controversial allusions to sexuality. In order to cater to their purported core audience, the writers used the stereotypical TV “babe” character: a young and beautiful woman on whom straight teenage boys could fixate their hormones (note to nerdy straight guys: you are lying if you are pretending you did not crush hard on Borg escapee Seven of Nine). Except for a couple of instances of alien transgender episodes treated more as farce than anything else, the later shows stayed as far as possible from LGBT issues or characters, let alone more fluid and current portrayals of sexuality. This is particularly jarring, not to mention inconsistent, given the Star Trek universe’s foundation of enlightened tolerance. To this day it remains Trek’s greatest blind spot.
Underneath their seemingly straight-laced no-homo surface, shows like Next Generation and Deep Space 9 nevertheless hinted at the potential powers of virtual environments to provide for sexual escapades. Several episodes involved romance with virtual holographic characters, as well as addiction to the AI-generated artificial paradise of the ships’ holodecks. In addition, the amazing pleasure planet Risa loomed large in both series: a climate-controlled tropical heaven whose inhabitants’ main profession in life consists of offering sexual favors to visitors for free. This may sound too good to be true yet it is highly logical within the parameters of the Star Trek universe. As we all know, there is no money in Trek’s 24th century and therefore no prostitution or alienated sexual labor, only felicitous and satiating gift exchange. Holodecks notwithstanding, even in Star Trek’s amazing future there ain’t nothing like the real thing.
Sex in Star Trek also became an obsession of the early fans of the series.Trek’s vaunted fandom arose around fan fiction depicting relationships between members of the Enterprise’s crew (on that topic, see Henry Jenkins’ amazing book Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture). Throughout the 70s, a great deal of ink in fanzines was spilled over Captain Kirk and Spock’s romance. It is worth remembering that at its beginning, Trek fandom was mostly female and queer. That is in part where the “trekkie” moniker came from, a patronizing porte-manteau of “Trek” and “groupie” coined by the show’s (male) writers and actors.
I asked Will Stape to tell us more about his book. The following conversation was edited for clarity and for length (but barely!).
Fusion: How did your book come about?
Will Stape: I’d written dozens of articles on Star Trek for magazines and websites. I did a lot of podcasts of my own and co-hosted podcasts of sci-fi sites. I’d exhausted most every Trek idea and angle imaginable, and then 50 Shades Of Grey came out, and I’d previously penned a few pieces on ‘naughty’ Trek sexuality. That’s what made it all basically click to tackle Star Trek Sex as a book. Bearmanor Media, my publisher, is known for publishing works which aren’t quite mainstream, so it was a great fit for me.
Fusion: Sex and gender play a huge, if heavily coded, role in Star Trek: The Original Series. What do you see as the most groundbreaking part of TOS when it comes to sex?
Will Stape: The overall ‘playful’ atmosphere of TOS works. It’s what I tried to capture in Star Trek Sex. TOS was born in the 1960’s, and though there was still heavy censor control and sponsor pressure, shows were breaking out of the old too-safe mold. The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Hawaii Five-O and Mission Impossible were all hip, late 1960’s shows which showcased a more modern and even sexier vibe. I’d put Star Trek firmly into the same group. Interestingly, Hawaii Five-O and Mission Impossible were reborn too and are thriving as a new TV show and film series respectively.
Being playful may not sound groundbreaking, but the whole notion of main characters and guest stars being obviously flirtatious or outright coupling just wasn’t something depicted regularly, or maturely, on American TV before that. You had the 1950’s with Lucy and Ricky Ricardo having to sleep in twin beds – flash forward to Kirk kissing Uhura in the famous interracial kiss or Kirk body swapping with his old flame in the mind/body swapping episode, Turnabout Intruder. That’s taking chances. That episode gets a bad rap because people feel William Shatner is acting too effeminately, but if you look at how subtle and complex many scenes are, it’s worth revisiting as one of the first explorations of transgender depiction – albeit clumsy and at the engineering of alien technology, yet it still gives us the sense of one being trapped in the opposite gender’s body.
Fusion: In the same vein, what is your take on the depiction of gender roles in TOS. Is there a gender-based division of labor on the old Enterprise bridge?
Will Stape: There’s no getting around the fact that Lt. Uhura, while fully capable and professional, was basically the telephone operator. That said, a communications officer/expert – what have you – is an important part of any organization – fictional or not. Could she have been an Ops or Conn officer? Sure. However, as fans know with the pilot, The Cage, the first incarnation of Trek showed Captain Pike with a female First Officer in the enigmatic Number One – played by Gene Roddenberry’s future wife, Majel Barrett. So an attempt was made even before the show aired or finalized to have more women in more responsible positions.
If you look at many guest stars like Diana Muldaur playing Dr. Miranda Jones in Is There In Truth No Beauty or Sally Kellerman as Dr. Elizabeth Dehner in Where No Man Has Gone Before, both were playing highly capable psychologists. They were medical experts, scientists essentially, so there was definitely an attempt to have women in important roles as much as possible.
Fusion: What about sex among aliens, in particular the Vulcan mating ritual called Ponn-Farr: is sex illogical? Can Vulcans ever experience love? Orgasm?
Will Stape: If you examine the wonderful episode Amok Time – where Spock goes into ‘heat’ – introducing us to the Vulcan Ponn-Farr or Time of Mating, you have a fascinating depiction of an alien biological difference, though one human beings can relate to say with a pet dog or cat going into heat. Or, if we’re very honest with ourselves, any human being can become so detached from physical contact or lacking sexual expression and outlets in life, they may find themselves ‘climbing the walls’ in search of a mate. That’s what’s so fun and compelling about Spock’s predicament. It’s classic Trek storytelling – it’s sort of alien and weird, yet we can relate to it on some human, realistic level.
As to the logical nature or dimension of sex – that’s up to Vulcans to ponder. I know later incarnations like Voyager with Tuvok and a young Vulcan on board Captain Janeway’s ship dealt with Pon-Farr, but as to the intricacies, again, that’s best left to a Vulcan Dr. Ruth!
Do Vulcans love? Oh, I think it’s easy to affirm. Sarek and Amanda – Spock’s parents – the famed ambassador played by actor Mark Lenard loved his human wife, played by Jane Wyatt. Even in the real world, more and more, animal behavioral experts are learning in many species there’s a strong bonding between them. Is it love? Is it a purely biological drive, which ultimately offers the ones who follow it better survival by coupling up? Is it more logical to bond in a loving way than to not? I’d say yes.
Fusion: If Vulcans stand for stoicism, what do their mating rituals say about Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s idealism?
Will Stape: In a larger sense, that episode focuses on how Vulcans represent the ‘logical’ side of humanity – the intellectual control.
Do Vulcans gain all of their legendary control and logical mental skills through the suppressing of their raging sexual drives? Are they like the classic boxer who when training for a big fight is forbidden to indulge in romantic relations? Does giving in to sexual desires drain one of mental energy or control?
One can make the argument that sexuality actually increases our dynamic mind – our creativity in say music, the arts – etc. Of course the Vulcans nearly ripped their society apart from constant wars and conflict. So it was cold turkey for them, I guess. Still, the notion of keeping a lid on your libido for 7 long years, and then going a bit wild – VULCANS GONE WILD! – is not only fascinating, but makes for great story stuff.
Fusion: Star Trek was released at a time of great changes in social mores. To what extent does it reflect the sexual liberation and feminist movements of the times.
Will Stape: You had a show depicting women as more or less equals. Yes, Lt. Uhura wasn’t Captain, nor Chief Engineer, but her position as head of communications was central in many instances. Nurse Chapel and Yeoman Rand were there too. As I pointed out earlier, female guest stars were scientists and planetary leaders. Now while those strides could have been more advanced for women, it was worlds better than say Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers where women were little more than pretty ornaments being passed around to the male leads.
I’d say in sci-fi – you even still see it today with comic book movies – there’s a tendency to create more of a male dominated universe. In both Marvel and DC, there are scores of male players – and one or two women leads sprinkled throughout. Star Wars is supremely male dominated, with Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia as one bright, shining hope, and Natalie Portman in the prequels. The Force Awakens apparently is adding more women to the equation – that’s so great.
Fusion: Which is your favorite episode of TOS on the theme of sex, and why?
Will Stape: For classic, unapologetic romance, it has to be City On The Edge Of Forever. Joan Collins makes a classy and sexy guest star – she’s always true to her character, yet flirtatious enough and sexual enough to make it so memorable. Kirk’s had many woman. He’ll have many more, but we’ll never forget Ms. Keeler and the promise of what could have been.
For pure sexuality, Susan Oliver’s Vina or Orion Slave Girl can’t be bested. In The Cage, and then recycled footage for The Menagerie, both the depicted sexuality and the suggested eroticism is mind blowing. The Talosians are basically going to breed Pike and Vina to have as many human ‘toys’ as possible so they can indulge in fantasies. To achieve this, their fantasy and illusory scenarios strike as daring and erotic. The centerpiece of it all is Vina’s extraordinary dance for Pike and the horny men assembled. They encourage him. As Pike looks ready to explode in both fear and ecstasy – one even says, ‘Wouldn’t you say it was worth a man’s soul?’ It’s a heady mixture of erotic imagery, voyeurism and Pike’s numbing fear that he may finally be succumbing to the alien’s sexual seduction. The pilot still stands up as one of the most exotic displays of sexuality and sexual implications ever broadcast on TV.
Fusion: Why so little sex in the shows that came after The Original Series? Aside from the occasional Jamaharon and Klingon bone crushing, sex seems to be the province of the lecherous Ferengis (themselves oversexualized caricatures).
Will Stape: I think it became too safe. It not only pulled back from any depiction of controversial sexuality, but narratively it sort of recycled themes. Trek become so important and profitable, a kind of by the numbers milieu set in on the shows.
Trek was born on a traditional network, but was experimental enough, and from many reports back then, so confusing to network brass, they left Roddenberry and [ed. note: Trek producer] Gene Coon mostly alone. With the success of Next Generation, I think there was a real effort to be more mainstream.
On DS9, there was a kind of throwback to old Trek. My first in-person pitch, after writing for TNG and DS9, was at Paramount Pictures with Jeri Taylor, Voyager’s show runner. We met only a few months after Caretaker, the pilot, aired on UPN. During our meeting, I made a humorous reference to DS9, she laughed and said, ‘We leave the boys up there alone,’ and she pointed up. Reportedly DS9, in large part, wasn’t as scrutinized by studio brass because it wasn’t the flagship show and the very public face of UPN. Besides, DS9 was serialized. If you were a suit and wanted to give a blistering critique, you’d better have watched ALL the episodes to offer up something sensical.
Yes, Ferengi are basically caricatures, however they helped promote a sexual playfulness. The Dabo girls and the holosuites hearkened back to a 1960’s classic Trek of free love and sensuality on display. While it’s possible Starfleet may have frowned on certain extracurricular activities of its officers, it’s certain Quark could always accommodate the more exotic flavors of one’s desires.
Fusion: As a Trek writer, how do you view the bizarre heteronormativity of the later series? For all its daring, Star Trek never had an openly gay character. It was always very straight, when not downright dorky. I mean, I love the female borg character of 7 of 9 as anybody else, but still…
Will Stape: With Voyager – just to go there first as one of the prime examples of bloodless Trek sexuality – you had a lot going on behind the scenes.
You had the first Star Trek series to be fully led by a female Captain. You had the formation of UPN – United Paramount Network – Paramount’s attempt at creating another TV network. These powerful influences and micromanaging and corporate shepherding combined with the fledgling growing pains of an embryonic network had to have played a role in the ‘safe’ sex we got on Voyager. Ultimately, it got pretty ridiculous. We saw the crew having relations with holodeck-born holographic characters. Now one can argue this is a safe exercise – the ultimate in both safe sex from a disease standpoint and an emotionally safe one as well. Best of all: You can ‘delete’ your partner or ‘tweak’ them if things go awry romantically. However, in a purely fun fan way or human relatable fashion, seeing favorite show regulars party down with computer-generated light-puppets seems beyond bizarre to me.
On Next Generation there was Lt. Barclay and Geordi LaForge—both men diehard holographic honey fans. Great. We get it. In fact, there’s no way that when such technology is finally produced, and it seems we’re closer all the time, that people won’t engage in VR sexual play. Perhaps it can be argued over such a long course of a deep space journey which Voyager was forced to endure, holographic playmates would be ideal, even preferable, but narratively it can become safe, flabby and even offensive. Robert Picardo as the holographic Doc tried to go the other way—a digital creation trying to woo 7of9, and we all know how that turned out…
Finally, if you look at Next Generation – in the first two or three seasons – there was a real attempt to cultivate some of the pioneering sexuality of classic Trek. One example which stands out in my mind is Up The Long Ladder. It’s a fun romp about a backwards culture having to ally with a culture which has dispensed with physical sex for cloning. The guest star is Rosalyn Landor who catches the eye of Commander Will Riker. Their romance, though brief, is both classy and memorable – thanks in large part to the stunning Ms. Landor’s beauty and acting talent.