Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is a pop-culture classic, a romp with our old friends as they try and navigate the perils and dangers of 1980s Earth. And, if you’re putting together your own Earth Day Star Trek marathon, it’s definitely on the list for its “feel-good” story which follows Kirk and his crew as they warp back in time from the 23rd Century to the time of Duran Duran and ankle pants in order to bring back two humpback whales.
Yet it shows us that — at least in Earth’s case — despite our advances, we can’t escape a chequered past of environmental destruction and habitat loss. The Earth of Star Trek’s present has no humpback whales — the species went extinct.
While The Voyage Home may be the most famous Star Trek adventure when it comes to the plight of endangered species, it was by no means the first. Star Trek’s history of discussing extinction and the environment goes all the way back to near the beginning — that is, September of 1966. The villain of “The Man Trap” was a shape-shifting creature, the last of its kind.
It was not a wholly sympathetic portrayal. The monster is a salt-sucking killer. Spock, who will later become the analytical, moral conscience of the show, demands that the creature be killed during the episode’s climax — as the beast prepares to attack Captain Kirk.
There is some food (or salt) for thought. The archaeologist, Dr. Crater — who had been living with the “monster” — acts as the conscience of the episode, comparing the creature to the passenger pigeon or the American buffalo. “The last of its kind.” Crater tells Kirk that the creature has a right to survive. But Dr. Crater dies pretty badly — so much for altruism!
Star Trek’s second go-round with endangered species was wildly different; “The Devil in the Dark” set a standard for how Star Trek would deal with environmental issues through the decades.
“The Devil in the Dark” aired in early March, 1967, nearly six years after the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) was formed in Switzerland. The WWF was founded on the principles of the Morges Manifesto, which stated: “All over the world today, vast numbers of fine and harmless wild creatures are losing their lives, or their homes, in an orgy of thoughtless and needless destruction.”
The Horta, the, ahem, “villain” of the episode, is anything but harmless. The first half of “The Devil in the Dark” plays out like a pulp horror comic. Miners on Janus IV are burned to the point where all that’s left of them are hissing outlines of their bodies. For the first 30 minutes, there isn’t a giant philosophical leap from “The Man Trap.” It’s man vs. monster.
But, as the episode progresses, we move from horror to a complex morality play. The Horta is not a monster that kills for sport; it’s an endangered native species, wrestling with the alien miners who have invaded her habitat. Her eggs are smashed or taken as trophies by miners who simply see them as novelties. Her battle with the miners is simply a case of a mother protecting her children. And not until Spock — who so badly wanted to slay the monster in “The Man Trap” — communicates with the creature, do we realize there is a way for the miners and the Horta to co-exist. The Horta may not be harmless, but it is indeed, to quote the Morges Manifesto, a “fine” wild creature that was a victim of “thoughtless and needless destruction.”
We learn in Discovery’s first season that the Federation has not only the Prime Directive, but the Endangered Species Act, which compels Starfleet crews to protect threatened creatures, or possibly face court martial. The signatories of the Morges Manifesto would have been proud, right? But, before and after the signing of the Endangered Species Act, captains, crews and rogues have wrestled with morality when it comes to protecting habitats and the environment.
We’ve added “The Devil in the Dark” to your Earth Day playlist — here’s a few others to consider:
Enterprise’s “Rogue Planet” aired nearly 35 years after “The Devil in the Dark,” but, in terms of the Star Trek timeline, Captain Archer’s crew dealt with a Morges Manifesto-like question a little more than 100 years before Captain Kirk sat in the big chair. And, pre-Federation, Archer didn’t have a new Endangered Species Act to guide him.
Captain Archer and his crew encounter a world where the indigenous species is being hunted by the Eska — sport hunters who have developed technology which cancels out the hunted’s natural ability to defend itself. It’s comparable to how hunters on Earth have evolved through generations, going from hunting animals with spears and arrows, to having telescopic sights and high-powered rifles. The game has changed.
Archer can’t simply discount the Eska way of life. There’s a recognition that with hunting comes a lot of moral grey area, and, just as on 21st-century Earth, cultural issues come into play throughout the very enjoyable “Rogue Planet”
"Force of Nature"
Engineer Geordi Laforge is a perfectionist. In the opening scenes of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “Force of Nature,” he obsesses over increasing the efficiency of the Enterprise’s engines – by even fractions of a percentage point.
So, when he’s confronted with the notion that warp drive — the technology that’s his reason for having a Starfleet job in the first place — is slowly destroying a sensitive corridor of space, he’s resistant. “Maybe I was a little threatened,” Geordi confesses to Data.
I live in Alberta, Canada, one of the world’s most oil-rich regions. Our oil sands have pumped billions of dollars into the economy over the decades — but the industry is facing a crisis of conscience. There’s growing international criticism of our environmental record, pipeline projects have been cancelled, and we see a future of electric vehicles and alternative energies — advances that are good for the planet, but force us to think hard about changing our ways, and how we earn our livings. We’ve had to start asking ourselves, how can a “good” person confront doing something that science tells them may be harmful?
In “Force of Nature,” two Hekaran scientists prove that warp drive is in fact putting a 12-light-year-long corridor of sensitive space at risk, including an inhabited planet. The message is overt — warp drive, like the carbon we both mine and utilize today, is slowly damaging the environment. The hurt is gradual, but the effects could very well be irreversible, and it’s how the conundrum weighs on Geordi that makes this hit close to home.
"That Hope Is You"
When we jumped forward to the 32nd Century in Discovery season three, the protection of endangered species is a clandestine operation, conducted by rogues like Cleveland Booker. When we meet him in the season three kick-off two-parter, “That Hope is You,” we see a man who risks his life to save giant trance worms that could easily kill him.
In that way, Booker is so much like Spock from “The Devil in the Dark,” putting his own life at risk in order to communicate with a worm that’s both threatened and dangerous. Like Spock, he can communicate with the creature telepathically.
In the 32nd Century presented in “That Hope is You,” we learn, and can relate to the idea that the fight to protect our natural world, and other natural worlds, will not end anytime soon.
Steven Sandor (he/him) is the editor of Edify Magazine in Edmonton, Canada. He is not to be confused with the late, great Steve Sandor who appeared as a guest star on “The Gamesters of Triskelion.” He is the author of 10 books, the latest being the young-adult novel Easy Out, published by Lorimer. Find him on Twitter @stevensandor
Star Trek: Discovery streams on Paramount+ in the United States, airs on Bell Media’s CTV Sci-Fi Channel and streams on Crave in Canada, and on Netflix in 190 countries.