Star Trek, the Politburo, and the Power of Irony
Back in June of 1987, as the Cold War was winding down, the World Wildlife Fund and Paramount Pictures organised a public screening of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home in Moscow to celebrate the Politburo’s recent decision to ban all commercial whaling activities. It was the first time a Star Trek film had been shown in a Soviet cinema, and in deference to the occasion, Leonard Nimoy, who played Spock, and Harve Bennett, the film’s producer, decided to hop on a plane and make an appearance.
As the opening credits began to roll, and Leonard Roseman’s score faded in, nobody, from the gathered Muscovites to the organisers, was quite sure what to expect. Star Trek is, after all, a peculiarly American cultural phenomenon. Indeed, when its creator, Gene Roddenberry, first pitched it to studio executives in the mid-1960s, he referred to it as “Wagon Train to the Stars”—in other words, a Western in space. Fortunately, any fears that William Shatner and company would get lost in translation were quickly forgotten as the audience reacted “in the same way [they] did in the United States.”
Towards the end of the film, Captain Kirk and his intrepid crew are packed into a small shuttlecraft, en route to their new starship. While Scotty and Sulu argue over the merits of the fleet’s latest heavy cruiser, the U.S.S. Excelsior, Dr. McCoy mumbles in his usual gruff manner that “the bureaucratic mentality is the only constant in the universe; we’ll get a freighter.” This line, as Bennett was fond of recounting, prompted an outpouring of genuine belly laughter from the Russian audience, many of whom jumped to their feet and applauded the good doctor’s insight.
I can’t help but feel that this was the moment when the whole edifice began to crumble under the weight of its own contradictions. OK, maybe that’s a tad dramatic, but if David Hasselhoff can lay claim to a small part in the dissolution of international communism, then I think it’s only fair that Shatner gets some credit too.