The Magnificent Three: A look back at Star Trek's Western-themed episodes

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Sep 23, 2016, 7:43 AM EDT

Star Trek has always been fixated on the dignified ethos of exploration and an ideal advancement of the human condition. However, an occasional break is needed from all of that high-mindedness. Thus, Starfleet’s finest are often put into bizarre, sometimes undignified scenarios that tend to ring familiar to the audience. However, what better way can a stressed starship crew unwind than by solving rootin'-tootin' interplanetary mysteries sipping whisky and sarsaparilla while embarrassing an aggressive extraterrestrial yellow-belly in a Western scenario?

Therefore, with director Antoine Fuqua’s ambitious, superbly cast-stacked reimagining of the Kurosawa-influenced 1960 Western ensemble classic The Magnificent Seven hitting theaters this weekend and September being Star Trek Month here at Blastr, we thought it would be a good time to revisit the handful of Western-themed Star Trek episodes.

Interestingly, the themes are not all that dissimilar; Gene Roddenberry originally envisioned Star Trek with the Western-themed title Wagon Train to the Stars. Yet, surprisingly enough, across the 50-year Star Trek franchise’s five existing television iterations (six, counting The Animated Series) and thirteen films, the once-ubiquitous Western genre has only been given proper tribute with three episodes, thankfully all classics.


Spectre of the Gun – Star Trek: The Original Series

Season 3, Episode 6

First Aired: October 25, 1968

The Plot:

Captain Kirk ignores a warning message, taking the Enterprise into space belonging the reclusive (and powerful) species the Melkotians. Accordingly, due to an innate ability of the Melkotians Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty and Chekov instantaneously find themselves on a desolate, mysterious red sky world in a makeshift town resembling Tombstone, Arizona on October 26, 1881, specifically, the date of the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral. – Looks like somebody’s destined to be someone’s huckleberry!

The Melkotian mischief puts our Enterprise abductees into the position of having to role-play as members of the ill-fated outlaws of the famous gunfight. Pit opposite manifestations of the Earp family and Doc Holliday, Kirk and company seem to be on a fateful collision course towards losing a famous battle in historically deadly fashion. However, verisimilitude is taking a backseat in this recreation when Chekov – designated as the gunfight-surviving Billy Claiborne – gets shot and killed by Morgan Earp (an obviously temporary death in hindsight).

Thus, the ball then firmly falls in the court of Kirk, Spock, McCoy and Scotty to figure out the nature of this extraterrestrial experiment before a fateful 5:01 pm.

Between the Lines:

Star Trek’s inaugural visit to the Old West in “Spectre of the Gun” carries thematic undertones quite familiar to the esteemed space lore with a powerful alien race injecting a bit of humility into our Starfleet crew, testing them at the height of a moment of hubris or folly (See “The Corbomite Maneuver,” “Arena,” or “Errand of Mercy.”). In this case, the consequence of Kirk’s hubris – this time at the hands of the Melkotians – took the form of an apocryphal Old West scenario, drawn from Kirk’s imagination in a similarly accidental subconscious manner to the way Ray “chose” the form of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in Ghostbusters.

The Melkotians’ mental illusion was designed to determine if Humans (plus one Vulcan,) were capable of the oft-referenced advanced trait of mercy before opening relations. The episode’s draping of that familiar premise with the skin of a Western theme reflects the Melkotians’ superficial perception of humanity which, based on a snapshot from Kirk’s mind possibly influenced by Old West films and shows, depicted a race coming from bellicose brutality whose true nature needed to be weighed. This carried additional contemporaneous meaning, since the Western was still quite a prevalent genre in the 1960’s when the episode aired. 


A Fistful of Datas – Star Trek: The Next Generation

Season 6, Episode 8

First Aired: November 7, 1992

The Plot:

A moment of rare respite for the Enterprise D crew forces Worf to reluctantly capitulate to his son Alexander’s wish to join him in a holodeck historical program (partly created by the formerly Holodeck-addicted Lt. Barclay,) set in, as they refer to it in the 24th century, “The Ancient West.” However, unbeknownst to them, Data and Geordi LaForge were using their free time with a workaround for the ship’s computers that would turn Data’s positronic brain into a makeshift backup system during emergencies.

Alexander watches the hilarious process as his proud Klingon warrior father slowly starts to embrace the program in which they – later joined by Counselor Troi, aka, “Durango” – play small town sheriffs in a cat-and-mouse engagement with outlaw Eli Hollander and his gang. However, Data and LaForge’s memory interface yields unforeseen consequences. The errors culminate in the corruption of Worf and Alexander’s running program, disabling the safety protocols and creating a ruthless version of the Hollander patriarch Frank Hollander who looks like Data and possesses his android strength, reflexes and durability. Of course, they can’t end the program or leave!

Consequently, Sheriff Worf, Deputy Alexander and Durango Troi are stuck in a deadly Old...err, Ancient West scenario with a supremely ruthless and virtually unstoppable villain who is playing for keeps!

Between the Lines:

While “A Fistful of Datas” showcases a potentially deadly crisis for Worf, Troi and young Alexander, it rarely abandons its lighthearted tone, even at the height of mortal danger. The episode detour was designed to strengthen the bond between Worf and the newfound son he was left to raise in Alexander. While they’ve always engaged in a contentious father-son dynamic almost akin the Wild West showdowns to which the episode pays homage, their struggle, itself, seemed to be personified in the setting.

However, unlike in “Spectre of the Gun,” or as you’ll further read in “North Star,” “A Fistful of Datas” carries a clear romanticism for the Western genre, as demonstrated in Alexander’s unwavering enthusiasm for the holodeck program and later with Worf coming to respect the nature of this specific piece of humanity’s barbaric past where all one needed was a reliable revolver and some swagger to get ahead in the world. It’s something that, as Worf comes to realize, shares significant attributes with his own warrior culture, possibly creating a newfound respect for humanity, at least from a Klingon’s perspective.


North Star – Star Trek: Enterprise

Season 3, Episode 9

First Aired: November 12, 2003

The Plot:

Captain Archer’s Enterprise take a brief break from their pursuit of the timeline-altering alliance of the Xindi within the anomaly-strewn Delphic Expanse when they discover a planet mysteriously inhabited by Humans living in an Old West-style settlement. The place is filled with all the proper rustic tumbleweed-teeming aesthetics, with even a rotgut-schlepping saloon to boot. Disguised in appropriate attire with a story of coming from the “North,” Archer, T’Pol and Tucker investigate the humble hamlet. 

After running into trouble with irascible bully Deputy Sheriff Bennings, the crew meet rebellious school teacher Bethany, who reveals that the humans in the settlement were descendants of enslaved abductees taken from Earth in the 1860’s by a species called the Skagarans. However, apropos to what occurred in America during their decade, the slaves won their freedom in a revolt and made a life for themselves on the wayward planet. However, as centuries passed in the progress-frozen Old West town, the humans overdrew the indignation accrued by their ancestors’ ordeal, gravely mistreating the innocent current generation of Skagarans (mockingly called “Skags”), often lynching them with impunity.

While Enterprise took place in an era when there was no existing Prime Directive to ignore, Archer and company nevertheless find themselves problematically drawn into a violent conflict with the corrupt Deputy Bennings and his stooges, despite the wishes of the seemingly reasonable Sheriff MacReady.

Between the Lines:

From a technical standpoint, “North Star” is the only one of the three existing Western-themed Star Trek episodes rooted in reality, rather than an alien illusion or Holodeck fantasy. Consequently, the implications for the Enterprise crew were also uniquely real, with the episode presenting an intriguing set of moral dilemmas. While the 1860s humans were victims of an egregious crime, corrupt members of their progeny centuries later used said crime as an excuse for self-aggrandizement and oppression against the innocent.

“North Star” illustrates the dangers of embracing vengeance as if it were a tangibly sacred generational heirloom in lieu of more constructive things like curiosity and knowledge. Indeed, it’s no accident that the town that literally made no technological advances in centuries banned the teaching of Skagaran children, lest they revolt and usurp the humans’ misbegotten superiority complex. However, as we’ve seen somewhat derisively in “Spectre of the Gun” and somewhat romantically in “A Fistful of Datas,” the unforgiving brutality of the Old West tends to magnify a proclivity for darkness not exclusively innate to anyone, be it Human or Skagaran. – On an equally poignant note: Bennings was a d***.