It’s the Fourth of July and, while Captain Jean-Luc Picard may ask everyone how they will spend their Bastille Day, for those in the United States it’s a time to celebrate American Independence. Now what does the American holiday of fireworks, hot dogs, and John Philip Sousa music have to do with Star Trek? It’s not like there was ever a July 4th episode.
…oh, but there was. Unfortunately.
Yes, I’m talking about the Original Series second season episode “The Omega Glory.” Despite airing in March of 1968, it has more American patriotism than Uncle Sam on a date with Betsy Ross. For those who have had the good fortune to miss this one, here’s a summary:
The Enterprise discovers the USS Exeter in orbit around Omega IV. The crew is revealed to have died except for the captain, who remains on the planet. Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and Unlucky Red Shirt #12 beam down to the planet and find Prime Directive-violating Captain Ronald Tracey. He has made friends with the “Kohms,” an “Asiatic” group in conflict with the savage Aryan “Yangs.” Tracey believe he has found a “Fountain of Youth” with the planet’s population, but it turns out it’s just evolution/natural selection following a devastating war with biological weapons. It turns out that his crew would have lived if they had stayed on the planet a bit longer. Kirk and Co. eventually discover that the Yangs and Kohms are parallels to the “Yankees” and “Communists” of the 20th Century Earth. The Yangs, after a decisive victory over the Kohms, celebrate by bringing out a tattered U.S. flag, pulling out a Bible, and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance to the American flag.
Cue record scratch noise.
After a few random fights scenes between Kirk and Tracey, Kirk soon triumphs, Tracey is arrested, and the Yang chief pulls out a copy of the U.S. Constitution. Jim next gives a classic Kirkian speech about the power of words, the Constitution, and the good ol’ US of A in general, and the Starfleet crew leave those freedom-loving Yangs to begin living out the words of that foundational American document. The camera slow pans to the Star Spangled Banner hanging in the corner and credits roll.
To say that this is a problematic episode is understatement at its best. Is it the explicit racism? The cultural appropriation of American Indigenous People? Is it literally cloaking this episode in the flag and Bible? All that and much more.
However, despite the strong urge to pretend this episode never existed, it does speak to American patriotism. This episode (wildly unsuccessfully?) attempts to show those patriotic ideals as a source for inspiration and social improvement. The Yang people try to kill Kirk until he mentions their “worship word”: Freedom. This universal concept unites these aliens, just as it does all countries, societies, and groups who have yelled it as a battle cry for liberation, recognition, and rights. Near the end of the episode, viewers are reminded again about the power of words in Kirk’s final speech:
“Hear me! Hear this! Among my people, we carry many such words as this from many lands, many worlds. Many are equally good and are as well respected, but wherever we have gone, no words have said this thing of importance in quite this way. Look at these three words written larger than the rest, with a special pride never written before or since. Tall words proudly saying We the People. That which you call Ee’d Plebnista was not written for the chiefs or the kings or the warriors or the rich and powerful, but for all the people! Down the centuries, you have slurred the meaning of the words, ‘We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this constitution.’ These words and the words that follow were not written only for the Yangs, but for the Kohms as well!”
Corny, yes. Overblown, yes. Oversimplified, yes. But the notion that the ideals of liberty and inclusiveness are not just for “leaders” but are for the whole group and not just one group, but for all, does bring a slight red, white, and blue tear to my eye. However, I echo Captain Kirk – these can’t just be words.
I realize history nerds such as myself know that the Fourth of July is not about the U.S. Constitution, but is in fact celebrating the American Declaration of Independence. That’s true, despite my Hamiltonian dislike of Thomas Jefferson. The promises of the Declaration are what the “oohs” and “aahs” of the fireworks are supposed to inspire.
But the American words of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution have to mean something beyond the 18th Century parchment they were written on.
A great man was once asked his opinion on these American “worship words” and how they should best be celebrated. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who served on the court from 1967 to 1991 and died in 1993, was asked his thoughts on the occasion of the U.S. Constitution’s bicentennial celebration. Justice Marshall, the first African-American to serve on the high court, gave his “Reflections on the Bicentennial of the United States Constitution,” and it deserves to be read in its entirety. But some sections deserve highlighting, including his response to good-meaning people who asked him to join in celebrations taking part across the United States:
“I cannot accept this invitation, for I do not believe that the meaning of the Constitution was forever ‘fixed’ at the Philadelphia Convention. Nor do I find the wisdom, foresight, and sense of justice exhibited by the framers particularly profound. To the contrary, the government they devised was defective from the start, requiring several amendments, a civil war, and momentous social transformation to attain the system of constitutional government, and its respect for the individual freedoms and human rights, that we hold as fundamental today. When contemporary Americans cite ‘The Constitution,’ they invoke a concept that is vastly different from what the framers barely began to construct two centuries ago.”
These are shocking words for those Americans who just wish to watch a parade and have a backyard barbecue on Independence Day, but perhaps even more so coming from a sitting Supreme Court justice. However this man, who served as legal counsel for the NAACP and argued the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education (striking down the legality of racially segregated schools), did not stop at this castigation of American’s celebration of their origins. Justice Marshall continued his critique of the original Constitution:
“Despite this clear understanding of the role slavery would play in the new republic, use of the words ‘slaves’ and ‘slavery’ was carefully avoided in the original document. Political representation in the lower House of Congress was to be based on the population of ‘free Persons’ in each state, plus three-fifths of all ‘other Persons.’ Moral principles against slavery, for those who had them, were compromised, with no explanation of the conflicting principles for which the American Revolutionary War had ostensibly been fought: the self-evident truths ‘that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’”
The worship words “We the People,” “equality,” and “liberty” are ephemeral to those in the United States and beyond who have never felt their meaning. Justice Marshall’s is just one voice which tells us to make sure that the words, meanings, and ideals are not just kept in a musty box or only kept for one people.
“The Omega Glory” may never be a fan favorite (nor should it be!), but it’s a reminder that striving for “freedom” should unite us all into striving for the the promise of a better, Star Trek-type future