‘Star Trek: The Original Series’ Revisited: “The Galileo Seven”

The Galileo Seven is a tight action/horror thriller which cleverly explores and scrambles the show’s consistent obsessions with colonialism, rationality, and racial difference. Like What Are Little Girls Made Of?, it is in some ways a riff on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. It’s also in some ways a nod to the contemporary war in Vietnam, making it a Star Trek version of Apocalypse Now more than a decade before that movie was released.

The Enterprise has been ordered to deliver medicine to stem a pandemic on Markus III. En route they stop to study a quasar-like formation; science officer Spock (Leonard Nimoy) commands a shuttle-craft crew gathering data. The shuttle, Galileo, is pulled off course and crash-lands on the planet Taurus II. Engineer Scott (James Doohan) rushes to repair the ship while the rest of the crew is assaulted by giant humanoid apes with enormous spears (conveniently shrouded in mist so you don’t see how chintzy the special effects are.) Meanwhile, on the Enterprise, the quasar’s radiation has damaged sensors, so Captain Kirk (William Shatner) searches blindly and desperately for the missing crew while Commissioner Ferris (John Crawford) insists they leave in two days and not a second later so they can deliver the medicine on time.

The encounter between the shuttle crew and the stone-age apes is a classic colonial conflict; the looming creatures are framed as cunning but savage, hairy, and violent. They attack immediately and without reason. The dramatic scene where one hurls a truly enormous spear through Lt. Latimer (Rees Vaughn) and is answered with useless phaser fire foreshadows the bow-and-arrow attack on the gun-toting Americans in Apocalypse Now. In reality, Vietnam was heavily urbanized in the 60s, but the trope insists that colonists who enter the colonies fall back in time into a primitive, atavistic, dangerous past.

The contrast between civilized Federation and stone-age natives is made all the starker because the logical Vulcan Mr. Spock is the senior officer on the shuttle-craft. Spock, in his first command, approaches every decision rationally, without emotion. Trapped on the planet, with little fuel left, he calmly announces that they will need to leave two or three crew members of the seven on the shuttle-craft behind if they are to lift off. After Latimer dies, he refuses to say a few words over his grave, since he is needed to make repairs and time is running out. He also insists that they do not need to shoot the Taurus natives, but can simply fire near them to scare them off. He counts on the Taurus creatures reacting rationally—with tragic consequences for Lt. Gaetano (Peter Marko.)

The other crew members are understandably upset at this miscalculation. Spock’s dispassionate approach pushes them to near-mutiny. They say Spock has no heart, that he’s a robot, and that he is unfit for command.

All of these comments are more than tinged with xenophobia and racism; the not-subtext is Spock, because he is a Vulcan, is inferior, and doesn’t deserve to be in charge. Lt. Boma (Don Marshall), who is one of the few Black officers we see on the Enterprise, is the most unrelenting. Having a marginalized person lead the charge functions, intentionally or not, as a form of disavowal, denying the parallel between anti-Vulcan workplace harassment and other forms of real-world bigotry.

The problem with Spock, in the view of Boma and the rest of the crew, is that he’s too civilized; he’s not enough like the huge, spear-throwing natives. He would be more effective if he understood the apes better. “Strange. Step by step, I have made the correct and logical decisions. And yet two men have died,” Spock muses. To which Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) replies, “A little less analysis and more action. That’s what we need, Mister Spock.” Or, as Yeoman Mears (Phyllis Douglas) says plaintively, “We could use a little inspiration.”

Inspiration is what Spock gets at the last minute. Scott drains their phasers for fuel and manages to get the shuttle into orbit, but the Enterprise has already started pulling away from the planet; the crew has 45 minutes before The Galileo’s orbit starts to decay. Rather than waiting, Spock impulsively jettisons and ignites their fuel supply as a flare.

This seems like a reasonable move given the lack of other options, but Spock himself, and his crew members, frame it as an irrational gamble, at odds with Spock’s stated commitment to logic. “It may be the last action you’ll ever take, Mister Spock, but it was all human,” McCoy tells him. “Totally illogical,” Spock replies, with an uninflected ruefulness. “There was no chance.” To which McCoy replies with satisfaction, “That’s exactly what I mean.”

In 1967, opposition to the war in Vietnam was growing; Americans were unsure about their role as saviors and as disciplined bearers of order. More, Americans have long liked to see themselves as rugged, impulsive cowboys, the bad boy of global power. America doesn’t pacify and civilize; it liberates.

So in Star Trek’s Americanized version of Heart of Darkness, the colonizer goes into the savage colony and experiences not corruption, but personal growth. It’s like Kurtz got transported into Romancing the Stone. Spock, the overly civilized Vulcan, meets a bunch of big hairy apes and learns from them to get in touch with his own inner “emotional outburst” as Kirk says.

After the distress signal is successful and the shuttle crew is beamed aboard, Kirk and the crew all tease Spock for abandoning his principles of logic. The final scene is the humans gathered around to engage in a round of smug laughter at the expense of the boring stuffed-shirt outsider who needs to learn how to let loose.

It’s telling, though, that there is one moment where Spock abandons logic and the rest of the humans are not so happy about it. When they are on the surface debating whether to shoot the natives, Boma says they should “hit them hard” to discourage further attacks. Spock, though, is “appalled by the low regard you Earthmen have for life.” McCoy points out that Boma’s plan is “logical.” Spock agrees. “It seems logical to me also. But to take life indiscriminately…”

Spock here is not being logical. He is empathetic and compassionate; he cares for the well-being of those who are trying to kill him. That’s the logic of Christ, perhaps, but not of a computer—and not of Cold War colonialism.

Spock acts impulsively at the end of the episode in a way that seems congruent with American swagger and colonial swashbuckling. But before that, he abandons reason to argue against a rationale of kill or be killed, conquer or be conquered. For a moment, the episode suggests that the main question when people encounter one another is not who is more primal and who is more logical, but rather how you treat one another. Then the crew blasts away from that insight, flying back to a safer, more familiar adventure.

Rating: 8.8/10

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Image Credit: Desilu Productions.

Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.