Fifty years ago, Gene Roddenberry launched a sci-fi series on the TV that aspired to be a little more intelligent and adventurous than the primetime fare of that era. It took a while to catch on, but Star Trek has become a cultural phenomenon, with a multitude of series and sequels over the years (and with a new TV series scheduled to launch in 2017). As Mr. Spock would say, “There are always possibilities,” and at its best, Trek celebrates what humankind can become, and the infinite possibilities that await us as we explore the stars.
Anyone with even a passing knowledge of Star Trek can’t help but notice the parallels between the U.S. Navy and the United Federation of Planets, right down to the ranks, fleet structure, and general military discipline (Roddenberry himself flew in the Army Air Forces in World War II). And of course, we can’t fail to mention the grand starship of Star Trek lore, the USS Enterprise, which itself is a tribute to the Navy’s own aircraft carrier, the USS Enterprise. Given all the military background, it’s not so surprising that our armed forces have shown up in the Star Trek universe from time to time. Take a trip down memory lane with us (or should that be Memory Alpha?) as we look at the most notable appearances of the U.S. military in Star Trek:
1. Where Are the “Nuclear Wessels”?
Arguably the most light-hearted (and financially successful) of all the Trek movies, Star Trek IV finds the crew of the USS Enterprise going back in time to present-day San Francisco, circa 1986, to abduct a pair of humpback whales in order to save Earth in the future (it’s complicated). Talk about a “fish out of water” scenario, and nothing would have been more out of place in 1986 than the sight of the very Russian Commander Chekov querying passersby about the location of the USS Enterprise aircraft carrier (most of the reactions in this scene are genuine — the actors went up to innocent passersby on the street). Chekov eventually finds himself aboard the Enterprise, where he steals energy from the ship’s nuclear reactor to help the crew accomplish their mission — but not until he himself gets captured and receives a good grilling from the Feds.
2. Air Force Pilot: First Man to Leave Earth Orbit
In the episode “Tomorrow is Yesterday,” from the first season of the original Star Trek series, the Enterprise makes an unscheduled time jump back to 1966, and inadvertently changes history by beaming aboard Air Force pilot John Christopher. Thanks to some time-space mumbo jumbo and an infiltration of an air base to commandeer surveillance footage, all is set right in the end. At least Captain Christopher gets to take a trip around the sun before he departs, non-officially becoming the first human to accomplish the feat.
3. “Little Green Men”
Deep Space 9 didn’t get to go back in time as often as the original Star Trek series, but when it did the results were predictably hilarious, as our favorite Ferengi schemer Quark, his brother Rom, and his nephew Nog crash land their shuttle in 1947 Roswell, New Mexico, only to get an unwelcome reception from the Army Air Corps. Mistaken for “Martians,” they’re quickly imprisoned, but fortunately a sympathetic nurse helps them escape, although their appearance only adds to the growing legends of UFOs around Roswell… It should be noted that the writers of the episode made an error by referring to the “U.S. Army Air Corps,” since the group had been renamed as the “U.S. Army Air Forces” by 1947.
4. “A Few Good Men”
Leave it to the snide, condescending super-being Q from Star Trek: The Next Generation to commit an act of stolen valor, as he appropriates the costume and mannerisms of a U.S. Marine in order to taunt Captain Picard in the very first episode of the series, “Encounter at Farpoint.” The scene is emblematic of Gene Roddenberry’s sometimes Utopian view of the future, as Picard notes that “Even when we wore costumes like that, we were already starting to make rapid progress.”