Star Trek: Messages and Meanings


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Welcome to the home page for my Spring 2019 course in the Collins Living-Learning Center (CLLC) at Indiana University. Feel free to use this page as a portal to all the core components of the syllabus, including the weekly viewings and assignments. However, please remember that the actual course calendar will be subject to change; Canvas is the official source for discussions and announcements.

Course Policies


After over 50 years, Star Trek is still one of the most popular science fiction franchises of all time, with six different series and over a dozen films. More importantly, with its message of peace and progress for the human race, the culture of fandom transcends age, nationality, race, gender, and socioeconomic status. Many people cite Star Trek as the reason for their choice of profession, from actors and directors, to astronauts and electrical engineers. This class is meant to introduce you to Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS) using basic theory from media psychology, ethics and cognitive philosophy, and cultural studies to analyze the science fiction television show from the 1960s. Along the way, we will attempt to understand the phenomenon which has made this series such a popular and enduring franchise. We will ask such questions as:

  • What influenced the creation of Star Trek?
  • How does TOS serve as an allegory for important cultural issues?
  • Why do viewers enjoy watching the ensemble cast and their conflicting perspectives?
  • What is the philosophy of the show, as derived from the themes in the episodes?
  • How does TOS present ethical decisions and their resolutions, and why is this entertaining and enjoyable for viewers?
  • Where does TOS fall short in its attempt to be egalitarian, and why?
  • What is the cultural impact of Star Trek and what do people gain from their affiliation with the show and its ethos?

We will read and view an array of texts, including episodes of the show, scholarly articles from several disciplines, biographies, and documentaries. You will become familiar with the show, but also some fundamental theories of media enjoyment, moral decision-making, ethical philosophy, and fan culture.


This course is an introduction to Star Trek: The Original Series through the lens of cultural studies, media psychology, morality, and ethics, with a focus on understanding what motivated Roddenberry’s vision and how society engages with it. By the end of the semester, you will:

  • Analyze episodes for cultural meaning and significance
  • Debate the morality and ethical philosophy of science fiction
  • Explore the cultural and historical context behind scripts
  • Identify themes across episodes, seasons, and even series
  • Review the production techniques that make the show appealing
  • Experience the impact of Trek through secular sermons and archived documents
  • Practice the ethos of the Federation by working on a group project

Prior exposure to Star Trek or even science fiction is not required for enjoyment or success in this class. Whether you attend conventions in Starfleet uniforms or have just seen Kirk and Spock in the background during family gatherings, this class is suitable for everyone with an interest in how cultural texts can be used to talk about society.

Course Policies


Participation and attendance are not optional; for every student to get the most out of class time, everyone must be in class, prepared, and engaged. Because it is unavoidable that people will miss some class meetings, your first three unexcused absences will not affect your grade. However, your final grade will be lowered by 5% for each subsequent unexcused absence. It’s better to let me know in advance so, whenever possible, please just let me know about anticipated absences—or even last-minute emergencies—and we can adjust accordingly.

Classroom technology

Use of laptops and tablets is appropriate on Meeting 1 to take notes and Meeting 3 to refer to classmates’ reflection posts in order to facilitate discussion, but is otherwise discouraged—and is flat-out not permitted during Meeting 2 viewings.


Deadlines for all assignments are listed below, in the weekly schedule. If you run into a problem, please talk to me in advance and I will grant an extension at my discretion. All readings are to be read for the day they are listed on the syllabus. Please bring all readings to class on the day we will discuss them—it’s easier to discuss them this way.


Reflection posts should have properly formatted in-text citations, but a bibliography is not required if you are only referencing class readings. For papers and presentations, however, complete MLA or APA formatting should be used. In class, I will speak briefly about plagiarism, explaining what it is, why it’s wrong, and what you can do to avoid it—but, seriously, don’t plagiarize, people!

“The Indiana University Code of Student Rights, Responsibilities, and Conduct (2005) indicates that students may be disciplined for several different kinds of academic misconduct. In particular the code states: Plagiarism is defined as presenting someone else’s work, including the work of other students, as one’s own. Any ideas or materials taken from another source for either written or oral use must be fully acknowledged, unless the information is common knowledge. What is considered ‘common knowledge’ may differ from course to course. a. A student must not adopt or reproduce ideas, opinions, theories, formulas, graphics, or pictures of another person without acknowledgment. b. A student must give credit to the originality of others and acknowledge an indebtedness whenever: 1. Directly quoting another person’s actual words, whether oral or written; 2. Using another person’s ideas, opinions, or theories; 3. Paraphrasing the words, ideas, opinions, or theories of others, whether oral or written; 4. Borrowing facts, statistics, or illustrative material; or 5. Offering materials assembled or collected by others in the form of projects or collections without acknowledgment.” (quoted from Code of Student Rights, Responsibilities, and Conduct, Part II, Student Responsibilities, Academic Misconduct)

Writing Tutorial Services

Need one-on-one help with your writing process? Go see a tutor at WTS, located in the Wells Library, or schedule an appointment in advance at They know all the stuff about thesis statements, outlining and drafting, and formatting and style guidelines. Do you?

Religious observances and absences

As the Vulcans preach, “infinite diversity in infinite combinations.” You have a right to observe significant religious events; if this conflicts with our regular meeting schedule, please contact me in advance. You are encouraged to submit assignments early to avoid penalty. However, religious identity or personal values will not exempt any student from participating in class discussions, which might challenge spirituality with secularism.

Students with disabilities

If you have registered with the Office of Disability Services for Students (DSS) and require unique allowances to better succeed in this course, please notify me as soon as possible so we can work together to make sure we have everything you need.

For your mental well-being

If you experience stress, anxiety, depression, or any other difficulties in adjusting to college life, there are campus resources at your disposal—including Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). They offer counseling sessions, psychiatric services, group therapy, and crisis management. Visit them on the fourth floor of the IU Health Center, or call (812) 855 – 5711.

Reporting sexual violence

A subdivision of CAPS, the Sexual Assault Crisis Service (SACS) is a free resource for counseling and consultation, with referrals for legal and medical services. If you have experienced or witnessed sexual or relationship violence or abuse, you should call (812) 855 – 8900 (24/7/365) or visit the fourth floor of the IU Health Center.


If you have any questions about how to read the articles, write posts, earn participation credit, or find additional sources… just ask!

Readings and viewings

Each week, you will be responsible for reading or viewing the texts assigned in the weekly schedule section of this syllabus. Usually, this will be a scholarly article which analyzes the theme exemplified week’s lecture and episode. Articles will be posted on Canvas and I will offer reading suggestions (places to scrutinize or just skim; frames of reference to help consider the given article in the context of course themes). Though we will be watching an episode every week in class, some weeks will have supplemental episodes; projects will also require access to Trek at home. You can watch Star Trek on several different streaming services, including Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Video, and CBS All Access. All are subscription-based services which cost about $10 per month. (In fact, a Student membership to Spotify is $5 a month and comes with free Hulu access.) If you have technical or financial limitations which prevent you from obtaining and using these services, please contact me and we can work to make other arrangements.

PLEASE NOTE: A copy of the Blu-Ray editions will be used for the in-class screenings, so we can watch the episodes with their original special effects. Since this is a class that attempts to situate Star Trek: The Original Series in its contemporary cultural context, this is the recommend way to watch the series. When not being used in class, this copy will be stored in the Collins student library for easy access during the week. The course budget covers this expenditure and affords copies for reserve in the Wells library, if necessary. We can also obtain a set of The Next Generation when we get to that part of the semester, but the remastered versions on streaming services are not significantly different apart from a boost to display resolution.

Reflection post and discussions

Each week, you will read and watch the assigned articles and episodes, respectively. Then, I will lecture on the week’s topic, referencing additional material and expanding on the points made in your readings. For the following class, it is up to you and your classmates to discuss the relevant issues—but, before that, you must go into the Canvas forums and write a reflection post.

You will be assigned 10 reflection posts throughout the semester, one for each week before spring break, in which you will answer questions that require synthesis of the weekly reading, lecture, and episode of TOS. A high-quality post is between 400-600 words and completely answers the prompt, using examples and citing references.

Writing these posts is good practice for several reasons:

  • This is a good opportunity to begin developing some talking points that you can bring up during discussions.
  • Writing down your ideas forces you to develop and organize your thoughts.
  • You can use the posts as notes during discussions, so you don’t lose focus in the heat of debate.
  • You can see what your classmates think about the week’s topics, better preparing you to converse with them.
  • Bluntly, it lets me know whether you have read and paid attention in class.

Reflection posts are due each Thursday night by 9 pm, so we can all review them before class discussion on Friday. In-class discussions are a graded activity, assessed by enthusiastic attendance and the following content-based criteria: preparedness, having posted thoughtfully and read others’ posts; listening, or levels of polite engagement so you can learn from your classmates; and contribution, with quality prized above quantity.

A note about etiquette during discussions: We will talk about a variety of ethical issues and discussions may turn into debates for a short period—but it is imperative that you remain respectful with your words and in your demeanor. Like all Collins courses, the class size is limited not only to ensure that you have more of my time and attention, but also to foster a close relationship between you and your classmates. You will get to know everyone, and it is important that we all feel comfortable.

Thematic analysis (aka “the 5-page paper”)

After ten reflection posts about specific issues and episodes, I want you to explore the themes we keep addressing in some more depth. The “pairs well with” episodes in the sidebars across the weekly schedule are optional for our weekly meetings, but now is the time to peruse them for a suite of episodes that best exemplify a theme. Choose one theme and write approximately five pages about how that theme is portrayed in TOS across at least three episodes. Two of the episodes must be new viewing for you, while one of the required three episodes can be one of the previously assigned viewings. Our three themes include: 1) Star Trek as allegory; 2) the Federation as modeling; and 3) still just a product of its time.

You will perform this analysis by identifying specific details in the episodes, including narrative context, set pieces, costumes, characters’ behaviors, and dialogue. This is meant to be a supplemental reflection, not simply a summary of the episodes’ stories. Essentially, you’re producing a more formal version of what we do in discussions. Using the concepts discussed in class and their respective readings, along with outside research, you will analyze the episode and answer the following questions:

  • What is the overarching theme of your episode analysis?
  • WEEK 3—What were the cultural influences?
  • WEEK 7—What messages did the episodes have for audiences concerning contemporary culture?
  • WEEK 4—What about the narrative is morally enjoyable?
  • WEEK 8—How does the behavior of Kirk and the crew demonstrate the principles of the Federation? Are people likely to behave that way?
  • WEEK 7—What lessons are we meant to take away from the explication of the theme?
  • WEEK 6—What cultural, ethical, or philosophical questions are posed?
  • WEEK 9—Do the morals of the stories resonate with a modern audience? Why or why not?
  • WEEK 10—What elements of the episodes limit their capacity to explore the theme? If the episode were produced today, what would be different?
  • WEEK 5—How would the storytelling change? Would the themes remain intact in a contemporary rendition? If not, how would they change?

(Note: The point of jumbling up the weekly topics is to show you how well they work when blended into a logical structure. Write a good paper that flows well and touches on these points—don’t mash together a series of short-answer blurbs into a disjointed paper.)

In other words, address the lessons and discussions of the class in relation to the theme and episodes you have chosen to analyze. You must follow either APA or MLA format, including in-text citations. The paper will be assessed on the following criteria: structure, voice, thoroughness, thoughtfulness, appropriate application of course concepts and readings, incorporation of outside research, and technical formatting. This thematic analysis is due the Tuesday of spring break, giving you an extra, long weekend to wrap it up—and me the majority of break to read and grade them. That way, when we return from break, we can discuss the papers together.

Final project (aka “the group presentation”)

After spring break, we will review course themes and begin summarizing them into the canonized “lessons” of Star Trek. We will scrutinize them, apply them to contemporary issues, and then see how Roddenberry’s vision translates to the next series in the franchise, Star Trek: The Next Generation. For your final project, you will get into groups of about 6-8 students and pick one of the three lessons and its associated TNG viewing list; feel free to split up the episodes among group members, unless you really want to watch them all (but it’s not required). Again, you do not have to watch more than one TNG episode per group member.

Lesson 1: Break the Computer, “Free” the People

Many episodes involve Kirk making the ultimate decision and breaking the Prime Directive to prevent stagnation, tyranny, or other values detestable to most of the people on the Enterprise… but this is very different from how Picard treats the alien worlds and cultures of The Next Generation.

“Who Watches the Watchers”            (Season 3, Episode 4)
“First Contact”                                (Season 4, Episode 15)
“Justice”                                         (Season 1, Episode 8)
“Pen Pals”                                     (Season 2, Episode 15)
“I, Borg”                                          (Season 5, Episode 23)
“Devil’s Due”                                  (Season 4, Episode 13)
“When the Bough Breaks”            (Season 1, Episode 17)

Lesson 2: Listen, Learn, Communicate

Above all, Roddenberry sought to inspire progress through peace and diversity—and the catalyst to peace is always a willingness to listen and lay down arms, to embrace new cultures and new forms of life. This was expanded in the next series, where even more species are included in the Federation, on board the Enterprise, and as respectful sentient life in the first place!

“Darmok”                                        (Season 5, Episode 2)
“Allegiance”                                    (Season 3, Episode 18)
“The Measure of a Man”                (Season 2, Episode 9)
“The Drumhead”                              (Season 4, Episode 21)
“Unification: Parts 1 and 2”            (Season 5, Episodes 7 & 8)
“The Quality of Life”                        (Season 6, Episode 9)
“The Chase”                                       (Season 6, Episode 20)

Lesson 3: Humanity is Sacred

Even though people thrive in a post-scarcity society and medical technology has improved our lifespans and well-being, there are still limitations and challenges—and Roddenberry continually asserts that, as Kirk puts it in the fifth movie, “I need my pain.” That is, our humanity would be lost if things became too clean or convenient. Plenty of episodes explore this (somewhat Puritanical) ethos of the worthwhile struggle. Of course, the other side to this lesson is that across the stars, humanity alone is special in its balance of power and humility, individualism and collectivism, and contentment with motivation. It is in this third lesson that TNG stays most true to TOS, for reasons we will discuss in class.

“Hide and Q”                                  (Season 1, Episode 10)
“The Last Outpost”                        (Season 1, Episode 5)
“The Masterpiece Society”            (Season 5, Episode 13)
“Samaritan Snare”                         (Season 2, Episode 17)
“Tapestry”                                      (Season 6, Episode 15)
“The Neutral Zone”                        (Season 1, Episode 25)
“All Good Things…”                       (Season 7, Episodes 25 & 26)

First, you will write a reflection post that links your TNG episode to the TOS episodes for the lesson assigned to your group; about 500 words, same as any other weekly post. Then, after you have collectively seen all of the episodes in the assigned theme, you can share these reflection posts and have a meeting to summarize and synthesize your findings. You will write a paper to serve as the basis for a 10-20 minute presentation about this lesson, the TOS and TNG episodes that exemplify it, and how the two series are similar and different. This will build from the same analytic process you used for the thematic essay, just with more episodes, across two series, and with a group.

The 5-10 page paper will inform the slideshow, which will include the following:

  • Synopses of how the lesson is evidenced in each episode.
  • Comparisons across TOS and
  • How this lesson relates to real-world ethical and political issues.
  • How the franchise might address these issues in the 21st

The 10-20 minute presentation will include the slideshow with those aforementioned points, plus:

  • CLIPS, of course! Show us what you found.
  • Personal thoughts on episodes in particular, lesson overall.
  • Sample dialog and/or scenes from characters to illustrate 21st-century examples.
  • Mention of any production issues which detracted from lessons.
  • Other worthwhile lessons/themes that were evident in the episodes.

Presentations will take place during our meeting in finals week. Papers will be due that Friday, the last day of the semester.

Point breakdown

  • Reflection Posts (~500 words x 10 posts) = 45%
    • Each post is worth 4.5% and is due before discussion.
      • Thoughtfully answers the question = 2%
      • Support arguments with readings/episodes = 1.5%
      • Sufficient length and technical writing quality = 1%
  • Discussions (attendance and participation) = 10%
    • Every Friday is about communicating as a class.
      • Preparation = 3%
      • Listening = 4%
      • Contribution = 3%
  • Thematic Essay (five-page paper) = 20%
    • Final draft due after the first week of spring break.
      • Rough draft = 5%
      • Final draft = 15%
  • Final Project (group presentation and paper) = 25%
    • Pick a “lesson,” watch more TOS. Then, an episode of TNG. Short post, group meeting, rough draft, group paper, presentation.
      • Individual post (TOS episodes and your TNG episode) = 5%
      • Rough draft of group paper = 5%
      • Group paper = 10%
      • Presentation = 5%
  • Extra Credit (optional post x 3 weeks) = 2%
    • Only allowed to write one extra credit reflection post, worth two points.


Required texts

Most of your homework will be episodes and readings. There is no book for this class. The readings are posted in Resources under our class page in Canvas, but they can also be found by clicking on the sources listed in the bibliography below:

Giles, D. C. (2002). Parasocial interaction: A review of the literature and a model for future research. Media psychology4(3), 279-305.

Kreitzer, L. (1996). The cultural veneer of Star Trek. The Journal of Popular Culture, 30(2), 1–28.

Barsch, A., Kalch, A., & Oliver, M. B. (2014). Moved to think: The role of emotional media experiences in stimulating reflective thoughts. Journal of Media Psychology: Theories, Methods, and Applications, 26(3), 125–140.

Haidt, J. (2001). The emotional dog and its rational tail: A social intuitionist approach to moral judgment. Psychological Review, 108(4), 814–834.

Kmet, M. (2012). Star Trek and Gene Roddenberry’s “vision of the future”: The creation of an early television auteur. Journal of the MeCCSE Postgraduate Network, 5(2), 55–74.

Birge, K. N. (2011). Framing politics in science fiction television: Problem solving through altered time and space (Masters thesis, Indiana University, Department of Telecommunications).

Webb, R. (2013, November 6). The economics of Star Trek: The proto-post scarcity economy [Blog post].

Bernardi, D. (1997). “Star Trek” in the 1960s: Liberal-humanism and the production of race. Science Fiction Studies, 24(2), 209–225.

Jindra, M. (1994). “Star Trek” fandom as a religious phenomenon. Sociology of Religion, 55(1), 27–51.

Suggested resources

None of these are required, but they are very helpful.

Memory Alpha — The all-Trek wiki site. Search for episode summaries, technical terms, cultural histories, and anything else you could possibly imagine. Highly recommended.

Mission Log—A podcast from Roddenberry Entertainment. Each episode, the two hosts review an episode, providing trivia and behind-the-scenes information from the official archives. Their ongoing mission is to analyze every episode from every series, in order to discover their morals, meanings, and messages. Available through many websites and via the Podcasts app on Apple devices.

Star Trek Memories, by William Shatner—A good account of the history of the show, with technical details, as well as plenty of personal anecdotes from and about many people from the cast and crew.