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Timely Trek: “The Omega Glory”

“The Omega Glory” isn’t one of Star Trek’s finest episodes. But its reverence for freedom and justice make it timelier than ever.

It didn’t reach the screen until Star Trek’s second season, but “The Omega Glory” was one of three stories Gene Roddenberry suggested serve as the series’ second pilot episode. (The other contenders were “Mudd’s Women” and—the actual winner, and far and away the best of the three—“Where No Man Has Gone Before.”)

Why Roddenberry thought this story would serve as a strong pilot episode, I don’t know. (I don’t understand the case for “Mudd’s Women,” either, but that’s another post.)

It doesn’t show off the “strange new worlds” promised in William Shatner’s opening credits voiceover. It’s mostly set on a planet (the lazily named Omega IV) whose history absurdly parallels Earth’s, including the emergence of another United States of America, complete with Constitution and the Stars and Stripes. “The parallel is almost too close,” says Spock—a weak lampshading if ever there was one. Maybe the parallel setting appealed because it saved money by using studio backlots, free of any science fiction bells and whistles.

And it certainly exhibits little of the tolerance and respect, let alone celebration, of human difference that is, for the most part, a Star Trek hallmark. As Spock explains to Kirk, the peoples of Omega IV “fought the war your Earth avoided, and… the Asiatics won and took over this planet.” Positing a world where the noble, white “Yang” civilization (Yankees—get it?) fell to the violent “Kohms” (Communists—get it?) and became “savages,” the story plays on both Cold War political fears and white racist fears of subjugation to a dark “other” that have long haunted science fiction. It also conveniently ignores the existence of America’s indigenous peoples by having Kirk muse about “all these generations of Yangs fighting to regain their land.”

But “The Omega Glory” does have going for it a naive but earnest and appealing faith in the United States’ professed ideals. The episode culminates in an eye-rolling patriotic display that nevertheless manages to movingly convey “thing of importance” about the high stakes of the American experiment.

Will “The Holy Words” Be Obeyed?

It happens in the episode’s final minutes. Kirk, having been captured by a tribe of Yangs, has defeated another starship captain who went rogue and violated Starfleet’s Prime Directive (a situation rich with irony when you consider Star Trek usually only mentioned the Prime Directive when Kirk was getting ready to break it) by helping the Kohms fight the Yangs.

Having proved himself on the side of good through hand-to-hand combat, Kirk proceeds to exegete the true meaning of the Yangs’ “worship words” for them:

Shatner’s delivery and gesticulations are the stuff of which his hammy reputation is made. And Kirk’s assertion that no free society anywhere else in the whole wide galaxy ever puts its democratic principles to paper with as much “special pride” as did the Framers in Philadelphia in 1787 strains credulity.

But beneath the overacting and beyond the hyperbole, a pure heart of respect and reverence for what the Constitution represents is beating.

As I noted in my post for Reel World’s Theology “Trektember” event last year:

As originally written… the Constitution, with its “three-fifths” circumlocutions about enslaved people, failed to live up to its own stated ideals. But, as Kirk recognizes, those ideals are stated, and the document can still inspire and empower a greater faithfulness to them than even the Framers’ generation achieved. This text the Yangs regard as sacred will only be worthy of reverence when they treat it as more than a cherished relic… [and as] a living framework for continuing to build “a more perfect” society.

As mediocre and at times maddening an episode as “The Omega Glory” is, it does cleverly dramatize how America’s “worship words” about “liberty and justice for all” are gibberish unless we actually live them out.

The nation has never had any shortage of opportunities to consider how well or how poorly it is obeying its “worship words.” But confronting the question seemed especially urgent in the year just past.

Of course, I say “urgent” as a white, straight male, exactly the kind of person whose rights the Constitution has always more than adequately protected. Interpreting the document in ways that call the country to live up to its high ideals and inherent potential has always been an urgent matter for others: women, Blacks, indigenous people, LGBTQ individuals. America has had to learn and relearn, too slowly, that the “worship words” “must apply to everyone or they mean nothing.”

As we’ve seen the pandemic hit communities of color and people in poverty disproportionately hard, as we’ve seen more people of color killed by law enforcement officers, we have too many reasons to wonder whether the “holy words” are being obeyed.

Too often, the answer is “no.”

“And You See The Idea…”

Now, just a few weeks into 2021, the nation seems divided on whether our “holy words” of justice and freedom are even worth trying to obey.

How sickeningly appropriate the mob attack on the U.S. Capitol occurred on January 6th, Epiphany on the Christian liturgical calendar. That event was the clearest revelation I, at least, have had that not everyone agrees the American project of expanding equality and liberty is worth pursuing. The Constitution and the ideals it articulates, even if sometimes imperfectly, were under attack—from rioters outside, encouraged by lawmakers and a Chief Executive who all swore an oath to defend that document and its “worship words.”

As a Christian in the U.S., I want to preserve and protect the Constitution—not because I believe it is holy or divinely inspired (I do not), but because the framework for society it provides does not contradict what I believe to be God’s will for human life, and sometimes even aligns with it. God alone is Sovereign, but God does desire people live in freedom, and God does demand we treat each other with justice. The Constitution provides mechanisms by which we can, if we commit to them, achieve those ends.

And as a Star Trek fan, I want to preserve and protect the Constitution. I want to help build a future where talk of freedom and justice is not gobbledygook—where those words continue to be revered as “things of importance.”

The musicals of Stephen Sondheim might seem as far from Star Trek as one could get. But a song cut (unfortunately, if you ask me) from his musical Assassins (1991) expresses the “really good idea” at the heart of the Constitution, and at the heart of the Republic, in ways I think, based on “The Omega Glory,” Captain Kirk would appreciate.

What do you think of “The Omega Glory”? And what Star Trek episodes or films do you think are especially “timely Trek,” and why? Let’s talk in the comment section!

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