Looking back at the BBC’s Star Trek ban

Photograph: Pexels
Photograph: Pexels

Star Trek is not a franchise you’d normally associate with controversy.

Nevertheless, between 1969 and 1994, four episodes of the original series – ‘Empath’, ‘Whom Gods Destroy’, ‘Plato’s Stepchildren’ and ‘Miri’, – were not aired on the BBC and other episodes were heavily redacted.

It’s difficult nowadays to appreciate just how sacrosanct terrestrial television was until the 1990s. Even though Star Trek was first broadcast in the UK on BBC One on July 12, 1969, with the episode ‘Where No Man Has Gone Before’, repeats were rare and VHS tapes were expensive and were difficult to get hold of after the show was cancelled.

The BBC, which controlled the distribution rights to air the series in the UK, was the most accessible means by which most fans could enjoy the show until Sky One began broadcasting the complete series in 1990. Even still, for many years afterwards, cable TV was a costly luxury and the banned episodes remained unseen for a majority of fans.

Some episodes were shown at early conventions in Britain, but only after copies had been brought over from the U.S. Due to word of mouth and comments from the producers and the stars themselves, knowledge of the omissions was widely shared amongst the fan community. In June 1976, Star Trek fans launched a letter campaign petitioning the BBC to show the banned episodes. The Star Trek Action Group, a fan newsletter, reprinted the BBC’s response in which they explained that:

“After very careful consideration a top level decision was made not to screen the episodes entitled “Empath”, ‘Whom Gods Destroy’, ‘Plato’s Stepchildren’ and ‘Miri’, because they all dealt most unpleasantly with the already unpleasant subjects of madness, torture, sadism and disease.”

Not to give up the ghost there, the fan petitioning continued and in August 1979, the BBC again expounded their position:

“We have no plans to show the banned episodes as we have stated several times before. I am afraid every big organisation comes in for a little ridicule from time to time, but we are a public service broadcasting organisation with great responsibilities, and if after very careful consideration we decide not to show a particular programme, you may rest assured that it is in the best interest of viewers in this country.”

Credit to both fans’ and the BBC’s patience, the latter again issued a statement in 1984 saying that:

“You will appreciate that account must be taken that out of Star Trek’s large and enthusiastic following, many are juveniles, no matter what time of day the series is put into the programme schedules. A further look has been taken following the recent correspondence, but I am afraid it has been impossible to revise the opinion not to show these episodes.”

The BBC has something of a notorious reputation for coming down hard on science-fiction, particularly with Doctor Who, throughout the 1980s. Yet, rewatching the banned Star Trek episodes and there is a niggling feeling that the broadcaster might have had a point with some of its red-taping.

In the first instance, the BBC had actually originally aired ‘Miri’ in 1970 as part of its original run, however, it was not broadcast again until the 1990s after several viewers wrote to complain about its content. Heeding caution, the channel determined that the other three episodes were also unsuitable.

With some irony, ‘Miri’ (episode 1.8) is the least deserving of its notoriety and is actually quite tame. Captain Kirk comes across a Lord of the Flies-type society of children where all the adults have died from an unknown disease. While the episode teeters on the edge of being a full-blown Battle Royale with some segments of violenceit’s more unpleasant because of its emotional punch of lonely orphaned children facing disease and starvation. That said, Kirk and co. save the day and why the BBC thought the ending didn’t mitigate its unpleasant aspects is curious.

By comparison, ‘Plato’s Stepchildren’ (3.10) sits more curiously on the list. The episode is synonymous with the iconoclasm of the 1960s because it featured television’s first inter-racial snog between Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura. NBC, the U.S broadcaster, was worried that the scene might provoke a backlash from the more conservative elements of the country, but the scandal was not forthcoming. Instead, and with almost satirical deliberation, the episode was banned in the U.K because of its ‘violent’ elements.

While the episode does indeed have plenty of action, there’s little in it to set it apart from most others in Star Trek. While there’s no evidence to suggest that the BBC surreptitiously blocked it for its seminal scene, it’s not a far cry to imagine that in an office on a floor in Britain’s national broadcaster sat an official keen to avoid the ire of the Great British public.

‘Whom Gods Destroy’ (3.14), on the other hand, ups the ante and there is a legitimate claim that the episode contained elements not suitable for a family show. Not only does it feature Kirk, Spock and several supporting characters being tortured in a mental asylum, it also contains one of the most famous and sexualized moments of television history with Marta’s exotic dance (the green-skinned Orion slave girl).

‘Empath’ (3.12), by contrast, still has the power to disturb and is the episode which unequivocally proves the BBC had a point. In an underground laboratory, Captain Kirk, Spock and McCoy are brutally tortured by aliens in a bid to find out if a mute woman is compassionate and worthy of the aliens’ technological bequeathment.

From start to finish the episode is a cerebral exploration of the themes of sacrifice and loyalty. Standard enough, save for the horrific methodology it uses as a crucible.

As any horror aficionado will tell you, what is implied is more brutal to the imagination than looking at fake blood. Off-screen shots are limited to seeing characters dangling from chains, torso stripped (Shatner’s scene, naturally) and writhing in agony. There is no gore, few screams and no focus shots on wounds. While there are no guns or knives, and the aliens have plastic pain devices, it’s the enclosed black set and the clinical script that leave a lasting impression.

Spock’s cold, logical descriptions of McCoy’s horrendous injuries are so matter of fact that audiences can all but hear him scream in the torture chamber. The constricted budget, so often mocked, is the key here to creating a rustic realism and it’s staggering how unnerving it is to see these indestructible characters reduced to their component parts; something of a rarity in the history of the franchise as a whole.

The episode is deeply unpleasant, not least because of the willingness by which each character subjects themselves to a myriad of agonies. That, of course, is the point of the episode but it also happens to create one of the most unpleasant depictions of pain ever put to screen.

At a news conference in 1984, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry was asked what he thought of the continuing ban on the four episodes.

“… I disagree [with the ban] very much. ‘Empath’ to me was a beautiful story… If someone is to say to me, ‘You can’t have hurt and pain’, I say, ‘Nonsense!’ Suffering and pain are a part of life. They should be handled and handled well. I feel the same way about violence and sex.“My objection to violence and sex is on the shows where it goes on for a while and someone says, ‘Well, it’s going slow now, why don’t you have a fist-fight or a shooting?’ Then they put it in to raise the ratings.“What I hate about violence are… shows where grown men strike out and hit each other in the face with their fists… and after hitting themselves for thirty minutes with all their strength in the face, they grin and say, ‘Wow, wasn’t that fun!’ That’s not how life is!”

While there’s a logic to what Roddenberry has to say, the BBC were not wrong about ‘Empath’ even if they were overzealous with ‘Whom Gods Destroy’, off-the-mark with ‘Miri’ and cowardly with ‘Plato’s Stepchildren’. It remains difficult to stomach and ‘Empath’ is up there with Theon Greyjoy’s tête-à-têtes with Ramsay Bolton in Game of Thrones.

While an outright ban was employed only four times of the original series’ 79 episodes, it danced with the BBC censors many more times throughout the show’s run in the U.K. ‘The Man Trap’ (1.1),  ‘Patterns of Force’ (2.21) and ‘Bread and Circuses’ (2.25) were all redacted because of violent scenes, including the shocking attempted rape of Janice Rand by Kirk’s doppelganger in ‘Enemy Within’ (1.5).

Many other episodes, including ‘Court Martial’ (1.20),  ‘Return of the Archons’ (1.21), ‘The Alternative Factor’ (1.27), ‘A Private Little War’ (2.19), ‘And the Children Shall Lead’ (3.04), ‘Lights of Zetar’ (3.18) and ‘The Cloud Minders’ (3.21) were mostly edited for time, with little attention given to the subtleties of detail, introductions or the sense of scenes. There was a split at the BBC between the convenience of time-saving and logical duty, such as with ‘Arena’ (1.18) which, as the BBC explained to the Star Trek Action Group newsletter, was edited because “it is not BBC practice to show the exact process by which gunpowder is made…to prevent the children emulating their heroes”.

Eventually, the BBC showed the banned and edited episodes and showed the episodes in 1994, over twenty years after their original broadcast in the U.S.

However, Star Trek’s courting of controversy, like the franchise itself,  was not to end with the original series. Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) likewise suffered from curious bouts of gruesome violence which were removed from the episode ‘Conspiracy’ (1.25), showing the aftermath of a character being shot with phasers, and ‘The Icarus Factor’ (2.14) in which ritualistic ‘pain sticks’ are repeatedly used.

Most infamously, the BBC refused to screen season 3’s ‘The High Ground’ (3.12). When discussing the empirical evidence of the merits of terrorism to achieve political ends, Data lists “the Irish unification of 2024” as a definitive example. Given the Anglo-Irish issues of the day, the episode was only broadcast unedited on Sky One in 2006 and finally shown in full on BBC Two in September 2007 (nine years after the Good Friday Agreement).

Certainly, by the 1990s, there was a change in the compulsive editing of Star Trek at the BBC, highly likely due to a wider evolution in the public about the expectation and tolerance of more explicit content on television. The psychological elements were given more of a free pass, largely explaining why some  moments of The Next Generation escaped the editing floor. ‘The Best of Both Worlds’, for example, seemed to represent a greater acceptance from the BBC about the surrealness of science-fiction, probably why any analogy between Picard’s assimilation and rape was overlooked (the solitary tear running down his face still remains harrowing).

After 1992, the first-run rights of TNG, followed by Deep Space Nine (DS9) and Voyager (VOY), went to Sky One, with the BBC showing the episodes several months later. While TNG was never challengingly violent, the two-parter ‘Chain of Command’ (6.10 & 6.11) was a brutal psychological take on Alan Rickman’s ‘Closet Land’ and pitted Picard against his less than savoury Cardassian interrogators.

The Next Generation lead to DS9 which was undoubtedly more mature as it encompassed genocide, rape, terrorism, torture and a religious and political subtext. Numerous episodes, particularly ‘Duet’ (1.19) and ‘Tribunal’ (2.25) deal with these themes rather graphically. Season 4’s ‘To the Death’ (4.23), which featured an en masse battle between Starfleet and the Jem’Hadar, was cut by a staggering 45 seconds by The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) in the U.K because the scenes of hand-to-hand combat were too violent.

Voyager, often derided as the weakest incarnation, likewise contained genuinely disturbing elements. Season 2’s ‘Deadlock’ (2.21) saw the deformed organ harvesting Vidians board and murder the crew. In the same episode, and eerily reminiscent of ‘Empath’, Tuvok, a Vulcan, stoically states that “he regrets to report’ the death of an infant after an attack. Likewise in ‘Resistance’ (2.12) he’s heard screaming as he’s tortured by Nazi knock-offs, has his face melted in ‘Cold Fusion’ (2.10) and is driven insane by a psychotic in ‘Meld’ (2.16).

The BBC lost out in the bidding to broadcast Star Trek: Enterprise on terrestrial TV to Channel 4 in 2001 and did not renew its repeat rights for the other series until 2006. While it has not been seen on terrestrial television in the UK since then, BBC America did run a marathon of uncut, digitally remastered HD episodes of Star Trek in 2016.

In any event, the legacy of Star Trek at the BBC is to serve as a marker for how attitudes to violence, sex and television, in general, have evolved. More importantly, looking back at this is a reminder of what Trek can do to explore topical issues while flag-bearing as a prototypically family show.

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Alastair Stewart 260 Articles

Alastair Stewart is a freelance writer and mentor. In 2013, Alastair founded DARROW, Scotland’s only dedicated forum for more than 200 up and coming writers. The magazine works predominantly with 16-35-year-olds to give them the tools they need to share their ideas, hone their craft and thrive as writers, journalists, and storytellers. He regularly writes about politics, history, and culture for magazines across Europe.

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