Lost Star Terk episode was to feature Milton Berle as a “messianic sociologist”

I’ve noted before that sociologists are rarely featured in television shows or in movies. Alas, it looks like CBS won’t allow the creation of a new online Star Trek episode based on a long-lost script featuring Milton Berle as a “messianic sociologist.”

Last fall an unused script for the cult 1960s television show turned up after being forgotten for years. Its author, the science-fiction writer Norman Spinrad, announced that it would become an episode of a popular Web series, “Star Trek New Voyages: Phase II,” which features amateur actors in the classic roles of Capt. James T. Kirk, Mr. Spock and other crew members of the starship Enterprise.

But then another player stepped in: CBS, which said it owned the script and blocked a planned Web production of it. Trekkies were appalled. “These executives should be phasered on heavy stun,” said Harmon Fields of Manhattan, who called himself “a ‘Star Trek’ fan of galactic proportions.”…

The story begins in 1967, after Mr. Spinrad wrote an acclaimed episode of the original series, “The Doomsday Machine.” “I did ‘The Doomsday Machine’ fast,” Mr. Spinrad, 71, said by phone from his home in Greenwich Village, “and then they said: ‘We’re in a hole. Can you write something in four days?’ ”

The result was “He Walked Among Us,” which the producers envisioned as a dramatic vehicle for the comedian Milton Berle. His character is a well-meaning but messianic sociologist whose conduct threatens to destroy the planet Jugal. The crew of the Enterprise must remove him without disrupting the normal development of the culture.

Spinrad’s script was set aside and he recently made it available online.

Milton Berle as a “well-meaning but messianic sociologist” sounds very intriguing. How much did Spinrad intend this as commentary about sociologists and social policy in the late 1960s? Perhaps sociologists should be glad this show was not made as it probably doesn’t put sociologists in the best light. In fact, it sounds like it could feed into some common stereotypes of sociologists: they may care about some important issues but in the end they are academics who don’t know how things work in the real world. At the same time, how many sociologists are Star Trek fans and would love to see their discipline discussed in an episode?

The sociology of Star Trek

Occasionally, I run across more unusual sociology courses. Here is a summer class that examines Star Trek:

In order to understand more about why the Star Trek cannon has continued to be popular and respected since its creation in the 1960s, I took a class this summer at Portland State University entitled “The Sociology of Star Trek.”  I learned about how the Trekkian visions of the future offered a lens through which to examine the culture of its time and about the vision of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenbarry, who highlighted enlightenment ideals and ‘exploration without conquest.’  Additionally I learned about the obsession and culture surrounding the show.

One of our assignments was to review an event that occurs annually in Portland: Trek in the Park. At this event, a full-length original episode is performed by the Atomic Arts theater company. For one month a year, Portlanders gather to show their Trek Pride.

Big sociological themes that you could play with in such a course:

1. The social change of the 1960s and how this was reflected in popular culture.

2. American fascination with:

a. Technology and progress. Even in space, we can’t escape some basic problems.

b. Utopias or idealized communities. This could be tied to a number of utopian communities that were actually built or perhaps even the suburbs, the space where Americans seek the elusive American Dream.

3. The subcultures that form and are maintained based on objects in the popular culture.

4. Cultural narratives as displayed in television (all the versions of Star Trek) plus movies.

See a draft of the syllabus here and comments from the Internet public about what the class could include here. Apparently, you can cover all sorts of topics through the lens of Star Trek…

Are sociologists more likely than the general population to be Star Trek fans? And is the competition to Star Trek, the Star Wars franchise, too low-brow for sociologists?