In the fictional history of Star Trek
there are few days more important than 5 April. On that day in 2063, Vulcans landed in Bozeman, Montana following Zefram Cochrane’s successful test of a faster-than-light engine built from a modified ICBM. In Star Trek’s
utopian future, this event led to the creation of the peaceful and prosperous United Federation of Planets.
It is significant, though, that today’s film and television viewers only see the Federation through the lens of a fictional multispecies and multicultural navy: Starfleet. The numerous iterations of Star Trek
have always been viewed through the lens of Starfleet, with plots centering the starships Enterprise
, scout ship Voyager,
the military base Deep Space 9, and support vessel Cerritos
As a result, our view of the Star Trek
future (and franchise) has necessarily been influenced by the real world military histories and traditions of both the United States and Royal Navies that influenced the show. Star Trek,
in turn, has helped to influence popular perceptions of the two naval services. In honor of First Contact Day, let’s explore how Gene Roddenberry’s original iteration of Star Trek
(1966–1969) built off of this joint Anglo-American naval heritage. 
Set in the 2260s, Star Trek: The Original Series
portrays the voyages of the starship Enterprise
. Led by Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner), First Officer Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), and Chief Medical Officer Dr. Leonard McCoy (DeForrest Kelly), the starship and her crew “explore strange new worlds” and “seek out new life and new civilizations.” While Star Trek,
at its best, achieves a timeless quality, it remains very much a product of its era. Filmed in the 1960s, many of its writers, producers, and actors fought in World War II, as had much of its audience.
Series creator Gene Roddenberry flew B-17s in the Pacific Theater.
Associate producer Robert Justman served on two destroyers, a destroyer escort, and a repair ship.
James Doohan, who portrayed Chief Engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott, fought in the Canadian Army and lost a finger on Juno Beach on D-Day.
Even actors and crew who did not serve in the military were deeply impacted by the war. George Takei, who played helmsman Lieutenant Hikaru Sulu, for example, spent much of his childhood as a Japanese-American internee at Camp Rohwer, Arkansas, and later at the Tule Lake War Relocation Center in California.
In addition, hundreds of thousands of Americans were introduced to military service during the Vietnam War right as Star Trek
hit the airwaves.
While this wartime context is evident
in Star Trek,
most of the imagery and terminology comes specifically from the Navy. The first words spoken in the series, and in many episodes thereafter, are “Captain’s log . . .”
Starfleet officers attend Starfleet Academy. Enterprise
is piloted by a helmsman on the bridge and was constructed at the San Francisco Navy Yard.
The ship’s rank structure mirrors that of the U.S. Navy with officers and crew divided into functional areas. Federation ships are also designated with “USS.”
Captain Kirk has the duties and authorities of a U.S. Navy ship’s captain, sometimes conducting marriages, overseeing courts-martial, and convening a board of inquiry. While Roddenberry wanted Star Trek
to portray a utopian, post-conflict society, Starfleet is responsible for defending the United Federation of Planets from adversaries and threats across space. Several episodes revolve around defeating threats to Federation outposts, bases, and colonies, while also expanding and modelling the “right” way to live to the rest of the universe.
One of the most memorable episodes of Star Trek
, “Balance of Terror” (aired 15 December 1966), transports World War II-era anti-submarine warfare patrols to deep space. In the episode, the Enterprise
responds to a series of distress calls from Federation outposts under attack by a Romulan Bird-of-Prey. The Romulans have a “cloaking device” rendering their ship invisible to Enterprise
and attack using a devastating plasma torpedo. This framework casts Enterprise
as a destroyer and the Romulan ship as a submarine. The episode traces Enterprise
in its struggle to find the Bird-of-Prey amid the chaos of debris, torpedo strikes, and an improvised nuclear mine. To lure the Romulans in, Enterprise
feigns damage. Enterprise
then lands a crippling blow and the Romulans scuttle their ship to avoid capture, but not before the Romulan commander tells Kirk, “you and I are of a kind. In a different reality, I could have called you friend.”
The episode was deeply influenced by the submarine films Run Silent, Run Deep
(1958) and The Enemy Below
These postwar films, too, were shaped by real submarine patrols by American and British destroyers in World Wars I and II, and potential threats from Soviet subs to the Cold War Allied Navies.
writers and producers also pulled more directly from America’s recent naval history for the show’s naming conventions and the Federation’s opponents. Roddenberry explained, “I’d been an army bomber pilot in World War II. I’d been fascinated by the navy and particularly fascinated by the story of the Enterprise
in World War II, which at Midway really turned the tide in the whole war in our favor. I’d always been proud of that ship and wanted to use the name.”
Most of the Federation starships encountered in the Original Series adopted famous American ship names, including Lexington, Constellation,
, with Enterprise
falling into the Constitution
Starfleet’s enemies, especially the Klingons, are coded as either Russian or Asian and have fast, uncomfortable warships akin to those employed by the Imperial Japanese Navy.
A Japanese Zero even makes an appearance in a December 1966 episode, strafing members of an away team on a malfunctioning pleasure planet.
However, the show did more than just celebrate World War II American naval culture.
The entire structure of Star Trek
is built around Anglo-American naval cruises. Roddenberry’s original outline for the show described the ship like so: “The U.S.S. Enterprise,
a naval cruiser-size spaceship. The vessel . . . includes bridge, control rooms, crew quarters and facilities, science labs and technical departments, plus passenger and cargo accommodations.”
The ship’s responsibilities sound familiar to anyone familiar with peacetime cruiser duty. “Landings are made for a wide variety of reasons – scheduled ports of call, resupplying the cruiser, aid to Earth colonies, scrutiny of an Earth commercial activity, collection of rare animal or plant specimens, a courtesy call on alien life contacted by earlier exploration, a survey of mineral deposits, or any combination of scientific, political, security, or supply needs,” and the ship is responsible for patrolling and protecting a large section of Federation space.
These missions hearken back to the Golden Age of Sail, and turn-of-the-century naval voyages of exploration, contact, and colonization. Indeed, historian Alice L. George points out that Enterprise’s
mission has a distinct flavor of European exploration, and that Kirk is both “virtuous explorer and the unwanted intruder.”
connection to cruisers goes even further back. Roddenberry initially pitched the show not only as a “Wagon Train to the Stars” but also as “Horatio Hornblower in Space.” The star of a series of novels by C. S. Forrester, Hornblower was a fictional British captain of assorted sailing vessels in the Nelsonian Era British navy. As adventure stories, the novels emphasize the excitement of command and the vast reaches of the ocean, as well as the introspection and loneliness inherent to leadership. Published between 1937 and 1962, the Hornblower series gave Roddenberry’s generation an exciting, if fictionalized, vision of the Age of Sail.
This influence is easy to see in Star Trek
travels from planet to planet, rarely hearing from superiors while dealing with crises alone. Enterprise
’s duties and nomenclature parallel British and American ships of the Napoleonic Era, as do battle scenes. Space combat in Star Trek
is unusual when compared to other science fiction franchises. Star Wars
, Battlestar Galactica
, Honor Harrington
, and others focus on small, single-seat fighters as a key element of space warfare.
Influenced by World War II aerial combat and carrier battles, George Lucas, creator of Star Wars
, even famously re-shot World War II dogfights with X-Wings and TIE Fighters.
In Star Trek
, however, fighters are absent, and Enterprise
always tries to talk before fighting. Once combat starts, it is usually a ship duel largely focused on maneuver and damage control.
Thanks to shuttles, transporters, and godlike aliens, Starfleet ships frequently face boarding actions, much like their eighteenth and nineteenth century predecessors.
Starfleet also parallels the supposedly romantic, enlightenment era of exploration that characterized the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the Age of Discovery. Even Captain James Kirk’s iconic mission statement – “to boldly go where no man has gone before” – echoes the explorer Captain James Cook, who wrote in 1774, “ambition leads me not only farther than any other man has been before me, but as far as I think it possible to go.”
is a rich text, commenting openly about race relations, the Vietnam War, religion, human potential, artificial intelligence, cooperation, tolerance, and an idealized diverse humanitarian future.
It is a fundamentally aspirational creation.
At its heart, though, it is a show enraptured with naval vessels, whether powered by sail, steam, or dilithium, exploring the wide expanse of sea and space. When stressed, Captain Kirk often expresses his deep longing for the sea. In one episode, faced with losing his job to a computer, he wistfully thinks back to the Age of Sail: “‘All I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by.’ You could feel the wind at your back in those days. The sounds of the sea beneath you, and even if you take away the wind and the water it’s still the same. The ship is yours. You can feel her. And the stars are still there.”
 Star Trek
is perhaps the largest and longest-lived filmed fictional franchise in history, consisting of 11 television shows, 11 films, hundreds of books, and other media. It has been studied by a massive array of historians, cultural anthropologists, philosophers, linguists, scientists, theologians, and many other specialists. For recent academic work on the franchise, see M. Keith Booker, Star Trek: A Cultural History
(Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018), K. M. Heath and A. S. Carlisle, The Voyages of Star Trek: A Mirror on American Society through Time
(Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2020) and A. J. Black, Star Trek, History and Us: Reflections of the Present and Past Throughout the Franchise
(Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2021). This article aims to focus on Naval history’s effect on Star Trek
rather than the many cultural, entertainment, civil rights, technological, and ethical ramifications of Star Trek
 Star Trek: First Contact,
directed by Jonathan Frakes (1996; Los Angeles, CA: Paramount Pictures, 2005), DVD.
Several iterations of the Enterprise
serve as the setting for Star Trek; Star Trek: The Next Generation; Star Trek: Enterprise; Star Trek: Strange New Worlds
and most of the Star Trek
is the setting for the animated comedy Star Trek: Lower Decks.
The Naval History and Heritage Command would like to congratulate Navy pilots G. Reid Weisman and Victor J. Glover who will orbit the moon on NASA’s Artemis-2 spacecraft in the coming months. They join the numerous American astronauts, including Alan Shepard, John Glenn, and Neil Armstrong, who earned their first wings in the Navy or Marines. For the announcement of Weisman and Glover, see “NASA Names Astronauts to Next Moon Mission, First Crew Under Artemis,” Latest NASA News Releases, NASA, 3 April 2023, https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-names-astronauts-to-next-moon-mission-first-crew-under-artemis.
One of the effects of this service was in casting Starfleet and the Federation as fundamentally benevolent forces on the galactic stage, a natural reframing of the American fleet and the Allies’ role around the globe during and after World War II. See Trevor McCrisken and Andrew Pepper, American History and Contemporary Hollywood Film
(Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press, 2005), 89.
Roddenberry was part of the 394th Bomb Squadron, 5th Bombardment Group, Thirteenth Air Force and flew bombing missions against Guadalcanal. This makes his inclusion of Lieutenant Sulu as Enterprise’s
helmsman all the more remarkable. See Black, Star Trek, History and Us
Historian H. Bruce Franklin points out that the show came out in the middle of “one of the most excruciating periods of American history” dominated by the Vietnam War, backlash to the Civil Rights Movement and other fundamental changes of the 1960s. This all made Star Trek’s
vision of, in Franklin’s words, “an infinitely prosperous, harmonious world without war and social conflict” particularly appealing, and notably unusual in popular culture of the time. H. Bruce Franklin, “Star Trek’ in the Vietnam Era,” Science Fiction Studies
21, no. 1 (March 1994), 24.
Sometimes the World War II influence is not allegorical. In “Patterns of Force” (season 2, episode 21), the Enterprise
finds a planet where a visiting Federation scientist has recreated Nazi Germany. Kirk and Spock—both played by Jewish actors—have to dress up as Nazis to infiltrate and topple the planetary government.
Stefan Rabitsch, Star Trek and the British Age of Sail: The Maritime Influence Throughout the Series and Films
(Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2019), 71.
Stephen E. Whitfield, The Making of Star Trek
(New York: Ballantine Books, 1968), 171.
Historian Stefan Rabitsch argues that Star Trek
, at its core, actually pulls from the British Age of Sail. He writes that the franchise is “often draped with a symbolic veneer that is deceivingly indicative of the U.S. Navy’s post-war legacy. The resulting dense transatlantic mesh in nomenclature is easily obscured by the obvious prefix USS, the symbolic prominence of which might lead to premature conclusions about whose legacy Starfleet ships carry into space.” See Star Trek and the British Age of Sail
For example, “The Arena” (season 1, episode 18), “Errand of Mercy” (season 1, episode 26), and “The Enterprise
Incident” (season 3, episode 2). See Black, Star Trek, History and Us
“Balance of Terror (season 1, episode 14).” The episode also contains a strong denunciation of prejudice, as Mr. Spock, a Vulcan, turns out to have the same genetic heritage as the Romulans. One of Enterprise’s
crew openly doubts Spock’s loyalty to the Federation, only to be harshly rebuked by Kirk, and later saved from death by Spock.
Allan Asherman, The
Star Trek Compendium
(London: Titan, 1993), 39–40; Edward Gross and Mark Altman, Captain’s Logs: The Unauthorized Complete
Star Trek Voyages
(Boston: Little, Brown, 1995), 34.
Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman, The Fifty-Year Mission: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History Of
Star Trek: The First 25 Years
(New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2016), 69. Roddenberry’s initial proposal set the show on the USS Yorktown
, named after the World War II aircraft carrier Yorktown
). Roddenberry changed it to Enterprise
, in part because the World War II era carrier Enterprise
) had recently been scrapped, and the Cold War era nuclear aircraft carrier Enterprise
) was completed just a few years before Star Trek
started its run.
Two American aircraft carriers named Lexington
) and (CV-16
)) served in the Pacific theater during World War II, as did Intrepid
were two of the original six frigates built by the U.S. Navy in the 1790s. Constitution
is still an active duty U.S. Navy ship stationed in Boston.
See Christian Domenig, “Klingons: Going Medieval on You,” in Reagin, Star Trek and History
, 295–306. The Klingon Empire was a fairly simple, if vague, USSR stand-in in Star Trek
. Later Star Trek
properties have made it a much more complicated political unit. In Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
the Empire seeks terms with the Federation after a power plant explodes and contaminates the Klingon home world’s atmosphere. Released in 1991, the film’s allegory for Chernobyl and the end of the Cold War is unsubtle.
“Shore leave” (season 1, episode 15). An away team is Starfleet’s version of a shore party.
Whitfield, Making of
Star Trek, 23–24.
Whitfield, Making of
Star Trek, 27.
George and other authors cast Kirk and the Enterprise
in the role of American frontiersmen built off of the imagined West of 1950s and 1960s TV and pulp novels. Alice L. George, “Riding Posse on the Final Frontier: James T. Kirk, Hero of the Old West,” in Reagin, Star Trek and History
The Star Trek
soundtrack even opens with the same notes as Robert Farnon’s soundtrack for Captain Horatio Hornblower, R.N.
(1951). See Rabitsch, Star Trek and the British Age of Sail
Admittedly, the Honorverse
took eight books before introducing aircraft carriers in David Weber’s Echoes of Honor
(Riverdale, NY: Baen, 1998).
While this is in part due to the limitations of TV special effects of the 1960s, the Nelsonian influence is still there. Rabitsch, Star Trek and the British Age of Sail
sends boarding teams to other ships on many occasions and is boarded in “By Any Other Name” (season 2, episode 22). The crew even uses swords to fight against escaped Klingons onboard in “The Day of the Dove” (season 3, episode 7).
Quoted in Rabitsch, Star Trek and the British Age of Sail
One of Star Trek’s
most significant contributions was placing a black female officer on the Enterprise’s
bridge. Lieutenant Uhura (played by Nichelle Nichols) has served as an inspiration to women and minorities around the world. Nichols was even talked out of quitting the show by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who told her “this show is changing the way people see us, and see themselves. And the manner in which they’re seeing the world.” Nichols’ Lieutenant Uhura was a potent mark of what the Navy would eventually become. See Margaret A. Weitekamp, “More than ‘Just Uhura’: Understanding Star Trek’s Lt. Uhura, Civil Rights, and Space History,” in Reagin, Star Trek and History
In “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” (season 3, episode 15), Enterprise’s
crew is shocked at seeing racial prejudice. Ensign Chekov remarks, “There was persecution on Earth once. I remember reading about it in my history class.” Sulu responds, “Yes, but it happened way back in the twentieth century. There’s no such primitive thinking today.” See Heath and Carlisle, The Voyages of
Star Trek, 3–6.
“The Ultimate Computer” (season 2, episode 24). Unsurprisingly, the computer goes rogue and kills the crew of USS Excalibur
before Kirk manages to logically reason the computer into shutting itself down. For another example of Kirk longing for a sailing ship see “Balance of Terror.” There, while waiting out the Romulan Bird-of-Prey, Kirk tells Dr. McCoy “I wish I were on a long sea voyage somewhere.”