By Dr. M.A. Davis, Visiting Assistant Professor, Lees-McRae College
Featured image by Sam Nystrom Costales
On March 7, 1969, just over a century after the death of Abraham Lincoln, those still tuning into Star Trek: The Original Series in its third season got a chance to see the most famous American president on the Enterprise.1 The story began with the crew preparing to leave orbit of the planet Excalbia. They have had a strange mission, having detected lifesigns on what is supposed to be an uninhabited volcanic planet – but the strangeness has just begun. Suddenly, they are met in space by a figure in a familiar black overcoat and stovepipe hat (played by Lee Bergere) who introduces himself by declaring, “I am Abraham Lincoln.”
So begins “The Savage Curtain.” The episode’s narrative is a morality play turned to action in which powerful aliens wish to witness a battle between good and evil. As their cast, they have summoned Lincoln to fight alongside Captain Kirk (played by William Shatner), Commander Spock (played by Leonard Nimoy), and Surak (played by Barry Atwater), a famous Vulcan philosopher and pacifist, against embodiments of Genghis Khan (played by Nathan Jung), Kahless (played by Robert Herron), an ancient Klingon warlord, Colonel Phillip Green (played by Phillip Pine), a near-future American dictator, and Zora (played by Carol Daniels Dement), an alien mad scientist.2 During the struggle, Lincoln, Surak, Green, and Kahless are killed, the surviving villains flee, and the Excalbians allow the Enterprise crew to leave, their spokesman complaining that “Your good and your evil use the same methods, achieve the same results.”3 The episode is not one well-loved by fans, appearing in multiple lists of the worst episodes of the Original Series, but its depiction of Lincoln is a fascinating one. In an era when Lincoln revisionism (for both good and ill) was spreading through academia and just about to break into popular culture, the show set in the future firmly looked to the past for its depiction of the 16th President of the United States of America.4
Lincoln’s appearance in “The Savage Curtain” began in a story treatment by Gene Roddenberry from 1964 called “Mr. Socrates.” The original was something of a satire of the network television he had been battling with for so many years, with the Excalbians explicitly portrayed as decadent consumers whose only source of knowledge and entertainment were their recreations of historical and current events.5 This angle is largely abandoned in third-season rewrites by the show’s production staff, as was his ample cast of guest stars for the two teams of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ pitted against each other by the Excalbians. Roddenberry had hoped to put Adolf Hitler among the ranks of the evil team, and wanted to show the failure of a then-near-future pacifist named “Pon, the Flower Child Messiah” – but Lincoln was a constant. (Given the show’s difficulty in handling the hippie movement on-screen, perhaps this latter omission was for the best).6 This should be no surprise; Roddenberry loved Lincoln, considered him a childhood hero, and filled his home with Lincolnia. Founded in 1967, Lincoln Enterprises, the mail-order catalog company that first marketed Star Trek memorabilia, bore the former President’s name because Roddenberry “loved Abraham Lincoln. It’s that simple.”7
Roddenberry’s was not Lincoln’s first appearance in sci-fi network television; for example in 1961, a consoling, ghostly Lincoln appears as the last casualty of the Civil War to a grieving Confederate widow with secrets of her own in an episode of The Twilight Zone.8 This was not even the first time someone in the cast of “The Savage Curtain” had played Abraham Lincoln in a supernatural context; Barry Atwater (who portrayed Surak) had played Lincoln in a 1960 episode of One Step Beyond about the alleged Spiritualist predictions of Lincoln’s assassination.9 And the above examples are just the Lincoln of sci-fi television. Lincoln had already appeared as a stand-in for the values and virtues of 19th century America as a whole in Wilson Tucker’s 1958 time travel novel, The Lincoln Hunters.10 These heroic and science fiction Lincolns were largely similar, reflecting the beloved, saccharine Lincoln of contemporary popular culture. They were the Lincoln of Sandburg and Henry Fonda, the self-made, humble man of the frontier, an iconic symbol of American democracy and justice. This omnipresent hagiography of the 16th president should be no surprise; Abraham Lincoln has long dominated American memory, and in the mid-1960s that domination was at its zenith, as I show below, the culmination of a Lincoln renaissance that had begun a few decades earlier.11
An explosion in Lincolnia that began in the 1920s with a wave of Lincoln biographies continued full-throttle through the war years and beyond. This was a generation of Lincoln scholarship that viewed him through the lens of the conservative, anti-Reconstruction Dunning School that then dominated Civil War historiography; an interpretation that saw him as a Unionist moderate on race, a Great Emancipator nonetheless uninterested in Black equality. When there was Lincoln revisionism in this period, it was liable to be critical of Lincoln as a member of the ‘blundering generation’ of antebellum politicians, but that academic argument never made it into the popular consciousness.12 In 1947, the Library of Congress unveiled the latest technological marvel to ease Lincoln research, a fully-organized collection of Lincoln papers available (through microfilm) for scholars distant from Washington, DC. The Lincoln Papers were a vast archive of more than 40,000 letters, memoranda, and other documents, so big that its index alone is more than a hundred pages long – Lincoln studies would never be the same. This new availability of Lincoln documents, combined with the gradual anti-racist moral realignment of American society brought by the Second World War and subsequent Cold War changed Lincoln scholarship. In particular, it paved the way for a new wave of revision and counter-revision.13 The Lincoln scholarship of the 1940s and 1950s took Lincolnolatry to new heights, painting him as a cunning politician and progressive, in other words, as a precursor to FDR who was the hero for many of that generation of scholars.14 But that historiographic line was itself utterly transformed after the publication of Lenore Bennet’s infamous “Was Abe Lincoln a White Supremacist?” article in Ebony in 1968. The article, which answered its title question in the vigorous affirmative, sparked a bitter debate among historians like Ludwell Johnson and Stephen Oates, who alternatively sought to portray Lincoln as either the embodiment of American racism or anti-racism.15
But this conflict, which would endure for decades in the academic literature, had little immediate impact on pop culture in the late 1960s. In any case, no academic book could hope to match the popularity of the gentle, wise statesman Lincoln of contemporary mass media, dominated as that was by the sentimental popular imagery of a previous generation. This was true both on-screen and on the page; those reading about him would have almost certainly encountered Lincoln through the pages of Carl Sandburg, “the best-selling, most widely read, and most influential book[s] about Lincoln,” even now.16 Sandburg, the poet and literary titan, was much more interested in a Lincoln who was “both steel and velvet…as hard as rock and soft as drifting fog, who [held] in his heart and mind the paradox of terrible storm and peace unspeakable and perfect” than he was in the fine details of emancipation and race. With all this in mind, the popular Lincoln of the 1960s owed far more to pop culture in film and print than to the academic historians of the day. And this should be no surprise. But of all of these, which was Trek’s Lincoln?17
The Lincoln of “The Savage Curtain” is a backwoodsman, a wrestler, kind, wise, humorous, forced into war by an enemy, and dies a martyr just as the conflict is coming to an end. Of his role as emancipator we hear nothing at all, with the show’s only foray into race being an awkward conversation with Nichelle Nichols’ character, Uhura.
LINCOLN: What a charming negress. Oh, forgive me, my dear. I know in my time some used that term as a description of property.
UHURA: But why should I object to that term, sir? You see, in our century we’ve learned not to fear words.
KIRK: May I present our communications officer, Lieutenant Uhura.
LINCOLN: The foolishness of my century had me apologizing where no offense was given.18
In retrospect it’s hard not to wince at this scene with a Black actress performing the words of White writers while reassuring Lincoln that he’s not a racist, particularly since the dialogue exchange is Nichelle Nichols’s last significant performance in televised Trek. (All of her subsequent dialogue in this, the penultimate episode of 60s Trek, is background filler and she does not appear at all in the last episode of the series.) But for a TV audience in the 1960s, the scene has a job – and it does it. We the viewers are reassured that Lincoln was good, and so too are those who admire him.
This take on Lincoln, particularly the reassurance to the audience of his goodness, is a striking lapse, as Star Trek in general, and the oft-derided third season in particular, was quite willing to push the boundaries of what was socially acceptable in mainstream 1960s America.19 Most famously, the episode “Plato’s Stepchildren” portrayed what is often remembered as the first scripted interracial kiss on network television.20 Other episodes, too, tried for boundary-breaking social commentary. “Day Of The Dove” sympathetically portrayed the need for peace between hostile rival powers in the midst of the Cold War.21 “The Mark of Gideon” wrestled with themes of contraception and overpopulation only a few years after Griswold vs. Connecticut legalized contraception nationwide. But as unconventional as the show could be, its Lincoln is thoroughly conventional.22
Star Trek’s Lincoln is the white Lincoln – specifically the white, canonized Lincoln of the early 20th century. A backwoodsman who wrestles but will not kill, who dies trying to save an innocent, he is Sandburg’s humble son of the soil made flesh, more put-upon saint than man.23 One can imagine actor Lee Bergere taking performance notes from the “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” show, the audio-animatronic Lincoln show at Disneyland that had debuted in July of 1965 – certainly the writers of “Savage Curtain” gave him little more to do than play a stereotypical Lincoln in space. As discussed above, serious Lincoln historiography was quite young when Roddenberry would have begun writing his script for “Savage Curtain”, certainly younger even than the forty-seven year old Roddenberry himself.24 Roddenberry was a Texan by birth who grew up in the middle-class Southern diaspora in Jazz Age Los Angeles. But in the early 20th century Lincolnphilia was common even in the white South. Many young white Southerners of Roddenberry’s generation were raised amid a cult of Lincoln that saw “Lincoln more often than Lee as their ideal character.”25 Perhaps this should not surprise us; even someone as aligned with white Southern identity as D. W. Griffith had been a Lincoln partisan as far back as Birth Of A Nation. As late as Roddenberry’s college years at LA City College just before WWII, it’s much more likely he’d have picked up one of Carl Sandburg’s books on Lincoln rather than the Lincoln revisionists of the 1930s.26 (Sandburg was of course not the first Lincoln biographer, but The Prairie Years and The War Years were among the best-selling popular biographies of their day and have never gone out of print. Poet and literary giant that he was, Sandburg was not a professional historian.27) Thus it should be no surprise that Roddenberry, who was not a professional historian and did not rely heavily on their work, would embrace the Lincoln of popular culture rather than the Lincoln of the historians. Then, as now, academic historiography is (as the name implies) academic, generally having a limited influence on popular culture. Certainly the Lincoln of today has survived both revisionists and counter-revisionists. If Star Trek’s Lincoln was hagiographic, so too were all the televised Lincolns of the era, and for that matter many years to come.28
Star Trek fans are fond of pointing to the franchise’s influence on broader American culture, particularly our language, culture, and technology, ranging from the naming of the first Space Shuttle (Enterprise) through the communicator-like smartphone, among many other things. But just as television can influence the culture that watches it, so too can television reflect the culture of those that make it. Ultimately, Star Trek was influenced by the way its audience and creators remembered the past far more than it sought to influence the way they remembered things. And our pop culture isn’t so different than it was when “Savage Curtain” aired. Even now, our Lincoln biopics (such as Spielberg’s 2012 Lincoln) are often accused of abandoning African-American memory in favor of “The Great Emancipator,” of lionizing Lincoln in ways not too dissimilar from what Roddenberry and Heineman had done at the end of the 1960s. (Perhaps the closest we’ve come to changing the memory of Lincoln in our popular culture came with Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter in the same year as Spielberg, which gave Lincolnian hagiography a knowing wink before equipping its hero with a silver-tipped ax to fight the legions of undead.)29
A righteous crusade against the forces of Hell seems a fitting place to stop in this brief look at the intersection of Lincoln and speculative fiction through the lens of Star Trek. Abraham Lincoln’s death in April 1865 made him a “saint” in the American national pantheon, a martyr who had sacrificed himself for liberty while freeing the helpless enslaved, at least in the minds of mainstream white American culture.30 A century later when the original Star Trek aired, this memory of Lincoln was as powerful as ever, as indeed it is in the 2020s in most parts of American popular culture. Challenging a culture’s memory of a canonized “saint” is a difficult task. Often a legitimately ground-breaking show even in its worst moments, Star Trek’s much-derided third season was willing to challenge a great many of the 1960s cultural norms. But thanks to the culture of Lincolnia in which its writers and audience were steeped, Abraham Lincoln proved a subject too great to challenge, even on the Final Frontier.
Dr. M.A. Davis is a Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk, North Carolina. His current projects include a biography of California’s own Dalip Singh Saund and a piece on Lincoln and science fiction. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at https://twitter.com/MikeDavisNoNot1.
- Star Trek: The Original Series, season 3, episode 22, “The Savage Curtain,” directed by Herschel Daugherty, written by Arthur Heinemann and Gene Roddenberry, aired March 7, 1969. NBC.
- Marc Cushman, These Are the Voyages – TOS: Season Three. 1st ed. (Los Angeles: Jacobs Brown Press, 2015), 591.
- “The Savage Curtain,” 46:30
- “Worst Star Trek Episodes: The Savage Curtain.” Aspie Catholic, September 20, 2016, https://aspiecatholic.wordpress.com/2016/09/20/worst-star-trek-episodes-the-savage-curtain/; Jamahl Espicokhan, “‘The Savage Curtain,’” Jammer’s Reviews, January 1, 2013, https://www.jammersreviews.com/st-tos/s3/savage.php.
- Cushman, These Are The Voyages, 592, 594-596, 605.
- Kevin C. Neeceand John Tenuto, “The Way to Eden: The Edenic Imagination of the Original Series,” in The Gospel According to Star Trek: The Original Crew, 1st ed. (The Lutterworth Press, 2016), 33–39, https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctvj4swr2.11.
- Cushman, These Are the Voyages, 637; Tilotta, Dave, “A Conversation with Bjo Trimble: Film Clips and Lincoln Enterprises,” StarTrekHistory.com. Retrieved July 16, 2016.
- “Shakespeare in the Twilight Zone: The Passerby.” Bardfilm, January 7, 2013. http://bardfilm.blogspot.com/2013/01/shakespeare-in-twilight-zone-passersby.html.
- TV Guide. “One Step Beyond – Season 2 Episode Guide,” n.d. https://www.tvguide.com/tvshows/one-step-beyond/episodes-season-2/1030245529/
- Tom Ruffles, “The Lincoln Hunters, by Wilson Tucker,” Book Notes, September 22, 2016. https://tomruffles.wordpress.com/2016/09/22/the-lincoln-hunters-by-wilson-tucker/.
- Merril Peterson, Lincoln in American Memory, 1st ed. (London: Oxford, 1994), 346-347.
- David F. Ericson, “The Crisis in Lincoln Scholarship,” review of Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, by Harry V. Jaffa. Reviews in American History 38, no. 4 (2010): 664–69, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40985429.
- Arthur Zilversmit. “Lincoln and the Problem of Race: A Decade of Interpretations.” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association 2, no. 1 (1980): 22–45.
- Ericson, “The Crisis in Lincoln Scholarship,” 664.
- John M Barr, “Holding Up a Flawed Mirror to the American Soul: Abraham Lincoln in the Writings of Lerone Bennett Jr.,” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, vol. 35, no. 1 (2014): 43-65, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24573833.
- Peterson, Lincoln in American Memory, 285, 335-340.
- James Hurt, “Sandburg’s Lincoln within History.” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association. 20, no.1 (Winter 1999): 55–65; Carl Sandburg, “Address before the Joint Session of Congress” (speech, Washington DC, February 2, 1959), National Parks Service, https://www.nps.gov/articles/000/carl-sandburg-s-abraham-lincoln-address.htm.
- “The Savage Curtain,” 12:50.
- Mark A. Altman and Edward Gross, The Fifty-Year Mission: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Trek: The First 25 Years (New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2016), 224.
- “After 40 Years, Star Trek ‘Won’t Die.'” Space.com. 7 September 2006. Archived from the original on 8 October 2009. Retrieved March 23, 2011; Christian Höhne Sparborth “Nichols Talks First Inter-Racial Kiss,” TrekToday, accessed December 19, 2022, https://www.trektoday.com/news/050901_05.shtml.
- Star Trek: The Original Series, season 3, episode 7, “Day of the Dove,” directed by Marvin Chomsky, written by Jerome Bixby, aired November 1, 1968, NBC;George A. Gonzalez, Popular Culture and the Political Values of Neoliberalism (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017), 31.
- Star Trek: The Original Series, season 3, episode 16, “The Mark of Gideon,” directed by Jud Taylor, written by Stanley Adams and George Slavin, aired January 17, 1967, NBC; Keith R.A. DeCandido, “Star Trek: The Original Series Rewatch: ‘The Mark of Gideon,'” Tor.com, September 20, 2016, https://www.tor.com/2016/09/20/star-trek-the-original-series-the-mark-of-gideon/.
- Carl Sandburg, “Lincoln: The Prairie Years and the War Years.” in Lincoln Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Legacy from 1860 to Now, ed. Harold Holzer (New York: Library of America, 2008), 464-465.
- Peterson, Lincoln in American Memory, 256-257.
- David Alexander, Star Trek Creator: The Authorized Biography of Gene Roddenberry, (New York: Roc, 1995), 15–17; Peterson, Lincoln in American Memory, 252.
- Keith Booker, Star Trek: A Cultural History (New York: Bloomsbury, 2017), 72.
- James Hurt, “Sandburg’s Lincoln within History,” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, vol. 20, no. 1 (1999): 55-65, http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.2629860.0020.105.
- Peterson, Lincoln in American Memory, 346-347; K. C. Wheare, review of The Emergence of Lincoln. Vols. 1 and 2, by Allan Nevins, The American Historical Review, vol. 56, no. 3 (April 1951): 593-595, https://www.jstor.org/stable/1848481.
- Kate Masur, “In Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln,’ Passive Black Characters,” New York Times, November 12, 2012, retrieved December 4, 2012, https://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/13/opinion/in-spielbergs-lincoln-passive-black-characters.html; Joseph Williams, “Honest Abe Slays Demons in Vampire Hunter.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 21, 2012, retrieved July 5, 2012, https://www.stltoday.com/entertainment/movies/reviews/honest-abe-slays-demons-in-vampire-hunter/article_4476c47c-ba93-11e1-aafc-0019bb30f31a.html.
- “Americans’ Perspective on Abraham Lincoln,” Participant, February 2013, accessed January 20, 2023, participant.com/2013/02/americans-perspective-abraham-lincoln.