Over the course of its run on television and in film, Star Trek has explored all types of curiosities in space. It has discovered new races and new technology, traveled throughout time, and has defended itself against rivals and invaders. But, are there any dark places in the galaxy where Starfleet should not venture?
More often than not Star Trek holds to an optimism that springs from mid 1900’s futurism and especially the Space Race. It’s certainly an appealing notion and is one of the things people most enjoy about the series. It’s the Federation’s advanced technology and evolved philosophy that smooth out almost all their problems.
Cosmic horror, which is also known as Lovecraftian Horror, exists at a gloomy intersection of science fiction and horror. Based on the works of H.P. Lovecraft, a storyteller who himself is on the opposite end of the spectrum from Gene Roddenberry in some respects, cosmic horror depicts people facing abysmal existential dread. The strange happenings and encounters with mysterious and horrific beings serve only to remind the characters that they are merely insignificant humans.
In stark contrast to Star Trek, cosmic horror is oppressive in its depiction of a universe in which human capacities are incapable of perceiving the vast depths of reality. This is, of course, the trademark of such fiction that sells it to audiences. It is far more horror fiction than it is science fiction.
Star Trek: What are Little Girls Made of?
Copyright Paramount / CBS
Where They Meet
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Two episodes of The Original Series mention a term common in Lovecraft’s fiction. In both “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” and “Catspaw”, antagonists mention their superiors called the “Old Ones” or “Great Old Ones”. In the former episode, these “Old Ones” are responsible for leaving behind the mysterious technology to create androids. It’s a successfully creepy episode that leaves unanswered questions about the universe.
The latter episode is a rather campy one, released purposefully as a Halloween themed adventure. Mentions of witches and black cats and other alleged occult-ish type things are scattered about the episode. Eventually, the two magician enemies reveal they are only assuming human form to better interact with Kirk and his crew, and that they have been sent by the “Old Ones”.
In both cases, these mentions are not followed up with any more explanation, and they do not even seem to be related to each other. The connection, however, comes from Robert Bloch, the horror mastermind behind the novel Psycho. He wrote both episodes, and his influences for his horror writing are due in part to his contact with H.P. Lovecraft himself.
While no more investigation is ever made into who these “Old Ones” are, and Bloch only wrote three episodes for Star Trek, I still find myself wondering what Star Trek could do with story lines that were more explicitly in the realm of cosmic horror. And no, I certainly don’t mean the Enterprise or Discovery, or whatever other starship confronting an amorphous, ancient supreme being on the edges of space with torpedoes.
Star Trek: Catspaw
Copyright Paramount / CBS
Could We See More Old Ones?
As Star Trek progresses and strives to keep up with our changing times, it too evolves. Watching the show morph from series to series, it’s easy to pick up on how the show has changed from space adventure to space drama and to everything in between.
The thematic origins of cosmic horror stem from some potentially controversial personal viewpoints held by H.P. Lovecraft. Xenophobia and other themes are inherent in how he concocted non-human beings that posed great threat to humanity if disturbed. This certainly doesn’t mesh with the ideals of Starfleet.
Having said that, we may be getting a series that focuses on Section 31, Starfleet’s own morally vague underbelly. So it seems that the show has evolved beyond the limits initially proposed by Gene Roddenberry. There are interpersonal struggles and men have facial hair (things that Roddenberry didn’t think people of the future would care to have). So why not have Starfleet encounter phenomena in the realm of cosmic horror that are simply beyond optimistic curiosity and sensor scans to comprehend?
I don’t think expanding Star Trek risks fundamentally changing the tenets of the series. Sometimes the best way to examine one’s beliefs and ideals is to challenge them. As long as Star Trek challenges itself appropriately, it has quite a bit of mileage left in the storytelling department. And perhaps there is a tentacled god of the abyss out there waiting to be awoken by a curious starship.