The Historical Event That Inspired the Plot of a ‘Star Trek’ Episode

star trek uss pueblo

GILES HEWITT/AFP via Getty Images US naval uniforms are displayed aboard the USS Pueblo, a US navy technical research ship captured by enemy forces in 1968.

When it comes to the Star Trek universe, it’s fairly common for the writers to take inspiration from real world events, or pressing social issues of the time. In the case of one episode, the inspiration came from an incident that made headlines around the globe. The plot of a third season episode of Star Trek was inspired by a historic naval conflict between America and the North Koreans. Here’s what you need to know about the origins of The Enterprise Incident, and the international scandal that inspired the tale.

‘The Enterprise Incident’ Was Inspired By the U.S.S. Pueblo

uss pueblo

TIM WITCHER/AFP via Getty ImagesNorth Korean navy ratings guard the USS Pueblo, an American spy ship, on the river Taedong in central Pyongyang 16 April 2001. The ship was attacked and captured in January 1968 and the crew held for 11 months. It has now become a symbol of a new anti-US propaganda battle. According to North Korean state media of the time, growing numbers of people visit the ship to show their anger at US policy toward the communist state.

According to TIME, many episodes of early Trek were “thinly disguised allegories for very current social problems” of the 1960s. One episode that was inspired by current events of the time was the third season episode The Enterprise Incident. TIME describes the plot, while also noting the event that inspired it: “Kirk is taken captive by the Romulans and held as a spy after the Enterprise strays into the neutral zone—a story inspired by the then-recent North Korean capture of the U.S.S. Pueblo.”

The U.S.S. Pueblo was seized by the North Koreans in January of 1968, in what CNN called “one of the most embarrassing incidents in US military history, the first hijacking of a naval vessel since the Civil War, 153 years earlier.” NPR‘s analysis of the Pueblo incident noted the ship had been “misleadingly identified on its hull as GER-2, was on its maiden mission as a spy ship for Naval Intelligence and the National Security Agency” at the time of its capture. The same NPR report quotes the ship’s former XO, retired Lt. Eddie Murphy. According to Murphy, the ship never left international waters, but the North Koreans attack anyway. According to the History Channel, it took nearly a year for the crisis to be resolved. On December 23, 1968, the members of the Pueblo crew who had been taken prisoner by the North Koreans were released. Some crew members, alleging abusive treatment, ultimately attempted to sue the North Korean government.

Atlas Obscura argues that the U.S.S. Pueblo incident isn’t as well known as other Cold War conflicts, in part because the Tet Offensive in Vietnam “overshadowed” the incident in North Korea. According to Business Insider, the Pueblo was unescorted on her mission because of the United States Military’s focus on the escalating conflict in Vietnam.

The Episode Was Written by D.C. Fontana

The episode was written by New Jersey native D.C. Fontana, also known by her full name, Dorohy Catherine Fontana. D.C. Fontana also wrote many other episodes of Star Trek, including Tomorrow Is Yesterday and Friday’s Child. D.C. Fontana continued to write for sci-fi shows after her time on TOS. Her IMDB page notes writer credits for shows like The Six Million Dollar Man and Babylon 5, as well as TNG and DS9. She also wrote many episode of the Star Trek animated series.

In 2008, D.C. Fontana co-wrote a comic series that providing a continuation of the story begun in The Enterprise Incident. That series, Star Trek: Year Four, featured an installment called The Enterprise Experiment meant to be a direct sequel to the TV episode she wrote decades earlier. In an interesting aside, not all of the Star Trek comic books are considered part of the Trek canon, though that doesn’t stop fans from enjoying non-canonical tales of their favorite crew members.

In a piece entitled Cold War Pop Culture and the Image of U.S. Foreign Policy: The Perspective of the Original Star Trek Series for the Journal of Cold War Studies, author Nicholas Evan Sarantakes provides evidence that both show creator Gene Roddenberry and Star Trek producer Bob Justman saw direct parallels between the U.S.S. Pueblo and The Enterprise Incident. The abstract for his article argues “the producers, directors, and writers attempted to use [Star Trek] as a forum to comment on a number of political issues. They intentionally designed some episodes to critique U.S. foreign policy.”

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