I like Star Trek. I always have. The movies and spinoffs like Next Generation are fine, but there’s something pure and classic about the old 1960s series which has always been my favorite. I own the complete archives of the old series on DVD. Not long ago I re-watched one of my favorite episodes, which is called “The Way to Eden.” Many Star Trek fans would be surprised to hear that this is one of my favorites, as it’s one of the least-liked and most-derided of the old series; coming late in the third season, when the production quality of the show was declining, “The Way to Eden” has a pretty limp script, phone-it-in acting and hilariously ludicrous costumes. For a series that came up with such groundbreaking stuff like “Amok Time” or “The City on the Edge of Forever,” “The Way to Eden” simply doesn’t measure up. Yet I still love it as one of my favorites, because it, more than most other Star Trek episodes, has some very interesting things to say about the time in which it was made.

“The Way to Eden” concerns a small group of space travelers who have stolen a spaceship and, as the episode opens, are being pursued by the Federation starship Enterprise. As their ship blows up (its engines were failing) Captain Kirk orders the six passengers beamed aboard. They turn out to be a bizarre group of what can only be described as space hippies, led by an alien with outrageous latex ears, Dr. Severin (Skip Homeier). Dr. Severin tells Kirk and Spock that he and his group are searching the galaxy for a planet called Eden, believed by most to be mythical, where the group–who has rejected the values of Federation society–will live in an idyllic paradise among “savages,” presumably Eden’s primitive indigines. Unfortunately Severin is a carrier of an incurable disease, and Kirk refuses to help them. The hippies won’t take no for an answer, however, and hijack the Enterprise to bring it to Eden. When they find it, stealing a shuttlecraft to land on it, they discover a beautiful but dangerous world where all the vegetation is filled with deadly acid. Even knowing this, Severin, who is insane, chomps an apple and falls dead. The others ultimately leave with the Enterprise crew.

One of the musical numbers sung by the space hippies in the episode “The Way to Eden.” Charles Napier is the actor; he wrote some of the music too. Musical interludes were rare on Star Trek.

“The Way to Eden” first aired on February 21, 1969, just one month into the administration of President Richard Nixon. It was filmed in November 1968 and the script, by veteran Star Trek writer Dorothy (D.C.) Fontana, was presumably being worked on that summer and autumn. The concept was easy to understand: Star Trek wanted to do something topical within a science fiction context, and so the idea of hippies was considered. This wasn’t the first time the show had done something like this. A second season episode, “A Private Little War,” is generally thought to be an allegory on Vietnam, and a first season show, “Errand of Mercy,” arguably deals with the Cold War. One of science fiction’s great attributes is its ability to deal with real-world issues in a new and different way.

But “A Private Little War” and “Errand of Mercy” work as episodes. “A Way to Eden” is a thundering bore at best, and laughable at worst. (I still get a chuckle out of the little plastic emblems on the hippies’ clothes, which look like nothing so much as fried eggs). The script is pretty stilted. The hippies are annoying as a group of first-graders, constantly mouthing groovy jargon and shouting weird insults, like “Herbert!”, at Captain Kirk and others they dislike. They sing, too; the episode has no less than three musical numbers, one of them involving Spock gettin’ down with his Vulcan lyre. There’s a feeble attempt to inject interpersonal conflict by making Chekov, the Enterprise navigator (Walter Koenig), an old flame of one of the hippies, Irina Galliulin (Mary-Linda Rapelye). Chekov is portrayed as stilted and by-the-book, whereas Irina is said to have dropped out of Starfleet Academy to go wear funky clothes and groove with Severin. Indeed Chekov comes across as an arch-conservative stick in the mud, which is totally the opposite way his character was conceived; Chekov was brought into the show in 1967 as a youthful, Beatle-like character that the producers hoped would appeal to young people. For this reason actor Walter Koenig has said he dislikes this episode.

In “The Way to Eden,” Spock joins the hippies for a logical jam session while some of them sneak away to hijack the Enterprise. They make it look so easy!

Is a poor script really to blame, though? I actually think the stilted nature of “The Way to Eden” is extremely telling and speaks volumes about American society in 1968-69. Hippies and their lifestyle, growing out of the drug and rock and roll culture primarily in San Francisco in 1966 and especially 1967, were viewed by many people as a direct affront to American values. Boys grew their hair long and took off their shirts at rock concerts. (Oh, the horror!) Girls painted flowers on their bodies and sometimes had babies out of wedlock. All hippies were opposed to the Vietnam War, most to capitalism in general and by 1969 figures like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan (then Governor of California) were their worst enemies. You didn’t have to be an arch-conservative to find this threatening at a time when numerous social mores in America were getting upended. Today we find hippies quaint and vaguely whimsical. In 1969 they were a very serious issue.

There’s a sense in “The Way to Eden” that the makers of the show–writer Fontana (who took her name off the script) and director David Alexander–simply didn’t know what to make of hippies in the real world. The creatures in Severin’s crew, which includes some aliens, seem shallow and childlike, idealistic to a fault and not really in tune with how the universe really works. Their quest for Eden, which Spock says at the end of the show he admires, is portrayed as worthy, but the hippies’ motives are very reductionist, defined solely in terms of what they’re against rather than what they really believe in. Consequently the group comes off as a bunch of buffoons, as much as characters like Chekov and Kirk seem like rigid authoritarians who are incapable of “reaching” the hippies’ motivations. The two groups seem to be talking past one another. That is real. That’s the way it really was in America in 1969, especially within families where middle class suburban parents couldn’t quite understand why their son now had long hair or why their daughter started calling herself Moonbeam. This is what “The Way to Eden” gets right, albeit unwittingly.

hippies at woodstock by ric manning

Hippies and their allies–like these probably middle-class kids going to Woodstock in August 1969–posed a profound and confusing challenge to traditional suburban American values.

As science fiction, “The Way to Eden” is clunky. As Star Trek, it’s several shots below par. It’s never been a fan favorite and you’ll never hear the cast or crew cite it as one of the show’s prime accomplishments. But when considered with its historical context, “The Way to Eden” is a much more interesting artifact of its time than a much better episode that’s pure fantasy, like “The Doomsday Machine” or “A Piece of the Action.” It fulfilled with aplomb the one thing that Star Trek was better at than any other science fiction show of its day: it made us think.

The still from “The Way to Eden” is copyrighted (C) 1969 by Paramount Pictures, the owner of the Star Trek franchise. I believe my inclusion of it here constitutes fair use, as my use is limited, illustrative and no free alternative exists. The Woodstock photo is by Ric Manning and is used under Creative Commons 3.0 (Attribution) license. I am not the uploader of any of the video clips linked here.