Last week marked the premiere of the fifth season of the critically-acclaimed television series Mad Men. Created by Matthew Weiner, Mad Men depicts the men and women of a Madison Avenue advertising agency in the 1960s. Viewers of the series know that the show is much more than just the antics of a group of marketing and advertising workers. The show takes place in the rapidly changing decade of the 1960s, which began with a powerful, confident United States that soon quickly crumbled under the weight of the Vietnam War, racial discord, and profound cultural shifts. Mad Men focuses on the handsome and smart but personally flawed and troubled advertising executive Don Draper. Through its first four seasons the show explored a variety of important social and cultural issues from marriage and sex to race and politics. Weiner’s almost anal desire to make the show historically accurate is an important reason for Mad Men‘s success and critical acclaim.
As I watched last week’s episode unfold, I was struck by the similarities between Don Draper and that other 60s icon, Captain James T. Kirk. As an unapologetic Trekkie, I saw in this contemporary television show set in the 60s some interesting comparisons to a science-fiction series of that decade, Star Trek. Admittedly, these are vastly different types of tv shows, but they share certain common themes and values characteristic of 60s America.
Let me begin with the two stars. Don Draper and Captain Kirk both are serial womanizers. Though married, Draper has had affairs with numerous women from secretaries to an artistic Beatnik girl. For three years we watched Captain Kirk kiss various alien women as his ship explored the final frontier. The 1960s was so rife with chauvinism and sexism that it is not a surprise that both these characters would exhibit similar behavior. Beyond these two leading men, both shows reflect this social and cultural environment. In Mad Men, male characters treat women as sexual objects there for their personal enjoyment, whether it is simple leering at the voluptuous secretary Joan or Pete’s sexual conquest of the naive Peggy. Set three centuries into the future, women on Star Trek may be professionals but clearly lack much power. Aside from Uhura, most women on the Enterprise work as nurses or a kind of servant to Kirk (see Yeoman Rand), while the alien women succumb to Kirk’s wily ways. That said, both shows do at times show a few women chipping away at the very high glass ceiling and demanding more equality.
A confident almost imperialistic nationalism (Federationism for Star Trek) is also noticeable in both Star Trek and Mad Men. In the initial years of both shows, Kirk and Draper exhibit a certain swagger that reflected the optimism of early 60’s America. At a time where the United States possessed great power and influence in the world, Draper exudes confidence in himself, his work, and the nation’s capitalist system that Americans celebrated during the Kennedy years. Similarly, the cowboy diplomacy of Kirk, whether it was in challenging the Klingons or telling less developed societies that he knew was best for them despite the Prime Directive, mirrored American actions across the globe.
Interestingly, it appears that as Mad Men moves into the mid to late 1960s, less swagger is evident as the war in Vietnam slowly evolves and African Americans challenge the status quo. Scholars who study Star Trek likewise recognize a subtle change in that show by the time it left the air in 1969. In the episode “Omega Glory,” for example, the Enterprise crew visits a planet where two primitive powers fight for dominance. Kirk later realizes that this planet developed parallel to earth, but that the two warring parties had fought the atomic war that the US and USSR had avoided propelling their civilizations backwards into a primitive state. In the last scene one side, the Yangs, show Kirk their sacred text which turns out to be the US Constitution. Kirk passionately explains to the Yang leader that his people have perverted the meaning of the document and can only advance as a society if they live according to its true principles. As social commentary, the episode’s message seems to suggest that the US was also losing sight of its core values and risked a similar fate.
These are just two examples of how Mad Men and Star Trek reflect the feel and mood of 60’s America. Race and youth culture are two other promising similarities the shows may share. Mad Men‘s first episode this season is set in the summer of 1966 and several references were made to the growing presence of the youth culture and a more aggressive civil rights movement that challenged race relations in the north also. It seems clear that the Vietnam War and political conflict will become more prominent in its 5th season. Star Trek likewise confronted race through the diversity of the Enterprise crew as well as in the post-MLK assassination episode, “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield.” Like Don Draper, Captain Kirk is older than much of his crew and at times struggles to understand the younger crew members like Chekov or the famous “Space hippies” in the episode “The Way to Eden.”
Time will tell if the Mad Men and Star Trek comparisons will persist. If Weiner continues to try to keep his show true to the 1960s, it would seem that there will be much fruit for us to pick. However, we should be cautious not to go too far comparing these two shows. As far as I know, Captain Kirk never ventured into a Jeffries tube to share a doobie with a young, hip female crew member.
This article was first posted on April 4, 2012