Teaching 20th Century History With Star Trek

To Boldly Go…Into 20th Century America

Finally, we have reached the best and the brightest that Star Trek has to offer, plus Assignment Earth. First, we have the fabulous and hilarious A Piece of the Action. If you’ve never seen this episode, you are in for a real treat. Kirk as a 1920s mob boss. Does it get any better than this? Of course, every Trekker knows that The City on the Edge of Forever is considered the best episode ever made. However, it also asks some great questions about charity, pacifism and even theology. Finally, Assignment Earth, while not a great episode, is interesting because it gives insight into the concerns over nuclear annihilation during the height of the Cold War.

A Piece of the Action

Summary: Kirk, Spock and McCoy have to restore order on a planet modeled after 1920s America.

When to Watch: While studying organized crime.


  • imitative
  • Heater and/or chopper (as a firearm)
  • Fed
  • Indigenous
  • Gangster
  • Sanguine

Questions and Activities

  1. Oxmix refers to his whiskey as something he distills himself. How is this significant?
  2. What was the wire that Kirk pulled from the radio normally used for?
  3. What kind of car was Kirk driving?
  4. What did “cement over shoes mean?”
  5. What does the phrase “penny ante” refer to?

This is my sister’s favorite episode.

The City on the Edge of Forever

Episode Summary: McCoy accidentally goes back in time to 1930 Earth and changes history.

When to Watch: Between studying the Depression and World War II.


  • vacuum tubes
  • radio tubes
  • flop
  • mnemonic memory circuit
  • wood alcohol

Questions and Activities

  1. Kirk and Spock landed in a city. How were conditions during the depression different in rural areas?
  2. While escaping the policeman, Kirk and Spock ran by the mission, where people were lined up for what?
  3. Why didn’t Edith Keeler reacted more strongly to Kirk’s admission that they were thieves? Would this be in keeping with the values of someone like her in this era?
  4. How did what Edith Keeler paid Kirk and Spock compare to the average wage in 1930?
  5. How much would five pounds of platinum cost in 1930?
  6. When Edith Keeler asked if they were in the war together, what war did she mean?
  7. How often was milk still delivered in horse drawn carts in New York in 1930?
  8. Germany won the war because Edith Keeler convinced the United States not to fight. Spock notes that “peace was the right idea, but at the wrong time.” Explain.
  9. “…millions will die who did not die before.” Speculate on how the world would have been different if Germany had won World War II.
  10. Who was Clark Gable? What was inconsistent about Kirk and Keeler attending a “Clark Gable movie” in 1930?

Much of this episode was filmed on the same back lot as the Andy Griffith Show. Be on the look out for Floyd’s Barber Shop and other landmarks.

Assignment: Earth

Summary: Kirk and company have to decide whether to help or stop a man claiming to be from the future.

When to Watch: When studying 1960s America.

Questions and Activities

  1. Spock referred to “a major assassination.” Using the year given, determine who he was referring to.
  2. Given that this episode was made in 1968, what does it reflect about certain attitudes toward nuclear weapons.
  3. On the map, Gary-78 referred to McKinley Rocket Base. Where would a rocket actually be launching from in 1968?
  4. Watch footage of a pre-1968 space launch and see if you recognize the rocket shown.
  5. How does Miss Lincoln’s little speech toward the end of the episode reflect the feeling of the Peace Movement?


  • Check out the very young Teri Garr.
  • Does Gary 7’s “gun” remind anyone besides me of the mind eraser on Men in Black”?

Susan Mathis has been a fan of Star Trek ever since she started watching it as a child. If this does not make her unreliable in your sight, you might want to check out one of her favorite sites, FreeBookNotes.com.

*Disclosure: this post may contain affiliate links.

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