Star Trek’s famous “cloaking device” wasn’t just the ultimate vaporware. According to a new documentary, the sci-fi gadget was actually a political statement about Soviet espionage during the Cold War.

While Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak was a robe he wrapped around himself to sneak out at night, the invisibility cloak employed by the Romulans (and others) on Star Trek is a force-field wrapped around a starship to make it totally invisible. In a new clip from forthcoming Smithsonian Documentary called Building Star Trek, Simon Pegg and others reveal the more paranoid tone of the cloaking device.

“All the villains in Star Trek were proxies for our villains, our [Western culture's] real enemies of the time,” Simon Pegg explains, “The Romulans [in the original Star Trek] were sort of sneaking around, did everything sort of undercover, were duplicitous and were untrustworthy, and all of that was a reflection of how they [Western superpowers] were feeling about communism at the time.”

The clip goes on to explore the real-life scientific possibilities of a cloaking device using contemporary technology. John Howell, a professor at the Institute of Optics at the University of Rochester explains that a real-life, small-scale cloaking device would be all about basic physics. “Invisibility,” says Howell, “Is taking a light ray and bending it around an object so that it [the light] gets to the observer as if the object weren’t there.”

The Enterprise uses a cloaking device in 'Star Trek: The Next Generation'
The Enterprise uses a cloaking device in 'Star Trek: The Next Generation'

In Star Trek the motivation to cloak a spaceship always deals with a massive power struggle. But what would we do with the technology in real life? Would we hide from our friends to play pranks? Our would we make gigantic warships invisible?

The new Smithsonian Documentary, Building Star Trek will explore these questions and many, many more. The entire doc is set to air on The Smithsonian Channel on September 4, and be available to steam after the premiere.

Photos via Star Trek Gifs.com, TrekCore