[Ed. Note: Today marks the 50th anniversary of the premiere of Star Trek. A condensed form of this entry also appears as part of a group tribute at Echo Base.]
I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t a fan of Star Trek… and by “Star Trek,” I mean the original series, TOS, 1966-69, Shatner and Nimoy, velour shirts and styrofoam rocks, the first and still, as far as I’m concerned, the best of all the myriad Trek-related properties. To my eye, every subsequent iteration since the original has been a mere spin-off, derivative by definition, while the rebooted film series that began in 2009 is nothing more than a caricature…. and not a very good one at that.
The show actually ended three months before I was born, but it continued to air in syndicated re-runs more or less constantly during my childhood and early teens. According to my mother, she liked watching it while she did the household chores and I just soaked it in from my playpen. But while I may have begun as a captive audience, I had become a full-blown convert by the time I reached school age. Consider:
- One of the first conversations I remember having with someone of the opposite sex was the time I told a little girl in my kindergarten class all about this cool cat named Spock. (Weirdly enough, we’re still friends…)
- Our kitchen floor was covered in ancient linoleum that featured good-sized circles as part of the pattern. I used to stand on those circles, make a buzzing noise, and then run to a different spot of the house or out into the yard where I would freeze and “rematerialize,” as if I was being beamed there by Scotty.
- Of course I played with the Mego action figures of the day, as well as various other tie-in toys—I still have ’em all, too!—but my favorite Star Trek toy was a little tin case that held tiny files for cleaning my dad’s acetylene torch. He spotted me one day flipping the case open and shut while saying, “Kirk to Enterprise,” so he took the cleaners out and gave me the case. I carried it in my back pocket for years, even after I’d outgrown pretending to “call my ship.”
- On Saturday mornings, I’d prepare to watch the cartoon adventures of the Enterprise crew—voiced by the original live-action cast, so it felt like “real” Star Trek to me—by setting up Lego bricks on a TV tray to create my own “helm console,” which I “operated” all during the show.
- My bedroom walls were plastered with Star Trek posters — this was one of them — from elementary school until well after I started developing, ahem, other interests.
- And I fueled my young imagination by reading and re-reading the novelizations by James Blish and the utterly insane comic book series published by Gold Key. The characters and even the Enterprise were all off-model, the stories often felt like they came from some other series altogether, but in those days, we took whatever Star Trek we could get, and we liked it!
This was all during the early ’70s. My focus changed a bit with the coming of that other well-known space franchise in 1977, and Star Trek itself changed a lot when the crew made the leap to the big screen in 1979 with Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and then again in 1987 when The Next Generation turned the whole thing into a franchise. I loved those, too, and a lot of other sci-fi and fantasy properties as well. But my first love, the touchstone that I have returned to again and again throughout my life, has always been TOS.
When I was a kid, I was simply drawn to the action, the bright color scheme and occasionally wacky cinematography, the swashbuckling characters, and the eerie atmosphere. (In terms of tone, TOS has a lot more in common with The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits than it does with the Treks that followed; space used to be weird and kind of scary. None of the other iterations of Star Trek has gotten that quite right, which is a shame.) But as I grew older, I came to realize how much Star Trek had shaped my personal morality, as well as my understanding of human nature and what we ought to be striving for. Not some perfect utopia where there is no interpersonal conflict and humanity is free to smugly muse about what animals we used to be back in the bad old days of the 20th century (cough-TNG-cough), but rather a better society than the one we have now, in which human beings are as flawed and fragile as ever, but they’re at least trying to improve. And more importantly, they have the potential to improve, and in fact are improving.
I’m not in denial about the fact that Star Trek is a 50-year-old TV show with all the dated production values that suggests. I know that most people today, especially younger people, look at an episode like “Arena” and see only a guy in a primitive rubber suit with a zipper up the back. I see that too, and I’m not incapable of chuckling about it (in a laughing-with-them-not-at-them kind of way, of course). But I also see much more than that. I see an immensely optimistic parable in which Captain Kirk, cast in the role of an Everyman representing all of humanity, comes right up to the brink of killing a defeated opponent… and then stops himself. He realizes “the other,” the bad guy, had his reasons, too, for doing what he did… that in someone else’s story, the reptilian Gorn is the hero. And in that moment, Kirk makes the conscious, enlightened choice to spare his enemy. To rise above his own reptilian-brained nature. And in so doing, creates an opportunity for a more peaceful future instead of merely “winning.”
Star Trek, the original, true Star Trek, wasn’t what people today think it was. It wasn’t all “Fire phasers!” and stuff-blows-up and nookie with the green woman of the week. And it irritates the hell out of me that the show has been largely reduced to that in the public consciousness (as evidenced by those reboot movies I mentioned, which superficially resemble TOS but miss the deeper philosophies of the original). If I had to choose an episode that best exemplifies to me what Star Trek was really all about, “Arena” is a good one. A better example is called “Devil in the Dark.” In this one, miners living deep underground on an alien world find themselves being stalked and murdered by some kind of creature that burrows through solid rock and burns its victims to a crisp. Unable to defend themselves from this threat, the miners call for help, and the Enterprise responds. In the course of hunting for the creature, Kirk finds himself alone, face to face with the completely inhuman thing. His instincts — and his orders — are to kill it on sight, but his intellect tells him there’s something more going on than it appears. So he has Spock make telepathic contact with the beast… and learns that it isn’t some mindlessly evil killer; it’s intelligent and sensitive, but desperate, a mother who’s been protecting a horde of eggs that the miners, in their ignorance, have been destroying. With that epiphany, negotiations are made, and in the end, both species learn to coexist, to each other’s mutual benefit. In a nutshell, that is Star Trek… a classic monster-of-the-week set-up that subverts your expectations and ends on a positive note about empathy, diversity, acceptance, and finding a way other than killing… when you can. The monster costume may be cheesy, the dialog might be melodramatic, but these things don’t matter to me so much as the message of the story.
That message, indeed all the messages found in this old television show about exploring the human condition through stories about exploring space, are as relevant and as necessary to hear now in the awful 2000s as they were in the turbulent 1960s. When the headlines are filled with human beings behaving at their very worst, their most selfish, their most barbaric, or their most ignorant, I cling to what Star Trek taught me: that society and people in general not only can but will get better. That’s powerful stuff, and it’s a rarity on today’s pop-cultural landscape, which tends to be dominated by grimly nihilistic “realism” that may make for fine drama, but is ultimately — to me — depressing and enervating.
Star Trek isn’t just an exercise in nostalgia for me; it’s my gospel. It gives me hope when I need it the most.