Embracing Star Trek

Since I said I wanted to do something a little different with the proposed Star Trek and Star Wars blog projects, it seemed only right that I kickstart this into gear and get a little momentum with the blogging habit in general.  With Star Trek‘s 50th anniversary on the horizon, I thought I’d start there, perhaps write something a little personal.

I’ve certainly made no secret that Star Wars is my first love.  But there were a lot of years when there was no Star Wars.  It’s probably hard for younger fans to fathom that in this new era where Star Wars is everywhere, but it’s true.  My generation calls that the Dark Times.  Like so many of those fans who were lost in the wilderness, Star Trek became something of a home away from home, complete with a welcoming surrogate family.  Star Trek was always there for me.  Dad watched it more or less religiously when he could, and it’s from him that I gained my appreciation for NASA, the history of flight, and a fascination of intrepid explorers, the historical legacy of which provided the foundation for that which Star Trek built.

For me, this is how it worked out.  I was 5, almost 6, when Star Trek: The Motion Picture hit theaters in 1979.  By the previous year, Star Wars had well and truly cemented itself in my awareness, and Battlestar Galactica had wormed its way in due to an accident.  After meeting Darth Vader in person and having dropped many subsequent not-so-subtle hints that I wanted a Darth Vader action figure, my well-intentioned Grandma bought me a Cylon action figure.  I had no idea what it was, but it was cool enough to warrant further investigation.  Superman also entered my consciousness that year via Christopher Reeve due to an intervention where Mom decided I needed a better role model than the aforementioned Dark Lord of the Sith.  I was the perfect age for indoctrination, and Dad kept trying — and failing — to capture my attention with Star Trek.  Hey, I was 4 in 1978.  Star Trek was considerably smarter than I was, and the ship-to-ship combat wasn’t exactly riveting to the young mind who was there when Luke Skywalker took out the Death Star.  Even so, Star Trek was always there, and I was always aware of it.  I’m not really sure when or how, but it became part of my vocabulary, part of my zeitgeist.  I fundamentally learned to understand who was whom, what was what, and why any of it mattered.  It took up the rear in terms of my interests, but it was there.  So by the time the first film hit, the selling point for me (as I recall it) was that the Enterprise was going to get a redesign.  I had no clue what that even meant.  All I remember is sitting in the car at the drive-in theater, waiting for this redesign to happen, and being largely bored out of my skull.  I couldn’t see anything, the sound on the speaker was crappy, and the story didn’t make any real sense to my young mind.  We got Klingons for about 3 and a half minutes, and there was some bald lady running around.  That’s literally all I remember about the experience aside from asking when the Enterprise was going to get redesigned.  Mom said it already happened, and I felt I missed out on something important.

Yeah, I really did.  But I didn’t know it at the time.

I learned to hate that movie, and then I learned to love it, both for the same reason.  You see, I was in kindergarten in 1979, and the following school year of 1980-1981 (also known as the year of The Empire Strikes Back!), Dad decided to further infiltrate my geekdom as Grandma had previously done.  So my Disney lunch box was swapped out for this:

STTMP lunchbox

My friends all had Star Wars and Empire lunch boxes.  I was mercilessly teased by friend and foe alike, often beaten up, and became very aware of how life would unfold for me on the whole.  Star Wars was for everyone.  Trek was for outsiders… nerds.  I was little, awkward, pudgy, and largely a good target.  Yay, me.  On the plus side, lunch boxes in those days were made of metal, and I learned to use it as a shield.  On the bottom side of this is a picture of the bridge crew, featuring Lt. Ilia, aka “the bald lady.”  Once that little factoid became known to the school at large, it was like open season on the nerd had been renewed.  I learned to despise Star Trek.  It ruined my life, as far as I was concerned.  I wanted nothing to do with it.

And yet, it was always there, playing in the background of my life.

In 1982, Dad got advance screener tickets to see Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.  Now understand… by this time, we lived in a world where The Empire Strikes Back had reigned supreme and we were all chomping at the bit for next year’s Revenge of the Jedi.  The Star Wars Fan Club was already telling me all about it in the quarterly issues of Bantha Tracks.  It would be a few months before that was rebranded to the now-familiar Return of the Jedi.  Raiders of the Lost Ark and Clash of the Titans introduced me to more possibilities of storytelling, and by this point I’d discovered the Sinbad films, Universal Monsters, and James Bond… none of which really grabbed me yet the way Star Wars had, but they got in a toe-hold.  And Star Trek was still in the background somewhere.  I just sort of absorbed it unconsciously.  When Dad got those screener tickets, he explained that we would be seeing the new movie a couple of days before anyone else, and somehow I got it in my head that meant that we would be the only ones in the theater.  I was still aware that Star Trek had ruined my short life, but suddenly this seemed special.  Just me and Dad, seeing a new movie before anyone else.  498 other people were there to join us, which confused me to no end.  And then something new distracted me.  It was my first taste of promotional swag.  We got stickers, all manner of promotional material, and this poster:

TWOK poster

When the lights dimmed, do you know what 8-year-old me saw on that screen?  Star Trek.  Only better.  Like in Star Wars, there were real consequences to the ships pummeling each other, and these ships were capable of taking more of a punch.

I didn’t understand why or how at the time, but I’d somehow formed an attachment to the characters involved.  Like Spock, I’d become the ultimate outsider, with a core group of friends that I could rely upon.  Because I was in the Cub Scouts in those days, I learned to understand what it meant to wear a uniform and to perform one’s duty in a way that would honor said uniform.  I learned to stick with those who shared that responsibility.  This was the day I learned about honor and sacrifice.  I didn’t understand it on some levels, but I very much did on others.

By the time we got back home, I was fully appreciating that old, battered lunch box.  My world had gotten a little bigger and a little more intimate at the same time.  The idea that Spock would return was a foregone conclusion.  The only question was if he’d be a Force ghost like Obi-Wan.  Turns out, not so much.  By the time The Search For Spock hit the theaters, Return of the Jedi had come and gone, and Star Wars settled into its rapid decline.  I was ten years old when I learned that heroes can die for the right things and come back to life again.  That was an important lesson that would spare me the ravages of my generation, though I couldn’t have known that at the time.  What did affect me, though, was the destruction of the Enterprise.  Spock would come back.  You couldn’t fix a machine.  Or could you?

1984 was the year of the Great Robot Wars.  Robotech, Voltron, GoBots, and a couple dozen other properties that nobody ever heard of stepped up to do battle in the wake of Star Wars.  In the end, it was a short fight.  Transformers dominated the landscape for the next two years.  Those robots had souls.  They were alive.  Optimus Prime was elevated to the status of primary hero in my world following the destruction of the Enterprise and the rather slapsticky letdown that was Superman III.  It dominated my imagination in that time as well.

The next two years were full of turmoil.  We moved away from my friends.  My geeky interests made me the target of even bigger bullies in middle school who thought they had something to prove.  Then in August 1986, Hasbro decided it needed to wipe out that first generation of toys to make room for the next wave.  Transformers: The Movie opened, and the severely miscalculated move to kill Optimus Prime in single combat pushed my entire generation into therapy.  Except for me.  You see, earlier that summer, I got a reminder that not only could Spock come back from the dead, but the Enterprise could be replaced.  (Turns out I was wrong about that, incidentally.  Enterprise could never be replaced.)  For a robot with a soul, it seemed pretty easy: rebuild the body, restore the consciousness.  I remember explaining this to my Dad, and he looked at me in exasperation.  I’ll never forget what followed because it changed my life forever.

He handed me a paperback novel, and he said, “I think it’s time to expand your horizons a bit.”

Covenant of the Crown novel

12-year-old me pretty much devoured this book in a weekend, and I knew where there was more like this… at the top of Dad’s closet were whole stacks of these.  A funny thing happened in the remaining days of that summer before I entered the new school in 7th grade.  I became a bonafide bookworm.  I’d always been interested in reading.  I spent many hours at the library learning random things because I could.  But not since The Hobbit had I discovered a complete world of fiction that pulled me in.  The difference is that I already knew who these people were.  The crew of the Enterprise became my closest friends in the years to come, all through junior high and high school.  Where Star Wars had faded due to a lack of anything, Star Trek flourished.  The crew taught me the fundamentals of everything I believe in at just the right age to understand and appreciate it all.

But my 7th grade year also heralded a bit of disaster on that front.  When we made our first move in 1985, Mom gave away a lot of my old stuff to Goodwill, including that lunch box.  Didn’t even tell me.  She assumed I still hated it, especially since I’d declared myself “too old” to carry such things anymore.  In the summer of 1987, following my 7th grade year, I attended my first Star Trek convention.  George Takei was the guest, back in the days when one guest was all you got.  I remember the dealer’s room vividly.  It was like stumbling upon the geeky version of Smaug’s treasure hoard.

And there, on one dealer table was my lunch box.  Mine.  It had my name and address in it on the inside of the lid in permanent marker, and my name on the bottom of the thermos.  The running value of it was $70 or so if it had been in mint condition.  Mine was battered, and the dealer had it listed for $400.  I showed him some identification in the hopes he’d understand and return my lost property.

“For you, $500.”

For a 13-year-old, that’s an unfathomable amount of money.  I was making $5 per week in allowance doing household chores.  $500 to regain what was mine?  Oh, hell no!  I caused a disturbance like you wouldn’t imagine.  That was the day I escalated from anger at being bullied to unabashed rage.  I remember Dad pulling me off the dealer after I’d jumped at him from across the table.  Minimal damage had been done, but we were escorted out of the hotel.  Needless to say, I didn’t get to meet George Takei until my first year of college.

In the intervening years, the advent of home video and the rather cheap price tags for some VHS tapes meant that I acquired both the Star Wars trilogy and the four Star Trek films in short order.  I memorized them all before 1988.  That was a landmark year for me.  It was the year I got to see the actual Enterprise… the original 11-foot production model that resides in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.  Be still, my beating heart.

Enterprise - Smithsonian

The display on this is different than when I saw her, but it doesn’t change the sheer majesty of seeing her there, taking her place alongside real aircraft and spacecraft, many of which were crewed by brave men and women inspired by her.  Originally, she was suspended near the food court at the end of the tour, hovering over a scale model of her WWII aircraft carrier namesake, which is about the same size.  True story, the reason you only see the starboard side on the original series is because she’s unfinished.  The port side is largely unpainted, and it turned a bit green with age.  My understanding is she’s been completely restored in the intervening years by dedicated fans.

1988 being the 50th anniversary of Superman, I got to see on this same trip to the Smithsonian this incredible display of costumes and comics, guarded by Marines.  It was also the year that reintroduced me to the character who would dominate the next chapter of my geekiness: Batman.  I started reading those comics a year before the Michael Keaton film hit, and I’m glad I did.  But that’s another story.  The real superhero takeover of my life didn’t happen until 1992 with the one-two punch of Batman Returns and Batman: The Animated Series.  Blame Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman.  Both actress and character were high on my priority list in college.  And then the “Knightfall” storyline would come in and break the Bat, and then Superman would die, and so forth.  All of that would happen in college.  Before that, it was all Star Trek, all the time.  I was known in high school as the Star Trek guy, and I owned it.  I even dressed as Mr. Spock one year for Halloween, much to the never-ending delight of those who would continue to abuse me.  My senior year was Trek‘s 25th anniversary.  That was the year we lost Gene Roddenberry.  I saw Shatner and Nimoy on stage together.  Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country heralded the final mission of the original crew.  Star Trek: The Next Generation had been running for a few years by this point, and by season 3, I had warmed up to them.  Somewhere along the lines my allegiance had shifted from Spock to Dr. McCoy, and I couldn’t really tell you when or where that happened.  All I knew was it hit my like a punch in the gut when we lost DeForest Kelley.  Didn’t hurt any less when we lost Leonard Nimoy last year, or Jimmy Doohan, or Majel Barrett Roddenberry…

In all of the years since, I’ve followed Star Trek and treated it like an old friend, even when the first three years of Voyager didn’t live up to expectation.  I followed it all the way through to the end of Enterprise and beyond, picking up a novel here and there, revisiting the films and the series time and again.  Despite misgivings, I supported the first Abrams reboot film.  I’ve been a vocal basher of the current iteration of the franchise ever since, but I didn’t let that affect my perception of the whole.  Where Star Wars returned to me in the prequel era as a lost love, Star Trek has always been one of my dearest friends.  That’s how I see the classic crew, as those who practically raised me and helped to define who I am as a person today.  I owe a lot to each and every one of them, and a great deal besides to the Next Gen crew for opening my world to things like Shakespeare and helping me to rediscover Sherlock Holmes.  It’s through Star Trek that I learned of musical composers who were not, in fact, John Williams.  I was introduced to Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner through Star Trek.  It’s because of Star Trek that I learned the depths of world building that would later help me to navigate Tolkien’s Middle-Earth.

You know what’s funny about it all?  My favorite of the films over the long run turned out to be Star Trek: The Motion Picture.  Say what you will, but I’ve truly learned to appreciate it for what it is.  If The Wrath of Khan is essentially one part opera, one part rock and roll (and there’s nothing wrong with that!), then TMP is purely classical music of the most mature and exploratory kind.  When you boil it down to its essence, it’s a reunion of old friends, and it’s one of the most classic / reused plots from the original series, that of Kirk vs. the computer.  The older I get, the more I appreciate both of these ideas.  Besides that, the film had twice the budget of any of its successors, and that budget ended up on screen to make the Enterprise and her environments the most beautiful and realistic she’d ever look.  Or sound.  The score is iconic, so much so that they’d reuse it later for The Next Generation.  And if you know where to look, Darth Vader and Miss Piggy appear on screen at the same time.

VGer

I get a grin every single time I see this.

You know what else I realized along the way?  Persis Khambatta (Lt. Ilia) was one of the most beautiful women to ever walk the earth.  Absolutely stunning.

Persis Khambatta

Then again, she was also Miss India 1965, so clearly I was late to that wake-up call.  Better late than never?  Give this a think.  Her character represented a race whose hallmark was advanced sexual maturity in a movie that was rated G.  Looking back at how many beatings I took on her behalf and for Star Trek as a whole… totally worth every single one.

Honestly, the uniforms are about the only thing I’d change in that first film, because monochrome footy pajamas just don’t look good in any century.  lol.  Put that aside, and there was so much to be discovered in this film.  It explored the possibilities of what might have been had the Voyager program continued.  The idea of what it means as individuals and as a species to transcend our own boundaries speaks to me on some deep levels.  It dared to ask the biggest question of all: can we touch our creator?  The poster declared, “The human adventure is just beginning.”  I’ve spent a lot of time pondering what that means.

I gained a deep sense of character arc because of this film.  Because of Spock’s transitional lessons about logic and emotion to be found here, the foundation was laid for the character development he’d go through from his death and resurrection through to The Next Generation and beyond.  All of these characters were well-established before I was born.  They grew alongside me.  And I alongside them.  I embraced that idea.

I’ve come full circle since those early years.  I own my quirks.  I love what I love, and I revel in it, always looking to explore further and dig deeper.  In a lot of ways, Star Trek taught me how to be my own man, and it taught me to find the art and the beauty in that which most people would dismiss out of hand.  I was there when Trek was given new life on the big screen.  I was initiated for its 20th anniversary into the larger fandom, and I was deeply absorbed into it by the 25th.  Another 25 years later, there’s a lot for me to think about.  There’s a chance I’ll be around for the next 25 years, and if I’m lucky, I could even be around when Trek hits 100.  What forms it’ll take between now and then is anyone’s guess.  I’m sure I’ll love some and loathe some, like always.  So long as the spirit of intent is there, however, it will, dare I say it, live long and prosper.

I’ve rambled long enough, so I’ll end it there.  To close out, have a pic of my favorite version of Enterprise.  To this day, I still consider this the most elegant ship ever created for science fiction.

Enterprise - STTMP