Boarding the Enterprise

September 8, 2016 is the fiftieth anniversary of the first airing of Star Trek. It’s also close enough to the thirtieth anniversary of the indeterminate date I first saw Trek.

Hold on a moment, would you – I need to hyperventilate a bit.

I had a little thing about my history with Star Trek all typed up and ready to open this review – but, luckily for you, I did not enjoy this book. I’ll save my biographical notes (hold your applause), and cut to the chase?

As a once and again Trekkie, when I saw “Boarding the Enterprise” on Netgalley I didn’t think about it, just clicked “request”. Mindful of the rapidly approaching anniversary, I dove into it, and was pleased … until I wasn’t. For one thing, don’t get the idea that this is a book celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Trek. No – it’s a book that was apparently originally released around the fortieth anniversary of Trek, apparently dug up and reissued by its publisher to capitalize on a bigger celebration. That is sufficient reason for me to knock a star off its rating. For one thing, the text is dated: “From The Sopranos to HBO’s Rome, from MTV to CNN and Fox News, to the Discovery and the Sci-Fi Channels, all that we see on cable today is the result of Star Trek’s amazing voyages beyond the networks.” Ah, the good old days when The Sopranos and Rome were on, and it was still the Sci-Fi Channel… For another thing – really? You can’t come up with new material to commemorate something as big as this date?

Another reason not to be very fond of this book is – well, the full title is: “Boarding the Enterprise: Transporters,Tribbles, And the Vulcan Death Grip in Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek”. Having finished, I marked it thus on Goodreads, and thought “Vulcan Death Grip? Did I skim that part?” Because I did skim parts. So I did a search of the book. Nope, it doesn’t seem to be mentioned anywhere. Odd.

It did start well. The introduction by Robert J. Sawyer and the Foreword (“Still Trekkin’ After All These Years”) by David Gerrold hit all the right notes, and set it up to be the celebration I was looking for. Another odd thing – apparently Gerrold’s foreword was written, or revised, for the re-release, because it begins “It’s fifty years later.” Any other mention of the time frame specifically says forty. (If I ever knew that an early title for the Tribbles episode was “A Fuzzy Thing Happened . . .” I’d forgotten – I think it’s better.)

“Star Trek in the Real World” by Norman Spinrad was fine. I enjoyed the recap of how and why the prototype space shuttle was named Enterprise. I didn’t so much enjoy the revelation of the flim-flammery that went into the letter-writing campaign to save Trek. I made a note of one line about the show’s cancellation: “this ‘failure’ was still watched by twenty million people a week for three years.” I did some checking; the Season 5 debut of The Walking Dead “crushed” cable records with 17.3 million viewers; the season 6 finale came in at 19.36 million. It’s a completely different TV universe, of course – but it’s something to think about. At any given time I can find several people with whom I can talk about each episode (without going online, I mean – online I can find millions). I can only imagine what it was like to be watching first-run Trek.

Roddenberry consulted experts and the Enterprise was designed and even blue-printed down to the smallest niggling detail, to the point where NASA even took a look at his plans to pick up some tips on spaceship ergonomics.

I enjoyed “I Remember Star Trek. . .” by D. C. Fontana, happily, though I was momentarily distracted by the idea of Shatner’s reaction to “Bill Shatner, whose hair was thinning, had to resort to a toupee on every show.” It was a nice collection of behind-the-scenes stuff that I had either forgotten about or never saw before.

One network executive, frustrated by our insistence on honesty in the science and truth in the stories we were telling, finally blurted out in a meeting, “You people think that ship is really up there!” Bob Justman had the last word on that occasion. He said, “It is.”

After that it became less “Yay Star Trek!” and more “I’m so clever/funny/clever and funny, let me tell you all about it in a Trek context.” Some of the articles – such as the ones about religion and personal identity – annoyed in part because I’m frankly weary of complaints about how the point of view of the show changed from one season or episode to the next… It was an anthology show. It had many different writers. Consistency would be nice, but they weren’t looking to make something people would be writing footnoted scholarly articles about fifty years hence.

“All Our Tomorrows: The Shared Universe of Star Trek” by Allen Steele – makes exactly that point, discussing the novelty of a series which told standalone stories each week, bound together by the same characters and the same sets. Interesting read; not entirely up to the level I was looking for, but interesting. (But you know I’m looking for nits to pick: I highlighted this – “also revealed that Spock had a first name but that it was unpronounceable; I suspect that it was ‘Arnold,’ but that he was just too embarrassed to admit it.” Cute. But we don’t know that it’s Spock’s FIRST name we’re missing. The line from the episode is: “You never told me if you had another name, Mr. Spock.” For all we know, Spock is his first name; it’s a family name we might be missing. Considering his mother calls him Spock, I think that’s reasonable.

“The Prime Question” by Eric Greene re-treads the well-worn path about how Kirk loved to flout the Prime Directive. How original. There’s more, about how Trek handled political commentary and the race issues of the day… Again, been there and done that. I did find it interesting to read “It was largely through Spock, for instance, that Star Trek dealt with questions of racial identity and assimilation, and growing up as a multiracial kid, I especially identified with him because he was the only mixed-race character I knew of in pop culture.” That never occurred to me. Spock was pretty amazing.

“We Find the One Quite Adequate: Religious Attitudes in Star Trek” by Michael A. Burstein – Another article which tries to find one unified religious outlook in a series that was written by several people. On the whole, pointless. Also, the essay includes complaints about that one wedding and that one memorial service being conducted by, respectively, Kirk and Spock rather than a ship’s chaplain. Well, if they had a chaplain aboard for every religion represented aboard the Enterprise, they would, to paraphrase Chief Brody, need a bigger boat. The Trek podcast I’ve been listening to talks about the not-infrequent need to retcon (create retroactive continuity); on this question I can retcon to my heart’s content. Are there five Catholics aboard? Each holy day they can convene in the chapel, or a briefing room, or someone’s quarters, and basically 23rd-century-Skype with a priest back home for Mass. Lather, rinse, repeat for different denominations and beliefs. There. Done.

“Who Am I? Personal Identity in the Original Star Trek” by Lyle Zynda – see prior, re: several authors. I understand the impulse to explore a concept throughout the series – I’m just not interested in the grafting on of deep philosophical and political subtexts that the writers probably never intended.

“What Have You Done with Spock’s Brain?!?” by Don DeBrandt talks about how stupid it is for Vulcans to try to be emotionless, with attempts at humor. See prior, re: “trying to be funny”. Mr. DeBrandt, if you’re so clever, why don’t you go create a completely unique, consistent, and interesting alien race? Oh, sorry – you’re too busy writing CSI novels. No – CSI Miami novels. Never mind. It irritates me deeply when someone takes a moment from the series, excises it from context, and runs with it, solely to make their point. To wit: “So how did Kirk react to seeing his best friend finally happy and in love? ‘All right, you mutinous, computerized, disloyal half-breed— we’ll see about you deserting my ship!'” Uh, no. That’s how Kirk reacted to seeing his friend under the control of spores which rendered him incapable of making independent decisions or of accomplishing more than looking for shapes in clouds.

“Lost Secrets of Pre-War Human Technology: Seat Belts, Circuit Breakers and Memory Allocation” by Lawrence Watt-Evans – Something I seem to find myself saying now and then is that there’s a difference between “trying to be funny” and “being funny”. There’s a vast gulf there. This article was slightly amusing, but pushed the joke too far. (See prior, re: “trying to be funny”.) For one thing, the writer might be clever enough in 2016 (or 2006) to know that computers since the fifties were capable of memory allocation which would have prevented half the computer explosions Kirk caused over the years – but seriously, in 1966, when the vast majority of the population had never touched a computer and manuals were probably abstruse and hard to obtain, could all the writers of Trek reasonably have been expected to know about something like memory allocation? As to seat belts – sure, given the amount of knocking about the crew took, seat belts might have been a good idea. But, looked at from a production point of view, a) they would have cost more, and b) would viewers really want to watch every week as crewmembers buckled themselves in, and then had to pause to unfasten themselves before they went rushing off to emergencies?

“Exaggerate with Extreme Prejudice” by Robert A. Metzger actually achieved humor, if somewhat heavy-handed humor. It’s a possible explanation for how exactly Scotty achieved his miracles, based on the author’s reality, and it’s pretty clever. As with so many other articles in this book, I hesitate about the use of 21st century knowledge when discussing 23rd century technology – that’s two full centuries in which untold discoveries can be made which will render everything in this article irrelevant. But it’s pretty clever.

“To Boldly Teach What No One Has Taught Before” by David DeGraff brought back the spirit I had hoped for in the book, discussing how DeGraff, as a teacher, uses Star Trek and science fiction in general to put his lessons across for his students. Very nice. If the whole book had been examples of “I’m [fill in occupation here] because of Star Trek, and here’s my story”, I’d read the heck out of it.

“Who Killed the Space Race?” by Adam Roberts – Spoiler alert: according to this guy, Star Trek killed the space race. He has some points, but I think it’s a shallow analysis, and – yet again – inappropriate to the theme of the book, at least as I thought it was going to be.

“Alexander for the Modern Age: How Star Trek’s Female Fans Reinvented Romance and Heroic Myth in Their Own Image” by Melissa Dickinson – Really? You want to celebrate a milestone anniversary of this show by telling me about slash fiction? I’m appalled. Not as appalled as I was when I first learned of what were called the “K/S ladies”, but pretty damned appalled. For me, it’s an extreme violation of what the characters are about, positing that in order to feel strong emotions about each other they must be more than friends. That’s moronic, and the only way you’re going to rouse more anger is if you bring Frodo and Sam into the discussion. Don’t.

“How Star Trek Liberated Television” by Paul Levinson – ok; interesting: Star Trek changed things by being a success in syndication. Problem is, this was already discussed earlier.

“Being Better” by Howard Weinstein talks about the Message of Star Trek, and how it faded in later series, which may well be part of why they were less successful. “The original Star Trek often reiterated simple verities about human aspirations. So did the original-series movies, and (in more subtle undertones) The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. But I think Voyager and Enterprise muted the message; Star Trek’s audience no longer heard the call that first brought them into the tent, and drifted 203away.” Feels right to me.

I learned a few things, or re-learned them – that Lee Cronin was actually Gene L. Coon (a near-anagram), and Walter Koenig (of all people) didn’t participate in the animated series (wonder why). I learned that after the second TOS season science fiction writers were not sought to write for any of the shows – far from it. I learned (or re-learned) that “the word ‘quasar’ comes from ‘QuasiStellar Radio Source'”. And there was an happy moment of connection on reading about the “marmalade rocks and tangerine skies” of Mars.

There were moments of what I wanted in this book, but they were badly diluted. Honestly, this is a time to celebrate the series that has meant so much to so many for five decades. I wanted more of this:

“We may not be quite sure how to get there from here, but as Edith Keeler said in Harlan Ellison’s episode ‘The City on the Edge of Forever’ (1–28), Star Trek taught us that the days and the years ahead are worth living for. More than anything else, the series was about hope.” … “Long before Star Trek, poet Emily Dickinson wrote: ‘Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.’ For us, hope was the thing with warp-drive nacelles and we wanted to beam aboard for the ride.

That’s what it’s all about, Charlie Brown.

I knocked off a star for trying to pass a retread over on the fandom; another star came off for the near-misery of some of the essays. Another half-star off for the slash article and a complete lack of Vulcan death grips – 2.5 stars, where allowed. In the spirit of the half-century, three on Goodreads.

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

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