Hard as it is to believe, today, September 8 of 2016, is the fiftieth anniversary of the first episode of Star Trek. On 9/8/66, “The Man Trap” aired on NBC. (I believe it was at 8:30 – and as I write this at 8:30, BBCAmerica has just begun a celebratory marathon, bless their hearts.) (“‘Plum’?”) I discovered it when I was sixteen, so that makes it pretty much my thirtieth anniversary with the show.
I had planned to do something all creative and funny and (hopefully) fun to celebrate, but time and life (and whatever other magazines you care to name) have not been on my side. I’ll finish the Star Trek Bingo game soon, though; I won’t make any promises (I’ve done THAT before), but that will probably show up in a while. So, instead, it’s me and the keyboard and whatever comes to mind while the anniversary marathon plays on BBC America.
Is it a cliche to say that Star Trek changed my life?
I was never all that engaged in science classes. But my reading changed drastically once the the Five Year Mission became a part of my life, and I remember asking my eye doctor if my eyesight (which is terrible) would keep me from becoming an astronaut. He looked at me like I’d gone mad, and it must have seemed like it: there I was, a short, not-exactly-svelte, Coke-bottle-lens-wearing, thoroughly unscientific girl who would rather go read Tolkien than participate in any sports and could barely tell a photon from a quasar … but I was serious. (I was also pretty thoroughly disqualified; yes, my eyesight would pretty much keep me out of space even if nothing else did.)
“Vulcan has no moon, Miss Uhura.”
“I’m not surprised, Mr. Spock.”
(It’s obvious I haven’t written much about Star Trek on this laptop; I just got a squiggly red line under “Uhura”, so I never added her to my dictionary. The computer wanted to change it to “Hurrah”. That works.)
I don’t remember what my first episode was. I do know that it didn’t take long before I was scouring the TVGuide looking for episodes I hadn’t seen yet, hunting up any and all sources of books for anything, anything at all on Trek. They carried novels in our local grocery store. If I haven’t already given away my age, this was before the internet, before DVDs, and just as (*gasp*) VHS tapes were becoming widely available. The only chance I was going to have to see each episode was to wait for (if I recall correctly) channel 11 to pull it out of the vault at (I believe) four o’clock one day. Before long I could identify any episode within three seconds; I whiled away the time between customers at my first cash register job by listing all the episodes from memory; I read every novel, good and bad and indifferent. It was a difficult time for me, high school, as it is for a lot of people, and I had fallen head over heels in love. I loved the characters, particularly and most especially McCoy, and I adored the 431st member of the crew, the Enterprise herself. But most of all I wanted to live there and then. In the 23rd century in general, and specifically if possible on that ship.
(Janice Rand! She breaks my heart, now, knowing what I know.) (“Why don’t you go chase an asteroid?”) (Good lord that skirt is short. “May the Great Bird of the Galaxy bless your planet!”)
By the time I came on board (so to speak), the first three movies were well out. I had no idea what to do with The Motion Picture, but I loved Walter Koenig’s book about the making thereof. For some strange reason what sticks in my head is that time he asked Persis Khambatta if he could kiss her on the top of her bald head, and she let him – and he wound up with a toothful of makeup. Memory is an odd thing. (My God, she’s dead? I don’t think I knew that.) Star Trek II came on HBO right around the time my parents decided to spring for it, and I watched it every chance I got – which probably amounted to dozens. I videotaped it, audiotaped it, transcribed it (learned quite a bit about writing by doing so) – and then ABC aired a “director’s cut” that I thought was spectacular. I still know a surprising amount by heart. (“Keptin! Dis is the garden spot of Citi Alpha Seex!”) STIII:TSFS … I don’t recall if the pastel drawing I did of the crew standing on the Genesis planet watching the comet that had been my beloved Enterprise made it into my art school portfolio – it wasn’t bad, but I hope not. I don’t remember how, but I won tickets to Star Trek IV – I wrote to a friend with “I won I won I won” over and over in a spiral. (I was very young, and I don’t think I’d ever won anything before. And it was Star Trek.) It was wonderful, and I loved every second of it, and dissolved into helpless, blissful tears with this scene:
It still makes me cry. The phrase I used a lot about it went something like “blue-white, blindingly bright joy”. I told you I loved that ship. Hello, gorgeous…
(Speaking of which, Bones looks fantastic in that black tee.)
I won’t talk about the next two movies, much less the “reboot” films; this is supposed to be a celebration. I was equal parts thrilled and scared about “The Next Generation” – it took some time, but I loved the ship; I hated and envied poor Wesley Crusher in equal measure (though I would never have dreamed of writing and telling Wil Wheaton so), and I was a Jean-Luc devotee almost immediately. I have always, always loathed Worf. But it was so good to have Star Trek most every week.
I remember getting books about the space program out of the library (and for possibly the first time in my life as a precocious reader being completely stymied by what I was trying to read). And then there were the Star Trek novels, of course, dozens of them of wildly varied quality. And to this day I know “Tiger, tiger, burning bright” and “She walks in beauty like the night” because they were quoted in Star Trek episodes. I researched, you see. I have always taken my fandom seriously.
I was filled with the deep, deep desire to – well, here:
If I can’t get up there, I want us to get up there. U.S., not U.S. – it’s gotten so I don’t care much who gets their butts up there, as long as somebody makes some kind of progress toward getting us out there. I was destroyed by the Challenger explosion – I still can’t look at images of the smoke trails. And then Columbia. And then the end of the shuttle program. When people say the money would be better spent elsewhere, I am left literally speechless, completely baffled by that point of view. I’m glad no one said it to me in my more vulnerable teens – I have literally no idea what I would have said or done. I was in Florida for training for my job when the last launch happened, and I didn’t ask if I could get up on the roof or find someplace to see it. I’ll always regret that.
My fandom has had its ups and downs. I was delighted when my brother took me to see Jimmy Doohan in some auto dealership parking lot, and I believe he signed a calendar. Then my cousin and I dragged our mothers to a Star Trek convention in Boston (Walter Koenig was there, and the dealer’s room was like heaven. Slightly tacky heaven) and when we became mobile ourselves we went to as many cons as possible. Fortunately, Creation liked to use a hotel in nearby New Haven, so we got to “meet” everybody who was on the circuit – I know we saw Jimmy Doohan (who was peeved by the book called Mr. Scott’s Guide to the Enterprise, because he rightly felt he should have been involved), and we have to have seen George Takei (yes – I remember him talking about deleted scenes from STIV). The Next Gen crew took some precedence at the time, and we queued (heh) up for Frakes and Marina Sirtis (she exclaimed over my hair, which was about three feet long at the time – I remember her saying she had to wear extensions) and Michael Dorn – and, bless the day, Patrick Stewart (who did not sign autographs, but did recite Puck’s last speech from the Dream. I believe he bobbled it a bit). We met and had the chance to chat with Max Grodenchik years later, and he was magnificent; John de Lancie was at other end of the table. (He was an ass. I still snarl at Q even more than is absolutely necessary.) Oh, and then there was the infamous blooper reel!
When I heard about the Shatner “Get a life” thing, I was (being still very young) incensed; I confess even so many years later I was just slightly jubilant when Kirk got killed dead. Well, good grief, no wonder – that SNL skit was in 1986, right when I was beginning to catch fire. I had absolutely no sense of humor about my geekdom. Yes, there was a lot of truth in all the bad jokes. At the conventions we attended, we saw the people wearing uniforms who should have stayed far, far away from spandex; every Q&A session there was someone asking some insanely detailed, abstruse question about the science or timeline or philosophy of this episode or that, without the least clue that the actor being questioned had not the faintest clue. But it’s always been kind of like a family thing: we can say anything we want about each other, but if you say a word against my family, you have me to answer to.
(Still watching “Man Trap” – Hey, there’s a girl in pants!)
Between Shatner and the debacle that was STV and this and that, I drifted away from Star Trek. Then a month or so ago I discovered the Mission Log Podcast, in which a couple of guys (Ken Ray and John Champion) have – sponsored by Rod Roddenberry, son of Gene – taken on a mumbledy-year mission: exploring the Star Trek universe one episode at a time, starting with started first aired episode (the one that’s on now) and working through TOS, then the animated series, the first six movies, TNG (they’re in the second season now), and up next DS9 and Voyager and Enterprise and the rest of the movies, and eventually the reboots, and even more eventually the new series starting in January – offering a bit of trivia (the voice of the ship’s cook in “Charlie X” is that of Gene Roddenberry) and a lot of analysis, and so much geekiness that … for the first time in over a decade, I’m watching Star Trek, playing catch-up on the podcast. It’s like the first time for some of it. And I’m having a wonderful time. Some of the old joy is coming back. I didn’t time it to coincide with the anniversary – I was just looking for a podcast, because I didn’t feel like listening to any of my audiobooks, and went “Eh, what the hell” with Mission Log. But I’m glad.
I listened not long ago to an episode of another podcast (nameless to protect the … um) in which the hosts decided to debate the timeless argument “Which is better, Star Wars or Star Trek”? It was kind of awful, because it seemed more like a filler episode for a week when they had nothing better to do, and because one of the guys made it abundantly clear he didn’t want to be doing it, and because either they were both lousy debaters or the fact that neither of them cared what they were saying was just … abundantly clear.
Me, I’ve never really explored the question of whether one is better than the other. It’s a stupid question, actually, in my mind, because it’s like asking whether pizza is better than apple pie – they’re very different things.
I do love Star Wars. (Episodes four, five, six, and seven, at least. The other three… Thank you, no.) I enjoy the stories, the characters, the adventure, the music, the spectacle. Seeing Episode Seven earlier this year was amazing – I came out of it saying “That is what going to the movies should be!”
But I’ve been a Trekkie for a long time. Those four Star Wars movies haven’t had remotely the impact on me that all those hours of Trek, on TV, in movies, in books (fiction and non-fiction), in person have had. Star Wars is fun. Star Trek is part of me. I aspire more to Janice Rand’s basket weave than Princess Leia’s cinnamon buns. Peel back my skin, you’ll probably find blue velour.
I still very frequently make a commanding gesture or snap my fingers to get elevator and other automatic doors to open; since watching “The Naked Time” again I’ve been blowing on them, too. Get me drunk and I’ll probably either sing Irish ballads or “Girls in space be wary”. Quotes and references routinely make their way into my vocabulary. (No, I don’t speak Klingon. Not much. Honest, I think I can only say the equivalent of “beam me up”.)
Something that finally occurred to me is that Star Wars is like reading a great fantasy novel, in which wonderful characters have wonderful adventures in a setting that has nothing whatsoever to do with the real world. “Long long ago in a galaxy far far away.” It’s an adventure, and it’s fun. But Star Trek …
Star Trek is about us.
This is our future. It is the real world, made better – projected out to a time when we have made it better. If we fight, and work very hard, and stop doing stupid things to the planet and to each other, this is what our future might look like. These characters are our descendants – or, if we can catch a ship that’s done a slingshot around the sun, or get ourselves put into some kind of cryogenic sleep, us. While Star Wars explores the environs of Alderaan and Tatooine, while the human characters are Corellian and Naboo, Star Trek always comes back to Earth. Starfleet Academy is on Earth, and the human characters are from Russia and the United States of Africa and Iowa. I can go visit the aircraft carrier Enterprise and the space shuttle Enterprise.
I’m never going to say flat out Star Trek is better than Star Wars; there’s plenty of room at the top for both, and they both deserve to be there. But for me, Star Trek is more important. Star Trek is more. Star Trek is hope.
And the Enterprise is prettier than the Millennium Falcon.
So raise a glass with me, be it tranya or Saurian brandy, tea (“Earl Grey, hot”) or Romulan ale (“Why, Bones, you know this is illegal.” “I only use it for medicinal purposes”): to those who have gone before:
Majel Barrett Roddenberry
Grace Lee Whitney
To those we still have with us, cast and crew – may they all, living and dead, know how much they’re loved.
To Lucille Ball, for – improbably, wonderfully – making it all possible.
To Gene Roddenberry, the Great Bird of the Galaxy, for all of it.