(Note: The above picture is my son William standing in front of the original model of the USS Enterprise at the Smithsonian Institute's Air and Space Museum during or visit to Washington D.C. in 2009)
“I didn’t know you were a Trekkie, Small.”
The comment was made by my boss one day a number of years ago as he happened to overhear a conversation I was having with a co-worker. We were talking about the film “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country,” which I found (and still find) to be a very good movie that can be enjoyed even by those with no working knowledge of “Star Trek” lore. (I can only assume there’s still a few such folks out there, somewhere.) It is what they used to call a “ripping good yarn,” not to mention a good example of how science fiction can be used to dramatize events in the real world (in this case, the downfall of the Soviet Union).
However, it is also a “Star Trek” film. And, deservedly or not, the “Star Trek” brand name seems to conjure up certain images in the minds of those with little or no interest in such things.
Thus, when my boss stood there with that silly grin on his face and said, “I didn’t know you were a Trekkie, Small,” there was also another unspoken comment also being made:
“I didn’t know you were one of those no-life weirdniks who sits around wasting time watching some stupid television show about a spaceship and a man with pointy ears.”
I wasn’t sure how to respond. Mainly because I’d never given the subject much thought before.
It’s true that I have enjoyed watching “Star Trek” in all of its various incarnations over the years: the original television series of the 1960s, the Saturday morning cartoon version of the ’70s, eleven (so far) theatrical films and four spin-off series, “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” “Star Trek: Voyager” and "Star Trek: Enterprise." (For the record, "Deep Space Nine" and "Enterprise" are my favorites of the spin-off series.)
It’s also true that my video tape library includes a fair number of these programs, just as my paperback library includes several of the “Star Trek” novels that have appeared over the years and my musical library contains the soundtrack recordings of the films.
If you want to know the truth, I even have a pewter model of the Starship Enterprise and a Christmas ornament of the shuttlecraft Galileo that says “Happy Holidays” in Mr. Spock’s voice if you push a button on the bottom of the thing.
I like toys. So sue me.
But does ownership of these particular artifacts qualify me for full-fledged Trekkie status?
I hardly think so. For one thing, as much as I have enjoyed it over the years, I've never claimed that “Star Trek” is my all-time favorite television program. (It does, however, sit very near the top of a very exclusive list that includes such other classics as “M*A*S*H,” “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “The Twilight Zone,” “Batman,” “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.,” "Mission: Impossible," “The Avengers” and “The Wild, Wild West.” Boy, they just don’t make shows like that anymore…)
I like “Star Trek” for the same reasons that I like “Star Wars.” I like it for the same reason I like “The Time Machine” or “Tarzan of the Apes” or “Superman” or “Lord of the Rings”: because I enjoy the science fiction/fantasy genre of entertainment. “Star Trek,” as great as it can be at times, is but a small sampling from a much larger pool of literature and film.
Of course, such a statement would be considered tantamount to blasphemy to the honest-to-goodness Trekkie - or Trekker, as I'm told the truly serious fans prefer to call themselves. (And right there is another good reason why I’ll never really be considered a full-fledged member of the brotherhood: I still haven’t quite figured out just what the difference between a Trekkie and a Trekker is supposed to be. I’ve been told that one term is considered less demeaning than the other, but they both sound a wee bit silly if you ask me…)
To the most devout of its fans (and remember that “fan” is short for “fanatic”), “Star Trek” represents not only the ultimate in television, but also the ultimate in science fiction. Some even go a step or two beyond that; they regard “Star Trek” as the ultimate in human experience. And some of them get downright goofy about it, so maybe it’s no wonder that many people look at “Trek” fans as if they’re a couple of dilithium crystals short of warp drive capability.
I’ve mentioned before that I like to collect comic books. A little over two decades ago I had the opportunity to attend a comic book convention in Chicago. Conventions, if you’re into that sort of thing, can be a lot of fun; they’re places where collectors can search for (and very likely find) that one special issue that somehow got misplaced or tossed out by Mom years ago, and where they can meet and talk to some of the talented individuals responsible for creating their favorite books and heroes.
But the conventions can also be pretty scary, especially for the merely casual fan and/or first-time attendee.
You see, such exhibitions bring out not only the comic book fans, but science fiction fans in general. And I have to admit that it’s rather a kick to be able to watch and listen as these fans all come together, to eavesdrop as a “Star Wars” fan tells an Edgar Rice Burroughs fan how George Lucas derived some of his inspiration from the “John Carter of Mars” books, or enjoy a sneak preview of some upcoming new film or television series based upon one comic book hero or another. That’s a lot of fun.
But always, without fail, one can expect to find some kind of gathering devoted to nothing but “Star Trek” in one corner of the convention hall. That in itself isn’t a problem, since they’ve got every bit as much right to be there as anybody else. But a lot of the Trekkies (at least in my experience at the time, although I'll be the first to admit I'm probably painting with far too broad a brush here) rarely seemed to get out and hobnob and schmooze and enjoy themselves like the rest of Fandom Assembled would. They kept pretty much to themselves, as if to tell the rest of us that anyone who doesn’t consider “Star Trek” to be the ultimate in entertainment, philosophy and prognostication are considerably lower on the science fiction food chain.
And that’s why these conventions of the time tended to be scary to those unaccustomed to such things. Because while the rest of us were haggling over back-issue prices and sharing reminiscences of favorite stories of the past and generally having a good time, the hardcare Trekkies were all off in their little corner of the world holding roundtable discussions on the socio-political significance of one particular line of dialogue from some specific “Trek” episode or another.
Or debating whether the captain’s course of action in another episode was the proper one to have taken under the circumstances being depicted in that episode, and what the consequences to his career and the well-being of the Federation would have been if his instincts had been wrong.
Or advancing complex anthropological theories as to why the Klingons from the original television series were shown as being practically human, while the movies and “The Next Generation” and beyond depict several physical differences between the two species, most noticeably the newer Klingons’ distinctive “turtle-shell” foreheads.
Anyone who might dare point out the obvious - that this difference in the Klingons’ appearance was simply the result of significant changes in makeup technology between the 1960s and the 1980s - is immediately branded as a lower, unintelligent life-form and is banished from the room.
I should know. It happened to me once.
Not that I lost any sleep over it, you understand, but it was somewhat disconcerting to be regarded as being odd by a group of people wearing rubber Spock ears.
It is this kind of overall devotion to the series and the situations it depicts - this apparent attempt to elevate “Star Trek” beyond the realm of mere entertainment into some sort of New Age, “Don’t You Wish The Real World Was Like This?” religion - that sets “Trek” fans apart from the fans of any other form of entertainment. With the sole exception, of course, of the Elvis nuts; they’re screwier than anybody.
So am I a Trekkie? Heck, no! Real, true, honest-to-goodness die-hard Trekkies live, eat, sleep and dream “Star Trek.” I don’t; I don’t have the time. Even if I did, I’d like to think that I’d have better things to do with it.
On the other hand…
There was a time when I looked at these so-called Trekkies with a certain mixture of amusement and sadness. Amusement because of the Trekkies’ tendency to allow their devotion to this television show spill into blind fanaticism; sadness, because such behavior clearly demonstrated (or so I thought at the time) a lack of any real meaning in their lives.
But back in 1991, just after the death of “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry (20 years ago...man, where has the time gone?), I ran across an obituary in one of the entertainment magazines which caused me to pause and reconsider my own reaction to the show’s success.
The article pointed out that one of the reasons for the program’s popularity over the years was its depiction of a future in which humanity has finally learned to throw off its national and racial differences and treat each other on the same level.
Every member of the bridge crew on the original series, it has been pointed out time and again, represented the widest diversity of background and heritage to be found on network television at that time: black, white, male, female, Russian, Oriental, Celtic. And depending on who you talked to, Mr. Spock - that ever-popular half-breed, offspring of an alien father and a human mother - represented either the alienation we all feel at times, or those children born of inter-racial or mixed-religion marriages.
Roddenberry honestly believed that the human race was capable of one day uniting in brotherhood, regardless of sex or color or religion or politics. It’s a simple dream, one that many claim to share. Some have died believing in this dream.
Men like Abraham Lincoln. Or Gandhi. Or Martin Luther King, Jr. Or Bobby Kennedy. Or Anwar Sadat. Or Yitzhak Rabin. Or John Lennon. Or... the list goes on. Sadly.
I hadn’t really paid much attention before, but depicting a starship crew of such mixed lineage interacting together as a single entity was a pretty bold step for a television show created in the 1960s. Come to think of it, it’s still a pretty big stretch in this supposedly “more enlightened” modern era, as well .
I thought differently for a time back in 2008, when the United States elected its first Aftrican-American president. For one brief shining moment I thought this country had truly turned a page, had honestly taken a large step forward towards finally becoming the kind of nation men like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams first envisioned.
That feeling lasted about as long as it took for me to log onto the Internet and read some of the hateful, racist venom being spewed from people who hated this leader simply for the shade of his skin. And that ugly current of racism spilled over into every debate that focused on the man and his presidency, from his health care reform efforts to the long, tedious, idiotic debate over whether or not he was actually born in the U.S.
It was in those moments that I realized that, in spite of all our advances and so-called modern enlightenment, the kind of united humanity envisioned by Star Trek is still a long way off from becoming a reality.
If it were not so, we wouldn’t have the resurgence of white supremacist movements that we have in some parts of this country. We wouldn’t have videotapes of white cops beating up black motorists, or city-wide riots stemming from trial verdicts. We wouldn’t have to face the problem of sexual harassment at the workplace. We wouldn’t need quotas that dictate that a business must employ a certain number of minorities. In fact, there would be no concept of “minority”; the entire human race would be considered family, a brotherhood in the truest sense of the word.
“One day,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “I will sit down at the table of brotherhood and enjoy the sweet blessedness of unity.”
For King, this dream was never realized. At least not in this world. A nut with a gun saw to that. But the dream lives on.
It was King who reportedly convinced actress Nichelle Nichols to remain in her “Star Trek” role as Lt. Uhura when she expressed a desire to leave the show. Because she was an important role model for the African-American youth of the day. And because he saw that this science fiction show - a simple form of television entertainment - shared his dream.
“I have an overwhelming affection for humanity,” Roddenberry once wrote. “I hope that ‘Star Trek’ has helped to show us what we can be if we believe in ourselves and our abilities.”
Roddenberry and “Star Trek” didn’t always get it right. Roddenberry’s heirs - those creative teams at the helm of “The Next Generation,” “Deep Space Nine,” “Voyager” and "Enterprise" - still drop the ball on occasion. Women still seem to be treated on occasion as sex objects (although men have tended to find themselves occasionally used in the same manner in the latter productions, so at least there’s been some sense of fairness that's crept in). There are still some signs of hatred and bigotry, and some of the other all-too-human sins that keep us from being truly civilized.
And by some Roddenberry himself wasn’t always the enlightened philosopher some like to think of as being. That's not an indictment of the man, just a simple statement of fact - one he would probably agree with, by the way. After all, the best of men are but men at best.
On top of all this, some of the fans who claim to be such disciples of the show’s philosophies are doing a pretty shoddy job of spreading the Gospel According to “Trek.” Witness those fans who used to show up at conventions wearing t-shirts and buttons emblazoned with the phrase “Kill Wesley,” referring to the role played by teen actor Wil Wheaton on “The Next Generation”. And how about the fans who, would stating that they prefer Captain Kirk to Captain Picard, cite the reason as being that fact that Kirk would be more likely to go in with phasers blazing than to try and negotiate with the enemy?
This is progress?
Well, what did you expect? For all its good intentions, “Star Trek” is still first and foremost a simple entertainment, created by faulty humans to be enjoyed by faulty humans.
But at least they dare to dream, even if they don’t always live up to the dream. And that’s more than you can say for a lot of people.
And the continued success of Gene Roddenbrry’s creation almost five decades later proves, if nothing else, that King’s dream did not die with him.
No, I am not a Trekkie. Not in the manner some people choose to define the word, anyway. But I can certainly see why some people might want to be. I have a lot more in common with them than I once realized. Because I share with them the dream that the “brotherhood of man” might one day become a reality.
King didn’t live to see it; neither did Roddenberry. I’m not altogether sure that I’ll live to see it. But I have high hopes for my sons.
Such unity, if and when it ever comes, truly will be where no man has gone before…
In : Pop Culture
Tags: "star trek" "pop culture" "tv & movies"