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Sunday, August 21, 2016

Reflections on STAR TREK

It was 50 years ago around this time in 1966 that Star Trek appeared on our television screens for the very first time.


That's amazing to think about, isn't it?  Especially if you've been there since the beginning.  We can still get some of our best tastes of what the early years were like in books like A Star Trek Catalog by Gerry Turnbull, or The Star Trek Compendium by Allan Asherman, or Inside Star Trek: The Real Story by Herbert F. Solow and Robert H. Justman.

What's even more amazing than that is that the Star Trek franchise is still around, even though many of today's fans had not yet been born when The Original Series (TOS) was first on the air.  I've only been a Trekkie for 31 out of those 50 years myself, and if you're like me, you grew up completely with reruns---until the arrivals of spin-off series like The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise---and of course, a current total of 13---count 'em, 13!--- major motion pictures.

And the fun doesn't stop there. You don't even need to watch TV to enjoy Star Trek!  You can read novels, magazines, and comic books.  You can stream every episode made so far on Netflix on your desktop or laptop computer, or on many other portable devices.  You can buy uniforms to wear and toy phasers and commuicators and starship models to play with and make up your own stories with action figures.  You can play video games and join the Star Trek online community and be the captain of your own starship, or maybe even the admiral of your own fleet of starships.  You can join fan clubs and swap yarns with your fellow Trekkies in your community.  You can buy audiobooks and listen to novels being read and dramatized by your favorite Star Trek actors, complete with music and sound effects like a real TV episode.

In other words, Star Trek isn't just one little classic American TV show from the mid-1960's anymore; it has spawned not only a multi-million dollar industry, but also a whole sub-culture of its own on the planet Earth.  I don't really have the words to describe in one or two short sentences the kind of impact it has had on my life, or how grateful I am that it has.  I'm sure there are thousands of millions of Trekkies around the world who feel the same way that I do.

Today, whenever I watch a classic TOS episode and hear the four opening notes of the main title theme and then, "Space, the final frontier..." and so on, the same thrill and chill goes up and down my spine as it did when I first became a Trekkie at the age of 10, in 1985. On YouTube, you can even hear it translated into different languages, such as Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian, German, Hungarian, and Japanese. 

But Star Trek's creator, Gene Roddenberry, wasn't just interested in creating entertaining and exciting television.  He specifically created Star Trek to be different from other visual science fiction vehicles of that time: to be different from just Earth-vs-aliens, shoot-em-up, humans-good-aliens-bad.


Roddenberry wanted people to use Star Trek not only for being entertained, but also for using their minds and thinking critically about the lessons being taught from the stories being shown. He was writing his concepts for Star Trek during a time when, with the Vietnam war, threats from communism, political assassinations, and fears about nuclear weapons and racism, people were really starting to wonder if there is a future for us. He wanted to challenge what we knew or thought we knew about the way we live our lives as carbon-based, imperfect human beings. Across all of its generations, Star Trek has done what it can to answer our questions about the future in a positive manner, and I think that's one of the biggest things that Roddenberry was able to achieve with it and why it's stuck around for so long.

And with the passage of time, Star Trek has shown us how science fiction can eventually become science fact.  For example, 50 years ago communicators only existed on Star Trek.  Now, of course, they're everywhere.  We call them cellphones. 30 years ago, the only place you could see virtual reality in action was on Star Trek: The Next Generation and beyond, with a machine called the holodeck.  Now, computers, video games, and the Internet have given us the ability to create and play in our own virtual reality "holodeck programs" whenever we like.  Star Trek gave us new hope for advanced space travel in the future even as we put a man on the moon in the present.  It gave us white people, black people, Russian people, Japanese people, and even people with pointed ears or antennae on their heads all working together for a common good.

Star Trek's original five-year mission was cut short by two years when NBC cancelled it in 1969---but it didn't die.  The episodes of TOS lived on into the next decade and beyond with syndication and reruns on what were then called "independent" TV stations throughout the United States, an animated series appeared a few years after that in 1973,  the movie era of the franchise began with Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979, and that success led to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in 1982, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock in 1984, and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home in 1986.  All-new episodes of Star Trek finally came back to TV with Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1987.  That was the very first TV show I ever watched straight from beginning to end, despite its schedule being played with a lot by its local affiliate where I grew up. 


Roddenberry died in 1991, but Star Trek continued with Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (although for some Trekkies, the less that is said about that movie, the better), Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, which planted the seeds for what eventually becomes the Federation-Klingon alliance by the time of TNG, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and four movies featuring the TNG crew:  Generations, First Contact, Insurrection, and Nemesis.  Enterprise would kick off the 21st century with a look at what a starship Enterprise and Starfleet might have been like in the century before TOS takes place. But unlike TNG, DS9, and Voyager, Enterprise only lasted four seasons.

Trekkies had their problems and complaints with some of the episodes and movies being put out in the years immediately following Roddenberry's death.  But the one thing that all of it had going for it was: at least it was Star Trek.

Gene Roddenberry would have been 95 years old on August 19.

While I do think he would have been very happy to see his creation turn 50, he might not be so thrilled about the direction of the movie franchise reboot by J.J. Abrams and associates (I knew that something was about to go terribly wrong when Spock's home planet Vulcan was destroyed), or the fact that Star Trek fan films on the Internet have recently been stomped upon by CBS/Paramount Pictures. 

Let's call a spade a spade here: the "fan film guidelines" that Star Trek's current corporate masters wrote up in June in the name of protection against copyright infringement are really just their way of saying that they can't deal with it when a fan production like Star Trek: Axanar ends up with a major-motion-picture-sized budget...as if anyone were really and truly trying to give Star Trek: Beyond, or possibly even the upcoming TV series Star Trek: Discovery, a run for its money. 

It can be likened to the argument that Spock and Captain Kirk use against Landru the computer in the classic episode, "Return of the Archons": without freedom of choice, there is no creativity.  Without creativity, there is no life.  If Star Trek is the Body (as Landru refers collectively to the people living under its rule), and if creativity is necessary for the health of the Body, then without it, the Body dies. Are CBS/Paramount and Star Trek's current roster of movie writers and directors contributing to the health of the Body...or are they destroying it? The good must continue to be created.  That is the desire of the Trekkies, nothing else.


I went to see Star Trek: Beyond on opening night, July 22, with my best friend.  All I can really say without spoiling it for people who haven't seen it yet is that for me, in terms of Star Trek's 50th anniversary, any sense of celebration seemed to be overshadowed by a great sense of loss...and I am not only referring to the untimely death of Anton Yelchin, who played Ensign Chekov.

While Beyond is an action-packed, thrilling adventure movie, it is not quite the 50th-anniversary tribute for Star Trek that I would have thought up. There were quite a few times while I was watching it that my mind flashed back to something LeVar Burton (Geordi La Forge, from TNG) said a few years ago: that J.J. Abrams-era Star Trek lacks much of Gene Roddenberry's original vision. The fact that Leonard Nimoy died last year, and so therefore it was written into the movie that Spock Prime died too, certainly didn't help me enjoy it; he'd been a major positive role model for me since I first became a Trekkie. 

But even more disquieting is the thought that as a planet and as a species, Earth and humanity seem to be much further away from Roddenberry's vision of a United Federation of Planets now than they were 50 years ago. Is the future created by Star Trek a utopia? Certainly not. Even the supposedly-more advanced 23rd- and 24th century humanoid societies are eventually found to have their weaknesses as well as their strengths.  But is it an attainable, realistic goal?  I would like to still think so, but I wonder sometimes.

My understanding of the way things were in the 1960's is that even with Vietnam, racial unrest and the threats of nuclear weapons, there was also an overwhelming sense of optimism about the future, of feeling that anyone who really wanted to could make a difference.  At least that's the impression I get when I listen to the music of that time period.  It's not out there today in the same ways that it was back then.  

My fellow Generation X'ers and I came of age in a time when it seemed like there was nowhere for America to go now except charging forward after all of the social battles of the previous 100 years had been fought and won...maybe even forward into space.

Then came September 11, 2001...and fifteen years later, it seems as if  we no longer know whether we want to move forward into the future, or backward into the past.

Obviously we haven't yet developed interstellar space flight at Star Trek's level, largely because of what happened to space shuttles like Challenger and Columbia, with the shuttle program officially over as of July 2011.  But least NASA is still working on projects like the International Space Station.

Roddenberry hypothesized that by the time of Star Trek, humanity has finally shaken off its racial and ethnic prejudices, and Earth, as the home planet of the Federation, is a one-world government.  But in real life, the New World Order conspiracy theorists will come knocking at your door faster than you can say, "Beam me up, Scotty" for even daring to suggest such a thing.  That's not the Federation.

A cornerstone of  Spock's Vulcan philosophy is the idea of IDIC, which stands for Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations. Vulcans believe that it is the coming together of the unlike that allows for growth and evolution. But in real life, there are humans who indulge in petty arguments about multiculturalism and whatever it is they think of as political correctness, who kill each other in the name of whatever religions they believe in, and who are generally suspicious and resistant to anything that might change their view of the world.  That's not the Federation.

The Federation prefers to solve problems with communication and negotiation,  and it uses force only when absolutely necessary. After 9/11, America responded by starting two wars, one in which we attacked another country that didn't attack us, because we got tired of asking questions and decided for ourselves when it was time to start shooting. That is most definitely not the Federation.

Global warming and climate change remain existential threats to our planet's future, but a sizable percentage of the American people still don't believe this is true. Some of them don't even believe in science.

And if you really want a good example of just how far we are falling from the better humans of Roddenberry's vision, you really need to look no further than our top two leading candidates for President. Enough said there.


So what can we do with real life in such a state?

We can keep the legacy of Gene Roddenberry's dream alive by keeping the stories alive. We can keep watching Star Trek episodes and movies, reading our novels, magazines, and comic books...and share those stories with future generations.

We can stay connected with our fellow Trekkies.  The Internet has made the world smaller, so let's keep finding each other!

We can go to however many conventions we can, and shake hands with our favorite actors and let them know how much we still love them after however many years it's been since their version of Star Trek was on TV.   And by the way...I know it's really tough to think about, but William Shatner, George Takei, Walter Koenig, and Nichelle Nichols aren't getting any younger...so let's appreciate them and support them while they're still here.

Most importantly, we can prove that Roddenberry was right by doing all of the small things in our lives that would actually keep us moving forward in the future as a species, rather than backward into the past.  Let's get into space again and get back to exploring the final frontier.


Happy 50th Anniversary, Star Trek.  Live long, and prosper.

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