Sunday, May 10, 2009

Trek and Me

Ed. note: This isn't my Trek review. I'll get to that later.

When I was a very small kid, I recall watching Trek re-runs a little bit. There was a cartoon I caught once or twice, but I was mostly into Star Wars, so the pacing and lack of space ninjas and whatnot was just not that exciting to me. They spent an awful lot of time talking on Star Trek, and too little time shooting at stuff or employing Ewoks an cannon fodder.

In 2nd or 3rd grade, someone showed me Star Trek: The Motion Picture on VHS, and I mostly remember being painfully, painfully bored. Until the end, which I found trippy and awesome. Somehow back then I knew exactly what Voyager was (I'll thank The Admiral), and so it sorta made sense where they were coming from. I appreciated the scope of the movie, but as an ADD-riddled kid, it was just so sloooooow.

Summer after 3rd grade, we stayed at my grandparents in Missouri, and though I had not seen Star Trek II, we rented Star Trek III one night (they owned a VCR. We did not.), and watched the movie, which I recall really liking. We also watched that Nostradamus documentary that everyone watched back then, and I liked that less because it predicted nuclear armageddon in my lifetime. Sure, some of it freaked me out, but I liked the Klingons and sort of pseudo-sciency stuff around Genesis.

In 4th grade we moved to Austin, and I had a lot of downtime around 5:00pm for some reason. 5:00 was also when KBVO showed Star Trek reruns. So each afternoon I'd decamp to the TV and try to watch Trek. The episodes that really stick out are The Cage, Arena, the salt monster episode, The Trouble with Tribbles, The Enemy Within, and many, many others. Mirror, Mirror, of course...

My make-believe buddies in 4th grade

There was also one where McCoy was driving around Spock's body by remote control for some reason, and I thought that was the craziest thing, ever.

I got into the characters at that point, sort of lionizing Mr. Spock in particular. So I sort of bought into the Trek thing pretty hard. Not like Reed, Jason's new pal... but I was into Trek. In fact, I remember trying to talk to friends at school about Trek, and it seemed (and this is a painful stereotype, but its true), the kids in my nerd/honors classes were always much more inclined to be into Trek than the rest of my classmates. It was a sort of given that the boys should have some working knowledge of Trek. The girls... not so much.

In part, thanks to Trek, I learned that just because I was enthusiastic about something, not everybody was going to love it. For God's sake, I wore Spock ears to school for my Halloween outfit in 5th grade (I would go on to dress as Kirk for a high school drama party my senior year).

the League, circa 1986, wishes you to live long and prosper. Special tip 'o the hat to Jamie for finding and scanning this classic for her own post. And to Jason, for taking this picture a few decades back.

But I also understood pretty early on that love for Trek took many forms. I might like Trek the way I liked basketball and football, but not the way I loved X-Men or Batman at the time. But I saw that there were folks who really, really loved Trek.

We would attend comic conventions at the Holiday Inn down by the river (its that round tower, sort of by Picky's Pantry Chevron, Austinites. You know it.), and those would be held in conjunction with Trek cons. And those guys were intense. I think Jason saw more of it than I did (I was digging through back-issue bins, he was looking around knowing he could read anything I spent my money on), but I do recall seeing the guys in Star Fleet outfits and thinking that was just kooky. Let alone, where did one secure one of those get-ups?

Upon its release, we went to see Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (the one in the 1980's with the whales) at the Arbor IV, back when that meant something. The Arbor had THX sound, and something resembling stadium-style seating. At the time, if you wanted to get the full cinematic experience, and didn't want yoru shoes to stick to the floor of Showplace 6, you talked Dad into taking you to The Arbor IV. And I want to say this, because nobody ever believes me but...

The audience STOOD for chunks of the movie. STOOD. That was how excited these folks were about their Shatner and Spock. There was applause, and shouting, and just a damn lot of love for what they were seeing on screen. When the harpoon bounced off the Klingon ship? Oh. My. God. Pandemonium.

Afterward, we dissected the movie with my dad at Taco Bell. That's how much I remember being jazzed about that experience. That was all, of course, before Star Trek V: The League Demands a Refund (which featured a fan dance from Nichelle Nichols about 20 years too late).

I've only been to one other movie where people freaked out like that, and it was seeing Pulp Fiction at the Hogg on UT's campus fall of 1994, prior to widespread theatrical release. People also stood up there. But I really understood how important Trek was to people at that moment, and it was pretty huge for me, too.

I wound up keeping gerbils for a while. I think I was more interested in the habitrail than the actual animals, but I did wind up naming one of them Leonard Nimoy (the other was named Richard Nixon. I don't know exactly why.).

Like a lot of other young guys watching Trek, I had a TV crush on Lt. Cmdr. Uhura. You can have your Nurse Chapel or your Ensign Rand. But I was all about a savvy communications officer in go-go boots. Because I think if I ran a star ship between 4th grade and college, that's how I'd have run it, too.

I don't want to overstate this, but I did grow up seeing Uhura on the bridge of the Enterprise, understood she was an officer, and that was sort of a social battle won for somebody, somewhere. I would be in college before I actually stopped to think about how odd that must have been in the 1960's to have a black woman on a prime time show appearing as a capable military officer. Sure, she wasn't part of Kirk's inner circle, but she was featured as much as any bridge members back in the day. And she would go on to be as important as anyone in the feature films (in certain trek media, she's an Admiral).

a sweet-ass ride

No sooner did kids our age have their hands on a camcorder than we were doing our own Trek spoofs. I still recall a video of Jason and Reed as the crew of the Starship Win-a-Prize. Reed's Captain Kirk was a little trigger happy, if I recall, and Jason's science officer kept being approached by our border collie, Misty. He worked her in. Exterior shots were Lego. The bridge AND outerspace looked curiosly like our living room.

I initially rejected The Next Generation as looking like somebody's living room zipping through space (I still hate the set design). Plus, it took a few episodes to have someone who looked like a high school principal running the ship. Eventually I settled down, got over the lack of Vulcans (I never, ever understood why they didn't have a Vulcan or three), and got on board with the show. But that first season was rough.

I followed the original series through "The Undiscovered Country" and into "Generations". But once Next Generation wound down and took over the movies, I just wasn't super-interested anymore. I'd only dipped in and out of Deep Space 9, occasionally watched Voyager, and never took to Enterprise. Bully for you folks who did, but I don't know really my Tuvok from my Archer.

As much as I loved Star Wars (until, circa, 2002, when I gave up), Star Trek's tendency to lean toward science fiction rather than fantasy appealed to a completely different side of me. It wasn't as flashy as droids and lightsabers, but it all seemed so possible. And even if it weren't peering into the future, it seemed to suggest ideas as problems for engineers to solve and diplomatic and naval strategy to ponder rather than just accepting that "it's The Force, go with it."

I don't agree with all of Roddenberry's vision of the future. The notion of an enlightened world, free from human avarice seems so far off, that's the hardest part of his fantasy to swallow, but I see why he wanted to present that vision. Without believing in that goal enough to put it forth as an option, how can you work towards it?

And he didn't always achieve his own vision. Trek, after all, was still basically (as I like to say) three dudes flying around space in their space corvette, getting into scrapes while the swinger of the group picked up chicks and his wacky pals sniped at each other. Roddenberry's vision of the future still featured three white dudes and a lot of helpless women in need of Kirk's tender ministrations.

But it did throw open the door for what came later in other series that had internalized those notions a bit better.

I think it's now closed, but the Hilton casino in Vegas had a whole wing devoted to this show that only made it on TV for three seasons. The Star Trek Experience was an amazing fan-boy's dream. The restaurant was built to look like the set of the bar from Deep Space 9, there were real props from the shows everywhere, including models of the ships. Klingons wandered about and folks in Starfleet uniforms. There was a ride with a narrative associated with it that started after they somehow faked beaming you aboard the Bridge of the Enterprise. Which... I still don't really know how they did it. I'm sure they heard "whoa!" a hundred times a day.

I was always a little sad Jason never saw it.

Anyhow, Trek has been with me for a long, long time. I am actually quite thrilled that Paramount is taking steps to make sure it might be with me for quite a lot longer, and with some version of the characters who I loved first and best. I don't see it as dishonoring Gene Roddenberry. I look at it as caretaking the vision of teh future Roddenberry first shared more than 40 years ago.

If Kirk's communicator could plant the idea of a cell phone in an enterprising engineer's head, then what else can we hope to see materialize? How long before they're beaming us up?

I have to admit, I was at Target last week and saw they were selling Star Trek toys. After wanting one for 20 years, I am now the proud owner of a Starfleet Communicator. If I can locate the Tri-Corder, my mission is complete.


Michael Corley said...

I suspect you know by now that the standing and cheering is especially relevant to Austin. I'm not saying nerds everywhere won't Grock for Spock, but in Austin the go ape shit.

I really enjoyed ST IV. It was a fun movie.

The League said...

Yeah, its difficult for me to imagine audiences that get into movies as much as they do in Austin in much of the rest of America. I hear good things about San Francisco audiences, but I think there's a reason we have the Alamo going so strong in what's a relatively small media market.