And you people, you’re all astronauts on…some kind of star trek?
–Zefram Cochrane, Star Trek First Contact
Wow. Star Trek made its official US debut fifty years ago today. That’s…amazing. (The show aired for the first time anywhere on September 6, 1966, in Canada.)
Star Trek came and went and was already in syndication when I was born, but my sister loved it, so I quite literally do not remember a time when Star Trek wasn’t a thing. One of my earliest teevee memories is, in fact, the brief bit at the end of the episode “Friday’s Child”, when Dr. McCoy is saying “Oochie woochie coochie coo” to a newborn baby, to Spock’s great confusion.
It’s often taken as an article of faith in the geek universe that one is either a Star Wars fan or a Star Trek fan, and I can kind of see why. It’s a Yankees-Red Sox kind of thing, I suppose. Or Bears-Packers. But for me, it’s complicated. I have to be honest: push me to answer, hold a gun to my head, and I will almost certainly choose Star Wars. But the margin of victory is not large, and in truth, there’s no way I’m the writer I am now without both of them.
“Let me help.” A hundred years or so from now, I believe, a famous novelist will write a classic using that theme. He’ll recommend those three words even over “I love you.”
–James T. Kirk, “The City on the Edge of Forever”
Star Trek shaped my view, in a lot of ways, of what the future can and should be. It should be a time when humans are not afraid to explore the universe and, in fact, do so with enthusiasm. It should be a time when the diversity of humanity should be celebrated and not resisted. It should be a time when beautiful ships fly the stars, instead of rusting dingy hulks. It should be a time of wonderful cities, not dystopic nightmares. It should not be a time of universal peace without conflict, because that’s almost certainly impossible, but it should be a time when we approach conflict from a much more mature standpoint than we do now.
Of course, when I was a kid, Star Trek was none of that. It was just a show about nifty adventures in space, a way for me to scratch that particular itch in the years between releases of Star Wars movies. It didn’t ever occur to me back then that I was supposed to like one over the other; they were different things, and I liked ‘em both. If Star Wars hit me like a bolt from the blue, Star Trek was the thing that was there, day in and day out. Star Trek was what was on during the afternoon hours after school. I’d get home and watch it and thrill to the adventures of Captain Kirk and crew on the black-and-white teevee set I had in my room. This was before the Internet, obviously, and I didn’t have any access to an episode guide, so the only way to learn the episodes was to watch and watch and rewatch them as they came. I got pretty good at recognizing the episodes by sight, usually within seconds. (Often I had to wait until the first shot after the obligatory opening shot of the Enterprise.)
I don’t know if the station had some kind of plan for airing the episodes in any particular order, but I recall that you could go upwards of a year without seeing “Mirror, Mirror” or “The Trouble with Tribbles”, but other episodes – “The Return of the Archons”, “Errand of Mercy” – would show up more frequently. A certain “This one again?!” factor crept in at times, especially with some of the crappier episodes. (I can live the rest of my life to a rich old age and never watch “The Alternative Factor” again.) But the great episodes? Those live on forever. I still laugh at “The Trouble with Tribbles”, and I live for a moment when someone near me uses the phrase “storage compartments”, so I can respond as Kirk does: “STORAGE compartments? STORAGE compartments?!” And I still feel that sense of doom slowly unfolding as “The City on the Edge of Forever” spins its tale, toward the awful moment when, in order to fix history after it has been changed, James Kirk must stand and watch as a 20th century woman with whom he has fallen in love is killed.
MCCOY: You deliberately stopped me, Jim! I could have saved her. Do you know what you just did?
SPOCK: He knows, Doctor. He knows.
–”The City on the Edge of Forever”
As a kid, I attended two Star Trek conventions with my older sister – or at least, one Trek convention and one general sci-fi convention. At the latter, “The Trouble with Tribbles” was aired, followed by 2001: A Space Odyssey. Those were fun. George Takei was the guest of honor at the first one, in 1977 or 1978. I was in first grade at the time. I remember Takei wearing a gleaming white suit. (Peter Mayhew was guest at the next one.)
I eventually lost track of daily Star Trek reruns by the mid-1980s, but also by this point, the movies were a thing. I remember being terribly excited for The Motion Picture, and even though I didn’t quite understand all of the plot, I have never – not once – disliked that often-maligned film. I recall being mildly disappointed that the Enterprise never fires its phasers once in that film, and in fact it only dispatches a single photon torpedo, and that’s at an errant asteroid that’s about to collide with the Great Bird. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I think The Motion Picture is the first real science fiction story I saw on the big screen that wasn’t about a galactic war or some other action-based adventure. I wasn’t thinking in those terms, but yes, the movie primed that particular pump.
I liked all of the movies that came, and I saw every one in the theater over the next decade. This was an odd time for Trek, when a movie every couple of years was all there was. Sure, every once in a while there would be a tidbit in Starlog (the late, great SF fandom magazine) about how somebody somewhere wanted to make a new Trek teevee series, but it never amounted to much until we learned that we were finally getting The Next Generation. This was for several reasons, not the least of which was that Paramount wanted to keep making money off Trek but the original cast was starting to show its age.
Through the 1980s, as Star Wars seemed to fade away, Trek was still there, churning out a movie every couple of years and then a new teevee show. That’s what Trek always was for me. It didn’t fuel my imagination in quite the same way that Star Wars has always moved me at a very basic level of storytelling taste, but Trek has always been around. Always, always there. In fact, it was always there to such an extent that in the late 1990s, I started letting Trek go…but I’m getting ahead. During this time I read a number of Trek novels, and there was a fanzine called Trek that would annually publish a paperback book filled with its best articles. These I read with zeal, and I’ve lately started regathering them all via eBay. Maybe this winter I’ll spend some time reliving some fine old fan writing.
I loved The Next Generation, and watching it religiously formed a tradition in college among my mates and I. TNG aired reruns every weeknight, and the new episodes ran every Sunday night after the 10:00 news. That station even went so far, as TNG’s popularity grew, of including a very brief astronomy segment in its 10:00 Sunday newscast – “Tonight you can see Mars in the eastern sky!”, that sort of thing – complete with an Enterprise fly-by animation. And then, in our senior year, the next show, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, arrived. That premiere was an event, and I still think that premiere was an amazing episode.
Never trust ale from a god-fearing people, or a Starfleet Commander that has one of your relatives in jail.
–Quark, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
It took a little while for TNG to really get going, but once the writers had the chemistry down, the show was more than ready to carry on the Trek tradition, with many a fine and thought-provoking story, about love and loss and what it means to be human even as we take to the stars.
If you can’t take a little bloody nose, maybe you ought to go back home and crawl under your bed. It’s not safe out here. It’s wondrous, with treasures to satiate desires both subtle and gross. But it’s not for the timid.
–Q, Star Trek: The Next Generation
And still the movies came. The Wrath of Khan and The Search for Spock, which I saw with school friends. The Voyage Home, with its goofy and infectious joy. Even the much-maligned (and mostly deservedly so) The Final Frontier had its charms for me. That poor movie may have failed, but I really give it credit for trying to be about something.
The Undiscovered Country came along in 1991, when TNG had hit its stride. We saw it in the theater the night it opened, which happened to be the same night as our annual Christmas concert performance at a big church in Cedar Falls, IA. We did the concert, quickly changed clothes, and bolted down the street to catch the show. I loved that movie, and in fact, to this day Star Trek VI is my favorite Trek film. I remember a lump in my throat at the closing scene, which boiled down to just the classic crew onscreen (minus Sulu, who finally got his promotion to Captain and got to fly away on his own ship, the Excelsior), followed by the animated signatures of the original cast. Their time was done. (Although, in classic Trek and science fiction fashion, not quite.)
CHEKOV: Course heading, Captain?
KIRK: (smiles) Second star to the right…and straight on ‘til morning.
—Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
College ended and the real world began, and there was still Star Trek, even as Star Wars started making rumblings again. The TNG crew graduated to movies, and DS9 soared in quality. Another series began, Voyager…which is when I started to lose a bit of energy with respect to Trek. For one thing, I had a lot of other interests by this time, but for another, it was pretty clear as Voyager got going that the creative folks behind Trek were starting to lose steam. I stopped watching Voyager about the fourth season, and the next series? Well, to this day, I have never watched a single episode of Enterprise.
But now Trek is coming back. Three new movies, with varying degrees of success. A new series on the way, reimagined to seasons of thirteen episodes each. The Trek continues. (I haven’t seen Star Trek Beyond yet. It came and went from the theaters too quickly this summer, and it came out during our busiest time of the summer as well, so I simply was never able to squeeze it in. Beyond and Nemesis are, to date, the only Trek films I did not see in the theaters.) Will Trek eventually reach similar heights again? Are there more stories in the offing to match tales like “The Devil in the Dark,” “The Doomsday Machine,” “A Piece of the Action,” “The Best of Both Worlds,” “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” “Tapestry,” “The Visitor”? Who knows…but I look forward to finding out.
Star Trek is, was, and has been many things. It will continue to be many things, too. I don’t know that I’ll ever have the same old investment in it that I did in the late 70s and through the 80s. I don’t know that I’ll ever feel that same enthusiasm for Star Wars either, so the two tentpoles of my science fiction life have that much in common, don’t they? But I’ll always owe a debt to Star Trek. It shone a bright light on a future that doesn’t have to be awful, and it showed beautiful space ships. It put a new light on the idea of space adventure, and it showed a military organization that was devoted truly to peace. Star Trek did time travel better than just about anybody else. Star Trek gave us amazing characters, and it let those characters do amazing things.
They used to say if man could fly, he’d have wings, but he did fly. He discovered he had to. Do you wish that the first Apollo mission hadn’t reached the moon, or that we hadn’t gone on to Mars and then to the nearest star? That’s like saying you wish that you still operated with scalpels and sewed your patients up with catgut like your great-great-great-great grandfather used to. I’m in command. I could order this, but I’m not because Doctor McCoy is right in pointing out the enormous danger potential in any contact with life and intelligence as fantastically advanced as this, but I must point out that the possibilities – the potential for knowledge and advancement – is equally great. Risk! Risk is our business. That’s what this starship is all about. That’s why we’re aboard her.
–James T. Kirk, “Return to Tomorrow”
Star Trek is fifty. Amazing. Long live Star Trek.
Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Her ongoing mission: to explore strange, new worlds; to seek out new life and new civilizations; to boldly go where no one has gone before.