Thursday, April 16, 2009

Rediscovering Star Trek

"The Tholian Web." "The Gamesters of Triskelion." "Amok Time."

Star Trek first aired when I was a toddler, so I missed it then, but I know I grew up with the famed reruns saturating the very air around me, because episode titles like the ones above are as familiar to me as -- well, as a lot of other, more dignified things probably should be. Things like great poetry recited at the family hearth, or memories of how to churn butter or harvest crops, or something. I know my older brother loved Star Trek as he loved almost any science fiction, so I am sure he was the reason why the TV was tuned in to that station when I was seven or eight, and too young to make the choice myself. By the time I was in high school, I had long enjoyed the show so heartily that I only half-jokingly scolded my friends what a pity it was that their jobs forced them to work Saturday afternoons, whereby they would miss Star Trek. They sort of laughed.

Nowadays my husband, never a science fiction person and never one to have much patience with "cheesiness," has discovered the show -- the old show of course, with original, cardboard sets and less than full-throttle acting gloriously included -- on FanCast. He started out with "Elaan of Troyius." Some days later he invited me into the computer room to watch another ("The Tholian Web") and now after decades, I'm hooked again. Our older daughter has also caught the bug. Our younger daughter and our son have so far remained immune. They go into other rooms, or shade their eyes and mutter "nerds" whenever we three rhapsodize about plots, or begin planning our next, lame-o Family Fun night.

But they did have fair warning that this little TV-land bacillus might erupt among us with a vengeance. They knew I liked it. Before exploring the treasures of FanCast, we had watched the two best Star Trek movies together on DVD, as a concession to my childhood tastes. These would be Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek IV: The Return to Earth. The children's childhoods' having been much devoted to the juggernaut that is Star Wars, I found these two latter movies, viewed when the younglings had all reached and safely passed the age of reason, most refreshing. I couldn't help but lecture the family on why. "Star Wars," I wagged a finger at them all, "is nothing but fighting total, galactic eee-vill all day. Nobody even eats. (Except for the pear floating between Anakin and Padme, and the blue milk that Aunt Beroo makes in a blender way back on the farm.) There's no story.

"Star Trek is different." I grew expansive. "There are always two and sometimes three plots going on in every episode. There's a problem with whatever alien society the Enterprise encounters, and then there's a character conflict on board ship, and often there is some other problem -- damage to the ship, impossible orders from the Federation, or yes, galactic evil on the march. And it all gets wrapped up in fifty minutes and eighteen seconds (I never knew, but FanCast tells you so). Even the movies are like that. Look at the plots. They have to prevent Khan from getting his hands on the Genesis device. They have to save the whales. There's a story."

And of course the children huff that Star Wars has stories too. Or else they shade their eyes and mutter "nerd." My husband the peacemaker simply says "It's all good."

And so it is, but there are a few more ways in which Star Trek is better and more interesting than its later, special effects-laden rival. The literate references from an era of better-educated scriptwriters stand out. "Daniel, as I recall, had only his faith," Spock said to Dr. McCoy (last night) in "The Gamesters of Triskelion." Quick -- reference, please? Then there are episodes that very casually mention D'Artagnan, and episodes in which the crew meet an alien who has original manuscripts of Brahms in his possession. Spock suffers an alien-induced convulsion which forces him to quote William Blake. Khan quietly asks Kirk whether he has read his Milton. One show is devoted to the crew meeting the Greek gods.

And goddesses. Which brings us to the women -- "Kirk's women," as the accompanying booklet to the Star Trek II DVD forthrightly describes them. Yes, a few too many green-haired alien girls in silver lame bikinis spend their time swooning at the captain's feet, but often enough these women also at least have other problems to face besides him, and even have a share of intelligent lines to speak. Remember Joan Collins playing the no-nonsense, Depression era soup kitchen lady in "The City on the Edge of Forever"? And no, as a matter of fact, he didn't save her from anything.

(Photo from space debris dot com.)

You don't get all this in the Star Wars franchise. Padme is a queen and a senator and she has to save her peeople, but otherwise you get a lot of kids fighting monsters. To be fair, it's simply a different franchise entertaining people in a different way. And scripted by a younger generation who don't know their Milton. But in the end, I think what makes Star Trek simply so much more fun is that asset which I suppose the curmudgeon, or the stickler for all things Shakespearian, could call a flaw: the character, care, and feeding of Himself, Captain James T. Kirk.

Really. He is ever so much more fun than poor little Luke Skywalker. It's 1966, for one thing: the camera lingers on William Shatner's young face, and well it should. But Kirk is also such an entirely different character than the Skywalkers, Solos, Obi-wans, and Anakins of that other franchise. (Solo comes close.) Where they are buffetted, humorless, and loftily angry, he is competent, cocksure, but also brave, decent, and disciplined. He'll take a whipping on a crewwoman's behalf; he'll ruin his career to bring Spock to Vulcan for a mating ritual (no kidding); he'll keep an eye on an unsteady crewman while feeding lies to a terrifying alien about "corbomite" and arguing with the good doctor regarding why that unsteady crewman was ever promoted in the first place. He is interesting every time because, every time, you want to see how this take-charge guy is going to take charge of this.

You might say any hero is the same -- Sir Lancelot, Dr. House, CSI's Grissom. But Kirk still outdazzles them. I suppose it's because the background to the stories is an organized military and so he has no superiors and almost no peers. Or because, a curmudgeon might grouse, he is written and played just a tad one-dimensional. Maybe that appeals to something in human nature, which likes to relax from time to time and watch an almost-perfect hero in action. But when the Klingon commander in "The Trouble with Tribbles" reels off all Kirk's flaws -- to Mr. Scott, who repeats it to his face -- in enough detail to satisfy any critic, that dressing down is lots of fun, too. You really must go to FanCast and watch it. In that episode, note the half-sentient flower-creature in Sulu's garden, which gets all upset at an intruder but looks suspiciously like a human hand in a pink fur glove.

For good or ill it must be an almost incomprehensible experience to become what William Shatner has become, an internationally recognized cultural icon, for decades. He is something other than a mere movie star who plays roles. "Get a life," he famously scolded "fans" during a Saturday Night Live skit about a Trekker convention. He has a life. I know this, at thirdhand, because it so happens my sister owns a couple of horses, an American Saddlebred and a hackney pony whom she takes to competitions around the midwest through the summer months, which are the horse show season. Since Saddlebreds are also the actor's little hobby, it so happens that she has crossed paths with him in small ways at one or two of these shows. She and her pony won a competition one year, the prize for which was a "Shatner Award" belt buckle.

One afternoon at a show in Kentucky, she saw him walking about the stable areas like anybody else. Of course she nearly swallowed her tongue, as we all do at sight of a celebrity. "It's like seeing a tornado," my brother explained after he collided with his own hero, Jack Nicklaus, emerging from the clubhouse at the Western Open. "You feel it right through to your spine." That's true. I remember once standing admiring a painting in a small room at the Art Institute of Chicago. Next to me was a slight, middle-aged gentleman escorting an aged woman. He pointed to another painting and spoke to her. "I wore a costume like that," he began, and I forget the rest because I was thunderstuck by the voice. There was no mistaking Charlton Heston.

Anyway, there was my sister trying not to goggle at a septuagenarian Captain Kirk in a bright, sunny, summer stable yard in Kentucky. She gripped a friend's arm. "Turn around go back go back," she hissed. "It's him."

Her friend reluctantly turned around and they very casually went back to enter and then pass through the icon's presence. Already they noticed two or three young blondes casually leaning over a paddock fence within his line of sight. But my sister's friend has been around horse shows longer and she knows the rules. "All right," she told her. "But don't talk to him. Nobody talks to Bill. He doesn't like it."

That was that. They left the presence, and carried on with their lives. So did he. Horse show season has begun again. And I have returned in a small way to my childhood tastes, sailing through the universe with that commanding hero who punches the intercom console in a temper and then controls himself and politely asks some subordinate to please come to the bridge. And makes you think -- hey. He's all right. We're in good hands.

Now I have a life too, but if I can wangle an invitation to a horse show this summer, if I can offer to make myself useful just casually mucking out stalls or something, why I might have much more eyewitness things to report. But I'll remember the rules. I promise I won't talk to Bill.


  1. Haha! I can attest to the "Don't talk to Bill" fact. I'm an assistant trainer at a barn and go to many shows. Funny story, I was in the showring one time showing a horse and I went to line up and my trainer was running up the stairs from the rail to get to the out-gate and she literally ran into him.

    In Lexington, I was walking past him while he was on his cell and I actually got a head nod "hi". That was cool. I used to be a trekkie (still am deep down) so it was pretty exciting for me.