I Believe in Star Trek

I sat down to write a discussion about Star Trek’s latest television series, Discovery.

This is what came out instead. I hope that you take something from it. As a piece it’s probably a more sentimental diversion than I am usually used to making. I just want to assure you as we depart that I’m not trying to jerk you around here, I guess this was just a thought that was waiting for the right time to be written, and once it began, it could not be stopped.

Alright, so Star Trek and I go back a long ways.

It’s been my theory for a long time that my father was some kind of undercover nerd. I have these memories, very early in my life of my dad calling me over to the couch and saying, “Watch this, this is neat.” and it was the old Star Trek that was on, the one with William Shatner. I have a similar remembrance of him introducing me to Doctor Who in this way, when it was repeats of the Tom Baker stuff filling out the Sunday afternoon time-slots on PBS in the early 80s.

Now, I don’t think that my dad was a nerd like me.

I don’t imagine for a second that he thought that I was going to go off all half cocked make a religion out of it like I did. And maybe he wouldn’t have been so enthusiastic about science fiction with me if he could have seen into the future.

Later on, when I was a burgeoning adolescent carrying around role-playing books in my backpack and going to Star Trek conventions and arguing with people over which comic book artist was better, Todd McFarlane or Jim Lee (Todd McFarlane), my father would look at me with these stoic, skeptical eyes, as though I was an interloper, some strange alien that he had invited into his home. I remember him narrowing his eyes as I would walk by, this weird kid with ill fitting clothes, an affected vocabulary and brightly colored, yet esoteric priorities.

And, I mean, I get it.

My father was a man’s man. He loved the outdoors. He wore aviator sunglasses as he hiked up the sides of mountains. He collected rifles and loved to hunt and camp. He would work on cars barehanded, his sleeves rolled up exposing forearms covered in thick, coarse hair and black with motor oil. I think he saw himself as sort of a Hemingway type figure and he projected that well. It was difficult not to get caught up in his self mythology. Certainly, my mother and brothers saw him that way.

I have this memory, and it used to be crystal clear, but as I age it becomes continually more murky and indistinct. It’s of my father standing on the back porch of my childhood home, gazing silently at the horizon as the sun set, slowly smoking a pipe. As darkness fell, in the stillness of the summer night, all that you could see of him through the window was the small, burning ember.

What I’m trying to say is that I don’t think it ever occurred to my father that someone would try and make a passing interest in science fiction into a way of life. To him it was just sort of a fun thing to do on a Saturday afternoon: watch an old show and think about how weird things might  be out there somewhere far, far away from here. And, I guess I could say it became sort of “our thing” over the course of my life. It was the way that he related to me, as difficult as I could be to relate to, and I am grateful to him for it.

So, throughout the 1980s, when the original Star Trek motion pictures were being released, my father would make the time to take my brother and I down to the movie theater to see them. I remember the first one, so fucking long, the only one that is really, truly, a science-fiction film, and I was just a little kid squirming around in the uncomfortable theater seat, oblivious to what was actually happening in the movie.  

I have much more clear memories of him taking my brother and I to see “The Voyage Home,” (The One With The Whales) and “The Final Frontier” (The One Where They Meet God). When “The Undiscovered Country” (The Last One with the Original Actors Where They Are All Old), came out, he called my brother and I out of school and drove us from the remote, small town that we lived in at the time, to the capitol city an hour and a half away so that we could see the film on opening day. After the movie was over he took us to a record store where bought me a Public Enemy baseball cap. This was in 1991.

Now this is one of those weird moments where there is a difference between what I remember and what the historical record suggests.

It goes a little something like this: My father hated the institution he called “commercial television.” This was any TV in which shows are sponsored by advertisers in exchange for room to project advertisements during commercial breaks. My father was some kind of strange, muddled communist-socialist in his outlook, and he detested the concept that advertisers could pay for time to indoctrinate people through the medium of television, especially his children. So in my house, growing up, we were restricted to watching commercial free, public television.

“Star Trek: The Next Generation” was immune to this stricture. My father believed that the values presented in Star Trek (atheism, wonder at the vastness of the universe, science and order overcoming adversity, post-scarcity/post-racism social structures, vague-pajama-wearing-space-communism) were worth dipping ever so briefly each week into the teeming cesspool of crass consumerism. So each week, we were allowed to break our fast of commercial TV and watch a single episode of Star Trek.

Now, I remember this as being Sunday nights. A brief scan into the historical record however, suggests that Next Generation episodes premiered on Monday nights. This was at the height of syndicated television however, and it’s entirely possible that in the late 80’s/early 90’s the people of Arizona were getting their Star Trek nearly a week late. There was no consumer grade internet then, so I don’t think that anyone noticed or cared.

It was a special thing we all did, my brothers and my dad. We would gather around the television and watch the show together. Later, as my father drove us home from school, we would all three of us talk about what had happened in recent episodes. As I remember it, as a kid approaching adolescence I began to be drawn into the saccharine interpersonal relationships of the bridge crew, but my dad always wanted us to discuss the philosophical/ethical conundrums of each episode. Or the sci-fi-time-travel-paradoxes which were, as he put it, “neat.”

After Star Trek: the Next Generation went off the air in May of 1994, the center of that tradition kind of unravelled.

Deep Space Nine was not a good show, at least not in the way that Next Generation was, and we stopped gathering to watch it regularly. I was a teen ager when the terrible Next Generation movies started coming out and I went to see them with my brother, or with my friends, and in the way of a kid, I don’t think I even asked my dad to come with me, all young a flush with the desire to grow up quickly and assume the perceived freedoms of adulthood. I don’t know if it even crossed my mind.

The last memory of watching Star Trek and my father was the premier episode of Star Trek: Voyager in 1995. Paramount, the movie company that has owned the rights to the Star Trek franchise for decades, was launching a  new broadcast television station, with a new Star Trek show as it’s flagship program. I was all revved up to watch it, because, at least back then, I got revved up pretty easily over new stuff. I recruited both my brothers to watch the debut episode with me.

We were half was through the first episode when my parents came in on a commercial break.

“Your dad has something he needs to talk to you about.” my mom says. Okay we say, this already seemed a bit weird as we didn’t do this kind of stuff in my family.

My dad then explains very quickly that he hasn’t been feeling well lately and he’s been to see the doctor. It turns out that he has some kind of brain tumor and they are gonna hafta take it out. It’s going to be a long year, he says and he’s gonna hafta go to the hospital a lot. He’s gonna have radiation therapy. All this shit is gonna be very expensive kids, so don’t expect much for Christmas.

Worst case scenario, he might die.

After this my parents leave the room. The TV was on mute for the commercial break and during this informational update, the show had started again. We turn the sound back on but watch the remainder of the episode in silence.

I remember it not being very good.

In June of 2017 my father passed away after more than a two decades of declining health.

He had gotten the tumor out, and for a brief time, seemed like a new man. But I guess the radiation treatment got botched and it slowly ate away at him. It changed him from within. He also was a fan of the drink, my father. My mom is probably going to read this so I won’t belabor the point. I’ll just say this because I think it’s true: he was a good man with a huge heart that didn’t know how to best take care of himself. He left that to other people, and his foresight couldn’t have been better, because in the end they did the very best they could by him, and better than any one person has a right to expect of another.

The father I remembered was larger than life with a cutting intellect. He was sometimes wrathful but always kind. He had a soft spot for the losers of the universe, and he was remained hopeful for them,  he was never miserly with his time or money when it came to their requests. By the end of his life my father was confined to his bed, incapable of walking or caring for himself. His memory was patchy and he spoke slowly, in a voice that was weak and often raspy.

He became so much like a ghost before he even had a chance to die, a pale facsimile of the man that came before.

I don’t really remember our last conversations very clearly, he was so far gone by the end that our talks had become strangely remedial. I can tell you this however, in the final weeks before his death, I asked him what his favorite television show was, that he had ever seen, and he looked up, and I could see in his eyes that he was taking the piss out of me, and in a voice that had become fail with age and abuse said, “Star Trek.” And he smiled.

So what’s all this have to do with Star Trek Discovery, I hear you ask. Well, not much I guess. I was going to tell you all about the riveting shit that happened this season, and all my fresh takes now that the season is over. But all that got kind of lot in the wind up I suppose.

What it comes down to is this: when Discovery premiered, I twisted my brother’s arms into watching it with me. My mom has a bigger television so we decided to watch it, weekly, as a thing at her house. When my mom caught wind of this, she decided that she should make us all dinner. So somehow, completely by accident we created this tradition of meeting at my Mom’s house on Sunday night and eating dinner together and watching Star Trek. In a way that I can’t really articulate, Star Trek, of all fucking things, healed my family. It brought us together when we were slipping apart. It put us in the same room together, breaking bread and laughing and smiling and sure, sometimes getting on each other’s nerves. Star Trek somehow manged to heal us, and to take us back to a different place, a time when we were young and happy and the future was still open before us, and undiscovered country. And for that, if nothing else, I continue to believe in Star Trek.

I don’t really know how to close this out, so I’ll leave you with these words, some of Star Trek’s most important words. They were uttered first by Shatner, then later by Stewart. If you listen, there is something in them, some spirit, some message. I think that is a message my father believed in.

“Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.”


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