The recent deluge of press about JJ Abrams’ Star Trek has reawakened a part of me that I thought was long dead: my love of the original Star Trek. It’s been weird coming to grips with the fact that I still really like the original series and the original crew, and even weirder to realize that the nuggets of stupid trivia I memorized as a pre-teen nerd are still in my head, easily reached. Unlike everything I learned in school at that age.
Apparently I was born a Star Trek nerd. I was fasinated by the series on TV as a toddler, and before I was five I was proclaiming William Shatner to be the greatest actor alive. I had the Star Trek Mego toys, and as you can see, Star Trek clothing.
As I got older I held onto the love of Trek. I would sit up all night to watch Star Trek repeats at midnight on WPIX 11 in New York, cursing the nights when a long football game would delay the start of an episode. I was archiving them on VHS (one of the tapes included the famous Shatner ‘Get a life!’ appearance on Saturday Night Live), and back in the days before the internet it was a big task to figure out what order they should be watched. Channel 11 didn’t strip them in original air order, so I ended up knee deep in Star Trek books to figure it all out.
And knee deep I was. I was buying (and, to be honest with you, stealing from the library) novelizations of Star Trek episodes as well as the occasional extended universe novels. I didn’t dig them as much as the novelizations, which I assumed were like the movie novelizations I loved as a kid – full of details edited from the finished movie. Before the days of Director’s Cuts and Extended Editions, the novelizations were the only way to find out what didn’t get past the editing bay.
The extended universe novels didn’t do it for me because they weren’t canon; even in grade school I understood the difference between the official material and the extra junk. I was fascinated with the canon, and Star Trek is perfect for people who obsess over details like the Federation Constitution, which I had in an official Trek tech manual. Also in that book was detailed schematics of the Enterprise, which hung on the wall next to my bunk bed. Watching Justin Long in Galaxy Quest brings me pretty forcefully back to my life in sixth grade.
In the past I’ve written about how The Empire Strikes Back was my first experience with spoilers, but it was the Star Trek movies that really had me searching them out. I would devour everything from Starlog to the letter column in the DC Comics Star Trek monthly to find out what Paramount was doing with the film franchise. Coming home with cheeks still wet from Spock’s death at the end of Wrath of Khan, I became totally convinced of the idea that a Romulan war was coming next. Hell, I was probably this close to writing a script about it myself.
These days going to conventions is part of the job, but the very first one I went to was a Star Trek con. It was also the beginning of the end of my fascination with the brand. It was exciting to meet the actors (at the time I wasn’t that concerned with anybody behind the scenes, to be honest, and I don’t even know how prominent they were at these conventions), but it was sobering to see who else was there. I was always the nerdiest kid in my group, the one who knew the most about everything from Star Trek to Star Wars to horror movies to Planet of the Apes to Marvel comics to whatever cartoons we all watched every Saturday, but even I was stunned at the kind of people who showed up at this con. While waiting in line to get James Doohan’s autograph I had to clear the aisle so that what appeared to be a 700 pound Klingon could get through.
I was ecstatic when The Next Generation premiered, but I was quickly disillusioned. The show was boring, the characters way too uptight for any fun. Where was the Spock/Bones interplay? Number One was supposed to be the dashing Kirk-type of the show, but it was pretty obvious that Jonathan Frakes was about as dashing as a math teacher. After a season I gave up on it.
A year or so later Star Trek V: The Final Frontier hit theaters and almost totally severed my love of the franchise. I was in high school at this point, and keenly interested in girls… and keenly aware that girls in Queens New York were not looking for Star Trek fans. By 1989, the year Trek V came out, I had quit the Science Fiction club and the Board Game club (Axis & Allies after school every Tuesday!) and was trying (and failing) to reshape my image into one that girls would like. The growing shittiness of Trek was making that very easy; there are two Trek film experiences I remember with incredible clarity: coming home from Wrath of Khan in the back of my mom’s red Corrolla and being just amazed and moved by what I had seen and sitting in an empty movie theater with my friend Brian Scolaro (who has gone on to be a succesful comic and TV actor, one of a couple of guys from my class who made good) cracking jokes at The Final Frontier. That would have been unthinkable a couple of years before.
Star Trek VI briefly rekindled my passion, but by the time Generations came and Kirk was killed off in a terrible, unceremonious manner I was out. I cashed in my chips, threw away my Trek stuff and never looked back again. I would briefly check in on a new Trek series every time it aired, and I saw First Contact in theaters, but that was the end of it all for me.
Then a couple of years ago Trek hit DVD in box set form. I was intrigued but put off by the price. At about the same time the original series started getting rerun in a fairly aggressive way on TV Land, and I found myself drawn in to it. At first I was grooving on the campy aspects of the show – the outfits, the insanely over the top acting (seriously, Shatner as the greatest living actor? I was one dumb five year old), the gloriously cheap sets – but slowly I began to see through that stuff and remember what it was that I liked about the show in the first place.
Star Trek – the original series, anyway – represents a kind of swashbuckling adventure that we don’t see anymore. And while the original series has massive limitations in terms of effects and make-up, it also represents a work of imagination that’s inspiring. Where Star Wars has a small universe, Trek has an incredibly big one; while some people complain that every episode saw the introduction of yet another crinkly-nosed alien race, that’s part of what I loved about the show. There were so many new worlds, so many new situations and so many new ideas presented that you could just drown in them.
And at the core of all that was the relationship between Kirk, Spock and Bones. None of these guys were great actors, and maybe they hated each other behind the scenes, but that trio is one of the great friendships in film and television history. And spinning off of that are these other characters, all great at what they do, all dedicated and supporting one another, creating a weird but essentially wonderful family. Star Trek isn’t cool for a lot of reasons, but I suspect that one of the main reasons is just how optimistic it is, and just how much the characters really care about one another and get along. Unlike The Next Generation it wasn’t a sterile PC club, but a real family with disagreements and fights and the occasional full-body takeover by an evil alien… but at the end of the day all of these people were 100% there for each other. That’s what made Spock’s death at the end of Khan so powerful for someone who had grown up with this stuff – rather than being a dark, downer of an event it was the ultimate display of Spock’s love for Kirk and everybody on that ship. No homo.
But it took JJ Abrams to really get me to stand up and say I’m a Trekkie. When I began to realize that I actually cared about the ways that he was screwing around with Trek (not with canon, but with theme – all of this destiny bullshit that has no place in Trek‘s liberal military universe of Master & Commander in Space stories), I had to admit to myself that there was a part of me that never stopped loving these characters. I’ll never be back at the level I was in sixth grade – I only have the first four films on DVD, for instance, and don’t really think I’ll get around to buying the rest (unless a totally amazing set comes out. I’m enough of a nerd to cop to that) – but I’m embracing the fact that this series and the first four movies are often silly, often goofy, occasionally terrible, but always wonderful. And this isn’t nostalgia (or irony) talking. I’ve revisited the series and the movies. I’m not longing to go back to my childhood by any means.
I’m just caught up in the human adventure.