Friday 11 November 2016

Sci Fi Month: Confessions of a Reluctant Trekkie - in celebration of 50 years of Star Trek

Find out more about Sci Fi Month here.

Confessions of a Reluctant Trekkie

I've long been at peace with my identity as a geek. I was never one of the popular kids at school; I read too much, took things too much to heart, and just didn't seem to live in the same world as most children growing up in the 1990s. Whatever I was interested in - whether that be volcanoes, the Titanic, early 20th century girls' boarding school stories, or a particular Irish boyband, that would take over all my waking thoughts. Although I had friends who could share my interest to a certain extent, I don't think these obsessions of mine quite gave me common ground with other people until the films of Lord of the Rings, and, to a lesser extent, Harry Potter came out in the early 2000s. At last my interests were current and topical, and I was even able to talk to the cool kids at school. These films coincided with entering the sixth form. Once the classmates who had given me such a hard time for all those years had left school, I came to realise that the line between cool and nerd was finer than I had realised. With my friends, we'd spend our free periods in the comfy chairs in the school library and geek out about Lord of the Rings, or discuss theories of what might happen in the next Harry Potter book.

By university, I was more comfortable with my identity as a weird kid, and I left behind my struggles to fit in and impress people. I found My People on the English and Creative Writing courses and settled into writing my own particular brand of fantasy fiction. But I had lines I wasn't going to cross. I wasn't going to get into Dungeons and Dragons, and I wasn't going to watch Star Trek. I had my ideas about what Star Trek was all about and that was boring grey futuristic corridors, deep and dull philosophical ramblings, Patrick Stewart being all inspiring and Patrick Stewartish, Leonard Nimoy being a logical (and therefore cold) Vulcan called Spock, Scotty doing some beaming up, and Klingons, whatever they were.

Never mind that on the maybe two occasions I'd seen a couple of minutes of a Star Trek episode I had been intrigued even though I didn't know what was going on. Over the early 2010s, I started softening to science fiction, mostly thanks to my best friend introducing me to Firefly and awakening a long-dormant desire to explore the universe. By the time 2013 came around with the trailer for Star Trek: Into Darkness, I realised that the film looked a lot more interesting, human, and exciting than I had given the franchise credit for. And so I settled down in front of the TV when the 2009 remake came on, and after a bit of confusion about which Captain Kirk was which (little baby James Tiberious, not his father George, is the Captain Kirk) I got drawn in. From my first impressions of Spock the Younger ("wow, he's kind of a jerk!") I grew to find the character to be (if you'll excuse me) fascinating, with his conflict between his logical Vulcan side and his human emotions. By the time Spock the Elder made his appearance, and the alternative-universe nature of the reboot was explained in the context of the story, I was hooked, and I was still thinking about the film several days later. I wanted to know more about these characters - especially that pointy-eared character. 

50 Years of Star Trek

Star Trek celebrated its fifthieth anniversary earlier this year. There have been five series (with at between three and seven seasons of each) and thirteen films. It has influenced scientific discovery, technological advancements, and is still going strong. There is another film planned for the reboot cast, and the new Star Trek: Discovery will be airing on Netflix in the new year. And yet it started off as quite a small series that was almost cancelled after two seasons, and was cancelled after the third. The quality of the stories varies vastly, the acting strikes a balance between restrained and ridiculous, and there is a great deal to mock from the special effects, to the fight scenes, to the fates of the away team members. And yet it is one of the most beloved science fiction franchises of all time.

The characters are at the heart of the show, especially the central trio: Captain Kirk, Commander Spock and Doctor "Bones" McCoy are a formidable  team, who can rarely agree on anything, and yet who have a powerful bond of friendship, whose skills and character traits complement each other and bring out the best in one another, with a warm supporting cast.

I think we're all very familiar with the use of science fiction to predict a dismal future; it is often used as a warning to humanity about where we could end up if we continue down certain paths. Star Trek is a vision of hope for the future, something to aspire to, not to avoid. If its scripts seem a little heavy-handed with a moral at times, or fall short of the mark for contemporary standards, it is important to remember how groundbreaking the show was for its time. Written at a time of racial segregation, it depicts a future where war, poverty and prejudice are things of the past, where people from all backgrounds, races and even planets can put aside the differences and work together for the betterment of all. It is a universe where people understand the ways they can learn from each other. The Enterprise's senior crew include men and women working together as equals, a black woman and a Japanese-American man, and later a Russian (remember this was during the cold war.) It was a remarkable message especially in the sixties, and is as important in the turbulent and divisive 2016 as it has ever been.

Nichelle Nichols, who played Uhura, was encouraged by Martin Luther King to stay with the show, to prove that there was an important place for her standing alongside white men: important not just as a symbol on a television programme but as an example for life off-screen too. Whoopi Goldberg cites Nicholls as the reason she took up acting (and later appeared as a recurring character in Star Trek: The Next Generation.) Nichols also played a part in recruiting astronauts of colour to the real-life space programme.

The series was revived in the form of the films in the '70s and '80s, and followed up with Star Trek: The Next Generation with Patrick Stewart as Captain Picard. For many, The Next Generation is quintessential Star Trek, and it was certainly what I pictured before I ever thought of becoming interested in the series. It is solid science-fiction, it looks better and expands upon the original show's mythology, developing the Federation's relations with the Klingon Empire and showing us more of the other cultures introduced in the original series and films, as well as introducing the dreaded Borg, the hive-mind that destroys individuality in the ultimate quest for universal domination.

I'm probably in the minority for this, but I don't like TNG half as much as the original, for all that it is objectively a more consistently good show. I don't like the holodeck stories, I don't think a starship is a good place to raise a family, and Wesley Crusher, Q, Deanna Troi and her mother Lwaxana are just plain annoying. I like most of the characters, there are some excellent stories, but The Next Generation will always live in the shadow of its predecessor for me.

I am less familiar with the spin-offs of the 1990s and early 2000s. I've seen a few episodes of Voyager and none at all of Enterprise, so will not write about these, but I am working my way through Deep Space Nine, which moves away from the formula of a star ship exploring strange new worlds and seeking out new life and new civilisations. Instead, Deep Space Nine is a space station, not Federation-run at all, but belonging to the Bajoran people, reclaiming it after a long war and occupation by Cardassia. The Federation has come to help the Bajoran people get back onto their feet, but there are many clashes between cultures, and being in a stationary setting, the series is strongly driven by character and more of a series-long overarching plot. It is perhaps more of a morally grey area than the other Star Trek series, going into more depth about the dilemmas faced by the characters, and for that reason it is rather divisive among Trekkies. But I like it better than The Next Generation, because although we need the optimism of Star Trek's universe, one can't afford to grow complacent; actions have consequences and the right way forward is not always obvious.

I've been late to the party on this one, but here's to many more years of boldly going where no man (or no one) has gone before. Live Long and Prosper.



  1. I had a hard time coming to terms with Star Trek too, but mostly because my parents compromised my name by watching TNG and that always annoyed me. I think it was Voyager that won me over because it actually has a plot.I highly recommend that one if you're interested.

  2. That's a neat story about how you came to the franchise. Good point too about how ahead of its time it was in the 60's. I agree about the TOS and TNG- as cheesy as it looks now, I think a lot of the actual stories still hold up from TOS, and I vastly prefer it to TNG. Especially because I'm much more interested in Kirk and Spock's personalities than I am any of the TNG crew. And I have much the same feelings about Wesley and Deanna and the ones that you mention. :)

    I have similar feelings to DS9 too. Love the concept, but have only seen some of the episodes, and I've been told by another blogger to stick with it because it gets really good from about S3 ons. So I may binge it on netflix at some point.

    Great post! Hope you're having a great SciFi Month. :)

  3. The view of a hopeful future is what I like best. My favorite is Voyager (since that is the one I watched with my family).

    Visions of the Future: Why SF is Important


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