Thursday, September 8, 2016

A Half-Century In The 23rd Century

We moved to Leduc in the spring of 1974, when I was most of the way through first grade. My new schoolmates were friendly, and we spent recess one day drawing on the chalkboard. One boy drew a set of parallel cylinders joined by a couple of rectangles. Speed lines came out the back, and two thin beams lanced out from the bottom of the topmost cylinder.

More details filled out the shape; windows, lights, some letters and numbers. I was intrigued, and asked, "What's that?"

"It's the starship, Enterprise," he said,"from Star Trek, on television."

After school, I rushed home so I could be in front of channel 13 at the appointed time, and I was transfixed- or maybe better to say transported.

I was immediately drawn in by the strange locales, the outlandish adventure and the bravery and gallantry of the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise. Any chance I got to see more of Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and Dr. McCoy (and the rest of the crew, of course), I took it. I remember Mum laughing when I told her about this new show, and how disappointed I was when she told me it had been cancelled when I was three. It meant that there was a limit on how much of this strange new world I would be able to experience, but I was determined to eke out as much as I could.

Like many of my peers, I bought a model kit of the Enterprise and assembled it in a slapdash fashion, but was puzzled by the sheet of decals included with it. Barely familiar names like Lexington, Potemkin, Intrepid, Hood, and their associated registry numbers suggested an even larger imagined universe, with links to real military history. Years before I would read Lord of the Rings, this was my first exposure to the tantalizing allure of world-building: the creation of an imaginary place particularly suited to the telling of specific stories.

I would watch these stories on television, and devoured the James Blish novelizations from the public library. At a bookstore in Southgate mall, I spotted the Star Trek Concordance and the Star Trek Puzzle Manual, and begged Dad to get the puzzle manual for me. It turns out the Concordance would become a valuable collectible in later years, but I was enthralled with the manual, written as excerpts of various Starfleet Academy training manuals.

The ardour of my classmates cooled somewhat as I entered junior high while my passion for Star Trek remained, but it was changing. The ethics of the crew, the morality of the stories, they began to inform my own sense of right and wrong. Even when I didn't agree with how Kirk handled a situation (which was rare), I respected his courage and commitment.
Kirk: "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." (from City On The Edge Of Forever)
(If my ethos has a cornerstone, 'Let me help' is it.)

I came to understand the Enterprise's true purpose: as a vehicle for ideas, and ideals.

I was too young or sheltered to recognize how progressive it was to have a black woman officer on a television show, but the ethnically diverse, multi-racial and multi-species bridge crew of NCC-1701 showed me a multi-coloured world that worked.

When I saw other students bullied, or was a victim myself, I knew it was a fear of the Other that provoked it. It was a fear I had as well, but maybe a little less, and perhaps a little more controllable because I knew where it came from, and how illogical it was.

In the snarky interchanges between the passionate Dr. McCoy and the stoic Mr. Spock, I saw the value of both emotion and logic, and how much more effective each is when tempered by the other.

During the long dry spell between new episodes on television and the eventual movies, I discovered role-playing and tactical games set in the Star Trek universe, and played both in high school with like-minded fellows. I learned to tell stories in an established setting. Novels began to trickle out, giving us even more insight into the idealized future of the 23rd century.

Then, the movies, followed by a return to television in The Next Generation. The Star Trek universe was not only robust enough to survive two set re-dressings and costume changes in a short space of time, but could leap ahead almost a century and populate itself with new characters, in a future where enemies had become allies. (I'm not saying that the Klingon-Federation peace had any real bearing on the dismantling of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, but...)

More shows followed, and more movies, and some were hits, and some were misses. But through them all, this optimistic and inclusive future, a future of abundance and exploration, remained.

This quirky little show with the astonishingly original looking spaceship, originally pitched as "Wagon Train in space", premiered on this night 50 years ago - September 8, 1966. Star Trek has been a cultural touchstone ever since,

Martin Luther King begged Nichelle Nichols not to leave the show, so she could be an example to other people of colour, and especially women.

James Doohan and Deforest Kelly received hundreds of pieces of fan mail from engineers and doctors who were inspired to take up these professions by their fictitious portrayals.

Cell phones, jet injectors for inoculations, modern computers, medical scanners - they can all trace their roots to a silly space opera that barely ran three seasons, but the lasting impression, the perpetual gift of Star Trek, will always be its idealism.
Capt. Kirk: 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. You may dissent without prejudice. Do I hear a negative vote? (from Return to Tomorrow)

In January, Star Trek returns to television (well, via a streaming service in the U.S., but still...), and there are numerous indications that showrunner Bryan Fuller is intent on taking the franchise back to its progressive roots. Half a century later, the rallying cry of Trekkies through the lean years, "Star Trek lives!", has never been more true.

I have every confidence that I will be referencing Trek until I am too old to remember it, and that phrases like "Live long and prosper" will continue to resonate until we reach the 23rd century. Perhaps this sentiment and the spirit that spawned it will eventually echo into a future that looks more like the utopia that is the United Federation of Planets, and not our troubled little globe.

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