Because this year marks the 50th Anniversary of Star Trek, I’ve been making my way through the series and films, and even some of the books. I knew at the beginning of the year that, with my busy schedule, I wouldn’t be able to commit to an insane “all series and all films in a single year” challenge (though I’d have loved that). But with my summer a bit more free (or at least flexible), I started The Next Generation just to see how far I could get, and I binged like I never have before, plowing through the entirety of TNG in just about a month. I’ll move onto Deep Space Nine soon, after finishing the TNG films. With the school year starting, I’ll not be able to go as quickly through DS9, but I still plan to try. And after that will come Voyager, and after that Enterprise–I’m excited to continue this trek.
I grew up watching Star Trek. It’s probably been the most influential aspects of pop culture for me (of course followed closely by The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and Harry Potter). But Star Trek has been with me the longest, a fast and reliable friend. I’ve journeyed countless times with the crews of the starships Enterprise, most often with Captain Kirk and his crew, but often enough with Jean-Luc Picard.
Star Trek: The Next Generation is almost exactly one year younger than me–our birthdays are both in September–and my father has been a fan of The Original Series since before syndication, collecting the Bantam and Pocket Book novels and novelizations, all of which became my reading material growing up. Even more, he subscribed to a VHS-a-month club which sent us a new videocassette with two episodes of The Original Series on it. Because of his fandom, the VHS tapes and books on the shelf, I was inundated from birth. I didn’t stand a chance. I’m not saying I remember watching the TNG premiere, but I might as well have, because I was there from the beginning and right through until the end.
Only once have I gone chronologically through Deep Space Nine (we didn’t watch it as much when I was a kid, because they didn’t do as much exploring as Picard’s Enterprise did), though I have regularly caught episodes enough to have seen most of them two or three times. I clearly remember watching Voyager‘s premiere: there was a storm that day which messed up the TV signal, and I was furious because who knew when it would be on again. Likewise, I’ve watched through Voyager only once chronologically on DVD, though during its original run I recorded as much as I could on used-and-reused VHS tapes, which I horded and watched again and again, though never really in a cohesive order. It wasn’t until college where my local library’s DVD collected brought me a full rewatch of each series.
The first time I ever tried my hand at creative writing was Star Trek fan fiction, somewhere around the age of ten. I produced (bad) fan art, long before DeviantArt was a thing. I read and reread the books (many of which I inherited from my father, who introduced me to Star Trek), pored over technical manuals, the compendiums, the Encyclopedia. The first websites I remember going to, early in the 1990s, were Star Trek fan sites, with people in chat rooms and message boards creating their own crews, and role-playing or proto-LARPing. When the Next Generation movies came out I remember going to the films’ websites, waiting impatiently for a poor-quality video to load at a glacial pace, hoping for a glimpse of the new Enterprise-E, or just seeing the cast I adored in uniform once again.
I endlessly played make believe with action figures and props from each of the incarnations, coercing my friends (and, more reluctantly, my brother and sister) into both reenacting missions from the series and then creating our own. I did not keep my action figures in their packages (only a little to my current-self’s chagrin)–they were well played with, their batteries constantly wearing out, and when they did, I provided the much more varied sound effects.
There are bad episodes of Star Trek out there: “Spock’s Brain” and “The Turnabout Intruder” from The Original Series, “Code of Honor” and “Genesis” from The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine’s “The Emperor’s New Cloak” and “Move Along Home,” Voyager’s “Threshold” or “The Thaw,” and from Enterprise “Two Days and Two Nights” and “A Night in Sickbay.” Other people will have other episodes on a “worst of” list. Yet for every poor episode or eye-rolling moment (and there are many), there’s exponential redemption in some of the best Science Fiction on television: “The Best of Both Worlds,” “All Good Things,” “The Inner Light,” “Trials and Tribble-ations,” “The Way of the Warrior,” “Year of Hell,” “Blink of an Eye,” “Carbon Creek” or “Regeneration.” I know some will dispute this list, and that’s fine.
Good Star Trek is science fiction at its best. Sometimes its just fun technobabble (oh, those flighty tachyons and the hijinks they get up to), and sometimes its an exploration of humanity, of our nature, of the great things science can do–or the treachery to which over-dependence on technology can lead.
What I’ve always loved about Star Trek is the idealism, the code of ethics they pursue with each and every mission. They fail at times, yes, but they pursue some greater good throughout each series, striving to stand for something. During the turbulent 1960s they subtly yet powerfully advocated for racial tolerance, dealt with the futility of the Cold war in the 1980s, and told tall tales of great themes that would make Shakespeare proud. They struggle (and often fail) with relativism, often allowing beliefs to stand even when they are wrong, all in the name of tolerance. Quite often, tolerance is equated with acceptance or endorsement–and yet time and time again, a standard of Right is maintained.
This is why I watch Star Trek. As we move into this series’ 51st year and beyond, I hope that Star Trek‘s roots are maintained. We’re about to have a new series: I say push boundaries, say new things, go new places. But, stay with what is Right. I hope the more serialized nature of Discovery will tell brilliant stories of that Final Frontier. However, Star Trek does not need to be Breaking Bad. We don’t need anti-heroes and dark, brooding shows (though of course there is an excellent place for that in today’s TV canon). We need inspiration in our pop culture, a return to optimism, to pursuing what is right and good, to taking us on exciting and fun adventures, to hope.