Thursday, September 08, 2016

Five Moments out of Fifty

I'm 47, not 50, so Star Trek--the television show, the film franchise, the pop culture property, the fan phenomenon--is older than me. I don't know how old I was when I first became addicted to the Star Trek, but considering my dim memory of sitting in a particular room in a particular house watching the show, I probably wasn't more than six years old. So Roddenberry's vision, in one form or another, has been with me my whole life, and has influenced my imagination of, and interaction with, the world around me accordingly. That's not a confession; that's a boast--I may not be a truly hard-core Trekker, but beneath Dungeons and Dragons and Harry Potter, a Trekker I was first, and a Trekker I remain. I've watched the shows, seen the movies, read the comic books and (a slight portion of) the novels. It actually wouldn't be hard to come up with 50 memories from the Original Series that have stuck with me for decades, but it would take a lot more time to write, and few would read it anyway. So here are 5 personal moments, in honor of 50 years of entertainment and (surprisingly often) enlightenment.

1) "The Deadly Years." Is it a great episode? No, more like one of their middling ones. But for some reason it sticks in my head as my earliest exposure to Trek, and I feel like I saw this episode in re-runs more than any other single episode. And really, it's not a bad introduction--the action, while minimal, is compelling, driven by bureaucratic ambition (Commodore Stocker pulling rank on Captain Kirk to claim command as he ages from one of those weird, random space-born diseases) and perilous legality (an arbitrarily drawn border with the Romulan empire that Stocker foolishly pushes the Enterprise across, despite Uhura and Sulu tosses shade at him). And the drama is thoroughly adult: self-conscious fears of weakness, joined with anger at one's own body and social structures--and friends, including the ever-logical Spock!--which seem to be conspiring to overlook you as your face your inevitable end. As a little kid, Kirk's defiant insistence, after the computer calculates his physical age as 60-something, that "I'm 34!" echoed in my head, both a promise and a threat.

2) "The Doomsday Machine." This one, by contrast, is heralded by many as one of the greatest of the original series's episodes, and I don't disagree; my older brother Daniel and I (we were the original faithful Star Trek fanboys in the family, until some of our younger siblings caught the Next Generation fever) loved and endlessly replayed in our play talk and imaginations every detail of the episode. The acting and plotting made it genuinely thrilling (has there been any James Bond moment cooler than Kirk staring into the face of death and calmly saying "Gentlemen, I suggest you beam me aboard"?), and the bad guy wasn't a bad guy at all; Commodore Matt Decker was a plausible, even admirable, character, driven to the point of helpless madness. I swear, just going through this old episode gets my heart racing and my eyes tearing up all over again. And, of course, the fact that it was all a horrifying Cold War parable just made it all the more memorable to a 70s and 80s kid like myself.

3) "The City on the Edge of Forever." The greatest one of them all, of course; I knew it when I first saw it as an impressionable kid, and it's been reconfirmed again and again as I've re-watched who knows--20? more?--times over the years. The climax is poorly staged and hammy, but it doesn't matter at all, because the personal and world-historical stakes had been so wonderfully enacted by the performers, sealed by the brilliant final minute of the episode, where the camera gets volumes of dialogue out a few terse words from Spock, a couple of slowly realizing glances from Uhura and Scotty, and Kirk's final command (as us Mormon kids looked at each other and said, "Uh, did Kirk just say 'hell'?"). Did my young, naive notions of adult humor, romance, politics, history, and more begin with this awesome 46 minutes of television? Probably so.

4) "The Lorelei Signal." Okay, fine, I'm cheating. But seriously folks, Star Trek: The Animated Series gets almost no love, and that's just wrong. First, it's canon, people; you can't deny it. Second, given the relatively few episodes produced over its two seasons, it actually has a better stinker-excellent ratio that the Original Series itself (though TOS's best episodes remain the best story-telling that any version of Star Trek has ever yet produced in my opinion). Third, some of its best episodes broke boundaries in a way that far out-paced even what ardent apologists like myself love to claim about TOS, this episode--with a race of energy-sapping female aliens brain-washing all the men on the ship--being a prime example. Is it a clumsy bit of 70s-era we-really-mean-it-okay-maybe-not feminism? Absolutely. But it's endured in my head for all these years--Uhura's no-nonsene assumption of command, the underplayed references to Nurse Chapel's love for Spock (complete with Kirk's single most Kirkest line-reading ever: "We...must...get...out...of here")--it's all awesome.

5) Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Shut up, haters; you're all wrong. Yes, I'm cheating again, and I don't care--I was there, sitting in the theater, all of 11-years-old, and I couldn't have cared less that there was little action, and even fewer character developments, in this movie: this was what The Original Series had been promising us all along. Or so I was certain of when I left the theater, brimming over with excitement and fascination for what I had just seen: namely, a genuine, puzzling, terrifying, beautiful science-fiction story, one with gloriously self-indulgent visuals and a plot straight out of the greatest I-reach-out-and-touch-the-face-of-God hard sci-fi of the classic era of Heinlein and Asimov. And the details! Spock with long hair! McCoy with a beard! Chapel with a decent hairdo! Sorry, while I'm fully cognizant of its weaknesses as a film, as a moment in the whole myth which is Star Trek? It was never surpassed, and never will be. Not in my memory, anyway.

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