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Trek

March 26, 2013

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One time, during the late 1970s, I got a call from my friend Scott. He said that his sister Cindy, who was enrolled at U.C. Davis, was taking him and our friends Wolfgang and Mike to see Gene Roddenberry give a speech on campus. He asked me if I would like to go along. Knowing that Gene Roddenberry was the creator of Star Trek, I said “yes” at warp factor two and when the destroyer-class station wagon pulled up to our house, I piled in.

What I did not know at the time was that Roddenberry was a TV writer, whose work dated back to the 1950s. If you watch episodes of Have Gun Will Travel, you’ll see his name pop up as writer from time to time. He was well versed in the western genre and even pitched Star Trek to the network as a kind of Wagon Train in space.

He created the Star Trek franchise, which led to a total of five different TV series—The Original, The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise. I know there are Jedi-master-level-Star-Wars-fans out there who will argue that the Lucas’ spawn is superior. But when one looks at the entire Star Trek universe, and the number of well-written scripts that explored social issues and intriguing concepts and technologies, the comparison to Star Wars is eyebrow raising.

Do not misunderstand me. I really enjoy Star Wars. I have my DVR set to record every episode of Star Wars: The Clone Wars. I am a big fan of Obi-Wan Kenobi, and believe the Jedi Master is every bit as cunning, daring and studly as Toshiro Mifune’s samurai character from Akira Kurosawa’s Sanjuro or Yojimbo. Still, in my mind, Star Trek and Star Wars are—please excuse me—light years apart in concept and pure storytelling sophistication. Here are some examples:

From The Original Series episode “City on the Edge of Forever.” Harlan Ellison kicked serious amounts of glutei maximi, writing a Hugo Award-winning script that nearly all sentient life forms recognize as the best Star Trek episode ever. As we are talking about the great (and controversial) Harlan Ellison, the details about the writing of the script differ. Ellison’s original submission was altered to the point where he very nearly made them use his pseudonym “Cordwainer Bird” (as all of Harlan’s fans know, this was his way of giving a show the “bird” for messing with his script). The story dealt with the Enterprise crew discovering the “Guardian of Forever,” a shimmering, bagel-shaped portal through time and space. Dr. McCoy, suffering from a temporary, and accidently medicinally induced case of insanity, leaped through the portal before anyone could follow and stop him. The Guardian informs the landing party that McCoy has altered the timeline and that the starship Enterprise no longer exists. Kirk and Spock are allowed to traverse the gateway and are transported to Depression-era New York City. There they strive to find the missing Dr. McCoy and figure out how he altered the timeline. Spock works tirelessly with crude 1930s technology to transform his tricorder into a time and space View-Master. In the meantime, Captain Kirk finds and falls in love with the wonderful and beautiful Edith Keeler (think Mother Teresa meets Joan Collins—almost literally, as it’s Joan Collins who plays the part). Spock finally figures out that, in order to keep a rather unpleasant future (where the Nazis win World War II) from unfolding, Edith Keeler must be allowed to die in an impending street accident. It’s romance and tragedy on a cosmic scale—the way Star Trek fans crave it.

The Next Generation is replete with good, solid episodes. (Although, some would agree that the stories didn’t get really good until after Commander William Riker grew a beard.) In an episode called “Darmok,” the Enterprise meets an alien race called the Tamarians. Though the miraculous Universal Translator allows them to understand the words that come out of the Tamarians’ mouths, Picard and his bridge crew cannot figure out what they are talking about. The Captains of both ships are transported to a nearby planet, where some kind of invisible monster of energy (that reminds me of the ID monster in Forbidden Planet) seeks to destroy them. Picard comes to realize that the aliens speak in metaphors, using sayings from stories about their legendary heroes to describe circumstances and express feelings. Picard also realizes that the alien captain had them both beamed down to the planet in order to team up against an unknown foe, and thus forge a camaraderie between them that can only happen between allies in battle. So, this ain’t your formulaic cop/detective/forensic pathologist-finds-the-murderer-of-the-week plot.

Deep Space Nine is the series that, I believe, gets the least respect, yet still boasts some significant episodes. “Trials and Tribble-ations” worked as a sequel to The Original Series’ “The Trouble With Tribbles” by David Gerrold (his script came in second to Harlan Ellison’s “City on the Edge of Forever” at the Hugo awards in 1968). Captain Benjamin Sisko and his crew go back in time to the space station where “The Trouble With Tribbles” takes place. Through Forrest Gump visual technology, they effectively blend in with the original footage, allowing them to, at times, interact with the original characters. For me, the highlight is when The Original Series Klingons make their entrance, with their smooth foreheads (as opposed to the carapace-like foreheads of every Klingon depicted since 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture); O’Brien asks Worf what the deal is—why do 23rd Century Klingons look so different? Worf’s reply is that while the men are indeed Klingons, “we do not discuss it with outsiders!”

Enterprise was a series that took me a while to warm up to. No. Let me be honest. I gave up on it and abandoned it. It wasn’t until after it was off the air, and at the advice of a life-long friend and fellow trekker, that I began to watch the reruns and come to fully appreciate the series. See, at first I balked at the whole concept of the starship being out in space all by itself in a hostile environment and surviving. I thought it was a refitted Voyager concept. That is until I watched Battle 360, a series of documentary programs, and learned about the exploits of the World War II aircraft carrier USS Enterprise.

If you haven’t seen Battle 360, you really should. The USS Enterprise was the most decorated ship in World War II. At one point in the war, the ship was damaged and operating at diminished capacity and was the only carrier we had left in the water. It was her and the rest of our ships against the entire Japanese fleet. Gene Roddenberry didn’t pick that name out of a hat during a brainstorming session. He chose the name “Enterprise” for his starship for a damned good, sound and legendary reason.

The series was used to provide explanations to Star Trek continuity. The episode “Affliction,” for example, explains the genetic experimentation that created the Klingons shown in The Original series, and hilariously referenced in the Deep Space Nine episode I already described.

Now, getting back to that “trek” to Davis to see the man himself. Before Gene Roddenberry came out on stage, with no introduction whatsoever, a Star Trek blooper reel was projected on to the big screen. The laughter was loud and raucous and most everyone worked hard at stifling their mirth in time to hear and fully appreciate the next outtake. To this day, I’ve never seen Star Trek outtakes of that pristine quality. After his talk, Mr. Roddenberry answered questions from the audience. As for my reaction to the whole thing—picture, if you will, a young, Portuguese dude, in an auditorium packed with Star Trek fans, listening to every word, joke, morsel of information and behind-the-scenes anecdote that came out of Gene Roddenberry’s mouth, and at the same time, sharing the entire experience with some of the best friends he would ever have in this life. I would have to say it was pretty danged memorable.

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One Comment
  1. Fantastic overview my friend. You are a wealth of knowledge. I have been a Star Trek fan since the age of 15 and will always be one. From those formative years I formed many of my principles and values from watching Star Trek. Racial equality, a quest for knowledge, the love of adventure, doing the right thing, being a stand up person, pursuing your dreams, a quest for new technology, the expansion of science and so much more is represented in Strek Trek. Oh yeah, and being vegetarian. With all these wonderful things who wouldn’t love it. As a culture we will always follow these endeavors represented as entertainment until we become them. Live long and prosper.

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