Star Trek: Go boldly or not at all

If you are a fan of those panty-waisted follow-ups to “Star Trek” where good and evil were recast by moral relativists, avert your eyes. We have nothing to say to each other. But if you spent part of your childhood and adolescence doing algebra homework in front of the TV at 4 p.m., if you scream-cried at the ending of Wrath of Khan, come and sit. 

“Star Trek” was a Cold War phenomenon, conceived at a time when we had clear ideas about our enemies and values. There was none of this ambivalence about forging new frontiers, or imposing our cultural patrimony onto other planetary systems. The Space Race was at its height. Public policy pushed science in the schools. And there was Kirk kicking Kling-on (communist) booty. Star Fleet was America. And “Star Trek”, the American myth writ small.  

Apart from a bone-crushing infatuation with Mr. Spock, I loved this cheesy show because I saw myself and the kids I knew on the deck of the Starship Enterprise. For idiosyncratic children in the early 1970s, “Star Trek” reruns provided an escape from the wasteland of junior high. Instead of school bus battles among insecure teens, disparate personalities cooperated—and indeed cared for each other—as they chased common goals. The swaggering football star (Kirk) loved the brilliant science student (Spock) who in turn loved the passionate philosopher (McCoy).  

Produced just a couple of years after President Lyndon Banes Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, the Enterprise was a progressive melting pot of ethnicities, races and bi-planetary humanoids fighting with all the testosterone they could muster to make the galaxy free for the pursuit of new knowledge. As our bodies and relationships changed—I lost two best friends, one because I couldn’t condone her Biblical literalism, another because she tried to steal my boyfriend—”Star Trek” ran as constantly as the rising of the moon. “Star Trek” was there when Nixon resigned, when I had to run home from school to escape a team of bullying girls, when we matriculated to high school and got too busy for the voyagers on the Starship Enterprise. 

But to boldly go is an American mantra. To cross the Continental Divide, discover new states of consciousness, to reach out, as President Reagan said about the Challenger team, to “touch the face of God,” is a uniquely American impulse and the reason a new generation of teenagers are sitting gob smacked in theaters watching, Star Trek.  

“Star Trek” is us with all our imperfect, adolescent dreams, an idealized us before Abu Ghraib and extreme rendition. We weren’t perfect as a country then and we aren’t now. Reality is more complex, more “Star Trek: Next Generation” than it is classic Trek. But that’s its archetypal beauty; that it reflected of the black-and-white passions and beliefs of a youthful people and gave a generation of misfit kids a place to go.      

Comments (1) -

May 8. 2009 10:43


I love when you put things in context this way -- it is one of your great strengths. As a furriner, I would not have seen Star Trek as clearly--and pegged it as just a cheesy series for weirdos with no life!! Little did I know it was an American icon.

Susan |

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