Confessions of a 58-year-old Trekkie

Nonfiction by | May 31, 2009

Space – the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds; to seek out new life and new civilizations; to boldly go where no one has gone before.

These words invaded my awareness more than forty years ago when the first edition of Star Trek came out on television. As a precocious teenager, I became instantly tantalized by the Gene Roddenberry creation, a penchant shared by my sister Thelma. At least once a week, we had a rendezvous at around 7:00 PM with the crew of the Enterprise in our 10-inch black-and-white TV set. As far as I remember, we never missed an episode, and should a storm occur at that moment with a blackout, we cursed the heavens for causing us to miss our date with Star Trek-TOS (The Original Series)!

The sci-fi series became a bonding link between my sister and I. There were other sci-fis that came out on TV later (Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon) but our interest was never drawn to them as much as with Star Trek. From the moment we met James Tiberius Kirk and the pointy-eared Vulcan Spock, we knew we were bitten by a bug from which we never recovered.

Twenty years later, I again found myself glued to the now 24-inch colored TV when Star Trek– TNG (The Next Generation) began its telecast in local channels. As a young mother in the 80s, I began to revive the passion I had for the series that lay dormant for a time. As a result, I bred a brood of Trekkies. Telecast of US shows came in about a year late. So it was probably in 1988 when TNG finally came out on Philippine TV. This time the brashness of Kirk was replaced by the more cerebral Picard, which to me was rather more appealing. Moreover, the Enterprise was refurbished and expanded to accommodate even families and a special feature was added—the Holodeck.

Seven seasons of Star Trek brought me deeper and deeper into Roddenberry’s world of warp speed, quantum singularities, alien species, and alternate realities. I took it upon myself to learn as much as I could about this world, and I rediscovered why I was drawn to it from the start.

Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry was a visionary, endowed with a positive outlook of the future of humankind. As a former pilot for the US Army Air Corps and later for Pan Am, he had a working knowledge of aeronautics that would prove helpful to his literary concepts. Gene’s first literary attempts were dismal failures. No studio wanted his stories. But persistence and determination paid off eventually. Perhaps his sheer passion for the vision he had of 24th century Earth earned him the respect of friends and colleagues in the industry, enough to convince Paramount to take on the project.
For more than 40 years, Roddenberry’s world continued to flourish both in television and film. The most recent rendition of Star Trek was released with an entirely new cast and featured the appearance of the original Spock—Leonard Nimoy. Before the advent of digital technology, all outer shots of the Enterprise had to be done photographically. A series of photo exposures from varying angles of the starship was played fast forward in roughly two seconds to create the warp speed effect. This image is indelibly etched in every Trekkie’s memory.

As a Trekkie, I had the fortunate experience in 2007 of visiting Hilton Las Vegas, which featured “The Star Trek Experience.” I had hoped to encounter a Klingon in the flesh, or perhaps a copy of any of the more notable Star Trek Characters. But the only one available was a Ferengi. Before our picture was taken, the alien whispered to me, “Say, GREED!” The show “Star Trek Experience” at the Hilton Las Vegas was decommissioned the following year.

Through the years, gathering tidbits of Star Trek history and trivia became an occasional preoccupation for me. For instance, Gene’s wife, Majel Barrett Roddenberry (who by the way died early this year)—whom everyone on the set referred to as “The First Lady of Star Trek”—was also Nurse Chapel in TOS, as well as Deanna’s mother Lwaxana Troi in TNG. Probably her least known but most important role in the sci-fi series was that of the voice of the computer—a role she reprised just shortly before her death, in the recently released prequel The Future Begins.

Stories of the crew of the Enterprise also made interesting and juicy tidbits. Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Uhura in TOS, was actually cast at the insistence of Roddenberry because she was an old flame of his. I was delighted to see that director J. J. Abrams decided to make Lt. Uhura the love interest of Spock in the new movie. For me, a romantic twist is always welcome.

Shatner and Nimoy, whose acting careers were at a low in the late 60s, owe their stardom in the series to Roddenberry, who was himself in an equally declining writing career at the time (talk of misery loving company). The pilot film was fraught with technical and budget constraints, so Gene thought of the idea of “beaming” to avoid the expense of showing the cast boarding in and out of shuttles. Thus, “transporting” became a staple feature. Despite the failure of The Cage, it had enough to prime the Star Trek engine to box office success in later years.

One character that particularly amused me was the immortal “Q.” John de Lancie, as many would perhaps notice by now, is a stage actor. I always considered his occasional appearances as happy diversions from the mainstream storylines that serial writers sometimes unmindfully dished out. As “Q,” de Lancie concocted schemes to plague Picard and test his ability to extricate himself from a usually moral dilemma. Recently, Q’s Doge-like costume in TNG’s final episode All Good Things fetched $10,000 at Christie’s. In between Star Trek and recurring appearances in Stargate SG-1, the Juilliard trained de Lancie directs on Broadway and appears in operas.

Another immortal character—Guinan—was actually an afterthought. Played by academy award winner Whoopee Goldberg who herself is a confessed Trekkie, the role had to be invented by Roddenberry to accommodate the star’s incessant pleas to be part of the series. Another classical actress who was an irrepressible Trekkie is Jean Simmons.
Patrick Stewart, who played Capt. Jean Luc Picard in TNG, was a fortunate happenstance. At first, Gene was skeptical about having a bald man play captain; but listening to Stewart’s Shakespearian diction at a lecture changed his perspective altogether. Later when asked why no one in his 24th century has found a way to cure baldness, Gene merely replied: “In the 24th century, no one would care.”
Gene Roddenberry died in 1991 of heart failure at the age of 70. As a fitting tribute to this visionary, NASA brought his ashes to outer space on board the Space Shuttle Columbia.

The reason I like Star Trek is not because it is science fiction. Star Trek is not about space, or science or even acting. It’s about moral choices. Whoever their foe may be—Romulan, Klingon, Cardassian or the Borg—the crew of the starship Enterprise always chose to do what was right for the greater good and under any circumstance. Resistance to evil was never futile. Star Trek embraced the concept of unity in an infinitely diverse universe. The Enterprise, Voyager, and Deep Space Nine had crew members of mixed races: Humans, Klingons, Vulcans, Tralaxians, Bajorans, and other weirder species. It also placed women in positions of authority and responsibility: Lt. Tasha Yar, Security Officer, Capt. Katherine Janeway, Admiral Aynna Nechayev, the Vulcan T’Pal, and the Borg Seven of Nine. Star Trek also explored the possibility of artificial intelligence gaining prominence and respect in man’s world by including the characters Lt. Data, the Android, and Voyager’s Holographic Emergency Medical Officer.

While the Star Trek world was far from perfect, Roddenberry’s message rung clear in each episode: it is possible to come close to it. The United Federation of Planets was an inter-planetary United Nations with each member charged with the prime directive to promote peace and harmony in the galaxies. For mankind, this may prove elusive, for prejudice remains a very human trait. Still, in spite of his agnosticism, Gene Roddenberry perceived a world that defined the very ideals of human existence—a world without hunger and without greed.

For me at least, what Star Trek had finally accomplished was meeting mankind’s singular challenge to explore the final frontiers of the human heart.

Josie Carballo-Tejada is a member of the DWG.

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