Tuesday, September 25, 2012


Passing On a Torch

As a kid, I remember watching Star Trek at 7:00 on Saturday nights with my Mom.  At the time, it struck me as the most amazing show ever made, even though I frequently only half-understood what was going on.  

Through the miracle of streaming video, I’ve recently introduced my kids to Kirk and Spock.  And I’ve been reintroduced with adult eyes.

Seeing again as an adult a show you loved as a kid is a little uncanny.  It’s recognizable, of course, but everyone seems so much younger.  Now the subtexts aren’t nearly as subtle, and it seems more 60’s than futuristic.  But the cheesiness of some of the effects has a charm of its own.

The Wife is duly mortified, of course; to her, Star Trek is of a piece with Renaissance Faires and Hobbitry.  Affection for Star Trek, in her mind, is a sort of voluntary cultural exile.  I think she’s half expecting that the kids and I will start wearing Vulcan ears around the house and speaking Klingon at the table.

But the kids don’t carry that baggage.  To them, it’s just a show that Dad likes, and that draws them in just as much as it did me.  Watching them respond to the show has been a treat.

Parents of young kids, watching the old series now, will immediately recognize the color scheme as consistent with, say, iCarly.  Most of the live-action Nickelodeon shows are awash in brightly lit colors, and the dialogue is always well-amplified, just as it was on Star Trek.  (For some reason, adult shows now tend to be dark, rapidly edited, and muddled.)  The camera will hold a scene for much longer than most shows allow now.  The Trek characters are clearly defined, and they speak in well-articulated soliloquies.  (Say what you want about Shatner: he deserves full credit for enunciation.  Maybe extra credit.)  

I clued the kids in to a few rules, like the “anyone in a red shirt other than Scotty will die” rule for landing parties.  They enjoy the scenes with the Enterprise shaking, and they pick up on the little zingers among Kirk, Spock, and McCoy.  (The Boy likes to say that Spock “owned” McCoy with a particularly good line.)  The battle scenes are always fun, but they’re also game for the more cerebral moments.  When we watched the two-parter “The Menagerie,” which I vividly remember seeing as a kid and thinking was just the coolest thing ever, the kids were entranced.  The story-within-a-story had them hooked, just as it had me.  Bless them, they seemed to get it.

But they aren’t just younger versions of me; they pick up on stuff I didn’t at their age.  After a few episodes, The Girl asked “why don’t the girls get to do anything?”  She was right, of course; other than Uhura, who was basically a switchboard operator, the only female characters were love interests for Kirk.  I told her that back when the show was made, people didn’t really understand that girls could do what boys do.  The Boy noticed the soft-focus whenever a love interest was on screen; I had to explain that they thought that women were prettier when blurry.  (Sometimes they’ll pull that trick even now with Kate Walsh on Private Practice.)   We haven’t even discussed the women’s uniforms yet; I don’t quite know how I’ll phrase that one.

But 60’s quirks aside, I think the kids pick up on the underlying humanism of the show.  It isn’t about might making right, or just fighting the alien of the week.  When Kirk fought the Gorn -- you could barely see the zipper in back -- the action sequence ended with Kirk refusing to finish off the alien.  He was rewarded for taking the ethical high road.  I could see that the kids were both happy with that, and a little surprised.  It wasn’t the easy, triumphant conquest that it could have been.  Several tough scrapes have been resolved with someone making a choice to rise above the conflict.  The kids like seeing that, and I like them seeing that.

Roddenberry was an earnest liberal, and the show is a funny blend of 60’s tv conventions and his intermittent efforts to rise above them.  (I once saw it described as blending the great themes of Western thought with tacky synthetic fibers.  That’s about right.)  Yes, it’s amazingly sexist, but it’s also about trying to do the right thing.  It enacts Hegel’s master/slave dialectic with a zipper-backed lizard monster and lots of action.  There are worse things.

Last Saturday The Wife looked in at one point, and saw The Girl, The Boy, and me all on one couch, sharing a blanket, watching Spock pilot a shuttlecraft, and smiling.  Even she smiled at that.  It doesn’t feel like cultural exile anymore.  It feels like passing on a torch.

I'm talking privately to TW:
She needs to ignore her instincts and get you the remastered (with updated fx) Blu-Ray version for your next major gift event. My wife, the trekkie, loved that gift. You might also look for the literary (and legal) origins of many of the plots.

DD: You can pretend you don't remember this suggestion when the time rolls around or the detail that you can also watch them with the old fx is you want to.

Good catch by TB on soft focus. Now show him some old movies on TCM, where that was done all of the time. I hadn't thought about the well-articulated dialog, but by that time it was only "Laugh In" that would pack in as much dialog as you used to find in the original Dragnet and they were mirroring the slower style of westerns. BTW, it was first pitched as a western in space, which is why they always let their fists do the talking rather than guns or phasers.
Oh, and say what you want about Uhura's job on the ship, but how many shows in the mid 60s had a female (let alone a black female) as a regular major character who was on screen for a significant part of each show as anything other than a wife? Mary Tyler Moore came later.

And how many US Navy ships had any female officer anywhere on the bridge back in the 60s? The Navy only let guys (and never the Captain) operate the radios.
But Ulhura was also supposed to be a language specialist as well as a communications officer. Although with the language translator that was kinda redundent.

My favourites - "Journey to Babel", "The Trouble with Tribbles" and "The City on the Edge of Forever".
Wonderful post, really enjoyed it, thanks much.
Now you need to watch TNG with them. Or, better yet, all the movies, ending with the newest one, which is awesome.
Nichelle Nicols tells a story about MLK urging her to stay on the show because of her importance as a role model. So for the time, it could have been cutting-edge stuff...

Thomas Pynchon, on the other hand, has his characters watch a TV show called "Say, Jim", a version of Star Trek where the whole crew is Black except for the red-headed Lt. O'Hara...
Two words for you DD: Galaxy Quest

Nichelle Nicols ended up working for NASA and helped recruit many of their female / minority astronauts. Sally Ride (first woman), Mae Jemison (first African American woman) and Guion Bluford (first African American man) all got their start in the space program with her help.

What other show on TV has helped so many dream of a better day? As a kid I did not see the sexism though it is cringe worthy now. It was one of the only times growing up that my Dad and I did something together for more than about 15 minutes – I LOVED Star Trek time. For really strong female characters, skip TNG and go directly to DS9.

If she asks what you’re doing watching all that TV, just tell TW - resistance is futile.
'60s quirks, please, rather than 60's quirks, just to please your composition faculty colleagues...
Just think: the Boy is about to undergo his own Pon Farr.

"The Next Generation" isn't as much fun, but I will put in a big fat recommendation for one episode, "Darmok." It's as Star Trek-y as Star Trek ever got, in the best way, and very heavy on Patrick Stewart being as Patrick Stewart-y as television will allow. Which is always worth watching.

LOVE this post! My husband and I recently re-watched the ENTIRE next generation series (a favorite of ours when we were watching it the first time in the 90s, also at 7:00 by the way) and many of the same observations hold true, with a few key points of progress: women got better roles (doctor! psychologist! captain/admirals were sometimes female too, though minor characters).

The thing that struck us the most about the series is how CLEAR everyone's character is. Each of them is basically assigned one main thing to struggle with in season 1 and sticks with it all the way through. Worf = anger, Riker = stubbornness/showing off, Picard = doing the right thing, Data = emotions, Crusher = balancing work/life, Troy = Being everyone's mom, Geordi = being the reading rainbow guy (just kidding).

There's also never much real question about whether the crew is going to do the "right" thing in the end. And you know, now that I'm in my 30s, there's something really refreshing about watching a show like that. I love that you're introducing your kids to it and I can't wait to do the same someday!
Geek on, Dean Dad. Geek on!

You can raise a kid who is familiar with Russian literature, critiques abridgements of Victor Hugo and also has passionate opinions on which Star Trek captain is the best.

And TW? CCPhysicist is right. If DD doesn't have the Blu-Ray sets, they'd make a grand present.
Whoppi Goldberg also tells how, when she was a child and saw her first episode of Star Trek, she ran to her mom and said, "Mama! There's a black lady on TV--and she ain't no maid!" Then of course, the adult Whoopi went to her agent and said: "Get me a part on Star Trek--even if I'm an unrecognizable alien." And she became a recurring character!

I don't want to start a war, but The Next Generation has a number of beautifully crafted episodes. First season is poor, but it does pick up.

Live long and prosper!
I remember watching ST with my mother and brother in the early 1970's - like you it's wrapped up with wonderful family memories. I still think that some of those episodes - someone else mentioned "Journey to Babel," and I would add "The Corbomite Maneuver" or ""Balance of Terror" - as some of the best written television programs I have ever seen (after over four decades of watching TV). And though I liked Next Generation a lot, I want to put in a plug for Deep Space Nine - which was not only well written much of the time, but also darker and more engaged with a post-cold-war politics.
1) It is often overlooked that the "first officer" in the pilot (surviving as part of the "Menagerie" but also mostly reconstructed sort of like Metropolis) was a woman, Majel Barrett. Story was that network execs killed that idea because women viewers circa 1965 did not like the character. Watch it and judge for yourself if the girls and women you only know from portrayals in American Graffiti or the Thin Man movies would like that character.

2) Most of you are probably too young to know that Star Trek was banned by some Southern stations because of the integrated cast, and later banned more broadly in the South after "the kiss". There is a reason a 16-year-old Whoppi Goldberg reacted as she did. It was revolutionary.
Very fond memories of watching TNG as a family. We were a Trekkie household. Even got my dad a Enterprise ornament one year.

Although, I'll be the dissenting voice, I didn't enjoy DS9. It was too dark for me and I was old enough to "get" most of what was going on. Most of the time I just wanted someone to turn on a light.
"Star Trek is of a piece with Renaissance Faires and Hobbitry. Affection for Star Trek, in her mind, is a sort of voluntary cultural exile."
Geeze. You say all that like it's a bad thing!
The sexism on the show provides what they call a teaching moment. Too many modern shows and movies whitewash this kind of thing. Somehow or another all the social changes that reformers fought and sometimes died is made to seem trivial. Jim Crow wasn't all that bad. Listing jobs by sex wasn't a problem. What was all the fuss? There are too many out there eager to use modern complacency to let them reset the clock.
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