All of Our Yesterdays: Reflections From a 1970s Trekkie

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I’m not really sure where I first heard of Star Trek. It was not during its original run on NBC from 1966 to 1969. Even though I was between three and six years old during those years, there is plenty of TV that I do remember — Batman, Land of the Giants, Thunderbirds, Lost in Space, The Green Hornet and even a little-known super-hero show called Captain Nice that I was absolutely crazy about the four months it was on the air in 1967.

But Star Trek — nothing. In fact, when I try to summon my first memory of it, all I get is a vague recollection of feeling like I’d missed something awesome. By the time the animated version of Star Trek debuted on Saturday mornings in 1973, I already knew it was a “must-watch” show. But even though I dug the cartoon version (and still do), it left me unsatisfied. I wanted the real thing, and all I could find were scattered artifacts — an occasional Star Trek paperback, an old model of Mr. Spock that some kid brought to school, and the smattering of Star Trek merchandise available for purchase in the pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland.

But finally, in the fall of 1975, Star Trek manifested itself to me. WBKO-TV, Channel 13 in Bowling Green, Ky., announced with much fanfare that they would begin running Star Trek on weekday afternoons at 4 p.m. The day of its debut I sat in front of the TV, enthralled as the soon-to-be-very-familiar intro music began, and I beheld the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise in all its 1960s color glory.

In a way, having to wait to see Star Trek for the first time was a blessing in disguise. I was twelve, and there is not a more perfect age to discover Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the 23rd century. I was just old enough to start really taking myself seriously, and the seemingly deep philosophical optimism of Roddenberry’s galaxy was a natural fit for me. Plus it had action, adventure, really cool aliens, rayguns, and let’s not forget a bevy of wowza space-babes that no 12-year-old Southern Baptist boy could resist.

In 1976, most of America may have been focused on the bicentennial, but for me, it was the year of Star Trek. In addition to gobbling up episodes every day after school, I started buying Star Trek books. This was at a time when it was still a totally conceivable goal to own every Star Trek book ever printed, and they took up less than a foot of shelf space. I grabbed the Star Trek Blueprints and began memorizing where the bathrooms and other vital facilities were located on the Enterprise. I also got the newly published Star Fleet Technical Manual and imagined myself as a full-fledged cadet in Star Fleet Academy.

That fall it got even better, I stumbled on a new sci-fi movie magazine called Starlog. The first issue focused on Star Trek and had a complete episode guide. Also debuting that fall was another magazine called the Star Trek Poster Book which was a full sized Trek poster with articles on the flip side that folded into magazine form. After several readings of the contents these naturally went up on my bedroom walls to join my black-light U.S.S. Enterprise poster.

The magazines led me to Lincoln Enterprises, a mail-order company set up by Gene Roddenberry to sell exclusive Star Trek merchandise. Packages soon began arriving from “Hollywood, Ca.,” with all manner of rare treasures like my “diploma” from Star Fleet Academy and the Star Fleet chest insignia and sleeve braid that I sewed to an old mustard yellow pullover shirt of my dad’s. Even though I was past trick-or-treating age, I wore that shirt to an eighth-grade Halloween party, and spent a good part of the evening explaining who Captain Kirk was and what exactly Star Trek was.

Over the next three years I also became of a fan of Star Wars and the rush of sci-fi movies and television that followed in its wake. But my devotion to Star Trek still reigned supreme. So once Star Trek: The Motion Picture was finally green-lighted, I followed any news I could find of it eagerly. Opening night, December 7, 1979, I went see it secure in the knowledge that this was going to be the best movie ever — better than Star Wars, better even than Alien — one of the first movies I got to see repeatedly (thank you freshly acquired driver’s license!)

That night I went into the theater a true-believer in the religion of Star Trek — and I left an atheist. Oh, sure, I tried to convince myself the movie wasn’t really the colossal bore that it was, but I soon found myself with little or no interest in buying the yawn-inducing merchandise connected to it. And my older Star Trek books just didn’t have the same allure. The passion that had burned so bright was gone. And even when Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was released just three year later, and proved to be everything I ever wanted in a Star Trek movie — it still wasn’t the same. Never again was I as passionate and devoted of a fan of one movie or TV show as I had been for Trek. I had grown up and been given the curse of cynicism: One day what you love will betray you.

Over the years, as the Star Trek franchise continued to roll along and expand, I occasionally dipped a toe back in the galactic waters — Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, etc. etc. Although an occasional episode might be entertaining, the appeal just wasn’t there for me. I could see why others might like them, but they left me cold. I half-jokingly coined the phrase, “If it ain’t Shatner, it ain’t Star Trek” much to the chagrin of my more modern Trek-inclined acquaintances.

When the DVDs of the original series were released I slowly began working my way through them. I soon found that I was enjoying Star Trek in a whole new way. I still loved the characters — even though I could now see how they were mostly all B-movie archetypes. I was often surprised and amused by the number of great Hollywood character actors that turned up in various episodes — actors that I now knew from many years of watching classic Hollywood films of the ’40s and ’50s. I could appreciate the wonderfully trippy 1960s pop-art conception of the future in the set designs and those oh-so-revealing costumes. But along with all of this, no matter how corny or belabored it could be, Gene Roddenberry’s optimistic faith shone through — his belief in the inherent nobility of humanity and our ability to overcome differences and prejudices despite being deeply flawed creatures. And it’s that central message — not phasers, or Klingons, or starships — that have kept people returning to Star Trek, and made it into the most successful entertainment franchise ever.

Yesterday, at the Star Trek Convention at Opryland Hotel, I sat in a meeting hall full of fans from many generations. They warmly greeted a 79-year-old African-American actress and a 75-year-old gay, Japanese-American actor. Neither of them discussed nostalgia. They spoke of civil rights, equality, how a goofy TV show allowed them to become inspirations for others, and their faith in our ability to create a better world. As I sat there listening I realized the 12-year-old was right, and despite a world of cynicism, that Star Trek true believer lived again.

Coming up on Country Life: Jonathan Meador weighs in on last weekend's Star Trek convention.

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