One day in 1966 my father came home and told us about a new television show called Star Trek. This surprised me, since he never talked about TV and the only things he watched regularly were Mets games and an occasional Friday night fight. Also, Star Trek had to do with futuristic space flight: not exactly a hot topic of conversation in our home.
His enthusiasm did not last long. He lost interest after the first episode, which involved a stringy-haired monster named Nancy that sucked the salt out of its victims’ bodies. Okay, so Star Trek wasn’t really about space flight. I, however, was hooked and watched the show every week. Later, I spent high school watching Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock in syndication along with David Carradine as Kwai Chang in Kung Fu, much to my parents’ annoyance. By college, I had replaced Kung Fu with Monty Python’s Flying Circus but kept Star Trek as a staple.
I continued to watch Star Trek as a young father. I would sit with my three daughters eating Cheez-its and showing them things like the Vulcan mind meld and Spock’s nerve pinch. I tried out both on them. It worked when they were little but got embarrassing by junior high school. Then, to paraphrase St. Paul, I put away childish things and gave up the Star Trek obsession. It was relatively easy to do once the new Star Trek movies and TV series came out, not to mention the Saturday Night Live spoof of Trekkies with William Shatner.
The coup de grâce came early one morning when I stepped off an elevator at a hotel in Houston and came face to face with a guy dressed like Worf from The Next Generation. He and hundreds of other fans had gathered for a Star Trek convention, which I made a point of avoiding for the next two days. I figured my split-fingered Vulcan salute days were over.
And then came Corona.
Sheltering in place has enabled me to spend time with my grandchildren. One of them, a four-year-old with ballet slippers and a million questions, has taken to watching the original series with me nearly every night, much to the surprise of my daughter. She even asks for it by name as well as “the man,” by which she means Captain Kirk.
I’m not sure why she is drawn to Star Trek, especially when the other movies her mother lets her watch are all animated. I can’t tell you how many times I have watched the minions, Gru, Mr. Incredible, and an eleven-year-old ballerina named Félicie. Part of her motivation stems from getting to stay up after her siblings have gone to bed. Part of it is the attention she gets from sitting with me and asking a question every twelve seconds. But she also is genuinely interested in the characters.
I tested this the other night by leaving the room for a while. She sat transfixed by an episode in which a group of children had fallen under the spell of an evil force and taken over the Enterprise. This same force had killed their parents (see “And the Children Shall Lead,” October 11, 1968).
And maybe that’s the key to the popularity of the series, which goes by the acronym TOS (The Original Series). I don’t know if the series creator, Gene Roddenberry, intended it, but you can apply three levels of interpretation to just about any episode.
First, there is the story itself consisting of plot and character. For instance, Spock’s brain is missing. How did that happen and how will they get it back? This is the sci-fi dimension of the show, which can get ridiculously technical at times. Second, most episodes convey a social or political message. “The Doomsday Machine” (October 20, 1967) questions the policy of mutually assured destruction between the United States and the Soviet Union. Finally, Star Trek deals with morality, right and wrong, good and evil. In “The Savage Curtain” (March 7, 1969), good and evil fight each other through the historical figures Abraham Lincoln and Genghis Khan.
My granddaughter doesn’t know about Lincoln yet, but she does have a sense of right and wrong. All children have it. This is what draws her to the show and why “the man” fascinates her as he makes his way through the galaxy combatting injustice and, well, patronizing every woman he meets. So, we’ll have to deal with that later. In the meantime, as Spock says, live long and prosper.
Image credits: feature by Wonderlane; mural by Chräcker Heller. For more, go to Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance, which promotes “alternatives to software, culture, and hardware monopolies.”