Star Trek and Me

Copyright (c) 2016 by Kenny Felder

This essay contains spoilers for one episode of the original Star Trek series, but does not contain spoilers for anything recent.

Star Trek and I were both born in 1966. (How cool is that?) So my early memories are obviously not from the original airing: I discovered Trek in weekday afternoon reruns, probably when I was 10 or 11. I didn't know it was a "cult phenomenon." I didn't know there was a "science fiction subculture" that had "conventions." I just knew I had discovered the best show ever, and as far as I knew, I was a fan base of one.

The next few decades saw Star Trek grow into a franchise comprising (so far) five or six complete TV series and thirteen movies. I have seen them all. Along the way I discovered that many other people loved the show as much as I did. And then I discovered something else: those people fell in love with something completely different from what I fell in love with. I'm sort of back to being a fan base of one.

The goal of this essay is to explain what I mean by that. So I'm going to take a brief look at the Star Trek everyone else is watching, and then try to describe my own Star Trek.

How Other People See Star Trek (The Original Series)

What many people see—especially young people encountering the original Trek for the first time—is just bad television. The special effects aren't great. The dialogue and acting are inconsistent at best. The characters aren't particularly well developed. I have to concede that all those criticisms are true.

But let's talk about what you hear from the fans: mostly (though not all!) people my age, many describing the show as one of their life-long inspirations.

That last point—the sheer audacity of Roddenberry's hopefulness, to borrow a phrase—truly does impress me, although it wouldn't be enough to make me watch the show. But the other points don't mean much to me one way or the other. And yet I read time and time again that these are the reasons Star Trek was great. This is why I said that Star Trek fans seem to have fallen in love with a completely different show from mine.

Kenny's Star Trek

Let me focus first on one episode, "Where No Man Has Gone Before." I choose this episode partly because it is not one of the very best: I don't think anyone lists it with "City on the Edge of Forever," "Amok Time," or other clear standouts. It is, in some ways, representative. And it also exemplifies the worst of Trek's problems—the badly written dialogue, bad special effects, and spotty acting—because it was almost the first episode made. Nimoy barks out orders as if he's shouting through a tube on a submarine.

If you aren't familiar with the episode, I encourage you to go watch it. It's on Netflix, it's free, and I think it's well worth your 45 minutes. I'll wait.

And in case you refused to take me up on that, here is a brief recap. The Enterprise goes through a strange barrier that exponentially augments psychic abilities. The most affected crewman is Kirk's old friend Gary Mitchell, who begins to grow so powerful that he poses a terrible threat—to the crew, to the ship, and potentially to all of mankind. Second is the psychologist Elizabeth Dehner, whose powers grow similarly to Mitchell's but more slowly. Ultimately Kirk convinces Dr. Dehner to help destroy Mitchell, and she dies in the process.

There are (at least) three interesting stories here.

The word I keep using here, over and over, is "interesting." That's what I see so much of in the original series. There are struggles that matter and ideas worth thinking about.

I'm certainly not claiming that all the episodes were that good. Some were mediocre and some were downright awful. But as I said earlier, I didn't cherry-pick the best of the best either. I could say just as much about "The Conscience of the King," about "Errand of Mercy," about "Space Seed," about "A Private Little War," and many others. These were good stories by good authors who had something to say.

There were also broader themes that ran through the show's three seasons, and I want to mention the one that strikes me the most. In many of the episodes, the crew is offered paradise. "You will want for nothing, you will have to work for nothing, you will feel peace and contentment, and all your needs and wants will be immediately provided. But you can't leave." And in episode after episode they refuse and escape, usually destroying paradise in their wake. You see this theme in "This Side of Paradise" ("maybe we weren't meant for paradise"), in "The Cage" (and of course again in "The Menagerie"), even in "I, Mudd" ("but Captain, it's a very nice gilded cage"). I find this idea tremendously compelling and thought-provoking no matter how many different ways they approach it. And when I mention it to other fans, they nod and say "hmm, yeah" with the same lackluster expression I probably have when they show me their detailed blueprints of the Enterprise. We're not watching the same show.

The Ensuing Generations

When I first heard that Roddenberry was making Star Trek: The Next Generation, featuring an all-new cast in the same universe, I was absolutely thrilled. I watched every single episode when they aired. (This was before TiVo.) But my initial excitement was gradually crushed as episode after episode failed to provide me with the "interesting" that I was looking for.

A few years ago I stumbled into one of those episodes in rerun, and I sat down and watched it. It was Episode 124, "The Next Phase." Geordi is lost in a ghostly dimension and Data is looking for him—all reminiscent of Kirk and Spock in "The Tholian Web"—and eventually Data figures it all out and Geordi is returned. The episode cost over $1 Million to make, and at the end I was left wondering why they bothered. Who cares about any of this? What's the point? I'm not saying that every Next Generation episode hit me that way—I will mention the one huge exception later—but the vast majority did. The special effects were good, the dialogue and acting were often superb, and behind it all, I generally felt that the authors had nothing to say. And that's what I got out of it. Nothing.

Coming up to the present, I feel exactly the same way about the three (so far) "reboot" movies with Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto. These movies did well at the box office. They had good action, special effects, and humor. They captured much of the feeling of the original series and did a very nice job with all the characters and their interactions. And I was bored. The makers of these movies don't seem to have noticed the "interesting" in the original series.1 Three movies and absolutely nothing for Kenny, and so far I have never heard another fan make that complaint. We're watching the same movies, but we're not comparing them to the same show.

Recommended Watching

So now, let's suppose—just for a moment—that somebody out there is actually like me. The things that attract me are the things that attract you. And you're wondering, "OK, so what should I watch?"

Glad you asked! Again, all of this is on Netflix. You're already paying for it, so why not watch it?

I do not recommend watching every episode of the original series, unless you're a real die-hard. Plenty of them are mediocre. Some are worse. Watch the Kenny-defined good stuff and see how much it grabs you. Here is my "Top 10" list. I list these, not from best to worst, but chronologically (because why not).

If you watch those and want more, here are my "Honorable Mentions"—also in chronological order. These include the three episodes that are primarily memorable for humor: "I, Mudd," "Tribbles," and "A Piece of the Action." Those appear consecutively in the list but I would probably not watch them all in a row. Two movies are worth watching: The Wrath of Khan and The Search for Spock. I wouldn't bother with any of the others.

I absolutely have to mention the Next Generation episode "The Inner Light." I like it better than any episode of any other television series, period. It is haunting and beautiful. It was almost worth seven seasons of TNG to watch that one episode.

Then we come to Deep Space 9. I think it was great. It got off to a rocky start, but when it found its feet, it developed a world with complex military, political, and religious entanglements and a cast with dynamic and interesting relationships and a lot of great episodes. I would skip the entire first season, start at the beginning of the second season, give it and you some time to find each other, and then watch the whole thing.

Now, Voyager. I think of it as the weakest of the series in many ways. But it went on a very long time, and it had some real gems along the way. I only saw each episode once, so I don't remember it all that vividly, but here are the ones that jumped out at me. This really is five tremendous stories.

(Honorable mention for "The Chute." If you saw the Batman movie The Dark Knight Rises it had a subplot that was a lot like "The Chute," but not as well done.)

The only Enterprise episode that I remember really liking was "Cogenitor."

Final Thoughts

I'm sure—sure—that there are other people who appreciate Star Trek for the same reasons I do. They may not agree with the details of my episode list, but they would by definition come pretty close. Someone has probably written a master's thesis on the "paradise vs freedom" theme in the original series, and I've just never encountered that person or that thesis.

But it is striking to me how much I hear about Trek without hearing about the things that made it appeal to me—me at eleven years old, or me now. And of course this goes beyond Trek. I find the same thing in Tolkien fans and in Game of Thrones fans. I could write another essay, very similar to this one, about comic books and superhero movies.2 I see high school English teachers, who used to avoid science fiction like the plague, now assigning Fahrenheit 451 (which I consider to be a reasonable effort) but not The Martian Chronicles (which I consider to be brilliant).

The point of this essay is not to say that everyone ought to be like me, or like the things I like. The point is much the same as the point of any essay I write, actually. I keep thinking these things, and being struck by these things, and being struck by the fact that I don't see anyone else saying them. So I say them. Then, at least, someone has.

So now you know what I think. What do you think?

1JJ Abrams said of the original series "I remember appreciating it, but feeling like I didn't get it....They were talking a lot about adventures and not having them as much as I would've liked." Yeah.

2In case you're curious, I recommend three Batman movies: Mask of the Phantasm, Batman Begins, and The Dark Knight. Plus the Adam West movie for completely different reasons. There has also been a surprising amount of good stuff on TV recently.


I originally posted this essay to Facebook, and most of the "Comments" below were done there.

From: Julia Gosztyla Ziobro

Kenny, I have nowhere near the devotion you do to the show but I watched all of the original ones as a 1967 kid. For the record, The Trouble with Tribbles was my clear favorite. :-)

It's worth noting though that my brother and sister were always telling me to be quiet because I always muttered, "choose paradise" and "do it" when those opportunities came. As a kid, I was totally ready to escape to that world and I was always crushed when they rejected it or as you say, destroyed it. When I watched some of them again in my 30s, on VHS, I found myself on the other side, "don't trust it, " and "it's a trap! " I won't claim that paradise vs the cage drove the show for me, but I was definitely aware of it.

The kids, aged 16.5 and 8, watched the first three episodes of the original series with me the other night and have since asked to watch more. And now I'm torn... be 10 again and watch them all in order, or watch Kenny's best of list? Hmm

From: Kenny Felder
My great fear if that if you drag them through every single episode, they'll get turned off. Since the show is so consciously episodic—as opposed to (say) DS9 which had a story arc—I would start with the great ones and make sure they're hooked before they try to watch them all. Of course, your opinion of the "great ones" may well not match mine.

From: Julia Gosztyla Ziobro
Kenny I'm willing to trust your list, adding in those of another Trekkie friend. I was a kid and who knows what I thought was good? Lol

From: Kenny Felder
Let me know how it goes!

From: Michelle Williams

What I usually appreciate about SciFi (besides the true and total escapism) is that it sets up interesting questions, interesting decisions to be made. Would you be able to kill your best friend, someone to whom you owed your life, if they became something else, a danger to others? Really?

The problem with Star Trek (and many other shows) is that making these tough decisions didn't necessarily seem to color anything else moving forward. One of the joys and freshness of Babylon 5 was that the decisions made impacted the next episode and the next and the next. With so many shows, the main character makes a tough decision and then moves on and continues to do what they've always done. Which would either imply that whatever had shaped them to be able to make that choice happened long in the past or that it wasn't that tough a choice, really.

But in either case, half the fun of Sci Fi is the what if. What if it was part of the ingrained culture of the world that X? How would you, with your different ingrained culture and mores, survive in that world? What would be the logical results of that culture and way of thinking? I think it's good exercise for our brains when we try to understand other people and cultures in our own world. :)

From: Kenny Felder
I agree 100%, Michelle. One of my great defenses of science fiction in general, when teachers poo-pooed it, was always that by putting real-life-type people in impossible-in-real-life situations, they tested the limits.

And yes, one of the unfortunate rules of Trek (and most shows of that time I think) is that you had to be able to watch the episodes in any order, so nothing could change. I agree that Babylon 5 was a landmark in changing that in the science fiction world.

From: Michelle Williams

BTW, like you, for a long time, I thought I was a member of a 2-person sci-fi fan club—me & my dad. We didn't/don't always have the same taste. E.g. I <3 Bradbury and he poo-poos him. I was grateful to meet more open-minded folks (Barry, Barendina, Venia, Nicole) in private school. Rusty and I commented at all the cosplay at PAX that it's a better world we live in where folks are more free to express their likes and their creativity than when we were growing up. :)

From: Rebecca Brent

Very interesting essay, Kenny. I loved the original show and watched it when it came out and then again in reruns. I never really analyzed what grabbed me about it and kept me coming back. I think you've hit on an important idea—the show somehow *mattered* and made you think about important ideas. It made me put myself into the place of the characters and wonder if I would have made the same choices and what that said about me as a person. I haven't kept up with any of the later incarnations except the movies which I enjoyed, but it was just that—the enjoyment of revisiting old friends. It wasn't because they moved me or stuck in my head like some of the original shows did.

From: Anne Worth

I don't think you're in a fan club of only 1, Kenny. Absolutely I am in that same club. Like you I watched the show as a kid when it was in reruns, and those science fiction ideas/questions/tropes settled deep into my brain. Later on I would find their echoes in SF books or other sources and they would sound so familiar, but Star Trek made that first impression.

DS9 was indeed the most thoughtful of the succeeding series. I still marvel at how lucky we were in those years when we had both Babylon 5 and DS9 on TV.

From: John Hanna

When you laid out your thesis, I was very much in agreement with you. The action and the science made the show more watchable, but the philosophical and ethical explorations are what made the show great. But when you went into the series-by-series breakdown I had some significant disagreements.

First, I feel just the opposite about TNG and TOS. TOS is very engaging, but I always felt that the philosophy took a backseat to the adventure. TNG always struck me as more high-brow. Admittedly I might be biased here. I've seen much more TNG than TOS.

Second, I grew up with Voyager and it's probably one of my favorites. Most other star trek fans I talk to seem to be in your camp: most episodes are kinda boring, but once in a while they'll make one that absolutely fantastic. In your list of great Voyager episodes I found it surprising that "Tuvix" was absent. It always struck me as one of the best Voyager episodes, and I think it's one of the best examples of how you can make an engaging story with almost no action.

From: John Hanna
"The Thaw" was also one of my favorites, but looking back on it, I can see why it might not crack your top 5.

From: Kenny Felder
I do remember "Tuvix" by name; it was an intriguing idea to be sure. I don't remember "The Thaw." I can easily believe that if I saw it again (and many others) I might revise my opinion. Anyway, since you say you haven't seen much of TOS, maybe you could try some of the ones on my list and let me know what you think!

From: Barbara Soloman

Of course you have to know that it was always the ideas that grabbed me—in any sci fi that I read or watched. I love your original list of the bet and think it is perfect but I am no so keen on some of your honorable mentions.

From: Kenny Felder
I'm actually surprised and impressed that you remember enough episodes by name to make that comment! So, what would you add or delete on that second list?

From: Ron Sayer

I am a Trek guy (born in 1967, 1 year too late :) ).

I was watching "The Ultimate Computer" last, they brought up several AI issues that are discussed today, but in 1968: Job obsolescence, can computers make decisions humans will see as just...

Spoiler alert: This episode is about a computer that is built to run a Starship (by itself) and make the captain and crew unneeded.

I think the most interesting moment was when Kirk, after some earlier railing against the computer, wonders if his objections are because he is scared that he will lose his identity provided by his job.

From: Karen Fisher Moskowitz

(Nice essay, Kenny). As I sit here "Facebooking" on the computer in the kitchen, I can hear my youngest, who's now 11, re-watching the Star Trek 4 movie in the living room. Rachel (17), Molly and I watched ST4 last night. Rachel and Molly absolutely love the original Trek. The cheesy effects, the dialogue, the Shat's hammy goodness, Spock's cool sassiness—they adore all of it, just like I did when I was their age.

They even like the "bad" episodes. I can't bring myself to tell them that "Spock's Brain" is really not that great. For them, it boils down to the relationship between the characters. They frequently tell me that Kirk and Spock are "space married" Spirk—that's what they like and they look for evidence of it every single episode. It's kind of funny.

They joke about Kirk having an "open" relationship and how pissy Spock gets when Kirk goes off with someone else.How Kirk's shirt keeps ripping. How Kirk keeps inviting unknown aliens on the ship even though that hasn't worked out so well in the past for him. They like how he is so (stupidly?) optimistic no matter what the situation.

Diversity, important issues—yeah, I get it. But, they like Spirk. The other stuff is just icing. ("Oh, Spock!" Molly just yelled from the other room.)

Anywoo, just thought I'd share my two cents worth, fellow geek friend of mine. Keep up the posts!

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