Growing up Star Trek
When I was young, Star Wars was the franchise that made me feel like a kid and Star Trek was the one that made me feel like an adult. If Star Wars was all mystic space monks, cocky blaster-happy smugglers, imperialistic evil, exciting galactic dog-fights, and beyond awesome laser swords, then Star Trek was…well, it was boring. It was orderly. It was dialogue-driven. You know, grown-up stuff. It was, at first glance, more of an academic venture as opposed to something actually entertaining. But beneath that seemingly joyless veneer, if you worked for it, there was all the lessons young me could ever had hoped for. This was a world where problems were solved less with laser blasts and more often with strategy and reason and, ideally, peacefully. The technology, the pluralistic rationalism, the constant struggle of what it means to be human, and the drive to boldly chose to move ever forward to see what’s out there and reject the premise of the “unknowable” – That. Is. My. Nerd. Jam. The hook for kids with Star Trek might be the transporters or the space faring vessels or the interesting alien designs or those cool as all shit uniforms, but once past those initial entry points there’s an abundance of rich ideas ready to be discovered, not the least of which involve conflict resolution and problem solving that are far more valuable than they are boring.
There was plenty of action in Star Trek of course, but the status quo was one of exploration, understanding, and improvement, with the occasional violent conflict resulting from a misunderstanding or two or three. To my nascent self, so trained and familiar with G.I. Joes and Ninja Turtles and lightsaber duels and a thousand other action-oriented kids programming, Star Trek appeared to me to be the “thinking man’s” alternative. It’s ironic that I viewed the ‘cowboys-in-space’ Star Wars as something less appetizing than the show that was pitched as “Wagon Train to the Stars” but there you have it.
Whereas so many of my childhood fictional protagonists found their resolutions, well-meaning though they may have been, via superior ninja skills or comparable physical prowess, Star Trek was the escape from the brawn over brain norm. Maybe it could be attributed to my own distaste for any sort of conflict, either as a child or certainly now as an adult, but I never quite saw the point in physical confrontations. I wouldn’t say I was the mousiest kid around or the “weakling” getting pushed around on the beach in that Charles Atlas ad, but I certainly wasn’t the biggest and I dealt with a fair share of bigger kids wanting to push me around. Nothing major, really, but enough that I always viewed confrontations as predetermined exercises that were always over before they began. What was the point? The bigger guy, the one who was always all-in on getting their way, would always get their way. Most of my heroes were basically showing me that the way you beat the bad guys is to literally beat on the bad guys, even as they would appear in PSAs deriding bullying and preaching the mantra of knowing is half the battle. The good guys on Star Trek, though? They were explorers and scientists. When they found trouble from others looking to impose their will, their first instinct was to reason with them or at least outsmart them before firing a photon torpedo. This wasn’t a group of space colonialists looking to enforce their values on others, this was a group that held to a Prime Directive of not interfering with the development of alien civilizations. Okay, look, they broke that rule roughly ten million times, I’m aware, but hell if they didn’t still strive to abide by it!
I suppose I haven’t really mentioned which iteration of Star Trek I’m speaking to here. Well, the tenets of the franchise are wonderfully consistent throughout and I’ll always love all of them in their own ways for exploring the same ideas through radically different prisms, primarily due to the times which they were produced. For the most part, I’m really thinking of Star Trek: The Next Generation in terms of the post-modern intellectualism and ridged logical moralism. What could easily have been a dry and cold show was given so much heart by its phenomenal cast and sharp, emotionally intelligent writers. Well, once you get past the first two seasons anyway. Deep Space Nine quickly became a favorite later on with how it succeed by diverging from so many of the franchises’ staples and yet hit upon their shared ideals harder, fearlessly, and more nuanced than its predecessors. However, it’s a Season Three episode of TOS that forever ensnared a me into the endless possibilities of Star Trek. That episode, friends, is “The Tholian Web.”
With the cavalier and arguably most traditionally physical force of the crew, Captain Kirk, recently vanished and presumed dead aboard the equally vanished USS Defiant (quite the name, no?) Spock and McCoy engage in a philosophical battle as to the next course of action. It is, by all accounts, not a particularly action-packed or tension-rich piece of fiction for a kid to engage with. But I ate this episode up over and over and over again. I owned it on VHS (ask your parents, kids) until it simply couldn’t play anymore. This wasn’t an episode, unlike my many cartoons of the time, that had a physical threat or at least not really (the Tholians ensnare the Enterprise in the titular space-web thing and fire some shots here and there) as the central conceit here is that a being of pure reason, Spock, is at odds with a medical doctor with a temper, McCoy, as to how to solve a problem. That’s basically it; Kirk is missing and possibly dead so his two diametrically opposed confidants need to figure you the best course of action. Sprinkle in the additional minor threat of growing madness among your own crew and we have again an additional example of lack of thought (here caused by an interdimensional rift madness, but still) equaling physical outbursts with the heroes dealing with a purely mental challenge.
It was a half-hour of entertainment unlike anything else I was accustomed to at the time. There was no big battle, no sense of physical adventuring, nary a burst of physicality to be seen. No, it was largely two guys talking, something I should have found infinitely boring and yet, I remembered scouring their words to find meaning. I knew these two dudes in blue shirts were saying something important even if I couldn’t fully grasp the larger philosophical ideas being expressed, but because I understood the stakes so clearly and because I trusted these characters already, the idea that the central conflict was between two of the heroes was fascinating. What’s more, their conflict was strictly one of the mind. This wasn’t kid stuff; I could feel it. They’re having a memorial service for the star of the show and watching a tape of his last wishes for goodness sake! No, it was different. It made think and it made me want to continue to think instead of just plowing along with the usual spectacle-first, ‘whoever hits hardest wins’ entertainment I had known. Watching it since, I can acknowledge the episode’s flaws, not the least of which is that the conflict therein is resolved all too conveniently, but I’ll never forget the impression the basic premise of the episode had on me.
As time went on, of course I discovered the plethora of ideas, themes, commentary, etc. that all of the Star Trek iterations offered well beyond my very simple memory discussed here. “The Tholian Web” isn’t the greatest episode of Star Trek by any means, but it is one of my earliest experiences of feeling like I was watching something that wasn’t made for me and loving it. It more closely resembled a Drama, a thing found in that aisle at Blockbuster that had nothing of interest for little Alex, except it was captivating in presenting the idea of an intellectual conflict. The science fiction setting was enough to pull me in, but the ideas explored therein was all the little tidbits that make science fiction so meaningful; it allows for the exploration of new ideas about who we are and where we are going. The fictional future seen in all of Star Trek was the future I’ve always dreamed of and continue to dream of. One where we’re still the same fallible, awkward creatures we’ve always been; we still have disputes, and conflicts, we’re still challenged to balance our reason with our emotions, tempted by our traditional heroic ideals of brawn over brain, but we’ve learned to strive for peaceful resolutions and the continuing quest to learn new things. You know, real grown-up stuff.