Saturday, September 10, 2016

My Tribute to Star Trek on its 50th Anniversary

This past Thursday, September 8th, many of us celebrated quite a semi centennial.   September 8, 1966 was the date the first Star Trek episode was aired.  Its title was “Man Trap.”  And I have to confess, I wasn’t watching that night.   Nor was I watching 78 episodes later when, on June 3, 1969, Trek aired its final episode, “Turnabout Intruder.”   The boys on my block had been watching the show, even role-playing based on it, but not me.   For some reason, I wasn’t interested.  I never even turned it on.

Fortunately, though, even after NBC stopped making new Star Trek episodes in the evening, one of the local channels played the reruns every weekday afternoon.  One day after school, I was at the home of a friend when he turned on the episode called “Spock’s Brain.”  Notably, that episode is commonly known as the single worst episode of the original series, but I loved it, especially the character of Mr. Spock.   Though famous for his logic, stoicism, and devotion to science in all its forms, what captivated me most about Spock is precisely what he tried so hard to hide: his feelings.  Occasionally, he’d feel insulted and respond with pique.  Yet except for those rare instances, he was incredibly benign.   Trustworthy.  Loyal.  Helpful.  Friendly.  Courteous. Kind.   Obedient.   OK – the next part of the Boy Scout Law is “Cheerful” and Spock was certainly not that.   But did he have to be cheerful?   He demonstrated that with a generally benign spirit and an unwavering devotion to reason, you can turn yourself into an incredibly beautiful person whether or not you are cheerful.  As I’ve said before in this blog, Mr. Spock would become my favorite television character.  No one else is even close.

The Vulcan side of Spock always seemed to be thinking.  He loved the search for wisdom even more than the possession of knowledge, the true sign of any intellectual.   But the human side of Spock, the one he tried to bury but couldn’t, always seemed to saying, “Let me help.”   That was a phrase that was used in the episode, “City on the Edge of Forever” by a social worker named Edith Keeler, who wanted to assist Captain Kirk.  And he responded with a thought that I would never forget.   “Let me help.  A hundred years or so from now, I believe, a famous novelist will write a classic using that theme. He'll recommend those three words even over ‘I love you.’"

Love is important, but love is just a feeling.   By contrast, helping is more important, because helping involves action.  Lovers want good things to happen, but helpers make good things happen.  That was part of the humanistic philosophy of Star Trek.  It’s a philosophy that emphasizes being a doer above all else.  But that is not enough.   There are plenty of “doers” who do plenty of harm.  In order to be reliably helpful, you need to have a solid moral foundation.   The members of the Enterprise crew displayed that foundation in spades.   They were all supremely self-confident, brought a strong sense of mission to their jobs and their lives, possessed a genuine affection for others, and kept their pettiness and hatred to a bare minimum.   Having studied philosophy for decades, I have come to realize that the Enterprise crew had created nothing short of a philosopher’s utopia.   But I didn’t know that at the time I discovered the show at the age of nine.  What I may have known was that the so-called “idiot box” had provided me with a set of role models. 

In middle school, I attended three Star Trek conventions.    I also became an aficionado of Trek Trivia, and I still know the original series at an obscenely high level of detail.   When Star Trek: The Next Generation was aired, I watched a bunch of episodes, but it wasn’t the same.   The original series was on TV when I was a child and was still in my formative years.  It would transform my perspective on life.   For me, The Next Generation was like a print in a museum store; I thirsted for the real McCoy.

One of the basic principles of the Star Trek philosophy is that beauty is in the eye of beholder (see, e.g., the Horta in the “Devil in the Dark” episode).   Accordingly, I was in no position to argue with people when they expressed a personal preference for The Next Generation over the original series.  But what would drive me crazy is when I encountered some Einstein who would claim that The Next Generation is objectively better than the original because its technology and production quality was far superior.  Clearly, those people missed the entire point of the original series.   Technology wasn’t the series’ showcase; its humanist philosophy was its showcase.  Technology was simply one of its vehicles for revealing that philosophy by focusing our attention on the potential for human beings to shape our own future.

To illustrate my point, let me remind you of the episode “Court Martial,” when Kirk was being accused of murder and hired a lawyer to defend him.   Samuel T. Cogley, Attorney at Law, had no computer in his office; he merely had books.  Obviously, that was not realistic, and the show’s creators must have known that.  But they also knew that to be true to the show’s philosophy, Kirk needed to hire a lawyer who was so devoted to humanism that he refused to give-in to a mindset where computers live and human history dies. 

Here’s the scene where we meet Cogley for the first time:

Cogley: “Books, young man, books. Thousands of them. If time wasn't so important, I'd show you something. My library. Thousands of books.
Kirk:  And what would be the point?
Cogley:  This is where the law is. Not in that homogenized, pasteurized synthesizer. Do you want to know the law?   The ancient concepts in their own language?   Learn the intent of the men who wrote them, from Moses to the tribunal of Alpha III?   Books.
Kirk:  You have to be either an obsessive crackpot who's escaped from his keeper, or Samuel T. Cogley, attorney at law.
Cogley:  You're right on both counts. Need a lawyer?
Kirk:  I’m afraid so. 

The original Star Trek could be incredibly thrilling, pretty damned funny, and deeply poignant.  But it was never disrespectful of human history or the great institutions that stood the test of time.  Take, for example, its approach to religion.  The show’s creators did not appear to be religious in the traditional sense.  Their characters were much more likely to utter the word “Gods” than “God,” and I couldn’t even begin to tell you their religious views.  But the mystery of life was always revered on that show.   Indeed, the characters were profiles in reverence – as proud as they were about human accomplishments and potential, they were equally humble about our small stature when compared to reality as a whole.  Likely, watching Star Trek was one of the reasons why, despite the fact that I grew up as an atheist, I always kept an open mind and an open heart for the claims of faith.   It was one thing for a Trekkie to believe in science, but it’s quite another thing for a Trekkie to be scientistic – to revere science above even the mysteries of life.  That is a bridge too far.

I could go on for pages to sing the praises of that series and all that it has done for me and so many other Baby Boomers.  The show was truly groundbreaking in so many ways.  But ultimately, it all comes back to humanism.  It aired during the period from 1966-1969, a time when the Civil Rights, Anti-War and Feminist Movements were all in full flight.   And there was Trek, always on the right side of history, always trying to figure out how far to push the envelope with respect to hot-button issues.

People love to point out that TV’s first interracial kiss was on Star Trek (specifically, the “Plato’s Stepchildren” episode), but what many people forget is that Kirk and Uhura didn’t choose to kiss each other.  They were forced to do so by power-drunk aliens who enjoyed manipulating the Enterprise crew to do all sorts of strange things.  And back then, a white man kissing a black woman was truly bizarre.  That was the era in which Trek came on the scene.

In the 50 years since Man Trap was aired, we have come a long way in many respects, and Star Trek has played no small part in those accomplishments.  It has impelled us toward a less bigoted culture, and indeed we’ve made great strides in that regard.  Its talk of “ultimate computers,” “transporter rooms” and “phasers on stun” has inspired us to make one scientific breakthrough after another, and indeed, it’s difficult to keep up with all the progress we’re making technologically.   But perhaps the greatest thing Trek has given us is hope – in a future that not only is brighter but became so without the need for supernatural intervention.

The Enterprise Crew said “Let me help” and showed us how.  We Baby Boomers watched with great interest.  And if we were smart, we emulated what we saw in our conduct, not merely in our feelings.   On behalf of all who recognize their debt to this show, I salute the great Star Trek.   A show like that doesn’t come around very often.  When it does, it leaves a positive mark, and even those who have never seen a single episode are better off for it.    

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