Saturday, February 28, 2015

Where No Show Has Gone Before

Leonard Nimoy in the role for which he will always be remembered

By the time I discovered the wonders of Star Trek, it was already off the air.

Luckily for me, the local New York TV station, WPIX channel 11, played re-runs every night at 6 p.m.

Mind you, I am of the generation that grew up with just 13 channels and I had to get up off my keister and turn the clear plastic knob on our black and white Zenith, just to see it (and maybe adjust the antennae a little bit too, to get rid of the "snow.").

But it was always well worth the effort.

The death Friday of Lenoard Nimoy, who played Star Trek's most iconic character, stirred memories of the show and what it meant.

Even as a child, I understood that the show was a little unsophisticated, just like the "Batman" re-runs I also watched and loved on WPIX.

But Star Trek had phasers.

And space ships.

And aliens (even though almost all of them had two arms, two legs and spoke perfect English, due to one of the shows innumerable far-sighted inventions, the "universal translator.")

Did I mention it had space ships, time travel and transporter beams?

What pre-teen boy wouldn't watch?

So I watched.

And on a good day, I would stay over at my friend Marc Scott's house, and I could see it in color! (Until I saw it there, I had never actually known the show was in color. It almost seemed like cheating.)

We built balsa wood hand-phasers and communicators, he and I, and our Lego space-port was a thing to behold.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the wormhole, I began to think about the issues that Star Trek dealt with in their uniquely goofy, but non-threatening way.

Frank Gorshin and Lou Antonio in "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield,"
which aired in January, 1969, less than a year after the assassination
of Martin Luther King Jr. sparked race riots across the country.
The first time I was actually conscious of this was in the ham-handed episode which dealt with the long-standing conflict between two aliens with half-black and half-white faces (one of whom was played with the delicious exuberance of Frank Gorshin).

Even as a 9-year-old, I could figure out this was a lesson in racism, a word I did not even know at the time.

And the show spawned a love of science fiction in me not just for the adventure and exotic locales, but because the genre is a much more forgiving stage for the suspension of disbelief.

You approach all science fiction already prepared to accept what would other-wise be unbelievable.

The colorful, multi-ethnic and (mostly) human crew
of the USS Enterprise.
And so, as it turned out, Star Trek slyly allowed you to also accept the other-wise unbelievable circumstances of a Russian, Japanese, African-American woman and an alien, all being on the same crew and having no conflicts other than those created by their personalities.

After all, when you're dealing with a whole galaxy, instead of just a single world, your definition of who is "like me" gets a whole lot broader.

With science fiction, we did not have to deal with the niggling voice in our heads saying "that could never happen," as we might if the show had been a western.

Racial hatred had his world burning in January, 1969...
And so, Star Trek could explore racism, over-population, religion, xenophobia, robotics, or pollution without objections from churches or moralists or nationalists; precisely because we were already trained to consider anything possible in the context of the genre.

Because there was nothing familiar about the settings, other than the perennially cheesy sets, we could watch two men continue to hate each other because one's face was black on the left side and one was black on the right side -- all while their world burned -- and consider the significance of that.
...just it had ours. (Baltimore, April, 1968)

The fact that it was being aired less than a year after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. caused riots in 125 cities across the country because some of us have black faces and some of us have white faces was certainly relevant; but it could dismissed as "science fiction" instead of potentially inflammatory social commentary on current events, even though that is exactly what it was

And while the special effects were definitely better in "Star Wars" (at age 13, I stood in line, again with Marc Scott, outside the theater in Beach Haven, Long Beach Island to be amazed by that one), the Star Wars story was never as compelling.

You did not, either with the original Star Wars, or any of its sequels, leave the theater with any deep thoughts about where we've been and where we're headed.

And while the same was often true of the Star Trek movies -- which always seemed to try a little too hard to recapture the dynamic of a show no one watched until it was cancelled -- the original series had its moments, as outrageous and flamboyant as they so often were.

As the cult aspect of Star Trek grew, the plots and characteristics of the show and its characters transformed from ground-breaking to self-parodying, but I could never quite discard it for that reason.

After all, that was just what other people thought and I knew what it had revealed to me -- that the adult world was in fact not unified, as our parents and teachers would have us believe and, in point of fact, definitely did not have its act together.

Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, called Spock "the conscience of Star Trek" and indeed, this was another aspect of science fiction which allowed for more in-your-face exploration of the human condition.
Captain Kirk controls Spock's body as they search for
his brain -- appropriated to operate the systems of an
underground city devoid of men.

As an alien, Spock could stand outside the reactions of his human crew mates and by questioning them, serve as a gentle but unsubtle reminder that we would be a better species if we questioned our motives half as often as he did.

Consider for a moment the matter of the Federation's "prime directive," a central archetype of the show important as much for how often it was ignored as for when it was revered.

Not only did the prime directive ask the country to stop and think about interfering with other cultures at a time we were wading into a war in Southeast Asia, it also explored the idea that absolute adherence to the rules can be as harmful as ignoring them.

Judgement was, and always is, required. Our fondness for absolutes is often our undoing.

The pairing of Spock's detached reserve with the hormone-driven leadership style of William Shatner's Captain Kirk, also provided an -- as always -- unsubtle portrait of the human psyche.

For if Spock was Star Trek's conscience, its Super-Ego in Freudian parlance, then Kirk was its Id; whether sucking face with any biped who walked by in a flimsy shift or grappling with his prejudices about the Klingon warrior race.

The conflict, and strong bond, between the two reminded us that being human is complicated.

In short, Star Trek was a futuristic show about aliens and other worlds, which helped us to better know ourselves; and they never could have pulled it off without Leonard Nimoy.

And for that, I thank him.

No comments:

Post a Comment