Sunday, March 08, 2015


Star Trek and Me II

I planned to write about lunar and planetary imaging this Sunday, muchachos, but events, sad events, dictated otherwise. I was devastated but not surprised at Leonard Nimoy's passing. I’d had one of “those feelings” when I heard he'd been hospitalized for chest pains. I never met the man, but in the guise of Spock he did so much for me that I felt a very real connection with him. I wasn't surprised, but I was still stunned, and when I picked myself up off the floor, I knew what the blog had to be about this week. Herewith is the continuation of the story of my adventures as a Trekkie I began a while ago.

This is off the beaten path of amateur astronomy, ain't it? Yep. And maybe it is time for more of that. I've always posted the occasional article that strays from telescopes and observing, but I believe you will see more of that from now on. I still love the gear and I still love getting out on the field with a scope, but in order for me to continue to bring you the Blog every week, it has got to remain interesting for me to do.

The way to keep it interesting, I think, is to talk about something other than “Which is better, Meade or Celestron?” once in a while. Also, from here on out length will not be a consideration. I've tried to keep the word-count of these little epistles somewhat consistent, but I’m not going to worry too much about that anymore. If my thoughts run to twenty pages, you’ll get twenty pages. If I am done in one, that’s what you will find here.

Anyhoo, when we last left the Star Trek Universe, or Unk's little corner of it, the program was huge—for a sci-fi show. No, it never brought NBC the audience of ABC’s Batman or CBS’s Gunsmoke, but it did OK in its first two seasons. That was obvious from the minor wave of Trek-mania that hit. Not only were there James Blish's short story adaptations of episodes, there were posters, comic books (from Gold Key initially), and eventually even the much longed-for action figures. Me? I went from cruising around the backyard with my prized AMT Enterprise model kit in ’67 (the really cool lighted edition) to meeting a girl in ’68 thanks to the series.

Then, in 1969, it was over. NBC was tired of the show, or at least of the money it cost to produce, and moved Star Trek into a time-slot that doomed it. Trek was cancelled and that was it. Not that us Trekkies were willing to give up without a fight; there was the famous letter-writing campaign to NBC and the first Star Trek convention (in 1972). Much as we hoped otherwise, though, it was pretty obvious by the time of that convention that NBC was implacable. The Show was not coming back, and the Enterprise’s crew had gone their separate ways.

If I’d known about that first convention, I’d at least have dreamed of going to it. Course, it was in NEW YORK CITY, and there was no way on god's green Earth young Unk was going to be able to get there. Down in the benighted Swamp, I didn't hear about it anyway. Frankly, I wasn't thinking that much about Trek anymore.

I thought the show was over for me, too. It would slowly fade into the past like cancelled television shows always did. Then, amazingly,  it was back as an animated series in 1973. A good animated series with scripts by folks like Larry Niven. Unfortunately, like the “real” Trek, that didn't last either. Which was OK. Star Trek had done its work, helping rescue me from the loneliness of my earlier teen years. That’s what I thought; unfortunately, I was wrong.

Thanks to my incredible foolishness and immaturity, I found myself alone again in the middle 1970s. Not only that, I was in the Air Force and far away from home for the first time in my life. It was tough. Almost as tough as the high school years before Trek. Maybe tougher, since it was my fault. I'd grabbed the brass ring and thrown it away. I felt like a little drowning person. I needed a lifeline, and right away, but there was none in sight.

Until one Saturday afternoon when I was wandering downtown San Antonio, Texas. What should I spy on the main drag not far from the vaunted Alamo, but a bookshop. And not just any bookshop, but, amazingly, one devoted entirely to science fiction. You can bet our little G.I. made tracks for it.

Inside, what caught my eye first were the rows and rows of Perry Rhodan paperbacks. I don't know if you remember the erstwhile German pulp magazine sci-fi hero, but, hard as it may be to believe when you look at the books today, he was incredibly popular in the 1970s. The Ace paperback reprints of his innumerable adventures, edited by Forry Ackerman and translated from the German by his wife Wendayne, were everywhere for a while, with the titles eventually numbering well over a hundred.

Me and Perry? I’d sorta liked the first few, but soon lost interest. The series, written by an ever changing cast of authors, was as awkward as only blood and thunder German pulps can be. Some of the writers were better than others, and some were OK, but there were many whose work couldn't be saved even by Ms. Ackerman's artful translations—I suspect she actually rewrote a lot of the novels. If I wanted Space Opera, I'd still look to Doc Smith. There was plenty of other stuff on the shop's shelves, however; everything from Asimov and Heinlein to Moorcock and Ellison.

Almost against my will, though, I found myself drawn to the Star Trek section. There, I grabbed up several of the (well done) Alan Dean Foster novella adaptations of the animated show, the "Log" series. That wasn't all. In a Trek buying frenzy, I dug into my thin G.I. wallet for a pair of special items: a set of Enterprise blueprints and the Starfleet Technical Manual (both of which still grace my shelves to this day).

Somehow, pouring over the blueprints of that lost ship of dreams, I began to feel a little better. The Show still had a powerful hold on me and was still capable of saving me when I needed saving. Star Trek and, of course, Mr. Spock, who was always my favorite, followed me in my several moves over the next year, and every time I was lonely and despairing and friendless, Spock spoke his comforting words of not just logic, but inclusion.

I pressed on with negotiating the reefs and shoals associated with beginning life in a new city, Little Rock, Arkansas. I struggled for a while, but then, just as Spock had promised, I began to find the new and different fascinating. Me being me, of course, just as I became comfortable with the military, my assignment, and my new friends, I decided my future really lay back in the Swamp, in Mobile, Alabama. When my commitment was up I left the Air Force for home.

Before I departed Arkansas, there was yet another Trek epiphany. I discovered the larger world of Star Trek fandom. Yeah, I was aware that there had been such a thing, but I didn't dream there was still a vibrant Trek community ten freaking years after the show left the air. What clued me in was a paperback collection of articles from the fanzine Trek, The Best of Trek, that I found in, believe it or no, Waldenbooks at the mall.  A professional reprint of a Trekzine in the Mall? The Show must still be alive. I shortly learned that not only had the Star Trek phenomenon not gone away, it had penetrated even to the backwater that was 1970s Arkansas.

The big event for us SF/sci-fi/comics fans (I've been all three since forever) one spring in the late seventies, was our very own comic book convention. You can bet young Unk was in attendance. It was tons of fun picking up the Bronze Age comics I'd missed during the year of my AF training. What really blew my mind, however, was that at least half the dealer tables and presentations and films seemed devoted to Trek. That was especially surprising in the film room. This was the heyday of Bill Bixby's Hulk and Linda Carter’s Wonder Woman. They were represented, but the screen was dominated by Spock and Kirk and my other old friends.

I was pleased to see Trek was continuing, not just at comic and SF conventions, but in the original novels that began to appear as book publishers (and Paramount) noticed the surprising popularity of the unauthorized fan fiction about an old, canceled TV program. Still, it all seemed slightly pointless with no more Star Trek episodes to hang the whole thing on. Then, the news hit like a thunderclap: Star Trek was coming back.

That news turned out to not be quite as happy as it sounded, however. What us Trekkies had longed for was the return of the TV series. That wasn't happening. Instead, The Show would be transmuted into a big Hollywood production, Star Trek: The Motion Picture. I was somewhat hopeful—Star Wars showed Real Good sci-fi (if no SF since 2001was possible on the big screen. But I was skeptical. Surely they’d screw it up.

I was both right and wrong. STTMP is not bad, not that bad, anyhow. It’s just not that good, either. It might have made a nice episode of the old show, but at over two hours it was stretched mighty thin. It admittedly looked great, showing what you could do with Trek with a real budget—though the new uniforms  (and William Shatner’s new rug) kinda left me cold.  Nevertheless, it was a welcome and mostly credible effort. If nothing else, it was wonderful to see Kirk, Spock, and McCoy back together. Maybe Mr. Wolfe was wrong. Maybe you could go home again. Maybe.

Four years doesn't seem like an awfully long time to me today, but in my twenties it was a fracking eternity. It was crazy-strange to be back home. Everything looked pretty much the same, but (almost) everything had changed. My old friends had mostly left or had at least settled down and begun living adult lives.

Here was yet another difficult transition Spock helped me through. I clung to his essential philosophy, “different is good,” and was able to muddle through once more. Part of me wanted things to be exactly the same as they had been, but I nevertheless tried to appreciate Mr. Spock’s assurance of the wonders of new, “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.”

The mid 80s were a busy time for me and a busy time for Trek, too. I'd remarried, and The Show began to burgeon ever more. Amazingly so. The dicey first movie was followed by what may be the definitive Trek of all time, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The response to it was so overwhelmingly positive, including from people who'd previously never  have been caught dead watching Trek, that not only did it ensure a long string of sequels (none of which were as good), it brought Star Trek back to TV.

But not my Star Trek. This was a new ship and a new crew that didn't include the original show's (STTOS) holy triumvirate of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. They were far too valuable as motion picture properties to waste on the small screen. Still, this new series was Trek of a sort, and that was good. It took me a while to adjust to Star Trek: The Next Generation. And it took a while for the show to find its feet. All too often in the early days, we Trekkies would gag when precocious youngster Wesley Crusher had to tell a Starfleet Captain what to do. But find its feet it did. I grew to like the new bunch and they and the show improved to the point where I can say if I can’t have STTOS, I’ll take STTNG any day.

The “and me” part? Not surprisingly, I was in the midst of yet another emotional crisis, at Alert Condition Red, again. In 1992, my second marriage dissolved. Whose fault was it? The fault of both and neither of us. We were two different, too different, people. Opposites may attract at first, but rarely for long. Star Trek wasn't even on my wife’s radar, and when we are talking science fiction and comics fans and non-fans, mixed marriages just do not work, it appears.

Alone again? Yep. Well, not really. The company of the good ship NCC 1701-D ensured that wasn't really the case. Oh, and the STTOS crew were at my side all the time now thanks to VHS videotape. When The Show was first released on video, I wondered whether it would hold up under repeated viewings, especially with the (slightly) better picture quality of VHS compared to the lousy over-the-air reception we had in the Swamp, but it did. Did it ever.

The next part of my life, which stretches from 1994 to the present day, could be titled Uncle Rod: The Voyage Home. 1994 was the year I got my bearings and found my life again. It began with a casual first date that included a stop at Applebee's. The date in question was with a fascinating woman my brother and sister-in-law had introduced me to, Dorothy.

Sitting in the bar, we talked and talked. I even made an admission, that I was not only an engineer, but an amateur astronomer. Dorothy took those things with good grace. Now it was her turn. She wanted to know if I liked Star Trek. I passed that test with ease, whipping out my Starfleet insignia key chain. She then made an admission of her own, that she’d attended a Star Trek convention and had a phaser and tricorder at home. Oh. My. God. I’d been saved again in the last reel.

Trek today? There is no denying it's fallen on hard times. That probably sounds strange given the tremendous, blockbuster success of the first J.J. Abrams movie reboot, Star Trek, and the still considerable—if lesser—success of his follow on film, Star Trek Into Darkness. Nevertheless, it’s clear Trek ain't what it was in the STTNG days, or even the Voyager and Deep Space Nine days.

The first Abrams film was fine by me despite the fact that I've always thought Star Trek was much better suited for the small screen, for a venue where it could take on moral and philosophical issues on occasion. Not for the summertime multiplexes where it's got to concentrate on explosions and battles—never The Show's forte. But, still, I thought the old crew redo had possibilities. Till the second movie.

The second film was a disaster. The Enterprise swimming around underwater? An entire new rebooted Trek Universe with undiscovered country around every corner and all Abrams and company could think of to do was to bring back Khan (a very poor Khan) for one more bow? No thank you. I am willing to be convinced, and the next film, which Abrams will not direct, will supposedly be closer in spirit to the series. However, unless there’s a new Trek TV series (and a better one than the last one, Enterprise) soon, I think we may be in the midst of another Trek interregnum.

I am not despairing. Spock long ago taught me not to do that. I hear the CW is at least thinking about a new Trek television show. And you know what? I believe that if anyone could pull it off, it would be that upstart network. They've proven themselves to me by taking an admittedly second string hero, Green Arrow, and making him into a freaking superstar in Arrow. I think that with the right actors and, most of all, the right writers, they could make me forget these five years of J.J. Abrams lens flare.

Whatever happens, the love I have for the Trek Universe is a continuing mission and a joy. Star Trek will endure, too, though I will miss the presence of Leonard Nimoy in this world. He was at first conflicted about the character he had such a huge role in creating, and even published an autobiography titled I am Not Spock. But he followed that with I am Spock. He knew he was, we knew he was, and the world was better for it.

Next Time:  Bagging the Planets...

I think Star Trek introduced something into our popular culture much bigger than just Star Trek itself. It was pro-intellectual and optimistic. It was the remedy for both 1950s cynicism and 1970s pseudo-mysticism.
FWIW check out Star Trek continues:
Unk Rod,
my 1st sci-fi book was R.A.H.
Starman Jones. A movie i'd love to see...Cheers!
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