Star Trek and the Gettysburg Address of Nerd Culture



As Star Trek marks the 50th anniversary of its premiere just a few hours from now, it’s being lauded for more than I can recount here. So I’ve come here to talk about the thing I love most in Trek.

For me, Star Trek is the most beautiful story machine ever built.

Since springing to life in NBC’s Thursday night lineup at 8:30 on September 8, 1966 as a heady, thoughtful space adventure (as wonderfully recounted in Edward Gross’s and Mark A. Altman’s fantastic the Fifty Year Mission) , Star Trek has risen to a level in our cultural relevance very few fictions come near.

To find anything that’s lasted as long or driven as deep into our collective hearts you can find some equals, but after coming across names like Huck Finn, Dorothy Gale, Dr. Watson, Robin of Sherwood Forest, Clark Kent, Juliet of Verona and Prince Hamlet Denmark, the list is soon exhausted.

Why a show so silly and earnest at once has plucked a cord in so many of us I can’t say for sure. There are a lot of rote answers in think pieces across the net today… it’s an optimistic vision of the future in a pessimistic age… it’s a funhouse mirror for looking at current issues at the safe remove of science fiction… because every generation loves watching groups of friends go on exciting adventures… and they all hold a bit of the truth. But I think under all of that is the core truth that binds it all together.

Nowhere in western culture, from the first novels in the 1700s to Netflix’s latest, algorithm inspired 10-episode hyper-targeted mini-season, is there a better storytelling engine than Star Trek.

Everything is laid out in show’s deceptively simple 37 word mission statement, the Gettysburg Address of the nerd culture I love:

Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its ongoing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.

And just like that, a writer can tell any story they want.

Want to tell a tense adventure story of friends battling murderous enemies? That’s the oldest type of story, after all. There’s The Original Series’ Balance of Terror , with Captain Kirk and his crew facing off against the relentless attacks of another skilled alien crew trying to kill them.

Is storytelling meant to teach and enlighten us? There’s TOS’ intense and endearingly clumsy Let That Be Your Last Battlefield. Two aliens nearly destroy the Enterprise while fighting out their racial difference, one so minor and meaningless not even Mr. Spock noticed it at first.

How about examining the painful episodes of our nation’s past. There we have the US’ Dred Scott decision refashioned with an android to find Captain Picard arguing in court for  the essential rights of his android crewman, Lt. Data. That one is The Next Generation’s Measure of a Man.

What about an intimate story of a  man at war with his own values, trying to uphold his highest ideals as they are threatened in the face of war? Deep Space Nine examines those terrible compromises with In the Pale Moonlight, where Captain Sisko works to draw the Romulans into siding with the Federation in a war against the Dominion, and compromises himself fatally… and maybe he’s ok with that.

How to tell the story of what it means for a whole culture to die? The Next Generation’s Inner Light achieves it in 45 minutes (without commercials). In it, a space probe forces Captain Picard live out the entire life of another man, an alien culture’s last act to let the universe to know they once lived.

Then there’s the love letter to that unique bond between parents and children with Deep Space Nine’s The Visitor. In that episode a problem with the Defiant’s warp drive (they tend to break down if you haven’t noticed) seems to kill Captain Sisko, taking him away from his son Jake just when the teenager boy needs him most. But as Jake lives on, he realizes his father is not dead, but lost in subspace (don’t sweat the details). The choices Jake makes for the chance to see his father again might just inspire you to call a parent, or visit a grave if you can’t.

And sometimes, you just want a head-trippy, kick ass science fiction adventure. Voyager’s Year of Hell two-parter is just that, with Captain Janeway and her crew fighting against genocidal alien captain whose ship wields a time machine like a weapon.

With Star Trek, there are these stories and about 720 others spread across the 30 seasons of Star Trek and it’s subsequent shows. There are more very good stories than can be listed here, and quite a few bad ones.

But for me, that’s the magic. With a canvas as flexible as Star Trek, any writer can conjure up something.

With most other fictions, from Star Wars to Law & Order, House of Cards to The Wizard of Oz, there are only a few kinds of stories you can tell in the straightjackets of those worlds.

In Star Trek, you could potentially tell a meaningful version of all the stories, and have room to tell hundreds more. Every genre fits comfortably in Star Trek.

What follows is an admittedly ridiculous list, but what other fiction can hold all these types of stories: Tragedy, Fantasy, Absurdist, Surreal, Political, Philosophical, Paranoid, Thriller, Slice of life, Family drama, Epic, Adventure, Detective, Romance, Time Travel, Horror, Comedy, War stories, Westerns, Crime, Speculative…

In our Star Trek episode of the Dorking Out Show, the podcast I do with my friend Sonia, we tried to think up a kind of story which could not be told in Star Trek.

Her answer was musical, and for a moment I agreed. Then a story like this sprung to mind:

Captain Picard and his crew could arrive at an uncharted planet, ready to make first contact with is inhabitants. In an awkward first exchange, Picard discovers these new aliens sing every word in their language. Desperate to procure a special medicine to combat a virus ravaging a nearby human colony, he’s got to talk to them, but they despise non-singers, and are contemplating destroying the Enterprise. It’s not too hard to imagine Data searching the crew manifest and finding an ensign in engineering who can sing soprano, but doesn’t perform because of deathly stage fright… you can see where this is going.

Then we realized the probe in Star Trek 4: The Voyage Home came to Earth looking for the song of humpback whales. It came to Earth searching for life forms who sing their language. So Star Trek already did it, without even leaving Earth.

I’d bet at this point, some of you are laughing not with me, but at me. Comparing Captain Kirk and Hamlet? How can a pop show with cheap sets and a made-up spaceship really compare to Shakespeare?

For me, this has always been a choice so false it almost seems foolish. In the hands of Francis Ford Coppola, a gangster story becomes an examination of trying to keep your soul pure in a corrupt landscape. In the hands of Christopher Nolan, a 75-year-old costumed superhero and his clownish adversary became the most nuanced and urgent examination of terrorism of the last 20 years.

A good storyteller can weave together our lowest hunger for excitement and our highest need for insight in one compelling narrative.

For me, Star Trek does that best. It splits the difference between our desire to watch gaudy spectacle and our aspiration to make ourselves better by contemplating our best potential and the weaker faults we harbor which, unchecked, could undo everything we’ve built on this little planet.

You might be right in your laughter. But I don’t care. I’m willing to stake my claim and risk the scorn. After all, risk is our business.

Storytelling and the greatest Star Trek book ever written

Blog Pic-enterprise_ncc_1701_by_alex26101-d9f898n

A fantastic piece of Star Trek fan art by Alex26101 over at Deviant Art. It can be found here:

My Favorite Curse

All of my life I have felt alternately cursed and blessed with the drive to answer one question.

How did the stories that I love get made?

This first occurred to me walking out of the Sun Valley Mall Theater in the summer of 1981 and realizing some people, somewhere had gotten together and made my new favorite movie, Raiders of the lost Ark.

Maybe it was being 10 years old watching a fantastic summer movie, or maybe it was the thrill of watching Indiana Jones race around the globe to stop Nazi evil, but that was the first time it ever struck me that a human could spend time making stories other people might like, the way exactly the way a carpenter might grab some wood and tools and build beautiful table.

While it was the first time I realized storytelling could be a profession, Raiders was not the first story that I ever loved. Not by a long shot.

A few years prior to, I remember sulking after one of those boring, awful days kids have at school. When my dad found me he tried to buck up my spirits by telling me the family was going to see a movie that Friday. His selling point was “It’s kind of like Star Trek.”

The movie was the first Star Wars. The reason he invoked Star Trek was because that was the first set of stories he and I shared and the first I ever loved.

Since then I’ve had some measure of success getting my stories out into the world. Sometimes that’s been in journalism, sometimes in video. For the past few years, I’ve been writing the novel that I hope will be the product of all I loved and I’ve learned. More on that in the near future.

Through all those years Star Trek has been a constant presence, like the kind of friend who grows distant and close again every few years when you remember just what you liked about them. It’s both entertained and inspired anew with the pleasure and potential of imaginative stories told well.

While it may never have hit the cultural heights of a Moby Dick, a Great Gatsby or a Godfather, there’s always the chance it could.

Oral History of the Future

That’s why I was overjoyed earlier this summer to find the best book I have ever read on the creation of stories in Hollywood has been published, and it’s about Star Trek.

It’s called The Fifty Year Mission: The First 25 Years, The Complete Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Trek, and is the first of a two volume set by authors Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman. The second volume, The Fifty-Year Mission: The Next 25 Years: From The Next Generation to J. J. Abrams, comes out Tuesday, and I’m counting the minutes.

Gross and Altman have achieved something special. Beyond being a good book about something interesting, they have done something I’ve only witnessed a few times in nonfiction storytelling. Trying to place my love for this book, I’ve come up with this:

Often in my experience, nonfiction storytelling attempts often fall into two categories. In the first an author executes their craft on a smaller subject and almost because of their more modest ambitions they are able to masterfully bring the subject alive in every aspect from beginning to end. Jonathan Krakauer’s Mount Everest book Into Thin Air is my favorite example of this type.

The second happens when a storyteller harbors larger ambitions. While they often produce something worth noticing in the vastness of their attempt, in the chaos of wrestling a sprawling subject into the coherence a book’s few hundred pages or a documentaries few hours, something essential is missed. Moments of brilliance are there, but it’s somehow less than the sum of its parts. Ken Burns’ Baseball series comes to mind.

But there are a very few nonfiction projects where their storytellers have taken on vast subjects and executed every facet of their ambitions on a masterpiece level. For me, Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary and Ezra Edelman’s OJ: Made in America are this kind of achievement. When a talented creator is able to communicate the vast and tiny, the intimate and epic all with the same level of fluid care, the experience is the most special to be found.

For me, what Gross and Altman have achieved with The Fifty-Year Mission rests comfortably alongside what Burns and Edelman have done before them.

When something like Star Trek happens, the ambitions of a few people and the flow of the larger culture meet in unexpected ways to produce something just as much owned by the creators as by the audience. Telling the story of that alchemy is something so difficult I’m still not sure how Gross and Altman were able to pull it off so well.

Of course, they tell the story of Gene Roddenberry, William Shatner, Leonard Nimor and DeForrest Kelly coming together to make the original three seasons of Star Trek in the late 1960s. But almost unique among entertainment journalists, they eschew the set gossip and dramatic-but-low-impact moments most making-of books spend their time focusing on how these hours of TV were created, from the first story ideas on up.

There are juicy anecdotes about producer and cast run-ins, backstage fighting and more, but all in the service of showing how humans working together under great pressure manage to succeed (and fail) at producing something millions have come to love.

It’s in the passages recounting Star Trek’s time in the wilderness, 1969 to the mid-1970s, Gross and Altman’s work fully sings. First, they focus on the unprecedented fan love which first saved the show from cancellation, then resurrected the franchise in the era of Star Wars. Then, in my favorite passages, they reveal how well meaning creators… Roddenberry, the cast, the producers and eventually Day The Earth Stood Still and Sound of Music director Robert Wise among them… produced something so boring, so dramatically inert, so un-Star Trek-like as 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

It’s in those pages all the hidden dynamics of Hollywood are revealed, answering the question film-lovers have asked for a century: How did this awful movie get made?

The clarity Gross and Altman have in these pages, the fluent editing of interview after interview to reveal the whole awful picture, is among the best edited story passages I’ve seen. It’s a beauty.

Here’s where I leave you and simply advise you to pick up The Fifty Year Mission. Better yet, listen to it on Audible. Listening to a story like this being so well told is an experience everyone should have.

To finish up my little celebration of Star Trek’s 50th anniversary, I’ll be back soon with a few thoughts on why Star Trek is the greatest storytelling engine ever.