A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Friday, October 9, 2020

Important Life Lessons Learned While Pandemic-Binge-Watching all of Star Trek, The Original Series, with my Fourteen-Year-Old Twins

 “Where I come from, size, shape or color makes no difference. And nobody has the power.” 
– Captain James Kirk, Star Trek, Plato’s Stepchildren. 

The 23rd century, as imagined in 1966-1969 America by the creators of Star Trek, was a world – no, a galaxy! -- of equality and justice.  Race was immaterial.  Gender did not matter.  Diverse cultures were respected.  Science was promoted.  Technology bolstered exploration and communication.  Peace was paramount. Learning was valued.  Opportunity was open to all.  It was a beautiful and ambitious vision.  But because it was not yet fully invented, it was full of gaping holes, blatant contradictions, scantily clad green women, and hilariously cringey weirdness.

#1 The Man Trap: Micro-minis make great workwear, and too much salt is bad for you. 

#5: The Enemy Within: Your inner demons are nasty, but at least they aren’t boring.

#18 Arena: Low-budget lizard-people are bad at hand-to-claw combat.

Over the past couple of months, I’ve re-watched all seventy-nine episodes of the original Star Trek series with my fourteen-year-old daughters.  What started as a joke turned into a frequently amusing, sometimes painful, and surprisingly eye-opening journey.  Viewing, discussing, dissecting, and mocking every episode, even the truly terrible ones – especially the truly terrible ones – has granted the kids new insights into the past, the present, and the future.  It has also brought me to a new realization: I grew up in an imaginary galaxy.

No, I wasn’t raised on Aldebaran III or Altair VI. I was born on boring little Earth, in 1972 – a handful of years after the original Trek, but still well within hailing distance.  That birthdate places me smack in the middle of Generation X.  Our generation is too young to have watched first-run Trek.  We are also too young to remember the wars, marches, assassinations, protests, and massive societal transformations that took place in the sixties and early seventies.  But our parents, teachers, and mentors were fully aware during that time.  As such, our generation was shaped by the same forces that created Klingons, Vulcans, and Tribbles.  We were, collectively, urged “to boldly go where no man has gone before”.  But we were often given half-formed ideas, skimpy budgets, poor scripts, and not much in the way of direction. All of the original Trek’s aspirations, and all of its failings, were built into our childhood. 

#23 A Taste of Armageddon: Let’s critique the Cold War obliquely with aliens.

#39 Journey to Babel: Being raised by logicians causes serious attachment issues.

#44 The Trouble with Tribbles: Exponential growth is worrisome, even with pompoms.

Star Trek was, for its time, at the cutting edge of social change and political liberality.  But, viewed in 2020, the flaws and hypocrisy of the original series are so obvious as to be comical.  With the same hindsight, the failings and hypocrisy of my own childhood are just as funny – and awkward, and heartbreaking – as those of Trek, and for the same reason: reinventing deeply entrenched social structures is hard.

Trek tried, earnestly, to address sexism and racism.  It introduced a character who was conflicted about being half human and half Vulcan, placed a Black woman and an Asian man on the bridge of a starship, and created – for at least an episode or two -- a female Romulan captain and a Black Federation Commodore.    But women still only represented about 25% of the crew, were rarely depicted in positions of power, and were too often shown only as lackeys providing paperwork or beverages.  Likewise, minority males tended to hover around the edges of the main plotline, wearing red shirts. The original Trek featured thinly veiled lessons about inter-cultural understanding and gender parity.  But it also featured stereotypical “noble savages” and endless parades of breathless long-lashed alien ladies for Kirk to woo.

#6 Mudd's Women: Don’t judge women by their looks, except totally do?

#14 Balance of Terror: Let’s talk about racism, but toward Vulcans.

#58 The Paradise Syndrome: Kirk is not Native American, and neither are these actors.

When I was a kid, I gradually became aware of similarly deep contradictions in my world.  I was told, repeatedly, that boys and girls were equal.  But I looked at the adults around me, and saw moms who stayed home with kids, and dads who went off to work.  The few exceptions were notable; I recall a friend’s father cleaning the house: a man, pushing a vacuum cleaner!  I was told that all races were equal, but the only Black role models I met during my entire childhood in a mixed-race town were one female gym teacher (who did not happen to be particularly inspiring) and one male art teacher (who was).  Thank you, Mr. Wyatt.  You taught me about perspective, in more ways than one.

What I didn’t understand until many years later is that the contradictions of my childhood stemmed from the fact that the supposedly egalitarian reality presented to me was akin to a low-budget science fiction series being written, directed, and filmed on the fly, by amateurs.  The sweeping Civil Rights Act of 1964 had only been in place for eight years when I was born.  Until 1967, five years before I was born, interracial marriage was a criminal offense in some states.  Women were not guaranteed the right to serve on juries in all states until I was a toddler.  Women could not earn degrees from Harvard, ultimately my alma mater, until I was five.  Until I was six, women could be fired for being pregnant. Until I was in first grade, no state – not one! -- considered marital rape a crime.

These facts are shocking and sad.  But to me, they are doubly peculiar for their relative unfamiliarity. In the world in which I grew up, all adults knew these things.  They’d lived them, internalized them, been formed by them.  I, on the other hand, know most of these things now only because I’ve researched them, or been told them quite recently.  I was not taught these things in school – not about John Lewis and Bloody Sunday, not even about the Vietnam War.  No, really, I wasn’t. 

Trek tried to address war, and peace.  Its messaging was convoluted and self-contradictory.  It glorified violence while condemning it, and espoused non-militarism within a blatantly patriarchal and militaristic framework, complete with uniforms, insignia, and hierarchy.  The stories feel familiar to me not only because I watched and half-understood a slew of episodes in re-runs when I was about ten,  but also because the plots echo so much of the jumbled morality presented to me as a kid.

#48: A Private Little War: The Vietnam War was caused by Klingons and Yetis.

#52 The Omega Glory: Never get involved in a land war in Asia on another planet, but if you do, America wins.

#62 Day of the Dove: Peace wins.

Original Trek offered some of its most spectacular flailing when it came to addressing human sexuality – or, for that matter, the sexuality of aliens, robots, and amorphous clouds of gas.  While holding up True Love as an ideal, it offered only short-lived lust as a plot point.  The comically distracting burning desires that develop in the course of half an hour are forgotten by the next episode; as such, they provide stark contrast to the far deeper, more resonant, and more interesting connections between the three male leads.  Plenty of fans have posited that these are the true, secret romances of Trek, although that was clearly not the intent of the show’s creators. If Trek was bumbling and bungling in dealing with issues that were only beginning to be addressed in the late sixties – civil rights, gender equality, reproductive rights, sexual freedom, religious freedom and atheism, birth control and population growth, cold wars, not-so-cold wars, and the moral implications of the development of artificial intelligence, advanced technology, and space flight – it’s no surprise that it could not even touch upon gay rights or trans issues. 

Nonetheless, the glaring sexual contradictions of Trek highlight yet another piece of reality that was being invented – still in quite nascent form -- during my childhood.  How do males and females, interacting as colleagues and equals in a newfound environment of relative sexual freedom, deal with all the hormonal stuff?  How do genuine friendships fit in?  And what of all the variations on gender, lust, and love that can and do occur?

#13 The Conscience of the King: Don’t kiss murderers.

#34 The Apple: Forget Eden, sex is great!

#38 Metamorphosis: Love is love, so long as the field of ionized hydrogen is a consenting adult field of ionized hydrogen that is somehow definitely of the opposite sex.

These questions were a struggle for me, certainly.  When I was a little girl, it was only a minor challenge to present myself as an equal of the little boys in my classes and on the playground. But when puberty hit, the playbook changed, and I was lost.  Watching Trek helps remind me why; it was equally lost.  It offered several clear templates for masculinity: tech-geek whiskey-sipping Scotty; emotional and empathetic doctor-not-a-bricklayer McCoy; Kirk, everyone’s favorite swashbuckling womanizer on a grand mission; and fascinatingly cool-headed science officer and right-hand-man Spock. The tensions between these types provide moments of genuinely nuanced theater.  The women, on the other hand -- even Uhura and Nurse Chapel -- don’t save the day, carry the torch, or evidence much in the way of inner lives.  And I certainly could not have become any one of the nineteen (yes, nineteen) different females Kirk kisses.

#37 I, Mudd: Don’t fondle the androids.

#57 The Enterprise Incident: The Romulans are better feminists than the Federation.

#30 Amok Time: Your atypical sexuality will be terrifying, overwhelming, humiliating, and potentially deadly. Luckily, your lust will be assuaged by the love/commitment/violence of your best friend, via rolling around, exposed male nipples, blood, and OMG we’re so confused.

I aspired to be Spock: logical, mathematical, pacifistic, atheistic, vegetarian, and largely passionless.  I flunked that last part -- but then, so did he.  One of the most interesting lessons of Trek is that even Spock fails to be perfectly Spock – not only when mind-altered in various ways, but also when faced with the gritty desires of a powerful Romulan woman, the charmingly heteronormative love of his Captain, or the awkward and complex jealousies of Dr. McCoy.  In the midst of much that is over-the-top ridiculous in the original series, Spock’s hopes, dreams, and subtle yearnings are oddly beautiful. 

It took me years to understand that pure Vulcan ideologies are impossible, just as it took me years so understand how contradictory and paper-thin my world was.  When it came to authoring the imaginary-reality of my childhood, my mother led the charge.  And, impressively – considering that she had been raised in the relative Dark Ages of the 40’s and 50’s -- she was successful, to a large degree.  At the age of seven, at the dawn of the 80’s, I calculated that I would be 27 at the turn of the millennium.  I clearly recall anticipating that by that ripe old age I would be a successful scientist and astronaut with a busy career; I would also be a wife and mother, as something of a sidenote.  I was a believer – at least for a while.

As a teenager, I read and watched a plethora of science fiction.  I wallowed in it.  I checked out Clarke, Atwood, Asimov, Heinlein, McCaffrey, Orwell, Adams, Engdahl, Leguin, Bradbury… everything I could get my hands on.  And I sat alone in my living room watching each of the then-extant Star Trek movies, one after another, on VHS.  I had begun to be aware of the falseness, hypocrisy, and gaping holes in my utopia, and I was filled with angst.  I was mad at society for not being what I wanted to believe it to be.  I was mad at the limitations that I’d been taught did not exist.  I was mad at my parents for tricking me, Santa-like, into believing in a warm, fuzzy, beautiful, misleading falsehood.  And I was mad at my parents for their personal failure to walk the walk instead of just talking the talk.  I asked my mom why she didn’t ever earn a college degree, and why she tended to bow to my father’s whims and demands.  I handed my dad a dishtowel and told him to get off the couch.  Among peers, I hid.  I shrank. I doubted myself.

Over the years, of course, I forgave my parents.  Over the past three decades, I’ve come to realize that Mom and Dad did their wonderful, loving, heartfelt best.  That forgiveness sharpened its outlines in the past twelve weeks, as I re-watched Trek.  I realized that my parents were more skilled than I gave them credit for, as science fiction authors.  Sure, their vision was flawed and hypocritical, but they often did better than Gene Roddenberry and the rest of the gang.

Moreover, after watching all that ancient Trek with my kids, the flaws and hypocrisy of my own parenting efforts seem ever more obvious.  Just as my parents hid many of the world’s atrocities from me when I was small, so too did I, with my little ones.  Just as my parents tried to reinvent the world for me, I have tried to reinvent the world for my own children.  I’m undoubtedly doing it badly, but I’m trying.  I keep trying.

Star Trek kept trying, too.  It reinvented itself, decade by decade.  I haven’t watched Next Generation in years, but I have no doubt that these episodes, too, seem dated and cringeworthy now.  The Trek mission moved on to Deep Space Nine and Voyager, then to Enterprise, then to Discovery.  Each, in turn, moved the vision forward, but each, in turn, will one day seem laughable.  Each generation of teenagers will roll its collective eyes at the Trek that belonged to its parents, the Trek that represented the oh-so-visionary and oh-so-ridiculous future that guided its own upbringing.  And that makes me smile. 

Our progress will always lag behind our ideals, but that doesn’t mean that progress isn’t occurring.  I grew up in an imaginary galaxy, sure -- but so did we all.  So will we all, I hope, always.  It’s only by imagining it that we can start to make it real. 

After seventy-nine days of Trek, my family hasn’t yet decided what’s next.  We might watch the original movies, then take a bit of a galactic break.  But metaphorically, we’ll keep trying to boldly go where no man – or no one – has gone before.





1.           The Man Trap   

Micro-minis make great workwear and too much salt is bad for you. 


2.           Charlie X            

Hormonal teenagers are terrifying. 


3.           Where No Man Has Gone Before

Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and also makes your eyeballs glow.


4.           The Naked Time

No matter how logical you are, emotions are still kind of a big deal.


5.           The Enemy Within

Your inner demons are nasty, but at least they aren’t boring.


6.           Mudd's Women

Don’t judge women by their looks, except totally do?


7.           What Are Little Girls Made Of?

A true friend knows the real you -- but stop kissing androids.


8.           Miri      

Don’t flirt with twelve-year-olds.  Ewww.


9.           Dagger of the Mind       

If everyone seems content, be suspicious.


10.         The Corbomite Maneuver

Humans think they’re smart.  Snicker.


11.         The Menagerie, Part I

Sometimes breaking rules is logical.


12.         The Menagerie, Part II

Escapism is also logical if you have an extreme medical condition?


13.         The Conscience of the King

Don’t kiss murderers.


14.         Balance of Terror

Let’s talk about racism, but toward Vulcans.


15.         Shore Leave      

Alice in Wonderland and homoerotic wrestling represent valid fantasies.


16.         The Galileo Seven

Your best friend will always save you, even if it’s illogical.  Aww.


17.         The Squire of Gothos

Toddlers shouldn’t have free reign over starship crews.


18.         Arena

Low-budget lizard-people are bad at hand-to-claw combat.


19.         Tomorrow Is Yesterday

Time travel is messy.


20.         Court Martial

Hackers can really screw with you.


21.         The Return of the Archons

Seriously, don’t let the computers take over.


22.         Space Seed

Eugenics: a terrible idea. 


23.         A Taste of Armageddon

Let’s critique the Cold War obliquely with aliens.


24.         This Side of Paradise

Just say no to drugs, even though they’re super fun.


25.         The Devil in the Dark

Just because she’s a terrifying silicone-based lifeform doesn’t mean she doesn’t love her babies.


26.         Errand of Mercy

Don’t assume you’re morally superior to violent goons or Space Quakers.


27.         The Alternative Factor

Good people must sacrifice to triumph over evil twins.


28.         The City on the Edge of Forever

Time travel causes the Trolley Problem.


29.         Operation: Annihilate!  

Pain is all in your head; Vulcan up.


30.         Amok Time

Your atypical sexuality will be terrifying, overwhelming, humiliating, and potentially deadly. Luckily, your lust will be assuaged by the love/commitment/violence of your best friend, via rolling around, exposed male nipples, blood, and OMG we’re so confused.


31.         Who Mourns for Adonais?

Gods are ludicrous, humans have outgrown worshipping them, and we can say this on 1960s TV because… sci-fi!


32.         The Changeling

Once more: beware the intelligent machines.


33.         Mirror, Mirror

You probably have a dark side, but it’s less bad if you’re logical.  Also, goatees are evil.


34.         The Apple

Forget Eden, sex is great!


35.         The Doomsday Machine

Embrace personal sacrifice, but don’t go full Moby Dick.


36.         Catspaw

Kitty cats are cool.


37.         I, Mudd

Still don’t fondle the androids.


38.         Metamorphosis

Love is love, so long as the field of ionized hydrogen is a consenting adult field of ionized hydrogen that is somehow definitely of the opposite sex.


39.         Journey to Babel

Being raised by logicians causes serious attachment issues.


40.         Friday's Child

Feuds are bad; babies are cute; a man caring for a baby is extra-cute, but he is definitely going to hand it back to a woman.


41.         The Deadly Years            

Old age sucks.


42.         Obsession

Don’t blame the younger generation for your baggage.


43.         Wolf in the Fold

Jack the Ripper was an alien.


44.         The Trouble with Tribbles

Exponential growth is worrisome, even with pompoms.


45.         The Gamesters of Triskelion       

Slavery is bad. Brains in jars, ditto.


46.         A Piece of the Action     

Don’t base your culture on terrible mafia movies.


47.         The Immunity Syndrome

Kill germs.


48.         A Private Little War       

The Vietnam War was caused by Klingons and Yetis.


49.         Return to Tomorrow     

Don’t give away your body to just anyone.


50.         Patterns of Force

Even historians can fail to learn from history and become literal jackbooted Nazis.


51.         By Any Other Name       

Teach empathy and humanity via drunkenness and necking.


52.         The Omega Glory

Never get involved in a land war in Asia on another planet, but if you do, America wins.


53.         The Ultimate Computer

Still no on this computers-in-charge idea.


54.         Bread and Circuses

Slavery: still bad.  Same with gladiators.


55.         Assignment: Earth

Occasionally time travel works out, and prevents nuclear catastrophe?


56.         Spock's Brain    

Don’t lose your head. And maybe don’t watch this episode.


57.         The Enterprise Incident

The Romulans are better feminists than the Federation.


58.         The Paradise Syndrome

Kirk is not Native American, and neither are these actors.


59.         And the Children Shall Lead       

Brainwashed children are annoying, and what just happened in the turbolift?


60.         Is There in Truth No Beauty?      

When told not to open the box, people always open the box.


61.         Spectre of the Gun         

The Wild West – and everything depicted in bad Hollywood movies -- isn’t real.


62.         Day of the Dove

Peace wins.       


63.         For the World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky       

Don’t. Let. The. Computers. Take. Over.


64.         The Tholian Web            

Surprise, space DOES require spacesuits!


65.         Plato's Stepchildren

Sadism and power are a bad combo, but Spock and McCoy tapdancing in tunics are great.  Wait, that particular kiss was a big deal in 1969?  Okaaay.


66.         Wink of an Eye

Slow down, you move too fast. Also, don’t make Kirk a boy-toy slave.


67.         The Empath      

Pure empathy is not very useful, but pure intellect is probably evil. 


68.         Elaan of Troyius              

Don’t kiss the spoiled princess – and definitely don’t let her cry on you.


69.         Whom Gods Destroy     

Spock knows the real Kirk.  Again.  Always.


70.         Let That Be Your Last Battlefield

Racism is destructive, and also incredibly goofy.


71.         The Mark of Gideon       

Birth control.  Use it.


72.         That Which Survives      

Computers: still mimicking people, still trying to kill you.


73.         The Lights of Zetar

Don’t let the librarian become possessed.          


74.         Requiem for Methuselah

Living too long makes you a creepy old man.


75.         The Way to Eden

It’s maybe okay to be an idealistic hippie so long as you aren’t a crazy hippie.


76.         The Cloud Minders

Caste systems and social stratification are not okay even if everyone is white and attractive.


77.         The Savage Curtain        

The only difference between good and evil is motive, not methods -- as demonstrated by a fistfight between Abraham Lincoln and Ghengis Khan.


78.         All Our Yesterdays

Time travel is heartbreaking.  Again.


79.         Turnabout Intruder       

When we finally meet a woman who wants real power with the Federation… she’s murderous and crazy.  Also, Kirk and Spock can totally hold hands if one of them is trapped in a female body. 


And that’s a wrap.