Liking Star Trek is like liking anchovies on your pizza. You know most people look askance at you for it, but what can you do? You just...like it. And it's not as though you can win anybody over to it if it's not their thing. Telling a Trek-hater "Try 'City on the Edge of Forever'" or "'The Doomsday Machine' is actually pretty good" is like saying, "Yes -- I know you don't like super-salty slimy black fish paste on your pizza. But have you tried the super-salty slimy black fish paste at Pizza Hut? I think it's really going to open your eyes." Ain't gonna work.
For the record: I hate anchovies. But I like Star Trek. I have for a very long time.
So what drew me to the anchovies of American pop culture? Was it the uplifting optimism of its vision of the future? Its unfettered humanism? Its intelligent scripts? Its prescient depiction of science and technology?
Lord, no! I didn't give a crap about any of the stuff people cite when they start blathering on about what made Star Trek great. I liked Star Trek because it was about dudes in a spaceship having adventures and kicking the gooey green snot out of evil aliens.
At the time -- the pre-Star Wars '70s -- it was pretty much the only game in town, dudes-in-a-spaceship-having-adventures-wise. Doctor Who hadn't made it to America yet (at least not the part of America I was in), Space: 1999 had come and gone without a trace and though Lost in Space was still around in reruns it was a drippy show about a kid and his pervy old uncle or something constantly running away from, like, space pirates and talking carrots.
So I became a Star Trek fan pretty much by default. I was a dorky, socially clumsy, not particularly athletic boy on the verge of becoming a dorkier, even more introverted, even less athletic teen. What was I going to do? Take up knitting?
And here's the kicker: None of the television stations in my town even ran Star Trek! The TV programmers in Polyester Era Evansville, Indiana, seemed to think the only thing the locals wanted was hoary old sitcoms and plenty of 'em. I Love Lucy, Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, The Brady Bunch, The Munsters, The Addams Family, The Andy Griffith Show, Leave It to Beaver, Gomer Pyle, USMC, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, even Hazel, for Christ's sake -- we had them all. The closest thing we got to an adventure show was The Big f-ing Valley.
The only times I could catch Star Trek (or Lost in Space, for that matter) was when I was visiting my grandparents in nearby Louisville, where the TV stations threw an exponentially wider programming net. Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea! Wild Wild West! Battle of the Planets! Hercules movies! Godzilla! Westerns by the wagonload! Louisville calls itself The Derby City, but to me it'll always be the original TVLand.
Yet even when I was there it wasn't easy to catch Trek. It was shown at 11 a.m. on Sunday morning -- a time when I was usually trapped, wrapped in a sweat-soaked leisure suit, on the blister-inducing pew of a Southern Baptist church. Imagine suffering through dirge-like renditions of "Come Christians Join to Sing" and "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" bookending a 45-minute sermon on the wages of sin only to get back to the house and find that you've missed all but the last thirty seconds of "Journey to Babel." I've never forgiven God.
That's why the thing that really hooked me on Star Trek -- my goober gateway drug -- wasn't Star Trek at all. It was Star Trek books. Those you could find in Evansville easily enough: The libraries and bookstores and garage sales were overflowing with them. I remember reading "A Piece of the Action" and "The Conscience of the King" years before I actually saw them, thanks to James Blish's adaptations. And it was novels with titles like Vulcan! and Planet of Judgment that fed my thirst for Trek much more than the TV show itself. Indeed, I made an interesting discovery when my family moved to a new town in 1982 -- a town where, thanks to the wonders of cable television, I could finally watch Star Trek on a regular basis.
A lot of it's not very good. In fact, I'd say about a third of it is flat-out awful.
"This Side of Paradise"? Soporific. "The Deadly Years"? Grating. "The Paradise Syndrome"? Regrettable. "Mudd's Women"? Embarrassing. "Plato's Children" and "The Gamesters of Triskelion"? Pointless. "The Omega Glory," "Patterns of Force" and "Bread and Circuses"? Repetitive and just plain dumb. It's a testament to my fondness for Star Trek that I was able to watch "The Way to Eden" all the way through once, but that's a sacrifice I intend never to make again. And as for "Spock's Brain"...do I really need to say anything at all?
Fortunately, for every cringe-inducing "Turnabout Intruder" there's one passable "Obsession" and one outstanding (by Trek-fan standards non-transferrable to outsiders) "Mirror, Mirror." And just as I was discovering how very rocky the road to the final frontier could be, the movies started coming along. And here's where I may lose you (if I didn't six paragraphs back).
I loved the movies then and I still like them now. All of them. Even the ones I'm supposed to hate because...well, who would admit in public that they have a soft spot for Star Trek V: The Final Frontier? (The answer: me.)
Oh, but by "all of them" I don't really mean "all of them." I mean the first six -- the ones focusing on the original cast. When Capt. Picard and company took over, the film franchise lost a powerful ally: nostalgia. And without that magic pixie dust in my eyes, I can be blunt.
With the exception of First Contact, the Next Generation movies pretty much suck. And I say that as a guy who thought The Next Generation was every bit as good as the original show. Most days, probably better. If it had a weakness, it was for blandness and lazy plotting (e.g., technobabble saves the day again!). But it exemplified all those things I didn't notice or care about Star Trek as a kid but appreciate as an adult. The lessons that really are there, just beneath the green greasepaint and prosthetic brow ridges.
Diversity is good. Intelligence is good. Debate is important. Science is cool. And you haven't experienced Shakespeare until you've read him in the original Klingon.
This, by the way, is all back story -- context for a review I now find myself too exhausted to write. It was meant to establish me as someone who knows a phaser from a photon torpedo yet who still has a realistic view of Star Trek's strengths and weaknesses. Someone you can trust when he tells you this:
Star Trek Into Darkness is an extremely entertaining Hollywood popcorn movie that doesn't so much resurrect the franchise as remix it, mashup style, into something palatable for today's mainstream audiences. In the process, much of what made Star Trek more than dudes in a spaceship having adventures has been lost. Yet I don't despair.
A friend once asked me what the real difference is between Star Wars and Star Trek, and I told him the answer's right there in their names. One's about a series of intergalactic wars. The other's about an ongoing journey of discovery. Which is where the hope comes in.
Star Trek Into Darkness seems to be off to a solid enough start at the box office. Which means that Star Trek (as the geeky old pins and T-shirts used to say) lives. If it lives long enough -- and prospers -- I'm hoping that the U.S.S. Enterprise will eventually navigate its way back to something it might have temporarily lost.