Reflecting on how pop culture can infiltrate a childhood and in turn, a lifetime. A new series by Featured Writer Keith Parker.
I had a wonky childhood. Not a bad one, just one that was out of kilter with, um, reality. On the surface it was a white-bread mash-up of Tupperware, meatloaf dinners, cruel teachers who assigned holiday homework, and pimply-faced kids who didn’t know what a bike helmet was.* At home, though, things were… odd. My dad, a barber, had been injured in World War II and had to retire on disability. My mother, meanwhile, was an über-stressed career woman who logged insane hours buying missiles for the US Army on Redstone Arsenal. As a result of this and my brother’s departing for the University of Alabama in 1973, I was left caring for Dad, dinner, dishes, and debris. My escape? Star Trek.
Every weekday at 4:00 PM the local ABC affiliate aired Trek, allowing those of us who couldn’t get out a chance to escape, a chance to learn.
This article is the first in a series where I’ll look at the effect of original Trek on my childhood. I’ll ask hard questions: How’d a normal kid wind up on a quixotic quest to become a science fiction writer? What did I learn about life, the universe and everything from Trek? What were the spiritual lessons? And, how can I parlay all this into free beers at local brewpubs?
I’m going to start by looking into the show’s original pilot, “The Cage”, which was aired (mostly) in the two-part episode “The Menagerie”. Why start there? Easy, it’s my favorite episode. Now, I realize “City on the Edge of Forever” is the best, but “The Cage” resonates with me on a very deep level.
The Keeper: The customs and history of your race show a unique hatred of captivity. Even when it’s pleasant and benevolent, you prefer death.
Well, I didn’t prefer death but I sure wanted some excitement, which I wasn’t getting from scrubbing toilets. No football or baseball for me… anything extracurricular was out. But I knew there was a bigger world out there; all I needed was access to it.
Scene: Doctor Boyce, acting as a bartender, gives Captain Pike a martini.
Doctor Boyce: A man either lives life as happens to him, meets it head-on and licks it, or he turns his back on it and starts to wither away.
Captain Pike: Now you’re beginning to talk like a doctor, bartender.
Doctor Boyce: Take your choice. We both get the same two kinds of customers: The living and the dying.
I felt like Pike here, sans cocktail. I related to his conflicted emotions: Should he stay on as Captain, deciding who gets killed on away missions, or retire and deal in slave women? It was the same for me: Stay home after high school and attend UAH, or go off to a good college and experience life? I chose the latter.
Scene: Captain Pike watches Vina dance as an Orion slave girl.
Officer: What if you had all of space to choose from, and this was just one small sample?
Orion Trader: Wouldn’t you say it was worth a man’s soul?
Pike: [stares wide-eyed.]
I wasn’t into Orions but I was into women, especially those who looked like Vina. My, oh my. But more importantly, they said soul. That began my fascination with the human soul, spirit, consciousness, what-have-you. Did you know that big parts of my spiritual life were formed from Trek reruns? No, I am not kidding.
Pike: Are you real?
Vina: As real as you wish.
Pike: No, that’s not an answer. I never met you, never even imagined you.
Vina: Perhaps they made me out of dreams you’ve forgotten.
Pike: And dress you in the same metal fabric they wear.
Vina: I have to wear something… don’t I?
Chewing on my arm here. Have I mentioned that I found Vina sexy? The bigger lesson, though? What is real? And what is illusion? And if an illusion is exactly like reality is there a difference? Good stuff. How about this gem, which the NBC censors cut from “The Menagerie”?
Keeper: A curious species. They have fantasies they hide even from themselves.
Or this one?
Vina: They can’t read through primitive emotions. But you can’t keep it up for long enough. I’ve tried. They keep at you and at you, year after year, tricking and punishing. And they won. They own me. I know you must hate me for that.
For anyone who’s ever suffered from a chronic health issue, doesn’t this ring true?
All these quotes hint at why it shaped my life. Did I feel like I was in a cage at home? Perhaps. Was TV my version of a Talosian fantasy? Perhaps that, also.
And, nontrivially, whither “The Cage”? After all, it was pretty much a one-off, right? We never see that crew again, except in fans’ reimagining. But it’s still with us. Even the eye candy is cool (for a 1960s production): Big-headed aliens and laser cannons and zooms of the Enterprise Bridge. The other part of the answer is the psychology: This is the Star Trek that never was. It’s an unfinished canvas. “The Cage” is a reflection of my childhood. There was so much potential, and yet circumstances prevented it from happening until I was away at college.
In closing, I’ll leave you with this:
Captain Pike points a gun at the Talosian Magistrate
Pike: I think this laser [sic] just blasted a hole in that wall and you’re keeping us from seeing it. Want me to test my theory out on your head?
[Beat]: Scorched hole appears in the wall.
I love badass starship captains (I’m quite a fan of Firefly). Next time I will jump to season three, explore “The Tholian Web” and harangue you with the way it contributed to my quixotic trek.
Until then, Pax vobiscum,
*Caveat: We did know who Farrah Fawcett was. Oh, yes sir-ree, Bob, we did.
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