New year, same Trek. Don’t miss Featured Writer Keith Parker’s latest installment of What Trek Meant To Me.
A long time ago, before we were awash in an ocean of wireless signals that distributed human knowledge, Facebook arguments, and cute kitten videos around the globe at the speed of light, there was a television show that I watched with my father, a series that tried to warn us that things might not go so great if we didn’t exercise caution as we earned ever more power. That series, of course, was Star Trek, which aired in syndication on a local ABC affiliate.
I’d often miss an opening sequence because I would be in the kitchen getting dinner on the stove and floor, especially on the days that Dad’s knees were really bothering him. Mom would not be home until six and seven, a woman dedicated to her role as a procurement officer for the Army. A lot of friends back in the day were puzzled (or even worried) about our nontraditional household. My dad, a World War II vet, had had to give up his small business (he was a barber) to be a stay-at-home parent while Mom shattered the stereotype of the lazy government worker, putting in long hours under stressful and misogynistic circumstances. By the time she got home from her office, which did not have air conditioning, she just didn’t have the energy to whip up a meat-n-three.
So Dad and I bonded. We bonded over a lot of things in those days: his role in the war; his tall tales from the barber shop; his disastrous and poverty-stricken childhood; his escape from the same when he hitchhiked to Florida with members of the Chicago Cubs. Dad never even finished the ninth grade, but he was no Jethro Bodine. A man of extraordinary vision and wisdom, he looked to Star Trek as a beacon of hope, allowing him to envision the way that human life could be: living among the stars, with everyday needs already met. Dad was an unusual capitalist. He’d been quite successful with his little barbershops in Five Points and West Huntsville – until his disability got the best of him – but he never thought the relentless competition was good for us. If a man could walk up to a 23rd-century version of an automat and get a chicken sandwich with coffee for free, then people would actually be freed-up to pursue their real passions. My brother, he said, could’ve pursued his work in pure physics research rather than dancing the corporate jig. And I could do, well, whatever the hell it was I was going to do with my life (I was only ten). It wasn’t that Dad was anti-free-market, it’s just that he believed that the end-all be-all of life shouldn’t be the pursuit of money. I am still in awe of the fact that he was able to extract this kind of wisdom from his days at Riverton School, but life is full of crap you don’t see coming, like suddenly being turned into a god by a space anomaly.
Yep, I am talking about Where No Man Has Gone Before, the second pilot film for Star Trek, and the one that successfully launched the fifty-year-long franchise. In it, the Enterprise is about to cross a rather nebulous (excuse the pun) boundary between the edge of our galaxy and, well, nothingness. But like a shrimp boat blindsided by a sudden squall, the Enterprise is suddenly slammed by barrier of “energy” that 23rd-century astronomy somehow missed in its cataloging of the stars. To use the description Spock gave (loudly) in the episode: “Deflectors say there’s something there, sensors say there isn’t. Density negative. Radiation negative. Energy negative.”
“Energy negative,” huh? That’s always bugged the hell out of me.
Since I was busy kneading meatloaf I would often miss those opening scenes, but the implication was clear that the humans aboard the Enterprise were about to encounter something they weren’t ready for yet. Dad often preached about the dangers of too much technological prowess too fast; what would anybody do with twelve cable channels?
In Where No Man Has Gone Before, Lieutenant Commander Gary Mitchell and (later) Doctor Elizabeth Dehner, are both transformed by this energy barrier, which somehow awoke latent ESP abilities and kicked them up several notches. Mitchell’s powers grow, geometrically, as Sulu puts it, doubling each day. He can read minds, move objects, and – like the food replicators – seemingly create solid objects out of thin air. He’s becoming a god, the Enterprise his toy. As the ship limps toward desolate, uninhabited Delta Vega, Kirk has to decide whether to maroon his best friend there.
Kirk vacillated. My father did not. “Beam him down and atom-bomb the place,” Dad said, a decade before the movie Aliens ever came out.
One of my favorite authors has said on many occasions that the universe is ruled by irony; I would go one further and say that it is also ruled by cognitive dissonance. Dad was a tinkerer; in the 1950s and 60s he loved television, CB and Ham radio… he was a man perched on the edge of technology at the time, and yet he felt like the very technology he loved (he’d spend hours trying to get our TV antenna to pick up a station out of Chattanooga) made him wary.
The ultimate scene in Where No Man Has Gone Before sums up my dad’s conflicted emotions about the limits of human power. In this finale, Gary Mitchell and Elizabeth Dehner have been transformed into a new type of human being, with godlike abilities that Kirk cannot hope to defeat, unless he is able to turn them against each other.
KIRK, resisting MITCHELL’s commands for submission, is nevertheless brought to his knees.
MITCHELL: Time to pray, Captain. Pray to me.
KIRK: To you? Not to both of you?
MITCHELL: Pray that you die easily.
KIRK: There’ll only be one of you in the end. One jealous god, if all this makes a god, or is it making you something else?
MITCHELL: Your last chance, Kirk.
KIRK to DEHNER: Do you like what you see? Absolute power corrupting absolutely.
DEHNER: [Zaps Mitchell with a lightning bolt]
“You see,” my dad said. “Kirk was right. Mitchell couldn’t handle the power. He got the power too quickly. He didn’t earn it. And that lady doctor sure made him pay. I wonder how she did those lightning bolts.”
(I’m paraphrasing here, but that’s basically what Dad said.)
So even then, two competing thoughts were fascinating him. One was the fact that Gary Mitchell was already a jealous god who was on the brink of falling from heaven, Satan-style. The other was a curiosity about Doctor Dehner’s newfound ability to shoot electricity from her fingertips.
In conclusion, what Trek meant to me was this: My dad was well ahead of his time, but due to whatever anxieties plagued him, he wanted to pump the brakes on technology pretty often. My role in this – besides learning how to make meatloaf and mashed potatoes – was to become the apprentice for a man who loved to tinker. Sometimes I wonder if technology is moving too fast, and sometimes I wonder if it’s moving too slowly. I don’t know. But what I do know is that I have a dead PlayStation-4 at home, and I bet I can get it to work if I can just find the right replacement hard drive. Then I can play a game about another SF franchise, which is best not mentioned in a series of articles about what Trek meant to me.
Until next time.