I'm Brooke Gladstone and I Am a Trekker
Brooke Gladstone: Editor's log star date, August 11th, 2021. To mark what would have been the 100th birthday of Gene Roddenberry, the creator of one of my favorite shows, we are replaying a piece I made all the way back in 2006. I'm Brooke Gladstone. I am a Trekker.
William Shatner: Get a life, will you, people? For crying out loud, it's just a TV show.
Brooke: When William Shatner said that on Saturday Night Live, though to be fair, he didn't write it, it stung.
Barbara Adams: I think a lot of fans feel like they are not respected. They're almost ashamed to admit they're fans of Star Trek unless they hear two or three references to Star Trek in the conversation.
Brooke Gladstone: Not Barbara Adams, so moved was she by this series; optimistic, pluralistic vision of the future that when serving on the jury in the whitewater trial 10 years ago, she wore the uniform of a Starfleet officer. "If it helps to make people think a little more about what those ideals are, then I'll keep wearing this uniform," she said, and then was promptly dismissed for talking to the press.
Those ideals were codified by Gene Roddenberry, a former flack with the LAPD, who cut his teeth writing Dragnet scripts on spec for Jack Webb. His enterprise was staffed by a crack multi-racial crew, and though that crew was prohibited by the prime directive from interfering in developing societies as they hopped from planet-to-planet, captain James T. Kirk found some way to stamp out race hatred, fascism, and religious extremism wherever he went. As Tim Cavanaugh observes in the current issue of Reason magazine, the world of Star Trek was not so much a utopia as a galactic great society, which he says eerily predicted the era of total interventionism.
Tim Cavanaugh: Star Trek prefigures neoconservatism because it's socially liberal, but anytime there's a whiff of totalitarianism or just something that Kirk doesn't like about a planet, he'll find a way to overthrow the government and they'll leave at the end of the episode like, "Okay, well, we got rid of the god that these people have been worshiping for 5,000 generations or something, and now they're on their own. You enjoy freedom."
Brooke Gladstone: Roddenberry allowed us to examine the convulsions of the 60s like the cold war, poverty, and hippies at a distance, mostly through aliens, since he had decreed that there would be no serious conflicts among the crew, but occasionally controversy did creep onto the bridge as when Kirk and his Black female communications officer, Lieutenant Uhura, played by Nichelle Nichols, engaged in America's first interracial TV smooch. Despite network fears, it didn't spark much rage, perhaps because--
Tim Cavanaugh: There are mind controlling aliens who make them do it and they're fighting it all the way, which of course just makes it even more hotter.
Lt. Uhura: I'm so frightened, Captain. I'm so frightened. I wish I could stop trembling.
Kirk: Try not to think about it.
Tim Cavanaugh: Part of the Star Trek lure is that Nichelle Nichols, and this is a first person claim by her, that she wanted to quit the show at some point in its run and Martin Luther King personally appealed to her to keep doing the show because she was the only Black woman on TV who wasn't playing a maid and that's below the Voting Rights Act or Brown vs Board of Education or something in terms of achievement, but it was actually big stuff then. It seemed controversial at the time.
Lt. Uhura: And I would hear your voice from all parts of the ship.
Brooke Gladstone: Controversy didn't kill the show. After three seasons, the ratings did. For almost two decades, as the ranks of fans swelled through reruns and conventions, they wrote their own episodes and lobbied the network. Henry Jenkins, the MIT professor, says that much of that pressure came from an unexpected quarter.
Henry Jenkins: I think if you go back and look at the original letter writing campaign that kept the series on the air for the third season, which made it viable for a syndication package, majority of the leaders of that campaign were women and while the women were disappointed in the ways they were portrayed on Star Trek often, it kept alive this idea that women alongside men would be active participants in shaping the future.
Brooke Gladstone: Finally, after a short live to animated show and a handful of movies, a new live action series was launched and instead of boldly going where no man had gone before, the new crew was to--
Jean-Luc Picard: Boldly go where no one has gone before.
Rick Berman: We had three female cast members on The Next Generation.
Brooke Gladstone: Executive producer, Rick Berman.
Rick: One was counselor Troy, one was the doctor and there was some discussion that here we had two women in caretaker roles, which seemed a little sexist, but Jean also created this character, Tasha Yar, who was the head of security on board the ship and she was a tough broad, and probably the sexiest of the three.
Brooke Gladstone: Berman was handpicked by Roddenberry to launch the second series but he's been widely reviled by the fans for coming to the franchise as a newbie and for failing to fully commit to the founder's vision.
Rick Berman: If I could sit and corral all the things that have been said over the years, especially on the internet, you could put me just a little bit beside of Himmler. Did I see the original series as sacrosanct and sacred? No. Did I do my very best to keep from contradicting anything that occurred in those episodes? Absolutely.
Brooke Gladstone: Star Trek, The Next Generation also depicted a crew on a voyage of exploration, this time captained by the resolutely rational Jean-Luc Picard, contrast to the impulsive Kirk. It lasted seven years. Book-ended by episodes in which an omnipotent being called Q put humanity on trial.
Q: You will now answer to the charge of being a grievously Savage race.
Jean-Luc Picard: Grievously Savage could mean anything. I will answer only specific charges.
Q: Are you certain you want a full disclosure of human ugliness? So be it, fool. Present the charges.
Brooke Gladstone: It's a squeaker, but guess who wins? In Star Trek, humanity always wins. The sole exception was series number three, Deep Space Nine, mounted by Berman after Roddenberry's death, set on a space station in a time of war, humans and aliens were forced to confront crime and corruption within the crew and the humanity within all these species did not always win.
Mr. Rene: Will that be all, commander?
Captain Benjamin Sisko: I want you to know I don't personally believe that you're responsible for this.
Mr. Rene: Really? Now how can that be true? You don't know me, so don't tell me there isn't some doubt inside of you, some question about whether or not I murdered the man.
Brooke Gladstone: Some die-hard fans grumbled about the dark nature of Deep Space Nine, very unRoddenberry, but that series also lasted seven years. The fourth series, Star Trek Voyager, was set on a ship flung to the outer reaches of the galaxy. Its mission was simply to return home and it also marked a return to the original vision. Only this time, the glass ceiling was broken. Rick Berman.
Rick: We wrestled a great deal with trying to find an actress who could play the captain on Voyager, who at the same time could be feminine and tough.
Janeway: We don't run.
Alpha: Don't be foolish. Leave now and save yourselves.
Janeway: Give me my people and we'll do just that.
Alpha: They're mine.
Janeway: Then get ready for a fight. Red alert.
Brooke Gladstone: Did you have to grapple with the idea of femininity or did you just leave that whole discussion off the table?
Kate Mulgrew: No, of course I had to grapple with it and it was one of the hardest things and it was in extreme evidence from the first moment.
Brooke Gladstone: Kate Mulgrew played captain Kathryn Janeway.
Kate: I realized that what was at stake was their largest and most robust demographic, young men from the ages of 20 to 35. How was I going to transcend the fact that they could be potentially watching their mother?
Brooke Gladstone: In fact, they watched her for seven years, even though the bodacious Borg, Seven of Nine, was added to the crew to boost ratings, but even she represented more than just sex appeal because in Star Trek, humanity was always the real final frontier, so the best loved characters were not human. The half of Vulcan Spock in the first series, the Android, Data in the second, Odo, the shapeshifter in the third and Seven of Nine and the fourth, they showed what it meant to be human by reacting against it, or more often, groping toward it. Here's data on a date.
Lt. Jenna D'Sora: This is all part of a program?
Data: Yes, one which I have just created for romantic relationships. I have written a subroutine specifically for you. I have devoted a considerable share of my internal resources to its development.
Lt. Jenna D'Sora: Data, that's the nicest thing anybody's ever said to me
Brooke Gladstone: Later, Data gets an emotion chip, but ultimately rejects it. Spock would approve. He never understood Kirk's infatuation with humanity.
Spock: Captain, we both know that I am not human.
Kirk: Spock, you want to know something, everybody's human.
Spock: I find that remark insulting.
Emma: I love Spock. He's really awesome.
Brooke Gladstone: What's your name?
Brooke Gladstone: How old are you?
Brooke Gladstone: We found Emma at the Mohegan sun casino in Northern Connecticut, checking out a display of Star Trek memorabilia soon to be auctioned by Christie's. Like thousands of others, Emma writes fan fiction, original stories based on the series and she posts them on her blog, as do many of her friends.
Emma: Most of them write from the original series, Kirk and Spock. We either write slash or just friendship.
Brooke Gladstone: What's slash?
Emma: Slash is the game romance. It's very popular all over the web. I write some of it, but I prefer the friendship.
Brooke Gladstone: She says the fans she's met online hated the last series called Enterprise, set in a time before the original series and they're very riled up about the new movie, another prequel, which recasts Kirk and Spock as students at Starfleet Academy.
Emma: People say they can't do this to our franchise and they call it their franchise. I know it's definitely not our franchise, but I think we have a big part in it because without the fans, there'll be no continuation, there would have been no The Next Generation or Deep Space Nine or Voyager.
Brooke Gladstone: Through the fans, Star Trek lives long and prospers in cyberspace, where they create and consume thousands of news stories and hundreds of videos, including new episodes. It's not what trekkers solemnly regard as Star Trek canon. It's called Fanon. A tapestry of new plots and backstories endlessly embroidered by fans. For decades, they have boldly taken Star Trek where no network ever would, including, as Emma just said, slash fiction, as in Kirk/Spock, as in the love that dare not speak its name. MIT Prof, Henry Jenkins.
Henry Jenkins: All of fan fiction is interested in exploring the emotional lives of characters.
Brooke Gladstone: Consider Spock's death scene in The Wrath of Khan behind a wall of glass.
Henry Jenkins: Kirk is on one side of the glass, Spock is on the other, and Spock comes closest to speaking the emotional truth of their relationship.
Spock: The needs of the many outweigh-
Kirk: -the needs of the few-
Spock: -or the one. I have been and always shall be your friend. Live long and prosper.
Henry Jenkins: If we accept that Kirk and Spock are the most powerful friendship in the series and that Spock or Kirk would sacrifice any female lover to save the other, then we understand what's at stake. What slash does or Kirk/Spock stories do is remove that glass. Sex becomes the vehicle for exploring emotional intimacy between these two characters. It's an enormously innovative and rich site of grassroots media.
Brooke Gladstone: I asked Kate Mulgrew what she thought of the trekkers she'd met.
Kate Mulgrew: Whereas I may have looked once upon these people with a jaundiced eye, as the years passed, I began to understand that this was a very uncommon group of extremely intelligent people who had thrown their imaginations into the final frontier. I find them very forward-thinking, very innovative and, by and large, extremely moral.
Tim Cavanaugh: We grew up really loving Star Trek in the purest possible way.
Brooke Gladstone: Reason magazine's Tim Cavanaugh.
Tim Cavanaugh: We just loved it as kids. You get to high school, you get to college, suddenly you become this super ironist and you realize how campy it is and over the top, and every joke about captain Kirk getting it on with green women or about crew members wearing red shirts and dying, or what Mr. Spock found in the toilet, they've all been made. To some degree, the show has outlived all of that stuff.
Brooke Gladstone: Which may be irrelevant to fans for whom the show may have actually outlived the show.
Barbara Adams: I don't think fans should worry about there not being a Star Trek series on. If it's not a good Star Trek series, if it's not showing us what we want to see in Star Trek, we don't have to have it there.
Brooke Gladstone: For instance, the most recent series called Enterprise was not embraced by Erstwhile Whitewater juror, Barbara Adams. She's communications officer for her fan club called The Federation Alliance, which requires most of its members to do community service, to make this world now a better place.
Barbara Adams: I think that we should work at that future that Jean showed us 40 years ago. The ideals can still survive within our minds and certainly within our communities as long as we work at it.
Brooke Gladstone: At some point, for fans like Adams, Star Trek shape-shifted from a franchise to a kind of creed, perhaps because Roddenberry made it seem almost plausible because it made use of real science and referenced real history, or maybe it's because his founding vision was bound up in the belief that ultimately, it is our shortcomings, our passion, our restlessness, that will save us. That as much as Vulcan logic and detachment are venerated in the trek world, it's somehow better to be human.
Brooke Gladstone: You've been listening to an On The Media podcast extra and if you want even extra extra, I suggest signing up for our newsletter. Go to our website onthemedia.org.
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