by Mark W. Tiedemann
The world can be a very off-putting place,
especially to a kid who can't seem to catch on to the rules. Rules
are very important. We're impressed with that fact from infancy.
If you don't follow the rules, bad things happen. If you can't because
you don't know what they are...well, as the saying goes, ignorance is no
excuse: bad things happen. Not only that, but it's all your fault.
Something is wrong with you. Everybody else seems to know the rules,
why don't you?
For that kid--and there are many more such kids than we're willing to admit--the world is a baffling, often malignant place. Sometimes stepping outside of it is the only way to start to make sense of it. Science fiction is very good at enabling that process. Through the medium of extrapolatory fictions, future worlds, alien vistas, and an implicit faith that things ought to and can make sense, this world can be made less confusing, brought into some perspective that eluded us before, enabling us to cope a little bit better.
Gene Roddenberry was one of the most visible practitioners of this process. For millions of kids--of all ages, 3 to 83--he was a sensible voice speaking in the midst of chaos. Now that he is gone we wait to see if his voice will continue its patient plea for reason and optimism, whether he meant anything more than a source of entertainment for the masses and profits for the corporations.
Millions of words have by now been written about Star Trek--what it is, how it evolved, why it works. The attention it has elicited seems disproportionate for "mere" entertainment. What was it, after all, but a clever revamping of television westerns in a science fiction guise? The Frontier (the final one, we are told), the Federation (law and order), and the marshall and his deputies (Kirk, Spock, McCoy). What was the big deal? There were other sf series that never came close to the level of impact Star Trek did. We had Lost In Space, Time Tunnel, Voyage To The Bottom of the Sea, Land of the Giants, The Invaders--many of them had longer runs than Star Trek, but not one of them produced the cultural impact Roddenberry's little "wagon train to the stars" achieved. Why?
Among the thousands of different reasons, all of which came together in the 25 years since the series aired, there are a few important ones, reasons without which the show would have been just another sci-fi series, like all the rest, assigned to the trash heap of discarded images from our pasts.
Roddenberry designed his show for adults. Regardless how individual episodes came across, there was an underlying maturity to the concept that came across even through the most turgidly asinine scripts. If there is any proof to this, look at the success of the new series. The basic architecture Roddenberry cobbled together originally has not changed, yet it still supports itself admirably. In fact it works better in support of the more intellectual scripts. It worked in the original series, it worked in the films, and it is working in the new show. None of the others were so designed. All of them were fairly standard Hollywood concepts that targeted the seven year old, even though disguised in formats apparently for adults. The kids weren't fooled and the adult audiences, while entertained, found nothing of lasting value. Star Trek was designed to appeal to the adult in all of us, and Roddenberry did not underestimate the intellect of his audience--of any age.
The universe of Star Trek is a functioning model. You watch the show, you know without being told that somewhere people are getting up, going to work, building homes, carrying on their lives, all in a world that hangs together with the same kind of cohesion as the one we inhabit. This is art. This is a level of communication hard to achieve even in shows set in the here and now. As a result, the series might well have been set anywhere in the Federation, on any ship, on a station, a world, with any array of characters, and it would have worked. Watching, you knew that. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy did not comprise the universe of Star Trek, they inhabited it. Compare that to any of the other sci-fi offerings of Hollywood. The characters comprised the universe, laws unto themselves, with no connection to a larger universe outside of themselves. Oh, perhaps a line or two referring to such a universe, but all sense of casuistry was utterly ignored. Such series offered escapism without rationale, with nothing to believe in. Empty.
Which leads to one of the most significant aspects of the phenomenon. One of the hallmarks of a truly fine work of art, especially literature and by extension drama, is its ability to take us out of ourselves and transport us elsewhere in such a way that, while we're on the ride, we do not question the mode of travel. This is the escapist quality of stories. Great art does this without severing the connection with the given world. In fact great art gives us a new perspective to bring back to this world when we've finished the ride. It enables us to see our world in a way we had not or could not before. The best science fiction does this in a marvelously unique way. Star Trek does this. It is this that sets it apart.
I will not argue that any one episode of Star Trek is great art, although a few might be so described. Several others are quite definitely pretty shoddy art. But as a body of work it achieves the status of great art.
None of this was particularly meaningful to me as a boy watching the first voyages of the Enterprise. I was eleven when the show premiered. I had an interest in science fiction, but not a passion. I was as much enamored of cowboys and soldiers as of spacemen. I liked the collection of sf series then available, but I also liked the westerns and a couple of police shows and the war series. I was also a boy scout, I took music lessons, and had various other interests.
I was also one of those kids who had an inordinate amount of difficulty making sense of the world around me. I didn't know the rules, I didn't function well within my peer group. I suppose you might have described me as awkward. That's the term used most often about adolescents who, because of hormonal changes and the subsequent shift of social expectations, clumsily stagger through high school to early adulthood. But there are many who are awkward because they just don't know what is expected. They watch those around them and see the ones who learn the rules and acquire the enviable ability to integrate with their social circle with little or no clumsiness and pain and wonder what secret formula is involved, what set of passwords one evokes, and where to go to learn this arcane data. They have difficulty socializing. Some manage anyway, eventually achieving an adeptness at it even though they may not quite understand what is actually going on. Others never quite get the hang of it, but as they grows up it becomes less and less an issue. Some never fit in. During these awkward periods, most of them are loners. I was one of those.
I didn't like sports. I didn't understand much about cars. In 1967 I didn't care much for pop music, including the Beatles. I had trouble talking to other boys my age, it was impossible to talk to girls. As a result my social interactions were limited and progressively more difficult to understand. I also didn't like school, although I was a bookworm. While I had friends, they were not close and they as often regarded me as alien, the way I regarded them.
To me this was normal. Confusion was just something you lived with. Nothing made sense. It is very difficult to convey the impact something like Star Trek had on someone like me. I know I had trouble explaining it to anyone. But Star Trek took hold of my imagination immediately. Here was a world that made sense. Things happened here for reasons and the reasons were discoverable and understandable. It didn't matter that it was a fantasy, it was the process that was important. Star Trek ultimately taught me that the world has a rationale.
No big surprise, that conclusion. But I wasn't learning it from any other source, not in a way that made any difference.
And for many people the entire phenomenon must have appeared utterly bizarre. I know in my case my father never quite understood. After one season he had a son who was, for all appearances, a cult convert to a tv show. I was one of those who went door to door in '68 with a petition to NBC to forestall its cancellation. I couldn't explain it to him any better than I could explain it to my peers. I didn't understand it myself.
When Star Trek was cancelled I was in high school. Other things vied for my attention and Star Trek took a back seat to the balance of my adolescence.
I went to one of the first Trek conventions in St. Louis. It wasn't like the present day ones. It was a few hours in an auditorium listening to Roddenberry and George Takei speak about the show and about the future and an airing of the uncut pilot, The Cage. I remember Roddenberry telling us that we were impatient for the future, that we were ready for the 23rd Century Now. I felt that was true.
When the rumors of a film began circulating I tried my hand at a script. It even went off in the mail. I never heard back, but I didn't know how such things worked then.
When the first movie did come out I stood in line in the cold to see it.
My own writing, while not in the Star Trek mold, has certainly been influenced by it. I think I would have become a science fiction writer anyway, but probably not the same sort. Because Roddenberry had done such a good job constructing his universe, Star Trek taught me some very basic concepts of interconnectedness, taught in a way that provided a key to the understanding of how fiction works as examination of the human condition.
In terms of understanding how the world works, well...I still don't understand it. But that's all right now. I understand why I don't, and that's enough to be at peace with myself at least. I understand more than I did and I credit the difference in perspective sf provides with enabling me to understand and providing me the tool--my writing--to keep exploring. Star Trek, as a world, as a concept, as a way of hoping and dreaming and planning, gave me that.
That's a hell of a gift to give someone.
copyright © 2004 by Mark W. Tiedemann