Confessions of a Lapsed Trekkie (Part Three)

April 30, 2009
A thought by James Berardinelli

June 9, 1989 should have been a special day, or at least a more special one than it was. My life was in flux at the time. I had just completed four years of undergraduate study and had entered the working force (my new place of employment would be paying for my graduate education, which would commence in September). June 9 was at the tail-end of my final summer vacation. I had taken a month off after graduation and would start work on Monday, June 12. The date had been strategically determined: I wanted to see Star Trek V: The Final Frontier first, while I could still enjoy it in "freedom"- one last hurrah before adult life crashed in on me.

But the feeling wasn't there. I felt like - pardon the cheesy reference - Barry Manilow. My friend and I did our best to psych each other up, but it was an effort. We embarked upon a campaign of avoidance - no trailers, no TV commercials, no interviews - in an effort to keep as much of the film hidden as possible, hoping surprise would enable excitement (it didn't). It wasn't difficult. The movie had little buzz. The media was largely ignoring it. The problem was the new TV show, now two full seasons old -past the growing pains and developing into its own entity. Star Trek had moved beyond Kirk, Spock, and McCoy to Picard, Riker, and Data. TOS, as is it was called (meaning "The Original Series," but sometimes referred to as "The Old Series"), was passé. TNG was the shiny new toy. Why pay money to look back when it was possible to sit in front of the TV and look forward.

I could have attended an afternoon screening, but I waited for my friend to finish work so we could go together. The theater was the same one where we had gathered thirty months prior for Star Trek IV. How things had changed! The atmosphere was subdued, almost melancholy. There wasn't much of a line at the box office and the theater was half empty. That, more than anything, stunned me. A Star Trek movie not full on opening night? What's more, I don't think there was a person under 20 in the theater. At age 21, I was probably the youngest.

It wasn't hard to determine the problem. The Next Generation had robbed the Star Trek movies of what made them special. It didn't help that the movie wasn't very good. The poor box office performance of Star Trek V convinced Paramount that the time had come to phase out the old crew and make way for the new one. Initially, after the dismay tally for Star Trek V came in, there were rumors that that was it. The old crew was done. The next Star Trek movie, which might be five or six years distant, would feature the Next Generation cast. At some point, Paramount changed course and allowed Kirk, Spock, and McCoy to have one last story, but that was in doubt for a while.

Leaving the theater, my friend and I did our best to convince each other that what we had watched wasn't as bad as it seemed. Alas, deep down, we knew the truth. A lot of the Trekkie in me died that day. Granted, I hadn't been to a convention in about two years. I hadn't read a Star Trek novel in nearly the same amount of time. My photonovels and comic books were packed away. But I still had all my audio and video tapes. Though I never missed an episode of The Next Generation, I was still a TOS person at heart. What I saw on screen while watching Star Trek V convinced me that the era was at an end. TNG, originally designed as a companion piece to and a continuation of TOS, had inadvertently killed its older sibling.

By the time 1991 arrived, I was a different person. I had largely left Star Trek behind as anything more than a weekly one-hour escape from reality. There was still a Trekkie inside, buried deep, but nothing, not even "The Best of Both Worlds," had brought it to the surface. The Internet offered opportunities for Star Trek communion among fans via a number of Usenet newsgroups, but I rarely visited. I wasn't interested anymore. If someone asked me, I would admit to being a "Trekker," but I preferred talking about baseball.

I first saw the teaser for Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country before Dead Again. Celebration and elegy combined, it caused a pang of nostalgia and brought a tear to my eye. Suddenly, all those years of being a Trekkie didn't seem so long ago or so far removed. This was really it - time to say goodbye. I decided to give the old crew the best sendoff I could manage, although it would be only for me. I got out my calendar and did a little calculation. The movie was due to open on December 13 (that was later changed to December 6 to avoid going head-to-head with both Hook and The Last Boy Scout) - counting back 84 days (79 episodes plus five movies), that meant a mid-September start if I was going to watch one story per day. And that's how it happened. On a September evening in 1991, I put "Where No Man Has Gone Before" into the VCR and began embarking upon one last journey with the original crew of the Enterprise. This is also where the seed was planted for movie reviewing because, after each viewing, I penned a short "review" of the episode. It was a personal tribute. No one has read any of those Star Trek mini-reviews except me.

On the afternoon of December 6, 1991, my friend and I gathered one last time for one last film. It would be the last movie we saw together. We were already drifting apart but, after Star Trek VI, our interaction would become more infrequent. These days, I see him once a year when I stop by his family's house on Christmas Day to say "Hello." Star Trek VI was at the Eric Twin Moorestown - the same place where Star Trek III had packed both sides of the newly split theater. The Undiscovered Country was only in one theater - the other one was occupied by The Addams Family. The afternoon showing was sparsely attended: Keepers of the Flame, Old Guard and New Guard Trekkies giving Kirk, Spock, and McCoy a send-off. I found the movie to be a little disappointing, but maybe that was as much a reaction to the circumstances as to the content.

It was over. My Trekkie license expired and I elected not to renew it. Life moved on. The Phillies finished in last place then, the year after, went to the World Series. I started reviewing movies. I stayed with The Next Generation to the end, never missing a first-run episode. I was a little more inconsistent with Deep Space Nine, especially during the early seasons. I tried to like Voyager but gave up after a season. I never caught an episode of Enterprise. I saw all of the post-TOS movies and liked one of them (First Contact) very much - but it was just a movie to me.

The franchise's popularity waned. The tenth film, Nemesis was a box office disaster. Enterprise became the first Star Trek series since TOS to be canceled. For whatever reason, Star Trek had become irrelevant. Explanations abounded, but the one that resonated the most strongly with me was that there had been too much of it. The thing that had made Star Trek special through the '70s and '80s was its scarcity. "Absence makes the heart grow fonder" is a cliché for a reason. Ditto for "Familiarity breeds contempt."

Looking back, although TOS is by far my favorite Star Trek series, it probably isn't the best of the five. That honor should go to DS9 followed by TNG. Those two series had stronger production values and more consistent writing. DS9 finished especially strongly. But all those years with Kirk, Spock, and McCoy put me in a position where, although I could appreciate the adventures of Picard and Sisko, I couldn't regard them with the same allegiance. I laid Kirk's pointless death in Generations at the feet of the TNG production team. Given a legend, this is how they treated him… (I didn't disagree with the concept of killing Kirk; the problem was the execution, which amounted to a bad visual pun. Instead of "Captain on the bridge," it was "Bridge on the Captain.")

In practical terms, I have not been a Trekkie for roughly 20 years, although the intensity of my passion for that short decade from the late '70s until the late '80s left its mark on my personal history. I feel a great sense of nostalgia and affection for Star Trek - especially TOS - although no longer a deep sense of love. To me, Star Trek is like a high school or college girlfriend, a companion through those long, sometimes lonely teenage years.

Now, there is new Star Trek. New Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. Pine instead of Shatner. Quinto instead of Nimoy. And Urban instead of the late DeForest Kelley. As I write this, I haven't yet seen it, but I gaze toward it with a swirl of conflicting feelings. Excitement? Yes. Trepidation? Yes. Curiosity? Yes. Longing? Some of that, too. I am eager to see if J.J. Abrams has managed to make a Star Trek movie or whether the essence of what differentiated Star Trek from other space operas (ideas and the special Kirk/Spock/McCoy bond) has been sacrificed on the altar of special effects. In a way, it's the little things that interest me the most. Will someone utter the famous "Space, The Final Frontier" monologue? Will the original Star Trek theme make a triumphant appearance, or will its inclusion be obligatory? And, in addition to Nimoy's presence, will there be acknowledgements of Shatner's Kirk and Kelley's McCoy (photographs perhaps)?

Perhaps, most intriguing of all, will be the reaction of the audience. The buzz for the film is strong and there's reason to believe that viewers may again be excited about Star Trek. Will it be like 1979 all over again, when The Motion Picture rose phoenix-like out of ashes of the old series? If the eleventh Star Trek feature stirs something within me, maybe that will affirm that old Trekkies, like old generals, don't die - they just fade away. While the show - reborn, re-booted, re-invented - boldly goes on.