Confessions of a Lapsed Trekkie (Part Two)

April 27, 2009
A thought by James Berardinelli

"Beyond the darkness, beyond the human evolution, is Khan - a genetically superior tyrant. Exiled to a barren planet, banished by a starship commander he is destined to destroy, left for dead, he has survived."

With those words, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was suddenly a tangible reality. I heard them less than a month before the movie's June 4, 1982 opening, during the trailer that preceded Conan the Barbarian. That was the moment when I started to become excited about the second Star Trek movie - the one that, by all accounts, would wipe away the bitter aftertaste left by Star Trek: The Motion Picture. More than two years after its opening, the first feature film was widely regarded as a failure both inside and outside of the Star Trek community. For a while, there had been fears that its lukewarm reception might kill the potential of future films but, in 1981, Paramount announced sweeping changes and a new movie. Gene Rodenberry would not be producing. His role would be that of "Creative Consultant." Harve "Six Million Dollar Man" Bennett would produce. The story would center on the Kirk/Spock/Bones relationship, would have more action, and would bring back Ricardo Montalban's Khan. Soon after, the rumors began. Leonard Nimoy wanted out and, as a result, Spock would die.

By the time The Wrath of Khan became a reality, I was a full-fledged Trekkie. I had seen every episode, most more than once. At the time of the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, there were three episodes on my "not yet seen" list: "The Cloud Minders", "Patterns of Force", and "The Tholian Web." The first two were dispensed with in January 1980. But "The Tholian Web" remained elusive. It was my Holy Grail. For one reason or another, I missed it every time it was on, and on one occasion, it was inexplicably skipped. By mid-summer 1981, nearly three years after I started regularly watching Star Trek, I had not seen it. Meanwhile, I had watched episodes like "The Trouble with Tribbles" and "Errand of Mercy" four or five times. Then, on a Friday in July, came my opportunity. Channel 11 in New York was showing "The Tholian Web" at midnight. (During those days, Channel 11 aired heavily edited versions of Star Trek weeknights at 12:00 a.m.) The fact that I lived about 90 miles away from Manhattan was a minor inconvenience. All that was needed was to spin the dial on my father's rotating antenna so it pointed toward New York. The picture was snowy but the audio was clear, allowing a nice audio recording. And that's how I first saw "The Tholian Web." Less than two weeks later, it was on the local station, so I was able to watch it more clearly and with about 5 minutes "restored" from what Channel 11 cut out.

By 1982, Star Trek on TV had been scaled back to once a week, on Saturdays. But with the approach of The Wrath of Khan, interest was re-ignited. The original TV episode featuring Montalban ("Space Seed") was shown everywhere, newly packaged into a two-hour special featuring interviews and clips from the movie. Merv Griffin devoted an entire episode of his afternoon TV talk show to The Wrath of Khan. As opening day approached, I was incredibly excited. Not being able to drive became an issue, and I was unable to get a ride to the theater on Friday or Saturday. An older friend went with a buddy Friday night and, when I spoke to him on Saturday, he refused to tell me anything, including whether or not Spock died.

Ultimately, seeing the movie two days late didn't adversely impact the experience. On Sunday, nearly all of the 2000 seats in the theater were occupied by Trekkies. With the exception of The Empire Strikes Back, I had never seen the place so full. The atmosphere was festive. When the house lights dimmed at the start (there were no trailers), a thunderous round of applause sounded. During the opening credits, each name was applauded as it appeared (some louder than others, with Shatner, Nimoy, Montalban, and Roddenberry getting the biggest ovations). And, when it was all over, there wasn't a dry eye in the house. Not until Marley and Me, did I again experience a movie in which so many people were moved to tears.

Between June and August, when the movie departed from theaters, I saw it a dozen times, including one memorable Saturday when I caught three back-to-back showings without ever leaving the auditorium (except for a bathroom break or two). Then, when the movie debuted on HBO in the summer of 1983, I spent copious time at the house of my neighbor across the street. In return for cutting his lawn and taking care of his dogs when he was on vacation, he gave me carte blanche to use his TV whenever I wanted (he had cable, including several pay channels, while my family did not). In 1984 and 1985, that usually meant going to his house during evenings to watch Phillies home games (he was usually out at a bar), but in 1983 it allowed me to see 10 showings of The Wrath of Khan. By the end of 1983, with Star Trek III: The Search for Spock approaching on the horizon, I had seen The Wrath of Khan 22 times. I was sure that was some kind of a record. Then I attended my first Star Trek convention and discovered 22 times was nothing.

First, let me dispel some misconceptions. Star Trek conventions - at least the ones I attended - were nothing like the exaggerated nerd-fests depicted on TV and in movies. The number of costumed attendees was relatively small. Trek conventions were much like other conventions, with a dealers' room, a video room, and a room for live speakers. (I have been to a number of engineering trade shows and they are all very similar.) At my first convention, I spent most of the time in the dealers' room, sinking obscene amounts of money into overpriced merchandise. I didn't bother with the video room - they were showing episodes of the series I had already seen numerous times. (Maybe if I had gone a couple of years earlier and they had shown "The Tholian Web"…) The guest of honor was George "Sulu" Takei, and I listened to about 30 minutes of his presentation. He gave an amusing account of how the G-rated Star Trek: The Motion Picture was actually a porn movie, with the Enterprise "penetrating" V'Ger and there being a "gushing" stream of light at the "climax." I found it amusing at the time, but I was only 15 years old.

During his speech, Takei asked how many people in the audience had seen The Wrath of Khan more than 10 times. Nearly every hand went up. More than 20? About half the hands. More than 30? Still quite a few hands. The "winner" turned out to be a woman (yes, there were female Trekkies) who claimed to have seen the movie 140 times. I was somewhat flabbergasted. (I should probably mention that she was one of the few costumed people at the convention and that she asked Takei to sign her ample cleavage.) Suddenly, I realized that my brand of Star Trek fanaticism was still in the nursery.

The build-up to Star Trek III was considerably more low-key than that of Star Trek II, perhaps because there was only a two-year gap and perhaps because there had never been any uncertainty about whether the movie would happen. I rigorously avoided "spoilers," which was reasonably easy in the pre-Internet era. All that meant was not reading fanzines and avoiding interviews on shows like "Evening Magazine." Unfortunately, I stumbled at the finish line. On the day the movie opened, I made the mistake of reading the New York Times review. The text didn't give much away but the credits box was a disaster. It provided the following information: "Produced by Harve Bennett. Directed by Leonard Nimoy. Starring William Shatner (Kirk), DeForest Kelley (McCoy), James Doohan (Scotty), George Takei (Sulu), Walter Koenig (Chekov), Nichelle Nichols (Uhura), Christopher Lloyd (Kruge), Carl Steven (Spock at age 9), Vadia Potenza (Spock at age 13), Stephen Manley (Spock at age 17), Joe W. Davis (Spock at age 25), Leonard Nimoy (Spock)." Aaaarrrrgghhh! Spoiled at the last minute! (Really, though, did anyone expect that a movie called "The Search for Spock" would end without the title character returning, especially considering that Leonard Nimoy was directing?)

The experience of watching Star Trek III did not live up to my expectations. It was shown at the same 2000-seat theater where I had seen The Empire Strikes Back, Star Trek II, and Return of the Jedi, but there was a new wrinkle: the place had been split in two, and this was my first visit to the newly-christened duplex. The twinning was not elegantly done. The initially narrow theater had been split down the middle. Instead of about 65 rows of 30 seats (with another 50 or so "deluxe seats" in a balcony), there were 65 rows of 12 seats per theater (the balcony was gone). The screen had been halved in size and raised substantially. The first ten rows were unusable due to neck strain and the last 10-20 rows required a pair of binoculars.

Five friends and I arrived shortly after 3:00 on the afternoon of Friday, June 1, 1984 to see the 3:15 p.m. showing. The theater was about half full, a result of most Trekkies being gainfully employed. They may have been willing to take a day off for the "event" of Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979, but Star Trek III didn't warrant the same treatment. By unanimous agreement, my friends and I had decided beforehand to stay for a second showing, and the 5:45 one was almost full. When we left the building around 7:30, there were long lines for the 8:00 and 9:00 showings (the Eric Twin Moorestown was using both auditoriums for Star Trek III). Midway through the second showing, I developed a splitting headache. To this day, the thing I remember most clearly about opening day for Star Trek III is that pain.

I may have been disappointed by the movie, but that didn't stop me from returning to the scene of the crime six more times over the course of the summer. By late August, the film's popularity had waned to the point where it was playing as part of a double-feature with The Last Starfighter. On TV, Star Trek briefly returned to daily mid-afternoon re-runs during the summer but, after Labor Day, it was again been relegated to a once-per-week late night Saturday time slot. Watching Star Trek was no longer appointment TV for me - I had seen every episode at least three times and had everything on audio tape.

Between Star Trek III and Star Trek IV, my life underwent some significant changes. I began college and had a roommate for the first time in my life. My parents got a VCR. And many of my former Star Trek friends no longer cared about the show. Especially after moving to Philadelphia, I attended conventions regularly (there were two or three per year), although they had morphed from "Star Trek Conventions" to "Science Fiction Conventions" and were run by a conglomeration called Creation. During the mid-1980s, as the popularity of Doctor Who peaked and that of Star Trek waned, the guests at these conventions skewed toward the British series. Still, between 1983 and 1986, I got to hear all of the Star Trek actors, except DeForest Kelley (who rarely attended conventions post-1979), in person.

The first pre-recorded movie I purchased on VHS was Star Trek II. The second was Star Trek III. And the third was Star Trek: The Motion Picture. I also bought 10 select individual episodes of the TV series (they were sold separately) and the entire animated package, which I had never seen on TV. For those episodes I hadn't purchased, I mostly relied on over-the-air TV broadcasts. It took me about two years to get everything, with the final few elusive episodes being dubs of tapes rented from a local video store. (By 1986, we had two VCRs and copy protection was not yet much of an issue.) One of those was, yes, "The Tholian Web."

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home was in many ways my "last hurrah" as a true, die-hard Trekkie. I was excited about it. When I heard that the trailer was attached to Crocodile Dundee, I ran out to see that movie even though I initially had no interest in a "fish out of water" film about some guy from Australia's bush. (I ended up loving it.) The calendar on my sophomore doom room wall had a countdown to Star Trek IV. The week before the movie opened, it was being profiled on Good Morning America, so I got up early every morning to watch the 10 minutes of interviews and clips (much to the annoyance of my roommate, whose first class was around noon).

Star Trek IV opened on Wednesday, November 26, 1986 - the day before Thanksgiving. It was also the day of a big Electrical Engineering test, and this resulted in frustratingly divided loyalties. Tough to concentrate on Circuit Theory with a Star Trek movie so tantalizingly close. When the test was over, I was able to celebrate - now, there was nothing substantive between me and the movie. (For anyone who cares, I got an A on the test, so I couldn't have been too distracted.) I packed up my things and headed for the train station. A few hours later, I was home - but I had agreed to wait for the friends who were going with me to arrive home from their respective colleges (they included the guy who had introduced me to Star Trek some eight years earlier). I could have seen Star Trek at 3:00, 4:00, or 6:30 (it was playing in two theaters at a new 8-plex), but I gritted my teeth, curbed my impatience, and waited. Eventually, around 6:30, the call came. 60 minutes later, we were sitting in a packed auditorium, counting down to the start of the movie. It was not the best of the Star Trek movies, but the experience surrounding it was my favorite. A good time was had by all.

The hits, as they say, kept on coming. Star Trek IV became the first film in the series to crack the $100 million mark and the producers, sensing a new surge in Trek interest, decided to embark upon a venture that stoked fan interest to a level not achieved since the late '70s: a new TV series. No Kirk, Spock, or McCoy (their adventures, it was promised, would continue on the big screen), but there would be an Enterprise and Gene Roddenberry would be intimately involved. Less than a year after this announcement was made, in late September 1987, Star Trek: The Next Generation debuted with a two-hour TV movie, "Encounter at Farpoint." Like every Trekkie in the country, I was glued to the TV set (a fuzzy 21" color model in my dorm suite). And no more audio recordings - the VCR in my parents' family room was recording it.

Strange how I can trace the beginning of my approaching Trek apostasy to that day.