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Star Trek - Original Series The one that started it all...

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Old March 7 2012, 03:29 AM   #1
Brutal Strudel
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Star Trek as an Education

I recently wrote this essay for a group project and figured, since I post here so rarely, I should maybe share it here, too:

If it seems churlish not to spend this post celebrating any one of several excellent teachers I had in high school and transcendent professors I had at Rutgers-New Brunswick as an undergrad or Rutgers-Camden as a masters candidate, then so be it. A churl I must be. Because, if I am to be totally honest here, no single perosn or thing has had as much impact on my intellectual development--for better or for worse but mostly for better--than a silly science fiction show from he late 1960s that was one part Shakespeare and two parts Buster Crabbe. Yes, friends, I'm going to say it and I'm going to mean it: Star Trek was my greatest teacher. Let me explain.

When I was very young, Star Trek was just boring. I wanted to like it--my older brother liked it, my dad liked it. Hell, I liked the spaceships. But I learned very quickly that Star Trek was not like Star Wars--limitations of budget and technology meant that you didn't see the spaceships very often. And I learned that it wasn't like Lost in Space, the silly sixties scifi show I did like. No, this talky show that only starred grown-ups and lacked the funny doctor and the funnier robot, was aimed primarily AT grown-ups. I wouldn't be grown-up enough to enjoy it until I was older and more sophisticated. I had to wait until I was nine years old.

In 1979, during the run-up to the release, on Pearl Harbor Day, of Star Trek: The Motion Picture (still the most ambitious and pretentious of the Trek movies and thus still my favorite), I began to watch the show seriously, to train myself to appreciate its style and substance. By the time the movie ws released, I was a full-fledged Trekkie. And here's the thing: the first Star Trek movie aims to be more Kubrick than Lucas. It is in no way, shape or form the equal of 2001 but it is a great primer on that kind of science fiction, the kind that asks the BIG QUESTIONS about human existence, the kind that aims to do more than just entertain. As I watched more and more of the original series, I discovered that--though they were wildly different in style (just compare the bright, candy colored uniforms of the show to the washed-out beige and gray jumpsuits of the movie), the show had been doing that all along. Trek jump-started a philosophical impulse in me that has served me well in the years since.

But wait! There's more! As I've mentioned elsewhere, I was mildly dyslexic as a child (I still lack basic oragnizational skills and have a poor sense of direction). Not for me the children's literature that should have been my gateway to literacy--no Chocolate Factories or Chocolate Wars, no Hobbits or Lion Christs. At the age of eleven, I started reading comic books and this became an obsession that would consume me for a year or two, until Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was released when I was twelve. It's not often one when can make so clear a demarcation in one's life, from phase to phase, and I am no doubt over-simplifying here, but it was around this time that Pocket Books launched a blitzkrieg of Star Trek literature: the novelization of the movie: a new series of original, novel-length adventures, books detailing the production of the show. At the same time, I would discover the earlier series of original novels published during the 1970s by Bantam Books at flea markets and used bookstores like Wind Chimes (now Bogart's). Being a poor black boy from Vineland with limited means, I had to decide what would get my literary dollar. Comics lost that battle and I became, for the first time in my life, an avid reader of "real" books.

The Star Trek novel phase lasted into high school. But by then, I'd begun to branch out. All the books I'd read on Star Trek had re-wired a good portion of my brain and I was ready to read "real" science fiction--Frank Herbert, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke. Likewise, reading that Kirk was intended as a sort of "Horatio Hornblower in Space" led me to chase down that venerable series of nautical adventures--set during the Napoleanic Wars of the early 19th Century--and thus expand my knowledge of history and appreciation of literature that wasn't set in outer space. (Years later, in my mid-thirties, I would watch the movie Master and Commander, also set during he Napoleanic Wars, and, inspired by the intense nostalgia it stirred for both Star Trek and Hornblower, embark upon reading the twenty book series it was based on. I plowed through that series is under eighteen months, with many other books interspersed to break the monotony. Yes, they really are that fucking good, "better" than Star Trek, "better" than Hornblower. Coincidentally, they are also where Jean-Luc Picard got his "make it so" from; I know its because the writers of TNG read the books; I like to think Picard himself read them, too.) And as far as being a writer is concerned, I still owe more of my literary voice than I'd care to admit to Vonda McIntyre, who wrote the original novel The Entropy Effect (first time I'd encounter the term "entropy," of course) and the novelizations of the second, third and fourth movies.

This is a profound irony: In many ways, I owe my literacy to televison.

I could go on and on and on and on in this vein. First time I heard about Swahili, the language of the Bantu people of Africa? "The Man Trap," when Uhura is being seduced by the hypnotic salt vampire. First time I learned that the colonization of Australia began with the Botany Bay penal colony? "Space Seed," as Kirk and Spock speculate over the curious name of the ancient sleeper ship carrying Khan Singh and his army of eugenic supermen and superwomen. First time I learned about Greek mythology in any in-depth manner? "Who Mourns for Adonais?," in which the Enterprise is held captive by an alien superbeing who believes himself to be the god Apollo.

(Something else Star Trek taught me, in the episodes "The Menagerie" and "Wolf in the Fold": men drink whisky and watch scantily-clad women dance. I sometimes wish I hadn't learned that lesson quite so well...)

Finally, a post script: When I was turning twenty-five and mired in slacker-dom (I had a BA in English and History from one of the finest public universities in the world and what was I doing with it? working at Borders for six twenty-five an hour, that's what), our store got a shipment of Star Trek episodes on VHS that had been remaindered; Paramount had introduced a new box design and so just dumped the old ones on us at a deep discount, one made only deeper when I applied my employee discount to them. I walked out of the Marlton Borders with a huge stack and a revelation, one that better explains why I will go to my grave adoring that silly space opera--rife as it is with crude effects, styrofoam and plywood scenery well-chewed upon by earnest hams, glowing brains and tin-foil bikini--than any tl;dr treatise ever could: When I was a kid, Star Trek made me feel like a grown-up. As a grown-up, Star Trek made me feel like a kid. Nothing else compares.
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Old March 7 2012, 03:41 AM   #2
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Re: Star Trek as an Education

Very well said.

I am grateful that the adventure series that I happened to become obsessed with during my childhood was one in which the heroes were highly intelligent individuals who were excited by scientific discoveries, pondered ethical dilemmas on a regular basis and quoted great works of literature in casual conversation.
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Old March 7 2012, 12:03 PM   #3
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Re: Star Trek as an Education

Thanks for sharing, Brutal.
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Old March 7 2012, 12:34 PM   #4
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Re: Star Trek as an Education

I thoroughly enjoyed reading your essay and having had my early teen years imprinted with TOS I was nodding along to much of it. Thanks for posting it!
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Old March 7 2012, 05:33 PM   #5
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Re: Star Trek as an Education

THank you so much for sharing this with us Brutal. Like Teacake, I found myself nodding in agreement to much of it, and smiling at memories it triggered.

Thank you for brightening a bad day!
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Old March 7 2012, 08:49 PM   #6
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Re: Star Trek as an Education

Brutal,

Wonderfully written and a pleasure to read. And best of all, so very, very true.
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Old March 7 2012, 09:15 PM   #7
Brutal Strudel
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Re: Star Trek as an Education

Thanks, all.
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Old March 9 2012, 08:16 PM   #8
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Re: Star Trek as an Education

It's amazing what you can pick up from pop culture. Forbidden Planet was my introduction to Freudian theory ("What's a monster from the Id?") and I learned about Communion wafers from Dracula: "Why is Van Helsing putting cookies in Dracula's coffin?"

And I suspect that "Space Seed" taught me about the Botany Bay colony--and Milton!
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Old March 9 2012, 08:25 PM   #9
AtoZ
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Re: Star Trek as an Education

Brutal Strudel wrote: View Post
I recently wrote this essay for a group project and figured, since I post here so rarely, I should maybe share it here, too:

If it seems churlish not to spend this post celebrating any one of several excellent teachers I had in high school and transcendent professors I had at Rutgers-New Brunswick as an undergrad or Rutgers-Camden as a masters candidate, then so be it. A churl I must be. Because, if I am to be totally honest here, no single perosn or thing has had as much impact on my intellectual development--for better or for worse but mostly for better--than a silly science fiction show from he late 1960s that was one part Shakespeare and two parts Buster Crabbe. Yes, friends, I'm going to say it and I'm going to mean it: Star Trek was my greatest teacher. Let me explain.

When I was very young, Star Trek was just boring. I wanted to like it--my older brother liked it, my dad liked it. Hell, I liked the spaceships. But I learned very quickly that Star Trek was not like Star Wars--limitations of budget and technology meant that you didn't see the spaceships very often. And I learned that it wasn't like Lost in Space, the silly sixties scifi show I did like. No, this talky show that only starred grown-ups and lacked the funny doctor and the funnier robot, was aimed primarily AT grown-ups. I wouldn't be grown-up enough to enjoy it until I was older and more sophisticated. I had to wait until I was nine years old.

In 1979, during the run-up to the release, on Pearl Harbor Day, of Star Trek: The Motion Picture (still the most ambitious and pretentious of the Trek movies and thus still my favorite), I began to watch the show seriously, to train myself to appreciate its style and substance. By the time the movie ws released, I was a full-fledged Trekkie. And here's the thing: the first Star Trek movie aims to be more Kubrick than Lucas. It is in no way, shape or form the equal of 2001 but it is a great primer on that kind of science fiction, the kind that asks the BIG QUESTIONS about human existence, the kind that aims to do more than just entertain. As I watched more and more of the original series, I discovered that--though they were wildly different in style (just compare the bright, candy colored uniforms of the show to the washed-out beige and gray jumpsuits of the movie), the show had been doing that all along. Trek jump-started a philosophical impulse in me that has served me well in the years since.

But wait! There's more! As I've mentioned elsewhere, I was mildly dyslexic as a child (I still lack basic oragnizational skills and have a poor sense of direction). Not for me the children's literature that should have been my gateway to literacy--no Chocolate Factories or Chocolate Wars, no Hobbits or Lion Christs. At the age of eleven, I started reading comic books and this became an obsession that would consume me for a year or two, until Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was released when I was twelve. It's not often one when can make so clear a demarcation in one's life, from phase to phase, and I am no doubt over-simplifying here, but it was around this time that Pocket Books launched a blitzkrieg of Star Trek literature: the novelization of the movie: a new series of original, novel-length adventures, books detailing the production of the show. At the same time, I would discover the earlier series of original novels published during the 1970s by Bantam Books at flea markets and used bookstores like Wind Chimes (now Bogart's). Being a poor black boy from Vineland with limited means, I had to decide what would get my literary dollar. Comics lost that battle and I became, for the first time in my life, an avid reader of "real" books.

The Star Trek novel phase lasted into high school. But by then, I'd begun to branch out. All the books I'd read on Star Trek had re-wired a good portion of my brain and I was ready to read "real" science fiction--Frank Herbert, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke. Likewise, reading that Kirk was intended as a sort of "Horatio Hornblower in Space" led me to chase down that venerable series of nautical adventures--set during the Napoleanic Wars of the early 19th Century--and thus expand my knowledge of history and appreciation of literature that wasn't set in outer space. (Years later, in my mid-thirties, I would watch the movie Master and Commander, also set during he Napoleanic Wars, and, inspired by the intense nostalgia it stirred for both Star Trek and Hornblower, embark upon reading the twenty book series it was based on. I plowed through that series is under eighteen months, with many other books interspersed to break the monotony. Yes, they really are that fucking good, "better" than Star Trek, "better" than Hornblower. Coincidentally, they are also where Jean-Luc Picard got his "make it so" from; I know its because the writers of TNG read the books; I like to think Picard himself read them, too.) And as far as being a writer is concerned, I still owe more of my literary voice than I'd care to admit to Vonda McIntyre, who wrote the original novel The Entropy Effect (first time I'd encounter the term "entropy," of course) and the novelizations of the second, third and fourth movies.

This is a profound irony: In many ways, I owe my literacy to televison.

I could go on and on and on and on in this vein. First time I heard about Swahili, the language of the Bantu people of Africa? "The Man Trap," when Uhura is being seduced by the hypnotic salt vampire. First time I learned that the colonization of Australia began with the Botany Bay penal colony? "Space Seed," as Kirk and Spock speculate over the curious name of the ancient sleeper ship carrying Khan Singh and his army of eugenic supermen and superwomen. First time I learned about Greek mythology in any in-depth manner? "Who Mourns for Adonais?," in which the Enterprise is held captive by an alien superbeing who believes himself to be the god Apollo.

(Something else Star Trek taught me, in the episodes "The Menagerie" and "Wolf in the Fold": men drink whisky and watch scantily-clad women dance. I sometimes wish I hadn't learned that lesson quite so well...)

Finally, a post script: When I was turning twenty-five and mired in slacker-dom (I had a BA in English and History from one of the finest public universities in the world and what was I doing with it? working at Borders for six twenty-five an hour, that's what), our store got a shipment of Star Trek episodes on VHS that had been remaindered; Paramount had introduced a new box design and so just dumped the old ones on us at a deep discount, one made only deeper when I applied my employee discount to them. I walked out of the Marlton Borders with a huge stack and a revelation, one that better explains why I will go to my grave adoring that silly space opera--rife as it is with crude effects, styrofoam and plywood scenery well-chewed upon by earnest hams, glowing brains and tin-foil bikini--than any tl;dr treatise ever could: When I was a kid, Star Trek made me feel like a grown-up. As a grown-up, Star Trek made me feel like a kid. Nothing else compares.

Magnificent!

There is much that you wrote that I can identify with relative to my education, humble as it may be.

Thank you for sharing.
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Old March 15 2012, 01:24 AM   #10
KirkPicard
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Re: Star Trek as an Education

Thank you for articulating what I had always maintained! Spock and Picard certainly outclassed any teacher or professor of mine in science, politics, philosophy, etc. Never realized the numerous Trek references to Shakespeare, aside from the blatant ones in The Undiscovered Country, until high school.

Oh, AtoZ - my favorite Trek moniker. Just rewatched "All Our Yesterdays" (yes Shakespeare) over the weekend with the wife.
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