I saw the premiere episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation live on a Saturday night in 1991 because I wasn’t invited to a high school party all the cool kids were going to. How much does that make me a cliche? The nerd at home watching Star Trek. Not that this is burned into my mind at all.
Honestly, though, I am what I am. Before that, I was a big Star Wars fan and never that interested in Trek. For some reason, I was more fascinated by the fact a TV show from the 1960s had come back from the dead as a series of movies and now a spin-off series than I was about actually watching that show which had Mr Spock in it.
Also, to be fair, how exactly was I supposed to watch Star Trek in the 1980s? Was it re-run on television? Did fans trade VHS tapes? How was I even supposed to find these fans without the internet?
Today marks the 50th anniversary of the first episode of Star Trek, “The Man Trap”. I didn’t see any of the original series until the mid-90s, though I did catch up on the original cast’s big screen adventures before that.
The Next Generation was my introduction into the franchise and, in some ways, into the genre of science fiction. Star Wars, it turned out, was more space opera or science fantasy. My fear was that Star Trek was going to take the science too seriously. That somehow it would be space without the fun.
But “Encounter at Farpoint”, which I recently re-watched on Netflix, because that is how you can binge-watch every Star Trek series ever now, is quite a bit of fun. It’s got a space jellyfish in it and a barrier at the edge of the universe and a bunch of interesting concepts and characters. I distinctly remember being captivated by the idea of Data being Pinocchio – wanting to be a real boy.
Once I started watching Star Trek, I read Frank Herbert’s Dune and the works of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke. Okay, okay, Dune I read because the film was directed by David Lynch and earlier in 1991 my sixteen-year-old mind was blown by Twin Peaks. 1991 was quite a year for me and television redefining itself after years of watching soap operas and sitcoms.
Star Trek was the key to many of the friendships I made after high school. It was what got me into roleplaying. It was what got me into fan clubs and going to conventions. And when I realised I wanted to be a writer, the first spec script I ever wrote was an episode of Deep Space Nine called “Believing”. It centered around Kira and recovering repressed memories from the war with the Cardassians.
(Did you know that Paramount took unsolicited spec scripts for all their 90s Trek series? That is pretty unbelievable to think of now. The possibility of getting sued these days would be astronomical. And the number of scripts they’d get now would be impossibly high.)
Watching the 90s Trek series in Australia was tricky. Channel 9 went from airing it in prime time – 7:30 on a Wednesday – to trapping it at 11pm on a Thursday night. Its greatest indignity was the fact it ran after The Footy Show, which always ran overtime, sometimes ridiculously late. So I’d set a three hour tape to run from 11pm to 2am and that would catch The Next Generation or Deep Space Nine and as much of The Late Show with David Letterman as possible.
I saw some Trek episodes early, because by the mid-90s, I had friends who had friends who had contacts – and we could enjoy Voyager only weeks after it originally aired. Instead of months or years, if we waited for the local networks to screen it.
I was pretty obsessed and I would buy the official magazine and was a member of the local fan club, AusTrek. I even wrote a story for their newsletter about Captain Picard being feasted upon my an alien slug, before I even knew what fan fiction was. And I wrote a defense of Deep Space Nine, which was controversial among some Trekkies because it was set on a space station and didn’t “trek” anywhere. Boy, nerds got upset about the weirdest things back then.
Deep Space Nine became my favourite of the series because it did what I wanted television to do – tell continuing stories, rather than press the reset button every week. Before that, television was comfort food. I used to get excited by two-part episodes, but my steady diet of soap meant I liked a continuing character arc, too.
The format of the Star Trek franchise – new planet every week - almost begged for it stay traditional. But as television changed in the 1990s, so did Trek to an extent. Yes, I’m still a big fan of Captain Jean-Luc Picard and his crew, but it’s nowhere near the love I have for Captain Sisko and the complicated crew and denizens of Deep Space Nine.
After a while, I got a bit Trekked out. I parted company with Voyager before they made it home. I sampled Enterprise but quickly switched it off. And I thought I’d put my fannish tendencies in the past until JJ Abrams resurrected the feature film series in 2009. And I still have a complicated relationship with the series after that.
There are elements of every one of the shows I love and while I’ve only been watching for twenty-five out of fifty years, I recognise the half century legacy of the show is rather phenomenal. I may not have been born until nine years after the original series aired, but I still came into the show back at a time where most of its history was lost in the wilderness.
In January 2017, Star Trek Discovery premieres and I cannot wait. It’ll air in Australia on Netflix, so instead of waiting years and watching it post-midnight, I’ll be able to wait hours and watch it after work. To go boldly where so many have gone before, fifty years into the future after Gene Roddenberry first dreamed of a more evolved humanity reaching out into the vastness of space.