September 16, 2013

Still Living In TREK NATION After 47 Years

"Star Trek is more than just a show.  It's a philosophy."
Last week was the 47th anniversary of the birth of Star Trek, which first aired on NBC the evening of September 8, 1966.  Anyone who knows me can attest to the profound influence that show has had on my life.  (I've read the Star Trek Encyclopedia cover to cover.  Twice.)  It hooked me when I was young and it's never really let go since.  I may not have gone to a convention in a while, but I still identify myself as a Trekkie without a nanosecond of hesitation.  In fact, since moving back to Boston, I've happily reconnected with a group of guys that I essentially became friends with in back 6th grade because we were all obsessed with the franchise.  I still have a signed copy of Leonard Nimoy's I Am Not Spock from the time we all went to see him speak at Berklee.  Even though we're all now adults (relatively speaking), we still talk about Trek with the same nerdtastic glee we had in middle school.

For me, Star Trek served as the gateway drug into the larger world of science fiction.  I was a brainy, unpopular kid attending a Catholic elementary school and not quite buying into this whole "God and Jesus thing."  While I certainly enjoyed the hell out of Star Wars, I loved Star Trek not only for its optimistic view of the future, but for its strong roots in the complex scientific theories that truly fascinated me.  The only things I'd ever learned in a science class up to that point had been about the water cycle and diagramming the different parts of a flower.  It makes me drowsy just remembering it.  Aliens, time travel, alternate universes, faster-than-light spacecraft...this was the good stuff!  More importantly, it felt real and immediate, while Jedis and The Force were a bit too mystical for my tastes.  Once I sunk my teeth into concepts like evolution and the Big Bang, it was as if something clicked in my brain and I was irrevocably hooked.  Thanks to Star Trek, I gobbled up all the science I could find, and once I got to high school I was eventually able to take fascinating classes like Cosmology, Advanced Physics and Astronomy.

Gene Roddenbury was the mastermind behind Star Trek, a show which he initially pitched as a sort of outer space western. ("Wagon Train to the stars" is a familiar phrase to any serious Trekkie.)  Trek Nation, a documentary produced for the Science channel but now available on Netflix, details the journey of Roddenbury's son Rod as he visits conventions and interviews family friends, die hard fans, writers, producers and cast members in an effort to better understand the father who was beloved by millions but felt so distant from his own family.  By Rod's own admission, he was never a very big Star Trek fan as a kid, a fact reinforced by old family photos of his multiple Star Wars themed childhood birthday parties.  Rod never really understood the appeal of Trek; to him it was just the job that kept his father away from home for 12-14 hours a day. That youthful rebellion continued into Rod's high school and college days, as he moved east, took on the appearance of a surfer with long, bleached hair and studied to become an astrophysicist, only to discover he had no aptitude for the field. (I chuckled watching his older family friends politely refer to this period as the time when he was "off doing [his] own thing," as opposed to getting involved with the family business.  Ironically, I assume this is how some of my own east coast family members refer to my time in Los Angeles.  I guess that shit truly is universal.)  Sadly, it wasn't until after Gene Roddenbury's death in 1991 that the younger Roddenbury really started to delve into the world of Star Trek in order to understand just how much his father's work meant to so many people across the globe.

My biggest criticism of Trek Nation is that it really feels like a documentary made for TV.  It's way too trigger happy with its chyrons, constantly identifying people on screen multiple times when only one or sometimes even no ID is necessary.  (I think Nichelle Nichols is named about six times.)  The film also covers a lot of history that any Trekkie worth his salt should already be very familiar with and it often feels very disorganized, moving in a vaguely chronological order without ever feeling like it's telling an actual story.  Obviously Rod has a lot of unresolved issues when it comes to his relationship with his father, and while he often says that his conversations with the fans helped him to better appreciate his father and Star Trek in general, we never really get to see any of that happening.  It's mostly just a collection of short clips of Rod wandering around conventions and talking to strangers in costume.  It's a real shame, as it feels like there's a lot going on just under the surface that never actually ends up on camera.  Rod almost has the demeanor of a guy trying to evolve from being a privileged, angry youth who always thought his father's greatest achievement was totally lame, but by focusing more on the history of Trek than on his own personal journey, the film suffers from a lack of any true emotional throughline.

Trek Nation does make some great use of old interviews with cast and crew members as well as a lot of great archival footage, including some truly fantastic images of the very first Star Trek convention that I'd never seen before.  It looks like a truly wacky event filled people wearing homemade costumes, often of generic aliens and creatures that aren't even Trek-related.  And while I would have liked to see more of Rod's sense of discovery, we do get a lot of really great material featuring his late father, including multiple archival interviews and audio recordings.  Rod even managed to sit down with both George Lucas and J.J. Abrams, who are each briefly entertaining but neither really contributes very much to the larger conversation.  There is, however, a great moment where Rod shows Abrams an old interview in which Roddenbury says that he wants someone to eventually step in and revive his characters and the larger franchise almost exactly the way Abrams has done, much to the chagrin of all those Trekkies who love to hate on the rebooted Abrams-verse.  It's not all hero worship though; Roddenbury frequently cheated on his wife Majel Barrett (who portrayed Nurse Chapel, Lwaxana Troi and the voice of every Federation Starship computer starting with The Next Generation) and he was notoriously difficult to work with, particularly in his later years.  Rod doesn't shy away from any of the dark shadows on his father's personal or professional lives and, as Rod himself says, digging into Roddenbury's flaws actually humanizes the man who's reputation and personality were always larger than life.

I often feel that I owe the man a personal debt of gratitude.  If not for Gene Roddenbury, I might never have been exposed to the wonderful writings of Hawking, Einstein and Feynman, or the musings of Neil deGrasse Tyson, Ronald Mallett and Carl Sagan.  If not for the Starship Enterprise, I might not have become so enthralled with computers and technology, a field which is currently paying my rent.  And if not for the great storytelling and dynamic characters, I might not have studied acting and directing in college, leading me to move to Los Angeles and eventually meet my wife.

So thanks, Gene.  You always dreamed of making the world a better place, and in my case you certainly succeeded.

Title: Trek Nation
Director: Scott Colthorp
Starring: Rod Roddenbury, Majel Barrett, J.J. Abrams, George Lucas, D.C. Fontana, Bjo Trimble, Rick Berman
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Netflix Instant (Laptop)

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