You, Me And “Star Trek: The Next Generation”
by Anne Helen Petersen
An obsession in five acts.
You’re about nine, and you always watch tv with your dad. It’s your thing — he’s usually nursing a Coors Light, you’re doing your best to hang upside down on the couch until your head starts pounding. Sometimes you watch golf and fall in love with Payne Stewart; sometimes you watch “MacGyver” and wish your dad had his hair. But then you start watching “Star Trek: The Next Generation” at 5 p.m. on a Saturday, because obviously that is when the best show on television should be scheduled, and your routine becomes: 1.) watch “TNG” together 2.) Mom and Dad go out to some dinner party and you eat Tony’s Pizza with your brother. Your dad mentions something about how you should maybe start watching the old show, or get the VHS tapes of the movies, but you’re like “is Data in them? THEN NO.” At some point, you watch Wrath of Khan and are horrified.
This essay is part of a series about our favorite TV shows past.
Previously: The Terror Of “Twin Peaks”: His Name Is BOB
There’s something so appealing about the uniforms — how you can tell who does what and how much power he has just by looking at the color and the pips on the collar. Riker, he of the impressive beard, looks so much like someone your parents would be friends with. It’s so great to see the guy from “Reading Rainbow” blind and thriving and an engineer. Lady Doctors! You’ve met a few of them, but none have a son as dorkily side-part handsome as Wesley Crusher. Picard is possibly the coolest person you know. If only you knew what “Tea, Earl Grey, hot” was so you could drink it leisurely before your sporting romp on the holodeck.
You’re about eleven, and you’re in luck: “TNG” is now on every weekday at four. It’s summer, so that’s awesome. But your mom has put the kibosh on summer television watching, because she’s the type of math professor mom who would do something like that, and you’re only allowed television if you spend a Summer Marble on it.
Perhaps the reader does not understand the Marble Summer Economy:
Things that Earn (One) Marble: Chores, Being Nice to Sibling, Reading for Sixty Minutes, Mowing Lawn, Writing a Play, Journaling, Going on a Contemplative Walk, Helping in the Garden, Scooping Dog Poop, Respecting Parents
Things that Cost (Several) Marbles: A Ride to the Pool, An Hour of Television, A New Gameboy Game (approx. 1 billion marbles).
Every day, you do whatever it takes to get the marbles to watch “Star Trek.” You make your dog go poop so you can pick it up. You make your brother act up so you can be nice to him. You mow the lawn within an inch of its life. Your collected plays are proliferating. But “Star Trek” is five days a week, and always perfect. This is before the Borg, before the complicated good-evil split. Everything and everyone, save the dastardly Ferengi, are just so awesomely noble. This is right about the episode when Picard’s mind is captured by some foreign planet, he starts wearing burlap all the time, has a wife, and becomes super proficient at the pan flute. Don’t ask more about that episode — it was called “If Wishes Were Horses” — because you can’t return to it, lest you ruin it entirely. Like the best of your ludicrously hot, well-muscled, Christian ex-boyfriends, it is meant to be remembered, in all its glory, but never reexperienced.
You’re about twelve, and summer vacation could not be more filled with strife. Do you buy a bikini or not? What Would Deanna Troi Do? The obvious answer is buy a skin-tight lilac jumpsuit with a v-neck, but that obviously wouldn’t work at the pool, which is basically all B-cup boobs and skinny dudes with bull cuts and/or highlights.
You want to spend every day waiting for someone to call you on your private number (743–2544) and talk about what happened at the pool yesterday but your parents take you CAMPING on the BOAT and it is so BORING especially with the incessant HIKING but have no fear: your mom bought you three new “TNG” novels, including the very racy Imzadi, which is all about how Deanna and Riker are not just soul mates, but universe mates, like bound and destined forever, and everyone else says it must be so, but then why, ISTL (In Star Trek Life) does Deanna start making out with Worf? It’s not that you don’t like him because he’s a Klingon, because duh, that’s racist, or planetist, but he is just so sincere and/or angry, especially when speaking Klingon, which you could learn to speak from the handbook your brother got you for your birthday, but bygones. A glorified security guard! His beard has nothing on Riker’s beard. Plus Riker is “Number One” — it’s his job.
You’ve read some trashy Lois Duncan in your time, but nothing compares to Imzadi and the other two novels that are so satisfying that you forget them entirely the instant you finish them. Plus your mom reads them too, which is either awesome or uncomfortable. Maybe you’ll just keep pouting and wearing your Umbro shorts.
You are somewhere in the middle of middle school and doing A+ work at being everything you are not. You’re on the math team but refuse to put on the team sweatshirt, covered in math puns, until the very last minute. You pretend you have a doctor’s appointment when really you’re getting out of class to do complicated word problems with the other nerds. You’re really into Simon & Garfunkel but fill your BMG 10-for-1 CD order with Warren G and Tupac. The way you can tell if you’re cool is whether or not someone links arms with you on the walk back from lunch, and you spent at least 75% of your energy on a given day anticipating that 100-foot walk.
You have cheerleading practice everyday after school but then you go home, make some Bagel Bites, and hang out with your real friends on television. They would never link arms; they stiff-arm walk with a purpose. Everyone’s cool because everyone’s on the motherfucking ENTERPRISE.
At some point the local affiliate decided to alternate “Next Generation” with the original series. You force yourself to watch but always feel nauseated by the color of Kirk’s uniform, the fine sheen of sweat on his face. You know enough to know that he’s supposed to be sexy, but the 60s coloring and the ramshackle bridge makes you queasy. In contrast, the “Next Generation” Enterprise is everything a Type-A girl desires — clean, stark lines, steely grays, pressed uniforms. Sex is present, but so much less volatile.
There’s a girl that sits next to you in your English class — very meek, almost to the point of invisibility. One day her Beverly Crusher bookmark slips out and onto the floor. You pick it up; stare longingly. If you were less self-conscious, less terrified of yourself, you would start a conversation and become this girl’s best friend. You could watch your favorite show and have the best conversations. But you’re a coward. It’s unclear whether your small town has made you a coward and you’ve done it to yourself, but the results are the same: the thing you love the most must remain your own unutterable secret.
Because there’s this other kid in your grade, the kid with four nipples (everyone talks about it all the time, because that’s the only thing there is to talk about) who, when angry, usually after someone makes fun of his four nipples, starts talking in Klingon. Cursing. Calling people “sons of mother’s hog sluts,” that sort of thing. That is the kind of kid who likes “Star Trek.” It morphs abject before your eyes.
You’re in college and in slow recovery from years of play-acting at cool. You are the very cliche of the smart girl goes to college; stops wearing so many collared Oxford shirts; realizes boys like her. You want to date them all. Friends proliferate. You give up math because you want to. “Star Trek” becomes part of a long foreign voyage from which you have kept no souvenirs.
But then one of these new proliferating friends — one who seems the most confident, most at ease with herself, dating a senior as a freshman, that kind of girl with that kind of magnetism — somehow gets on the topic of “Star Trek,” and how much she loved it. SHE IS NOT EVEN DRUNK. IT IS AMAZING. She’s talking about the way that other people talk about their Nirvana phase, or how we all went through that weird period of wearing knee socks. She had a huge crush on Dr. Julian Bashir (totally subpar, but fine, okay) and conventions and her BEVERLY CRUSHER UNIFORM and their communicators and pips and your emotions expand and multiply like that wormhole you take to get to Deep Space Nine.
You can’t tell if you’re jealous, sad that you didn’t know her when you were 12, or so blissed out that you know her today. You’d seen “Star Trek” fans represented so uniformly, as such clear exemplars of antisocial behavior. But this, this is a new social calculus: “Star Trek” could breed all sorts.
When you love a show as a young person, it can manifest in all manner of ways. Some start swearing in Klingon, some read fanfic erotica. Some buy the technical manual and figure out how to craft a make-shift phasor. Some just learn codes of behavior, adopt understandings of tolerance and commitment and duty. Most, once grown, do not outwardly manifest the signs of their childhood devotion. Yet in certain situations, the evidence emerges, like so many bubbles striving for the surface.
Today, you could name dozens of people, from all paths of life, with whom you’ve breathlessly, earnestly, gigglingly exchanged “Next Gen” stories. Because there’s no such thing as a casual “Next Generation” fan: you either understand wholly or not at all. Upon encountering another, details begin to babble out — slowly at first, then a flood: COLM MEANEY! His WIFE KEIKO! Data acquires EMOTIONS!
It’s unclear whether these moments are meant as confession or catharsis, but the result remains the same. You are bonded to that person, and that person to you. How you dealt with your “Star Trek” consumption — how you hid it, or chose not to hide it — becomes as a crucial a personal narrative as the story of how you lost your virginity.
You may or may not find this all a bit overdetermined. But we are in no small part what we consume. Our media texts become signifiers of self, status, character. There was a reason why the obsession demanded, at one point, to be written in second-person and another reason why I can write about it, to an audience of thousands today. Why I can put my name beside it and own it in a Google Search. “Star Trek” meant something to me at age 13 that I could not speak. It means just as much, if not more, today, even if I cannot even bring myself to watch even one episode, lest it ruin my perfect memory of it.
Perhaps the obsessions that matter the most are the ones to which we can never fully admit, to which we can never truly return.
Previously in series: The Terror Of “Twin Peaks”: His Name Is BOB