Vulcans, Emotion, and Childhood – Why Star Trek Matters

As I write this, September 8, 2019, it is the 53rd anniversary of Star Trek’s premier. (The Original Series, pedants. Don’t even start.)

I always get a little misty about this, because Star Trek means the world to me. I wrote about how much Close Encounters touched my heart, so I’m going to wax poetic about Star Trek too, and the real lessons to be learned. And Spock. Just a lot of Spock.

I don’t remember the first time I saw the ocean or knew about the redwoods, and I don’t remember a time I didn’t know Kirk and Spock and all my friends. I have no memory of seeing Star Trek the first time, it was just ever present. (In fairness, I don’t remember the first time I saw the visual acid trip that was Sid and Marty Croft either, but I digress.)

What was it about this sci-fi show that was canceled when I was 1-year old that moved me so much?

I loved that Starfleet Command and Academy were here in San Francisco and Marin. Did you know that the Golden Gate Bridge is the only one still standing because of course bridges are no longer required, but they left it because it is simply too beautiful to not exist? Remember in “The Voyage Home,” how proud Sulu was when they saw it? “San Francisco. I was born there.” <swoon!>

Quick fun fact –Starfleet was located here because it’s where the U.N. Charter was signed. Ok, I’ll stop.

My irrational adoration of this City aside, Star Trek hit a lot of buttons for me. The Salt Vampire was genuinely terrifying, nothing else on the show scared me that bad, and actually it still creeps me out.

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I know it’s a sympathetic character but, sheesh!

The episode “Mirror Mirror” filled me with undefinable joy that perhaps I will expand on at another time. Suffice to say, Bearded Spock. Bearded Spock, my first boyfriend.

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Bearded or not, I loved him so very much. He was handsome, brilliant, and without emotion. I wanted to be a Vulcan since I was very little. Actually, I wanted to be T’Pring, but without the stupid decision, but anyway.

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Even Kirk is shocked, and he’s about to fake-die.

I would stay in the bathroom and hold my eyebrows up at the corners to see if they would stick that way. I used the words “fascinating” and “logical” all the time. I tried to be smart like him, well-read like him, I played guitar because I didn’t know where to get a Vulcan harp. To this day I want that glowing red animal thing he had in his quarters. Luckily Chris is also a nerd, so if we could find one it would go directly next to the dining table. For the life of me, I can’t find a picture of it.

To my child mind, being a Vulcan meant no pain, no sorrow, no regret, no fear. If I had no emotion, I was free, really. I couldn’t get in trouble for expressing increasingly volatile emotions, because I wouldn’t have any. I’d just raise an eyebrow and flash an amused little smile.

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Ok, he was high here, but still.

Being emotionless would be impossible, of course. A human can’t be devoid of emotion. Vulcans aren’t either if I’m honest. Sarek for example, Mr. “You should have gone to the Vulcan Science Academy, not Starfleet Academy I won’t talk to you until you give me your blood.”

Anyway, to kid-me the whole Star Trek world seemed ideal. Food on command, twinkly lights and poof! you’re anywhere, pretty sweet. That brings up something that has always bugged me, though. In “The Enemy Within” why didn’t they just send down the shuttlecraft? Maybe it was too cold for that too. But damn, that bugs me.

So, being emotionless is impossible, what is the alternative? If we follow Trek canon, I suppose I could be a Vulcan from their distant past. For those who haven’t spent their lives in front of the T.V. box, Vulcans used to be emotional and warlike, until they got all enlightened and went too far the other way.

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Wasn’t all bad.

The thing to do is find that middle way, that balance between modern Vulcan and ancient Vulcan. Between the Vulcans who tore each other apart and the ones who could never tell their mothers they love them. (From “The Naked Time,” which is also the episode with the best off-hand line ever, when Sulu calls Uhura “fair maiden” and she says “Sorry, neither.” Perfection.)

Star Trek taught me other lessons about honor, friendship, communal good. Trying to emulate Spock actually helped too, I think, because he was inconsistent, he broke his own rules. He was a scientist, but he also loved music. He was logic and dignity personified, but he went to jam with space hippies. He had no emotion and no capability for love or friendship, but his reactions really didn’t bear that out.

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“Jim!”

In our lives, I think we need both and a middle ground. Sometimes we do put up a hard shell to get by. That’s fine, that can be important. But we also need to be able to be passionate, to let ourselves be blissfully happy and climb a tree, to be so in love that we forget who we are for a bit, and sometimes we need anger. Sometimes anger is appropriate. Sometimes it’s warranted. Sometimes it is absolutely necessary. Sometimes, we fight. But if we must it should be as defense. Starship Enterprise (NCC-1701 – don’t even start!) had a mission of exploration – a five-year mission, if you will – but she also fights if necessary, frequently with Klingons, aka Star Trek’s Daleks. I like Romulans better, honestly.

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In my Top 5 Episodes, and that’s totally not Sarek.

It’s the human condition I think, to try to figure out when to use emotion, and when to curb it a bit. Do I need my passion right now? Is this worth getting angry about? Is this, as a friend put it, the hill I want to die on? If you decide it’s time to be heard, be heard. But be safe.

One of the constant messages in Star Trek was equality among all races, genders, species. Gene Roddenberry wasn’t exactly subtle with this subtext, to the point now and then of being a bit heavy-handed.

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Pictured – subtlety.

But it was a different time, the late ‘60s. Some people, including women, lost their minds because Nurse Chapel was so strong. There was a Russian on the bridge, and a Japanese man, and a, well, some people actually said Spock was a devil, because pointed ears. Sometimes I weep for humanity.

But these characters, these stories, they reached more than a messed up little kid in the suburbs. They made a real difference. Here’s a link to an interview with Nichelle Nichols, Uhura. Yes, Roddenberry saying “a black” hits our ears wrong now, but take it for the time it was said, and hear the story she tells.

Star Trek was just a show, a sci-fi T.V. show that could be written off as fluff. But it wasn’t. Looking at it now, the cheap costumes, the plywood sets, the saltshakers McCoy used as medical instruments (no, seriously) sure, they look cheesy. But look deeper. Try to imagine it’s 1966, and you’re an impressionable kid. There is likely something or someone you relate to.

Many scientists cite the show for sparking their interest in astronomy or what have you. Sometimes it gave a person a glimpse of self-worth, of dignity, of pride.

Remember what MLK told Nichelle Nichols? About how she was a symbol now, a non-stereotyped black character?

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“Well, when I was nine years old, Star Trek came on, I looked at it and I went screaming through the house. ‘Come here, mum, everybody, come quick, come quick, there’s a black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!’

So no, it’s not just a show. It made a major difference in many lives, in myriad ways. And it is relevant still. Despite J.J. Abram’s best efforts, it will live forever.

Live long and prosper.
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