by Chris Tobias
(Note: This blog post was originally supposed to appear last month, but due to technical difficulties that were beyond our control, it couldn’t be salvaged until now. We hope you accept our apologies, and that you still find this updated version of the article relevant. — Chris)
Fifty years ago, Star Trek debuted on television screens across the United States. On September 9, I attended a special screening of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and For the Love of Spock at Pittsburgh’s historic Hollywood Theater (the very same theater that is featured prominently in the Rocky Horror scenes in the movie The Perks of Being a Wallflower) in honor of that anniversary. The event was an opportunity for me to return to my sci-fi roots, because while there are few Browncoats whose coats are more of a brownish color than mine, I was a Trekkie long before Joss Whedon read a book about the Battle of Gettysburg and was inspired to create a space-western TV series called Firefly. So, when it was announced that geekpittsburgh.com was sponsoring “a Steel City Celebration of Star Trek” for the benefit of the Hollywood Theater and Pittsburgh’s ToonSeum (two organizations that have hosted Pittsburgh’s “Can’t Stop the Serenity” screenings in recent years), I was content to leave my browncoat in the closet for one evening in favor of the command gold of a Starfleet uniform (once a cap’n, always a cap’n) and boldly go where I had always so enthusiastically gone before.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan premiered in theaters in June of 1982, which means I hadn’t seen the film on the big screen since I was eleven years old. The September 9 screening brought back memories 0f how the movie had inspired me to join the local chapter of the “Starfleet” Star Trek fan club (I was the Archaeology & Anthropology Officer of the now decommissioned U.S.S. Potemkin) and attend my first comics and sci-fi convention (the old Pittsburgh Comicon) dressed as Mr. Spock (in a homemade costume from the original series).
I’ve seen Star Trek II more times than I can count. My brothers and I watched it incessantly on HBO as kids, and after it finally disappeared from television, we watched our family’s (Betamax) video copy of the film until we practically wore it out. But there was something about seeing about the film on the big screen again, thirty-four years after doing so for the first time, that caused a deluge of thoughts and memories to hit me at warp speed.
I remember how the opening scene (the infamous “Kobayashi Maru” sequence) had tricked me into believing the Enterprise and her crew were in mortal peril even before the opening credits had finished rolling, and how my adolescent self fell instantly for that beautiful young half-Vulcan, half-Romulan named Saavik from the moment she swiveled around to face the camera in the captain’s chair. (I don’t think I ever really forgave Kirstie Alley for refusing to reprise the role in Star Trek III.) I will never forget how terrified I was as a young boy of the scene in which Khan introduced the Ceti Eels, the parasites that burrowed into the brains of Chekov and Terrell after entering through their ears. (More than thirty years later, it still made me shudder.) And of course, I can still recall how stunned I was when my favorite character, Mr. Spock, sacrificed himself to save the Enterprise and her crew.
What I didn’t remember about The Wrath of Khan, until I saw it again through the eyes of a 45-year old, is how darn near perfect a science-fiction movie it really is. The second cinematic voyage of the starship Enterprise is everything that Star Trek: The Motion Picture had failed to deliver. The writing is a superb homage to Moby Dick, the dialogue is clever, the acting is solid, the special effects are used to support the story as opposed to just being used to wow the audience with the cinematic technology of the day, and the movie brilliantly connects its plot to the original TV series by bringing back the character of Khan (who first appeared in the episode “Space Seed”) as the antagonist hellbent on seeing the destruction of James T. Kirk. (It is in part because of Star Trek II that I have insisted for years that the perfect sequel to Serenity would have to involve the return of Adelai Niska as Mal’s nemesis.) It’s also obvious that the movie was influenced by the new wave of successful science-fiction films that was cresting in the late 70’s and early 80’s. The space battles are reminiscent of Star Wars, and the suspenseful sequence on the Regula I space station has the feel of something out of Alien.
Despite the movie’s brilliance, however, I also realized that when I watch the film now, there is something about it that really aggravates me. It is not the fault of the writers, or the director or the actors, or anyone who had anything at all to do with the production. The fault lies with us, the very fans who have been so passionate about Star Trek for fifty years, and the nation in which we live.
You see, what aggravates me about the film is our failure to live up to the future that it predicted over three decades ago. In the movie, Khan reminds us that he and his followers escaped Earth in the sleeper ship SS Botany Bay in the year 1996. Just think about that for a moment– in 1982, during the early years of the Space Shuttle program, it was reasonable to believe that by 1996 we would be capable of interstellar travel, yet here we are in 2016, shacking up in a space station in Low Earth Orbit, at least a decade shy of any manned mission to Mars! It was this sad truth that pulled me out of the story for a moment when I heard that particular line of dialogue. Within three years of Star Trek’s debut, Neil Armstrong would set foot on the Moon, and in the four and a half decades that followed, human beings have ventured no farther. I can’t help but think that while we may still be two centuries away from the brave new world of Star Trek, at our current pace we are well on our way to failing spectacularly to live up the optimistic dream of mankind’s future that Gene Roddenberry had fifty years ago.
Why have we failed to boldly go where no man has gone before? Is it because conflicts like the Vietnam War sucked up all the funding that years ago would have put boots on Martian soil? Is it because the fall of the Iron Curtain removed the political impetus to “get there first?” Is it because we’ve become far more obsessed with the use of modern day handheld devices– and their portals to the Matrix-like world of the internet– to explore new worlds without ever breaking atmo? Or is it just general apathy? Perhaps the real question should be: does the answer really matter?
Whatever the reason, it’s pretty obvious that when it comes to space exploration, we’re currently headed in the direction of the future that Joss Whedon envisioned in Firefly (a future that he once described as the “anti-Trek“)– one in which we won’t head off to the final frontier until we’re forced to, after we realize we’ve used this world up– and even that is still a couple hundred years away.
In For the Love of Spock, Adam Nimoy’s documentary about his late father, Leonard Nimoy, and the lasting impact that his character of Mr. Spock has had on pop culture, we hear astronauts, aerospace engineers and even astrophysicists like Neil deGrasse Tyson share their personal accounts of how Star Trek, and the character of Spock in particular, inspired them to pursue a career in Science. While this may explain in part why NASA capitulated to the public’s demands for a space shuttle named Enterprise, it also makes our current lack of progress in manned space exploration seem all the more baffling. Our love for Star Trek has certainly not diminished (another spin-off series was recently announced), yet as a nation we seem un-phased by how much the idea of exploring strange new worlds remains more fiction than it is science. As Jubal Early would say, does that seem right to you?
At least we still have SpaceX to give us hope. Elon Musk recently announced the company’s plans to send a manned mission to Mars in the hopes of making human beings an interplanetary species, and unveiled design for the Interplanetary Transport System– SpaceX’s deep space transport ship– the first of which will have the name Heart of Gold (in homage to the ship in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). Perhaps the best thing about Elon Musk’s recent announcement is the fact that SpaceX is determined to do this regardless of whether or not NASA shows the same commitment, and for the first time in history there is a private space company that has the drive and the resources to pull it off.
And while SpaceX aims for the Red Planet, we’re still concentrating on their work with the Commercial Crew program. Heart of Gold is a very appropriate name for a deep space transport, but the Dragon capsules that will shuttle astronauts and cargo to and from the International Space Station still need names too. We can’t think of a better one than Serenity, because like the Crew Dragon, Joss Whedon’s Firefly-class transport is a privately-owned ship that essentially serves as the space equivalent of a big rig.
SpaceX has shown a tendency to name its ships in reference to science-fiction properties. Its booster rocket takes its name from a ship in Star Wars, its drone-piloted barges are named after ships in the sci-fi novel The Player of Games, and now its first Interplanetary Transport System will bear the name of a ship from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. When conjuring a name for the first Crew Dragon, the real question is: why not Serenity? It seems like the perfect fit.
If you agree, please take the time to send SpaceX a letter (and maybe even a leaf) telling them why you believe the name Serenity would be the best moniker for that first Crew Dragon, and while you’re at it, thank them for their commitment to taking mankind out to the black… and for believing in the idea that human beings can live long and prosper as an interplanetary species.
Peace, love and rockets…