I Was Living Under a Rock: Star Trek

Digging into a classic TV show on a streaming service like Netflix is both exciting and lonely. It’s exciting for obvious reasons, one of which is the “What a time to be alive” factor. Before streaming services, our options were illegally downloading digital copies of a show to our computers, serendipitously catching a marathon of the show on TV and recording it commercials and all, or doling out a sum of money if the show happened to be cataloged onto DVD or VHS. But now I just go into Netflix, a service I’m already paying for to watch other shows and movies, pick a season, pick an episode, and watch commercial free. You know all of this already, but it bears repeating: What a time to be alive.

This kind of experience is lonely, though, too. Not necessarily the viewing itself, but afterward. When you watch a great TV show, you want to talk about it — either to tell somebody about it (“Have you seen this? You’ve got to check it out!”), or to dissect it with somebody who’s already been watching (“Did you see this week’s episode? We’ve got to talk!”). That doesn’t work so great if you’re on a personal journey of discovery with a classic TV show that’s already laid into in pop culture’s bedrock.

For example, this past weekend I watched my first episodes of Star Trek ever — I’d never seen any of the TV show series or movies before.

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Yeah. I know.

I’ve really enjoyed it, and am still happily plowing through the original series. But I realized quickly how silly I’d sound to friends and family if I started saying things like, “Have you seen Star Trek? You’ve got to check it out!” or “Did you see ‘The Corbomite Maneuver’? We’ve got to talk!” or “Hey, did you hear about the Lindbergh baby?”

Bad news. I don’t have a definitive answer to the question you’re thinking: How is it that a 32-year-old nerd like me is just now watching Star Trek for the first time? I can toss out some theories that all probably contributed. First and simplest, I didn’t grow up with it. I was the youngest child and nobody in my family was interested in it, nor were my closest friends. The Next Generation originally ran from when I was five years old until I was twelve; nothing about the ads for the show seemed appealing to me at the time. The Simpsons and Fresh Prince were much more appealing than what I perceived as a bunch of weirdos in strange costumes in a setting I didn’t understand. Which isn’t to say that I was opposed to sci-fi; it’s just that shows like the X-Files and Sliders were much more accessible to me (and more available, since my brother introduced me to them). The characters on those shows, at least when glancing from afar, were easier to grasp onto and allow myself to be pulled in.

More bad news. I’m a human being and susceptible to society’s pressures of conformity. When I look inward more sharply, I see that the biggest reason I never got into Star Trek was surely its reputation and the reputation of its fans. Growing up when The Next Generation was on and as a teenager when Deep Space Nine and Voyager aired, I never heard about Star Trek’s admirable qualities — its stories, themes, acting, diversity, hopefulness — only about its campiness and its geeky fans. I only knew about pointy ears and “Vulcan death grips” (not even the right term) and funny hand symbols. I never got a clear picture of the history of its various series; I only knew a jumble of names like Kirk and Spock and Nimoy and Scotty and Takei, and I knew Professor X was in one. I learned from classmates and from pop culture parodies that geeky nerds liked Star Trek, and cool nerds liked Star Wars. Nobody explained to me that it was a false comparison, that the two had nothing to do with each other, and anybody could enjoy either one. But when you’re a young nerd uncomfortable in your own skin and desperate to not be seen as a nerd, you follow the winds of cool, and those winds led me far away from Star Trek.

As I got older and more comfortable in my geeky skin, my reasons for never encountering Star Trek changed. There aren’t many classic TV shows that have five different series and six movies. Thanks to syndication, I discovered classic shows like Taxi and Sanford and Son are really fun. I didn’t feel like I needed an encyclopedia to just jump into them (it helps that they’re sit-coms, of course). But when I’d see Star Trek on syndication? I wasn’t going to touch it, because I didn’t know what the hell it was, and based on the ads I didn’t think I was going to figure it out by just watching a random episode. So I kept avoiding it. And even as I kept hearing great things about it from adult friends and acquaintances, I kept avoiding it, for the lazy reason that I wouldn’t know where to start.

Then fellow iliw writer Kat retweeted the AV Club:

As I read that primer, clouds cleared out, birds alighted on my shoulders, and angels strummed Vulcan Harps all around me. This was finally it. All of my mental blocks and confusion about Star Trek were vaporized like so many redshirts (I get that now!). One well-written piece explaining each series of the show and their context, and I was game. It almost seemed too simple. Why had the show never been explained to me like that before? Why was it treated as a dork’s dorky pastime by non-fans and a you’ll-never-know-how-interesting-this-is secret dork club by fans?

The point is that I read that primer last week, discovered immediately that Netflix had all of the relevant series available for streaming, and by this weekend I had eagerly pushed my glasses up my nose and dove into the original series. I started with the originally-unaired pilot, “The Cage” (which I found to be a philosophical delight), continued watching all week, and don’t see a reason to stop. The special effects are, for the most part, as laughably primitive as one would expect from the ‘60s, and the pacing is uncomfortably slow at times compared to today’s standards; but I’ve been thrilled to find enthralling stories, splendid interactions between the main characters, and a satisfying variety in tone.

So, you guys. Have you seen Star Trek? You’ve got to check it out!

Read more from Jeremy here and on Twitter: @jereminate.