In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.
As a kid, I remember watching Star Trek at 7:00 on Saturday nights with my Mom. At the time, it struck me as the most amazing show ever made, even though I frequently only half-understood what was going on.
Through the miracle of streaming video, I’ve recently introduced my kids to Kirk and Spock. And I’ve been reintroduced with adult eyes.
Seeing again as an adult a show you loved as a kid is a little uncanny. It’s recognizable, of course, but everyone seems so much younger. Now the subtexts aren’t nearly as subtle, and it seems more 60’s than futuristic. But the cheesiness of some of the effects has a charm of its own.
The Wife is duly mortified, of course; to her, Star Trek is of a piece with Renaissance Faires and Hobbitry. Affection for Star Trek, in her mind, is a sort of voluntary cultural exile. I think she’s half expecting that the kids and I will start wearing Vulcan ears around the house and speaking Klingon at the table.
But the kids don’t carry that baggage. To them, it’s just a show that Dad likes, and that draws them in just as much as it did me. Watching them respond to the show has been a treat.
Parents of young kids, watching the old series now, will immediately recognize the color scheme as consistent with, say, iCarly. Most of the live-action Nickelodeon shows are awash in brightly lit colors, and the dialogue is always well-amplified, just as it was on Star Trek. (For some reason, adult shows now tend to be dark, rapidly edited, and muddled.) The camera will hold a scene for much longer than most shows allow now. The Trek characters are clearly defined, and they speak in well-articulated soliloquies. (Say what you want about Shatner: he deserves full credit for enunciation. Maybe extra credit.)
I clued the kids in to a few rules, like the “anyone in a red shirt other than Scotty will die” rule for landing parties. They enjoy the scenes with the Enterprise shaking, and they pick up on the little zingers among Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. (The Boy likes to say that Spock “owned” McCoy with a particularly good line.) The battle scenes are always fun, but they’re also game for the more cerebral moments. When we watched the two-parter “The Menagerie,” which I vividly remember seeing as a kid and thinking was just the coolest thing ever, the kids were entranced. The story-within-a-story had them hooked, just as it had me. Bless them, they seemed to get it.
But they aren’t just younger versions of me; they pick up on stuff I didn’t at their age. After a few episodes, The Girl asked “why don’t the girls get to do anything?” She was right, of course; other than Uhura, who was basically a switchboard operator, the only female characters were love interests for Kirk. I told her that back when the show was made, people didn’t really understand that girls could do what boys do. The Boy noticed the soft-focus whenever a love interest was on screen; I had to explain that they thought that women were prettier when blurry. (Sometimes they’ll pull that trick even now with Kate Walsh on Private Practice.) We haven’t even discussed the women’s uniforms yet; I don’t quite know how I’ll phrase that one.
But 60’s quirks aside, I think the kids pick up on the underlying humanism of the show. It isn’t about might making right, or just fighting the alien of the week. When Kirk fought the Gorn -- you could barely see the zipper in back -- the action sequence ended with Kirk refusing to finish off the alien. He was rewarded for taking the ethical high road. I could see that the kids were both happy with that, and a little surprised. It wasn’t the easy, triumphant conquest that it could have been. Several tough scrapes have been resolved with someone making a choice to rise above the conflict. The kids like seeing that, and I like them seeing that.
Roddenberry was an earnest liberal, and the show is a funny blend of 60’s tv conventions and his intermittent efforts to rise above them. (I once saw it described as blending the great themes of Western thought with tacky synthetic fibers. That’s about right.) Yes, it’s amazingly sexist, but it’s also about trying to do the right thing. It enacts Hegel’s master/slave dialectic with a zipper-backed lizard monster and lots of action. There are worse things.
Last Saturday The Wife looked in at one point, and saw The Girl, The Boy, and me all on one couch, sharing a blanket, watching Spock pilot a shuttlecraft, and smiling. Even she smiled at that. It doesn’t feel like cultural exile anymore. It feels like passing on a torch.
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