Politics & Policy

Oh Captain, My Captain!

Kirk and me.

It wasn’t on some alien world that we saw him, but in a Midtown Manhattan steakhouse. He wasn’t battling Romulans or Klingons, just a gigantic piece of meat; Porterhouse, if I had to guess. My parents had flown in on a Jumbo from England the day before and he, well, he had flown in on a starship from a distant galaxy and my even more distant childhood.

“Look,” I said, “there’s Captain Kirk.”

“Who?” asked my father, the only remaining carbon-based life form within one hundred parsecs not to know.

“Oh dear,” sighed my mother, something of a Star Trek watcher herself in an understated, only-if-there’s-nothing-else-on sort of way.

Who was Captain Kirk? Who was Captain Kirk? Good grief. Not since a former girlfriend had disgraced me in the presence of Captain Picard (it’s a long story, but if I tell you that she also managed to “lose” the autographed copy of George Takei’s memoirs I gave her, you’ll understand that those were tricky times indeed) had I known such shame. What if he, The Captain, had heard? I was also alarmed. I know a lot of things about James Tiberius Kirk, and one of them is that it’s never a good idea to get on his bad side: Just ask replica upperclassman Finnegan (Shore Leave).

And then the memories came. Or did their best to. To be frank, I cannot recall the exact date of my first contact with the space ‘n Vegas of the theme tune, the hissing sliding doors, the cheeping, chirping sensors, the burbling transporters, and the choppy, grand rhythms of high Shatner dialog, but it would have been via the BBC around 1969 or 1970. I’d have been eleven or twelve years old and on a break from a British boarding school where the only permitted television fare was a rugby show hosted by an enthusiastic Welshman with very little to be enthusiastic about. If the Sixties were swinging they were swinging by me, by him and, almost certainly, by most of the population.

Olde England was not then as merrie as it once had been said to be. In fact it was, let’s face it, a little on the drab, crabbed and dingy side. And not only the weather was to blame. The postwar economic recovery was running out of steam, the labor unions were running wild, the taxman was running greedy fingers through the nation’s wallets, and we no longer seemed to be running an empire. But by night, television was showing images of another country where the natives spoke English, appeared friendly, and looked to be having a great deal more fun than we were. The Pilgrim Fathers voyaged to America on the Mayflower, I traveled there by TV.

I loved American television for its wild, goofy, frivolous, gadget-and-bullet, candy-colored, exuberantly plastic, manufactured, frivolous non-BBC joy. I thrilled to the exploits of Napoleon and Ilya, those jester James Bonds from U.N.C.L.E, I wore Bruce Wayne’s mask and cape (there was no Robin: my younger brother refused), I laughed along with F-Troop, and I knew that there was something I found very interesting indeed about Samantha the suburban sorceress. When Britons gathered round the telly in their millions to watch Coronation Street, an endless soap (it continues to this day) set in a depressed northern town, all I wanted was to hop on the last train to Clarksville, wherever that might be. If it was good enough for those sun-kissed blissed-out Monkees, it was good enough for me.

Capping it all, glittering, tantalizing, but oddly accessible, was space. If anyone was lost in there, it wasn’t those lucky Robinsons (yes, I envied them), but me. These were the golden years of NASA (and the rocket men of Baikonur too — I followed that program just as enthusiastically) and as I watched those glorious Apollos rehearse, dance and glide their way to, around, and eventually, on, the moon, the USS Enterprise seemed to be just over the horizon, a part of that same dream, and despite the best efforts of all those Vostoks, Sputniks, and Lunokhods, it was a very American dream.

And Star Trek was a very American show. Sure, Mr. Chekhov was up there in the old NCC-1701, along with Spock and the universe’s stagiest Scot, but everything about the Enterprise, from its name to its Iowa-born captain (we won’t mention the Canadian thing), suggested that those ambitious thirteen colonies had just kept on growing. Whatever the legal structure of the Federation (not something I would have thought about much either then, or for that matter, now), it was quite obviously just the United States writ large, Manifest Destiny boldly going where no Manifest Destiny had gone before, and I, sitting staring at the television was paying plenty of attention. This enchanting exciting country called America was not only fun; it also appeared to be going places.

It speaks volumes that the wonderfully entertaining Doctor Who, deservedly British TV’s most popular sci-fi hero of the era, was played as an eccentric vaguely Edwardian gentleman, whose travels through space and time could just as easily take him into the past as the future. While the original Star Trek offered occasional visits to yesteryear (Tomorrow is Yesterday, The City on The Edge of Forever, Assignment Earth, All our Yesterdays), its basic trajectory was always forward-looking : the Enterprise hurtled through the 23rd Century with few signs of the backward glances and nostalgic appeal that made up so much of Doctor Who’s very British charm.

Star Trek was also, at its core, an optimistic, and to me, more attractive, vision of what was to come than anything likely to emerge out of the U.K., a Mission Control future of engineering savvy, technical marvels, and big, impressive machines, something that I was specifically beginning to associate with that land of wonders apparently located on the other side of the Atlantic. Britain’s feeble attempt to send a man into space had been abandoned years before, our manufacturing industry was crumbling, our autos were a joke, and our technological showpiece, the Concorde, was over budget, behind schedule and, most dismayingly of all, a joint project with those unreliable people, the French. America, on the other hand, it was clear, worked, and I was impressed. British-made tricorders? Wasn’t going to happen. If I wanted the future, I knew where I’d have to go to find it. And in the end, I did.

Looking back now at the original Star Trek, it’s striking to see how much of it came freighted with a strong ideological subtext. A veteran of the Pacific War himself, Star Trek’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, brought to the series a strong Greatest Generation sensibility, both sharpened and softened by the tough-minded liberalism of the two murdered Kennedys. Time and time again, the Prime Directive was superseded by Kirk’s willingness to use fists and phasers to push alien societies a little further along the way to life, liberty, and the pursuit of extraterrestrial happiness. This clearly reflected the self-confidence and sense of global mission that had prevailed in America since the Second World War, even if in at least two episodes (A Private Little War, The Omega Glory) it’s possible to detect hints of the way that the gathering Vietnam disaster would shake that faith.

I cannot be sure now how much of this I grasped back then, but I certainly understood that the crewmembers of the Enterprise (and not just those landing on Ekos in Patterns of Force) were descendants of the Yanks who had stormed the beaches of Normandy just a quarter of a century before. They may have been in strange uniforms and carrying ray guns but they were recognizably the American soldiers I knew from countless war movies, brave, profoundly democratic, free spirited, good guys trying to do the right thing. In reality, that wasn’t too much of a myth then, and, for all the flaws, mistakes, blunders and worse, I suspect that if you go to Iraq and Afghanistan today, you’d see that it’s not too much of a myth now.

And nor, I now knew for sure, was Captain Kirk. Not that my father, duly enlightened, informed, educated, and possibly a little bored, appeared quite as impressed as he should have been. To some people, a TV show is just a TV show. The conversation moved on, but then, as it happened, an hour or so later the Stuttaford and the Shatner parties left the restaurant at the same time. As we all walked down Third Avenue, I noticed my father (who is both a doctor and a journalist for the London Times) looking at the lion of Starfleet with sudden interest.

“You know what,” he said, “he’s bow-legged. He walks like a cowboy, not a spaceman. Fascinating. I must write that up.”

And you know what, he did.

Shamed again.

– Andrew Stuttaford is a British-born writer in New York.


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