Of all the starships in history, the Enterprise is the only one I can think of which has had such a long, consistent, and well-documented life. It started out in the 1960s as a toy suspended on wires and progressed through the 1980s and 90s as a more elaborate toy, to reach its present existence as a computer’s realization of its artists’ imaginations. Along the way, it died, and was reborn, and the emotions provoked by those events and its subsequent spawn form an almost family history that is shared by a fan base that has established its own lineages. Its captaincy is almost a royal succession, and the different courtiers all have their allegiances, but throughout it all, the throne itself is never in doubt. Because the entire timeline has taken place aboard one form or another of that talismanic ship.
After the jump, that darned ship.
An old and very good friend of mine still sends me regular postal mail. We’ve known each other for close to thirty years and not one of those has ever gone by with me getting something from him by way of the post office. In the past couple years it has taken the form of Star Trek postcards, which he sends regularly, every few months, with some words or thoughts on the back that could have been written thirty years ago. But their current context turns them into a sort of trail marker, an observation that whatever change we’re experiencing or suffering, it’s anchored in a history of experience that makes perspective easier to find. I got this last week:
On the back, it started like this: “Love is truly an important thing, but let’s not forget the tranya.”
The funny thing is that he was never really interested in Star Trek, himself. But this acknowledgment of a previous obsession of mine, watered down through the years to near undetectability, is both a way to keep needling and a way to keep reassuring, that no matter how much time passes, I was once enthralled by those ridiculous sets, and that primitive makeup and special effects. And that darned ship.
The timeline of the various Enterprises is a timeline that allows real families to split allegiances between the original series’ classic plastic its updated movie makeover, and the next generation crewed by a different yet altogether familiar set of archetypes. It has now passed to a third generation, more explicitly self-referential but simultaneously modern, which gives grandchildren a chance to embrace their grandparents’ space heroes without any embarrassment. Mostly because of that long-enduring ship.
Somehow the Enterprise matured from a toy suspended on wires into a hyper-detailed realization of its fans’ imaginations while those same fans were doing some maturing of their own. But like a family member you haven’t seen in years it only takes a quick look at well-memorized features to spur the memory and the heart. It’s the reason the trailer for J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot only needed to give the audience glimpses of those familiar starship lines to get theatergoers on their feet cheering even before the main feature has started. They had come for something else but the long-lost features were still magic, and too much to resist. Or maybe they had really just come for the trailer. Planned or spontaneous, the best reunions are about the old informing the new.
Nerd nostalgia is at its most limiting when it remembers for the sake of remembrance, to connect with the past solely to lament its absence. Nerds, or geeks, or whatever you want to call a certain type of generally introverted people who create escape hatches into their own imaginations, all share a mythology. It’s the mythology of isolation. Not loneliness, to be sure: it’s a splendid isolation born of solitary experience with those imaginations, in books, with movies or games, or anything that allowed us to escape to a place where we could indulge ourselves in safety, undisturbed, to build experiences that eventually led us through whatever obstacles needed overcoming. The obstacles are eventually bested, and the crew eventually leave the bridge. And you end up having to be reminded of this by a postcard with an almost fifty-year-old quote on it.
It would be ridiculous to make a fictional spaceship from the 1960s into an all-encompassing metaphor for the normal and ordinary but sometimes remarkable process of growing old. But it would be equally ridiculous to think that, as geeks, this stuff isn’t out there, and isn’t real or meaningful, and doesn’t connect us in a way that we can all understand. In that isolation there has always been plenty of company.