For the last two weeks, I had intended to write up a little review of the new Star Trek film, but then I got thinking about what this franchise has meant to me. Don’t worry — I’m not some loon who knows the stardate of when Kirk took his first swig of Romulan Ale, and I certainly can’t translate Shakespeare into Klingon. However, I’m not a casual fan, either. I’ve seen enough Star Trek to know what the prime directive means or that Uhura’s name comes from the Swahili word for freedom.

startrekThe first time I saw Star Trek, I was a junior in high school, which puts it around 1988. For the life of me, I can’t remember why I started watching the TV show. Although I had begun reading scifi around that time (Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama, Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain), I was more into the novels of Stephen King, so it wasn’t because I’d become some sort of a techno junkie. At some point, two good friends also got into watching it, and during Chemistry lab, I brought in the VHS cassettes of the episodes I had taped, so we could play it in the background. It was a natural fit to listen to the banter of Kirk and Spock and Bones as they traveled the galaxy while we poured acids into bases and adjusted the flames of our bunsen burners.

As I recall, it was on every weeknight at midnight on channel 11, New York’s WPIX. By the time I was ready to graduate from high school, I’d seen and taped every single episode except one: Return to Tomorrow. It turned into my holy grail of sorts — I ran through the entire run of the series (79 episodes in all) twice and still failed to see it. Maybe I should’ve simply bought the missing episode (Paramount sold each one on VHS for $20), but a part of me liked the fact that my quest remained incomplete. I’ve exhibited similar behavior with other things I enjoy — for example, I have yet to read Richard Yates’ novel Young Hearts Crying, because once I read that, nothing of his will be new to me anymore. In any case, a friend put me out of my happy misery by purchasing the tape and handing it to me before we went off to our respective colleges. It still stands as one of the best gifts I’ve ever received, for it was completely unexpected. I think that was the first time I was really surprised by someone else’s generosity and thoughtfulness.

It didn’t turn out to be The City on the Edge of Forever, but the episode was serviceable, and it seemed fitting that I closed out my high school career by also closing out the original series. It was time to move on, and in the summer of 1990, I did just that by watching the final episode of the third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the one where Captain Picard gets kidnapped by the Borg.

But moving on didn’t come easy for me. My freshman year at Cornell was one of the most emotionally difficult times of my life. It’s a very large school and I dearly missed my close group of high school friends, so I felt pretty lost. I considered transferring to another school, but what would that accomplish? My buddies were scattered across the nation. Time had passed with great indifference. There was no going back.

But there was one saving grace, one bit of continuity I could count on, and that was the second part of The Best of Both Worlds, which aired on September 24, 1990. It was a Saturday night. Saturday night at college. I suppose it was the definition of lame, but I saw the episode with great anticipation on the top floor of the student union, which was deserted except for a TV room packed with geeks like myself.

Was it all that I had hoped for? Not really. The first parter had ended with such a potent cliffhanger that I knew the letdown would be inevitable. But it had been a good show, and the rest of the fourth season was the most engaging yet.

As the saying goes, time heals all wounds, and by the end of my freshman year, the bandages were coming off. Never in a million years did I think I would join a fraternity, but that’s what happened, and it made those years in Ithaca more than bearable; in fact, it made them some of the finest years of my life. As you might guess, this wasn’t a typical fraternity. We weren’t exactly Lambda Lambda Lambda, but we weren’t that far off; let’s just say we watched more Star Trek episodes than football games.

Star Trek: The Next Generation ran for seven years, and is it just coincidence that it ended the year I graduated from Cornell? The final episode, All Good Things…, aired on May 23, 1994, and I received my diploma five days later.

Since then, I have boldly gone where many people have gone before, that is, the real world of adult life where the dog needs to be walked every day and the mortgage must be paid every month. As far as the new film is concerned, it’s okay. Obviously it’s not the Star Trek of old, which always strived to blend philosophy and intelligence with action, but it’s not a bad place to start again. Just the other day, I was at a restaurant and the diners across from me were talking about the new film, how thrilling it was, how much they enjoyed it, even though they weren’t fans before.

A new batch of Star Trek fans — that’s not a bad thing, is it? No, not at all, especially if they get inspired enough to go back to the original series. Which, technically, they would be going forward for, since the new movie takes place before their time. But I digress.

One more thing — in my junior year, I took a class on the culture of the 1960s, and I bet you can guess the topic of my term paper. Reading it over now, I’m almost ashamed of how terrible it is, but hey, what can you do. Like it or not, it’s a part of my personal history, much like Star Trek itself.

The term paper, in PDF

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SUNG J. WOO is a writer living in New Jersey. Some of his short stories and essays have appeared in McSweeney's, KoreAm Journal, and The New York Times. His debut novel, Everything Asian (April 2009), has been praised by the Christian Science Monitor and received a starred review from Kirkus.

One response to “Star Trek Through the Years”

  1. Sung J. Woo says:

    Comment by Irene Zion in L.A. |Edit This
    2009-05-27 18:55:57

    Sung,

    I’ve seen every episode of every version of Star Trek. My husband, (who went to Cornell, by the way,) refused to accompany me to the movie because he is above sci fi, or some such nonsense. He went to the stupid Tom Hanks movie at the same time. I loved every minute of it. I hope you were intending to be kind to it in your review!
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Sung J. Woo |Edit This
    2009-05-28 17:50:01

    That stupid Tom Hanks movie is probably 4.5% as smart as the new Star Trek. And I’m probably still giving it too much credit.

    Transformer Trek is by no means a bad movie, but I can’t help but compare all ST films to the Wrath of Khan, and it’s no Wrath of Khan. I do think it’ll create more movies, and maybe with the followup they’ll put more thought into it. That’s what I hope, anyway.
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Fabulous Photo Gifts |Edit This
    2009-05-27 22:38:51

    Hi Sung,

    I remember a montage of clips preceeding the video of Star Trek 6 – in it the voiceover declares ” they have been our friends, our guides, our guardians with a suitable Trek clip for each phrase.

    It struck me at the time that they really have been with us, depending on your age, through great episodes in our own lives.

    Well done for reminding me.

    Jonathan
    http://purple13.blogspot.com
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Sung J. Woo |Edit This
    2009-05-28 17:56:57

    Thanks, Jonathan. Forgot to mention that I listened to Shatner’s new autobiography, Up till Now. Talk about an interesting life. I love his core message, too — keep working. No matter what people say, do everything you can and keep working on your craft. Shatner of course reads the book himself, and it’s just a fantastic performance.
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Sade |Edit This
    2009-05-28 13:36:21

    I liked the new movie mostly because I didn’t think it would be that good. But I thought JJ Abrams could bring something to the table and all in all, he did. I watched a few episodes of the TV series back in the day and I can see how you were less than jumping for joy at the new one. I just think the old episodes, or at least the ones I have seen are just classic.
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Sung J. Woo |Edit This
    2009-05-28 17:59:34

    I’m convinced that nothing helps one’s reaction to a film than having low expectations. Not completely zero, because that has a good chance of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, but just low enough.

    Yeah, the originals are the very definition of classics. The show suffered badly in the third season due to a lack of funds, but still, there were a few good ones in there.
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Michelle |Edit This
    2009-05-28 14:26:08

    I like the movie, but I didn’t fail to notice that by re-writing the timeline through the magic of time travel, they’ve given themselves the freedom to re-do everything Star Trek from scratch!
    Now Spock can be emotional and have a torrid love affair with Uhura.

    How old is Nimoy, anyhow? 200?
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Sung J. Woo |Edit This
    2009-05-28 18:11:17

    Nimoy certainly looked the part, no question. Yeah, the timeline thing is a cheat, just there to keep the fanatics from burning down the movie theater. Of all the actors, I liked the guy who did Bones the best, probably because he did an impersonation. There was no way they were going to let the new Kirk sound like the old Kirk, since that would’ve been an SNL-like parody.

    By the way, the film critic James Berardinelli made a very shrewd comment about the movie, that it failed to make the Enterprise a character, something the older films achieved. It does seem as if the action could’ve taken place in any old starship, which is a shame.
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Kimberly M. Wetherell |Edit This
    2009-05-29 06:53:07

    You know, I really liked most of the new flick. I didn’t like the new Spock/Uhura thing, and I spent lots and LOTS of time wondering exactly how long it must have taken the post-production gurus to paint in each and every one of those beautiful lens flares…

    But John Cho kicking ass and Bones and Simon Pegg as Scotty and even little Chekhov really did it for me.

    Yep. I’m a sucker for secondary characters. 🙂
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Sung J. Woo |Edit This
    2009-06-01 08:26:10

    Somewhere up there, James Doohan is smiling…
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by N.L. Belardes |Edit This
    2009-05-29 14:00:57

    I have written a lot of terrible essays in my life. Each one has helped me move on a bit.

    I’ve always been fond of Star Trek. But then, it was a bond between my parents and me in the 1970s when we had little else to bond about.

    I went through a heavy sci-fi phase. At the top of the list I will forever place the Foundation Trilogy. Asimov is the king. His works moved me even more than John Carter of Mars. And that says a lot.

    This was my favorite read of yours. I almost hate to admit it.
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Sung J. Woo |Edit This
    2009-06-01 08:29:31

    You know what else was a surprisingly good book? Fantastic Voyage II: Destination Brain, also written by Asimov back in the ’90s. It’s generally gotten negative reviews, but it has one hell of an ending.

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