September 8 marked a momentous occasion: it was on this date, 50 years ago, that the first episode of Star Trek aired, going on to (eventually) make history. Naturally, the world celebrated, and Philadelphia was no exception. Last weekend, Star Trek Mission New York landed at the Javits Center to celebrate the anniversary, while the Smithsonian institution offered a whole slate of events this weekend.
Neatly in between them in time and space, Philadelphia also hosted two events to commemorate the special occasion, thus making it possible to travel down the major cities of the East Coast and celebrate Star Trek in each one. Now if only they could come out with a Star Trek train the way that ANA airlines has a Star Wars plane…
On Tuesday, Sci-Fi Explosion hosted an event at the Philadelphia Mausoleum of Contemporary Art; it featured screenings of various Trek-related clips from the past 50 years, including silly commercials featuring Trek actors, little-known talk-show appearances, and other humorous videos. A trivia contest with prizes was also held, though to my chagrin my shouted answer of “There were five lights!” was not accepted as an answer to how many lights there were in the Next Generation episode “Chain of Command.”
Wednesday saw nerds, geeks, and Trekkies uniting for Nerd Nite at Frankford Hall, which had a more academic bent. Over pints of beer, a crowd of excited Trekkers listened to Powerpoint presentations from four presenters on the relative merits and histories of four Star Trek series: The Original Series, The Next Generation, Voyager, and Deep Space Nine. (Nobody stepped up to defend Enterprise).
Chris Cummins, who also hosted the previous night’s Trek shenanigans, spoke about the origins of Star Trek: The Original Series, going over details about the original pilot (“The Cage”), deemed “too cerebral” by NBC, and pointing out that the Kirk/Uhura kiss in the third season was not the first interracial kiss on television, but the first interracial kiss in a drama on television (the credit for the first interracial kiss apparently goes to a 1967 episode of Moving’ with Nancy between Nancy Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr.)
Then Suraiya Haroon defended The Next Generation (TNG) as “her” Trek series, speaking about the changes between the original Enterprise and its newer incarnation – including the change from a five-year mission to a “continuing” mission, for given the vastness of space, how could a five-year mission hope to make a dent in exploring it? The famous voiceover was also changed for TNG from “where no man has gone before” to “where no one has gone before,” another small step towards Trek’s future of gender equality. She pointed to characters like Dr. Crusher inspiring her, though she did note that Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) was cast to be the sex symbol of the show. She also reminded the audience of Trek’s huge influence, giving an overview of many real technologies (from touchscreens to universal translators) that had been inspired by Trek.
Next, Henry Benberg waxed eloquent about Deep Space Nine – a significant departure from previous Trek series in several ways, including being set aboard a stationary space station rather than a starship, and having a cast whose majority (five out of nine) was made up of aliens. These aliens, including the shapeshifter Odo and the symbiotic alien Jadzia Dax, offered the possibility of posing issues such as identity and gender through characters who could change both. If Star Trek’s always been about diversity, then DS9 took that diversity beyond our planet and questioned what makes up our very differences.
Finally, Marshal Staggs presented on Voyager – the show that elicited the most questions and provoked the most discussion from the audience. Staggs focused his presentation on the “Spocks” in Voyager – that is, the characters who, like Spock on Star Trek: The Original Series, were outsiders. These characters also included Data from TNG, Odo and Dax from DS9, and Seven of Nine and the Emergency Medical Hologram from Voyager. Such characters, Staggs argued, provide comic relief, a way for the audiences to connect to them (for who hasn’t felt like an outsider at one point or another?) and, most importantly, perspective: By virtue of not being human, these Spocks provide us with a view of our own human assumptions and prejudices.
Questions asked about Voyager included the nitpicky concern that the starship doesn’t run out of stuff (such as fuel) for most of the show. Another fan suggested that many Voyager episodes didn’t sufficiently make use of the show’s premise of being outside the Federation, on its own, but were instead plots that could have easily been transplanted from TNG. Another fan demanded to know why Chakotay was not included on the list of Spocks, despite being a Native American character; Staggs suggested that the problematical portrayal of his character based on racial stereotypes in many ways negated his power as a Spock character. In the true spirit of Star Trek, a lively, intelligent, yet polite discussion of all these topics ensued.
One of the most important days in Star Trek history has come and gone, but celebrations will continue until the end of this year, including the “50 Artists, 50 Years” exhibit, conventions all around the country, and the airing of yet another Star Trek show at the beginning of 2017, Discovery, anticipation of which grows with every new headline.