Episode 3: The Space Seed – Uncharted Paths Away From Home
“It is better to rule in Hell than to serve in Heaven.”
Captain Kirk quoting Milton’s Paradise Lost.
The opening phrase: “Space, the final frontier,” introduced me to the mission of the starship Enterprise, to explore strange new worlds, seek out new life and new civilizations, and boldly go where no one has gone before. This phrase, known as “The Captain’s Oath,” introduced the show by summarizing just what would occur during the following hour. It was a bold adventure I obsessed over during my youth, and by the time I graduated from high school, I’d decided that my life should also be an adventure.
In the Houston area in the 1970s, NASA was everywhere. When I was born, my mom worked as a secretary at NASA during the height of the Apollo missions. My earliest memory of watching television is seeing the Apollo 11 moon landing with my parents when I was only about 2. The details are faint, just like the grainy images relayed from space. As I grew older, I had friends whose parents worked at NASA in specialized jobs as engineers, or astronaut training. In school, astronauts would occasionally visit as special guests, bringing beautifully detailed models of rockets to explain the fundamentals of a moon landing. From my young perspective, it was a perfect era of hope, when the world seemed to be coming together, and space exploration was a part of my daily life. This was also a time when my parents, attempting to surround me with their idea of suburban utopia, protected me from news about the war in Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement, or anything they deemed too upsetting. Like most sheltered kids, I only experienced a small, idealized selection of a much larger, more nuanced picture, but thankfully, outer space exploration always played a key role.
After school every day, I’d watch two back-to-back episodes of Star Trek, which transported me to exotic worlds far removed from Pasadena Texas. Later I realized how much those shows informed my morals, philosophy, and sexuality, as well as provided a framework to understand the importance of teamwork and leadership. At this time I still didn’t know there was anything Trek aside from the original TV series and the fascinating but clumsy animated series, though I was familiar with a few related toys. For my 8th birthday, my aunt Carolyn gave me a paperback set of the Alan Dean Foster stories from the animated series, and the first model kit I ever built was the phaser, communicator, and tricorder combination package known as the “Exploration Set.”
In 1975, my friend Malcolm Hawkins inadvertently introduced me to Trek fandom. Malcolm was around the same age as my older sister Michaelle, and his sister, Melissa, was my age. My folks regularly played Bridge at the Hawkins’s house, and it was always exciting to be there since Malcolm had toys that none of my other friends had. These included the Star Trek action figures and Enterprise bridge set that Mego had produced in the mid-70s. On one occasion, I saw some intriguing snapshots pinned to a cork bulletin board in Malcolm’s bedroom upstairs. The photos were mostly of men and women dressed in homemade costumes resembling aliens, such as one of an Andorian (the blue-skinned aliens with white hair and antennae) and different characters from the show. I remember a few photos featuring actors from the series, but it was the makeup and costumes that made the most impact. Malcolm explained they were from the convention he had recently attended. He said that fans would dress in costume, and guests included actors from the series, as well as the creative team behind the show. I envied that experience, which was the first time I became aware of any world outside of a television series, a world in which fans actually made costumes and dressed up as the characters. It was baffling, but exciting. Why would people be dressing up like that? Some of the costumes looked shoddy, with clumsy makeup, but everyone seemed overjoyed. It was as if the fantasy of the television series had become a reality, but where everything was slightly askew. It instilled something in me that caused me to be more curious and confused. That feeling of seeing that something is simultaneously “right” but “wrong” has intrigued me throughout my life. It certainly informs my appreciation for sincere awkwardness in art, comics, or low budget film and television.
Like most well cared-for kids, I was frustrated by the restraint my parents enforced for my safety. Of course now I realize that it was understandable with the fear-mongering aspects of the daily paper and nightly news focusing on the unpredictability of people and events. In my parent’s attempt to create an ideal life for my sister Michaelle and me, I wasn’t taught to be bold and outgoing; I was prompted to play it safe as a follower, like one of the expendable Enterprise crewmen in red shirts who simply follow orders and end up casually killed on the away missions.
From a young age I wanted to be an artist, but it was strongly suggested that my career of choice should be the far more respectable dentist and that I could just make art “on the side.” This conservative perspective was reinforced in 5th grade when my family left the easy-going Methodist church for a more self-righteous Southern Baptist church, which excelled in reaffirming any potential fear of something unusual or foreign. Surprisingly, my church experience echoed my nerd traits, as having to memorize Bible verses, analyze the scriptures of Jesus, and draw maps of the Holy Land turned out not to be much different than memorizing quotes from Star Trek, analyzing the plots of favorite episodes, and making drawings of the Enterprise.
As I grew older, the original series stayed with me, especially once I’d become friends with David Gregg, who was a huge fan. We would sit for hours discussing the nuances of different episodes while poring over his Star Trek Concordance to cross-reference details. It was only towards the end of my high school years that both he and I drifted away from Star Trek and to the higher-minded pursuit of girls, music, and art. This fading interest was increased by my initial disappointment with Star Trek Next Generation, which I will discuss in the next chapter.
During that final year of high school, David and I began to drift apart. Like the character of Gary Mitchell in the Star Trek episode “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” David evolved at a rate far beyond mine. Although I was undergoing my own metamorphosis, David was always bolder than me, fearlessly following through with any impulse.
Changing his name to Spike, dying his hair black, shaving his eyebrows off, and not worrying about how “attractive” he appeared, finally made him popular, as well as attractive to women for his severely thin, 6’2″ body. It was a vital lesson for a skinny nerd who’d always been the loser in any physical challenge. He finally refused to care about how others perceived him, had thrown off his costume of normality, and changed himself into something outlandish and remarkable. Instead of disguising his lack of comfort with his own body, he accepted himself, as well as the nerd within, and proudly displayed his perceived weaknesses as what they truly were: the things that made him unique.
For me, that first trip to #’s had fueled my hunger for exploration and adventure. I began wearing contact lenses to go with the eye makeup that I’d sneakily apply when I left the house. I’d also begun shopping in thrift stores where I was not limiting myself to the men’s clothing section. My parents stayed calm and as supportive as possible through the changes, but one night after I returned home from a hair salon where I’d had my bangs bleached out, I sat down at the dinner table to terse silence. After a several awkward minutes, my frustrated father spoke. “Jeff, I don’t understand what’s going on with you, but I do know that when I see how David looks these days, it makes me feel sick to my stomach. Tonight, I’m looking at you, and it is also making me sick.” On that note, he stood up from his chair, disgustedly tossed his napkin on the table, and went into the bedroom. I was left feeling numb, but it was the same cynical numbness I felt walking through the high school halls that final year. I wasn’t proud of disappointing my father, but I also knew that my decisions weren’t being made to appeal to my parents. They were made to please me. I was finally becoming bold.
As that senior year at Sam Rayburn neared its end, David showed up at school one day wearing a new pin. On a pale blue background with a white font it read, “He’s dead, Jim.” We both laughed at Dr. McCoy’s familiar phrase, but also at its significance as something from our shared nerd days. That phrase had been repurposed into something fashionably ironic and disposable, making fun of the nerdy past while proudly acknowledging its continuing importance.