Episode 4: Amok Time – Triggering my Trekkie Sleeper Cell
“After a time, you may find that having is not so pleasing a thing after all as wanting. It is not logical, but it is often true.”
– Spock in Amok Time.
In June of 2001, I lived in a loft space in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn. Bushwick hadn’t yet become the art and fashion hub that it is today. I often saw junkies slouched inside cars as they tied up their arms for the next fix. When walking to the subway, I’d stay alert to avoid being cornered by the pack of wild dogs that roamed the neighborhood, as well as the groups of bored boys looking for an easy victim to corner. Each week a car would be abandoned on the street and set on fire, the flames just further exposing the cold, hardness of the industrial brick buildings. The bland gentrification that Mayor Giuliani force fed the city during the 1990s wouldn’t reach Bushwick for another decade.
This was an important moment, since everything I’d worked towards during the previous decade had recently aligned. I was represented by a respectable gallery in New York that had held my first solo exhibition, and it was well received and reviewed. Despite this success, I was buried in a debilitating depression unlike anything I’d experienced before. Instead of basking in my newfound freedom by enthusiastically working in my studio, I was avoiding life by sleeping as long as possible, which ideally was 2:00 in the afternoon, when a local channel showed two episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. I’d eat a cheap sandwich while watching the shows, staving off my loneliness with the familiar comfort of the characters standing in as a rough approximation of family and friends. For the first time in my life I had no responsibilities aside from my time in the studio, but my freedom paradoxically left me feeling more depressed and trapped than I’d ever been while growing up in Texas.
When Star Trek: Next Generation debuted in 1986, I was disappointed and confused. It appeared to be a bland update of the sacred original series. The pilot episode felt like a flat remake of an iconic original episode, “The Squire of Gothos,” but with the character of Q replacing Trelane. In spite of how well John de Lancie played the role, omniscient characters are usually dull, since the viewer always knows that whatever situation arises, it can be undone at the last minute. My skepticism that the new Trek would feature remakes was reaffirmed with the next episode, “The Naked Now,” which was an inferior version of the iconic original episode, “The Naked Time.” That’s all it took for me to dismiss the series. I was a skeptical 18-year-old who felt conned. They’d had 20 years to develop new stories, but sadly didn’t appear to have done anything better than remake old ones.
I decided I’d outgrown Star Trek, but in reality my inner Trekkie had only gone into hibernation. I felt too skeptical for something so seemingly innocent, but didn’t realize that once I’d been infected with Trek, it would only lie dormant until finding the chance to bloom again. And honestly, I still watched all of the Trek films. The original cast had become a type of extended family for me. Since standard television series usually have a new episode each week, it’s easy to develop an emotional bond with the characters. This is the difference for me between Star Trek and Star Wars. Even though I loved Star Wars and found the characters thrilling, my relationship with them never extended beyond the movies, books, or comics. They felt more like a “fantasy,” whereas Trek felt “real.” It seemed as if I had a relationship with both the actors and the characters. This notion of an “extended family” comes into play repeatedly through my later Trek life, not just through fandom, but also through the circumstances that ended up triggering my emotional connection. This family type of “connectedness” also plays a huge role in the larger world of fandom, both as fans relating to the shows, but of equal importance as the extended community of fans relating to each other. Fans have access to a type of private language that allows them to communicate with other fans using only that language. Inevitably it creates an intimacy and bond.
During my high school years, I’d maintained my interest in comics and science fiction, which was benefited by David Gregg and I befriending another Jeff, a red-headed, balding hippie who’d opened Ultimate Dreams, the first comic book store in Pasadena. I regularly worked there for a while, helping out in exchange for my monthly comics.
Naming a bookstore Ultimate Dreams presented some unique problems. Every few weeks I’d answer the phone to hear a southern-accented voice asking questions like, “Um, do…you…sell…a…book… called…………. the Kama Sutra?” I’d sympathetically answer that we only sold comics and related materials, not “adult type” books. This was also during the era when comic book stores across the U.S. were being shut down by undercover police searching for anything that might offend conservative morals. I certainly wasn’t going to mention something like the hippie-era transgressive underground comics that I’d occasionally find, nor more recently published books like the liberating sexual anthropomorphics found in Omaha the Cat Dancer.
Eventually, Jeff sold his store and moved on to a management position at Capital City distribution, which provided comics and other genre-related products to specialty stores. Later, he brought me into Capital City as well, and over time I brought in David Gregg. During my Trek-less years of the late 80s, Ultimate Dreams and Capital City provided a direct connection to fandom, and while I still attended comic conventions, my interests had grown refined, leaving me with little patience in the escapist soap operas of modern superheroes.
Capital City was a magical place; a land between the comic book stores and the publishers. We saw the new books before anyone else, which bestowed a special type of knowledge, enthusiasm and responsibility for the fans working there. This also meant that the people attracted to the job tended to be oddballs and misfits; those who’d shunned the standards of society, or had been shunned by it. They provided another dysfunctional family in my life that felt like an actual version of the Island of Misfit Toys from Rankin Bass’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
One of my fellow employees at Capital City was a Trekkie a few years older than me named Lupe. Lupe was an interesting person searching for something significant in her life, which included the traditional aspirations of marriage, family, and home. One problem was that her traditional values conflicted with her ravenous appreciation for fandom. Her desperate hunger for both Trek and marriage led me to avoid long conversations with Lupe. I’m not sure how she had ended up working at Capital City, nor what had led her into Trek fandom, but she would endlessly talk Trek (or her dating life) to anyone within range. She was also the first woman I ever heard mention that she found Patrick Stewart to be incredibly sexy. I was confused. That bald, British guy?!
Lupe’s passion for Trek resulted in an incident one Monday morning when I sleepily wandered into work and asked how her weekend had been. She replied, “It was amazing! I’ve had a major realization where I want to pursue an entirely different philosophy towards living.” I was curious. I cautiously asked her what this change was based on, worried that I would be pulled into a long, one-sided story. Lupe replied, “Chekov. I’ve been reading loads about Chekov, his philosophy and perspective on life.” I excitedly replied, “Oh, Chekhov! Did you read an interesting biography? Short stories? Plays? Did you read The Seagull yet?” Lupe gave me a puzzled look and said, “Ensign Pavel Chekov, the navigator on the Enterprise!” I had no idea how to respond. I wish I knew what Lupe had read or watched that led to her inspiration. Chekov was a supporting character, a Russian navigator who wasn’t even introduced until the second season. He was originally created to add teen appeal as a Davy Jones type since it was the era of The Monkees. I’m guessing Lupe had been inspired by one of the countless Star Trek novels, of which I’ve only read a few, or possibly the actor, Walter Koenig’s memoir, but the real source remains a mystery.
I’ve retold the Lupe story several times since then, originally with an air of superiority. How could someone be so silly as to base their life on a fictional character from an old TV series? But I’m glad to say that I’m no longer that same judgmental person. Now I see that Lupe’s decision was based on a philosophy of life as valid as anything else. There are no rules for what should or shouldn’t inspire us. Thankfully, I’ve reached a point in my life where I no longer question the source of my inspiration, I just openly embrace it. Maybe I should refer to it as the “Lupe Philosophy.”
Those days of working at Capital City were some of the best I’ve enjoyed at a job. It was flexible enough to accommodate my schedule while I finished my art degree at the University of Houston, and the true joy came from the conversations I had with my fellow employees about their passionate interests in music, philosophy, and the search for deeper meanings hidden in pop culture. I’ll never forget one ongoing discussion analyzing whether Casper the Friendly Ghost was somehow a comment on the Holocaust. “He was a dead child, his name was Casper, he first appeared in the 1940s, he was always wandering through desolate landscapes and forests.” Those were the final days before the internet arrived, making minutia easily accessible. Back then, we combined our wealth of trivial knowledge into one super nerd brain, focusing on obscure pop culture history, films, and comics of all types.
I loved my fellow misfits at Capital City, but the highlight of working there was when the new comics arrived twice a week. The unbridled enthusiasm reminds me of watching my nieces open gifts on Christmas morning, except these were my adult peers. Their sincere expression of appreciation is something that I came to recognize as a vital part of fandom. You aren’t a fan if you restrain your emotions to be “cool.” True fans don’t hesitate, with little concern for the judgment of others. You might look silly wearing that costume, but it’s something you love and will wear with pride, damning those who would scoff. This heightened sincerity might be easy to ridicule in this era of self-conscious irony, but that is also what makes it so appealing to me.
I couldn’t have anticipated that 10 years after leaving Capital City I’d find myself living in Brooklyn, desperately clinging to the familiarity of Star Trek reruns as a comfortable routine. It was the only thing keeping me from drowning in my lonely depression. With my reawakened Trek love I discovered Michael and Denise Okuda’s Star Trek Encyclopedia, which introduced me to connections between episodes, detailing every character, race, ship, planet, and point of reference. The Encyclopedia was the written equivalent to my co-workers at Capital City: an enormous source of knowledge, trivia and inspiration. I would deliriously search through it in accompaniment to the afternoon episodes, using it as extra support to keep my depression at bay for two precious hours.
When I look back on that time in Brooklyn, I imagine the three month period of depression as a vast black hole, intent on absorbing all life into it. I’ll never forget how hopelessly overwhelmed I felt, but also how I managed to find The Next Generation to cling to. The crew became my imaginary friends, bringing me along on their continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations. They gave me a sense of hope.