This seemingly simple directive proved difficult. Despite being constantly exhausted, sleep was elusive, mostly due to—you know—not being able to breathe. I spent my days on the couch, and my nights propped up in bed with every pillow I could find, like the Elephant Man, afraid that if I somehow fell into a horizontal position, I would instantly die. When the coughing fits would ensue, I’d close my eyes and speak my mantra, softly saying, “Breathe... Breathe... Breathe…,” over and over, until my dumb body finally listened.
In addition to the drugs, the tea and water, the crackers, and the clementines (about all I could ingest), there was, of course, TV. A lot of TV. Like… all the TV. My first quarantine binge was a rewatch of MAD MEN, the entire seven seasons of which I managed to get through in a matter of weeks. And geez, that Don Draper is a piece of work, am I right?
And when I say, STAR TREK, I mean the original series (or, TOS, in the proper parlance). I’m kind of a classicist. For me, the original is usually the best. And with something as groundbreaking as STAR TREK, it’s hard to be objectively critical towards the relative shortcomings of its lesser episodes in light of everything that the series got right.
I didn’t exactly “binge” TREK. I would usually do only one episode per night (via Netflix), and then switch to something for which I felt free to pay half-attention while fighting to fall asleep, not caring if I dozed off in the middle of, say, THE BLACKLIST or CRIMINAL MINDS (a terrible program I only watch because of a Paget Brewster obsession that I’m certain she’d find nothing but charming).
In short time, my nightly STAR TREK viewing became kind of the highlight of my day. I found myself looking forward to bedtime (even though, let’s be honest, given the circumstances, that could’ve been 7pm if I’d wanted) and my nightly voyage with the USS Enterprise, boldly going where no man (ahem) had gone before. There were episodes I remembered vividly, ones I sort of hazily recalled, and others I probably hadn’t seen since watching reruns as a kid at my grandparents’ house when they’d babysit me in the 1970s.
What resonated most with me every night as I sat ramrod in bed was the underlying message that creator Gene Roddenberry imbued into the series and for which I found myself in dire need: Hope. In episodes both good (“The Devil in the Dark,” “Amok Time,” “Mirror, Mirror” to name a few) and not-so-good (“Spock’s Brain,” “Spectre of the Gun,” “For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky”), Roddenberry’s vision of a future in which humanity had evolved to excise our baser instincts in favor of a more humanist, tolerant, and forward-looking existence was an even more soothing balm than the dollops of Vicks VapoRub slathered on my wheezing chest.
And this optimistic vision of the future wasn’t just helping me to fight my own personal health crisis; perhaps even more importantly, it was giving me a much-needed catharsis from the other deadly scourge America was suffering, the final year of Donald Trump’s presidency. Space Force notwithstanding, the Trump administration (or, “administration,” as it should really be in quotes given its lack of administrating) espoused policies and attitudes that were completely anathema to those that Starfleet will come to represent in a few centuries. I NEEDED to see people—fictional, sure, but whatever—wanting to expand their horizons, striving to help others (even sentient rocks!), to do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, even at the risk of their own safety. I don’t think Bones would’ve had to yell at anyone on the Enterprise to wear a mask.
My daily STAR TREK ritual continued after I recovered from the virus, eventually shifting from bedtime viewing to what I’d put on the tube while I was making and eating dinner every evening (once that ritual resumed). As I wended my way through the third, final, and—as universally acknowledged—weakest season, I started to wonder what was going to replace it in my queue once I hit the final episode?
There had been other TV binges through quarantine, of course. I plowed through THE TWILIGHT ZONE and THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW and BOSCH and SCTV and DARK and SUCCESSION and OZARK and some others I can’t quite think of right now because I’m getting bummed out at the thought of how many hours I’ve spent watching TV the past eleven months but ANYWAY MY POINT IS…. None of those shows provided me with the kind of catharsis that STAR TREK did. Okay, maybe DICK VAN DYKE came close (albeit in a very different, more personally aspirational way).
STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION. But here’s the problem: I didn’t like TNG (again, vernacular). I watched it sporadically in its initial run from 1987 to 1994, but it never clicked with me the way TOS did. Particularly as the show became more invested in family dynamics (in the final season, there are THREE EPISODES IN A ROW about fathers and sons!) and romantic entanglements (I’m sorry, you know who should never get together? A Klingon and a Betazoid), it just never felt like the TREK I loved.
Also, Wesley Crusher. Never forget Wesley Crusher. Lord knows I’ve tried.
Also, Wesley Crusher. Never forget Wesley Crusher. Lord knows I’ve tried.
But, with a little prodding from my friend Adam (an avowed TNG acolyte whose opinion I do value) and knowing how much my brother, Ken worships Jean-Luc Picard, captain of the Enterprise-D, I decided to give TNG another shot, from the beginning.
It was a tough go at first. Unlike TOS, which found its footing rather quickly (after the post-pilot reboot, of course), TNG took a while to figure out who goes where and how everyone fit together on the sparkly, if flatter new Enterprise (the bridge of which always evoked more an airport VIP lounge than the command center of a Federation starship to me). Heck, they went through like three different chief engineers before finally realizing Geordi LaForge was the obvious choice for the gig.
Also, Wesley. There was Wesley.
But it’s not just Picard that endeared me to TNG this time around. I actually grew to care for the characters (although no, I was not sad to see Wesley go in Season 4). I came to love Data (even if, to me, it seems plainly obvious from the start that he absolutely has emotions); I stopped thinking of Will Riker as simply a chair-straddling cheeseball; I began to see the need for Deanna to have the seat next to the captain on the bridge (although I wish the character had been treated better in the series, and wasn’t mysteriously absent in some episodes when she’d be most needed). I thought Ro Laren was a fantastic addition and wish Michelle Forbes had been willing to commit to the series as more than just a sometimes guest star. But more than the characters themselves, it was their interactions that came to define the series, their incredibly believable relationships with each other, both one-on-one and as a larger group. I still had issues with the more soap operatic installments, shows that centered around children, and pretty much every single Klingon-centric episode (Honor! Tradition! Honor! WE GET IT ALREADY! Geez, give it a rest, shellhead!). And, again, the quality of the shows varied widely from great (“Darmok,” “Chain of Command,” “Sarek”) to, um, WTF (“The Child,” “Sub Rosa,” “When the Bough Breaks,” and of course the infamous “Code of Honor”). But once it gelled, this cast and crew became a true ensemble that engendered the same kind of inspirational affection I’d felt for Kirk, Spock, Bones, Scotty, Sulu, Uhura, and, uh, maybe sometimes Chekov.
(I should also make a note that I followed up every episode of both series the next day with its corresponding installment of the fantastic MISSION LOG PODCAST, in which hosts John Champion and Ken Ray [since departed] pull apart each episode with wit, intelligence, and alacrity [sadly, a scarcity in podcasts]. If you’re into TREK at all, I can’t recommend it enough. As of this writing, they’re up to Season 5 of DS9 [with Norman C. Lao replacing Ken Ray as of 2019], so there’s lots more to come.)
As my TREK marathon stretched out over month after month I realized it was actually going to outlast the Trump Administration, which felt… really good. And while the Orange Overlord’s ouster didn’t quite go as planned, it was still a happy ending (even if, as with TREK, it was an open-ended finale).
I’m not ashamed to admit that I sat there with tears streaming down my face, even though I knew what was coming; “All Good Things…” is one of the handful of TNG episodes I knew well (and greatly enjoyed). My emotions were more about the totality and weight of this journey that I had taken with both Enterprises over the course of 256 (give or take) mostly-consecutive nights. I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the aid that Gene Roddenberry (et al) had given me in dealing with a serious illness, a forced, solitary confinement in my home, and a daily reminder that the fate of my country and the world was in the hands of a malevolent being that made Khan Noonien-Singh look like a Keebler Elf (with much better pecs).
So now what? What takes the place of these two shows? I guess I could go back to the 1973-74 animated TREK series (which is now considered canon), but I don’t have CBS All-Access (which also precludes giving PICARD and LOWER DECKS a shot). I’ve watched all the movies starring both casts (the TNG films being even more spotty than the TOS ones… call me crazy, STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE remains my favorite film starring the original crew, and I really like the much-derided NEMESIS, the final TNG flick). Despite getting well into Season 2 of DEEP SPACE NINE, I gotta say, it does nothing for me (if I have to hear the term, “gold-pressed latinum” one more time, I’m going to explode). I’ve only ever seen a few episodes of VOYAGER, but it’s my mom’s favorite, so I’ll give that a shot. I sampled ENTERPRISE (not bad, I’ll probably finish that one next, timeline be damned). And I just recently caught up with the first season of STAR TREK: DISCOVERY thanks to CBS’ rerunning on its old-fashioned non-streaming tee-vee network. It’s fine. I guess.
But I have the same issue with every post-TNG iteration of STAR TREK, and it’s something that actually began in later seasons of TNG. From the beginning, Gene Roddenberry insisted that in the future he created, conflict would mostly be a thing of the past. Granted, seeing as how conflict is the very foundation of drama, you’d think this would be a bit of a hindrance to storytelling, but TOS managed to work around it (and few would argue that the relationship between Spock and Bones was sunshine and lollipops). But there were specific aspects of 20th century society that he wanted to paint as anachronistic: racism, sexism, capitalism, religion, and poverty, to name a few. Those things could be shown as existing on more unenlightened alien worlds, but in the Federation… nuh-uh.
Not every writer and producer who worked on STAR TREK under The Great Bird of the Galaxy (as Roddenberry was known) shared this vision, and in the wake of the series creator’s death in 1991, those thematic shackles were lifted (they had actually already begun to loosen after Roddenberry took a less active role in the series after the first season). Crew members bickered more, altruism seemed to take a back seat to lesser virtues with some characters. The existence of God and money in the 24th century seemed to be at the whim of the writer of any given episode (how can you “buy a round” in Ten Forward if everything costs nothing?). The different shows’ inconsistencies and darker tones may have made things easier for the creators, but for me…. Something got lost.
I always knew that STAR TREK was more than just an iconic science fiction franchise, I always understood its importance in the realms of culture and science, I just never dreamed that it would come to mean so much to me in a time of strife. I NEEDED that daily escape into a world in which people are GOOD and things are BETTER and disease and hate and selfishness are things of the PAST as much as I needed the antibiotics and steroids prescribed to me. Maybe more. Beverly Crusher may not have waved a beeping, blinking, gray hand-held device over my chest to instantly cure my Covid / pneumonia, but the fictional world in which she lives played a big role in keeping me from falling into despair during the past, really difficult eleven months. And for that, I’ll always be grateful to the crews of the USS Enterprise and those who made it so.
STAR TREK TOS & TNG posters by Dusty Abell