I was lucky. I grew up in an era when Star Trek was new. This was the original series where so many of the pressing problems of the time were solved long ago in the storylines. Although I was a little young to catch the first season in its prime time slot because it was after my bedtime, I initially saw the show when the first season summer reruns aired earlier in the evening. I loved space and the idea of space travel to explore new worlds. This was during the era of the Apollo program, and the first moon landing occurred just a little over a month after the final episode of the original Star Trek series first aired.
When I first saw the show I had already developed a keen interest in math and science, and Star Trek fascinated me. I knew it was science fiction and that most of the technology they enjoyed didn’t yet exist. Some of it never will, but it served to spark our imaginations and make so many of us hunger for more. My love of Star Trek no doubt had an influence on my later career as a software/systems engineer in the aerospace industry where many of my colleagues also developed a love of science fiction and especially of Star Trek growing up.
When I was in fifth grade, I wanted to be Mr. Spock for Halloween, so of course I needed a set of Vulcan ears which became quite the family adventure. My father was a plastic surgeon and often used modeling in his work. He sculpted the most beautiful Vulcan ears I had ever seen out of wax that was pretty close in color to my skin tone. Unfortunately, I had to go to school before he finished them, so he needed another model for fit purposes. He used my mother’s ears to complete them after I left for school that morning, and the tragedy was that because my ears were thicker than my mother’s, the finished appendages were too small for my ears. Still, they were exquisite to look at. I lost them at some point over the years, but the memory remains, not just of the ears themselves, but of how my father molded them and created what was truly a work of art.
When I was in eighth grade, I started a Star Trek club with a few fellow Trekkies at school. This was before the Starfleet Technical Manual had been released, so it was challenging to determine the size specifications of various props to which we didn’t have direct access. Although my father had died shortly after he made those Vulcan ears, my grandfather and I were close. Gramps was always up for a challenge, so we embarked on a new Star Trek project inspired by my school club. I wanted to create some models of the hand phasers they used on the show. I had taken still photographs of a few scenes from various episodes from the television, and we enlarged them to get an idea of the proportional dimensions of the props they used. These weren’t the pistol type phasers (Star Trek’s version of a typical science fiction ray gun) but instead were devices that looked a little like small TV remote controls that could almost be palmed and worked just like the bigger versions in the stories. My grandfather built a wooden model of a hand phaser from what we could piece together from the pictures. He had some dental impression material that we used to create a mold of the model that would allow us to make multiple copies. We made our mold of the initial model in two halves and filled each half with a clear liquid resin that we could monitor as it hardened to a fairly heavy, almost indestructible replica of the wooden model. Once each replica hardened, we glued the halves together and I painted them based on the pictures. We only made a few, and I gave them to my friends in our Star Trek club at school. I kept one, but like the Vulcan ears it disappeared at some point likely to the same void in which the missing socks from the dryer reside.
Later that same year I attended my first science fiction convention which was largely consumed by everything Star Trek. I haven’t attended many conventions throughout my life, but this experience opened a new world to me. My only remaining remnant from that convention is a small tribble that I acquired directly from Bjo Trimble, Star Trek’s number one fan and organizer of the campaign that kept the show alive for a third season. She was also the driving force behind the early compendiums of all things Star Trek predating the advent of the ubiquitous online repositories we have today. Although there were souvenirs beyond the imagination including models, photographs, books, costumes, and numerous other treasures available for sale, the tribbles were the single biggest draw. There were tribbles of every size and color. Some of them moved. Some of them pulsated. Some of them purred. But most of them didn’t do anything at all other than remind folks of the fuzzy little aliens that appeared in the episode The Trouble with Tribbles from the second season. These cute, little, fuzzy creatures represented the greatest threat to civilization that the Enterprise crew ever had to face and served as a warning about overpopulation. Tribbles didn’t do anything other than eat and reproduce exponentially in short order, but they were adorable.
Over time, it has been interesting to follow how technology has evolved and see how it compares to those Star Trek stories. The early flip phones were inspired by the original Star Trek communicators, albeit with a much more limited range and greater level of infrastructure required. Medical imaging also comes surprisingly close to some of the advances described in those early stories. It is amusing to notice how it is impossible to keep the old designs from the original series in place and show a prequel design that is both less technologically advanced than the original series and is still ahead of where we are today. One need look no further than a modern tablet to see that played out rather dramatically. Computer technology has left the original Star Trek series in the dust between tablets, digital assistants, and autonomous vehicles. It is interesting that even with our significant advances in artificial intelligence, some of the language usage issues that stuck out in the early days of Star Trek still remain – AI has a lot of difficulty interpreting context dependent speech, particularly satire.
Some of the later Star Trek series had fun with the juxtaposition of old time science fiction and the “current” technological reality in their storylines. The later series also advanced the technology further beyond our current state, and sometimes took the storylines in many more directions, not all of them desirable. One series in particular, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, showed the darker side of the Star Trek universe embracing many of the vices and shortcomings we face in the real world. It’s still an escape, but it’s far more in touch with the dystopian side of science fiction than many of the other Star Trek franchises.
Because it was the first and was a new concept, even with its shortcomings, the original Star Trek series has a place in our history. It inspired real-life scientific advancement. It spawned many more series in the universe it created allowing a wide range of stories to unfold. To this day, there are aspects of the worlds in those stories that remain appealing and hopeful particularly as we face difficult times.