Meet the Virtual Family.
Star Trek has been (“and always shall be”) a part of my life for as long as I can remember, and for the foreseeable future. To varying degrees, I enjoy the show in all of its incarnations, past and present. I’m as old as The Original Series (both of us debuted in 1966). I grew up watching both TOS and its animated spinoff (TAS) in syndication. I enjoyed the TOS movies and the debut of The Next Generation during my teens and 20s in the 1980s. I spent much of my 1990s bachelor days enjoying what some call Star Trek’s golden age… the decade when we had three live-action Star Trek series (Next Gen, Deep Space Nine, Voyager), and four movies (!). The 21st century has, to date, brought us three new TV series (Enterprise, Discovery, Picard), a final TNG film, and three rebooted “Kelvinverse” movies. Each new chapter of Star Trek brings new memories for me, and not just memories of favorite characters or stories, but personal recollections of my own headspace at the time I watch them. Seeing old Star Trek episodes or movies these days feels more like leafing through a personal scrapbook album than binge-watching a TV show.
I’ll try to illustrate with I mean with a few examples. The following not be a traditional review of Star Trek per se, but nevertheless there will be…
**** STARSHIP-SIZED SPOILERS AHEAD!! ****
May 3rd, 1993.
I still remember that non-historic, utterly ordinary night 27 years ago (exactly, as of this writing). I was at work one morning when my kindly boss noticed that I wasn’t doing so well, and she let me leave early. I rode my motorcycle home (a bit shakily, perhaps) and decided to try and take a short nap. Turns out I was running a high fever (103 F, according to my handy digital thermometer). After a disturbing nap of hallucinatory fever-dream imagery that’d make Satan crap his pantaloons, I woke up early in the evening because… well, a new episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (TNG) was airing that night. Yes, I was such a diehard Trek-nerd that even a high fever wasn’t keeping me from a date with my 20” Sony Trinitron…
Turns out, I was in really bad shape; shivers, muscle aches, chills, and dizziness. If I were smart, I would’ve gone to a hospital, but there was a new Star Trek episode, so…priorities. The episode, ironically titled “Frame of Mind,” was eerily suited to my own frame of mind that night 27 years ago.
“Frame of Mind” sees the Enterprise-D’s first officer, Commander William Riker (Jonathan Frakes) rehearsing for a play called “Frame of Mind” for which he’s playing the lead. The play concerns a man locked against his will in a high security mental ward, trying to convince his doctor, played by the android Commander Data (Brent Spiner), that he is not insane, despite the doctor’s efforts to convince him otherwise. The play, directed by ship’s CMO, Dr. Crusher (Gates McFadden), is very heavy stuff…
The B-story has Riker preparing for a mission to the planet Tilonus IV. The planet’s government has collapsed into anarchy. Klingon Security Chief Worf (Michael Dorn) briefs Riker about Klingon martial arts, accidentally cutting Riker’s face, necessitating a trip to sickbay. The wound is healed, but it still hurts. A crew member nearby is being treated for a severe plasma burn, and looks at Riker with a haunted, accusing look. He later sees an alien crewman in the turbolift with a disturbingly familiar face…
Riker then performs the play for the crew. During an intense monologue, Riker sees the unknown alien crewman (David Selberg) in the audience, and reality begins to change…suddenly, he is in the play, becoming the character who is trapped in this Kafka-inspired nightmare. Data’s doctor character has now assumed the guise of the alien (now called “Dr. Syrus”) in the audience, and tells him, “I can see we have a lot of work to do.”
Riker’s reality shifts between his life aboard the Enterprise-D and the reality within the play “Frame of Mind.” Sometimes he is back to his life as the ship’s executive officer and at other times he is trapped in a Tilonius mental hospital, trying to convince his condescending therapist he is ‘cured’ and that his former ship’s colleagues such as Crusher, Worf, Counselor Troi (Marina Sirtis) and Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) are merely ‘projections’ of various elements within his own personality.
In the hospital’s common area, he is ‘helped’ by another inmate (Susanna Thompson) in a chilling scene where she tells him she is also a member Starfleet…and then proceeds to pull out a stolen spoon to ‘contact her ship.’ Riker begins to doubt everything. The episode constantly shifts back and forth between realities in increasingly eerie and terrifying scenarios,
Long story short, Riker eventually learns he is, in fact, being held captive by the government of Tilonus IV and is eventually rescued by his colleagues from the Enterprise-D. Riker is not insane, and his nightmarish ‘reality’ on Tilonus was manufactured in order to obtain intel from him. The pain in his temple was from an alien device attached to his head. Much of what he experiences in the episode is a hallucination.
The ending sees Riker and Crusher in the ship’s theater, following his performance of “Frame of Mind” for the ship’s crew. Riker insists on tearing down the set himself, as a way of cathartically putting the entire experience behind him.
My own ‘frame of mind.’
While TNG’s “Frame of Mind” is a very good episode, it’s not necessarily an exceptional one. However, my own memories of seeing it are very intense due to the circumstances in which I first saw it. I still remember sitting in front of my little TV, shivering under a throw blanket, feeling very unsure of my own senses. My own fevered vulnerability and self-doubt were well-synched with the confusion and turmoil of Will Riker.
Later that night, I soaked my sheets with sweat after several fresh rounds of nightmares (one or two of them directly inspired by TNG’s “Frame of Mind”), but the following morning, I woke to find that my fever had broken. Riker’s cathartic ‘triumph’ at the end of the episode perfectly mirrored my own relief at conquering that horrific fever. Once I managed to eat a little something, I decided to rewatch “Frame of Mind” (courtesy of the timer-set VHS recording I’d made) because I began to wonder if I’d hallucinated the entire thing. Turns out that “Frame of Mind” was still plenty disturbing (even after a hot bowl of chicken soup), but my previously fevered mindset greatly enhanced the reality-bending elements of the story. That said, Jonathan Frakes’ performance was still amazing, with or without a high fever.
How “Star Trek: Generations” saved me.
One of the very first pieces I wrote for this site was my defense of 1994’s “Star Trek: Generations” (GEN) which I’d seen repeatedly trashed online (and in print) as one of the worst Star Trek movies. I won’t go into all of the reasons why I don’t believe that, because that was the point of my original essay in the link below:
What I’d like to detail here instead is why this admittedly flawed movie was so special to me, and that is something entirely subjective. It’s not just a matter of my own personal tastes (or lack thereof), but also of the circumstances in which I first saw the film.
1994 was a brutal year for me. In March of that year, I’d been involved in a horrific motorcycle accident; hit by a drunk driver, breaking both of my legs, my hip, my right arm, my shoulder, my nose and even a few bones in my right hand. Imagine the Six Million Dollar man, minus the newfound bionic powers, but with a similarly high hospital bill. After months of surgeries and rehabilitation, I leased a new apartment downstairs from my old place (stairs were a bit harder for me afterward), and had to reset the scattered puzzle of my life, one piece at a time. Then in early August of that same year, my dad passed away. It was too much. Between slowly reintegrating back into work, scheduling followup surgeries, dealing with medical bills, an ongoing lawsuit against the drunk driver’s insurance company, and my beloved father’s passing, I was spent. My life felt like a bad country song left on ‘repeat.’ Luckily I had my friends, family and the ceaseless, reaffirming optimism of Star Trek (yes, Star Trek…a TV show) to help me navigate those difficult times.
November 18th of that year (a Friday night) I went with a Trekkie friend of mine to an opening weekend showing of “Generations” at my city’s ‘all-new’ stadium theatre (stadium seating was not commonplace prior to 1995). Right off, the movie raised my spirits with the haunting opening music from TNG composer Dennis McCarthy, the majestic launch of the Enterprise-B from spacedock, the rescue of the El-Aurian refugees from the Nexus, Worf’s promotion ceremony, the destruction of the Amargosa observatory and other shiny bits of Star Trek-spectacle. After a hellish year, it was like getting a much-needed hug from my virtual Star Trek family when I needed them most.
The movie also had a great deal of tragedy, and I felt the pain of the characters acutely. I grieved right along with Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) following the loss of his brother and nephew in a fire at Chateau Picard (seen again in “Star Trek: Picard” ). There was also the fatal crash of the USS Enterprise-D on the surface of Veridian III (a spectacular piece of miniature FX work), and of course, the climactic death of Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) himself. Kirk’s death was perhaps not as heroic or epic as some fans might’ve preferred, though I found his smaller, more human scale death to be much more poignant. It was especially painful for me, since my own late father was about the same age as Shatner when he died.
In addition to the tragedy, “Generations” also has some silly bits, too. The Enterprise-B’s Captain John Harriman (Alan Ruck) is more Gilligan than starship captain material, Data’s emotion chip histrionics get old very fast, and the Klingon Duras sisters are about as camp as the 1960s “Batman” TV series.
“Generations” is not perfect, granted, but it’s the ending that really gets to me. The film ends with Picard and Riker surveying the damage of the lost Enterprise-D’s bridge, as Picard observes, “Someone once told me that time is a predator that stalks us all our lives. I rather believe that time is a companion who goes with us on the journey, and reminds us to cherish every moment, …because they’ll never come again. What we leave behind is not as important as how we lived. After all, Number One, we’re only mortal.”
Those words, beautifully spoken by Stewart, and (no doubt) written hurriedly by TNG scribes Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga to meet the November 1994 release date, somehow rang far deeper and more profoundly in me than I suspect the two writers ever intended. Those words were the very tonic I needed at that time.
I went to see the film several more times that winter, including a New Year’s Eve screening with a new friend from work (we bonded over that film, and remain friends to this day). While many saw the film as a downer, I saw it as an affirmation. In the face of loss, there was also a sense of growth. “Generations” spoke to me in a uniquely personal way that I suspect it won’t for most casual viewers.
“Gain strength from the sharing…”
Now, I bring this to you, valued reader: Would you like to share any unique memories or circumstances you’ve experienced while watching “Star Trek”? Have you ever found a particular Star Trek episode or movie personally inspiring for some reason? Has a Star Trek story spoke to you in some other profound or personal way? Maybe there is an episode that gives you an involuntary smile or an uproarious laugh? Please share your own experiences in the comments section below, and (to quote “Sybok”) let us “gain strength from the sharing!”
And, of course, during this difficult time I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health during this difficult and deadly coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic. For the time being, please continue to practice safe-distancing, wear masks in public, and be as safe as possible. Remember that Star Trek can be safely viewed in many streaming formats, including CBS-All Access, Netflix and Amazon Prime.
Let’s all do our best to continue to live long and prosper!