Understanding the World through Star Trek

"Star Trek USS Enterprise" | Art by Hideyoshi. Used with permission.
Star Trek debuted on television two years after I was born. I never knew a world without it and, in a lot of ways, the series and I grew up together.

My father served in the U.S. Air Force and we moved frequently during my childhood. Dad’s postings took us from Nevada to the United Kingdom and back across the Atlantic to Idaho and Texas. Through all of that, Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and the rest of the Enterprise crew were the fixed stars in my universe.

Because I was young when I first saw the series, my limited vocabulary led me to the conclusion that the series was called Star Truck and that the Enterprise was their “truck” for space travel. When we left the U.S. for the U.K. I remember watching episodes with my babysitter. At least until we saw What Are Little Girls Made Of? and the idea of human-seeming androids scared me so badly I stayed away from the show for a while, at least until my return to the U.S. when I bonded with some local Idaho geeks over our shared love of the series.

From the beginning, I loved Star Trek because of the “cool” factor. I’d watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon, so it wasn’t hard to believe that we’d have crews out exploring the galaxy before long. The series opened the door for me to understand an exciting future world. It also helped me understand my own world.

When I realized that I could apply the show to my life, it opened a new world of ideas for me.

Growing up in a military household has its own unique challenges. The frequent moves, the possibility that the active duty parent might be sent around the world on short notice, and the all-encompassing military culture are difficult to explain to people who haven’t lived the life. For those of us in the inside, it was hard to find role models to help us make sense of the world.

By the time we transferred to Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho, I’d lived in six different places— three of them overseas. In that time, Star Trek had entered re-runs and I rushed home from school every day to catch the afternoon’s episode. I was twelve or so when I saw the episode “Tomorrow is Yesterday.”

The story opened on an Air Force base with men wearing uniforms like my dad put on every morning. The rest of the episode dealt with a time-travelling Enterprise, an Air Force pilot, and attempts to infiltrate Offutt Air Force base in Nebraska. At one point, Kirk tells the pilot that the Enterprise belongs to a combined service.

Before that moment, I hadn’t made the connection between the ranks and uniforms in Star Trek and my own experience. I hadn’t considered that Kirk was bound to military discipline just like my own father. It was a moment of revelation for me.

I understood what it meant to be military—to live a code of selfless honour and to operate within a strict set of regulations. Through Kirk, I began to understand my own life. When my father was dispatched to Korea in August of 1976 as a result of the tree-cutting incident, I understood that it was his duty to go. The politics involved were beyond my comprehension, but Kirk had taught me that duty didn’t require understanding—just commitment.

When I realized that I could apply the show to my life, it opened a new world of ideas for me. A Private Little War helped me to make sense of the war in Vietnam. A Taste of Armageddon gave me a way to think about war in general. Patterns of Force introduced me the dangerous appeal of “strong” leadership. Bread and Circuses taught me that even poor decisions can be redeemed. The series gave me a safe place to stand while I examined ideas about what kind of a person I wanted to become.

I hadn’t considered that Kirk was bound to military discipline just like my own father.

Through subsequent assignments and military moves, Star Trek gave me perspective and comfort. Gradually new stories emerged—first in the animated series, which wasn’t great but it was Star Trek, and then in new print stories. What started as a trickle of novels eventually grew into a flood. Despite my best efforts, I failed to keep up. Yet it was always comforting to know that there were new stories out there when I needed them. New stories brought new opportunities to reflect on my own life.

Then came the films, which varied widely in quality, but who cared? They were Star Trek. Between The Search for Spock and The Voyage Home, I met and married a wonderful woman who enjoyed the shows and movies with me. Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered two years after we married and it became our weekly TV date. From there, the franchise spawned three more series with a fourth scheduled for the fall of 2017. High-end fan productions like Star Trek Continues revisit the classic series with new stories.

Over time, the franchise has explored new territory both literally and metaphorically. As society changes, the writers have continued to use Starfleet as a lens to view our own world. The on-screen characters have given me a way to think about terrorism, technology, bioethics, and personal growth.

I love the new stories and I enjoy being able to continue my explorations in the company of the men and women of Starfleet, but I will always be drawn back to the original crew. No matter how I feel at any given moment, pulling up an episode with Kirk and company takes me back to my pre-teen years when I was just beginning to understand the shape and texture of the world.

Kevin Cummings

Kevin Cummings

Staff Writer at Area of Effect
Kevin grew up reading the ABCs—Asimov, Bradbury and Clarke. Since then he's expanded his fandoms to include films, television, web series and any other geek property he can find.

He has been married to an extraordinarily patient woman for more than three decades and they have two adult sons. Kevin also has entirely too many DVD boxes with the words "Complete Series" on the cover. He enjoys exploring themes of faith through his fandoms.
Kevin Cummings