Personal Essay: Star Trek, in Three Memories

Happy November, everyone! I’m starting up my blog again with what is admittedly an oddball of a post. It was originally a handwritten exercise for my personal nonfiction class, until the thought occurred to me: “Hey, this is about Star Trek, and I write about Star Trek sometimes on my blog, so why not upload it to the internet? I’m sure people will want to read it.” The jury’s out on that last one, but I am indeed sharing the essay I wrote, as a fun little celebration of a franchise I love. Here is my story of growing up as a Trekkie, told through three memories from three different years:

2005

When I was very young1, too young to really understand what was going on, I used to watch reruns of Next Generation and Enterprise with my mother. The only things that stuck with me were a scattering of eerie images, without any wider context. I remembered the tar monster that killed Tasha Yar, and the creepy but superbly realized Sheliak captain—snapshots of a weird and wonderful universe. But the most surprising vignettes were from Enterprise. I vividly recalled seeing Earth blow up, the crust cracking apart and lava seeping up until the whole planet just disintegrated into molten chunks. Later that episode, a similar fate befell the Enterprise NX-01, which valiantly battled an alien fleet and then succumbed to its own fiery CGI explosion. Six-year-old me was completely stunned.

There it goes!

Even if I’d understood any of the context at the time, I didn’t remember it for long—fast forward a year and all I had were two shocking, confusing images. I wondered if I’d simply dreamt it. If not, how could the show have gone on with both Earth and the Enterprise obliterated? In second grade, when I was starting to learn how to use computers, I hopped on my parents’ desktop and searched the Star Trek: Enterprise Wikipedia article for answers, only to find no mention of what should have been a series-defining event. Maybe it was a dream after all.

Well, I later learned that I had watched the Season Three episode “Twilight,” still one of my favorite installments in the series, and even the franchise. Its events, however, were not fully canon. They demonstrated a tried-and-true staple of Trek writing: the Reset Button. The writers leveraged a funky space phenomenon—in this case, time-traveling neural parasites2—to create an alternate reality where they could implement whatever crazy ideas they wanted, only for the status quo to be reset at the end. It sounds like a lazy cop-out, yes, but some of Star Trek‘s finest episodes have made good use of the Reset Button. Here it serves the purpose of showing how high the stakes are in the wider story arc3—if the Enterprise fails in its mission, humanity really will be destroyed. It’s a brilliant narrative move that adds seriousness to the third season, which up to that point had been largely spinning its wheels.

But that was a little too much to wrap my mind around at that early age. For years afterwards, when I looked back on Enterprise, I remembered a perplexingly apocalyptic show.

2013

2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness was a misfire released between two superb movies. Its plot is a convoluted rehash of Wrath of Khan, it introduces a number of poorly-thought-out gimmicks like interstellar beaming and an apparent cure for death, and while I could perhaps live with those first two things, the film’s slapdash premise about terrorism comes across as pointlessly dark and actionized4—sound and fury signifying nothing. In the Trek oeuvre it is rather skippable, alongside notorious stinkers like Generations and Nemesis.

Benedict Cumberbatch is a great actor—but not convincing in the role of Khan. They should have just let the legacy of the great Ricardo Montalban rest, and done the hard work of making a compelling new villain for Cumberbatch to play.

But that’s 2021 me talking—2013 me was blown away by the spectacle of Star Trek on the big screen, and had no such criticisms. I caught it no fewer than three times before it left theaters. The first time, I went with my family; the second, I brought along a friend who was even more of a Trekkie than I was; the third, in mid-June, was part of a birthday party for another friend, who would soon be moving across the country. There were about five other guests and they were all from outside my social circle. After we convened at my friend’s place, his mom drove us all out to a small-ish theater5 on the outskirts of town, where we partook in all those classic moviegoing rituals—tickets at the box office, pocporn and soda at the concessions counter, excited chitchat as we wandered through cavernous halls flanked by neon lights—and found our seats in a spacious, mostly empty auditorium, eager to start.

The problem was, the film that played after the previews was not Star Trek Into Darkness. We’d accidentally wandered into a showing for Man of Steel. My friend wanted to leave and catch whatever was left of Star Trek, but some of his guests decided to stay put because they’d rather watch a Superman movie. Kind of rude, if you ask me. But in any case we loyalists were fortunate—we crossed over to the correct auditorium, and saw that our mix-up had only cost us the first couple of scenes. The birthday party was saved!

One of the other guests, incidentally, was a girl I’d previously met in eighth-grade P.E., on whom I had one of those silly adolescent crushes. After the film was over, we all talked over cupcakes and pizza, and I did my very best to impress her with my knowledge of the film we’d just watched—I’d point out various little continuity Easter eggs, in the hopes that she’d consider me smart, and thus dateable. It didn’t quite work out that way.

2019

In the dorms at my first college, every floor had a lounge, and every lounge had a TV. It seems senselessly luxurious in retrospect. When my friends and I declared a movie night, which was very often, all we had to do was board an elevator, hop from floor to floor, and claim the first vacant lounge we came across. Those innocent times handed us nothing more to worry about than missing HDMI cables, or questionable smells from the communal microwaves. We’d watch classic films like Starship Troopers and Scarface; we’d work our way episode by episode through Star Trek: Enterprise6; sometimes, we’d just goof off and watch whatever seemed amusing.

Around April 2019, very late on a weekend night, I suggested we take a look at “The Haunting of Deck Twelve,” a late-season episode of Star Trek Voyager. I had it on the authority of this list that it was really quite spooky; that seemed good enough for a watch and some giggles.

The story follows the ship’s alien chef, Neelix—a widely hated character— who gathers the Borg children—also kind of annoying—around a futuristic campfire, and tells them a ghost story. Something about mysterious power outages and a haunted nebula. I can’t remember the details, but in my defense it’s not a very good episode. Unlike some more successfully spooky Trek offerings, such as TNG’s “Night Terrors” and “Doctor’s Orders” on Enterprise, this one is mostly filler and doesn’t establish a very effective mood. However, there is one memorable scene: Neelix ventures out alone in some remote region of the ship, and is assailed by what appears to be a ghost.

Ordinarily, this would have been a very mild jump scare, and I would have thought “Oh, that’s a little creepy, I guess. Cool.” But consider the situation from my perspective at the time:

  • It’s about 1:00 AM in a dormitory floor lounge. Everyone has left, except for you and a friend who has seemingly evolved beyond the need for sleep.
  • You’re sitting on a big, comfortable couch, so plush you could just sink into it and never emerge again. Your eyelids are very heavy. It doesn’t help that you ate a titanic amount of candy a few hours ago, and the sugar rush has given way to immense fatigue.
  • Nothing very interesting is going on. Just Neelix wandering through a darkened ship, while the showrunners try to make its open, friendly, antiseptic interior somehow scary. Your eyes are semi-closed, and the episode is just a blur of sounds and pictures without context, without meaning, just the way Star Trek was when you were too young to understand it. You’ll be asleep any second now…
  • Suddenly, you hear an eerie wail, and see the following image rush towards you on the TV screen:
Boo!

I gave my friend a whole new jump scare when I jolted awake and unleashed a stream of choice profanities. He couldn’t stop laughing. For the rest of the episode, I was at no risk of dozing off again.

—-

Big thanks to my nonfiction instructor for inspiring me to write this one—and thanks for giving it a read, folks. I’ll see y’all next time.


  1. The fact that this was in 2005 may prove to some of you that I’m still very young.
  2. I promise, it makes perfect sense in context.
  3. I do suspect that they broke the bank on this one, though. After one crazy, action-packed hour of television, the following three installments gave us: 1) everyone running around a Wild West planet in borrowed cowboy costumes; 2) a quiet drama set entirely aboard the ship; 3) time travel to America c. 2004. Not exactly a tall order for the VFX department.
  4. I have an obvious opportunity here to gripe about the new shows, but I’ll refrain. Instead I’d like to point out that the other reboot films, Star Trek (2009) and Beyond, were similarly action-packed, but with a wonderful sense of playfulness. Beyond even incorporated genuine Star Trek themes and continuity, which in my view makes it the best of the three.
  5. That particular theater holds a special place in my heart, because four years later I would get my first job there.
  6. It took a while to finish this one! We wrapped up as late as January of this year.

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