Saturday, January 30, 2010

Why I Love Star Trek, Essay #6: Glenn-Paul Nehlsen

Hi, everyone.  Kevin here.  This next essay in the "Why I Love Star Trek" series is from one of my best friends, Glenn-Paul.  This is another friendship for me created by Star Trek.  When we first met, we happened to get on the topic of Star Trek, and it formed an immediate and long lasting bond.  So without further ado, enjoy the essay.

Why I Love Star Trek
by Glenn-Paul Nehlsen

I am reminded of words spoken at the beginning of another science fiction show that was popular at the time: "We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical. We can roll the image, make it flutter."
However, my memories are not really of The Outer Limits, but of my brother, kneeling on the floor in front of the bed in my parents' bedroom and frantically fumbling with the back of the 11" screen television, with its broken antenna replaced with a wire hangar, its rounded hook straightened so that it could be jammed into the hollow core and its normally triangular frame bent and stretched, reaching for the UHF signal we were struggling to find. The picture on the screen was rolling over and over again, while my 14-year-old brother (six years older than I) was experimenting with the knob on the back that read: V.Hold, twisting the metal hangar, and asking me if the picture was any better. He would eventually get it right.

Through the crackling static in the volume, which I turned up (and got yelled at for messing with the TV controls), we could both hear the high-pitched, half ooh-ing and half humming voice, mixed in with the occasional familiar whooosh that told how much of the show we were already missing. Our parents were in the living room, as usual, watching the only other television in the house, a console set with only me for a remote control. At least that one was connected directly to the big antenna on the roof; they wouldn't miss the beginning of any of their shows.

My brother, Tommy, and I were constantly at odds with each other. This was one of the rare moments when we would get along (except, of course, for him yelling at me for touching the TV controls and obviously making things worse) as it was the only condition under which Mom and Dad would let us use their bedroom. Sometimes we would watch M*A*S*H. Sometimes the Gong Show. This was all dependent on when we would be allowed in there. But our favorite show to watch was Star Trek.

Looking backward now with greater clarity, I realize that the most probable draw to the show for my brother was the ample parading of scantily clad women, both human and alien, all of which seem to have worked in some soft-core adult film industry just prior to being on this show. I liked the phasers! I liked the fights. And I liked the idea of streaking through outer space on a never-ending adventure. I'm sure I also liked the muted grey sets speckled with primary colors. I told you; I was only eight.

As a kid growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood of suburban Chicago where the only jobs women seemed to have were cashier, phone operator, nurse, teacher, secretary or mom, it immediately stood out to me that the characters on the show were white, black, oriental (we didn't really say Asian back then just yet), and Indian. Come to think of it, we hadn't really begun yet to use many terms for races that would come to be known as more politically correct. At least I was growing up in an era past the time of using negro, but unfortunately not past the time of using other words that were prominently in my brother's vocabulary.

Time went by as I continued to grow up, I and began to understand more of what I was seeing on these old Star Trek reruns. As I learned more about the cold war with U.S.S.R I was able to finally perceive how bold it was to have a Russian, and sooo thrown-in-your-face Russian, officer on the Starship Enterprise. It gave me hope that we weren't really all going to die in massive nuclear explosions all over the country and planet to be known as World War III. It gave me faith that any men could get along. As long as they were, y'know, men.

It was pretty obvious to even a twelve-year-old me that women were still getting shafted, even in the future in space. The women on this ship were assistants, nurses and pretty much secretaries. Even Lt. Uhura, an officer on the ship and a main character in the show, spent most of her time placing and receiving calls. I hadn't known at the time that the creator of the show, Gene Roddenberry, originally intended a female first officer, going so far as to include one in the original pilot. But the powers-that-be weren't ready to let that happen.

This aspect of the show made me grateful I was born a boy; but, it made me sad for the treatment of the women and the girls I knew. While the show was still chock full of misogyny and objectification it managed still, somehow, to sow in me the seeds of diversity, unity and acceptance. But, while this was part of the light helping those seeds to grow, seeds require more than light. They require the dark, dank underside that, in my case, was represented by many of the people surrounding me. My brother, with all of his swelling cynicism, racism, misogyny and homophobia, would quickly rise to the top of that list.

I would find others along the way - teachers, friends, authors and philosophers - who would become a more comfortable and satisfying presence, which I could bathe in to help cleanse myself of the negativity around me and which I could drink in to learn more about how to accept others for there differences and hope that others might some day accept me for my differences, some of which I was just beginning to learn and understand about myself.

The original Star Trek series faded for me and gave way to mostly animated shows like The Transformers, G.I. Joe, and The Thundercats. Much of my time during the junior high years was spent with my closest friends watching cartoons, playing with action figures, and playing Dungeons & Dragons, both the role-playing game and our own outdoor D&D-inspired games of imagination.

I started dating girls, even losing my virginity prior to high school. Many thought it was awesome to have happened so young, and some thought it was way too early. I think for me it was not more than a catalyst or an early warning signal that something wasn't quite right. It was during the summer of before my sophomore year in high school that I met another boy who would become my best friend before becoming my first love.

For many gay people the coming out process, which I would define as the point between starting to identify as gay and being comfortable in that role, last years or sometimes lifetimes. For me, I firmly believe it took about one day, one day which began with me realizing my feelings for another boy and ended with me being both comfortable and exhilarated in that role. I never disliked myself for or worried that I was less of a person for being gay (or bisexual, as I still could romantically or even physically enjoy girls at that point of my life). I never felt ashamed. But, I did feel fear.

What would my family say? What would kids at school do? Would my mother cry? (She did.)

For the first time of my life, having been my whole life a middle-class, christian-raised, white American male, I was part of a minority. I enjoyed my first relationship immensely with him, for years, but it was largely kept secret, for fear of the unknown.

About this time, Star Trek: The Next Generation would appear on television. I was at first uninterested, thinking nobody could replace Kirk and Spock and Bones and the rest. But, I caught a couple of episodes while doing homework or just hiding out in my room. After all, it did star a cute boy my age who was super cute and ultra smart and kept saving the ship. What studious, gay, teenage boy wouldn't like that. Soooo... I started watching the show.

It was obvious right away that the new show went leaps and bounds in correcting many of the problems of the original series. While the show still remained largely interracial, and not just the main subcategories, but representations of multi-nationalities and cultures rather than colors. The show had a female chief medical officer, who had no professional equal, and a female security chief who plainly kicked your ass! But they didn't stop there. They added more non-humans, even some from cultures who were previously enemies. They added a physically-challenged officer in the guise of a blind pilot. And they added an android, a lifeform on a continuing journey to find his place in their society.

Their mission of exploration more obviously began to include peace, justice, diplomacy, honor, duty and tradition. Episode after episode dealt with the human condition, while entertaining with fresh and exciting story lines (after post first season) and developing characters we could grow to care about, including a smart teenage boy continuously learning how much he had to offer, despite the doubts and repressions of so many.

For the most part I watched the show alone in my room. I had no idea about how popular either incarnation of Star Trek really was, just that I had liked them. After I turned eighteen and moved out of the house, I moved in with friends who were avid Star Trek fans. We all got together to watch each episode every week. Suddenly, I was part of a Star Trek community, an entire set of people who fell in love with the action, writing and suspense along with concepts like duty, honor and honesty. I had found a new home.

I started reading the books, which I hadn't even realized existed before then. Books have a way of completely transforming a television show by delving more deeply into characters and cultures. This created a greater sense of three-dimensionalism for me, a way of stimulating the imagination in such a way that you could conceptualize a reality in these characters and these places.

In time, Deep Space 9 and Voyager and even Enterprise would come into existence creating additional levels of dimensional reality, including over different periods of time, and investing in even more levels of understanding the human condition, of our societies and ourselves. Star Trek became more than just a television show, more even than a multimedia conglomeration. It became more than an idea. It became an encyclopedia of knowledge, a universe of culture and diversity, and framework for hope and faith. Star Trek is a world of its own, and the Federation is a place I would like to live.

While the world keeps adding to and changing the Star Trek Universe, the ideas, concepts and inspiration of the entire Star Trek enterprise are perceptibly changing the world. It has changed me in ways I probably don't even understand yet and it has added substantially to my life.

Until I can call it a home, it remains a fantastic vacation spot for me.

No comments:

Post a Comment