By early 2006, I flew to LA on a fairly regular basis to see about Dad, take him to appointments. He had spent the previous Thanksgiving in hospital. Now he was frail. Appointments. Follow ups. Medications. Monitoring. Watching. Waiting. He slowed down as the rest of us seemed to speed up. For me, that meant arranging flights, renting cars, making Dad’s appointments, all from Oakland.
Travel makes one harried. I was in a harried state, most likely, when I sat on my dad’s bed next to him, having just arrived at the house, the old house, the one I grew up in. He had the TV going. Don’t remember what was on. Dad moved a lot slower, his sharp mind veiled under the sheets of his ailments. But it was still there. He referenced his vast Star Trek DVD collection, on a shelf to the right of the TV in his bedroom. Let’s watch one, he said. I slowed down, chose “Devil in the Dark.”
Mom and Dad watched Star Trek from the beginning, on September 8, 1966. They loved thinking about the future in their youth. They grew up with Dick Tracy’s watch phones and tales of spaceships going to the Moon or Mars or farther. Asimov and Bradbury lived on their bookshelves. During their courting days, they used to lie on their backs in some grassy field somewhere and look at the stars and daydream. By 1966, they had four kids. The space race launched all around them.
They liked Lost in Space, but found Star Trek more of a thinking person’s show, less bang and boom, more thoughtful analysis of the world around them. Gene Roddenberry had pulled a fast one on the TV executives. He had promised a sort of “Wagon Train to the Stars.” But the master storyteller had other plans. Show a utopian future where the peoples of Earth worked together in harmony, living on a fantastic vessel, searching for new life, new realities. His future included Asians, Africans, Europeans, even aliens, working as one. I’m sure my parents agreed with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that Nichelle Nichols presence on the bridge, playing Lt. Uhura, was affirming and essential. She wasn’t the maid or hired help. She kept it real. They loved that a Russian, Walter Koenig’s Chekov, became a regular in the crew, a vision foretelling a life beyond the Cold War. And of course they loved Leonard Nimoy’s Mr. Spock.
“Devil in the Dark” found the Enterprise visiting a mining planet beset by an unknown terror, wrecking the equipment and killing the miners. Kirk and company beam down to inspect. The miners want the thing found and killed. While Kirk initially agrees to hunt down the creature, Spock is more introspective. Must we kill so callously? In the end, Spock won the day. He used his Vulcan mind meld to communicate with the creature, a Horta, and learned that it was, in fact, the mother of its race, trying to protect its eggs from being destroyed by the miners. The miners didn’t know any better. They thought the eggs were just funny geological formations. Dr. McCoy also rose to the occasion. Having first complained about treating a creature “made of stone,” (“I’m a doctor, not a bricklayer!”) he figured out a way to bandage the wound on the silicon-based Horta with a silicon solution normally used to make emergency shelters. “By God, Jim,” he said, after helping the Horta, “I’m beginning to think I can cure a rainy day!”
I was too young, not quite 18 months, when Star Trek premiered to remember it. I would have been in my crib while my parents watched it on the other side of their bedroom. My older brothers, though, were near-teens. They preferred Lost in Space and mocked my parents for their sudden change of allegiance. One by one, though, my brothers peeled away from Dr. Smith and fell into Camp Spock. In my time, I would follow the same pattern, obsessively watching the original series in the 70s, memorizing every story, every line. My sister, born the year Star Trek went off the air, also got into the show, when she came of age.
When Star Trek: The Motion Picture came out, it became a family outing. We went to some theater in Downey or somewhere like that, far from Hollywood. Dad hated Hollywood traffic and parking. We didn’t care. Star Trek was the point of the trip, not the glitz. We watched anxiously and excitedly. We told ourselves home much we liked it. And I think we did like it, but realized that it wasn’t quite all it could have been. Roddenberry stayed true to his vision of the show, cerebral, thought-provoking. The characters did not, however, get to shine quite as brightly as we had hoped. Still, it was great to have it back. The next film, The Wrath of Khan, would hit all the right buttons.
I had a huge crush on Merritt Butrick, the actor who played Kirk’s son, Dr. David Marcus, in the second and third Trek movies. In 1982, I was still in the closet, so I told no one. Merritt’s character got killed off in the next film, The Search for Spock. I felt sad. Five years later, in 1989, Merritt Butrick himself would die of something far more insidious than a Klingon’s blade. He didn’t even make 30. This devil in the dark ravaged gay men in the early 80s through the mid 90s, while an uncaring world pretended not to notice. By 1989, I was out, loud, and proud, marching in the streets against this disease and the world’s indifference to it. Fight Back. Fight AIDS. ACT UP. Interestingly, I would eventually partner with a man born in the same year as Merritt. I’ve always like older men.
My parents faithfully watched Star Trek: The Next Generation when it premiered in 1987. It took a minute to warm up to it, but they did, as did we all. Who couldn’t warm up to Patrick Stewart? My parents also liked Star Trek: Deep Space 9 and Star Trek: Voyager. I liked the former, but fell off the latter after the second season. And I never got into Star Trek: Enterprise. But Dad did. He watched it faithfully, alone, my mom having passed away in 1996.
For comfort food, though, we always went back to the basics. Watching “Devil in the Dark” with my Dad, a couple of months before his passing, was like eating biscuits and (vegan) gravy. We watched in silence, in his darkened room, totally absorbed by the action, even on this umpteenth viewing. It was just good to be near him, to see the sparkle in his eye one more time, as the Enterprise sailed off into the stars, another problem solved.
I can still hear him say “Yep” after it ended, satisfied at yet another viewing of the old classic. I felt it, too, Dad. I still feel it. And like Spock told Dr. McCoy in Wrath of Khan, I remember.