Thursday, January 22, 2004

Some criticized the signatures of the actors that then appeared (they said it should have been the signatures of the characters) but that's really a lame quibble: the ending is all but perfect. This is how legends go. They don't die, they simply disappear into the region of space in our minds and hearts where all legends lie in repose, in suspended animation perhaps, but with the potential to return when needed. It's how the greatest English legend, that of King Arthur ends. And the Enterprise is doing what it exists to do: going off to explore, going off to the next adventure. It's how we would all like to end.

So before we say our farewell, let’s remember who these people are.

First, a few experiences they had in common that contributed to forging the Star Trek future. Many came with strong experience in theatre. Shatner got his first breaks playing Shakespeare. James Doohan was a highly regarded acting teacher; Joanne Woodward once remarked that he taught her all she knows. The Next Generation actors also had strong theatre credentials, and to some extent so did the following casts, but it was particularly important for the first. For the meager Original Series budget allowed for a few obligatory special effects, and not much else. As Shatner has since observed, they were essentially putting on Greek plays every week, with emphasis on character, story and especially the key questions that human beings face.

They grew up before there was television, but they had the magic of the movies. Nimoy, Shatner, Takei, all recall Saturday matinees at the local movie palace, an ornate and special world separate from their daily lives, different from any other environment where they lived, where their heroes had bright adventures ten feet tall on the big screen. This was an experience shared by young dreamers from the 1920s until at least the 1960s. These were generations---both the makers of Star Trek and its first audience---enthralled by the magic of character and story. This is worth mentioning in an era more characterized by the single-purpose, goal-driven interactive narratives of video games.

When they came together to create the crew of the Enterprise, they brought with them real life experiences that pertained to what they played, and the statements Star Trek made. None came from a wealthy background, some experienced the Depression, others a childhood of modest means and even privation. In his autobiography, Walter Koenig writes that early poverty colored his attitudes for the rest of his life.

For some, the topic of bigotry dealt with in Star Trek VI was not an abstraction, or something they simply read about. Nichelle Nichols lived through racial prejudice, and as late as 1956 when she was touring as a singer she was denied a hotel room because of her color. She also dealt with an attempted rape, and at a time when prosecutions were much less likely to be brought or to be successful, she testified against a powerful man in his own city and the jury convicted him.

As a boy, George Takei was in U.S. internment camps for Japanese Americans during World War II. Both William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy had to deal with prejudice against Jews when they were boys. In his first book, Nimoy emphasized that he could identify with the alien Spock because he'd been an alienated young man, playing alienated characters.

When their Star Trek created stories about the conduct and psychology of war and conflict, there were many who knew about them first hand. James Doohan had been among the soldiers storming the Normandy beaches on D-Day, and he was severely injured by enemy gunfire that day, with visible scars not shown on camera. Gene Roddenberry didn't just write about flying a ship, he had flown bombers in combat. He and writer/producer Gene Coon didn't write antiwar stories from theory; they had both experienced real war. Roddenberry didn't just write about grace under pressure--he survived two plane crashes and helped to rescue survivors from both.

These actors played their Star Trek characters for their seasons on television, and then in six movies through another decade. Many actors who have played the same heroic character over time have been changed by that experience. When these characters became global icons for a quarter of a century, they had enormous impact on each of the actors’ lives. But in addition to their characters, they became identified with Star Trek, and everything it meant. Some had problems with that from time to time, but in the end, they all embraced it.

It became a major part of their lives. Gene Roddenberry was often invited to speak to groups of futurists, scientists and psychologists. Real engineers consulted Doohan, and Nichols had a real role in the U.S. space program, recruiting minority participants for NASA, including several astronauts.

Leonard Nimoy participated in anti-war demonstrations while Star Trek was in its original TV run. William Shatner became an advocate for ecology. George Takei served on local government commissions and became a political player in Los Angeles. He recently made news by going public about his long-time homosexual relationship. For years, fans have agitated for a gay character to be included in a Star Trek crew. It turns out that there always was one. And befitting the 23rd century future Star Trek envisioned, nobody thought it had even to be mentioned. Takei did mention it, he said, because of his concern for contemporary bigotry against gays and Lesbians.

And of course Star Trek remained in their lives through the Star Trek conventions. Each one was touched by encounters with fans, and each of them contributed something personally to the lives of specific fans.

After resisting conventions for years, William Shatner has become a fan of them. His friendship with Leonard Nimoy has deepened over the years, as is evident in their “Mild Meld” conversation. They now do a kind of comedy improv act together at conventions, like the Scotty event in Hollywood.

Two of the fan favorites have passed away: DeForest Kelley and James Doohan. A tribute to Kelley is included in the Star Trek VI DVD—he was unique in his consistent modesty and warmth. He didn’t have an unkind word for anyone (which may be why he is the only cast member not to publish an autobiography) and he is unique in no one having a negative word to say about him.

I attended Doohan’s final convention in Los Angeles as part of my New York Times story. When I asked about him in interviews, LeVar Burton and Nicholas Meyer separately declared in the same words, “I love Jimmy Doohan!” Jonathan Frakes emailed his recollection of good times with him at conventions. When the original cast (minus Shatner and Nimoy, but with the addition of Majel Roddenberry and Grace Lee Whitney) gathered with James Doohan for their last moments onstage together, Nichelle Nichols’ affection and concern for Doohan was palpable.

The bond between fans and these legendary stars continues. George Takei brings his energy and his ability to articulate the Star Trek vision. “In a society with so much violence and stupidity,” Walter Koenig told me, “ the conventions are an oasis, where you can find some genuinely good people who believe in humanity and respect the rights of others.”

“Because the fans are loyal to Gene’s dream, “ Nichelle Nichols said to me, “we are loyal to the fans.”

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