Sunday, June 21, 2009

It's A Trek World Again

At least a few times in its history, Star Trek has been a mainstream enthusiasm in an overt way. In the mid to late 1970s, for instance, when the original series conquered syndicated TV, and was seen every day across the country and around the world-- on several stations in some cities. Or in the early 90s, when Star Trek: The Next Generation was a top ten series, and an international enthusiasm. And again, maybe, now.

If so, it's likely due to the coincidence of the new movie--which not only proved popular but evoked affectionate feelings and interesting re-evaluations of Star Trek in general--and a new and very popular President of the United States who is an unabashed Star Trek fan, and glories in the many media comparisons of Barack Obama to Mr. Spock.

That Star Trek is deeply embedded in popular culture and discourse hardly needs to be proven with examples. In fact, there are so many that pop up so often that they barely register. Some weeks however they cascade until they must be noticed. Sometimes this cavalcade of coincidence is just personal, even though it may happen to many people. Just the other day, I heard a Star Trek reference on a new TV series ("The Big Bang Theory"), then a couple of days later found myself thinking about a TNG episode, which I rented at the video store, which prompted a conversation on the new movie and other Trek stories with the clerk. When I turned on the TV to play it, before switching to the DVD I happened to hit the "Futurama" episode featuring the voices of the original Trek cast.

But all that was mere preliminary to seeing John Hodgman speaking to the Radio and TV Correspondents dinner, which followed President Obama's speech to the same group. This is one of those events in which the speakers tell lots of jokes. Hodgman is best known as the PC guy on the PC v. Mac commercials, and he's also seen on The Daily Show. His theme was the division between nerds and jocks (which is apparently a theme in "The Big Bang Theory" too). He and his audience simply assumed that--in today's cliche--Star Trek is a defining Nerd enthusiasm.

Hodgman addressed the question of whether Barack Obama is "the first Nerd President of the modern era." He questioned this, because "despite his Spockish calm and gangly frame," Obama is also known as a jock, a basketball player and sports enthusiast.

Radio talk show hosts call Obama a mystery, he said, and perhaps he is. Hodgman then made fun of the persistent and preposterous questioning of Obama's birth certificate by suggesting, "We have no proof that he is an American citizen, or for that matter, an earthling."

Despite Obama's "obviously prosthetic ears," Hodgman gave him a nerd test. Obama got points for posing in front of a statue of Superman (in Metropolis, Illinois, when he was an Illinois Senator) and for knowing the name of Superman's father. Hodgman then displayed a photo of Leonard Nimoy as Spock, and demanded to know if it was true that Obama had once flashed the Vulcan salute to Nimoy. President Obama, sitting nearby, was seen nodding and flashing the Vulcan salute. "Oh, gee," Hodgman said. "You passed that one."

But it turned out that Obama couldn't name the fictional god worshipped by Conan the Barbarian, or answer some questions about Dune that true nerds would know. In the end, Hodgman decided that nerds are "defined by our enthusiasms, but also by our open-mindedness," and suggested that "maybe the categories and labels we have used to define ourselves and divide ourselves are evaporating..."

"The President is a complete mystery to me," he concluded, "but no more so than the future itself, and as I am a geek, I am obliged to embrace the future. So I am obliged to turn to the President and extend what I consider to be the most American of greetings: sir, though we may not always agree, I have been and always shall be your friend. Live long and prosper."

And with that, Hodgman and President Obama exchanged Vulcan salutes, and Star Trek was assimilated into our national dialogue--no longer just a nerd enthusiasm-- with a natural ease of a now generally acknowledged interpenetrating myth. Yet taking a step back, how cool is that? And how amazing...

Update: And it continues. At President Obama's press conference on June 23, a reporter referred to his "Spock-like" answer to a question on healthcare (in which President Obama said a critique of a public health insurance option was not logical). The President then asked the reporter if his reference to Spock was a comment on his ears.

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