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Boldly going where we've gone before | Chuck's World


January 30, 2020

I’ve decided that Michael Chabon is going to be my wingman for this one. I feel as though I’m on shaky ground, and I could use some credentials in my corner.

Chabon is a famous writer, for starters. He’s won a Pulitzer Prize and seen his titles on best-seller lists. He’s written novels, short stories, articles, essays, screenplays, and one of my favorite books (and films), “Wonder Boys.”

I’ve been primarily a nonfiction reader for the past 20 years, but Chabon’s novels always end up on the table beside my bed, or in my e-book queue.

He’s roughly my age, so some of his more obvious influences feel familiar. We grew up in the same era and saw mostly the same stuff. I don’t relate as much as I recognize, understanding how popular culture or current events seep into our stories and alter our perspectives.

He tells a story about being a small child in the 1960s, slipping out of bed to see what the adults were up to. He saw his father watching a TV show, which looked strange and a little scary, incomprehensible to a little kid.

I had a similar experience. In my case, I was 8 years old, listening from my bedroom as my parents watched some show in the other room. The dialogue was weird and confusing.

It would happen a lot, eavesdropping on the adults and figuring out the details later. Eventually I realized, as Michael Chabon did, that what I’d been inadvertently exposed to was “Star Trek.”

Speculative fiction has always been about educated swings and spectacular misses, so I’ll state the obvious: “Star Trek” needs room for forgiveness.

Strip the iconic brands from the original series, and even the famous Gene Roddenberry optimistic vision easily devolves into satire, a 1960s-era TV show with broad characterizations, silly storylines, and cheesy special effects.

An unfamiliar viewer just has to watch pretty much any episode from the final season for easy snickering. The show became ripe for mockery, squeezing 1960s sensibilities through a rose-colored Jeffries tube (sorry, nerd reference) into the future, and coming out sort of dumb.

Still, there were exquisite, transcendent moments in those original 79 episodes, demonstrating where we were going and what at least some of us were looking for -- popular entertainment that was about big ideas.

Like Chabon, I discovered the 1960s series in syndication when I was a teenager. I liked it a lot, although I was never a passionate Trekker. I saw the movies, and when “Star Trek: The Next Generation” premiered in 1987, we were pretty excited in our household.

I was 29, and had a toddler and a busy job. I counted the days, not sure what we were getting but hopeful.

Whether or not you’re a fan, “Star Trek” is now part of our universe. Most people understand what “Beam me up, Scotty” refers to, and Spock’s pointed ears have become ho-hum. Now everybody has them.

The original show spawned four more series and 11 films, before getting rebooted by J.J. Abrams and introducing the original characters to a new generation. I’ve seen some of all of this, dipping in and out, my affection wandering all over the place.

There’s more interesting science fiction out there, along with just actual science. There is better television, and better movies. I understand some of the video games are very good.

Like Michael Chabon, I was mostly interested in Patrick Stewart, and his portrayal of Capt. Jean-Luc Picard. Stewart was a steady presence on a sometimes goofy show, and he made it work for me.

So when it was announced that Chabon would help create a new series based on Picard, I paid attention. Literary eloquence grafted onto popular entertainment was an idea that intrigued me, and all of this made me anticipate “Star Trek: Picard” for months before it finally premiered last week on CBS All-Access (streaming only, subscription required).

“Picard” is serialized TV, not episodic, meaning that the story will take its time, unfolding week by week, an old-fashioned pace in this era of binge-watching. I thought the first one was excellent. I can let you know more in a few months if you ask nicely.

I like new takes on old ideas. I appreciate the infusion of Chabon’s insight and wit. I enjoyed seeing familiar faces pop up, three decades after creating their now-iconic characters.

But mostly, I liked sharing this with my family. It was just a TV show, but it somehow became entangled with our DNA. My kids have their own Trek stories, and understand its relevance to their lives. There were a couple of fun Halloweens, etc.

Our choices for entertainment can feel essentially infinite these days. It’s great to have them, but there’s not much opportunity to share.

I wallowed in the waiting, and my son and I watched the first episode of “Picard” together. He watched it again with his mother when she got home, and late that night my daughter texted me.

“Picard?” was all she wrote, and all she needed.

It’s rare to find shorthand these days, words that instantly convey understanding, shared experiences that have meaning, and it felt important if in a trivial way. In a complicated world, it’s a simple pleasure to have something in common.

I’m all in, then, ready to beam up, and appreciating that most of you know exactly what I mean. Live long and prosper, and so on.


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