A personal essay for Star Trek fans about Picard’s haunting of my midlife crisis and my personal come-to-Enterprise moment while mourning in 2020.
So, I have a confession: I skipped Star Trek: Enterprise the first time around. What can I say? The Twin Towers had just come down, the country was in shock, and I was a twenty-six-year-old theater actor trying to figure out what to do next with my life. Truthfully, I wasn’t watching much fictional television in the years after 9/11. I was reading a lot, watching documentaries and the news, and just trying to make sense out of what the hell had just happened. Along with everyone else. Also, I was doing as much theater as possible and trying my best to actively cherish every moment of it alongside an extended crowd of like-minded nerds. In fact, one late night, not a month before that cataclysmic event, I found myself emceeing a particularly hilarious private performance of the classic TOS Gorn episode, “Arena,” for a room full of intoxicated theater colleagues.
But, that’s another story.
I’m a lifelong Star Trek fan. I grew up watching Star Trek: The Original Series with my older brother. I was seven in 1982 when we saw Wrath of Khan together in the theater. TOS is a core component of my personal mythology. I believe that I’m Kirk, behave more like McCoy, and strive every day to be like Spock. That whole cast has always felt like family to me. Shatner, in particular, like an uncle I’ve never met. The values enshrined in their adventures I claim as my own. I might not have ever attended a convention, but make no mistake: I believe in Star Trek.
I was twelve when Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered in 1987. I watched and loved every single episode of that show as it aired. I believed I was following in Patrick Stewart’s footsteps when I went for my BFA in 1993. Seeing him play Prospero two years later in Shakespeare’s The Tempest on Broadway was a definitive moment in my life. He was perfect in a flawless production. After curtain, I stood on the sidewalk next to my brother and waited behind a fervent crowd to glimpse his stage door exit. I imagined I’d tell him simply that he’d been an inspiration. That I, too, was studying classical acting and voice production at school. When he emerged, tired from an athletic performance, he waved graciously to adoring fans and smiled his way betwixt the velvet ropes, across the sidewalk, and into the black car that ushered him off.
One week later, I stopped by the stage door before the matinee performance and knocked. When the security guard opened the door, I nervously handed him a printed two-page letter that I’d written to Mr. Stewart. “Would you be able to drop this off for me?” I asked the guard. “Sure,” he said. The short, handwritten note that I received in the mail a week later from Sir Patrick on his personal stationery wished me luck in my career. I’ve kept that note pressed inside my colossal, red, leather-bound Complete Works of William Shakespeare, for over twenty-five years.
2020 got off to a rough start. The nearly simultaneous, unrelated deaths of my father’s brother and my mother’s sister on New Year’s Eve was shocking, to say the least. The first weekend of 2020 was back-to-back funerals for my beloved aunt and uncle. We were grateful for the extended, bittersweet family reunions, but it was an ominous beginning to what would of course prove to be a difficult year.
Early on, when the pandemic was still somehow faint news from somewhere else in the world, before my wife and I found ourselves living in one of the hardest-hit neighborhoods on the edge of Brooklyn, my morning commute was absolutely haunted by posters promoting the newest Star Trek show, Picard. Every day on my way to work, there was Patrick Stewart staring me down from every subway platform as if to ask, “What have you become?” With the onset of midlife in full effect, the only response I could muster was, “Don’t look at me, man.” I’d like to tell you that these conversations happened only in my head and that I didn’t actually stand there and talk to posters of Patrick Stewart on the subway, but I’m afraid I can’t be sure of that. You New Yorkers know what I’m talking about, right?
Later on in March 2020, the lockdown in NYC afforded my wife and me a privileged break from what had been for many years a relatively active social life. With the city closed up, we hunkered down and sought comfort. We’d just finished a deep dive rewatch of TNG (and every TNG movie from Generations to Nemesis) in preparation for Picard, the auspicious ending of which overlapped with the arrival of the pandemic in New York. With no new Trek scheduled until August, and the prospect of a long, locked-down Spring ahead, I ached for the Star Trek of my youth, where hope was plentiful. I’d watched and loved all of Deep Space Nine and Voyager years ago. I’d seen all of TOS and TNG again and again, not to mention all the movies. I scrolled through Netflix, in search of something new, and suddenly there they were, right where they had always been. The long lost family I’d overlooked: Captain Archer and the crew of the NX-01.
Now, I had attempted to watch the premiere of Star Trek: Enterprise when it originally aired in late September 2001. Sadly, I barely made it past the opening credits. Like a cliche, I was put off by that theme song. At twenty-six, I was a little too cool for the kind of effusive hope espoused in its lyrics, a little too depressed about the state of the world. Nearly twenty years later, as I binge-watched the first two seasons of Enterprise, I very quickly grew to love this crew and their ship. I relished in the lack of food replicators, the reluctance to use the transporter, Hoshi’s struggle to tame the universal translator, Tucker’s discovery of an alien holodeck. I grinned like Phlox every time Archer clumsily ordered Malcolm to “polarize the hull plating.” I clung to the political struggles with the Vulcans and Andorians with delight. I became fascinated with T’Pol’s personal struggles and enthralled by her relationship with Trip, one of the great screen romances of TV history if you ask me.
But then I skipped Season 3.
I know. I’m sorry.
Here’s what happened:
>>Polarize the hull plating! Enterprise spoilers ahead!<<
There’s that great Season 2 episode, “Judgement,” when Archer gets captured by the Klingons and saved by an honest-to-Kahlees, jaded Klingon civil rights attorney. We learn from him that the Klingon Empire wasn’t always ruled by the warrior class. The story served as a parable. A warning. That episode aired in 2003, only twenty days after the US military invaded Iraq. Taylor Elmore and David Goodman were most certainly speaking to the moment when they sat down to write it. Considering the story in context was chilling and I found myself wishing I’d watched it then. It might have helped me through. Just like Picard on the subway, the episode asked, “What have we become?”
Season two’s finale, when the Xindi attack Florida and murder millions, came for me in the middle of lockdown, at a moment when my wife and I had lost too many loved ones. A vengeful Captain Archer, content to threaten Earth’s enemies with a trip out the airlock, was a little more than I could bear at that time. We were already well into our own Year of Hell and I wasn’t inclined to double up. So, I skipped ahead to season 4 and was delighted to discover that there were now alien Nazis on Earth. A perfect parable for America in 2020. Season 4 was incredible, and the show’s finale, while unexpected and a bit weird, was totally worth it, if for no other reason than the hilarious fifteen-years-in-the-making punchline that Mike McMahan and Jonathan Frakes just landed in the Star Trek: Lower Decks finale.
And so now it’s today and we’re all deeply anxious about the future of our society and hope is in short supply. I’m not at all encouraged by my rewatch of the DS9 Season 3 two-parter, “Past Tense,” where Sisko and Bashir get stuck in an authoritarian 2024 San Francisco that seems all too plausible. I need Star Trek now more than ever and I’ve already re-rewatched Star Trek: The Motion Picture for the umpteenth time. Season 3 of Enterprise is staring at me like a lost, little Porthos. And maybe I’m an idiot to have waited sixteen years to watch, because, as it turns out, it’s everything I love about Star Trek and so much more. And then comes this episode that is so good we have to watch it twice.
In season 3, episode 10 of Enterprise, “Similitude,” Captain Archer and Doctor Phlox decide to make a fast-growing clone of Commander Trip Tucker in a last-ditch effort to help save his life, all while the ship is stranded in a dangerous nucleonic particle field. The episode begins with what appears to be Trip’s funeral and flashes back to the events that lead up to it. We soon learn that Commander Tucker is, in fact, in a coma as we watch his clone, “Sim”, grow from a strange, exotic creature in Phlox’s lab into a young boy, then a young man with a serious crush on T’Pol, and finally into another outstanding performance from Connor Trineer as his usual character’s simulated replacement, with only a few days left to live. Sim struggles with his purpose and his deep feelings for T’pol. Unlike Trip, Sim goes out on a limb and reveals his true feelings to T’pol, leaving her shaken. Ultimately, Sim gives up a plot to escape his fate. He makes a brave decision to sacrifice himself and save Trip and, consequently, the ship. But not before he declares Phlox a wonderful father and receives a legendary farewell kiss from T’Pol, the love of his very short life.
So, I have this thing that I call my Starship at the End of the World. It’s a bit dark, but it’s basically this: if you know that the world is going to go up like it’s Kirk’s last day on Genesis, and you have a ship that can get you off-planet in time to survive, who would you take with you? My list has most certainly changed over the years, but my friend Geoff was most definitely on that list. Geoff was a big, kind, passionate, supportive, giant with a gentle personality. He was always there when you needed him and he came through time and time again. His death at the beginning of the pandemic was devastating to our entire community, from the regional theaters where he got his start all the way to backstage at SNL, where he worked as a union stagehand. I’ve got this picture from the Star Trek Experience on the USS Intrepid in NYC with all my buddies at my bachelor party in Summer 2016. In the picture, I’m in Picard’s chair and Geoff stands behind me, up at Worf’s station. Need I say more? Geoff was one of those people you’d want on your ship, too. His life was cut short at 38 years old. There have been so many other lives cut short this year, and the tragedy of this terrible loss of life is unfathomable. My wife and I have lost friends and family. I have lost mentors. We have lost heroes. There have been funerals that we couldn’t attend. Geoff’s was one of them.
When “Similitude” concludes, book-ended by the same funeral where it begins, Captain Archer proclaims, “We will never forget what he did for us and for the ship we loved so much,” and I find myself in tears. The episode asks us to reckon with ourselves and reach out to connect with the people we love while we can because life is precious and fleeting. The episode reminds each of us to make it count.
I’m glad it took me this long to watch Season 3 of Enterprise because it came along at the moment I needed it most. What can I say? It’s been a long road getting from there to here. But now, my wife and I are working on our cover of Faith of the Heart.
I’m pretty sure Geoff would be into it.