How Star Trek helped me cope with the death of my sister

From my 1980s schooldays, when geek culture was something to keep quiet, to now, as host of the official Star Trek podcast, the 50-year-old sci-fi classic has always been there for me

One of the last times I heard my sister laugh was when I tried to explain how Id been hired as an MC on the Star Trek cruise. Though she was dying of cancer, my devotion to the 50-year-old science fiction franchise could still inspire a chuckle and roll of the eyes. The very notion of a bunch of Trekkies waiting on line at the buffet with their phasers and tricorders strapped to their uniforms was a source of tremendous amusement, not that she knew the correct terms for these 23rd-century devices. She had been merrily taunting my love of Star Trek for decades. Star Dreck shed call it, mocking the cheap sets and bad acting as wed fight for the remote control, informing me that Star Trek was for losers and idiots.

That reads far harsher than the intent behind it, but tossed-off insults are often the mother tongue among loving siblings. As my career as a film critic and writer grew, and I found myself regularly highlighting my love of Star Trek, I wound up falling in with the official Star Trek brand. Ive penned 100 One Trek Mind columns for and have moderated panels at Star Trek conventions in Las Vegas, London and New York. Earlier this year we launched Engage: the Official Star Trek Podcast. The first of the aforementioned cruises sets sail in January. Each development was met with the same laughter and refrain: I cant believe you get paid to do that.

Neither can I, frankly. Im far from the most knowledgable Star Trek fan. I dont have episodes committed to memory. My collectibles shelf is hardly comprehensive. I dont speak Klingon (well, other than a few simple phrases). But I have difficulty remembering a time in my life before Star Trek and, whats more important, is that I dont recall when it hasnt been there for me.

I dont speak Klingon … Photograph: Moviestore/Rex/Shutterstock

Geek culture is dominant in our society, but the kids today need to understand the battles we fought in the 1980s. It would have been inconceivable, at least where I went to school, to read something like a Star Trek comic book in public back then. To be a Trekkie was to be closeted. In fact, to this day I have trouble with the term Trekkie. It was frequently used as a pejorative. (Some fans tried to turn this around and use Trekker, but Star Treks creator Gene Roddenberry himself said he liked Trekkie, in case you were wondering.)

But being an outcast and liking Star Trek is a causal loop: never has there been a show so essential for those who think of themselves as outsiders. The characters of Spock, Data, Odo, the Doctor and Seven of Nine are variations on the same theme someone who wants to belong, but is principally incapable of doing so. Spocks half-Vulcan side forces him to suppress all emotion. Datas artificial origins prevent him from even having emotions to suppress! Odo doesnt know where he comes from, the Doctor is actually a collection of programmed sub-routines (hes made of light, but just go with me here) and Seven of Nine, emerged from a shattered childhood when taken in by her new crewmates, has to prove to them, and herself, that her Borg-enhanced biology is not a danger. (I cant speak to watching Star Trek: Voyager as a pubescent girl, but the signifiers from her ratings-inspired, but still story-derived fitted costume is a remarkable treatise on sexuality-as-unintended-threat.)

Whats key, though, is that each of these characters the characters that meant most to me and, I can tell you from attending conventions, mean the most to many of us were still heroes. Moreover, they were accepted for what they are: weirdos set apart from the rest of the group, but actually quite necessary for the closed society of a Starship to excel.

Star Trek: The Next Generation destigmatised mental health. Photograph: Cine Text/Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar

Famously, Star Trek had a black woman on the bridge in 1966, had a black commander in 1993 and a female captain in 1995, but coming as I did from a left-leaning family, these specific benchmarks were meant to educate the bigots for who couldnt envision such faces in a true meritocracy. What was more unexpected for me was seeing Star Trek: The Next Generation destigmatize mental health with a ships counselor in 1987. The Marxist utopia in Star Trek, hinted at originally but explored greater in the later series, was and remains as appealing to me as any of the photon torpedo-led action sequences.

When I say Star Trek was always there for me, I dont only mean this in a metaphorical sense. A key component of its success is the unbelievable depth of the imagined world. For decades only Tolkiens Lord of the Rings could compete in terms of sheer volume. (But who really wants to read The Silmarillion? And besides, fantasy is cool and all, but science fiction rules.) To escape to the fantasy of Star Trek meant a little bit of work one needs to know the difference between a Bajoran, a Bolian, a Betazoid and a Benzite but this knowledge didnt just get you into a secret club, it could help you reflect back on the conflicts of the real world.

Roddenberry wasnt really a science fiction nut, he was a writer that wanted to tell stories a bit too real for 1960s television. A script that dealt with racism on his first production, The Lieutenant, effectively doomed the show despite good reviews and ratings. He pitched Star Trek as Wagon Train to the Stars, but had Jonathan Swift in mind. He wanted to talk about social issues, but needed cover to get it past timid sponsors. He hired sci-fi luminaries to create scripts and consulted with organizations like the Rand Corporation to ensure that TVs first adult science fiction program could pass the sniff test. Its this meeting of the heart and head that made that first season of Star Trek 50 years ago so perfect.

Its longevity over 700 episodes, 14 films, numerous video games and a library of books and comics no one can ever give a precise figure to gives it a ubiquity unheard of anywhere else in popular entertainment. Maybe Star Wars has more fans (and I love Star Wars) but it cant come within 12 parsecs when it comes to a cohesive, developed universe.

Of course, loving something means finding joy even in what may repulse others. I recognize that Leonard Nimoys spoken word track Twinkle Twinkle Little Earth is not, by any reasonable metric, something one can call good. And yet, like a phaser set to the lowest conceivable setting, few things warm my heart so quickly. I hear this tune and I picture my tape cassette briefcase that I brought with me to summer camp in 1989. On the top layer theres Led Zeppelin and Rush and Pink Floyd, but hidden on the bottom is Mr Spocks Music From Outer Space.

Many fans, myself included, consider Star Trek the ultimate in comfort food. When something is going bad, grab a Blu-ray off the shelf or, even easier, click your remote and stream something. (The forthcoming new show, Star Trek: Discovery, will be available on CBSs new streaming platform All Access, where every other episode is already waiting for you.) Bad day at school? Bad day at work? No work to be bad at? This is a crutch Ive leaned on many times.

My young nephew, admittedly more of a Pokmon and Minecraft fan, has been getting into Star Trek, and not just the fast-paced new movies. My niece has zero interest, and while the gender gap in fandom keeps shortening each year, I think Im OK with this as a legacy. When my sister was in her final stages this spring, turning to old Star Trek shows was a panacea for me. I didnt really watch them, but I would let them play, and take solace not just in their familiarity, but their optimism. The future will be better Earths races will unite, well overcome poverty, well travel faster than light, well all look good in tight velour clothing even if right now it looks like the stars are burning out.

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