Cross-Border Trekking: An Irishman’s Diary about ‘Star Trek’ and Ireland

Leonard Nimoy as Spock in “Star Trek”

Leonard Nimoy as Spock in “Star Trek”

 

It is apt that Star Trek should be celebrating its 50th birthday this year, alongside certain other anniversaries that have been heavily commemorated in Ireland. In its half century of going where no man went before, the series has predicted many things that were unimaginable on planet 1966, including flatscreen television, tablet computers and mobile phones.

On the other hand, we still await flying cars, never mind a workable “Beam me up” technology. Then there’s the reunification of Ireland, as forecast by episode 12, season three of Star Trek: The Next Generation, in 1990.

Mind you, there is time yet. According to Commander Data, the 24th-century android who mentions the event to Capt Picard, it happened 340 years earlier, in 2024. A lot could still change in the next eight years. But Data was noting Irish reunification on a list of historic events brought about by “terrorism”.  Even most republicans would hope that part of his forecast doesn’t come true.  

It was a much touchier subject in 1990 when bombs and bullets were still a daily reality in Ireland. Despite Capt Picard’s diplomatic response to Data’s musings on the apparent effectiveness of violence, the episode could not be broadcast in Ireland or Britain.

In general, the politics of Star Trek has always tended to be progressive and tolerant, reflecting the views of creator Gene Roddenberry, whose inspirations included a famous Dubliner, Jonathan Swift.

Swift’s Gulliver also explored many strange lands and his otherworldly adventures were a way for the author to comment obliquely on real-life subjects – for example when he sublimates Britain’s Whigs and Tories in the Big-Endians and Little-Endians, historically divided over which side of a hard-boiled egg you should open – without getting in trouble.

Where Swift was dodging the disfavour of kings and prime ministers, Roddenberry was dodging demented TV executives who could be just as censorious. By setting the action among strange life forms on distant planets he could comment on issues of sex, religion, politics, employment conditions etc, and usually get away with it. The messages often went over executives’ heads, he once recalled, because they were more worried about such things as the acceptable level of “cleavage” displayed by female characters: “They would actually come in with a ruler and measure [it]”.

It may have been due to such distractions that Star Trek’s writers were able to sneak some of their best lines onto television, including the one where William Shatner’s Kirk, asks Spock: “Are you out of your Vulcan mind?”

Of course the most famous of the many catchphrases was the one that introduced each show. That too involved cleavage of a kind. It remains probably the most famous splitting of an infinitive in English, and a powerful argument against the dwindling band of pedants who hold the infinitive to be indivisible.

Alas for Trekkie traditionalists, the slogan had to be amended over the years. Around the time Ireland’s reunification was being noted, it became socially unacceptable to boldly go where no “man” had gone before: the argument that “man” meant “mankind”, and was gender-neutral, notwithstanding.

Since then, “no man” has been replaced by “no one”. And some Trek fans lament that this advance in political correctness has come at the expense of a different crime.

The new phrase is, after all, blatantly species-ist, since planets visited by the starship Enterprise are often pre-inhabited by alternative life forms: each just as valid as that of the cultural imperialists who now reduce all others to the status of “no one”.  

Getting back to Stardate 2016, Ireland’s tributes to the long-running series which includes (unwittingly, I think) the Enterprise train service between Dublin and Belfast. Pending reunification, this straddles the plunging cleavage of Ireland’s two jurisdictions, peacefully. Too peacefully sometimes. The service rarely reaches warp speed, especially this time of year when there are often leaves on the line. But users live in hope.

A more deliberate homage, meanwhile, will take place in Dublin’s Bord Gáis Theatre this Friday and Saturday. The programme includes a showing of the 2009 Star Trek film by JJ Abrams. And while that will be on screen, in the normal manner, the event will also be live (“Jim, but not as we know it”), thanks to the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, boldly going where no Irish orchestra has gone before, and playing Michael Giacchino’s score in sync with the action.