Science Fiction Studies

#72 = Volume 24, Part 2 = July, 1997

Pamela Sargent

A Sci-Fi Case History

Hilary Palencar. Confessions of a Trekoholic. Malcolm Hulke Studies in Cinema and Television, no. 1. San Bernardino, CA: Borgo Press, 1996. 120pp. $15.00 paper, $25.00 cloth.

Hilary Palencar, in writing of what she calls her addiction to the television series Star Trek: The Next Generation, briefly refers to events in her personal life that she believes made her vulnerable to "the seductions--the many seductions--of the place where no one has gone before" (9). In the same spirit, I'll disclose some facts about myself that may have affected my view of her book. I enjoyed watching the original Star Trek series while managing to avoid addiction, watched Star Trek: The Next Generation intermittently but with affection, and barely watch their successors, Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager, at all. I am the co-author of a Star Trek: The Next Generation novel and of a "classic" Trek novel; lacking the detailed knowledge of a true Star Trek fan, I had to resort to a pile of guidebooks from the publisher and the viewing of videotaped episodes to fill large gaps in my knowledge. I own some videodisks and videotapes of Star Trek episodes and movies. I had a pleasant talk with Michael Dorn, the actor who plays Worf, some years ago in the lobby of an inn where the convention that had invited us was housing its guests; interestingly, Dorn expressed regrets about not having had time to meet more of the writers in attendance.

All of which makes me feel like a social drinker invited to comment on the discourse of an alcoholic. But I have also been a science-fiction writer and anthologist for over twenty-seven years, and this particular fact may have affected my response to Palencar's book more than anything else.

Palencar briefly discusses how she became fixated on Star Trek: The Next Generation. During a difficult time in her life, when she faced both an unspecified illness and the loss of her job, this television series became an escape. For a while, she resisted the program's attractions, but during the show's fifth season, "I realized that Fox not only showed first run episodes and first run repeats on Saturdays, but episodes from former seasons every weeknight at six. However, I had been reluctant to become a nightly viewer because that would mean I was watching the show every night of the week. At that point a certain shame still existed in me that made me regard such a dependence as undeniable proof I had become a Trekkie..." (23). She was also put off by the complex background against which the series was set. "Becoming a Trekkie in 1991 was like signing up late for a college course or getting married to someone from a huge family--so much to memorize, so many new faces to familiarize myself with" (23).

I found it interesting and moving that Palencar regarded her growing attachment to Star Trek: The Next Generation with such shame, given the number of people in the U.S. with strong, even obsessive, attachments to certain TV programs. Among my close friends are one who never missed an episode of Cheers and watched it every night of the week in syndication, a second who had a weekly ritual for viewings of Dynasty that included putting on a negligee and opening a bottle of champagne, and a third who lives in the Manhattan neighborhood where Seinfeld is set, a fact that sends fans of that show who live outside New York into raptures when they meet her. I myself can offer detailed analyses of Leave It to Beaver and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Yet somehow fans of these programs don't risk the level of scorn that a regular Trek viewer faces.

Why is that? I don't think it's just because it's more socially acceptable (and certainly more common) to be a Seinfeld, Friends, or Home Improvement viewer than to be a Star Trek fan, although that is part of the answer. Nor is it simply because Star Trek is a science-fiction series, and therefore considered incomprehensible, outré or just plain geeky by large numbers of people who dislike all that "sci-fi stuff." There is a noticeable lack of shame among fans of The X-Files, a popular TV program with roots in fantastic fiction that is considered cool, and the science-fiction comedy Third Rock from the Sun has become a hit. Palencar may have experienced her attachment to Star Trek: The Next Generation as an addiction, but using addiction as a metaphor here is perhaps misleading. The addict is involved mainly with his own emotions, mental states, and pain; addiction, in the end, is a solitary vice. But the true devotee of Star Trek can proceed from the solitary viewing of episodes to seeking out others like herself. In some ways, the world of Star Trek bears more resemblance to a cult than to an assemblage of addicts; the series gives fans an eschatology, a liturgy, a philosophy of sorts, and a sense of belonging to a community. People who attend Star Trek conventions and collect assorted Trek merchandise may be a minority of Star Trek viewers, but they are the most visible. They have been responsible for preserving Star Trek, in its various incarnations, and turning it into a kind of cult, as Palencar recognizes: "the Church of Star Trek is a loosely connected but incredible congregation of like-minded individuals, individuals who, whether they realize it or not, owe their devotion as much to the human factor provided by conventions and fanzines as to science fiction" (98). An irony is that these fans most responsible for keeping Star Trek alive have probably also fueled the prejudices of people unfamiliar with the series, as well as Palencar's own shame about her viewing habits.

Palencar, despite her attraction to the series, has never been involved with any organized public Trek activity. "I was never a convention-goer," she admits, somewhat defensively, obviously feeling that such gatherings were best avoided (7). After reading her book, I found myself wondering, much to my surprise, if she might have been better off attending a meeting of Trekophiles. To have hung around with others who shared her addiction might either have brought about recovery much sooner or else have shown her that a fair number of people can combine an attachment to the universe of Star Trek with a full and normal life.

During her attachment to Star Trek: The Next Generation, Palencar became especially devoted to the character of Data. "I was swept off my feet by the loneliest character ever to appear on network television--and possibly in all of English literature--Data, the android" (23). Eventually, she came to see this fixation as a product of her unhappiness with her own life, and objects strongly to the way in which Data seems to embody a kind of unattainable perfection. He is the strongest, most knowledgeable, and often the most heroic of the continuing characters; in Palencar's view, he is the true hero of the series. But she finds this attention to Data "cruel" on the part of the Star Trek writers, because "one of the functions of heroes is to inspire us, make us believe that, with courage and will, we might overcome obstacles in our lives the way they overcame theirs" (37). And Data, according to Palencar, cannot fulfill this function of a hero since he is an android, and unlike us.

As it happens, however, Data works very well as a hero for some people. In his book An Anthropologist on Mars (New York: Vintage Books, 1996), the neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks, another Star Trek fan, points out that "a surprising number of people with autism identify with Data, or with his predecessor, Mr. Spock" (275). They see themselves in these characters, as beings that mimic human behavior and look human but are deeply, irrevocably different. That autistic people can respond this way to the characters of Data and Spock seems to me to be a point in Star Trek's favor. The fact that autistics can see themselves in Data also seems to undercut Palencar's argument here.

This illustrates the main problem with Palencar's analysis of Star Trek: The Next Generation: there is little reference to the world outside the series. She often resorts to rhetorical questions or unverifiable musings to make her points. In discussing the name given one character, Soong, she asks: "Is it possible no one on the Paramount lot was aware that a dictator with a very similar name had been responsible for the deaths of many it possible no viewer mail alerted Paramount about the coincidence?" (26-27). (Answer to both questions: Sure, it is.) "What was the reason for this segue? ...could it be a way to distract viewers from the gratuitous cruelties being inflicted on another Data brings her down to size?" (41). (Answer: Who knows? Maybe the scriptwriter simply had to fill the time until the next commercial break.) About an episode Palencar finds especially odious: "Majel Barrett isn't blameless for her participation.... It is impossible to say to what degree she was immune from the writer/producers' tyranny once her husband [Gene Roddenberry] was dead" (70). (Since Palencar goes on to heap most of the blame on the writers and producers, and can't know how much control, if any, Barrett had over her role in the series, why bring this up?)

Palencar often addresses the problems, contradictions, inadvertent oversights, and apparent messages of various episodes as if the scriptwriters and producers were, at different times, conscious of their intentions, totally cynical and malign, or unconsciously reflecting sinister or prejudiced views. She seems unaware of how little power scriptwriters usually have, or else is deliberately choosing to ignore it. She sees misogyny and sexism dominating the treatment of the series' female characters, and racism in the way people of color are handled. Sexism and racism may be present in Star Trek: The Next Generation, as they often are in most popular entertainments aimed at viewers in our particular society, but the writers and producers are given little credit for their efforts to transcend stereotypes in their casting and scripts. Palencar can grant that some episodes at least attempt to wrestle with important or weighty issues, but then goes on to accuse the series of "deceptive carelessness," because other episodes seem more sinister. It is as if Palencar's anger and disillusionment with the former object of her affections bring her to see only the worst--Star Trek: The Next Generation becomes Demon Rum. One of her least convincing assertions is that Quark, a continuing character on Deep Space Nine, reflects anti-Semitic stereotypes, a thought that never occurred to me, the child of a Jewish mother, or to any Star Trek viewer I know.

Occasionally, Palencar hits the mark. Geordi LaForge, the character played by LeVar Burton, has had, she points out, only one love interest who was also black (shades of Bill Cosby's character in I Spy back in the sixties). Worf, the Klingon warrior, becomes the paradoxical exemplar of traditional and family values. She finds it surprising that no one on board the Enterprise is tempted to misuse or escape completely into the Holodeck--that there are no Holodeck addicts. (She might be interested to know that writers of Star Trek: The Next Generation novels are discouraged from writing stories centered on the Holodeck; a place where anything can happen, in any kind of setting, could easily take over the series and make what happens in the rest of the Trek universe meaningless.) Her analyses of some of the continuing characters and how they are depicted are intriguing, but might have been more astute had she realized that the sometimes troubling and inconsistent depictions might have been the products of a scriptwriter's haste and the demands of a series with a complicated background. She finds the character of the amoral and seemingly omnipotent Q especially distressing, wondering if the unease he produces in viewers is meant as a message "about the state of the 'human condition' at the end of the millennium" (106). She mentions the possibility that Q might be a symbol for Paramount's control of Star Trek, an alter ego of sorts (19). Maybe Q is just a way of giving the Enterprise crew members a powerful antagonist against whom to react, always a popular device for writers wanting to show characters in conflict. Q is actually a member of a vastly superior civilization, often hinted at in the first Star Trek series, and seems to provide a kind of Greek chorus.

But what disturbed me most about this book, in the end, is that Palencar nowhere refers to any published science-fiction novels or stories. The only author of printed science fiction mentioned is Harlan Ellison, and then only during a discussion of the classic Star Trek episode "The City on the Edge of Forever," which was based on his teleplay. She may be familiar with science fiction in book form (she is clearly familiar with literature in general), but it plays no role in her analysis. For Palencar (and I suspect for growing numbers of people), the world of science fiction is encompassed by Star Trek, Star Wars, E.T., Babylon 5, and other cinematic and televised dramas. It is as if science fiction in printed form doesn't exist--or at least that it has played no role in influencing any of these entertainments. In fact, it is the source of all of it. Visual science fiction is almost a virtual museum of the forms and ideas found in written sf, dumbed down to varying degrees and with occasional flashes of originality.

Near the beginning of her book, Palencar writes: "I have asked myself more than once in the years since I began to watch [Star Trek: The Next Generation] if the problem with the series isn't a problem with science fiction in general: whether, once a writer has freed his or her imagination of all technological restrictions--similar to the way the imagination is freed of all sexual inhibitions in pornography--it is possible to offer a picture of human life that is at all faithful to the realities we know in our homely mortal bodies" (13). But science fiction, at its core, is not about "freeing the imagination of all technological restrictions," although it's easy to understand why someone who knows the genre only through visual presentations might think so. The science- fictional devices used in movies and TV dramas are usually treated merely as props, as magical and incomprehensible in their way as a fairy godmother's wand or a flying carpet. In a movie, interplanetary space vessels can behave like jets and hackers can break into alien computer systems with laptops. In genuine science fiction, even in tales some might class as borderline, the limits of what is known and what is possible are respected. What Palencar is describing and reacting to isn't science fiction, but a kind of fantasy.

But her interest in science fiction, as she admits, was fueled by the Star Wars trilogy and nurtured by Star Trek: The Next Generation. She seems completely unaware that the two series are the descendants of two distinct forms of science fiction, that Star Wars draws from pulp adventures while Star Trek's influences can be traced from both realistic and utopian science fiction. Palencar thinks of science fiction as a genre in which anything can happen and ends by feeling hurt and betrayed because, of course, it isn't. Having no apparent acquaintance with science fiction as a thought experiment or as an imaginative playing with what we think of as reality, as what Isaac Asimov called an "escape into reality" greater than the everyday, she reacts to Star Trek not as an intelligent if sometimes flawed entertainment, but as the forerunner of a possible future she ultimately finds repellent. With no clear way to distinguish among reality, possibility, plausibility, and fantasy, Star Trek: The Next Generation becomes reality.

Confessions of a Trekoholic is thus valuable in a way the author probably did not intend: as a case history, an insight into the mind of someone whose view of science fiction has been formed almost entirely, based on the evidence of this book, by visual media. Palencar, I hasten to point out, is an intelligent and reasonably articulate person who has taught a course in fantasy literature at the junior college level and may well have more knowledge of written science fiction than she reveals (in which case her problem isn't ignorance of the field, but misunderstanding, and a failure to present and use what she may know). One wonders what kinds of confused and nutty ideas are floating around in the minds of media sf fans who have little real knowledge of anything and who don't read at all.

As the popularity of visual science fiction has grown, the written form of sf has become ever more endangered. That media tie-ins are crowding out original work is one danger; publishers can make so much more money with novelizations of hit movies, franchise fiction of the Star Wars or Star Trek variety, and the occasional novel that is turned into a movie, that there is less and less incentive to bring out other kinds of sf books. New novelists have a harder time reaching an audience; older sf works, many of them classics that fed the genre's wellsprings (and also some of our recent media entertainments) remain out of print and are lost to new generations of readers. More and more people are going to form their impressions of science fiction from what they see in a movie theater, on a TV screen, or on a computer monitor. More and more of them are likely to see not true sf, but a sort of fantasy in which anything is possible and, given the power of visual media, confuse more of it with the world as it is and as it might become.

For those who might think that the distinction between science fiction and visual "sci-fi" fantasy is trivial or unimportant, it is akin to the difference between what astronomers might discover about the Hale-Bopp comet and what the thirty-nine dead members of the Heaven's Gate cult, more fans of media sf, concluded that the comet meant to them. One loses the ability to draw distinctions at one's peril. Being able to draw them might have left Hilary Palencar able to enjoy Star Trek: The Next Generation for the often flawed but still sometimes worthwhile, suggestive entertainment that it is.

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