How Deep Space Nine made me turn to the smart side (or: goodbye Star Wars )

My earliest memories of being a geek are of Star Trek. My father is an engineer and a quintessential geek. He loves science, taught me about binary code, logic and the scientific method of inquiry at an early age. I loved listening and learning from my father as a child, he could explain anything or if he couldn’t, he knew how to find out what we wanted to know. All this before personal computers and before the internet. IN fact, before personal computers were a Thing, my father bought a kit and built his own computer. He gave me books on how computer languages worked. I coded my first program in machine language when I was 12. By the time my private school had Apples, I already knew BASIC.

But before even all that, there was Star Trek. In 1978 Star Trek was in syndication and getting more popular every year. By then, Roddenberry was making noises about bringing it back and making a movie as well. Our local UHF channel was showing it every day at 4pm. I made sure to be home every day after school and so did my father, so we could both watch it. We’d talk about each episode afterwards and my father would invariably have some kind of science and/or sociological lesson for me to glean from it all. I started reading fantasy and science fiction. I discovered the joy of short story anthologies. The library was literally down the street from us and the librarian was sci-fi fan too. Her daughter was about my age and she had a certain fondness for me. It was glorious.

Then, Star Wars came out.

I remember that night clearly: my brother was not even four years old but we brought him with us to the theater anyway. I think my father felt like this was going to be a historic event and didn’t want my brother to miss it. It was summertime and I had been spending most of my days at the local pool and so my hair was brittle and my eyes were blurry from chlorine exposure. I remember my father being SO excited about this movie… he kept talking about all the other science fiction movies he’d seen, going through nostalgia like a grandmother remembering her children as babies. I heard about 2001: A Space Odyssey, Fantastic Voyage, Planet of the Apes, Dr Strangelove, Forbidden Planet, The Day the Earth Stood Still, ZPG, THX-1138…. I think my father was afraid this new movie was not going to live up to the “greats” (especially 2001: ASO)
My brother lasted all of five minutes and then proceeded to eat snacks while sitting on the floor. Every now and then he’d pop his head up when the soundtrack got loud with obvious sounds of battle. My mother split her attention between the movie and my brother. I squinted at the screen and caught most of what was going on. My father just watched everything with a huge grin and wide eyes.

I remember how exhilarating it was. I remember how BIG it seemed on the screen. I remember how fluid and perfect the space scenes were. I remember how unpredictable all the action was and how surprising some of the dialogue was too. I’d never seen a scoundrel quite like Han Solo. Luke was so child-like I felt a kinship with him. The robots were hilarious. Obie-Wan-Kenobe was the kind of man I always imagined my grandfather would have been for me. Darth Vader was truly frightening.

Then there was Leia. For once in my life, I was watching a woman who was powerful and smart and taking charge in the midst of nothing but men. Her character wasn’t a woman acting like a man, she was a woman who belonged right next to the men, hell she clearly belonged in charge of the men. She was beautiful, capable, quick-witted and still had deep emotions that she didn’t apologize for. I loved her. She took what Uhuru was always hinting at but never allowed to be. Leia was the woman I imagined I’d grow up to be. It was natural that Han Solo was going to be her boyfriend. He needed someone sharper to be in command. They were an amazing pair. But Leia was amazing all by herself.

It did not escape my notice that there were no minorities in the movie. It did not escape my notice that Leia was the ONLY female in the movie. It did not escape my notice that the story was superficially presented as a “save the princess” tale in space.

All that didn’t really MATTER so much at the time. Because I was 12 years old and I had come to expect these failings in the world of movies. And considering all the amazing flash and brilliance I was seeing, I was willing to let it go and just take in this breathless beauty of a game-changing film.

After Star Wars, I became a typical fan: I got the toys, the books, the games, the puzzles and whatever else I could wheedle out of my parents. I dressed up and played Star Wars with my friends. We used our action figures to re-enact the movie over and over again. I remember even creating our own version of the movie with an old-fashioned shoebox filmstrip theater. We had seen the movie so many times (not hard to convince my dad to take me and my friends during the summer) we knew all the dialogue all the way through. But even that wasn’t as much fun as playing with the action figures to expand the story we’d seen. True geeks, you know?

Its almost like I forgot about Star Trek. But I hadn’t. Its just Star Wars made Star Trek look old. The sets, the acting, the stories… all so cheesy and badly done. Star Wars was slick and cool and fast and… it was sexy.

When the first Star Trek movie came out, OF COURSE we went to see it. OF COURSE we loved it.

But it was a wholly different animal from Star Wars. It seemed like Star Trek: the motion picture was a different attitude. It wasn’t really that flashy or exciting or exhilarating. At least, not to me, a 12 year old geek. But for my father, the old love and reverence had not abated at all. For him, it was a kind of affirmation after so many years of being patronized by the movie industry – science fiction was finally getting some serious recognition. I remember hearing my father talk about how as much as he liked Star Wars, it didn’t hold a candle to Star Trek. I thought he was crazy, in a way that only the very young and naive can think.

So for many many years, Star Wars was my *love*. Despite the fact that Billy Dee Williams was an obvious sop to the “libruls” and the rehashing of the old trope of “I didn’t kill your father I AM your father” (Oh come ON you couldnt’ see that a mile away back in the first movie??) The showing of Leia flying a fighter ship and fixing engines and making tactical decisions and being snarky towards Han and just generally kicking ass all over the place… it held me. It resonated with me in a way that the Star Trek movies couldn’t at the time. I needed to see Leia on the screen being the awesome woman I wanted to be someday. Star Trek showed me many things but it couldn’t fill that need for me. As much as I loved Uhuru, they just didn’t give her the play that Leia got. Subsequent Star Trek movies still left me wanting, and to be honest a large part of that was due to Kirk; I had never really liked Kirk as a character and the movies revolved around him in a way I didn’t care for.

So really, the Star Trek movies we part of why I was such a huge Star Wars fan, willing to let go of some of my ideals in order to keep riding the young feminist high it gave me.

But I still adored the series, and I liked the new series too. Star Trek still had a place in my heart but it wasn’t the LOVE that I had for Star Wars. I had respect for Star Trek, I had adoration for Star Wars. By the time “Phantom Menace” came out, I was full halfsies on them. By then, I was in my 30s, was married and had children. By then I’d seen many sci-fi movies, read libraries of sci-fi books and stories and had a decent collection of geeky things which pleased me. I had been pining for a new Star Wars movie though and was excited to see a new one FINALLY.

Boy was I disappointed. I took my Eldest Son with us to see it but I think even he was unhappy with what we were subjected to. I couldn’t even put my finger on what was bothering me about it although I could point out the many many problems with it. It was just a general discomfort with how the movie had turned out. I figured maybe a large part of my ire was because the return of the franchise had been over-hyped. Its hard to say for sure, but it bothered me. Star Wars was special to me in many ways not the least of which was it was the first time I’d ever felt validated as a female geek. Having grown up in the 70s-80s as a female geek who is disabled (and considered very disturbingly ugly) was really hard. I could not get acceptance from teh few geeks I knew around me (some day I will write out my rant- err I mean story – about trying to get my schoolmate geeks to let me play D&D. Unsuccessfully). I couldn’t get acceptance from teh “normals” and I barely got acceptance from teh punk/goth crowd I eventually fell in with. Star Wars was a huge billboard from the “regular” world that someone like me could exist and thrive in a future that hadn’t happened yet. Not because of Leia alone (she certainly wasn’t ugly or disabled) but because of Leia and Han and the droids too. But mostly because of Yoda and all the other “Aliens” who populated the screen in all the Star Wars movies. Star Wars also gave me something geeky to love that was OKAY to love no matter who I was talking to. And because I had steeped myself in all things obtainable that was Star Wars (at least up until TPM) I actually commanded a bit of grudging respect from fellow geeks when I came across them. So why did The Phantom Menace just feel like a slap in the face?

That question secretly haunted me for years. While I came to appreciate certain aspects of the later Star Wars movies, I never could really get away from teh fact that something about the whole franchise was eating at me. Something was missing and I couldn’t figure it out. Maybe it was the post-editing Lucas did. Maybe it was the inconsistencies in the franchise. Maybe it was just the second trilogy was so bad I just was being one of those classic geeks who couldn’t emotionally handle a change in my beloved franchise.
But whatever it was, I kept it a secret. Because I loved Star Wars and all my memories of what I loved didn’t disappear just because something was wrong with what it had become. But something was wrong with what it had become and I couldn’t figure out what it was.

Meanwhile, I was raising my children to embrace their geekiness. We loved Star Wars as a family, just as my parents and I had loved Star Wars together too. I watched the spin-off material with my boys. I bought the books which explained everything abotu the universe. I GMed a game of Star Wars tabletop (West End Games second edition with supplemental material) I created my own corner of the galaxy too, complete with bible. I ran shortened versions of my adventures at cons. I collected more stuff. I got into the closed beta for Star Wars Galaxies – the MMORPG. I made sure Eldest Son’s first MMO was SWG. We owned SW on VHS in three versions before we bothered to buy the DVDs. I nearly had a crisis of faith when I realized I was really a follower of the Sith Code, not the Jedi Code. I bought light sabers for the whole family one christmas. I sewed a Jedi robe for my toddler daughter to wear for Halloween. I have a video of her dancing to the theme song when she was 4. We all quoted the movies endlessly. whenever someone would start up the inevitable debate of Star Wars versus Star Trek, I was there, guns ablazin to make sure everyone knew that Star Wars was every bit as good and beneficial as Star Trek. I insisted that there were plenty of fans who loved BOTH and there was nothing wrong with that. By golly, I still loved my Star Wars.

But there was still that secret discomfort.

About a year ago, my Eldest Son told me that he planned to join the military. He was nervous and scared but he wanted to do it. So he came up with a basic plan over the course of the next year where he would be tying up loose ends in his life and getting mentally prepared to go. He and I already had a semi-ritual of staying up after his sister went to bed and hanging out with some Chai tea. He started watching Malcolm in the Middle with me until we went through the entire series. Then we decided to start watching Deep Space Nine. I vaguely remembered how much I had liked the show when I managed to catch it on TV (I was never very good about watching TV regularly) so we started our loose nightly ritual of watching it together while drinking chai and eating snacks.

Deep Space Nine changed my whole geek viewpoint on Star Wars.

At first it started as just a good fun sci-fi show that had references to things I knew quite well (I had watched a lot of ST:TNG) and Eldest of course (in the manner of all modern geeks) took to the internet in between episodes to learn more about the universe it was in. He kept me informed of backstory, species details and character connections while we made our way through all of it. I relearned how much I loved Klingons yet couldn’t stand Betazoids. I marveled at the naive arrogance of the Bajorans and the smooth deception of the Cardassians. The political intrigue was slow enough and simple enough that I could keep track of it (with a little help from Eldest) without getting bored.

I grew to love Deep Space Nine in a way I had never loved another sci-fi franchise.

But as the series went on, I realized that the conversations Eldest and I were having were much deeper and more meaningful than anything we’d ever discussed surrounding Star Wars. I realized that the love I had for Deep Space Nine went way beyond anything I had ever felt about Star Wars, in fact. I realized that Deep Space Nine, and upon reflection much of the entire Star Trek universe, filled a need in me that went all the way back to my pre-adolescent days of watching Star Trek with my father. It gave me a complete validation of myself not just as an ugly geeky female, but as a person who believes that humanity has a bright, beautiful future of integrity, honor and respect. Deep Space Nine showed me a universe that had “people” – not just white male humans who are beautiful and cool but people with overgrown heads, mishapen ears, wrinkled features and even limbs that didn’t work “properly” who were good honorable PEOPLE. Deep Space Nine showed two women passionately discussing their love with no apologies, shame or hesitation whatsoever. Deep Space Nine showed a room of humans who couldn’t understand how to emotionally connect with others somehow finding their strength and still not “solving” their “problem” of asocialism. Deep Space Nine gave me inter-species sex. Deep Space Nine wrestled with the notions of whether God is just a more powerful alien or whether being programmed to worship someone means you truly have faith. Deep Space Nine showed the horror of war, the devastation of caste systems, the stupidity of patriarchy and the hilarity of greed while never ever trying to pretend that we humans are somehow “better” than anyone else.

Deep Space Nine reminded me of Roddenberry’s primary motivation: to show how high we could reach while opening our minds and hearts to those who seem “different”. How much we have to gain from being humble and how great the rewards when we cooperate with everyone. Roddenberry’s vision of a future where people don’t even blink at the shape of your nose, the strength of your limbs or the color of your skin. And those people are the ones who “win” because that’s the future of progress.
But there is Star Wars, still scrounging around on the ground trying to show that humans are the best of the bunch. There’s Star Wars still pushing the notion that the best of humanity is white, perfectly abled and usually male. That the best of humanity has to offer is a sort of powerful energy we use to hurt others in order to police the world. Because everyone knows diplomacy will always fail, bad guys will always kill everyone and making others cooperate is something you have to use force or conniving to accomplish. There is Star Wars proving over and over that we must be afraid of those who are different. Especially those who look different. Especially those who have emotional states we deem “abnormal” There is Star Wars letting us know that true unity can’t exist peacefully. That ALL DARKNESS IS EVIL. There was Star Wars pimping that adolescent message of fear and mistrust.
Yet Lucas had such great promise, such great opportunity. He had an entire universe of people to tell any tale that he wanted. And truthfully, within the expanded universe there were many who did tell different stories. Wonderful stories of growth and acceptance and change. But not Lucas. He just kept serving up the same basic tale that captured my fancy when I was a child. And I loved it dearly when I was a child because it gave me a tiny bit of recognition as an outcast. But I didn’t understand that the kind of outcast I was? The kind I still am? Isn’t a part of Lucas’ vision for the future. In the future I either don’t exist, or my life has no glory, no beauty, no tale worthy of telling.

Star Trek, in Deep Space Nine and truly all through all of the shows to some degree or another, showed me a future that isn’t always glorious and beautiful but is therefore more precious. The message Deep Space Nine gave me was that everyone has a place in the future.

I came to realize that the discomfort I felt for Star Wars and what it had become was actually very simple: I grew up. Star Wars didn’t.

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