We’re jumping ahead a few months by looking at The Firm’s chart-topping tongue-in-cheek send-up “Star Trekkin’”, which was released in June of 1987. But we’ve already played with temporal mechanics recently in regards to With Love from the Lovely Angels, and anyway, I can’t honestly comprehend looking at this song anywhere else but here: That it went out into a world where Star Trek: The Next Generation exists is frankly inconceivable to me, but I suppose it’s yet another example of how intractable and immovable the Original Series is in pop culture.
I don’t really need to analyse this song too much as “Star Trekkin’” is pretty self-explanatory. It’s a cumulative song that runs through caricatures of the Original Series cast who rattle off parodic and increasingly scrambled variations of their iconic catchphrases. And there are some real doozys-My favourites are Uhura’s acknowledgment of the sheer inherent ridiculousness of the Klingons (“There’s Klingons on the starboard bow/Scrape them off, Jim!”) Kirk’s wallop of “We come in peace! Shoot to kill!”, Scotty’s “Ye cannae change the script, Jim, och, see ye Jimmy!” and of course the chipmunk’d chorus of “Star Trekkin’ across the universe/On the starship Enterprise under Captain Kirk/Star Trekkin’ across the universe/Boldly going forward, ’cause we can’t find reverse”. It’s pretty straightforwardly, and amazingly, an itemized list of everything that was ever cliche about the original Star Trek.
One thing that’s neat about “Star Trekkin’”, aside from the obvious, is how it plays with its structure as a cumulative song. The way the crew keeps repeating their lines, both in their actual verses and when those verses are recreated in the next verse, it sounds like a VHS or cassette tape somebody keeps rewinding and playing over and over again. And, as the verses get stranger and more distorted as the song goes on, building to its epic chipmunk finale, it sounds like that same tape is getting, well, warped. And, when this is all paired up with the wonderfully bonkers music video featuring sock puppets, pizza starships and singing potatoes, “Star Trekkin’” becomes just about the perfect translation of Star Trek to the Long 1980s: At once playing off of the venerable twenty year nostalgia cycle (Star Trek, as an extent filmed media phenomenon, turned 20 in 1986) and into the post-MTV understanding of the power of symbolic imagery, “Star Trekkin’” distills its source material down to its most memorable setpieces and parrots them as a commentary on the ouroboros-like mentality that accompanies being a Star Trek fan.
But this is worth parsing out. You’ll notice that, over twenty years on from “Star Trekkin’” itself (pushing thirty at the time of this writing), there’s been nothing similar done for any of the subsequent incarnations of Star Trek that came in its wake. There are a number of factors perhaps involved in this outside of Star Trek itself: For one, so-called “old media” like pop music (or at least the pop climate that would allow something like “Star Trekkin’” to reach number 1 on the pop charts) swiftly died a quick and painless death in the 1990s, a decade that also saw (at least the West) slip into an embrace of complacency and apathy that, at least as far as I’m concerned we haven’t come out of yet (if indeed it’s even possible for us to anymore). But within the texts themselves, a cursory glance at Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and even Star Trek Voyager and Enterprise, reveals that none of them are anywhere remotely near as easy to riff on and condense down to soundbites as the Original Series is (I mean people try, especially people who make Internet memes, but that doesn’t mean they’re successful at it) . And that’s because the Original Series is nothing but soundbites.
The thing is, when most people think of the original Star Trek, this is what comes to mind, and I’m not especially convinced that’s a such a terrible thing. Even I, someone who spent the better portion of a year using the Original Series as the case study for an experiment in critical media studies, am now sitting here writing this struggling to come up with an enduring aesthetic legacy of the series itself, as opposed to that of the creators it influenced. Sure, it had good people involved with it who cared about it and I tried to emphasize that in my analysis to come up with redemptive readings when I could, but when I look back on Star Trek with even the comparatively little distance from it I have now, well, soundbites and setpeices are all I can come up with too. It’s not like this was some great and profound work of literature that people have unfairly caricatured and misrepresented, thus ensuring that the only thing people remember are the superficialities; Star Trek was*born* caricatured. There’s no way a satirist could have skewered Star Trek any more effectively than the way it skewers itself right out of the gate, intentionally or otherwise, in “The Cage”, “Where No Man Has Gone Before” and “The Man Trap”. And that was before Fred Freiberger, Arthur Singer and Margaret Armen took over.
And while much of that may have been due to Gene Roddenberry’s heroic hackishness and boundless incompetence, a great deal of it is also on Star Trek fans, namely Star Trek fans of the mid-1980s. These fans are a bit different from the zine culture-driven Star Trek fandom of the 1970s (those sorts of people had long since moved on to other shows. Like, Miami Vice, for example): A case could be made the reaction to the film series, in particular its retrograde serialization, was responsible for a shift in the core of Trekkers’ identity. Star Trek fandom as it exists at this point in time is of an unfortunately myopic sort: This is, after all, a subculture that will, with unyielding passion, continue to insist Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is the greatest movie ever made to this day. Other people, that is, people who have a wider familiarity with media apart from Star Trek reruns and Robert A. Heinlein novels, remember the show for what it was instead of what people with tragically limited reference pools try to project onto it. And this song is really just as much for them as it is for anybody else.
This gets at what’s starting to change for Star Trek in 1986. That “Star Trekkin’” made it all the way to number 1 on the pop charts is a pretty good indication that Star Trek is fondly remembered by people apart from the hardcore Trekker scene and that it’s valued for ideas and iconography, if not always its actual media artefacts. In spite of what Trekkers think, Star Trek has always been popular and well-loved. It’s an iconic, instantly-recognisable part of United States pop culture all over the world; it’s hard to see how it could be anything other than this. But Star Trek as it exists in 1986 is popular in spite of, not because of, its textual quality. Yes, there are a handful of landmark television moments in the Original Series that can very easily be mobilized for material social progress, but it’s extremely challenging to build a case that this is true for the show on the whole. But this doesn’t mean Star Trek isn’t fun. It’s the definition of a cult classic; good, campy fun that people remember from a time that was, if not simpler or better, at least worth thinking back on once in awhile.
What Star Trek really needs now is to remind people why it’s deserving of all those fond memories. That it’s not only a lot of fun, but actually has something to stand for and something to offer. And it needs to prove its relevance without falling back into its old heavy-handed and po-faced bad habits, lest it disappear back into the dusts of collective memory once again.