March 02, 2015

"Star Trek" on the lecture circuit

I'm old enough to have seen an original Star Trek episode (not a rerun!). It was during a sleep-over at a friend's house, way back in 1969.

The episode was "That Which Survives." It made quite an impression on my young mind, especially the way Losira (Lee Meriwether; Catwoman on Batman) escaped by shrinking herself into a horizontal line and vanishing into a dot. Televisions once did that when you turned them off.

The neatest, scariest, coolest thing ever.

I'd have to wait for the series to end up in syndication to see the rest. These were the wilderness years for the fans, before Star Trek became a phenomenon. Except for the short-lived animated series (1973), the first movie wouldn't come out until 1979. Next Generation debuted in 1987.

Until then, I made do with David Gerrold's I-was-there memoirs (The Trouble With Tribbles and The World of Star Trek) and all of the Star Trek novelizations by James Blish.

But there was an upside. As the fan base grew, the stars of the show began touring, and even made it to upstate New York. Thanks to my mom, I got to see Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner in person. Their presentations amusingly mirrored their characters and personalities.

Leonard Nimoy spoke at Union College, lecturing on the convergence of science and science fiction. The Space Shuttle Enterprise (so named because of Star Trek) had just completed its maiden test flights (click to enlarge). His was very much the demeanor of a visiting professor.

The cast at the roll-out of the real Enterprise (Wikipedia Commons).

The same demeanor he'd adopt for the In Search of series. Notes Eric Raymond, "He made braininess sexy." Incidentally, Nimoy spoke in the same hall (the memorial chapel) where I attended a talk by Isaac Asimov.

Nimoy brought along a copy of "Amok Time" to watch after the lecture. A reel of 16mm film. That's how television series were syndicated back then. Commercial breaks were flagged by sixty seconds of plain black-on-white text that simply said, "Place commercials here."

Which, of course, everybody started reading out loud in unison.

William Shatner appeared in a larger venue (the auditorium at Siena College, I believe). His performance was mostly a scripted one-man show. It featured soliloquies and spoken narratives with the general theme of space and astronomy in theater throughout the ages.

Both Shatner and Nimoy concluded with Q&A sessions. Off-script, Shatner transformed into a young Bob Hope, laid-back and relaxed, bantering with the audience members. Towards the end, he started pretend-pleading with anybody ducking out early to beat the traffic.

Nimoy, again, was cool, cerebral, and to-the-point. Suffering foolish questions gladly, but not without a touch of good-humored exasperation at the sillier inquiries. Yes, as he stated in his first autobiography, he wasn't Spock. But as he conceded in his second, he always will be.

This later joint appearance gives us Shatner and Nimoy together in their natural element. And although they played antagonists in a 1964 episode of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., one can grasp glimmers of their future characters.

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# posted by Anonymous Dan
3/02/2015 12:25 PM   
My recollection is of seeing one of the Star Trek guys at the Schenectady public library. My memory of this is very fuzzy and I must have been rather young. I also recall seeing Steve Landesberg of Barney Miller fame at Proctors theater. I had not realized Landesberg had passed away, which he did in 2010. Of course my exposure to Barney Miller, like Star Trek was via syndication. What an iconic theme song, and with the framing of the twin towers it is even more so.
# posted by Blogger Katherine Woodbury
3/02/2015 2:32 PM   
This semester, I didn't get to teach my Star Trek course (1 credit course about succeeding in college with a special topic to make it less dull). But, a ha!, I did teach Murder Mysteries this semester, so today, as part of "discovering your career path," I finished with a clip from "Court Martial," Star Trek: TOS. "See," I said, "detection skills are useful in every job, even ones in outer space!"

And there was Leonard Nimoy telling Bones, "I just beat the computer at chess."

We actually had one of those fancy chess sets growing up. Did you make it, Eugene?
# posted by Blogger Eugene
3/02/2015 3:17 PM   
That chess board was a junior high school shop project (another clue about my age: mandatory shop class!). A big problem was, once the board was made, we had to make up the rules. According to Wikipedia, people are still making up the rules.
# posted by Blogger Henry
3/04/2015 5:43 AM   
I remember the Shatner lecture. He read poetry quite memorably. Leading up to the first motion picture the mustachioed James Doohan made a stop in Schenectady. Maybe that's the visit Dan remembers, though I remember it being at Union College. Joe was there too.
# posted by Blogger Joe
3/04/2015 11:04 AM   
Shatner was at Siena, Doohan at Union.

At the Doohan stop, I had to use the restroom during the screen of The Doomsday Machine and James Doohan was standing in the lobby of the building we were in. Two or three others and I ended up chatting with him for a while.
# posted by Blogger Joe
3/04/2015 11:09 AM   
I also remember giving up a ski trip to stand in line with Henry for the first Star Trek movie. Big mistake. The projector broke during previews, which led to quite funny comments from the audience. That was the best part of the movie. I recently tried watching the movie again and couldn't stomach it; it was even worse than I remembered.
# posted by Blogger unknown
12/30/2016 8:18 PM   
Posting late but I had to make a correction directed at Joe. Nimoy and Roddenberry were at Siena. I attended both lectures. I could not say for certain that Shatner wasn't there at some point, but I would be very surprised as I would surely have attended.