Hymn – When a Knight Won His Spurs …
This assembly is about great stories. We all like to follow interesting stories and characters, they fire our imagination, make us think about our own lives, give us hope. Humans have always told each other stories, in various ways … reading, listening, watching actors … and in the last century, a lot of the stories we take in are from cinema and television.
A few weeks ago, it was the 50th anniversary of the beginning of one of the most interesting …. [look down, cross out] … who am I kidding, the most interesting TV programme ever made. Star Trek started in the USA in 1966, it was a programme set in the future 23rd century about a starship full of (mainly) humans, exploring the galaxy. It became very popular after a few years, and in the 1980s and 90s they made different versions of it with different groups of characters. There’s been five different Star Trek TV versions, some – I think – not as good as others… plenty of films … and in the last few years, they’ve made three up to date Star Trek films with new actors playing the characters that were first made 50 years ago, like Captain Kirk and Mr Spock. And the new films are … well, they’re ok. They’re modern films so they have a lot of things exploding and maybe not much talking but … they’re okay. I’m mainly going to talk about the original series that started in 1966.
Part of the reason I’ve decided to do this assembly this week is because this weekend, I’m going to a big 50th anniversary event in Birmingham. Some of the actors are going to be there giving talks and charging lots of money for autographs and photographs. Mrs Jack is coming too, and my younger daughter Catherine, when I first bought the tickets, said she wanted to come – “as long as I can dress up as a Vulcan” [picture] – so, there she is. She is actually a very normal 9 year old girl, usually, don’t be fooled by the picture. She’ll fit in there because people dress up at these things … they’re Klingons [picture] … that’s a Cardassian … no not a Kardashian, a Cardassian … never mind … and that’s a Gorn fighting a Captain Kirk, and those people … I have no idea what they’re meant to be. In case you’re wondering, I don’t feel the need to wear a costume – sorry to disappoint.
My older daughter Lucy by the way was asked whether she wanted to come to. She’s 12 this week, and she said …. NO.
So why am I doing an assembly about this? Well, I started watching Star Trek when I was about 8 years old. My parents got me to watch it when they weren’t trying to make me listen to Bob Dylan. I loved it straight away. Every story was different, every planet they went to was different, even if the sets were made of cheap polystyrene. But I’m now …. older than that. And I’m still watching it. I like some of the later series they did, some of The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine episodes were very good, but I’m still watching the old ones that are now 50 years old. Why?
Some of it was, when you watch it again … truly terrible … acting, special effects, stories, sometimes. One of the … repeating bits of storyline that always used to happen was this … put clip on, play first minute … they’d beam down to a planet, Captain Kirk, Mr Spock, Dr McCoy, and a man from the ship who you’ve never seen before and …. They’d fall off a cliff, or get zapped, or eaten, or turned into a plastic rock, before they’ve even had time to speak or be given a character name … the first time you’d watch that happen, you think what a shame, that poor man … and then they did it so many times it just became funny. If it ever comes true in the future and any of you end up working on the starship Enterprise … don’t wear red.
When I was young, I basically watched the action, and to see how long it would take the man in red to get killed … but as I got older I listened to the words more and read about where the programme came from and what the people who wrote it were trying to do, with all these stories about funny looking aliens. Well, it was made in 1966. The man who started the series off, Gene Roddenberry, had been in WWII, flying fighter planes, and he’d seen some unpleasant things … and he’d done a lot of thinking about why wars happen, why humans sometimes fight each other, why humans from different countries and cultures sometimes can’t accept their differences and a lot of thinking about what humans are like. He went into making TV programmes, and he wanted to tell stories about the important things that were going on in the USA and the world at that time. People were watching a lot on the news that was making them worried – just like our own time really. People worried that there was going to be a huge WWIII that could have wiped out all life on Earth, and it all seemed very futile, because we’re all human. So Gene Roddenberry wrote Star Trek as a story about the future where humans have changed – they’ve learnt to find other ways to sort out problems than going to war. When he was making up his characters, he made them come from all over the planet, to show how Earth was going to be united in the future.
He also wanted to have a woman as second in command of the ship, but the TV company told him you can’t do that – it’s not believable. But they had Mr Chekov, a Russian character, who was played by possibly one of the worst actors in the history of television – and this was unusual because you’d never see Russians on American TV at this time apart from if they were playing evil characters.
They had an actor called George Takei playing Mr Sulu, who was from Japan. George Takei knew all about war, and prejudice, because he’d been a child living in California in WWII when Japan attacked the USA, and the American government decided to force thousands of families who Japanese ancestry – thousands of Japanese-American children, like George, to leave their homes and go to camps surrounded by barbed wire until after the war. He and his family looked like the enemy, and so they were assumed to be untrustworthy. George Takei talks about this a lot, has written books about it, trying to help make sure no government makes a mistake like that again.
They also had an actress called Nichelle Nichols, playing a character called Uhura. At this point in time, black people were almost never on American TV programmes unless they were maids and servants. Uhura was a regular character but she didn’t always get given a lot to do in the scripts, and at one point the actress was planning to leave the programme, until she met one Star Trek fan who persuaded her not to leave … [clip of Nichols and Martin Luther King]
She met this man, and he told her Star Trek was the only programme he and his wife let their children watch, because it showed black people like her being treated so respectfully. She took his advice, she didn’t leave … and she inspired many younger black Americans, including Whoopi Goldberg who said she wanted to become an actress because she saw Uhura on Tv when she was a child, and later ended up on another Star Trek series.
So by having all these characters on board, the writers of the programme were challenging prejudice. Gene Roddenberry said in an interview: “In the 23rd century … if the human race survives that long, we will have learned to take a delight in the essential differences between cultures. We’ll have learnt that differences in ideas and attitudes are a delight, part of life’s exciting variety, not something to fear. “
The best character they had, of course, was Mr Spock. He was half-Vulcan – and the history of his planet was that they’d had terrible wars, just like Earth … and they’d eventually decided that the best way to stop fighting and wars was to cover up and suppress all their emotions – get rid of anger, jealousy, greed, and they’d stopped war. They just used logic and science to make every decision in their lives. So whenever Captain Kirk had some important life or death dilemma – which was every week obviously – he could listen to Dr McCoy telling him what the human thing to do would be – and then he could ask Spock what the logical thing to do would be, if you put your emotions aside. We all do that in decisions we make in our lives – what’s the sensible thing to do? Ask Spock … what do you actually want to do? … ask Dr McCoy. Captain Kirk was in the middle, and he used both their advice to make the right decision … usually five seconds before they were all about to die.
But they also cover up the nice emotions too, like friendship and love. They have to work very hard to keep them suppressed, to keep anger, or love, from coming out. And Mr Spock was half human, and surrounded by humans … so he didn’t always manage it, he couldn’t help forming deep friendships with his crewmates.
So Star Trek had a lot to say about war and conflict and prejudice and overcoming differences. They did have a lot of stories where they’d be flying around fighting aliens – you probably need some conflict at times to make a good story – but they did a lot of stories where they learn more about each other and take steps towards peace. A lot of TV and film where there’s fights and wars don’t really show you why both sides are fighting – they tend to say this side’s good, this side’s bad – so the audience have to cheer for the good guys. Star Trek often showed you why conflicts were going on, and helped you to understand both sides – not always brilliantly but better than most tv and films.
The Next Generation, the series from the 80s and 90s, was even more like that … Captain Kirk in the 60s, and the new Captain Kirk in the new films, did get into fights and get his shirt ripped quite a lot. The Next Generation had Captain Picard, who was an English actor Patrick Stewart, who was a brilliant character for being diplomatic, learning about your enemy, finding out why different groups of people can have misunderstandings, and avoiding going to war … this is Patrick Stewart giving the politicians some advice …
Basically, Star Trek gave us, and still gives us, a lot of hope, in a world that seems quite short on hope at times. Once humans make contact with life from other planets … they grow up, they stop fighting each other. As this scene shows … the people from the Enterprise have travelled back in time and are talking to the first human who’s about to meet aliens –
And finally … there’s this [hand up, Vulcan salute]. The old series didn’t do a lot of talking about religion – they weren’t allowed to talk about religion on TV in the 60s. One of the later Star Trek series, Deep Space Nine, did talk about religion in a really interesting way and had some characters who talked about their faiths. But the actor Leonard Nimoy who played Spock in the original series talked about this once when someone asked him, where did you get this idea for when Vulcans meet each other? He was Jewish, and he said that when he was a young boy in the synagogue, his dad would tell him to shut his eyes when the priests were saying the most important prayers in the service. But if you tell a child to shut their eyes, quite often …. So he squinted one eye … and the priests were doing this, with both hands, while reading from the Jewish scriptures, or the Old Testament. They read from the book of Numbers, chapter 6:
The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace
So … one of the most commonly used prayers in the Bible made its way all across space to the planet Vulcan.
So next time you see something on the news about astronomers discovering evidence of new planets orbiting far-off stars, and saying they think those planets could have Earth-like conditions … which does happen on the news quite often … just think. They probably won’t look like Spock, but … you never know. As Captain Picard said, ‘Let’s see what’s out there’.
All we need is for someone to invent the warp drive. It makes you think.
Please stand for prayer.
… Don’t worry, I’m not going to do a Star Trek prayer …
Numbers 6 24-26