“I have been and always shall be your friend.” A line iconic in the Star Trek universe, and envied among us men, writes Brian Shea.
I work in a serious office with serious people. They do important, serious work. So as I unwrap my new purchase at my desk, I am unsure of the reactions this latest office decoration will bring. The head comes out first and it is my head. An almost perfect replica, in fact, compliments of Cubify 3D Systems, a 3D printing firm that has reproduced my head from a photograph. The clothes come next, or more precisely, the uniform. Yellow command shirt, black pants. Boots. Phaser pistol. With unsettling accuracy, my miniature doppelgänger stares back at me, a starship captain from Star Trek with my own head on it. And it’s the best $70 I’ve ever spent.
As a child in the 1970s, I watched Star Trek right after my favorite cartoon, Cool McCool. At the age of eight, I didn’t realize Star Trek had already been in repeats for years or what “repeat” even meant. It was all current and real to me, cardboard furniture and all.
Like many others, I was captivated by the adventures of the Enterprise and her crew and media analysts propose a consistent theory as to why. In those gloomy years of Watergate and Vietnam, Star Trek’s optimistic view of the future offered an alternative to television viewers. For many years, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry himself pitched the show’s hopeful vision of the future as the explanation for Star Trek’s enduring popularity.
But eight-year-old boys do not base their viewing choices on how well a television program metaphorically solves the world’s problems. I was no exception. To punctuate my disinterest in world peace, my favorite Trek-viewing outfit were my Planet of the Apes foot pajamas, complete with ape foot booties, that celebrated a franchise in which humans had annihilated themselves before being supplanted by primates. Today, America’s cultural fixation on post-apocalyptic zombies hardly supports the hypothesis that we seek hope in our entertainment.
But the officers on the Enterprise tell a different story of what has bound these men to each other and to a global audience for over 40 years. And, I suspect a lot of boys in particular instinctively understand this subtext, even if they are hesitant to express it. Star Trek enjoys one of the highest percentages of female fans among the other major science fiction franchises, according to sociologist John Tenuto, who teaches the course “The Sociology of Star Trek” at the College of Lake County in Illinois. But men still make up approximately 78% of Star Trek’s fans.
There is an unusually deep bond of friendship between the main three male characters of the show that is easily missed by fans steeped in Star Trek’s cerebral exploration of existence, space, and time. Throughout the franchise’s long life is the story of Captain Kirk, Doctor McCoy, and Mr. Spock, who have gone where few American men have gone before; they acknowledge their need for each other’s friendship without embarrassment. The three men always made sure to stop from time to time and reflect on their unique friendships that would be the envy of most men, whether we’d admit it or not.
For me, and I suspect for a lot of male fans, it was not the costumes or space battles that made me put down my cookie and milk and pay attention. It was the quieter bridge scenes, moments before a pending crisis, the three friends standing together for a moment that all knew could be their last. The ever-grumpy Dr. “Bones” McCoy making Captain Kirk question his motivations with a disapproving scowl that only real friends can share without being hurt. Kirk, later joking with McCoy, letting the doctor know he had been right all along and that there were no hard feelings. Spock, silently and unemotionally observing both men, showing more than telling, that they were his family.
I know that as a young boy, moving to a different address almost every year until I reached high school, it was the closeness of the men of the Enterprise that I found most appealing. Wherever I moved to, I could turn on the television and find them once again, beaming down to the latest Planet of Doom together.
On more than one occasion, Kirk and his friends sometimes defied orders to help each other during times of danger. In the episode Amok Time, Spock must return to his home planet of Vulcan or die from a condition unique to his species. Kirk, ordered by his superiors not to divert the ship’s course for any reason, takes the Enterprise to Vulcan anyway. “I owe him my life a dozen times over,” Kirk says to Dr. McCoy. “Isn’t that worth a career? He’s my friend.”
In Spock’s death scene in the second Star Trek feature film, The Wrath of Khan, Spock asks Kirk not to grieve and repeats a line that has become iconic in the Star Trek universe: “I have been and always shall be your friend.” Spock, a male Vulcan devoid of emotions and James T. Kirk, an almost cartoonish metaphor for virility and machismo, both knew that their friendship would “define them both,” as Spock would say late in his life. And they didn’t hesitate to say it.
Later, after Spock’s miraculous resurrection thanks to the magic of Hollywood, Kirk and his friends are camping while on shore leave at the base of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. During a rock climb, Kirk slips and almost falls to his death before being rescued by Spock once again. Later around the campfire, Dr. McCoy chastises Kirk for taking such foolish chances with his life. But Kirk dismisses his friend’s concerns with a reassuring smile. “I knew I wouldn’t die because the two of you were with me. I’ve always known I’ll die alone.”
Down here on Earth, sociologists are coming to appreciate the importance of male friendships in early childhood development, something I think Kirk and friends would applaud.
Dr. Niobe Way, author of Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection, has found that teenage boys need friendships as much as girls but are fearful of expressing this need. In his research for his book Buddy System: Understanding Male Friendships, Geoffrey L. Greif finds that not much changes when these teenaged males reach adulthood. The men he interviewed valued their friendships, but had trouble expressing their feelings towards friends when compared to women.
In a small way, perhaps Kirk and his friends offer men a refuge from their silent loneliness, at least for an hour or two, allowing them to overlook the occasional over-acting and amateur makeup. Under the cover of interstellar adventure and Kirk’s promiscuous conquests, men can enjoy rare friendships that still elude them.
At 44, I’ve been lucky enough to share lifelong friendships with a small group of like-minded men, though we haven’t faced warp core breaches or even real danger together. They are too important to me to imagine them in real peril of any kind. Every Halloween, we gather at the base of a mountain in New Hampshire and hike to the peak, camping and catching up on each other’s lives. This year will be the 28th year and if we can even walk in another 28 years, we will be there still.
Our service to anything resembling Starfleet has been limited to an online video game, me telling bad puns as my friend Rob provides cover fire with his phaser rifle, trying to keep the onslaught of Klingon warriors at bay. My other old friend and medical officer Dean begs me to stop telling bad jokes and stay focused on the mission while he frantically administers medical care to us both. It’s useless, of course, and we all die in a brilliant explosion, Klingons gloating over our corpses heaped in a pile. But we die together.
I think there are two kinds of male Star Trek fans and they’re both linked by friendship. The first is what I was as a kid, watching Kirk, Spock, and McCoy and hoping someday I’d have friends like that.
The second kind is that man lucky enough to recognize the camaraderie on the bridge of the Enterprise from experience and appreciate how rare a good friend can be. I have been the former and now stand blessed to be the latter, ever knowing that wherever I may find myself, I have a league of gentlemen who will materialize at the ready when trouble comes. I don’t know if I’ll die alone like Captain James T. Kirk. But if I do, I will have little to complain about.
I’m not sure what my generally serious colleagues think of my miniaturized head atop a Starfleet uniform, standing on my desk to guard my pencil box. Judging from their eye-rolling and remarks that question my maturity, they don’t seem to think much of it at all. The truth is, I don’t really care.
When I smile in response, it’s not from embarrassment. I smile because I know that on my friends’ desks all over the country stand their own little doppelgängers, phasers drawn, ready to protect their friends. And I know that wherever they are, they’re smiling too.
photo courtesy of author