Fifty years ago, the Starship Enterprise slid out of space-dock on her maiden voyage, carrying the hopes of humanity into the deep reaches of uncharted television.
She was a sight to behold, cruising through the infinite sky like a pelican designed by Mies van der Rohe. Her on-going mission: to seek out new life, and slightly different configurations of fibreglass rocks for landing parties to hide behind. And so she flew on and on, and every week her crew would discover new civilisations, new philosophical questions, and new ways for William Shatner to string sentences together.
In the US, the anniversary of Star Trek was marked with an outpouring of love for the series and all it stood for. Its cultural achievements were celebrated – the famous interracial kiss, the resolute injection of idealism into an increasingly cynical society – and its stars adored anew.
In South Africa, however, the celebrations were, like Shatner’s ability to pronounce the k-sound at the end of “Spock”, non-existent. In 1966 the Enterprise could reach the Delta Quadrant but it couldn’t reach South Africa. We were in the outer darkness, because the alien life forms that ruled us believed that televisions were Satan’s colonoscopy, and would only relent 10 years later.
I don’t know how many die-hard fans there are in South Africa (I was too scared to Google “Trekkie” and “South Africa” in case I saw people re-enacting the Great Trek) but I do know that, despite us being light years away from everything, Star Trek left an indelible mark on hundreds of thousands of people in this country. Well, less of a mark than a scar. OK, not a scar, because that implies healing. So maybe more of a deep soul-wound. The kind left by Under the Mountain. And no, I’m not going to elaborate on that, because the less said about that childhood-poisoning dread-fest, the better.
You know what I’m talking about because it still haunts your dreams. Almost 30 years later, you still glance at the ceiling of any room you walk into. Because they could be out there.
The demented flying face-sucking pancakes.
Nobody I know watched the original Star Trek. I didn’t. And yet somehow, almost supernaturally, everybody saw that one episode. (For a flashback, click here.)
How? Did the SABC buy it in 1976 and air it as some sort of educational video? Did they preface it with a short lecture from Elize Botha in which she explained that the pancakes represented the forces of black revolution, lurking in the ventilation ducts of Lusaka, waiting to fly through the air with a fearful farting sound before suffocating the flower of white youth?
There was something deeply horrifying about the flying fart-flapjacks, but then again, it didn’t take much to be memorable in the early days of South African television. In the science-fiction genre the only competition was Mannemarak, a puppet who lived in a lunar lander and watched films about how to pasteurise milk. Wait, no, that was Miena Moe, the spokescow of the South African dairy industry.
And as for plot and pacing, well, entire episodes of Heidi could consist of a single shot of Heidi running, an Alpine path rolling endlessly past under her flying clogs, her horizontal figure-eight mouth yelling “Pieter! Pieter! Wag! Ek kom! Pieter! Wag! Pieter! Pieter! Ek kom! Wag! Pieter! Pieter!”
Reading the outpouring of nostalgia and affection around Star Trek’s anniversary, I found myself mourning the end of the culturally unifying TV show, that one grand saga we’d all sit down in front of at the same time every week; that gave us something in common with strangers and allowed a kind of cultural shorthand. Even when you spoke different languages, you both know what “JR Ewing” meant.
Nowadays, I told myself, television watching has become a Balkanised, isolated experience, where hermits seek out niche shows and binge-watch them, only sharing their latest obsession with a few close friends.
But then I realised this was nonsense, because of course we’ve been split into television tribes since the beginning. There were those who were allowed to watch V, and those who only heard about it the next day, trying to imagine what it would look like to see an alien eating a rat. (Remember?) Some laughed at Night Court. I found it a claustrophobic thing that always felt like a dream you might have in the first stages of a fever.
No, people have always liked what they like, and found ways to gorge on it. Still, I can’t help wondering: will Game of Thrones or True Detective be celebrated in 50 years? Probably not. Because some shows go boldly where no others have gone before. Some are loved because of the spirit they represent rather than the stories they tell. Well, loved and feared. Those pancakes, man…