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William Shatner and LeVar Burton Talk Science, Mythology, and Sci-Fi

With the exact date of Star Trek’s 50th anniversary coming up shortly on September 8th, celebrations of what started as a strange little show with low ratings are in full swing. Star Trek: Mission New York promises to take over Labor Day weekend with a slew of panels, screenings, autographs, and other festivities, and this past weekend, Cherry Hill hosted a Star Trek 50 year mission tour convention.

Though much of the aforementioned convention was based around entertainment (with celebrity Q and A’s, a Rat Pack performance on Friday night, and karaoke), there was also intellectual stimulation to be had for the sci-fi nerd, including panels on Women in Star Trek, Star Trek and Shakespeare, and a discussion of the upcoming Star Trek: Discovery. Two actor appearances – William Shatner and LeVar Burton – also stood out; both spoke passionately about science fiction and science, speaking of its potential and of its influence.

William Shatner began his panel by talking about what projects he’s been working on lately, but this quickly segued into a short talk about the nature of science itself. His most recent project – titled The Truth is in Our Stars, and slated for release in December – is a series of interviews with scientists influenced by Star Trek, including Michio Kaku and Stephen Hawking (whom he interviewed just last week). Shatner spoke with great passion about the questions science asks – what are we all doing here? What are we? What the hell does it all mean? These are the same questions that mythology attempts to answer: why are we here? What is the meaning of life? And science fiction, as he has so often previously stated, is deeply mythological, in taking these metaphysical questions and giving them realistic answers.  He made some short quips about the answers to all these questions – “we’re all vibrating!” he summarized, after snarkily suggesting that scientists talk for fifteen minutes but have no better answer to the above questions than anyone else.

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William Shatner speaks passionately about science and science fiction

But this snark was quickly replaced by deep seriousness. He looked almost enraptured as he spoke about his experience with Stephen Hawking and Michio Kaku, telling the story of how, once, when he was speaking about the mathematical beauty of music with Michio, he asked him, “Kaku, what instrument do you play?” Michio pointed to his head, his brain – which, almost ecstatically, Shatner suggested was an instrument like any other, capable of touching the beauty of the universe in some way. He spoke also of Stephen Hawking, who lives in a body that doesn’t work – but his mind does. He had similarly asked Hawking once, “what instrument do you use?” to receive a similar answer – his mind.

Shatner also spoke about the very real impact of – and crosspollination between – Star Trek and real science, and, in particular, space exploration. He went back to the late 60s, when, he claimed, the achievements of the space program brought in ratings to Star Trek. These ratings, in turn, inspired scientists and the continuation of the space program. He even suggested (citing an unmentioned source) that it was the influence of Star Trek that caused Congress to vote for funding for the space program, calling Star Trek “instrumental” in getting money allocated for the space program. (as a side note, William Shatner is what one might consider a primary source on the topic, given that he was at the center of things during the Space Age of the 1960s; at the same time, I have no written sources at this time to back up his claims).

In short, my admiration of William Shatner (which was already great) has grown even more with this conversation. He seems to have a deep respect for both Star Trek (whose ideas and philosophy he said he admired, even producing a moral/political reading of Star Trek’s funniest episode, “The Trouble with Tribbles”) and science (whose potential he spoke about with visible admiration, ending his appearance with words of admiration for the brilliant young scientists currently working at NASA that he’s interviewing for his project).

In short, when he claimed “I’m Captain Kirk!” halfway through the panel, he wasn’t joking – he seems to have James T. Kirk’s openmindedness and sense of wonder about both the world around us and the fiction that describes it.

This influence, which Star Trek had on so many lives, also touched LeVar Burton, who played Geordi in Star Trek: The Next Generation. While Shatner had mentioned more abstractly the various influences Trek had had on scientists, inspiring them to pursue science, LeVar spoke of the way that the Original Series (of which he was a huge fan) showed him that he had opportunities as a young black kid- something he loved incarnating in Geordi, a character with a disability who is still able to pursue his passion.

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LeVar talks about the inspiration of Star Trek and the power of science fiction

He also wholeheartedly admitted that he’s a science fiction nerd, because science fiction invites us to contemplate “what if” – which, he said, are two of the most powerful words in language. He also called imagination a superpower- a thought process that essentially enables us to travel through time and space in a way that no other species can. And storytelling is what connects us to the imagination, that brings it to life. In short, though he didn’t say it in those words exactly, he spoke of science fiction as similarly mythological: just like Shatner suggested that sci-fi lets us answer the question of “what’s out there?”, LeVar suggested that it lets us ask “What if?” (LeVar also mentioned as I was getting his autograph, on the very same isolinear chip that he refused to fix for me, that his favorite science fiction author is Octavia Butler).

They both spoke about a topic that’s been of deep interest to me in my research: the relationship between storytelling and science, as well as the way that our penchant for narrative extends beyond the obvious – literature. Over the summer, I had the chance to read The Storytelling Animal, which suggests that storytelling – that is, the ability to ask “what if” and work out the consequences of potential scenarios – is not only programmed into our brains, it’s how we have survived as a species. That is, not only is the imagination a superpower, it is a fundamental survival skill of our species. And science fiction, in its incorporation of science, is particularly apt at working out those consequences and projecting hypothetical scenarios, giving it the power to answer not only “what if?” but also the more mythological question of “What for?”

In short, LeVar and Shatner both spoke with amazing understanding about a topic that I’ve been focusing on as an academic for some time now; at the same time, they gave these talks at a venue that more than proved them right: a 50th anniversary celebration of Star Trek. Star Trek really does showcase the mythological, magical power of storytelling in general and science fiction in particular.

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Highlights and Tidbits from the Star Trek Cherry Hill Convention

It’s a little bizarre to return from a convention that’s less than 15 miles away from me and call it a trip, but that’s what it was- I chose to stay at the con hotel to spend as much time as I could and take in everything! As a preview of the con reports and write-ups to come, here are some highlights, funny moments, and interesting tidbits from the con.

Overheard at the convention: “my husband’s downstairs partying with the Klingons.”

I was told this by a fellow Trekkie who was taking an elevator up with me while enjoying a Stun Punch, one of the specialty cocktails the hotel created for the event. It’s a step below the Vulcan Death Grip in terms of knock-out power. Speaking of Klingons, I’m guessing these were the ones the aforementioned husband was partying with:

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Fuzzy Tribbles invaded the convention

The Fuzzy Tribble (which is not alcoholic enough to make everything fuzzy unless you’ve had, well, as many of them as were on that space station) was another popular drink; yours truly consumed several in the company of William Shatner while preparing for my panel on the Impact of Star Trek at next week’s convention, Star Trek Mission NYC:

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The Omnipotent, Omniscient Q Continuum Assures us there’s nothing to see in Hillary’s e-mails.

One of the first questions John deLancie was asked was whether, as Q, he would bring back all of Hillary Clinton’s deleted e-mails. Without a beat, he answered “I’ve read them all. There’s nothing there.” Speaking of politics, deLancie prefaced his panel by saying we’re welcome to ask him questions, but he is not constrained by truth. “I should run for high office,” he suggested.

The Song “Red Rain” was dedicated to all the redshirts

Every Creation Entertainment convention includes a karaoke party, and this con was no exception. Karaoke was hosted by Connor Trinneer and Dominic Keating, who joined fans onstage to sing along. One fan dedicated the song “Red Rain” to all the redshirts in the audience.

If you can’t find the Garden of Eden outside Moscow, you should probably see an optometrist

This was possibly one of my favorite moments of the convention. One of my favorite lines in the original series is “The Garden of Eden was just outside of Moscow. It must have made Adam and Eve very sad to leave” (said in a thick Russian accent). Seeing that I was actually in Moscow this summer, I came up to the microphone during the Q and A to say “I have a bone to pick with you. I was in Moscow this summer, and I couldn’t find the Garden of Eden.” “Where did you look?” he asked me. “Everywhere,” I insisted. (I visited three Moscow airports this summer, which I think pretty much covers the entire periphery of Moscow). “Then I suggest you see an optometrist,” Mr. Koenig said flippantly.

Michael Dorn is most certainly not a merry man

He hated that line.

LeVar hated wearing Geordi’s visor but loved the line “COOLANT LEAK!”

That’s the line he wants to be remembered by. He also refused to fix my isolinear chips and asked for a hug instead:

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Thanks to MAC Cosmetics for doing my makeup for this photo op.

At least he signed the isolinear chips, which should totally make them function better:

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LeVar Burton is a huge sci-fi nerd

His favorite author is Octavia Butler, and he thinks imagination and storytelling is what sets us apart from all other beings.

Gates McFadden has done some naughty things with Brent Spiner

I have no idea what this was actually about. No context was given.

Chekov eventually found the nuclear wessels.

They’re in Alameda.

Sybok attacked Captain Kirk

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But the ever-unflappable Starfleet Captain was more than ready to defend himself:

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NOMAD invaded the convention, and needed to be out-logic-ed by yours truly:

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Kira Nerys has the most feminist agency of all the Trek women.

The first day of the con included a wonderful panel on women in Trek by Amy Imhoff, Tanya Lemani, Nana Visitor, and Sue of Women at Warp. They discussed feminist issues in Star Trek, and as it turns out, Kira Nerys has even more feminist agency than Captain Janeway! You can read more about these thoughts at an interview Amy did with Nana at Star Trek: Las Vegas.

Rom knows how to rap

As evidenced here:

Captain Kirk is a Womanizer

Disclaimer: he really isn’t. I’ve literally written essays on this topic. But for whatever reason (probably having to do with the fact that the very handsome William Shatner was cast as Kirk in the role of a leading man, and was asked by other actors to teach them how to play the role of a leading man), it’s stuck. From the fans to the Rat Pack performance on Friday night, everyone kept complaining that Kirk took all the ladies.

Kirk and Spock are just friends

I collect sci-fi art, and acquired some beautiful pieces in the vendors’ room at this convention. One of them, available from Lightspeed Fine Art, is a gorgeous piece commemorating Kirk and Spock:

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It’s entitled “Always Friends.” They seem to have omitted the “brother” and “lover” part. Personally, I would go for a title such as “Always T’hy’la” for a work in such beautiful tones of purple.

The astronauts at NASA once complained about the difficulty of putting together a spaceship model.

“It’s not rocket science!” William Shatner told them. They didn’t like that.

Geordi would prefer paper books rather than ebooks

LeVar insisted that Geordi’s visor would make him see through Kindles to the electronics inside. He and Kirk would agree on the value of paper books:

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Bashir was the hottie of DS9

According to Max Grodenchik, they have Rom the storyline with Leeta because they wanted Bashir unattached, since him having a girlfriend made the female fans upset. I guess Dr. Bashir inherited the womanizing mantle from Captain Kirk….

Thanks to MAC Cosmetics, you, too, can now wear Spock’s eyeshadow!

Of course, there’s no guide for how to apply it, but at least now there’s a line of Star Trek products for the ladies and the Vulcans:

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Gates McFadden wants you to vote

She wasn’t the only guest at the convention to provide political commentary (William Shatner even suggested a political reading of “Trouble with Tribbles,” and John deLancie made a Q-esque quip about current politics), and she also wasn’t the only one to provide a call to action. Gates told us that no matter what, we have to go out and vote this November, while John urged us to remember that Roddenberry’s future was one of tolerance and bright light – and urged us to embrace that and move forward with hope and expectation.