To Oldly Go
‘Star Trek: Picard’ concludes by reasserting what gradually became the franchise’s most potent hidden theme: Growing older is something to master, not dread.
From Unsorted but Significant on Substack.
“They say `time is the fire in which we burn.’ .… Right now, Captain, my time is running out.”
— Dr. Tolian Soran to Capt. Jean-Luc Picard, “Star Trek: Generations” (1994)
“Galloping around the cosmos is a game for the young, Doctor.”
— Admiral James T. Kirk to Leonard McCoy, “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
ST PAUL, Minnesota, Spring 1970
My sister, a college freshman, sits me down in front of a study-lounge television set in her dormitory on the Macalester College campus to watch her favorite show, “Star Trek,” whose uneven three-year run has just come to an end. She is 19. I am 2. The dorm’s name, I learn many years later, is Kirk Hall.
I don’t remember which episode I saw that day. Neither does she. But among the reruns airing that spring was one called “The Deadly Years,” in which strange radiation on a far-off planet makes many of the mostly young senior officers of the USS Enterprise age rapidly and unpleasantly.
The first time I saw it — I must have been about 5 or 6 — I was shaken. The episode is about forgetting important things, about losing one’s capabilities and allure, about growing weak and incompetent and — worst of all — tentative. About losing the adulthood you have worked so hard to gain.
To the strains of melodramatic music that tries too hard to drive home just how horrible aging is, we see the 34-year-old Capt. James T. Kirk abruptly grow wrinkles, forget details about running the ship and develop severe arthritis. We see Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy grow jowls and age spots and turn into an irritable old country doctor with — inexplicably — a suddenly thick Southern accent. We see another member of the planetary “landing party,” the twentysomething Lt. Arlene Galway, die of old age within hours. Worst of all, we see Kirk falling asleep in the captain’s chair on the Enterprise bridge, his ability to command fading as his staff looks on in dismay.
“Total senility. What a way to die,” the captain laments.
This particular vision of old age was of course compressed for sci-fi purposes, but it was potent in its vision of unpleasantness, at least to the child who was me. Its signifiers are broad and sharp and kind of cliché: backaches and crankiness and forgetfulness and spiraling loss of control. Years melting away in mere hours. All that’s missing is incontinence. These were young adults, prime-of-their-lives types, beacons for me as I came into TV-watching consciousness in the 1970s. How could they possibly ever grow old? How could I?
Today, that sister is about to turn 72. I am nearly 55. Is time merely the fire in which we burn?
Maybe not. Maybe “Star Trek,” and “Star Trek: Picard” in particular, have been telling us otherwise for a long time now.
PITTSBURGH, Pennsylvania, Christmas 1975
My parents, supporters of my nascent fandom, take me to “Star Trektacular” at the William Penn Hotel in Pittsburgh, one of the earliest “Star Trek” conventions. Most of the original cast attends. Leonard Nimoy, who doesn’t, will visit the city days later and give a lecture for free so as not to disappoint his fans.
A few weeks afterward, my father, at age 53, is carrying the 1975 edition of our Christmas tree out with the garbage and chucks it toward the curb, ripping a ligament in his right forearm. He goes to the doctor — something he despises — and is admonished. As he tells it to me, our family physician said to him: “You can’t do things like that anymore. You’re not going to be around forever.”
I am 7 when I hear this. It goes down hard. I am already starting to realize that my parents are a decade older than most of my friends’ mothers and fathers, and that I will probably lose them sooner. Though I couldn’t have articulated it then, it is around this time I start realizing that capturing moments — collecting them, bottling them, processing them, arranging them to share with others — will be my life’s pursuit.
Also around this time, my father shows me for the first time a yellowing piece of parchment paper he keeps carefully guarded in the bowels of his study. It is from 1845, handwritten by my great-great-great grandfather James Shearman Anthony, who was known as “The Bard of Rockport,” a township outside Cleveland. He died at 51 a few months after writing this, which was part of what he called “Last Lines on Myself”:
“Our days fly like the weaver’s shuttle — fast.
We scarcely glimpse the present; all is past.
Such is poor mortal man in his best state:
nothing but vanity, and death his fate.”
Heavy stuff for a little boy to hear from a Very Serious Ancestor. But the smaller version of me is not bowed or demoralized. Why? I am a “Star Trek” fan, and its sense of possibility always lives in the back of my head, ready to be summoned whenever I need it. I know somehow that the promise of the 23rd century is waiting for me, and it is full of people who persevere — flourish, even.
HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania, December 1991
My roommate just after college, one of the few people I’ve met who was as big a “Star Trek” fan as I was (he bought all the Trek-themed holiday ornaments at Hallmark each year, which made for an interesting Christmas tree), had a full head of gray hair by his mid-20s. I asked him one night, after more than a few beers: “Does that make you feel older?” I still remember his answer, which went something like this: “No. It’s kind of the opposite. I know now that when I’m 60, I’ll look like I’m 25.”
“Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” dropped that holiday season. It is a valedictory piece in which the original crew of the Enterprise spends its final mission saving — what else? — “civilization as we know it,” as Kirk puts it.
But the extraordinary thing about that movie was how, in a way even more explicit than its five big-screen predecessors, it openly embraces the aging that the crew once so feared in that long-ago episode. By then the youngest of them were in their 50s, and Kirk, Spock and McCoy in particular are aware of the passage of time and the finality of so many things. For them, space is no longer the final frontier; beyond it, there’s another frontier implied — one even more veiled. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, of course, the “undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns” is nothing other than death.
At one point, as the denouement of the movie (and the characters’ careers) approaches, Kirk and Spock share a quiet moment. The old friends, who feel out of time, trade recriminations and wonder if, after so long, they are doing more harm than good. Says Spock: “Is it possible that we two, you and I, have grown so old and so inflexible that we have outlived our usefulness? Would that constitute … a joke?”
The rest of the film, though, proves precisely the opposite. It unfolds with a rapid-fire sequence of evidence that they are clearly not obsolete. Within the course of about 15 minutes, they defeat a menacing, bombastic foe; save the life of the president of the United Federation of Planets; and preserve a fragile peace that will echo across the decades and the galaxy, clearing the way for the events of “Star Trek: The Next Generation”. nearly a century later.
The movie’s message rings clear: Old is not, by definition, in the way. And galloping around the cosmos is most definitely not just a game for the young.
ALLISON PARK, Pennsylvania, November 1994
“Star Trek Generations” hits theaters, uniting Kirk and Picard and representing a spiritual handoff from the original cast to the next generation. It is an uneven movie with uneven sentiments about melancholy and loss, about choices that can’t be changed (but what if you could?) and about trying to recapture what has slipped away as the years pass.
By this time I am out in the world, in my mid-20s, working and living far away from parents whose physical frailties are becoming more pronounced. They seem smaller each time I visit. One weekend I go home, accompanied by my longtime girlfriend at the time, and we go see this movie. We are in the midst of breaking up, and endings are on my mind. When the film concludes, James T. Kirk — the man who cheated death so many times and patted himself on the back for his ingenuity — is really, most sincerely dead.
The movie’s antagonist (he has lost so much that I am reluctant to call him a villain) is played by Malcolm McDowell. His character, Dr. Tolian Soran, is the one who says to Jean-Luc Picard (quoting the poet Delmore Schwarz): “Time is the fire in which we burn.”
But what sticks with me is another line that Picard says to his ship’s counselor, Deanna Troi, after he loses two loved ones.
“You know, Counselor,” he says, “recently I’ve become very much aware that there are fewer days ahead than there are behind.” This notion will haunt me for years to come.
ALLISON PARK, Pennsylvania, February 2023
Season three of “Star Trek: Picard” is set in roughly 2401. By this time, Jean Luc-Picard is about 96 years old — at least, he would have been if his mortal body hadn’t died and his consciousness hadn’t been transferred into a synthetic version of himself. Sci-fi is useful that way.
Three years ago, when “Star Trek: Picard” made its debut, it posited a rather grim dotage for Picard. The first we saw of the storied captain-turned-admiral in almost two decades was not a flattering portrait. He seemed spent, a man whose best moments were behind him, who was haunted by his past and spent his days wandering the rows of grapes in his family vineyard in France with his dog bringing up the rear. Picard was trapped in his own head, apart from the world. He was, by almost any definition, old.
But the events of the past two seasons, and the closure he found with two of the biggest characters in “Star Trek: The Next Generation” — his beloved android comrade Data and the omnipotent deity Q — brought him back into the galaxy-saving game once more. Picard remains aged, but no longer is he old, exactly. He is vibrant, useful, wise, a catalyst, a man who knows himself better than ever.
And to look at recent weeks’ trailers for the show’s final season — in which the entire “Next Generation” cast is reunited for an adventure that feels as if it will be both valedictory and fresh — is to see the culmination of the franchise’s rather extraordinary approach to aging.
Patrick Stewart, 82, is not the only éminence grise in it. The vibrant young crew introduced during the show’s 1987 debut are all pretty much ready to cash in on whatever the 25th-century version of Social Security might be.
Salt-and-pepper beards abound, with varying degrees of salt: on Geordi LaForge, played by 65-year-old Levar Burton, on Will Riker (Jonathan Frakes, 70), on Worf (Michael Dorn, 70). Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis, 67) and Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden, 73) both have flowing manes of gray-streaked hair.
Yet they are all, by every hint of every preview scene we’ve seen, action heroes once more. “Those were the days,” Picard says to Riker at one point in the trailer about their glory years. But the way it’s delivered, you get a sense that it’s as much irony as nostalgia. These are older people who seem unconstrained by the clichés that bind some of us. That, I’m afraid, have bound me.
In the years since this cast last appeared together in 2002’s “Star Trek: Nemesis,” I watched my parents decay and wither into what they called “decrepitude.” They didn’t die early, nor did they exactly go gentle into that good night — they visited us in Asia when they were 81 and 79 respectively. But dementia stole who they were and what they knew bit by bit until, by the end, not much was left. My wife and I helped take care of them for nearly a decade. What’s worse, they knew what was happening to them — until they didn’t.
The result, for me: That particular version of aging, the slow and excruciating fade, was imprinted indelibly upon my psyche. Today, with both of them long gone, I struggle to see any other version of old age, any other possible road. Nothing but vanity, and death his fate.
But I am beginning to realize that this version is wrongheaded and defeatist, and has trapped me.
My version can be different. I can be healthier. I can take the steps now, at age almost-55, to change what is to come for the me who will be 65, 75, maybe even 90. Instead of merely falling asleep in my chair as James T. Kirk did in that long-ago episode, I can recognize that there will always be planets to explore, pieces of knowledge to accumulate, contributions to make. “The past is written,” Picard says in the show. “But the future is left for us to write.”
At the end of “Star Trek Generations,” Picard and Riker are reflecting as they walk through the wreckage of their Enterprise, which was destroyed when it rammed into a planet. Kirk is dead, yes. But the threat has been neutralized. Hope and friendship, the chief currencies of the “Star Trek” universe, have been restored.
PICARD: Someone once told me that time is a predator that stalks us all our lives. I rather believe that time is a companion who goes with us on the journey, and reminds us to cherish every moment, …because they’ll never come again. …What we leave behind is not as important as how we lived. …After all, Number One, we’re only mortal.
RIKER: Speak for yourself, sir. I plan to live forever.
We can’t live forever. But for 10 more weeks of episodes, those of us who long ago became enchanted by Gene Roddenberry’s invented universe and the things it begat can look for a bit of renewal. We can choose to see time not only as a destroyer of worlds, but as an accompanying friend. We can watch those who went boldly when they were young go boldly once again, decades later. And maybe, just maybe, we can take a cue from them and figure out our own ways to keep galloping around the cosmos for years to come.
May memory restore again and again
the smallest color of the smallest day:
Time is the school in which we learn,
time is the fire in which we burn.
— Delmore Schwartz, “Calmly We Walk Through This April’s Day”
Ted Anthony, a journalist based in Pittsburgh and New York, has reported from more than 25 countries. He is the author of Chasing the Rising Sun: The Journey of an American Song. He tweets here, Instagrams here and collects his writing here. Follow his Substack, Unsorted but Significant, here.
Further reading by Ted Anthony:
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