Friday, June 25, 2010

The Good Life: Star Trek exhibit at McClellan air museum will leave you beaming

When you sit in that chair, it's transforming. Even the Klingon was impressed.

All around are sleek control stations with bright lights and precise monitors – for subspace frequency scans, net warpfield stability, dilithium crystal thermal stress and the like – and in front are the posts for the helmsman and navigator.

Beyond that is the viewscreen looking out at the entire galaxy. I can feel the boldness, the call to seek out new civilizations. I am so ready to explore strange new worlds and fire a phaser or two.

This is, of course, the bridge of the Starship Enterprise – NCC-1701, thank you, the original – and I'm sitting in the captain's chair, Kirk's chair, and it is so very, very cool. As long as you don't look too closely.

It's the actual set used on the pioneering 1966-69 "Star Trek" series, the show that launched one of the most far-reaching, enduring entertainment engines ever, and surely the most optimistic and well-intentioned. It may also have been the most farsighted TV show, period.

You get a sense of all that from the traveling "Star Trek – The Exhibition," an energetic, nearly 10,000-square-foot exhibit that just opened at the Aerospace Museum of California in McClellan Park and will hang around till Jan. 5.

It's more than just a display of costumes and props and various starships. It's filled with actual sets – the bridge, hallways, a transporter room and surprises all around that feel suddenly current and alive again. You get to watch yourself be transported, ride in a shuttlecraft, step through the time portal that's the Guardian of Forever. And you can get your picture taken in the captain's chair.

Sitting in Kirk's chair, for any kind of fan, is an experience. You can feel the presence of Spock, Uhura, Sulu and goofy ol' Chekov. You know Scotty's in the engine room, so let's get this puppy into warp drive.

Except if you really look, you see the chair is just a piece of square, black leather living-room furniture circa 1960s, and it has arm extensions that are fiberglass-coated wood. No way this thing handles the stress of warp speed.

On the other hand, my new Klingon friend, who's showing me around and seems remarkably docile for a member of such a warlike species, gets a look of pride on his face when we leave the bridge and go to another part of the exhibit.

"Now that's a chair," he says – in perfect English, I might add.

This big, heavy leather chair with what seems to be thick metal backing is from a Klingon warship. Sitting in that, I feel powerful, ferocious, strangely aggressive.

"That one's a lot more comfy," the Klingon said.

Honest. The Klingon said "comfy." In the Klingon language, I doubt there's even a word for "comfy." This is another good thing about the "Star Trek" exhibit. The Klingons who are often there to guide visitors are domesticated.

My guide is, in his civilian life, Chris Mumma, a retired, disabled U.S. Navy vet who lives in Fair Oaks. He's also a good-natured member of a group of Klingon fans called IKV nom Hegh (translates to "Swift Death," of course) who pitch in to act as exhibit guides, mostly on weekends.

He's officially named Commander Korvas vestal-Trekkan. Since we're pals, and since I'm significantly smaller than he is – hence not a threat – he lets me call him Korvas.

Also since we're pals, he points out that the Klingon commander's chair is actually an old car seat. The slide bar for adjusting it is still attached because it didn't show on camera.

That's another joy of this exhibit. You get to see all the props up close, some of the intricate detail, some of the tricks and a bunch of the sly jokes.

Early incarnations of the colored lights on the control panels of the original Enterprise, for instance, were just pieces of hard candy glued on. "They didn't have much of a budget," Chris/Korvas said.

Then there are the "space age" belt buckles for 1960s-era Klingons – the ones without the forehead ridges. (Korvas was in old-school mode this day. He's trans-Klingon so he can do either version, but the ridges take another hour of costuming time.) The buckle was really a square piece of cardboard covered in duct tape – don't you love it; duct tape – with bubble wrap glued on.

And up close, you see that the monitor screens have little touches for insiders. Some have abbreviations giving shout-outs to important people, like show creator Gene Roddenberry (GE ROD). Some just make words (SU SHI).

The wall-size ship schematic on the set of "Star Trek: The Next Generation," has a duck on one deck, what looks like a Ford Pinto hatchback in a landing bay, and in the engine room, a hamster running on a little wheel.

Among the sometimes semi-primitive props are reminders of how much imagination and vision went into the show. Chris/Korvas says the first flip cell phone idea came from the "Trek" communicators. "Star Trek" also more or less envisioned Bluetooth, computer disks, flash drives, the Kindle, touch screens and – tell me if this sounds familiar – a flat, magazine-size computer gadget called the Personal Access Data Device or PADD.

And much of this was thought up, remember, before Neil Armstrong ever set foot on the moon.

"We use this in our education program," Aerospace Museum executive director Roxanne Yorn said. She, too, is pals with the Klingon and felt safe calling him Korvas. "We talk to kids about using your imagination and thinking about what's possible. It's also a way to give them a history lesson without it feeling like a lecture."

Just as much, Yorn talks about Roddenberry's morality and the show's view of a future with diversity and equality. In 1966, a crew with women, African Americans, Asians, Russians as equals – let alone a captain who kisses green aliens – was borderline social blasphemy.

"The social side is good for kids to see, too," Yorn said. "The status and intelligence of everyone on the crew was equal. In the 1960s, that was still a risk. Now, we take a lot of that as second nature, but it's a good thing to have a discussion on."

That, too, is one of the invigorating things about this exhibit. It's a reminder of the scope of the "Trek" franchise, the shows, the movies, the ideas. So much of the phrasing and characters and ethos of "Star Trek" is deeply ingrained in American culture, and they seem to have been revitalized for a new generation with the latest movie. So it's an oddly buoyant exercise to go back to the origins. It's also refreshing to remember what it is that makes this such a special franchise.

"Star Trek" offers a future with optimism, not apocalypse. In contrast to the bleak fate of so much science fiction, from the nuclear destruction of "Mad Max" to the evil Empire of "Star Wars," the universe of "Star Trek" is full of hope and promise. It's not about the failures of humanity, it's about its victories and possibilities.

And if a Klingon is going to volunteer his time to show humans the "Star Trek" story, resistance to those possibilities is, you know, futile.