Where no Travel Writer has Gone Before
Travel Stories: In a five-part series, Rolf Potts joins Trekkies aboard a "Star Trek" theme cruise to Bermuda
To understand how the old-school Trekkies on my cruise ship regard J.J. Abrams’ 2009 blockbuster “Star Trek” movie, it’s useful to make a religious analogy.
Imagine how it might be if, as a lifelong Christian, you suddenly had access to a lost New Testament manuscript that outlines Jesus’ life as a young adult. The Jesus in this newfound text preaches the same gospel and performs similar miracles—only this time around he has wicked karate skills, six-pack abs, wisecracking disciples, a sexy Asian girlfriend, and an endorsement deal with Burger King. Just as devout Christians might find these hip new affectations unsettling, my “Trek”-loving travel cohorts seem simultaneously inspired and bewildered by Chris Pine’s bar-brawling portrayal of Captain Kirk, Zachary Quinto’s babe-snogging version of Mr. Spock, and J.J. Abrams’ alternate-reality time line.
“The old fans are going to get nervous anytime you try to do something new with the franchise,” Richard Arnold tells me. A former assistant to show creator Gene Rodenberry, Richard is a walking encyclopedia of “Star Trek” trivia and a perennial Cruise Trek guest-speaker. He and I are sitting in the back of a Norwegian Dawn conference room where, in a matter of minutes, New Jersey “Trek” fans Wayne and Rita Applegate will renew their wedding vows wearing crisp white Starfleet uniforms. This ceremony is the most eagerly anticipated event of the week for many Cruise Trek veterans, and—for the first time since the ship left New York three days ago—the majority of my travel companions have traded their civilian casual-wear for “Star Trek” regalia.
“Look around and you’ll notice that most of these people are in their 50s,” Richard tells me. “We were adolescents when the show first came out. We’re the generation of fans that saved the show from getting canceled in the 1960s; we’re the ones who pushed science fiction into the mainstream and made it possible for films like ‘Star Wars’ to get made in the 1970s. For all the money Paramount has made from the various ‘Star Trek’ movies and TV series, none of it would have been possible if these kind of people hadn’t gotten together and stood up for the show from the very beginning.”
Richard goes on to explain how, despite their past triumphs on behalf of the franchise, the sci-fi pilgrims on the Norwegian Dawn are the loyalist legacy of a “Star Trek” fandom that has seen a low ebb in recent years. In the early 1990s, when new episodes of “The Next Generation” had a strong TV following, there were “Star Trek” conventions most every weekend of the year. By the mid-2000s, however, as sequel movies like “Nemesis” flopped and TV series like “Enterprise” were canceled, the “Star Trek” franchise foundered. As a result, fan conventions, which “Trek” enthusiasts had transformed into a booming business the 1970s and 1980s, began to focus on more current fare, like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and—most recently—“Twilight.”
Hence, whereas the first Cruise Treks in the 1990s focused on the celebrities, recent cruises have skewed more toward the fellowship of the fan community itself. Our cruise features guests like Dominic Keating (who played an armory officer on the “Enterprise” TV series) and Robin Curtis (who played a Vulcan lieutenant in a couple of 1980s “Star Trek” movies), but many of the Trekkies on board seem just as excited to reunite with old friends as meet with celebrities. Indeed, at this moment the Cruise Trek spotlight belongs not to the stars of the franchise, but to a land surveyor and a daycare worker from New Jersey.
The wedding-renewal ceremony begins with a song and a brief processional; the audience stands at attention in their Starfleet uniforms. Wayne and Rita Applegate’s real wedding happened 30 years ago, but by all accounts it was a disaster. Neither family was supportive of the union, and the young couple had to pay for the ceremony themselves. Wayne’s parents didn’t want to take pictures with him, and Rita’s father didn’t want to walk her down the aisle. The newlyweds decided they would one day renew their vows in a more loving environment, and—nearly three decades later—they’ve chosen to reboot their marriage at sea, in the company of Trekkie friends. The vows are to be administered by veteran sci-fi actor Vaughn Armstrong, a self-described “Where’s Waldo” of the “Star Trek” franchise, who’s played 12 different characters (including three Klingons, two Cardassians, and a Starfleet admiral) on various TV episodes. In honor of the occasion, Vaughn has donned a black tuxedo and pointy plastic Vulcan ears.
As Rita walks up the aisle she begins to sob with happiness; Wayne beams shyly at the head of the conference room. The ocean sparkles outside the windows as Vaughn greets the audience with a few opening platitudes before instructing the couple to recite their vows.
“As captain on this journey, and ‘til God beams us up,” Wayne says, “we will venture onward exploring and experiencing the many wonders in this vast universe.”
“As first officer of this journey, we have seen and done many things,” Rita says, her voice cracking with emotion. “Your love for me is worth more than anything that any planet or universe can give.”
“Now by the power vested in me by my authority as an admiral of Starfleet,” Vaughn announces, “I congratulate you on your 30-year voyage. May you live long and prosper during the next 30 years.”
Over the years I’ve had the privilege to witness weddings in all manner of cross-cultural settings—India, Korea, Cuba, Latvia—but I can’t recall having experienced an event so unexpectedly affecting as this quirky “Trek”-jargon ceremony. Even after 30 years of marriage, Wayne and Rita’s love for one other feels unselfconscious and powerful, as does their gratefulness at being surrounded by people who care about them and share their interests. There are few dry eyes in the audience.
The journalist part of my brain is already at work assembling a tidy narrative to make sense of what I’ve just witnessed. To all appearances, this is a perfect “Trek”-dork love story: Wayne and Rita are heavy-set and graying; Wayne is shy and sometimes has trouble looking people in the eye, and Rita’s joint problems often force her to use an electric cart to get around. I start formulating a headline in my mind—something along the lines of: “Adorably Nerdy Pair Find Life-Purpose in ‘Star Trek,’ Each Other.”
During the reception, I corner the bride and groom and ply them for quotes to support my thesis. At first, the interview goes exactly as I’d expected: Wayne and Rita are, without a doubt, first-rate “Trek” nerds. The doormat in front of their house reads: “Beam me up, Scotty,” and they own so many Hallmark “Star Trek” ornaments that they require two separate Christmas trees each holiday season. Some of the ornaments talk, including Wayne and Rita’s favorite—a Borg cube that, when activated, says: “We are the Borg, enjoy your holiday. Resistance is futile.”
After a few minutes of chatting, my template is almost complete. “One last question,” I say. “Would you say that your mutual love of ‘Star Trek’ has made your marriage easier over the years?”
“Well in 30 years of marriage we’ve never had a fight,” Wayne says. He glances over at his wife. “Except for tae kwon do, I guess.”
“Tae kwon do?” I hadn’t expected to hear this.
“Used to be, whenever we decided we needed to fight, we’d just put on the sparring equipment and go. Rita has better technique, so she’d usually win.”
“We ran a martial-arts school for 10 years,” Rita says.
“Besides tae kwon do, Rita holds belts in kung fu, bōjutsu, muay thai, shōrinji-ryū, tai chi and arnis, which is Filipino stick fighting. Before she got into martial arts she was active in tap, ballet and modern dance. She’s also studied things like sign language, Hebrew, Chinese and Japanese.”
“Wayne knows some Japanese too, but not as much as me,” Rita says. “Sometimes I’ll say something to him in Japanese, and he’ll answer me in English.”
Realizing that my would-be “Trek”-misfits could probably whip me in a street fight (and out-bargain me in a Tokyo vegetable market), I flip to a new page in my reporter’s notebook and start the interview anew. As it turns out, Rita designs greeting cards and has studied theology at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary; Wayne is a square-dance caller, an amateur karaoke enthusiast and a member of the Titanic Historical Society. The two of them host regular murder-mystery dinners (“Death by Chocolate”), and they perform song-parodies as “Lord and Lady Middlesex” at Renaissance Faires. Both of them belong to the New Jersey 14th Volunteers, a re-enactment group based on an actual unit that fought during the Civil War. Rita doesn’t practice martial arts anymore because of her joint problems, so she makes up for it by inviting the young trainers from her wellness center over for monthly game-nights of Taboo, Trivial Pursuit and Cranium.
“You name it, we’ll play it,” Wayne says. “Here we are in our 50s and most of the people who come to our game-parties are in their 20s. I like to say that I’m still 18 from the neck up.”
Wayne pauses for a moment, fixing me with his shy grin. “People think that those of us who love ‘Star Trek’ don’t have lives,” he says. “Well I say ‘Star Trek’ has nothing on things like Facebook or Twitter. I don’t understand how some people insist on living their lives through an Internet connection and a keyboard. What good is a hobby if it doesn’t inspire you to get out and do things?”
“We have a plaque hanging in our home,” Rita adds. “It says ‘There is never enough time to do everything you should. The thing is to make the most of the time you have.’”
Inspired, I pocket my notebook and head off to my cabin to prepare for the Norwegian Dawn’s impending arrival in Bermuda.