Thursday 26 April 2018

To boldly go where Swift went before

Star Trek's true home is Dublin

In Gulliver's footsteps: William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy as Kirk and Spock
In Gulliver's footsteps: William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy as Kirk and Spock

Damian Corless

Even with the peak summer tourist season behind us, St Patrick's Cathedral in the heart of Dublin's Christchurch remains a magnet for visitors. The daily walking tours attract big crowds, although those numbers would swell further if more mention was made of the Starship Enterprise. With a little promotion of its pivotal role in the Star Trek saga, St Patrick's could easily overtake Skellig Michael of Star Wars fame as a sci-fi tourist magnet, minus all the nasty soakings and seasickness.

The most famous work by St Patrick's most famous Dean, Jonathan Swift, is Gulliver's Travels, a book that provided Gene Roddenberry with the template for Star Trek. Precisely 50 years ago, in the autumn of 1966, the show made its debut on US TV. Roddenberry pitched his concept to the conservative networks as a wild west adventure set in space. Harnessing his idea to a hit cowboy show of the day, he told them he wanted to make "Wagon Train to the stars". However, privately, he told his more cultured friends that each morality tale would take its cue from Swift's masterpiece, which first appeared under the unwieldy title of Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon and then a Captain of Several Ships.

Captain Lemuel Gulliver was recast as Captain James T Kirk boldly going where no man had gone before.

Roddenbery's most interesting character, Mr Spock, was a conflicted half-human, half-Vulcan caught in an unending struggle to reconcile logic and emotion. Spock's dilemma was a direct lift from the rift in Swift's book between the logical, rational Houyhnhnms (who happened to be horses) and the savage, irrational humanoid Yahoos.

Roddenberry passed away 25 years ago this month, having seen his grand vision blossom from unpromising roots into a global phenomenon. William Shatner was at the helm of Roddenberry's Swiftian enterprise from the beginning, and last week the 85-year-old cast his mind back to when Star Trek got off to a shaky start. "We were always in dire peril of being cancelled, so rather than thinking 50 years from now there would be this interest, we were thinking, I hope we can cling on - Klingon, if you would excuse the expression - for another year," he recalls.

In the event, the original cast clung on for three years before the show was axed. However, like Gulliver's Travels, there was a magic about Star Trek that would cause the series to grow into a classic for all times.

The series first aired in an era when TV repeats were considered something of a cheat. It was a time when bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones didn't include their latest single on their new album because that would seem like short-changing the fans. The same attitude applied to repeating TV shows. But around the time the original Star Trek was dropped, expanding schedules meant the TV networks began turning to repeats as a cheap and handy way of filling airtime. And it was repeats that saved Star Trek.

Roddenberry lived long enough to see his inspired creation become as much a standard as Gulliver's Travels. Some of the gizmos, gadgets and concepts it popularised have become part of the furniture, from mobile phones to 3D printers to medical hyposprays. The biggest sitcom of the past decade, The Big Bang Theory, revolves around the misadventures of Spock clone Sheldon Cooper. And the year before his death, in 1991, Roddenberry even saw an episode of The Next Generation banned from British TV over a reference to a united Ireland coming about in the year 2024.

There seems little doubt that the penny will eventually drop and St Patrick's will pitch itself as a mecca for the planet's legions of Trekkies, and perhaps when that happens, we will be treated to a new attraction, the spectacle of Dean Swift spinning furiously in his grave. The great irony is that the literary giant would have despised Captain Kirk and all he stood for.

He didn't believe in enterprise or science or the betterment of humanity through progress. For Swift, to boldly go where no man has gone before was a waste of time and energy. The morality tale that he tried to hammer home in Gulliver's Travels and A Tale of a Tub was that there is no new knowledge worth discovering and that science and progress were con-jobs born out of humankind's pride and vanity.

The celebrated satirist would not have enjoyed the delicious irony that he would, like King Canute, be best remembered for saying the opposite of what he set out to say. Legend has it that Canute ordered the waves to retreat, not as an act of megalomania, but to demonstrate the futility of such an exercise, even for the mightiest King.

It's a further irony that the man who inspired a TV show of such boundless faith in human nature just didn't like people, and he especially didn't like the people of Ireland.

Exiled from the London glitterati set following a regime change, he retreated to Dublin "like a poisoned rat in a hole". His attacks on English misrule in Ireland were taken up later by nationalists as a great patriotic strike for Irish self-determination, but, in truth, he was an equal-opportunities despiser. His descriptions of the native Irish in A Modest Proposal as savages and thieves were echoed in his sermons from the pulpit. If he was preaching today, it's easy to believe he'd be having cuts at street beggars and teen mothers shopping in their pyjamas.

Swift's own words, in print and to the faithful of St Patrick's, paint him as a Father Jack Hackett figure, a cleric who, like the holy terror from Craggy Island, shunned the sick and dismissed the needy as "a shower of bastards".

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