STAR TREK Into Remission: Gene Roddenberry’s Most Famous Creation, Cancer and Me

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by Lincoln Flynn
July 3, 2013 1:51 AM
6 Comments
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To begin as Spock might begin: often, when a full-blown crisis happens in a person’s life, media may be used to cope with stress and adversity. And no matter how relevant or irrelevant that media is to the circumstances of the crisis, it may be a source of comfort, distraction and catharsis. This is a personal account of such coping.

From February 2006 to March 2007, I was diagnosed with and treated for Hodgkin’s Disease, also known as Lymphoma, a form of cancer. I was in my early twenties, unemployed, back to living at my parents’ house as recourse, and I had too much dreadful time on my hands.

At first I was given a combination of relatively standard chemotherapy and radiation treatments, but my cancer relapsed a month after those ended. As a last ditch effort, I had an autologous stem cell or bone marrow transplant, which involved higher, more potent doses of chemotherapy, a harvesting of my white blood stem cells through an extracorporeal process called Apheresis, “rebooting” my immune system by replanting the harvested stem cells into my body, and a month of hospitalized medical isolation due to being severely immuno-compromised. It was the closest thing to being put through an actual wringer, and my immune system is still recovering from the ordeal.

Besides causing diseases and infections in me like shingles and pneumonia, which would normally cause anxiety but were then seen as ancillary concerns, the treatments exhausted me and caused a type of cognitive impairment that is often called  “chemo brain.” Things like reading, writing or maintaining a conversation became difficult. Yet despite my diminished faculties, I watched movies and TV shows, as I am wont to do. In the latter category, I watched Mad Men, The Wire, Lost and Breaking Bad. Most notably, I became more familiar with the original Star Trek series, which ran on NBC from 1966-69.

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Growing up, I had seen the numerous Trek series and movies, but by no means was I a bona fide fan, who might attend a Trekkie convention, or who could tell you the fuel used in the Enterprise’s warp engine. My appreciation was casual. Yet I watched the original Star Trek series as well as the movies starring the original series cast, and I came to intuit the shows’ significance as my treatments progressed. The very ideas of the show grew in me, and I became a Trekkie as I was cheating death, Captain-Kirk style.

One reason for this reappraisal was a sense of wish fulfillment. In the world of Star Trek, medical science is so advanced that it is only really tested by strange, intergalactic diseases and disorders. Curing the cancer that I had would be a cinch for Dr. “Bones” McCoy, and if he had seen me during my treatments, he would’ve ranted against the barbarity of pre-23rd century medicine, just as he did in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. I would have found such commiseration from him comforting.

This ideal healthcare could be seen as an extension of the progressive and utopian ethos of the show’s world, best embodied in its fictional government, The Federation, a republic of planetary governments based on the ideas of liberty, basic rights, and equality.

Yet, aspects of Star Trek’s future or the Federation could be criticized by those who have a more conservative political worldview: for instance, the Starfleet-based concept of the Prime Directive (to not deliberately interfere with or influence alien cultures) could be seen as “bleeding heart” liberalism. But as someone who has liberal leanings, that’s a world in which I wouldn’t mind living. And the notion of an improved future gave me hope as I fought cancer, even as I identified the elements of the show that could now be seen as naïve (i.e. the episode “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”, an all-too-simplistic allegory on conflicted race relations), dated (the show’s overall mise-en-scene), campy (i.e. Kirk fighting Gorn in “Arena”) or politically incorrect (why do the female crew members have to wear mini-skirts? and why is a Caucasian man assumed to be more qualified as captain than the biracial and multi-talented Spock?)

However, Star Trek isn’t just fantasy. Because it is by its nature an episodic, scenario-driven TV show, problems and dilemmas occur, and it presents a utopia riddled with caveats. Sure, things are good in the future of Star Trek, but in it there are still things like warring Klingons or Romulans, strange extraterrestrial entities or plagues that destroy other beings, dangerous and demented megalomaniacs, an evil parallel universe, accidental time travel, specifically anachronistic planetary cultures, and even Spock’s seven year itch.

Yet an upside is that intelligent life in the world of Trek has never been more able to deal with and acquire social understanding and self-knowledge from these challenges. Consequently, the show is as much about personal and interpersonal exploration and discovery as it is about new universes and beings: an optimistic interpretation of the often repeated Nietzsche aphorism that if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you. And, existentially, what is cancer besides a look into an ever-increasing void or extension of nothingness that paradoxically provides an opportunity for growth, clarity and resolve?

Also, the resolutions of many Star Trek episodes involve some sort of relativistic thinking. Captain Kirk and crew are often presented with difficult, problematic and threatening situations, but what often saves them and others is a seemingly counter-intuitive shift in perspective. For instance: in “The Corbomite Maneuver,” the USS Enterprise is forced into combat with a bizarre alien ship that is commandeered by Balok. During its height, Spock compares the dire situation to a game of chess, but Kirk changes the analogy to a game of poker, which inspires him to bluff Balok by making him believe that the Enterprise is encased in Corbomite, a fictitious substance that will defensively rebuff any attack. This buys Kirk and his crew more time, which leads to a surprising resolution to the standoff. (And it is notable that foes like Khan, Gary Mitchell, and Garth of Izar tend to be undone by their maniacal absolutism, and their unwillingness to compromise or shift perspective.)

Ingenuity, bravery, adaptable thinking, and, sometimes, traumatic loss or sacrifice are key to survival and prosperity—as in the show’s most renowned episode, “The City on the Edge of Forever,” in which Kirk and Spock have to go through a time doorway on a planet in order to stop a temporarily insane McCoy, who impulsively jumped through the doorway, from somehow retroactively changing history to their total disadvantage. The two travel to New York City in the 1930s, where they meet social worker Edith Keeler (Joan Collins). Kirk falls for Edith, but Spock drops a bombshell: McCoy will prevent Edith from dying in a traffic accident, which needs to happen in order to prevent Edith from starting a pacifist movement that will cause the U.S. to delay its involvement in World War II. This allows the Nazis time to develop an atomic bomb and take over the world, which causes the non-existence of the Federation.  At the climax, Kirk and Spock reunite with a sane McCoy, but Kirk has to deny his love for Edith by stopping McCoy from saving her life. It is the most heartbreaking moment in the series.

And in the episode “The Immunity Syndrome,” the Enterprise encounters and becomes trapped by a giant, energy-sucking amoeba. After some setbacks, which include Spock’s disappearance on a suicide mission by means of the shuttlecraft Galileo, Kirk and McCoy brainstorm to find a solution after framing the situation in medical terms: send an “antibiotic” antimatter time-bomb into the amoeba in order to stop it. Kirk and crew do so, and they kill the parasitic organism. They also save Spock in the process. Truly, Space becomes a metaphor here for a disease that the Enterprise triumphs over and learns from.

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Like any life-threatening disease, cancer can transform outlooks. It’s a state of being where the ground constantly shifts and one has to find new, unexpected ways to be bolstered. It’s a dark frontier, and if there’s a Star Trek episode title that evokes the feeling of having and dealing with it, it’s “For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky.”

But when you have cancer or anything like it, optimism, an honest acceptance of struggle and a flexible point-of-view can be as crucial to improving and beating the odds as any medical treatment. At their best, Captain Kirk and his crew—as well as subsequent Trek captains and crews—embody these attributes. And at the show’s best, Star Trek promotes these virtues as things to emulate, emblems of a shining future. For this reason alone, it’s not difficult to see why it has melded with the minds of so many fans.

It is also for these reasons that—through the haze of a cure that was almost as bad as the disease, during my own Kobyashi Maru, in which I had to find a way to rig the situation in my favor—the show resonated with me. And it, along with the Trek movies that star the original series cast, still resonates, sometimes to the point of bringing embarrassing tears to my eyes.

I survive for a number of reasons, including good luck, health insurance, medical financial assistance, skilled medical professionals who constitute the staff of the Stanford Cancer Center in Palo Alto, the care and support of loved ones, and even a supplemental and experimental treatment like one that a modern day McCoy would devise. Yet—because Star Trek provided me with extra incentive to boldly go on further down the road to remission—it is a sentimental favorite. I like to imagine that Spock in his older, wiser and more humanistic form would find this fascinating.

Holding degrees in Film and Digital Media studies and Moving Image Archive Studies, Lincoln Flynn lives in Los Angeles and writes about film on a sporadic basis at http://invisibleworkfilmwritings.tumblr.com. His Twitter handle is @Lincoln_Flynn.
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6 Comments

  • Shackett | August 3, 2013 4:20 PMReply

    I'm experiencing something similar w/ a friend who has the same cancer that you went through.

    I became a filmmaker because my mother watched videos while staying overnight in the hospital during her 8 years of cancer without anyone to talk to. "It's someone doing the day-dreaming for me when I can't" she would say.

  • Shackett | August 3, 2013 4:20 PMReply

    I'm experiencing something similar w/ a friend who has the same cancer that you went through.

    I became a filmmaker because my mother watched videos while staying overnight in the hospital during her 8 years of cancer without anyone to talk to. "It's someone doing the day-dreaming for me when I can't" she would say.

  • bohmer | July 12, 2013 10:16 PMReply

    I would have loved to see the series for the first time last march when I was in isolation at the hospital for the same treatment you endured. I had Hodgkin for 2+ years and I was finally in complete remission as of last june. I remember thinking that I had to survive to see what will be up with Star Wars ep VII...I've watch and rewatched so many movies/TV to escape my reality. Breaking Bad was an inspiration as I started emulating Walter White's attitude toward fears and self-respect. Personally, re-watching Game of Thrones in my hospital room got me trough the long and hard process of rebooting my system.

  • Lincoln Flynn | July 13, 2013 12:15 AM

    Bohmer: it's great to hear that you're in complete remission and here's to your immune system getting stronger every day.

  • Kirk | July 3, 2013 1:16 PMReply

    Engaging.

  • gate | July 15, 2013 2:39 PM

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