Growing up, Father’s Day tended to pass me by – my own father being, at best, an occasional presence in my life. But six years ago, in 2015, I became a dad myself, and as it happened my son Leo arrived on the very day when fathers are feted around the world. It felt like a strange cosmic coincidence, a reminder that now I was a father as well as a son, that a role about which I’d always had mixed feelings was finally mine to make my own. But as well as heralding the start of a new adventure, becoming a father brought with it a heavy dose of nostalgia since it reintroduced me to one of my childhood loves: Star Trek.
During Trek’s ‘Golden Age’ in the 1990s, I had been an enthusiastic young fan, poring over Michael Okuda’s technical manuals, penning my own scripts thanks to the open-submission policy (I never actually got around to mailing them off to Los Angeles), and talking my mother into a 300-mile detour during a family holiday in the US so that we could visit Star Trek: The Experience at the Las Vegas Hilton. But in my adult years, my fandom had waned. I had become a lapsed Trekkie, throwing on the odd DVD at Christmas (Generations, obviously) or Easter (The Search for Spock, natch), and turning to comforting Next Gen episodes at moments of spiritual crisis, but living for the most part as a man without Star Trek in his heart.
When Leo was born, all that began to change. For the first few weeks, the only way he would sleep was snuggled up on someone’s chest, which meant long nights sat up in the living room trying to stay awake so we wouldn’t both fall off the sofa. I bought a pair of Bluetooth headphones to hook up to the TV, but in my half-comatose state I found modern prestige dramas too hard to follow. Which is why late one evening I pulled down my old Next Gen Season One box set and fired up "Encounter at Farpoint".
Although early Next Gen is not exactly the franchise’s finest hour, I was sucked in immediately, overcome with such a wave of nostalgia that I could have just stepped inside the nexus. And with many hours left until dawn, I knew that my adventure was just beginning. Once the space jellyfish had floated joyfully and gratefully away, I went straight on to ‘The Naked Now’, and even forced myself to sit through "Code of Honor" as well. Just being with that familiar cast of characters, and back on the ship I had loved so much as a child, made even the clunkiest and most problematic episodes seem watchable.
As the weeks wore on, I found myself looking forward to my regular night shifts on the Enterprise. Soon, I had swapped my old DVDs for a set of blu-rays. I had also discovered the rapidly expanding world of Star Trek podcasts, where fans offered everything from feminist reappraisals of Deanna Troi to Kantian takes on the Dominion War, along with plenty of light-hearted banter. Some of the shorter, snappier shows kept me going through the grueling three-am bottle feeds once Leo finally learned to sleep in a cot.
After six months, I decided to take the plunge and commit to a complete Star Trek rewatch. For the franchise’s 50th anniversary in 2016, my favourite podcast network, Trek.fm, produced a minicast looking at two episodes per day, allowing them to get through Trek’s 700+ installments in the space of a year. I made it my new year’s resolution to complete the voyage with them.
Rewatching once-familiar shows after almost two decades made me realise how much I had changed since my earlier Trek heyday. Still adjusting to life as a new father, I was conscious of how much my son had already altered my perspective on almost everything – not least Star Trek. I had first fallen in love with the franchise around the time my half-brother was born, when my father beamed out of my life entirely to focus on his new baby. Growing up in a household of women I had been starved of male role models, and part of Next Gen’s appeal was that Jean-Luc Picard was a reassuring father-substitute: compassionate, wise, and committed to doing right by everyone.
In fact, though, as I retraced my steps through Trek history I found plenty of fathers who were less than inspirational, from Sarek and Kirk, who both spent many years estranged from their adult sons, to Worf, who seemed determined to win Champion Standing in the contest for the most deadbeat dad. One scene in ‘A Fistful of Datas’ saw him desperately dreaming up excuses to avoid spending time with Alexander. Even Captain Picard himself spent most of his time on the Enterprise trying to keep the children onboard at arm’s length.
Predictably, Next Gen’s ‘Number One Dad’ was not Picard (or even Riker, ‘Future Imperfect’ notwithstanding) but Data, whose brief experience as a parent was as sweet as it was ultimately tragic. But it wasn’t until I reached Deep Space Nine in my rewatch – as it happened, the day before Leo’s first birthday – that I found a truly aspirational story about fatherhood. From "Emissary" onwards, Ben Sisko makes clear that he is a father to Jake first and foremost. He is Trek’s most affectionate parent, regularly hugging and kissing his son and telling him how much he loves him. Sisko may be an intimidating authority figure in the Starfleet hierarchy (not to mention a religious icon), but in "Business as Usual" and "Children of Time" we see him cooing over babies like the most besotted uncle. Fans celebrate Janeway’s toughness in "Macrocosm" and "Year of Hell," but Sisko’s approach to children was just as bold an inversion of traditional gender roles. In fact, rewatching DS9 gave me a whole new perspective on the show’s central father-son dynamic. When it first aired I was a year or two younger than Jake; now I was closer in age to Ben. From the father I wished I had, he had become the father I aspired to be.
Many episodes landed differently now than they had done twenty years earlier. I remembered crying when I first saw "The Visitor" as a teenager, but as a parent, I found it almost unwatchable. I even discovered a surprising amount of sympathy for Julian Bashir’s misguided parents, willing to break the law to do what was best for their son. Previously, I had judged them as harshly as the good doctor did, but now I could see their side of the argument too.
As my rewatch continued, episodes that had moved me before now hit harder than ever. I found B’Elanna’s turmoil over her unborn child in "Lineage" unspeakably sad, and felt for the stoical Tuvok, a lifetime’s journey away from his own three children on Vulcan. Both Voyager and Enterprise end with the arrival of a baby, from Miral’s joyful birth in "Endgame" to Elizabeth’s brief life in "Terra Prime," and both stories affected me far more than before. A staunch JJ-sceptic, I even found myself reappraising the 2009 reboot movie, with its exquisitely tragic opening scene of a new father laying down his life for his son.
By the end of my rewatch, I was a die-hard Trekkie again. Before long I had my own Star Trek podcast, and in 2019 I attended a convention for the first time in over twenty years. I didn’t come home empty handed. Along with several Eaglemoss models and a half-dozen new pin badges, I brought home a present for my son: a toy glommer (from the TAS episode ‘More Tribbles More Troubles’) with a Velcro stomach that opened up to reveal a handful of tribbles. He was thrilled when I told him it was a monster from my favourite TV show, although it couldn’t compete with the little ships, and it was all I could do to prevent him snapping off their nacelles in excitement.
Sadly, despite the glommer’s appeal, my attempts to interest Leo in The Animated Series proved unsuccessful, and his indifference to the episodes of TNG and DS9 that were by now regular fixtures on my iPad was so studied that I began to suspect my Trek-phobic partner had been coaching him. But with the second round of Short Treks, we finally found a slice of the franchise that he loved: "Ephraim and Dot." When I first showed him the eight-minute animation he was entranced, oohing at the cute mummy tardigrade, laughing at the determined DOT-7 robot, and gasping in horror when the Enterprise – by now a tantalising treasure perched just out of reach on Daddy’s bookshelf – went up in flames. Over the ensuing week, he demanded to watch the short at least once every day, and in the months since it has remained a firm favourite.
Right now, on the eve of my son’s sixth birthday, I’m counting down the stardates until Star Trek: Prodigy debuts, not least since I have a feeling that holo-Janeway might serve as a gateway drug to my own Trek era, the halcyon days of the 1990s. As he grows older, I hope Leo will fall in love with Star Trek as much as I did – twice! – and that its infinite diversity will be something that we can enjoy together. And who knows, maybe by the time I get around to another complete Trek rewatch, it’ll be Joseph Sisko and not Ben that I see myself reflected in.
Duncan Barrett (@BarrettsBooks) is the host of Primitive Culture, a TrekFM podcast about Star Trek and history.