For me, it all began with Star Trek.
That's a true statement: The earliest memory I have is watching a Star Trek episode. I was three or four years old, and I even know which episode it was, although I didn't realize until many years later that it was "The Lights of Zetar." I dimly recall viewing it with my grandfather late on a Friday night (no, I don't know what I was doing up that late). It was one of the final episodes of the third season, so if my sense of the timing is correct, it remains the only episode of the original series that I saw in its first run on NBC.
After that, it was syndication, WPIX/Channel 11 in New York, where I used to watch the original series every night at 6:00 PM, five nights a week. The next episode I remember seeing was "The Corbomite Maneuver," which stuck with me because of how weird Clint Howard looked as the First Federation commander Balok. At some point, when I could read and write, I began keeping a list of every Star Trek episode I watched, eventually with the goal of seeing all 79 produced for the original series' three-season run.
I was a kid from a broken home. My parents split when I was little, with the divorce finalized when I was four. My memories are all of seeing my dad on (most) weekends, then being home with my mom the rest of the time. I did not have a traditional father figure in my life. There was my dad, but he was a somewhat distant figure who I only saw on those weekends; I didn't remember him being an influence in my daily life at all. My mom was the dominant parental presence in our house, and as she explored her life post-marriage there were some other men who came along and had an impact in one way or another. The man this young boy probably looked up to the most was my grandfather, but that's a whole other essay.
And then there was Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock.
Before I discovered James Bond (thanks to the kid who lived upstairs), before Luke Skywalker or Han Solo or Indiana Jones even got near a movie screen, Kirk and Spock were the alpha males and hero figures of my young life. Both were incredibly smart, courageous and loyal. They had strength and righteousness and a compassionate view of the universe around them. They also had their flaws (especially Kirk), but they acknowledged them and sometimes learned from them and moved on. Mostly, they were cool: The Iowan and the Vulcan always figured out the solution to every problem they encountered, and for a kid who couldn't figure out a lot of things in his confusing life, that went a long way.
So, in a strange fashion, Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock became father figures in my life. They were there every night, a strong, comforting presence when I was lonely or not feeling well or had been humiliated outside by one of the local bullies who occasionally wandered over from his street to mine. I was not a physically adept kid, so I was usually the last one picked for games of touch football or stickball and often made an ass of myself even when I was playing. My family didn't have nearly as much money as some of the others on the block, so I didn't have the coolest bike or the newest games. But none of that seemed to matter around 6 PM every night, when I would join my two heroic friends and go off exploring the galaxy with them.
Fictional characters can be a powerful force in our lives -- just look at all the recent discussion over LGBTQ characters and their representation on television, or the arguments over the color of a comic book character's skin. These creations mean something to the people who watch or read them week in and week out, many of whom identify closely with them. For this little boy from Brooklyn, Kirk and Spock were icons I admired and aspired to emulate, in their bravery and conviction and idealism, although I don't think I've come close to succeeding in the intervening decades.
With no disrespect meant to my own dad -- who was going through his own struggles at the time -- and the other men who played some role in my upbringing, the Captain and his First Officer, and by extension Star Trek, itself, taught me about values and diversity and equality and empathy and diplomacy and logic. The ideology espoused by Gene Roddenberry through those remarkable characters became my own, which is why I am proudly and unashamedly progressive to this day -- but, like James Kirk, no pushover. Like Mr. Spock, I try to reason things out logically, and am constantly curious about the universe around us, although I am just as capable of acting on my gut or emotions like the Captain (with a tip of the hat to Dr. McCoy on that front, as well).
Kirk and Spock and Star Trek also, indirectly, taught me the great pleasures of reading. The first "grown-up" books I ever recall absorbing were the original series episode novelizations written by the great, and now almost forgotten, science-fiction writer James Blish; those books, in turn, led me to some of Blish's own original work, like his masterpieces Cities in Flight and A Case of Conscience. Blish and the show helped me discover writers like Harlan Ellison, Theodore Sturgeon and Richard Matheson, starting a lifelong love affair with fantastic literature. Books that I read about the creation of the show -- David Gerrold's The World of Star Trek and Stephen E. Whitfield's (with Roddenberry) The Making of Star Trek -- introduced me to the nuts and bolts of writing and producing TV, which led me to an ongoing obsession with the writing and making of films, as well. That provided me with goals, ultimately a profession and a means to make a living at something I enjoy.
And, in a way, I have my two "dads," Kirk and Spock, and their weekly voyages to the final frontier to thank for it all. So, thank you gentlemen, and thank you Star Trek. Happy 50th birthday, and may you live long and prosper and do for others what you did for me.