Star Trek

I boldly went where thousands of others also went.

Aug 13, 2014–When I played in a band at a bar in Riverside, Iowa, Earth, in the mid-20th century, I wish I’d known I was standing in the very room where Captain James T. Kirk would be conceived 250 years in the future.

I would have drunk a toast of Talaxian champagne.

This is a story of the genesis of a fictional legend that has yet to be born. Confused?

Imagine it was 1984, and a city councilman had to take on the USS Enterprise’s most challenging mission: Convincing senior citizens in a small farming community to create a festival celebrating the future birthday of a man they’d never heard of who doesn’t exist.

“It was not an enviable job,” said Phil Richman, who now volunteers at the place that was a result of that discussion–The Voyage Home: Riverside History Center.

Star Trek

An artist’s conception of a visit from the future.

This is difficult to explain, especially to non “Trekkies”–the self-adopted name of fans of the 1960s TV series Star Trek and all its many following series, feature films, and books.

In the 1986 movie The Voyage Home, William Shatner’s character–Captain James T. Kirk–mentions he was born in a small town in Iowa. From that passing reference, and in a fit of community boosterism, then councilman Steve Miller came up with the idea to claim Riverside as the Iowa town that was, or rather, would become, the birthplace of Captain Kirk. Star Trek is set in the 23rd century, so Kirk’s birthday will be in the year 2228.

To pointy-eared Trek fans, this scenario makes perfect sense and fits the internal logic of the world created by Gene Roddenberry. But convincing residents of Riverside, many of whom had never heard of the space epic, was a challenge.

But he did it. And this summer the town celebrated its 30th Trek Fest.

Riverside is a hop, skip, and 14 miles from where I grew up. So on a recent visit I had to stop by.

Star Trek

Everyone wants to put themselves in The Voyage Home.

The museum itself is an unassuming building tucked in a curve of Highway 22 right past the one block long business district. You can’t miss it because there is a parade-sized model of NCC-1818 parked in front. The vision of a Constitution-class star ship rising from the steamy fields of corn has to startle passersby, rare as they might be on Highway 22.

But that’s okay. Because this place has become the destination.

“You don’t have to talk most people into coming here,” Richman said. “They hear about it and want to come, from all over the world. Even teens who didn’t grow up with Star Trek.”

Inside is a low-tech Trek world. Episodes of the original series play continuously on a vintage television set hung above the counter. Cardboard cutouts of the original stars stare out from glass cases. Racks are filled with T-shirts from past Trek Fests, along with an assortment of coffee mugs, bumper stickers, signed posters from real astronauts, and pins and patches that make visitors into crew members.

What about those senior citizens that were originally unsure of turning their town into an alien playground? They have embraced it. A sign on the window of the Senior Center reads:

Dine with the ancestors of our own Capt. James Kirk

Next door is Murphy’s Bar, with a banner inside proclaiming “Future Site of the Shipyard Bar.” There is even an historical marker on the floor under the pool table that states Kirk was conceived at that spot. (If I have to explain all these references, you are not a Star Trek fan.)

Over the years, many of the stars of the series showed up here, including Nichelle Nichols (Uhuru), George Takei (Sulu), and Kirk himself–William Shatner.

Star Trek

What more proof is needed of the significance of this site than a granite marker?

This summer’s parade marshals were two actors who played Klingons.

“They were in full makeup and Klingon gear,” Richman said. “During the parade they were tossing candy to little kids from a float. That was funny.”

Perhaps the ultimate acknowledgement of Riverside’s place in Star Trek history was the in the 2009 reboot film. Producers placed the opening scene at the Riverside Shipyard, complete with screen chyron announcing the fact.

So there you have it. It’s funny to me that a small town in Amish country where you still see horses and buggies parked outside the general store has become the womb of the saga of our imagined future universe.

I’m sure there is some profundity that goes here. But I’ll leave that for some historian, yet to be born.