My grandfather is in the very first episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, a nameless extra in a scene where the human race is on trial for its savagery. Looking bewildered in a silent close-up, he owns exactly two seconds of the legend that hasn’t stopped sprouting heads since Gene Roddenberry gave it to American culture almost 50 years ago.
That episode, “Encounter at Farpoint,” rebooted the Star Trek franchise a few days after my birthday in 1987. I was 8—stoked that my parents let me watch something with giant shape-shifting alien jellyfish and photon torpedoes and a flinty Englishman with a gleaming bald head. In the courtroom scene he stands without fear as the crowd jeers and TNG’s charmingly imperious archvillain Q asks if he really wants a “full disclosure of human ugliness.” You can see in his eyes that Starfleet Captain Jean-Luc Picard believes in the good.
Patrick Stewart, the brilliant actor who played Picard through seven seasons and four films, must also believe in it, because he’s making his way to the side of the stage to hug a total stranger. In the microphone set up for fans with questions she’d said, “I’ve waited all of my adult life to meet you,” before asking about favorite episodes and for a hug, as this might be her only chance.
I’m guessing a lot of the people in this room feel the same way, including the dude in the “Vulcan in the streets, Klingon in the sheets” T-shirt. It's one of the tamer tributes in our ferociously costumed wing of the Rio, where Creation Entertainment's 2015 official Star Trek convention is on its fourth and final day of fandom overload. I didn’t bring my Picard action figure or my communicator pin, but I am nerding out on the inside. This character helped teach me about honor, love, loss and drinking songs. I really did grow up with him, and somehow, Stewart’s face hasn’t changed.
The 75-year-old tells us about his reunion hangover and enduring friendships with his co-stars (backing it up later when he plants a kiss on LeVar Burton), as well as a humiliating night at the craps table, his wife’s music, his childhood experience with and work on domestic violence, his new Starz project Blunt Talk, and the two times he begged off offensive lines in American Dad. We laugh mercilessly when he has no idea that Kelsey Grammer once appeared on TNG, hundreds of fans yelling the episode’s name in unison. These people know more about the show than he does. The best defense is that more than any on-screen moment or molecule of Star Trek’s universe, he seems to love its soul.
“It’s always about something,” Stewart says.
There’s a lot of sci-fi. There’s not a lot of sci-fi that inspires a city planner to shave her head just to appear as Deltan hottie Lieutenant Ilia, or a dad to spend many, many hours helping his kids transform into a Borg drone and a plump pink Tribble, or a balloon artist to build a massive Klingon Bird-of-Prey. The pop culture is powerful, but I think the phenomenon of Star Trek is about its humanity. An Irish woman steps to the mic to talk to George “Sulu” Takei not about his adventures in fake space, but about her gratitude that he fights for equality in real life. We’re still proving our case as a species, and this proud piece of theater has always gotten it.
Outside the speaker hall, there’s a wall-sized canvas print of the scene from the original series where Captain Kirk is buried in a pile of Tribbles. I sit on the floor and cover my legs with the display’s dozens of battery-powered furballs. Their shepherd claps, and they purr violently until my whole body feels like it’s in an energy beam. It’s pure, ridiculous joy. So very Trek. And if Grandpa left me even one second of ownership, I’m rich.