When I was 15 I asked William Shatner, who played Captain Kirk on the original Star Trek series, to kiss me. He had given a talk at a Star Trek convention, and when he opened for questions, my hand flew up in the air. He called on me (which I’m sure he later regretted), and I shouted down from the balcony, “I’ve seen you kiss so many girls on Star Trek, and I’ve always wanted to be one of them. Will you kiss me?”
He declined, joking that he had trench mouth.
I had better luck getting attention from Leonard Nimoy, who played Mr. Spock. When he starred in the play Equus on Broadway, I purchased the front row, center seat for the opening show. Leonard actually spit on me during a soliloquy, which was more thrilling than disgusting. After the show was over (and even though I still had braces on my teeth), I pretended to be with People magazine so I could go backstage and get his autograph, which he graciously gave me. For the record, I didn’t ask him for a kiss. That would’ve been inappropriate. He played a Vulcan, not a galactic womanizer.
Most teenagers try to avoid public humiliation, but Star Trek eclipsed such instincts in me, which begs the question: Why were Star Trek and its characters so important to me that I’d willingly court such embarrassment? When I stumbled upon Star Trek at 13, it was after a back injury had upended my life. I'd been a gymnast who trained most afternoons. Now I was home after school, in pain and depressed. Star Trek offered both a reprieve and a vision beyond myself. In the Star Trek future, we’ve solved our earthly problems. Our nations are at peace. We’re no longer prejudiced, cruel, or myopic, and our planet is alive and well. We’re even part of a United Federation of Planets.
That Star Trek vision has kept me going when I’ve felt despondent about the state of the world, a justified emotion on a quickly heating planet where species are disappearing at a rate we can’t even quantify; where racism, sexism, and other forms of systemic oppression persist; where a billion people don’t have regular access to clean water, and millions are trafficked as slaves; where a trillion nonhuman animals are brutalized and killed to feed an insatiable and growing population; and where respect for science seems to be in decline.
Star Trek offers a vision of what the future could look like if we would just get our act together. And the fact that Star Trek has such a huge following means that many of us share this vision, which suggests that we might be willing to work together to create it. That premise has been the foundation of my life’s work as a humane educator who teaches about the interconnected issues of human rights, environmental sustainability, and animal protection with the goal of educating a generation of solutionaries ready and able to solve our systemic problems.
In 2012, I traveled from my home in Maine to Los Angeles to meet Shatner. He was hosting a fundraising event for our mutual friend Michael Tobias’s non-profit, and when I received the invitation I realized I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to finally meet him. While I no longer wanted a kiss, I did want to get to know the man who’d had such a profound influence on my life and work.
When I walked in, Bill was sitting alone on a couch. I’d planned my opening line, which was: “I’m guessing that most people tell you they’re your biggest fan, so I’ll just say that I’m in the top 100.” That line fell flat, so even though I promised myself I wouldn’t go blathering on and on, I felt I had to keep the conversation going. So I told him that he and Star Trek were the subject of a sketch in the one-woman show I had written and was performing (as a form of edutainment). Then I added, “You have a one-woman show, too! Whoops! I mean one-man show, this isn’t ‘Turnabout Intruder!’”
“Turnabout Intruder” is the name of a Star Trek episode (number 24 in Season 3, to be precise, and a really awful episode, truth be told) in which Kirk switches bodies with a woman, and I immediately realized my mistake. Now he’d think I was one of those Star Trek fans who knows the names of every episode (although I do), and that I was an actress instead of the president of a nonprofit devoted to building a peaceful, just, and healthy world.
Other people started coming over to talk to Bill, and one asked how we knew each other. Bill said, “We don’t,” at the same moment as I said, “Oh, we go way back.” He didn’t yet know how far back we went, so I told him I had a confession to make. He said that he thought we should be in separate little rooms with a divider, and I said, “Oh Bill, you’re Jewish like me. We don’t need an actual confessional.” Then I asked if he remembered the girl who’d requested a kiss at a Star Trek convention, and he replied, “Yes, you came on stage, and I kissed you!” Whereupon I exclaimed, “That wasn’t me! You told me you had trench mouth!” He said he would have come up with a much better line now.
By then the ice was broken, and we were laughing together, something I counted as an achievement as our conversation wound down. It was time for Bill to introduce the fundraiser; for Adam Levine to entertain the crowd; and for my friend, Michael Tobias, the nonprofit’s president, to give a speech. After his speech, Michael opened for questions, and I raised my hand. He generously introduced me as the world’s foremost humane educator. I hoped Bill was listening. I felt as if the public humiliation I’d experienced as a teenager had taken 35 years to morph into this moment of public appreciation. Star Trek deserved much of the credit.
When the event was over, a few people approached me to learn more about my work, which was gratifying. But I was preoccupied with finding Bill to give him a copy of one of my books before he left. When I saw him heading for the door, I excused myself and rushed up behind him, book in hand. He very reluctantly took it and walked out.
On my way back to Maine, I had what should have been an obvious epiphany: William Shatner is not Captain Kirk. While meeting him was fun and made for a good story, what abides is the power of Star Trek itself to nourish the optimism that has persisted my whole life, and which I have tried to pass along to inspire the Next Generation. Like me as a teenager, many young people are depressed, but I know that powerful stories about a better future can motivate people to become solutionaries, transform despair into hope, and lead to a more just and sustainable world.