STAR TREK Into Remission: Gene Roddenberry’s Most Famous Creation, Cancer and Me

STAR TREK Into Remission: Gene Roddenberry’s Most Famous Creation, Cancer and Me


begin as Spock might begin: often, when a full-blown crisis happens in a
person’s life, media may be used to cope with stress and adversity. And no matter
how relevant or irrelevant that media is to the circumstances of the crisis, it
may be a source of comfort, distraction and catharsis. This is a personal
account of such coping.

February 2006 to March 2007, I was diagnosed with and treated for Hodgkin’s Disease,
also known as Lymphoma, a form of cancer. I was in my early twenties,
unemployed, back to living at my parents’ house as recourse, and I had too
much dreadful time on my hands.

first I was given a combination of relatively standard chemotherapy and
radiation treatments, but my cancer relapsed a month after those ended. As a
last ditch effort, I had an autologous stem cell or bone marrow transplant,
which involved higher, more potent doses of chemotherapy, a harvesting of my
white blood stem cells through an extracorporeal process called Apheresis,
“rebooting” my immune system by replanting the harvested stem cells into my
body, and a month of hospitalized medical isolation due to being severely
immuno-compromised. It was the closest thing to being put through an actual
wringer, and my immune system is still recovering from the ordeal.

causing diseases and infections in me like shingles and pneumonia, which would
normally cause anxiety but were then seen as ancillary concerns, the treatments
exhausted me and caused a type of cognitive impairment that is often called  “chemo brain.” Things like reading, writing or
maintaining a conversation became difficult. Yet despite my diminished faculties,
I watched movies and TV shows, as I am wont to do. In the latter category, I
watched Mad Men, The Wire, Lost and Breaking Bad. Most notably, I became
more familiar with the original Star Trek
series, which ran on NBC from 1966-69.


up, I had seen the numerous Trek
series and movies, but by no means was I a bona fide fan, who might attend a
Trekkie convention, or who could tell you the fuel used in the Enterprise’s
warp engine. My appreciation was casual. Yet I watched the original Star Trek series as well as the movies
starring the original series cast, and I came to intuit the shows’ significance
as my treatments progressed. The very ideas of the show grew in me, and I
became a Trekkie as I was cheating death, Captain-Kirk style.

reason for this reappraisal was a sense of wish fulfillment. In the world of Star Trek, medical science is so
advanced that it is only really tested by strange, intergalactic diseases and
disorders. Curing the cancer that I had would be a cinch for Dr. “Bones” McCoy,
and if he had seen me during my treatments, he would’ve ranted against the
barbarity of pre-23rd century medicine, just as he did in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. I would
have found such commiseration from him comforting.

ideal healthcare could be seen as an extension of the progressive and utopian
ethos of the show’s world, best embodied in its fictional government, The
Federation, a republic of planetary governments based on the ideas of liberty,
basic rights, and equality.

aspects of Star Trek’s future or the
Federation could be criticized by those who have a more conservative political
worldview: for instance, the Starfleet-based concept of the Prime Directive (to
not deliberately interfere with or influence alien cultures) could be seen as
“bleeding heart” liberalism. But as someone who has liberal leanings, that’s a
world in which I wouldn’t mind living. And the notion of an improved future gave
me hope as I fought cancer, even as I identified the elements of the show that
could now be seen as naïve (i.e. the episode “Let That Be Your Last
Battlefield”, an all-too-simplistic allegory on conflicted race relations),
dated (the show’s overall mise-en-scene), campy (i.e. Kirk fighting Gorn in
“Arena”) or politically incorrect (why do the female crew members have to wear
mini-skirts? and why is a Caucasian man assumed to be more qualified as captain
than the biracial and multi-talented Spock?)

Star Trek isn’t just fantasy. Because
it is by its nature an episodic, scenario-driven TV show, problems and dilemmas
occur, and it presents a utopia riddled with caveats. Sure, things are good in
the future of Star Trek, but in it
there are still things like warring Klingons or Romulans, strange
extraterrestrial entities or plagues that destroy other beings, dangerous and
demented megalomaniacs, an evil parallel universe, accidental time travel, specifically
anachronistic planetary cultures, and even Spock’s seven year itch.

Yet an upside is that intelligent life in the world of Trek has never been more able to deal with and acquire social understanding and self-knowledge from these challenges. Consequently,
the show is as much about personal and interpersonal exploration and discovery
as it is about new universes and beings: an optimistic interpretation of the
often repeated Nietzsche aphorism that if you gaze long enough into an abyss,
the abyss will gaze back into you. And, existentially, what is cancer besides a
look into an ever-increasing void or extension of nothingness that
paradoxically provides an opportunity for growth, clarity and resolve?

the resolutions of many Star Trek
episodes involve some sort of relativistic thinking. Captain Kirk and crew are
often presented with difficult, problematic and threatening situations, but
what often saves them and others is a seemingly counter-intuitive shift in
perspective. For instance: in “The Corbomite Maneuver,” the USS Enterprise is
forced into combat with a bizarre alien ship that is commandeered by Balok. During
its height, Spock compares the dire situation to a game of chess, but Kirk changes the analogy to a game of poker, which inspires him to bluff Balok by making him believe that the Enterprise is encased in Corbomite, a fictitious substance that will defensively rebuff any attack. This buys Kirk and his crew more time, which leads to a surprising resolution to the standoff. (And it is
notable that foes like Khan, Gary Mitchell, and Garth of Izar tend to be undone
by their maniacal absolutism, and their unwillingness to compromise or shift

bravery, adaptable thinking, and, sometimes, traumatic loss or sacrifice are
key to survival and prosperity—as in the show’s most renowned episode, “The
City on the Edge of Forever,” in which Kirk and Spock have to go through a time
doorway on a planet in order to stop a temporarily insane McCoy, who
impulsively jumped through the doorway, from somehow retroactively changing history
to their total disadvantage. The two travel to New York City in the 1930s,
where they meet social worker Edith Keeler (Joan Collins). Kirk falls for
Edith, but Spock drops a bombshell: McCoy will prevent Edith from dying in a
traffic accident, which needs to happen in order to prevent Edith from starting
a pacifist movement that will cause the U.S. to delay its involvement in World
War II. This allows the Nazis time to develop an atomic bomb and take over the
world, which causes the non-existence of the Federation.  At the climax, Kirk and Spock reunite with a
sane McCoy, but Kirk has to deny his love for Edith by stopping McCoy from
saving her life. It is the most heartbreaking moment in the series.

in the episode “The Immunity Syndrome,” the Enterprise encounters and becomes
trapped by a giant, energy-sucking amoeba. After some setbacks, which include
Spock’s disappearance on a suicide mission by means of the shuttlecraft Galileo, Kirk and McCoy brainstorm to find
a solution after framing the situation in medical terms: send an “antibiotic” antimatter
time-bomb into the amoeba in order to stop it. Kirk and crew do so, and they
kill the parasitic organism. They also save Spock in the process. Truly, Space
becomes a metaphor here for a disease that the Enterprise triumphs over and
learns from.


any life-threatening disease, cancer can transform outlooks. It’s a state of
being where the ground constantly shifts and one has to find new, unexpected
ways to be bolstered. It’s a dark frontier, and if there’s a Star Trek episode title that evokes the
feeling of having and dealing with it, it’s “For the World is Hollow and I Have
Touched the Sky.”

when you have cancer or anything like it, optimism, an honest acceptance of
struggle and a flexible point-of-view can be as crucial to improving and
beating the odds as any medical treatment. At their best, Captain Kirk and his
crew—as well as subsequent Trek
captains and crews—embody these attributes. And at the show’s best, Star Trek promotes these virtues as
things to emulate, emblems of a shining future. For this reason alone, it’s not
difficult to see why it has melded with the minds of so many fans.

is also for these reasons that—through the haze of a cure that was almost as
bad as the disease, during my own Kobyashi Maru, in which I had to find a way
to rig the situation in my favor—the show resonated with me. And it, along with
the Trek movies that star the
original series cast, still resonates, sometimes to the point of bringing
embarrassing tears to my eyes.

survive for a number of reasons, including good luck, health insurance, medical
financial assistance, skilled medical professionals who constitute the staff of
the Stanford Cancer Center in Palo Alto, the care and support of loved ones,
and even a supplemental and experimental treatment like one that a modern day
McCoy would devise. Yet—because Star Trek
provided me with extra incentive to boldly go on further down the road to
remission—it is a sentimental favorite. I like to imagine that Spock in his
older, wiser and more humanistic form would find this fascinating.

degrees in Film and Digital Media studies and Moving Image Archive
Studies, Lincoln Flynn lives in Los Angeles and writes about film on a sporadic
basis at His Twitter handle is @Lincoln_Flynn.

4 thoughts on “STAR TREK Into Remission: Gene Roddenberry’s Most Famous Creation, Cancer and Me”

  1. I'm experiencing something similar w/ a friend who has the same cancer that you went through.

    I became a filmmaker because my mother watched videos while staying overnight in the hospital during her 8 years of cancer without anyone to talk to. "It's someone doing the day-dreaming for me when I can't" she would say.


  2. I'm experiencing something similar w/ a friend who has the same cancer that you went through.

    I became a filmmaker because my mother watched videos while staying overnight in the hospital during her 8 years of cancer without anyone to talk to. "It's someone doing the day-dreaming for me when I can't" she would say.


  3. I would have loved to see the series for the first time last march when I was in isolation at the hospital for the same treatment you endured. I had Hodgkin for 2+ years and I was finally in complete remission as of last june. I remember thinking that I had to survive to see what will be up with Star Wars ep VII…I've watch and rewatched so many movies/TV to escape my reality. Breaking Bad was an inspiration as I started emulating Walter White's attitude toward fears and self-respect. Personally, re-watching Game of Thrones in my hospital room got me trough the long and hard process of rebooting my system.


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