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Star Trek | TNG Saved my Life in High School

It is 2018 and I am standing in line at the Washington Convention Center in DC waiting for my autograph from Jonathan Frakes. I couldn’t believe that after all the time that has passed that this is my first time seeing the man behind Commander Will Riker. Sometimes life comes at you from all angles, and things you want to do never happen. But now this is happening. I’m finally getting my chance to thank him.

I grew up in the 1980s. You know – mall bangs, leg warmers, Trend scratch and sniff stickers, and Madonna. There was no Internet or cell phones. There was no call waiting unless you paid for it. 

We played outside until the street lights came on, and our neighbor’s parents were part of our discipline growing up. We took a school bus or rode our bikes to school. 

I grew up on Lake Michigan in a sleepy town called Long Beach, Indiana. It was about an hour’s drive from Chicago. 

You couldn’t get me out of the water. I started swimming competitively when I was in the fifth grade. I was on the swim team all four years in high school. 

I grew up with a father who enjoyed science fiction. I can remember watching Star Trek reruns with him. I also fondly recall watching The Secrets of Isis, and I’m not even sure how I remember that. It ran from 1975-1976, so I would have been four and five years old, and yet, I remember it. 

We would also watch Battlestar Galactica, and reruns of My Favorite Martian and Lost in Space

Then there was this little space saga that came out in 1977, and my mom became hooked on that one. So I have been around sci-fi for as long as I can remember. It has been a part of me, infused into me by my parents. It is something that I’ve never, ever let go of.

As the years went on, and I grew older, I turned to sci-fi for more than just entertainment. It became an escape for me. It may have been the 1980s without the technology and capabilities of today. But one thing is certain. Kids can be mean no matter what decade it is.

You don’t need to know every detail of my life to understand social awkwardness or what it feels like to be bullied. I experienced them both. Even though I was one of the top swimmers at my school, I did not escape the torment of the mean girls. There weren’t many mean girls at my school. I did have a great group of girls that I did hang around with, and I also got on well with the popular girls. 

But I was that in-between awkward one who didn’t fit anywhere in particular. I got on well with everyone, but never had my own place. I had a hard time and was internally screaming. And that cry often found its way into saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. Teachers yelled at me a lot, and I am certain I embarrassed myself just as much as I got in trouble. 

But there was one thing that was constant through it all: science fiction. 

My dad was the one that told me about a new Star Trek series that was coming out. At the time I’m sure he was more excited about it than I was. So on September 28, 1987, we sat in front of our tiny tube-powered TV to watch Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Encounter at Tipping Point

I thought it was interesting. My dad kept watching it, so I kept watching it. We can all agree now that the first two seasons were shaky and some real groaners were produced. But as time went on, The Next Generation went on to become one of the best shows on television. And in just one short year, the show would end up saving my life.

I don’t think anyone is immune to thoughts of dying. But there is a difference between thinking those thoughts, and trying to carry them out. I didn’t consider myself suicidal at the time. I still would not. But there was a moment when I was driving home from swim practice when the thought of what would happen if I ran the car into a tree at 65 miles per hour.

The next thought sobered me quickly: If you did that, then dad would not have a car anymore. And I never thought of harming myself again.

(If you have had those thoughts, and are still thinking them, please get help. Reach out to someone, or in the US call 800-273-8255, or visit the mental health charity Mind for information and practical tips to support yourself and others. You’re not alone.)

This is not intended to bring you down. This is a celebration of how a TV show changed my life. For the next three years of high school and beyond, The Next Generation became a family affair. When I didn’t have a swim meet, we’d watch the show as it aired. We eventually bought a VHS recorder/player (yes, VHS, not Beta), and I’d record the show to watch when I got home. 

I admit I was obsessed with the show. I wanted to be Wesley’s sister, and he and I would solve mysteries, and then cook mom dinner when she came home from work. I would go down to the beach and lay on the sand at night looking up to the stars. I desperately wanted Jean Luc to come and pick me up and take me on fantastic journeys. 

The bridge crew appear before Q in the very first episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation – ‘Encounter at Farpoint’, S1, Ep1. | CBS, 1987.

Sometimes when things seem impossible in your own life, reaching out or reaching up to something familiar is the only thing that soothes your broken heart and soul. The Next Generation did that. It was the balm to my aches and pains of growing up. It gave me something to look forward to with my family. 

I spent years watching the show over and over again. The characters became part of our family. They each became a part of my very life. Even today, I find the show and character still shaping aspects of my life.

In the early 1990s, I became part of a Star Trek club that was operated by correspondence by snail mail. Yes, an actual play by mail. We would mail each other scenarios about a ship that we were a part of. I was the Chief Medical Officer of the USS Coriolis. Each month I’d receive a scenario that I would write a reply to. It could be no less than two pages, I believe. 

It was a lot of fun, and the people I met through that started meeting up at conventions. So fun, nerdy things did happen back then without the Internet or phones.

Crossing the Bridge

And so here I am, back in 2018. I consider myself a grown and responsible adult. I spent some time in the US Navy, and have had a job with or in the government ever since. And even as a grown adult who has met a ton of people at conventions, I stand in line nervously for what I need to tell Mr. Frakes.

I have spent the last 20 years or so going to conventions to meet up with Star Trek folks of all series. But primarily I have sought out the cast of TNG so I can thank them for what they did for me. 

My first convention ever was in the very early 90s to see Marina Sirtis, aka Deanna Troi. The day I went it was her birthday. I had brought her flowers. During the main room gathering, I raised my hand and I got called on. I was invited up on stage to give her the flowers, then I had the room sing happy birthday to her. 

My resumé of Trek meetings that I recall include William Shatner, Nichelle Nichols, Majel Barrett-Roddenberry, DeForrest Kelley, Grace Lee Whitney, Bruce Hyde, Jimmy Doohan, Walter Koenig, René Auberjonois, Terry Farrel, Nana Visitor, Jason Isaacs, Anson Mount, Ethan Peck, Tony Todd, Suzie Plaxon, Eric Menyuk, Marc Okrand, Michael Okuda, John DeLancie, Robert O’Reilly, and Mark Hamill. Oh, wait. That last one may be the wrong Star.

Also attending the 2018 convention in DC was Sirtis, Spiner, McFadden, and Wheaton. (I’m seeing Marina for the second time, and Wheaton for the third time). I purchased the TNG VIP pass to ensure I’d get to see them each at least one time.

I’m next in line for Frakes, and I really don’t know what will tumble out of my mouth. I do sometimes get starstruck. Usually not with Star Trek actors, but I feel unusually nervous. I step up to him and I have a big, cheesy smile on my face. 

I immediately say hello and we exchange pleasantries as I pick the photo I would like him to sign. There’s a small break in the conversation, and I take my shot.

I thanked Mr. Frakes for what he did on the show. I told him that the show literally saved my life in high school. When I told him that, he looked at me briefly, then looked down at the marker in his hand.

He looked back at me and told me that it’s stories like mine that always mean a lot for them to hear. It’s a reminder for them of the impact that they had on people. Then he thanked me. 

I’m certain we had a conversation about a trombone ornament someone had brought to him to sign, and some other words were spoken. But thoughts of me thanking Jonathan Frakes for the magic he and the others created were still swirling in my head. 

I would then thank each of the other TNG crew at that convention for what they did on the show. I told each of them that they saved my life in high school. They were so very gracious, and then they each thanked me. 

Counsellor Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) speaks to Riker in ‘Encounter at Farpoint’. | CBS, 1987.

And let’s be honest. Marina Sirtis is my favorite. She is so lovely with her fans. I got a hug and a selfie with her. I’ve interacted with her on Twitter, and have done a COVID video chat with her via a large online convention. Gates was also amazing and I got a selfie with her as well at that convention. It is always an honor to meet up with Wheaton. They are all such amazing people.

A few months after the convention in DC I saw LeVar Burton and Michael Dorn in Philly. This was my second or third time seeing Dorn. I did thank both of them as I did the others.

The only person I have left to thank on the TNG bridge crew is Sir Patrick Stewart. I wrote to his fan mail account, and included return postage and a photo to sign. But I used his London service address. I am not sure if he will ever get it because I mailed it in December 2019, and then COVID happened. So I can only hope he received my letter of gratitude.

Star Trek: The Next Generation shaped a part of my life that I have not ever let go of. It has a very special spot in my heart. I also love Star Wars, and I write fanfiction for Stargate SG-1. But there is something special about Next Gen. It’s like a warm blanket on a cold night that I can wrap around my heart. 

I would never, ever want to have to do high school over again. But if I did, at least I know one thing for certain. I would be waiting impatiently for that new Star Trek show to come out in 1987.  

Testimonial Author Image

Joy is an aspiring writer, dog lover, and family person. She takes science fiction a bit too seriously at times, and would love a jaunt through the old annulus if given the chance. Or to be beamed up by Picard. Or Kirk. Or the Borg. She won’t be too picky.

Follow her on Twitter @joyhargraves IG: xwingkc

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