Star Trek‘s Other SF

As a recent emigrant to San Francisco from my home town of Brooklyn, there was one attraction I was keen to see as quickly as possible after stepping off the plane and into this city’s peculiar blue fog. It wasn’t the Golden Gate Bridge, wasn’t Alcatraz, wasn’t the sea lions on the rocks of Fisherman’s Wharf or the feral parrots of Telegraph Hill. There was one spot that had been tops on my list for a long, long time.

I am, of course, referring to Starfleet headquarters, home base of the United Federation of Planets.

I mean, it doesn’t exist. Not yet. Not for another hundred years or so of Star Trek chronology, not until after the first manned mission to Mars—which I am definitely looking forward to—and not until after World War III—which, given my druthers, I would probably take a pass on. Assuredly everyone reading this must be aware that Starfleet is the central authority governing the largest chunk of the visible Star Trek universe. I don’t need to explain their mission of intergalactic diplomacy and scientific exploration, or their mandate of nonaggression and the hopeful search for intelligent life. How could anyone not know that in today’s world, where everyone is basically a pop culture Ph.D. already? But if Trek has taught me anything, it’s tolerance, even of those who can’t tell a Tribble from a Tholian, and I shouldn’t assume that you were raised, as I was, by a mother who drilled into your TV-watching psyche the entire corpus of Star Trek: The Original Series, and its conscience and ethos. (Thanks, mom.)

Star Trek San Francisco

Somehow in the show’s mythology, it worked out that the central klatch of the Federation of Planets would be right here in the Bay Area, just over the bridge. Why, exactly? Near as I can tell no one agrees on 100% the particulars but I think it boils down to Roddenberry’s admiration of the city’s history of diplomacy—being the place where the charter of the United Nations was first drafted. I am given to understand Roddenberry said as much in the novelization of the first Trek film (the only one of the Trek novelizations he wrote himself), though I haven’t read it myself. Later series writers entertained San Francisco as the site for all kinds of historical milestones of peace and diplomacy.

And there is also the intuitive supposition that Roddenberry chose San Francisco for its tradition of secular humanism that mirrored his own ethics as a person and as a writer who went on to create this fictional universe.

Then there is the whole bit about space being the final frontier:

Star Trek San Francisco

San Francisco’s history as a far-out frontier town, being an end point when someone told you to “Go west,” a city of prospectors and entrepreneurs and boom-or-bust promise and lunatic, locally beloved emperors. There is a sense—omnipresent in the original series, maybe a little less so in its franchise sequels—an openness and promise, a giddy kind of “What will we come across next” that this city, in all its warps and folds of history, knows a little something about.

There’s nothing to see right now. I’ve already been there. It’ll be a century before they break ground, so I feel like I’ve still got plenty of time to queue up for the first tour (but probably not if I also get in line for ice cream at Bi Rite—in a hundred years I’ll have time for one or the other, but not both). As of now the Council of the United Federation of Planets is just a green, open field in the Presidio; Starfleet Headquarters is just a grassy patch in Fort Baker, named after Edward Baker, an opponent of slavery during the Civil War, who was the only sitting state senator to be killed in battle, and whose last words were, “The officer who dies with his men will never be harshly judged.” (He sounds like he would have made a fine Starfleet captain.)

Star Trek San Francisco

And these monuments to a future we have not yet built seem present to me and already like a living part of the city. It’s like when you travel to France to visit Jules Verne’s grave, to honor our imaginative past, only in reverse: you’re instead honoring the hopeful infinity laid out before us. It feels like visiting the birthplace of something that is still yet to be, and wonderful. And in that sense San Francisco is not just another tourist destination, or just a city that J.J. Abrams tries to blow up in Star Trek Into Darkness the way Roland Emmerich tries to blow up… well, any city, really.

As a home to the unbroken turf into which Starfleet will, fictionally, eventually, pour its foundations and lay its first stone, the sites are an archaeological record of our future dreams, and our hopes for ourselves and what we might do and where we might go and, if we’re lucky, how boldly we might go when we go there. Star Trek beckons and invites that utopian yearning and, occasionally, I admit, a florid expounding on what that yearning means for us. But yeah, that’s maybe why I’m here. To explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations.

There will be pictures taken, as there must be when visiting any tourist site. I’ll be easy to spot: I’m there by myself, the first one in line.


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