In conversation with Marina Sirtis, of ST:TNG fame

Anyone born after 1985 should stop reading here and click through to the next article. This won’t interest you. From 1987-1994, Star Trek: The Next Generation (or TNG) was seminal sci-fi TV viewing. Other than Dr. Who and Carl Sagan’s original Cosmos series, science didn’t have much of a place on the boob-tube back then. TNG was kind of a big deal — giving hope to our planet through their visions of a united humankind — this space soap opera kicked hedonistic competitors like Dallas and Dynasty to the curb, with holodecks, lasers, hyper-spatial voyage and alien race relations.

Twenty-seven years after the show first aired, Sir Patrick Stewart (Captain Picard), Jonathan Frakes (William T. Riker), LeVar Burton (Geordi La Forge), Michael Dorn (Worf), Marina Sirtis (Deanna Troi), Brent Spiner (Data), Gates McFadden (Dr. Crusher), Denise Crosby (Tasha Yar), and John DeLancie (Q), together comprising the main crew of the USS Enterprise (specifically the *ahem* NCC-1701-D) plus their biggest adversary (Q) will appear on stage together as part of this year’s Montreal ComicCon. I had the opportunity to speak with the charming and outspoken Marina Sirtis about haters, sci-fi and being true to yourself.


For the giant nerds, here is the raw audio interview, where you can hear me being nervous, trying to make lame jokes and getting called “Natasha.” Edited text of the interview is below.

How you feel as a woman in the sci-fi world, specifically cast as one of the essential crew members of the USS Enterprise?

Bear in mind that sci-fi, at the end of the day, is action/adventure, so by its very nature it’s more skewed toward boys than girls. After saying that, however, Star Trek has always been at the forefront of [equality]. Nichelle Nicholls from The Original Series, not only was that groundbreaking because she was a woman, and she was on the bridge as a regular character, but she was a black woman, on the bridge, as a regular character in a sci-fi show. [TNG] started in ‘87 and went through to ‘94, and although we were doing a show about the 24th century, the show was actually written by 20th century men. Gates [McFadden] and I were in the caring professions — she was a doctor and I was a psychologist — so it made me sad when Denise [Crosby] quit the show, because she was security chief, and it would have been really cool to have a female security chief. But as the series went on women got more and more important, and in Voyageur we have a female captain. People sometimes forget that because the show is set in the future, they think they are written by future people, but they’re not written by future people, they’re written by people now, with all their hang-ups and all their bigotries and, you know, all the bad stuff as well as the good stuff.

And written for an audience that has all those characteristics as well…

Our geeks are really forward thinking generally. That’s the good thing about the technological age, is that the people who are at the forefront of it are very modern people, and so that’s wonderful.

Let’s talk about the Internet and the Haters. I saw that you’re on Twitter (@marina_sirtis) and you very readily engage with anyone who has something to say.

I find a lot of people in my profession don’t express their opinions about things because they want to be liked; they don’t want to ruffle any feathers. I have never cared about that, to be honest, I’ve never cared what people thought of me. I know who I am, I know what I stand for. And the people who hate me or the people who disagree with me or the people who write vile things to me on Twitter: it makes me laugh. Because I don’t care: these aren’t my friends, these aren’t my family, these aren’t people that I’m going to hang out with. And at the end of the day, I’m with Voltaire: I may not agree with your opinion but I will defend to the death your right to express it, so, um, knock yourself out, really.

I read a story of you breaking the news to your parents that you wanted to become an actress, and your mother, especially, not being supportive.

When I said “actress,” she heard “prostitute.”

That’s very old school.

Yeah, well, she was an old Greek woman.

That said, how important is determination in a young person’s life?

One of the things I do when I meet young people at conventions — I’m not shy about giving advice to total strangers…ever — but I do say, especially to young teens: What job are you going to do when you grow up? and at least 75% don’t know. I feel so lucky that I knew from the age of 3 what I wanted to do. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, because no one in my neighbourhood had ever become an actress; I come from a blue collar neighbourhood in North London, where, if you were successful you were a secretary. And, fortunately, as often happens, there was one teacher — one teacher — who said: OK, how are you going to do this? And she guided me, and believed in me, she was the only one. And it only takes one person.

How do you know when not to give up?

You have Coronation Street in Canada, right? When I was a kid watching Coronation Street — this is way before your time, when the show was in black and white — there were these three old ladies who sat in the Rovers Return, Minnie Caldwell and Ena Sharples [and Martha Longhurst], and they were in their 60s and 70s. I always said: Look at them — they didn’t make it until they were 60 or 70, you know? It takes one [acting] job, and that one job might come when you’re in your 20s or it might come when you’re in your 60s. I mean, I’ve done other jobs, I’ve worked in factories, I’ve served food to people, I’ve worked retail; I think I’m the only actress who’s never been a waitress, mind you, but I’ve done every other job. But you do those jobs to eat, and you just keep following your dream.

Do you think in recent times there’s been a resurgence in interest in science fiction?

I don’t think it’s a resurgence, I think it’s just been growing exponentially since [TNG] was on the air. When we started, sci-fi was alternative entertainment. Now, it’s number one at the box office every week: it’s sci-fi, sci-fi, sci-fi. I’m going to pat ourselves on the back and say that TNG was partly responsible for the surge in interest in sci-fi, because we had people watching our show who never liked sci-fi, they just liked our show. The total atmosphere, the business has changed. Gone are the days of Forrest Gump…Forrest Gump probably wouldn’t even get made if it was taken to a studio today..

It’s true, it would have to be A.I. or something.

It would be Forrest Gump in space.

About the Re-Engaged event, is this something that is on tour or is it exclusive to this edition of the ComicCon?

We did it for the first time, what we call our reunion tour, in Calgary [in 2012] and it was so successful, we said: Well, this is something we should do everywhere, because obviously this is something that the fans want to see. It’s wonderful, [and] the fans love it, they love to see us all together, because they’ve heard for nearly thirty years that we all loved each other and that we all got along, but then we hear that from every actor from every talk show, but when they come to see us on stage all together, and they see it with their own eyes, they believe it. I think we’re pretty much the only show ever in the history of Hollywood that after 27 years are all still best friends. The whole cast. Not a group of two or three there or two or three here. All seven of us love each other to death, look out for each other, and enjoy each other’s company. In fact, generally, we don’t bring our significant others because we don’t want them around. We want to hang out with each other and misbehave.

Note: This is a longer version of an article that originally appeared in CultMTL

Adventure Time Easter Egg: Marina voices “Samantha” in Season 5 episode “The Pit.”

GeekMom: Focus on Maths

This morning I came up with the ultimate parenting strategy: instill the force (of nerdiness) within your child. I’ve always wanted to get my daughter into science and math, engaging the everychild’s wonderment of the world. Literally everything that surrounds us contains science content. Everything. I defy you to come up with something (action, item, emotion, thought, colour, food, etc.) that cannot be informed by even a simple nugget of scientific or mathematical knowledge.

Lately around here, our daughter has been obsessed with colours and mixing them to create new colours. I get asked about four times a day: “What does….red and…purple make?” It’s been a serious Pantone challenge, let me tell you. Especially when she gets nuanced, asking for the result of three or four colours combined. Constellations and galaxies are a new one, and bath time has become an exercise in bouyancy vs. surface tension.

As my child enters the public school system this fall, I can’t help think maniacally about all the variables she will encounter, all the things totally beyond my control that will shape her into an inevitably pain-filled teenager: friends, bullies, frenemies, teachers, and the stuffs of learning itself.

I found the catch-all: mathematics. People who are capable at math are like the Vulcans of the Earth. Wikipedia describes Vuclans as a “humanoid species” who “live by reason and logic with no interference from emotion.” And I think: YES. What better interpersonal coping skills than pure logic? Math and even basic principles of physics both lay this groundwork down, with the idea that there are fundamentals that cannot be questioned. You just don’t mess with logic.

CHILD: “Should I start smoking?”
VULCAN REASONING : “No, that would be harmful to my physical well-being, and thus survival.”

CHILD: “Should I skip class?”
VULCAN REASONING: “That would be against protocol.”

CHILD: “Should I partake in spitballing the bathroom ceiling? All the other kids are doing it and it looks like lots of fun.”
VULCAN REASONING: “This activity poses a scheduling conflict with computer science class.”

Etc, etc. In my schooling years, I had no interest in being cool. I was not cool, though kept a handful of close friends. We would be not cool together. I was in Gifted class in grade school, a place where we went to play Below the Root and solve Logic Problems. In high school I wrote national math competitions (I didn’t stand a change against Ko-Hua Chu, a peer who, rumour has it, stormed out of class for only scoring 99% on a math test). My parents had a Commodore 64 at home, and me and my sister would get with those books that had the pages of BASIC programs you could type in to make your computer do stupid shit. Like repeat a word on the screen until you hit a button, or do math, or load a game on casette tape. That was such a discovery, beyond just spending hours trying to finish that Bruce Lee game.

I’m trying not to make this about me, but about how my childhood could relate to my daughter’s. The other day Murray, Neptune and I were watching our first David Tennant episode of Dr. Who. And even though Neptune said she didn’t like it, she could not take her eyes off the TV for the duration of the episode. I recall my dad watching Dr. Who, and have kept in my memory the quirkiness of the Tom Baker (the best, IMHO), Peter Davison and Colin Baker-era doctors. I must have been around 10 when this was going on. Why did I love it so much? Because it was simply around? What was going on in other people’s houses that made me so predisposed to geekery, and other kids so into, well, clothing?

Therein lay the mysteries of western parenting. Now ask yourself: do you want to raise a Mischa Barton or Bill Gates? There is no wrong answer.

Were Our Lives More Science-y in the 80’s?

I was thinking today about science, and how curious I was about things when I was a kid. I always wanted to mix the baking soda and vinegar together when no one was watching (just little bits at a time). I would invent things, take things apart, and my sister and I would burn stuff in our “play hibachi,” just to see what would happen. My dad is in science, and we could rely on Nova, The Nature of Things or Dr. Who being on TV at some point during the evening.

Anyway, whilst on the internet today I saw an interview with Bill Nye the Science Guy. I then remembered the whole Bill Nye vs. Beakman’s World debacle, with Bill Nye firmly out-geeking Beakman’s screwball laboratory hijinks (Disney always wins such battles). Next was a flurry of memories of how important science was in the 80’s. Like back then we really thought the future was going to be the bomb. People were building robots and we had computers (Commodore 64, bitches) in our homes. But was I unusually into science or was science just more mainstream?

There were definitely more science shows for kids. What do we have now that makes learning fun? Zoboomafoo? Mythbusters? There’s all the programming on DiscoveryKids and Bill Nye is still slugging it out. But shows about trashy tweens seem to be more in the mainstream. Science just isn’t as cool as it used to be. All these memories of stuff I was really into in the 80’s came to mind:

TV
David Suzuki’s The Nature of Things, Nova (both still on the air), Owl/TV (theme song), Mr. Wizard’s World, Beakman’s World, Bill Nye The Science Guy, Edison Twins (couldn’t resist), 321 Contact (also, rad theme), Wonderstruck, Dr. Who…and my fave show that we watched as a family: Star Trek: The Next Generation, of course.

MOVIES
Weird Science, War Games, Short Circuit, The Fly, *Batteries Not Included, Cocoon, never mind crazy sci-fi blockbusters like Star Wars, E.T. and Close Encounters.

These days we take science for granted: we are tethered to the internet via tiny computing devices, and the digital word has replaced most analogue forms of communication. As a kid in Toronto, the best school field trip of all time was to the Science Centre. I mean, I was into learning about binary code and tectonic plates when I got there. I would also try and get my parents to take me downtown just so I could hit up Science City, the nerdiest store at Bay/Bloor Village (and which, to my total surprise, STILL EXISTS). They always had experiments or fun gadgets that I inadvertently learned stuff from. Like that little plastic threaded tube that connects two 2L soda bottles and acts as a giant tornado maker! Or light-sensitive paper that you put shit on top of and leave out in the sun and create cool silhouettes!

Did I have friends? As I recall, I did have some serious BFFs, but my memories are continually making me out to be a serious nerd. Quality, not quantity, I guess.

Recovered Ramblings

After taking out (most of) the annoying bits, I am posting this draft I wrote on a recent train ride. I spent a few days away form my laptop: on one hand I loved “unplugging” and reading a real print magazine, on the other hand I was totally jonesing for the internet:

Presently, I am on a train, bound for Toronto. I’ll only be there one day plus two half days, so a brief trip.

A middle aged lady in the seat in front of me is watching Twilight on a DVD player, and for some reason I find that fascinating. I’ve been reading the March 2010 issue of Wired, intrigued by the idea that our “digital remains” may need management (page 60) (posthumous Facebook status updates? RAD!), and endeared by the brief Q&A with Kevin Smith on page 80. I was surprised that he is among the Twitter Elite – meaning someone with over a million followers. I only wish I had that many followers, but sadly I’m struggling to break 400. It reminds me of how my mobile phone is only a few years old but already totally and completely out of date. It is not even wifi-capable. How can I keep my social network a-flutter without it? How will I attract more followers, if I can’t even watch and/or post a YouTube clip on my mobile? I mean this confounded WordPress app is totally pushing my phone’s limits…if I see that hourglass one more time…

Yeah, I know: boo-frakking-hoo. I’m just bored out of my mind over here. My kid is asleep next to me, drooling all over the armrest. What else am I supposed to do? Anyway, all this stuff is boring, and I apologise.

Aren’t we collectively glad that I saved that? I’m making up for lost internet time today; wasting hours looking for cheap flights, appraising coins on eBay, and creating a profile on myouterspace.com (username: Natalia – Be my friend, nerdz!).

*giant sigh*

GeekParents

I remember when I was a kid, my dad used to read to me at bedtime from his latest issues of Scientific American magazine. Sometimes I wonder if that contributed to my being a little nerdy, and pretty good at math (when I want to be). I mean, I took computer science in high school and absolutely loved it. So taking a page from the book of my dad, I’ve started to read articles from The Economist to Neptune at bedtime. You’d be surprised how an article on a 19th-century Belgium painter, or a book review about the physics of nothingness can be made interesting with an enthusiastic reading voice.

This morning I saw this list of 100 Geeky Places to take your Kids this Summer. I’m bookmarking this shit for the next time we go on tour. Its never too soon to start raising a little nerd.

ALSO: Got some Neptune-inspired tees from the Yellow Bird Project in the mail. They’re pretty cute…I’m wearing mine today! Get your Pablove on.

Entering Nerdshire

A series of recent events caused me to realise that they should create a variation of the term “grupster” that incorporates the word “nerd”. While “negrupster” connotes a black grupster, and “grupsterd” sounds like it belongs in a toilet, I contemplated “grerdrupster” before giving up on trying to pigeonhole my already complex identity any further.

So what events could possibly lead to this assumption? First: a childlike glee that I experienced after learning that the latest title I purchased for my Nintendo DS was really quite enjoyable. And that I was looking forward to playing “Professor Layton and the Curious Village” through to the end.

Next, due to weeks of rainy days and thus a listless, playground-deprived daughter, I decided to try the Centre des sciences de Montreal. I have such fond memories of the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto, what with all the buttons and things to touch, ancient Chinese xylophones and that model train that drove through tunnels between two glass display cases. And the running. There were bridges to jump on and technicolour replicas of my shadow to be made. Anyhow, the Centre des sciences is much newer, smaller and a little less in-depth. There’s still a lot going on in there, but nothing recommended for toddlers. They literally told me to not bother buying an admission. So we went to see the river and a pond in the rain, got a giant lollipop and went home. I love science but I guess not that much.

Finally, and most awesomely, was that I posted a comment on an article on Wired.com’s Listening Post blog and the author (Scott Thill) knew who The Dears were. That blew my mind; it was really rad and made my day. I read Wired.com every day, so it was like we were exchanging a knowing nod: yes, nerds and music can co-exist…as they must…

Then, after all this I met up with my misanthropic pal Michael, who completely de-asserted my nerdness. This was after I admitted to him that I hadn’t read a science fiction novel in years. And that I had never read (nor had I seen) “Dune.” He recommended I read “Valis” by Philip K. Dick and call him in the morning. I felt ashamed and unworthy of my admittedly hasty claim to the “grerdrupster” title — even though he was totally right.

I’m a little bit of a nerd at heart, and at least that I can be proud of.

Suddenly All Growed Up

Do you remember when it happened to you? Those years when you suddenly stopped being a child? It’s hard to recognise it when it’s actually happening: you only see it when you’ve fully grown and start to feel somehow redeemed as an adult human. My moment – triggered by the responsibility of a ‘zine – would mark the beginning of the end of innocence: no more Fresh Prince of Bel-Air or Street Cents (back when it was hosted by Jonathan Torrens) after school. Then I would retreat to my room to listen to Vauxhaull and I, The White Album or Dark Side of the Moon on headphones. I would draw in ink and markers, urging out my teenage frustrations onto paper.

So what? Do I even know what I’m talking about? That is, am I that “redeemed adult human” I claim to be? Probably not. I mean, I fill empty hours playing video games and visiting perezhilton.com. I contemplated us adults, the grupsters, if you will: in following Wired.com coverage of the SXSW Interactive conference, I’ve realised how pervasive nerdiness is in our generation. We are attached by the hip to our gadgets and laptops, and we are suddenly crippled without WiFi or at least some kind of internet connection. I mean, during the last snowstorm here in Montreal, I considered the risk of a power outage, and that I’d might as well throw my iBook in the garbage should our wireless network go down. What am I going to do…organise my photos or edit a document? Actually, I wouldn’t be able to even do that since I started using Google Docs instead of shelling out for some bogus Microsoft software.

And the kids of today are just getting deeper into it. We joke about how Neptune will mock us when we mention cassette tapes: her music will just get downloaded directly into her brain or something like that. Preteens have mobile phones and have figured out BitTorrent. Neptune is surprisingly quick at learning how our gadgetry works: she can play games on my DS, un-hold and use the iPod, scroll through photos on my BlackBerry, put DVDs into and turn on the PS3, and click my laptop’s trackpad to start playback of funny cat videos on YouTube. And she’s only been here for 30 months.

This blog post doesn’t really have a thesis or point, so I will end my ramblings here. Maybe that’s what adulthood grants: long, rambling, roundabout thoughts in lieu of a youthful stroboscopic bombardment of media.