This is the latest installment in a series of "Character Insight" articles regarding the rich history of characters in the Star Trek universe. An audio version will appear on the This Week in Trek podcast, available for direct download here.
Welcome back to Character Insight! This week, I am recording this segment on my birthday, so why not come out of the long series of movie villains with a look at how birthdays add character to Star Trek? After all, what defines characters more than how we celebrate our aging process?
("Surprise Parties...still lame in the 24th Century")
Despite officially only being celebrated by humans, Ferengi, and Krenim in Star Trek lore, birthdays and surprise parties appear with regularity on Star Trek shows. There's nothing more human than pushing your culture on everyone you meet in the spirit of patriotism, colonialism, or discipleship, the Prime Directive notwithstanding. So we get to see that humans still love their presents and parties on birthday occasions.
And just like today, there are plenty of weak gifts forced upon people who don't want to think about aging or how old they are. For example, Captain Kirk receives in The Wrath of Khan an antique pair of eyeglasses in an era of medicine perfecting eyesight, as well as an antique copy of A Tale of Two Cities, one of the most boring books you could offer especially when it would be available anytime digitally. But in a cute twist of fate, Kirk pawns that bad gift when time traveling to save the whales because he knows he will once again receive the glasses someday from Dr. McCoy.
Of course, with humans forcing their birthday traditions on their poor crewmates, it does lead to some fun grumpy character lines. Worf is not amused by many things involving merriment, but especially not a surprise birthday party thrown for him in the episode Parallels:
Quote: "(Picard) How old are you? (Worf) I am...old enough"
Worf is not the only one who can play the grumpy birthday card, as Vulcans are like Klingons and apparently do not celebrate birthdays. When your life expectancy is well beyond 100 years, each individual year probably becomes less significant. But regardless, that does not excuse Mr Grumpyface Tuvok and his nonplussed response to Janeway giving him a candle-laden cake on his birthday in the episode Fury.
Quote: "(Janeway) You're supposed to blow out the candles. (Tuvok) That is not a Vulcan tradition. (Janeway) Well...? (Tuvok) blows out candle...it was a fire hazard"
Some cultures take to the birthday parties more readily, such as Kes in Voyager. Of course, when you only live for a small number of years, it makes more sense to celebrate reaching another milestone. That doesn't stop humans like Dr. Bahsir from finding importance or life turning points at certain birthdays such as 30, even with the presumably longer lifespans of humans 300 years from now. If nothing else, birthday celebrations are an interesting social quirk of humanity that leads to some interesting interactions with other species, another good aspect of Trek. Of course, it would be nice if these interactions were focused on more than the silly surprise parties, but it is a television show after all.
At least birthday parties still have cake, meaning the indulgences in a sweet tooth or some favorite flavor is still a thing 300 years from now. And why not, with replication technology at hand? The writers gave some characters some interesting flavor choices for cakes, at least, including Jimbalian Fudge for Kes, Pineapple for Malcolm Reed, chocolate for Deanna Troi, and Cellular Peptide for Worf ("with mint frosting"). OK that last one isn't truly a birthday cake, but anytime you can play the Worf cake clip, you simply do.
And so, as I revel in a piece of my favorite Lemon cake later today, let's raise a glass to silly human traditions and birthdays. It's good to know we will still be having silly fun and cake in the 24th Century. Birthdays are yet another piece of character in the Star Trek universe, although we will return to the more conventional character profiles again next week.
Until next time, live long and prosper...