Black History Month: With Special Thanks To…Geordi La Forge.
Geordi La Forge may be my favorite Star Trek character. I have always had an action figure of him in my car, and he is referenced in my yearbook ad, as well as a photo of him being included. Geordi La Forge started off in season one of Star Trek: The Next Generation as the helmsman (he flew the Enterprise), and in season two was upgraded to being Chief Engineer (he fixes the ship, like Scotty). He was always depicted as a reliable, “go to” sort of guy, who was friendly to everyone, and always, always ready to be your buddy.
In short, he was the model for what a good friend should be. I’ve always wondered if Rodenberry meant that, or if it came out through Levar Burton’s interpretation of the character.
If you didn’t watch the show…La Forge is blind. His funky, eighties banana hair clip style eyewear allows him to see literally everything but the visible spectrum that humans can. Called the VISOR, is gave him functional super-vision…except for being able to tell things like color, or whether a girl was pretty. It made him both an endearing and tragic character, except…La Forge never seemed too stressed about it. It was his thing…he was used to it, except for the migraines his VISOR gave him.
During the show, the character was depicted as having trouble with his romantic life, consistently. Hence the “Is this your idea of a date?” line from the protagonist. I wanted some kind of interesting bad guys here, so we have these alien cult members. They look creepy to me, in a way that only the robes of an organized religion can creep me out. Maybe they are a weird cult of Skrulls dedicated to worshiping Mr. Snuffalupagus, accounting for their elephantine appearance. I don’t know…I didn’t think it out too much. Feel free to decide for yourself about the creepy alien cult that Geordi and the protagonist have to @#$ whoop on their non-date.
Gene Roddenberry created the character in honor of George La Forge, a quadriplegic fan of the original Star Trek series who died in 1975. A casting call was placed to agency for the role, which described him as friends with Data, and specified that La Forge should have “perfect diction and might even have a Jamaican accent” and instructed those agencies not to submit “any ‘street’ types”. Way to be politically correct there, Mr. Rodenberry.
LeVar Burton auditioned for the role in 1986. He had previously appeared in “Roots”, which was a huge, huge deal. Burton’s audition impressed Rodenberry, and then led to casting. Seven seasons and several motion pictures later, with a large amount of comics and novels thrown in, and we are here, talking about Geordi La Forge.
Throughout the series, Burton was equipped with Geordi La Forge’s trademark VISOR, which he found extremely unpleasant to wear: “It’s pretty much a living hell… 85 to 90 per cent of my vision is taken away when the VISOR goes on… I bumped into everything the first season – Light stands, overhead microphones, cables at my feet – I tripped over it all… So it’s a sort of conundrum – the blind man, who puts on the VISOR and sees much more than everyone else around him, when the actor actually does that he’s turned into a blind person. Then there was the pain. In the second season, we re-designed the VISOR and made it heavier and the way we actually affixed it was that we screwed it, we literally screwed it into my head and so there were screws that we would turn and there were flanges on the inside that would press into my temples and so after fifteen or twenty minutes of that I got headaches. So I had a daily headache for about six years. Which was also no fun.”
I didn’t know that when I watched the show in high school. It’s kind of an amazing amount of suffering to do for one’s art.
in addition to Star Trek and “Roots”, Burton was host and executive producer of Reading Rainbow starting in 1983 for PBS. The series ran for 23 seasons, making it one of the longest running children’s programs on the network. The series garnered over 200 broadcast awards over its run, including a Peabody Award and 26 Emmy Awards, 11 of which were in the “Outstanding Children’s Series” category. Burton himself won 12 Emmy awards as host and producer of the show.
Hold up. Twelve. He has TWELVE Emmys for Reading Rainbow. The sheer influence that Levar Burton has had on literacy and education is easily expressed in that fact. Twelve Emmys for an educational childrens’ show. Epic Level Respect.
After Reading Rainbow went off the air in 2006, Burton and his business partner, Mark Wolfe acquired the global rights to the brand and formed RRKIDZ, a new media company for children. Reading Rainbow was reimagined as an all new app for the iPad in 2012 and was an immediate success, becoming the number one Educational App within 36 hours. At RRKIDZ, Burton serves as Co-Founder and Curator-in-Chief. On May 28, 2014, Burton and numerous coworkers from other past works started a Kickstarter campaign project to bring Reading Rainbow back. To keep with the changing formats that young children are exposed to, his efforts are being directed at making this new program web-based following the success of the tablet app he helped create.
His desire is to have the new Reading Rainbow be integrated into the classrooms of elementary schools across the country, and for schools in need to have FREE access. The Kickstarter campaign has since raised over five million dollars, reaching triple its goal in only three days.
Much like Nichelle Nichols, Levar Burton took the advantages that being a pop culture icon gave him, and continuously used them to give back to the world. In fact, when my co-teacher and I helped to restructure one of the worst schools in California, he was an active supporter of the campaign. It’s kind of huge to me that someone I look up to as a science fiction hero from a TV show, actually is a fairly excellent person, and pretty much about the same things that I am. His influence, through things like Reading Rainbow, is simply profound, and sometimes I don’t think that gets nearly enough credit.
I could be wrong. I mean…twelve Emmys. Still…Burton was born in 1957. He grew up watching Star Trek, and as the world around him changed during the Civil Rights movement while he was a boy. He was a young man in the seventies, and his big break was “Roots.” After that, Reading Rainbow, and then Star Trek…which presented a vision of the future that was utopian, where the problems of racial discord had simply been done away with. The story of his career is just plain an inspirational story of the transformation of American Culture into something better.
I have to imagine that it feels pretty cool to be a part of that. I hope he knows in a way that’s hard to express, how much his fans respect and look up to him.
That being said, I’d like to present this final Engineering advice, from Geordi La Forge:
Next Issue: Fantastic Four! The Quiet Man! Trash Talk!