John Tenuto, 49, of Gurney, Ill., said he’s been a “Star Trek” fan since birth. His wife, Maria Jose Tenuto, 42, was aware of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” because her younger brother watched it on TV, she but didn’t trek into that sci-fi world until she met John during her graduate studies.
Married for 20 years, they’re taking the next generation to the final frontier through the sociology courses they teach at the College of Lake County in Grayslake, Ill., part of the greater Chicago metro area.
And they’ll take audiences of all ages into the realms of “The Wrath of Khan” and the late Spock actor Leonard Nimoy during discussions at TrekFest XXXIV in Riverside on June 29 and 30.
The two-day festival not only celebrates the history, legacy and characters made famous in the “Star Trek” television and movie franchises, it also rolls in a summertime community festival full of games and contests for all ages, a talent show, live music from area bands, a demolition derby and Saturday night fireworks.
The Tenutos were there “for fun” in 2007, when their son, now 16, participated in the kids’ parade as a cuddly Tribble furball. “We had a great time,” John said. “We’re excited to come back and see how the town has changed in 10 years.”
“Star Trek” began blazing new trails when the Starship Enterprise began exploring strange new worlds in 1966, with Capt. James T. Kirk and his crew at the helm. In 1985, the city declared itself the future birthplace of Capt. Kirk, with the blessing of creator Gene Roddenberry, who had said in his book, “The Making of Star Trek,” that Kirk was born in Iowa. Riverside got a Hollywood shout-out in J.J. Abrams’ 2009 movie, “Star Trek.”
The Tenutos are “Star Trek” historians who not only speak at tribute conventions, but their writing and research have been featured in magazines, websites, radio and television, including the Netflix series “The Toys that Made Us.”
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The couple also have permission from Nimoy’s family to share photos and anecdotes not only of his most famous acting role, but also about his commitment to social causes.
“He was an amazing person,” Maria Jose said. Pointing to his roots in Judaism, she added, “He believed that if you spend your life trying to repair the world, your life would mean something.”
Pairing “Star Trek” with teaching is logical for the sociologists.
“In today’s world, it’s not unusual for television shows to really directly deal with social problems,” John said, “but in the ’60s, ‘Star Trek’ had a little different television landscape to deal with, in terms of censorship and what topics were appropriate, what topics people would talk about. It’s not that ‘Star Trek’ was the first to do that. If you watch old westerns on TV. ... Several ‘Lone Ranger’ episodes deal directly with racism, but it was nonthreatening, because it wasn’t about the 1950s. It was set in the 1880s, so it wasn’t as threatening.
“So ‘Star Trek’ just took that concept that westerns did, and they set it into the future. They were able to deal with a lot of social issues in the future, where you could watch them removed from any specific frame of reference in today’s world, so you could put into it whatever you wanted to,” he said.
“As society’s gotten more polarized, and people certainly feel free to talk about everything in the world with complete strangers — people share everything on social media — it’s a little tougher, in a way, for ‘Star Trek’ to stand out, because everybody’s talking about these issues.”
What continues to set “Star Trek” apart is the way in which it spins positive messages out of social issues, he said. “That’s different than most science fiction, and frankly, most entertainment. It’s been able to stay relevant by giving a blueprint for how to solve the problems, rather than only talking about the problem, which is a lot of times what cop shows and reality-based programming does. They present a problem and then they don’t give you a way out.”
“‘Star Trek’ is timeless,” Maria Jose added. “You might have watched an episode when it was released and thought it was about terrorism, and then 10 years later, you’re watching it, and you might think about immigration or some other topic. It really works years later — you can still find meaning in it.”
John said he watches the shows differently today, now that he’s a father, teacher and older person, “as opposed to being a kid watching an episode.”
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He has been researching the various “Star Trek” series and movies for 15 years. Maria Jose’s teaching specialty is the realm of deviance, and she uses the show to discuss sociobiological ideas, pointing to the episode where Kirk is split into good Kirk vs. evil Kirk in a transporter accident.
She also cites an interview with actor Ricardo Montalban on QVC, where the Khan actor said he didn’t play a villain, he played a man who does villainous things but didn’t see himself as a villain.
“There’s circumstances that have brought him to that point,” she said of the Khan character. “So that’s good to help students understand that deviant people don’t walk around thinking that they’re evil — some of them think that they’re being righteous.”
The Tenutos also co-teach an intro to sociology class, present together at “Star Trek” conventions, and have paired up to teach a class they called “Star Fleet Academy,” for their colleagues in various disciplines at the College of Lake County. “It was all about how to use ‘Star Trek’ in the classrooms,” Maria Jose said.
The couple said today’s college students know about “Star Trek” because of the recent J.J. Abrams movies and the new “Star Trek: Discovery” series on the CBS All Access subscription streaming platform.
“They know who Spock is, even if they’ve never seen the show,” John said. “They know who Darth Vader is, even if they’ve never seen ‘Star Wars.’ By using examples like that, at least we’re able to hook them onto something familiar before we teach them something about sociology that would be unfamiliar.”
Always surprising for the students are the social and technological reaches of the “Star Trek” franchise.
“They can’t conceive of a world where there wasn’t interracial relationships on TV, so when we tell them things like ‘Star Trek’ was the first interracial kiss on television, they are shocked,” John said. “When they learn that cellphones are the direct descendants of the communicator — in fact, the man who invented the cellphone, Martin Cooper, credits ‘Star Trek’ with giving him the idea of doing the cellphone.”
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Today we have iPads, on “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” they used pads, John noted. “That’s where the iPads came from. They even named them the same.”
“(Students) are very surprised to see how much of their world,” bears a “Star Trek” connection, he said, from a space shuttle named “Enterprise” and teleconferencing, Skype and automatic doors, to Nichelle Nichols, the actress who played Uhura, recruiting for NASA, and Whoopi Goldberg talking her way into the cast of “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”
“(Today’s students) live in a different world,” he said.
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IF YOU GO
l What: TrekFest XXXIV: Khannn!
l Where: Hall Park and various sites around Riverside, the future birthplace of James T. Kirk
l When: 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. June 29 and 7 a.m. to midnight June 30
l June 29: 5:30 to 9 p.m. kids’ games, inflatables; 6 p.m. ESO community meal; 6 p.m. Bill Riley Regional Talent Show; 8 p.m. “Star Trek” trivia contest; 7 p.m. Riverside High School robotics tournament; 7:30 p.m. pet show; 8:30 to 11 p.m. music by The Swing Crew; 9:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. adult co-ed softball tournament; 9:30 p.m. Star Gaze: Cedar Valley Astronomy Club; 11 p.m. “Star Trek” movie
l June 30: 7 a.m. to noon St. Mary’s Pancake Breakfast; 7 a.m. Trek for the Schools 5K registration; 8 a.m. 5K begins at Hall Park (1 mile fun run at 7:40 a.m.); 9 a.m. Zumba in the Park; 7 to 9:45 a.m. and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. kids’ games, inflatables; 7:30 to 9:45 a.m. music by Abbie Callahan (“The Voice” contestant from Iowa City); 8:30 to 9:45 a.m. T-ball games; 9 a.m. sand volleyball tournament; 10 a.m. parade through town; 11 a.m. “Star Trek” costume contest on the Main Stage; 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. kids’ water fight at the fire station; 12:30 p.m. music by The Awful Purdies; noon Barb’s homemade apple pies; noon adult co-ed softball tournament; noon to 2:30 p.m. community lunch; 2 p.m. kids’ tractor pull; 4 to 7 p.m. music by Chautauqua Road Band; 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. Demolition Derby ($10 admission); dusk to 10 p.m. fireworks; 8 to 11:30 p.m. music by Brutal Republic
l Guest speakers: “Star Trek” historians John and Maria Jose Tenuto, 7 p.m. June 29 (Thriving on Limitations: The Making of “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”) and 2:30 p.m. June 30 (A Remarkable Life: A Tribute to Leonard Nimoy), both at St. Mary’s Parish Hall, 360 Washburn St., Riverside
l Details: Trekfest.org