So if Pong is “the grandfather of video games,” does that make ping pong the great grandfather?

My parents kept a table in the basement, and I spent who knows how many hours rallying back in the day. Good hand-eye coordination builder. Also, a lot of fun. I’d play against friends or family. My dad was often busy working, but he really enjoyed the game, and would make time for it when he could.

Now as you might expect for an astronomer’s household (or perhaps not–though true, this sounds suspiciously like a Hollywood set designer’s idea of what Carl Sagan’s living space might look like), our basement featured a “moon wall.” A long wall painted with black and white lunar imagery from the Apollo missions: crust, craters, crevasses, etc. We often played with a house rule where you could “bank your shot off the moon.” Ping pong purists would surely object to this, but we felt it made the game more dynamic. And ceiling shots were still out.

Starodyssey_01When I hit my teens, we took our show on the road–er, water, actually. Cruise ships would offer my father deals where, in exchange for giving a few lectures, he and his family could travel free. My parents were split up by then, but I’d spend summers with dad, along with Christmas and spring breaks. I was ridiculously fortunate to be able to visit exotic countries and do the whole Johnny Quest world traveller thing, but beyond all that, every ship sported a ping pong table for singles or doubles competition.

Dad and I would team up and pwn every other team. Total annihilation. In a twenty-one point game, it was rare for our opponents to reach double digits. Now, to be fair, I don’t imagine the level of competition aboard cruise ships is very good. Anyone who really knew the game could have wiped the floor with us. No doubt about that. And these casual players could have been rattled by the novelty of playing against Carl Sagan. In any case, they got rocked.

Our strategy: I set it up, and he knocked it down. He had a very good smash shot, great trajectory, awfully difficult for anyone to return. But you can’t pull a smash out of thin air–first, you have to get your opponent to make a mistake. That’s where I would come in, chopping and slicing my shots with enough spin to force opponents out of position, making their returns desperate, high and weak, perfect for a winning smash. We had killer teamwork. Defensively too. None of that garbage where both players bump into each other going for the same shot, or (even worse) where both players stand around waiting for the other guy to make the hit.

Doubles ping pong is the only sport my father and I ever teamed up together to play. Yes, we played frisbee and basketball, but frisbee is essentially just catch, and the basketball was always against each other (one-on-one or H-O-R-S-E.) I miss all those games, but especially the ping pong. Haven’t played in years.

In my writing, I homage my dad from time to time.Everfree is dedicated to him. The first episode of Star Trek: Voyager I wrote featured a character named“Valerie Archer,” who was an homage to the heroine of Contact, “Ellie Arroway.” Archers and arrows, you see. (Incidentally, “Ellie Arroway” was herself an homage, my dad giving props to Arthur C. Clarke’s2001 character, “Dave Bowman.”) Anyway, as a fairly oblique homage, I managed to work the game of ping pong into a Voyager episode. That would be the fan favorite, “Relativity,” which I co-wrote with Bryan Fuller and Michael Taylor. Surfing online today, I see that the Arizona Table Tennis Online organization has a page dedicated to the episode. Color me amused.

I really enjoy the ripples spread via writing. I like ping pong, so I write about it; a fellow ping pong fan sees my work and sparks to it, etc. It’s a moment of connection with someone I don’t know and probably will never meet.

You can never be 100% sure what the cast and crew are going to do with what you’ve put on the page. This scene has Tom Paris (Robert Duncan McNeill) keeping the ball in the air throughout his dialogue. I vaguely remember someone arguing with me that the actor would never be able to pull it off. I insisted that it’s really not that hard. In the end, Robert made it look easy.


Star Trek being Star Trek, a friendly game of ping pong results in the discovery of an anomaly. In this case, the ball gets frozen in time.




Naturally, for ruining a close game, someone has to eat a phaser.


(Want to see the episode? You can order it here.)

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