Confessions of a Recovering Trekkie
May 14, 2009
My name is Stephen, and I am a Trekkie.
It’s been over ten years since I’ve used, but I know I can slip at any time.
It started when I was nine years old. My father, in most other ways a sage and upstanding man, was the one who hooked me. He just wanted something decent to watch when he came home from work. At the time Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. was my afternoon rerun of choice, and he knew Star Trek was on the other channel.
It didn’t take immediately. I pronounced the spaceships and the wild aliens “boring,” and I missed Jim Nabors. But after a while, I started to get it. I liked Gene Roddenberry’s vision of a utopian future, and the idea that Mr. Spock’s behavior was governed by logic rather than emotion (a point of view foreign to most of my fellow fourth graders). I couldn’t have articulated this then, but I also dug the retro-futurist design in the sets, the costumes, and the special effects. (Now, I find these to be the most enduring aspects of the 1966 Star Trek’s appeal – which is why the new Blu-Ray versions which replace the original effects with CGI gild the lily in the most pointless way.)
It got ugly pretty fast. I was always an obsessive taxonomist of whatever interest I had at the moment – earlier, it had been geography, and before that zoology – and so I got my hands on all the books about Star Trek and read them over and over again. There was Allan Asherman’s The Star Trek Companion. Stephen E. Whitfield’s The Making of Star Trek. David Gerrold’s The World of Star Trek. My mother, so sure she’d had a scientific prodigy on her hands, tore her hair and begged for the animals and the maps to come back. But they were gone for good.
My father suffered, too. I’d become a Trek fan during a rare window, a lull between the movies, when the original show wasn’t ubiquitous in reruns, at least where I lived. I must’ve dragged my dad to every video store in the greater Raleigh area looking for tapes of the fifty-two episodes that had been released on VHS. When the lion’s share of Star Trek’s third season finally emerged on tape, my father bought the whole run of them on the same night I discovered them in the Waldenbooks at the Crabtree Valley Mall. I was awed, because a parent had never spent so much money on me at one time before. Now I realize that my father understood he was saving himself a lot of grief in the long run.
I tried to spread the gospel in school, but they were all heathens there. I’d take my Star Trek books into class and the other kids, discoving that I had them memorized, would quiz me on the trivia. They thought they had me once, but it was actually a misspelling in Asherman’s book. During the fifth grade, our lessons each week were organized around a theme of the teacher’s choosing: geology, say, or Native American culture. In the spring Mrs. Jones (not a pseudonym) called me outside and whispered a secret conspiracy: what say I ghost-write her lesson plan and we make Star Trek the theme of the week? I happily complied. Finally, an official seal of approval! My classmates seethed: this Star Trek nonsense they’d been tuning out for so long had finally forced its way into their lives. I’d been a citizen of the nerd ghetto since kindergarten, but Star Trek sent my popularity down to some subterranean level quite possibly never plumbed by an elementary schooler before. That time when the other kids (abetted by a parent volunteer) duct-taped my mouth shut – I’m pretty sure that had something to do with Star Trek.
My fervor crested around the time Star Trek: The Next Generation debuted in 1987. I still remember which living room chair I was sitting in as I devoured the pilot (mediocre, but of course I didn’t mind). The Next Generation was a constant during my teen years, even as my media tastes expanded (other TV shows; movies; theater) and as I developed something resembling a social life. When it went off the air – I remember that night, too – it was sad, but I figured I could get by without it now. There were other things to think about, like girls.
Something else happened during the seven-year run of The Next Generation, something more profound than my feeble progress toward getting a life, and it’s a phenomenon that I don’t think has been remarked upon enough: Star Trek became corporatized. Paramount had been trying to make money off of Star Trek for twenty years, but in fact it had overseen a long period of benign ineptitude (premature cancellation of the original series; the collapse of a sequel show in the seventies; the failure of the first film) in which Trekkies were more or less left to their own devices. Finally, with Star Trek: The Next Generation, the studio had a vehicle that could generate sustained profit and, more importantly, could transition Trek from a cult to a mainstream fanbase.
I noticed the changes that came with that transition with dismay. I was, after all, the last of the “classic Trek” fans. Suddenly Trekkies were deluged with collectible plates and pewter starships. An extensive line of action figures emerged – oh, if only they’d been a few years earlier, when I was still young enough to play with them! When I went to my first Star Trek convention, in 1987, there was a dealer’s room where the items for sale were mostly handmade (wood-carved tricorders!) or mimeographed (episode guides and, yes, even some “K/S” fan fiction). The only celebrity guest was Mark Lenard, who had played the minor character of Spock’s father, and the rest of the busy program consisted of fans’ panel discussions and screenings of original Trek episodes and blooper reels on ordinary TV sets. During the run of The Next Generation, the conventions were hijacked by an event planning corporation called Creation. Creation could book the big name stars into third-tier cities like Raleigh, and project exclusive preview clips onto giant screens. The dealers sold only Paramount-authorized merchandise; fans never had much chance to talk to each other; and while Marina Sirtis was fun, it was obvious even to a thirteen year-old that she (unlike Mark Lenard) was there because promoting the show was part of her job.
I’m pretty sure that I was the only person under eighteen at that 1987 show. When I went to my last convention, five or six years later, I was shocked to see the audience full of children younger than me, with parents in tow. Star Trek was now being marketed, successfully, not toward adults but to a “family” demographic.
Courting an audience of twelve year-olds, Star Trek seemed increasingly to be written and executed at a twelve year-old level. The writing and acting on The Next Generation remained somewhat pure, but the subsequent series had compromise in their DNA. Early on during the run of The Next Generation, Gene Roddenberry, the truculent anti-authoritarian who had created Star Trek, was kicked upstairs. Rick Berman, the Paramount executive who took charge of the Trek franchise, was a corporate loyalist – a suit. Everything new that emerged during the Berman era was calculatedly bland. Deep Space Nine, the third series, introduced the character of Dr. Bashir as a temperamental and potentially dangerous rogue, for example, but he became a lovable fop after the test screenings. Voyager and Enterprise, the fourth and fifth Trek series, made me embarrassed to admit I had ever been a Trekkie, with their cookie-cutter scripts and interchangeable supporting casts of pretty but hopeless nobodies. (Quick, Neelix or Phlox, which was the comic relief alien from which series? It doesn’t matter: both were insufferable.)
What really bothered me was that the fans seemed to go right along with program while Star Trek was watered down and merchandised to death. I didn’t get it. Star Trek had been a phenomenon of the counterculture. The original Trekkies were hippies and peaceniks who had seen Trek as part of a larger cultural movement that tried to map out a hopeful future in a dark time. They were intellectuals and artists, not maladjusted shut-ins. At least, that’s the way it was told in the histories of fandom I’d read. But if that was true, why didn’t the old guard of Trek fans rise up and reject the condescending, homogenized Star Trek of Deep Space Nine on, of the tie-in novels, of most of the feature films?
I had this epiphany sometime in high school and resolved to write a passionate, well-reasoned missive to the official Star Trek fanzine, the Communicator, outlining the points above and leading the fans in wresting Star Trek back from the corporate machine. I would be the Trotsky of Star Trek. But then it dawned on me that most – in fact, just about all – of the letters published in the Trek fanzine were pretty positive about the way Star Trek was going. It was almost as if the Communicator was itself hooked in with Paramount somehow. I began to suspect that the Communicator might have the temerity to not publish my manifesto, even if I did sit down and write it. I wondered if everyone who had mocked Star Trek, from Bill Shatner on Saturday Night Live on down to my middle school classmates, might not have been right. Were we sheep, we Trekkies? By the time I went off to college, I had mostly left Star Trek behind.
I tried to be loyal over the years. I sampled Voyager and Enterprise when they began, but found them too banal to stick with. With its complex characters, its robust acting and direction, and its sometimes profound engagement with real ideas, The Next Generation had achieved a quality comparable to the other great (and more critically acclaimed) ensemble dramas with which it overlapped, from St. Elsewhere to Picket Fences. But Voyager and Enterprise were just schlocky action serials.
I’ll admit to a certain schadenfreude when UPN cancelled the last of the Star Trek shows well before the end of the seven-year covenant to which every mediocre Trek sequel felt entitled. Enterprise had done more than simply bore me. It had enraged me with the cliff-hanger ending to its second season, a callous fictionalization of the September 11 tragedy that expanded the following year into a hysterical, opportunistic parable for the United States’s “war on terror” (itself a fiction, but I digress).
One of the main architects of this “Xindi” storyline was a writer named Manny Coto, and years later when the New Yorker made a big splash by outing the creative staff of 24 (including Coto) as a nest of right-wing torture-mongers, my reaction was along the lines of: Well, no doi. That agenda was no secret if you knew where to look. Star Trek died the most undignified death imaginable. It began as one of television’s few sincere pleas for tolerance and peace (complete, infamously, with actual space hippies) and ended as a neo-conservative exercise in outer space war games.
But Star Trek, like Spock, always resurrects, and if the above reads like a backhanded way of tying this blog in with current events . . . well, it is. We have a new Trek movie whose box office returns are replicating like tribbles, and that seems sure to guarantee a few more sequels starring its new cast in the familiar roles. Supposedly the fans are on board, but then my friend Scott Foundas (also a lapsed Trekkie) believes that the film was made by a committee of Vulcans, or of studio execs looking to shore up their franchise. That sounds familiar to me. I wish the new Star Trek well, but I’m not sure I’m in any hurry to beam up again.