It’s been 50 years to the day since Star Trek‘s September 8, 1966, premiere on NBC. A different but equally important milestone happened 20 years later, on December 20, 1986—the night William Shatner appeared on Saturday Night Live, in an episode featuring then-timely sketches about T. J. Hooker and Oliver North and presenting the musical stylings of one Buster Poindexter. More to the point, Shatner appeared as himself in a now-infamous sketch set at a clichéd Star Trek fan convention crawling with overpriced memorabilia and fake Vulcan ears. As he takes the stage, he’s pelted by irritating questions about inane bits of Star Trek trivia timidly asked by man-children in “I Grok Spock” T-shirts. It all becomes too much for Shatner—Shatner the “character,” not Shatner the actor, natch—and he famously exclaims, “Get a life, will you, people?! . . . It’s just a TV show!” The gathered fans look down in humiliation as if to confirm that, no, they haven’t ever kissed girls. The audience laughs and we cut to a performance by roots-rock superstars Lone Justice!
Lone Justice (you’re just going to have to look that one up on your own) barely made it out of 1986, but the Star Trek phenomenon is still going strong as it enters its second half-century of life, with 7 television series, 13 feature films, and a robust, diverse, and rabid fan base under its belt. It’s hard to gauge what fans’ reactions to the sketch was at the time it aired, as that requires us to gaze backward into the dark abyss of the Time of No Internet (though options do exist), but the general consensus seemed to be that the skit was tone deaf and mean-spirited. Worse than that, it both drew on and helped to crystallize the trope of the basement-dwelling, misanthropic nerd: hopeless, gormless, and ready for a wedgie from a “normal,” non-obsessed representative of society.
I’m not here to somehow focus and transmit 30-odd years of fan butthurt over six minutes of late-night television. I mean, I spent more than 10 years of my life pretending to be a starship crew’s worth of fictional people, and even I have to agree that a lot of those jokes do land. Shatner himself was mostly indifferent; he’d never partaken much in the convention scene, was mostly mystified by the passion of fans, and later expressed that he saw the sketch as “equal parts comedy and catharsis,” saying, “I bought into the Trekkie stereotypes.” But the reaction of that fan community he had dismissed drove him to seek out (sorry) the element of fandom that had eluded him. He began attending Trek conventions as an official guest and speaker. He’d roam show floors incognito in a rubber mask (in my fantasies, it’s a Gorn mask) and interview attendees about what they valued about conventions and the community, and he spoke with Star Trek producers, convention organizers, and pillars of the fan community, ultimately compiling his experiences into the fittingly titled 1999 book Get a Life! (recently adapted into a documentary film of the same name).
I’m no Captain Kirk—hell, I’m no Cap’n Crunch—but I did a little searching of my own as the first 50 years of the Star Trek story were coming to a close, and the responses I collected from Trekkies across the Twin Cities about the lasting appeal of Trek echoed the sentiments uncovered by “the Shat.”
You probably wouldn’t think to look to a Klingon warrior for positivity, but Bill thinks that Trek‘s lasting appeal comes down to its optimism—creator Gene Roddenberry’s “whole idea that there would be growth in the species and that [we’d] find a way to live together.” He says, “It’s a brilliant idea and a very hopeful thing. The ’60s were a paroxysm of change, and Star Trek was right in the middle of it.” When I ask him whether Roddenberry, a man who was well into his 40s before the counterculture of the ’60s even arose, could possibly create a cultural phenomenon that could draw upon the best impulses of the decade, Bill replies that “Star Trek came closest to getting what was really happening . . . or got a heck of a lot closer than Dragnet, for God’s sake.”
The Klingons killed their gods a thousand years ago, because as Worf famously stated (and as Bill reminded me), “They were more trouble than they were worth,” but I get his meaning. While Star Trek embraced a philosophy of cross-cultural harmony, racial equality, and personal freedoms, Joe Friday was endlessly lecturing “hippies” and youngsters of the day for not appreciating how good they had it. Freedom from polio, it seemed, was all that the previous generation could imagine as a better future.
That quality of imagination and the surfeit that Star Trek seemed to possess, even in a time of conflict like the ’60s, is “something that’s always captured the American imagination,” according to Dani Indovino Cawley. Five years ago, Dani started the Star Trek Bar Crawl, in which every summer, dozens of Trekkies descend upon a series of bars in Northeast to have fun, talk Trek, get weird, and maybe make a few regulars do double-takes at seeing Vulcans and Klingons raising glasses together. “That’s something that’s always captured the American imagination,” says Dani. “The idea that we could do better and we’re on our way there . . . There are similarities that you can draw between now and the ’60s and, honestly, between all parts of human history. It’s a struggle to do better, and Star Trek embodies what that work could bring.”
Star Trek, as an evolving property that continues to hold the imagination of successive generations, must continually change to accommodate the views and hopes of its new audiences, and Dani thinks that it’s kept pace culturally as the years have gone on. “Star Trek is almost always a reflection of the time it’s made,” she says. But at the same time, she believes that it has grown along with its audience. “I see the fandom becoming more critical and think-piece oriented than it ever has been before,” she opines, specifically referencing fans like her who are in their 30s and who are aware of the franchise’s continuing attempts to encompass what future generations see in their “future,” particularly as it relates to the role of gender, sexuality, and race. “I hope that the new show takes the time to really dig into that,” she says of the upcoming Star Trek: Discovery series, “because if it doesn’t, the Internet will certainly take it to task.”
That idea of a desirable future—an “anti-dystopia” where you’d actually want to live, no matter who we might share a Neutral Zone with—is critical to the show’s ongoing success, according to author, editor, and podcast host Scott Pearson. Scott praises the “generally optimistic tone” of the series and its heroic characters, heroes who have “flaws that viewers could identify with . . . that really makes the show dig deep into people’s hearts.” He agrees that, no matter what form the franchise takes, those qualities of heroism and “striving to do the right thing” give fans “the feeling of wanting to live there, wanting to know those characters, wanting that to be the real future.”
And speaking of that Neutral Zone . . . the excitement of space intrigue and futuristic military fiction in Star Trek can’t be discounted. Heroes need villains to fight, after all. Peter the Great (real name Peter Haugen) is a stand-up comedian, cosplayer, and lifelong nerd, and he points to the fictional military elements of Trek and the quandaries they create for our heroes each week as a lasting source of the show’s appeal. Lofty ideals are key, but face it: spaceships are cool. When asked why the franchise has lasted this long, Peter points to “the combination of external military conflict and internal moral conflict [and how] the show addresses both with a great balance for introspection and entertainment.”
So, to recap: Star Trek has cemented its legacy and lasting appeal by presenting a fantastic but plausibly achievable utopia, and it has stayed relevant by adapting to the changing cultural landscape of its audience—and phaser-ing down some alien bad guys when the situation calls for it, of course. But what lies ahead for the world of Star Trek beyond (sorry) the blockbuster feature films and the hotly anticipated new TV series? Can a franchise centered on the refinement of humanity continue to to fascinate us when we ourselves are (hopefully) growing ever closer to that goal?
Dani has a progressive mindset about Trek fandom in the 21st century. As mentioned above, she sees the expanded involvement of fandom as a transformative factor in the future of the franchise (and presumably other socially conscious properties). The new culture of being a fan means more than just having “some show” that you like—it’s seeing your love of something as an identity and as an invitation to a community. “The fact we have the Internet changes fandom in that it’s not a secret club you somehow magically discover at a con . . . and for that we get a wider set of ideas and discussions,” she said. “At CONvergence the past two years, all the Star Trek panels were about race, representation, and what that could and should look like in the future. I’m okay with that; that’s what I love about media after all.”
Bill’s comments echoed a similar sensibility. Because he’s the head of a multistate fan organization, he’s seen firsthand the kind of cultural cross-pollination that wouldn’t be out of place on a Federation ship, and although the fictional Klingons might be famous for their social rigidity, the Klingons of the KAG are welcoming to all who wish to partake. “It’s interesting,” he explains, “because Canadian Klingons are different than Minnesotan Klingons, and they’re really different than Georgian Klingons . . . each culture [grabs] on to different aspects of their characters, and it’s really amazing.” He related to me a specific example of forward-thinking inclusiveness from the community: “I was at a con about 10 years ago in St. Louis, and there was a ship there that had transgender people . . . and that was really kind of unheard of. That’s a place they can feel comfortable; I thought that was amazing . . . that Trek fandom in general is actually so accepting of different peoples. It was Surak [the founder of Vulcan logic] who said, ‘I’m pleased to see that we have differences.'” That quote, which was said by Surak in the Original Series episode “The Savage Garden,” continues, “May we together become greater than the sum of both of us.” That’s about as open and positive a philosophy I can think of in any fandom based on a space-adventure show about people with rubber foreheads, and if a Klingon Thought Admiral is taking the advice of a Vulcan ascetic, you know there’s something there worth listening to.
Returning to the subject of Shatner and Get a Life!, his research while writing and developing the book led him to similar conclusions. “Just below the surface,” he writes, “there seems to exist a genuine and very powerful sense of family among Star Trek’s fans . . . Though Star Trek’s fandom may be rooted in science-fiction, it revolves, and thrives, around friendship, belonging, love, hope, and understanding.” It’s possible he forgot to include virginity, shame, and Tribbles as well, but the message is clear: Trek fandom has moved out of the basement. It’s gone from a place for shunned “freaks” to a place to let your freak flag fly. It’s inspired countless people to pursue careers in science, science fiction, and entertainment and has done more to promote good will than any 10 other fandoms combined (at least, in this author’s opinion). It’s the kind of thing you name Space Shuttles after, the kind of thing that’s on your mind when you look up into the night sky. Hell, you can feel its influence when you take a Skype call on your PADD—sorry, iPad—or ask your phone where the damn restaurant is.
No matter what form it takes, from movies and shows to conventions, cosplay, gaming, bar crawls, podcasts, and more, Trek will continue to grow and to give fans both new and old an ideal to strive for, a legend to cherish, and a lot of inane facts to remember. Shatner sums up his thoughts on the fans in Get a Life! by writing, “All of them, in one way or another, had allowed Star Trek to brighten and enrich their lives. All had found friendship, laughter, and belonging amid our plastic spaceships and papier-mâché planets, and that’s clearly the strongest attraction of all.” And who are we to argue with the captain of the Enterprise?