TCS Daily

Where No Geek Has Gone Before

By Douglas Kern - May 13, 2005 12:00 AM

The last new Enterprise airs tonight, and soon Star Trek will be, in a sense, dead -- but we should all have such a rollicking afterlife. Forget the five-year mission; Star Trek has succeeded in its forty-year mission to be the most all-encompassing multimedia geek experience ever. Star Trek doesn't need new episodes, or new anything else. Between hundred of episodes, novels, comic books, video games, role-playing games, conventions, cartoons, and movies, Star Trek has achieved cultural immortality.

Yes, Orson Scott Card, it was inferior science fiction, but so what? Star Trek was family. You don't stop loving your kids just because someone else's kids are smarter and better looking. Star Trek didn't just offer the illimitable joys of William Shatner tumbling out of his chair every time the camera shook, or yet another sermon from the pen of Gene Roddenberry about how organized religion is a childish superstition. It offered a world. It offered a place that dreamers could call their own; a place where wonky, right-leaning dreams of rugged space exploration and pioneering could sit comfortably next to hippy-dippy dreams of world peace and universal brotherhood. It was a kind of home, and home is no place for shrewd critical judgments.

Star Trek offered us middle-class midwestern types a chance at full-body geeky immersion when nothing else did. Now pay attention to yer Grandpappy Kern, you young Gen Y whippersnappers. In the bad old days, when nickels cost dimes, ladies wore petticoats, and high-speed modems ran at 800 bits per second, geeky pursuits were the love that dared not speak its name. In those days, we didn't have "graphic novels." Admitting that you read comic books was like admitting that you read Playboy for the pictures. Video games? If you spent twenty hours a week on the same game, your parents had you institutionalized. Dungeons and Dragons? For Satanists. Tolkien? For Folklore Studies majors who looked like the Pillsbury Doughboy and homely girls who liked unicorns.

Ah, but Trekkers? (Or Trekkies, as we called them in the days before Congress outlawed the word as a hate crime.) Even in the distant hinterlands of the industrial Midwest, folks had heard of such a thing. Mainstream? No. But Trekkies were comprehensible. You could tell your girlfriends "My husband is such a Trekkie" and they would nod understandingly. You could go to Waldenbooks and find racks and racks of Star Trek novels and books and retrospectives, and no one would stare if you read such books on the bus home. You could hold conventions and dress up in Federation uniforms and, while you still might get beaten up, most likely you wouldn't get arrested. Obsessive behavior over Star Trek earned the same shred of respectability as, say, socialism, or nudism. And that sliver of respect gave Trekkies (and fantasy-loving fellow travelers like me) the opportunity to seek each other out.

Something in the human psyche wants to enthuse in the company of like-minded people. Normal people scratch that itch through sports and religion and politics. Imaginative folk scratch it through fantasy and science fiction and comic books. In Star Trek, we dreamers found the means to reveal our true geeky selves to the world, and to each other. It was our Stonewall.

In the church of geekitude, the Internet offers cheap grace. Any jerk with a computer and an ISP can obsess over anything with little effort. Just Google up your favorite TV show/book/comic book/movie/video game/whatever, and you'll find 1,000,000 sites devoted to documenting it and analyzing it in painstaking detail. Master a little HTML and JavaScript, and you can add your thoughts and obsessions to the pile. Hit "send," and you can direct your febrile pop culture vaticinations to millions of like-minded geeks worldwide. Nowadays, to enthuse wildly requires no manic passion, no ferocious intensity.

By contrast, your fathers' geeks had to rely on the U.S. Postal Service for all their mass communication needs. Home pages? Archived documents? No, sonny, we had 'zines - ugly, smudged, badly photocopied homebrewed newsletters that had to be assembled and mailed by hand. And on the strength of this fragile fannish samizdat, a cultural juggernaut was built.

Consider these essay titles, culled from a compilation of articles from the top 'zine:

        The Star Trek Movie Novel and Comics Adaptations 
        Parallels in Star Trek: The Motion Picture vs. the Series 
        A Brief Look at Spock's Career 
          Star Trek: The Motion Picture -- A Review 
        The Psychology of Captain Kirk's Popularity 
        Vulcan as a Patriarchy 
        A Trek Into Genealogy 
        Alternate Universes in Star Trek

Greater love than this hath no geek, to write 2,500 words on Star Trek genealogy for free. If these articles sound awful, well, they frequently were - but they were just as frequently better than anyone had a right to expect. The sheer love of Star Trek inspired some surprisingly thoughtful writing from some unusually smart non-writers.

Remind you of any blogospheres you know?

Like the blogosphere, Star Trek fans wielded power that the MSM couldn't imagine. It is a staple of Star Trek lore that a massive letter-writing campaign saved Star Trek from cancellation after its second season. No one knows the exact number of letters that NBC received - I've heard anywhere from 50,000 to a million - but regardless, it was a remarkable achievement at a time when massive letter-writing campaigns received no help from Microsoft Outlook. Later, the passion of the fans kept Star Trek alive in novels and cartoons and reruns until Hollywood caught on to the profits that could be reaped from such excitement. Reflect upon the billions of dollars generated over the last thirty years in the name of Star Trek, and realize: geeks did that.

Star Trek ends having nothing left to prove and perhaps nothing left to say. A clever writer can always wring another tale out of a world as fertile as that of Star Trek, and yet after thirty years it's fair to say that the easy seams of dramatic gold are all mined out. ("Captain Janeway fighting a Romulan-Bajoran hybrid on a planet of sentient Tribbles that's just like Ancient Rome, but in the Mirror Universe? And she's been blinded? By Q? And the story is told in reverse order? Dude, we did that last season.") But so what? The world now contains more Star Trek than anyone could consume in a lifetime. Star Trek has conquered every forum of geekery; now, like an aging pro athlete, it retires before younger, better competitors can show it up too much.

It's easy to yuk it up about geeks and Star Trek, so let me end on a personal note. Seventeen years ago, I was six hundred miles from home, a stranger from the Midwest at a profoundly east-coast institution of learning. And I admit: I inhaled Star Trek paperback novels - sometimes on a weekly basis. It was a cheap luxury for a scholarship student; more important, it was a mental haven, with characters I liked, a familiar and comfortable setting, and a reassuring message that man's potential for greatness could surmount even the most formidable of obstacles. For a few months in 1988, Star Trek was my respite from the world. Kirk, Spock, Picard, and all the rest made for good friends at a time when real friends were in short supply.

So I salute you, Star Trek, as you complete your transition from living entertainment meme to stately cultural artifact. You taught us how to live our love for geekish things, and in the shadow of your committed fans we were less ashamed. In that sense, all fans are Trekkers now.


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