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This Is How Star Trek Invented Fandom

TVThis Is How Star Trek Invented Fandom

As Star Trek celebrates its fiftieth anniversary in Las Vegas, it also commemorates the origins of modern fan culture.

In the desert in early August, the temperature nudges 100 degrees, even as the sun dips below the horizon. It’s the end of day three of the five-day Star Trek Las Vegas 50th Anniversary Convention, and I am outside, at a Star Trek wedding.

Rows of seats are full of people in costume: there’s Ambassador Soval from Enterprise, Lore from The Next Generation, a Trill wearing an Original Series uniform, a member of the Borg. By the makeshift altar, the groom stands in the dress uniform Picard wore to Riker and Troi’s wedding in Nemesis, flanked by two rosy-cheeked boys in gray suit-vests pinned with Next Generation-era combadges. For a moment it looks like the real thing: the crew of the starship Enterprise has landed on a strange new world, which also happens to be the emptied pool area of the Rio Hotel and Casino.

When it’s time, the sound system plays an orchestral version of “The Inner Light,” a melody Picard performs on his flute in a Next Generation episode of the same name. The officiant takes out an Original Series communicator and at the bride’s arrival flips it open—a familiar motion to anyone who owned a cell phone in the mid-aughts. “I was told to say, ‘Kirk to Enterprise, please beam up three of us.’” He laughs. “We gotta have fun right?”

Greg and Michelle Imeson, newly married, host a reception in their suite. Figurines of Riker and Troi crown the cake, and cupcakes are dotted with Starfleet insignia. Greg shows me his wedding band, a starboard-side view of the Enterprise engraved on the outside. At the clinking of plastic cups, Gage Leusink, one of the gray-vested boys at the altar and Michelle’s seven-year-old son, begins his toast. “May my mom and dad live long and…” He fumbles on prosper. One guest teases him, “Prospect like for gold?” But Gage recovers, ably. “Long live my mom and dad’s love.”

This is what Star Trek fandom looks like a half century out: dizzyingly diverse, good-willed, extraordinarily (if inadvertently) influential, equal parts goofy and moving. But conventions, like weddings, are expensive and labor-intensive events that paradoxically celebrate something freely and effortlessly given—affection. Star Trek Las Vegas is perhaps the largest meeting of pop culture’s most famous fandom and certainly its priciest. The questions hover above the convention like a cloud of Tachyon particles: to whom does Star Trek really belong? How much, exactly, is that worth?

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With 50 years and just under 550 combined hours of television and film to reckon with, Star Trek, like the curvature of the earth, is a phenomenon almost too big to notice, much less to consider in full. The franchise created the template for fandom, transformed sleepy science fiction get-togethers into celebrity-driven media events, pioneered the licensed merchandising operations that make tentpole movies (from Star Wars to Spider-Man) possible, and anticipated—even inspired—the creation of future technologies. Star Trek invented nerd culture as we know it today.

The first episode of Star Trek, what fans now call The Original Series (or simply TOS), premiered on September 8, 1966 on NBC. Gene Roddenberry, the former Air Force pilot turned LAPD beat cop turned television writer, promised network executives a kind of space western. Kirk, Spock, and Bones were like gunslingers, albeit with a different guiding ethos, moving from planet to planet, solving each community’s problems in the span of a single episode. The connection was explicit and eminently quotable: “Space, the final frontier.”

But he also snuck in a cerebral, utopian bent. The show hired established sci-fi writers: Harlan Ellison went on to win a Hugo for his script for “The City on the Edge of Forever,” wherein Kirk must choose between a woman he loves and the rightful course of human history—arguably the greatest episode in franchise history. Star Trek also depicted a society absent of poverty, war, or inequality. The most visible proof of this was the crew itself: Roddenberry created an international—even intergalactic—cast of characters.

While that vision wasn’t a perfect microcosm of the world at large, now or in 1966, it was still a radical one. When Nichelle Nichols, who played Uhura, considered leaving TOS after the first season, Martin Luther King, Jr., who watched the show with his family, urged her to stay on. (“We don’t need you to march,” she says he told her, “You are marching. You are reflecting what we are fighting for. For the first time, we are being seen the world over as we should be seen.”) Star Trek touched a cultural and critical chord—Leonard Nimoy was nominated for an Emmy three years in a row; his ears, instant icons—but the show didn’t get the ratings it needed. NBC canceled it in 1969.

“We're pretty sure that the Trek community you see today would not have existed but for us,” Bjo Trimble says. “Not bragging.” Special guests at Star Trek Las Vegas (and a host of other 50th anniversary events), Bjo (pronounced “Bee-joe”) and her husband John are Star Trek’s ur-fans, the determined couple who saved the franchise.

They’re both in their eighties now: John wears red cap with a blue Vulcan salute on the front, Bjo has a streak of brilliant pink hair floating in her cloud of white. She’s the more loquacious of the two, but, she insists, “the whole Save Star Trek campaign was John’s fault.” They had heard the show was being cancelled in 1968, after its second season, during a visit to the studio lot. At John’s suggestion, the two launched a letter-writing campaign—all mimeographs and postal mail. It was the first ever to save a TV show, and the first time any fan community had flexed its collective muscle.

“NBC came on, in primetime, and made a voice-over announcement that Star Trek was not canceled, so please stop writing letters,” Bjo adds with pride.

TOS’s third and final season premiered with “Spock’s Brain,” commonly held to be one of the worst episodes of all time. (“We’re responsible for there being a third season,” John admits, “we’re not responsible for the third season.”) But by the run’s end, with a grand total of 79 episodes—barely making the minimum threshold—Star Trek could enter syndication. It had earned a second life.

In the long winter between 1969, TOS’s cancellation, and 1979, the year Star Trek: The Motion Picture came out, fandom bloomed. The three syndicated seasons of TOS often aired daily and in order: fans could watch again and again. The Animated Series, which ran for two seasons and featured the voices of the original cast, won a Daytime Emmy. Jacqueline Lichtenberg founded the Star Trek Welcommittee, which introduced new fans to the growing community. Bjo Trimble published her encyclopedic Star Trek Concordance, a reference work she first printed and assembled in her basement. Hundreds if not thousands of zines were printed and shared. Writers—overwhelmingly women—told stories using TOS characters set in the Star Trek universe. And though intertextual literature has existed for as long as literature (see Homer), this was the first time a community of fans was writing for an audience of each other. From this body of work emerged the subgenre of slash, stories about a romantic and/or sexual relationship between Kirk and Spock, named after the punctuation in the abbreviated category title “K/S.” (Today, slash includes any fanfiction that pairs two characters of the same sex.) Fan clubs formed. Collectors collected. People constructed their own props and costumes. Narrated slideshows, collages of sound and discarded film stills—the progenitor of everything from formal fan films to casual YouTube fan videos—were shown at gatherings. And in 1976, following another write-in campaign orchestrated by the Trimbles, NASA unveiled its first space shuttle: the Enterprise.

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Conventions sprouted up everywhere. The first took place on afternoon in 1969 at a branch of the Newark Public Library. There were no celebrities, and it was only locally advertised, but three hundred people showed up. “Star Trek Lives!”, in 1972, was the first gathering to feature guests. Manhattan’s Statler Hilton (now the Hotel Pennsylvania) hosted Gene Roddenberry, Majel Barret, Isaac Asimov, Hal Clement, and D.C. Fontana; a real NASA space suit; and never-before-seen blooper reels. The organizing committee expected 500 attendees: 3,000 arrived. The actors joined in the next year, and never left.

The sheer number of fans, and the high percentage of both women and young people among them, rubbed many older, maler sci-fi buffs the wrong way. Who were these people showing up at their club meetings, at their conventions? Why were they so excited? Had they ever even read a book? They nicknamed Star Trek fans Trekkies—after groupies. The comparison to contemporary music’s young, female, and so also hysterically obsessed fans was meant to be unflattering.

Joan Winston, who, with Jacqueline Lichtenberg, helped organize the 1972 Statler convention and co-authored Star Trek Lives, a 1975 book documenting the phenomenon of Star Trek fandom, elaborates on this in Trekkies 2: “I would always say to people, ‘Trekkies are kids who run down the aisle screaming ‘Spock!’ I’m a Trekker. I walk down the aisle.’”

The brute force of fan enthusiasm (and, to be sure, the financial success of the first Star Wars) resurrected the franchise. The movies, of which there are now thirteen, began in 1979. The Next Generation (TNG) premiered in 1987, and until 2005, when Enterprise (ENT) was cancelled, there was always at least one Star Trek show on television, if not two. For some fans who, between TOS’s premiere in 1966 and TNG’s 21 years later, studied the original 79 episodes like a holy text, there would be only one Star Trek. But for many others, the eighties and nineties were Star Trek’s high water mark. Critically acclaimed and financially successful, Star Trek was genuinely popular.

“In the early nineties, we were doing 120 conventions a year.” It’s Friday afternoon in Vegas and two lackadaisic, suited men—Gary Berman and Adam Malin—sit on the mainstage of the “Leonard Nimoy Theater” (the Rio’s biggest ballroom) for a “Special Panel with the Co-Owners of Creation Entertainment!” Malin and Berman founded the company, which puts on fan conventions, as young comic book fans in 1971. They got in on the Star Trek market in the 1980s, and have been licensed as the official Star Trek convention since 1991. The 50th anniversary convention in Las Vegas, potentially the largest Star Trek convention ever, is a Creation event. But the nineties was their heyday. “We were doing like four or five shows a week,” Malin says. They look, after so many years in the business, more like loan sharks than sci-fi fans.

“People weren’t doing it for profit,” Mark Altman says of Star Trek’s early conventions. “They were doing it for love.”

“I was there for that first Star Trek convention in ’72,” Edward Gross adds. Both he and Mark coauthored the exhaustive two-volume oral history of the franchise, The Fifty Year Mission. “What struck me about it and subsequent cons through the mid-1970s is that there was a ‘hand-made’ feel to them. I remember sitting in large rooms where episodes were projected on the screen, and the audience said the lines along with the actors. It was a pre-Rocky Horror experience.”

Starting in the 1980s, Creation began to offer special guests substantial amounts of money to appear at their for-profit events rather than at fan-run functions. In the early years, says Mark, the actors “would show up at the conventions because they were just so flattered people cared about the show.” But, according to the Trimbles—who ran their own local convention, Equicon, in the 1970s—Creation deliberately scheduled their star-studded events on the same dates as long-running fan conventions, effectively driving them out of existence.

“It’s much more commercial now,” Mark continues, referring to the practice of tiered seating as well as paid autograph and photograph sessions. It’s a business model Creation pioneered. Pricing for the 50th anniversary convention ranged from $50, for a single day of admission early in the week, to $879, for the “Gold Weekend Admission Package,” which they describe in Trumpian hyperbole as “THE VERY BEST MOST UPSCALE WAY TO ATTEND THE ENTIRE CONVENTION.”

At the exclusive dance party for Gold Package and Captain's Chair (the next most expensive ticket, at $689) attendees, a man asks after a piece of Star Trek jewelry I’m wearing. I confess I didn’t buy it. He sighs. “I don't have any money left to spend anyway,” he says, “I spent it all on getting here.” I nod in commiseration. “It’s a show about a society with no money!” he says. “I spent all my money on a show about a world without money!”

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Ronald Aponte of Florida, dressed as the character Darmok.

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Danielle Baker and Alex Diehl, hired models.

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Cosplayers on day 5 of Creation Entertainment's Official Star Trek 50th Anniversary Convention

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Star Trek dog sits in the Captain Chair

After five days without sunlight or fresh air, alongside a small army of uniforms and aliens and uniformed aliens, I wonder if this is what it’s like to live on a starship. In an area called Quark’s Bar, Data picks through a bean salad. Cell phones, when they go off, chirp like TOS communicators or intone the theme song to TNG. Klingons hold open doors. From behind, or even the side, employees on the casino floor—at both the Rio and my own hotel—start to look like Starfleet officers: their uniforms have the same solid color palette, the same black collars. And outside, in Vegas proper? It’s just one giant holodeck. Choose your program: Perhaps fin-de-siècle Paris? Maybe Venice during the Renaissance? How about ancient Egypt? I’m halfway between delirium and bliss.

The prevailing image of the Star Trek fan—aided by decades of SNL sketches, two documentaries, and a pretty good Tim Allen movie (yes, Galaxy Quest)—is of the young, minutia-obsessed, sexually- and otherwise socially-frustrated man. I meet this person, or versions of him, in Las Vegas, but he is one of many different kinds of people. (It’s strange, and ultimately misogynistic, that in a fandom notable for its many women contributors, men are still its public face.) In reality, Star Trek Las Vegas is one of the most heterogeneous spaces I’ve ever been in—period. The range, and relatively equal distribution, of ages, genders, sexualities, body sizes, abilities, ethnicities, geographic-origins, astounds me. It looks like some giant space hand shook up all the people on the planet like snowflakes in a globe and pulled out a random sample.

Over the course of five days, audience members and actors try hard for novelty. Both parties are here to meet each other: this is the point of conventions. But when you’ve been talking Trek for nearly 50 years, when do you run out of things to say? Some handle this better than others: Takei speaks about his recent musical, Allegiance, and what he sees as the pointless brevity of Into Darkness’s depiction of Sulu and his husband. Shatner talks about how confusing black holes are and then rolls out a story about a bicycle Leonard Nimoy kept on the TOS set that’s been in circulation for almost as long at the show itself.

I see the same people get in line to ask actors questions. The man who always wears a tie but not a jacket. The boy in a TNG uniform with the big mop of curly blond hair. The Klingon who only ever wants to heckle the speakers about Klingons. At Takei’s panel, a man asks, “Has anyone ever approached you to market foils or swords?” (His character Sulu whips a blade around in the TOS episode, “The Naked Time.”) At a Voyager panel, a man haltingly reads to Jeri Ryan from a prepared statement: “I officially crown you queen of my Star Trek universe.”

At the front of the line, I often see a familiar face. Deborah has always been a Kirk. It was her husband, Barry, a fellow Star Trek fan, who took her last name when they got married. “It was an offer he couldn’t pass up,” explains their 26-year-old son, whom Deb will introduce every time she steps up to a microphone over the course of the weekend. “This is my son,” she says, and pauses after each name for emphasis, “Patrick. James. Tiberius. Kirk.” This is the big reveal, their familial shtick.

At actress Kate Mulgrew’s panel, Deb is the last to ask a question. She introduces her son again. ( “Patrick. James. Tiberius. Kirk.”)

“Your character, and your strength, on Voyager got me through his junior high school and high school years being autistic,” Deb says. “He’s a genius, he’s a savant. They treated him like dirt. I would come home and watch you and said, ‘She has the strength to get them home,”—Voyager’s crew have been stranded a lifetime away from Earth—“‘I have the strength to get him through life.’”

“You may have been watching me,” Mulgrew says. “That boy was watching you.” That’s when I start to cry.

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A Ford Aerostar designed by Robert Strever to look like a shuttlecraft.

Vic Mignogna is in his early fifties but looks, on purpose, younger than that. He likely has the best tan of the entire convention. While we talk, three people ask for his autograph. A prolific voice over actor (he dubbed Edward Elric’s character in the popular anime series Fullmetal Alchemist), he’s most famous here for his live action work: the fan-created web series Star Trek Continues. The show recasts, and painstakingly recreates, TOS: its premise, and point, is to complete the Enterprise’s unfinished five-year mission. Vic is the show’s driving force and its Kirk, and he estimates he’s spent about $150,000 of his own money on Continues. “Every dollar you will ever make will go to one of two things: paying bills or for joy,” Vic says. This is his joy.

Before we speak, I watch Creation’s Adam Malin shut down a question a fan had posed about Axanar, a controversial, unfinished fan film that’s been halted by litigation from CBS and Paramount, Star Trek’s owners. The brainchild of executive producer Alec Peters, Axanar raised over $1.2 million between July 2014 and August 2015 with the promise of being “the first fully professional, independent Star Trek film.” In December 2015, a whole year and a half after the project, and it’s anticipatory short “Prelude to Axanar,” launched to great excitement and acclaim, CBS and Paramount filed suit for copyright violations—a major shift in their longstanding policy towards fan productions.

Most of the criticisms voiced about Axanar have to do with money—they claim that Alec tried to make a profit using intellectual property he didn’t own. The culture surrounding fan-made products, whether they are film or fiction or phasers, strictly condemns capitalizing off of fan works. It’s likely for this reason that the Star Trek Continues team sought 501c3 nonprofit status—a process that took them a year and a half to accomplish. But Paramount and CBS, the owners of Star Trek, sued Axanar on grounds for which all fan films qualify: copyright infringement. “The people who own it know that there would be no Star Trek without the fans who saved the show,” Vic says. He says this like it will protect him.

Axanar’s trajectory through the fan film world, which had previously existed in a state of benign neglect, profoundly changed the landscape for both its creator and the community at large. In an effort towards rapprochement with the fan community, Paramount and CBS issued guidelines on June 23: ten rules fans can follow to avoid litigation. But many of the major fan productions, Continues among them, violate the new guidelines in fundamental ways. To reshape Continues to fit this new bill is to gut it.

Sitting in Quark’s Bar, Vic has nothing but contempt for Alec and Axanar. “It was an ego fest,” he says. “He ruined it for the rest of us.”

Picture a snake eating its own tail. For Vic to get new Star Trek, the property has to make money. For Star Trek to make money, Vic (and the fan community writ large) has to remain engaged. And that engagement often takes the form of fans manufacturing and freely exchanging products the business might’ve otherwise tried to sell. Alongside fan fiction, there are licensed novels. For every illicit phaser replica, there are thousands of licensed toy versions. For each Chris Pine-as-Kirk studio movie, there are two Vic-as-Kirk fan-made episodes. But this uneasy and self-cannibalizing state of affairs is actually a pretty static one: Star Trek has, after all, made it to decade number five. Exacting handmade replicas and child-safe toys can and do coexist. This year Roddenberry.com, a company owned by the Roddenberry family, has even teamed up with a group of fans, the online prop-making community Fleet Workshop, to design and manufacture replicas of the Vulcan "IDIC" symbol. (The acronym stands for “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations,” the most important tenant in Vulcan philosophy and, subsequently, Star Trek fandom.) For Fleet Workshop member Ryan Norbauer, it represents something "truly collaborative—a fan-produced item that is officially licensed,” and a third path for fans and creators.

In some respects, 50 years out, it’s never been better to be a Star Trek fan. There’s a new, and entirely decent, movie in theaters with more slated to come. An admired TV auteur with unimpeachable Star Trek credentials, Bryan Fuller, is set to launch a new series, Star Trek: Discovery, in the new year. And yet this year’s convention is strangely, consistently, backward looking. No actors, writers, producers from the new films make appearances. The new series is an even more glaring absence. While many people speculate on its future, no one really knows—there isn’t a person working on the show there to talk about it. Some of this might have to do with licensing deals, some surely stems from there not being a new TV show yet. But the prevailing sense at Star Trek Las Vegas is that the franchise is past, not future.

“Can’t we all just get along?” It’s a rhetorical question, but Mark Altman is considering the matter of old versus new Trek. The franchise, he says, “is like a chameleon, it can keep reinventing itself.” And Star Trek already has—many times over—just to make it this far: from the candy-colored adventure of TOS to the solemn, Kubrick-ian Motion Picture to the lighthearted workplace comedy of The Voyage Home to the taupe, utopian diplomacy of TNG to the ambitious and often cynical arcs of Deep Space Nine to the scrappy missteps of ENT to the lens-flarey blockbusters of today. “The new movies are what they are. I don’t hate them,” Mark says. “As [ENT writer] Chris Black says, ‘I hate the Nazis, I don’t hate the Enterprise theme song.’”

Star Trek fans have remade the world in their image. In the 1970s, John tells me, “we would never have told the people at the job we were working for that we were fans.” Though it took up much of their time and energy, he explains, “We never thought of ourselves as having a fannish lifestyle.” The template just didn’t exist yet—they were making it.

Today, Jarrah Hodges, cohost of the podcast Women at Warp, fills her Canadian Labor Congress office with Star Trek action figures. Dana Zircher, a trans software design engineer at Microsoft, marches with the company’s LGBT employee group in Boston’s Pride Parade in Data’s uniform and pale gold face paint. (She chose her name in part because of its similarly to the TNG character’s.) Brian Gardner, a member of the U.S.S. Las Vegas fan club (and a striking Patrick Stewart look-alike), thinks little of picking up groceries in his uniform after official events. Access Hollywood’s Scott Mantz rips open his button-down shirt during a 2009 interview with Star Trek’s Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto to reveal a vintage TOS t-shirt. “I’m that guy,” he announces, triumphant. In a culture shaped by 50 years of Star Trek, we’re all that guy. Or we can be, if we want to. That’s the whole point.

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