‘Star Trek’: Fandom’s frontier
“Star Trek,” you’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do.
The Enterprise’s five-year mission began, ahem, 50 years ago. Yet this intergalactic voyage is light years away from concluding.
That’s obvious at San Diego Comic-Con International, which will host the world premiere of “Star Trek Beyond” as the climax of Wednesday’s preview night. The rest of the Con, Thursday through Sunday, overflows with panels devoted to “Star Trek” comic books and novels, Klingon spacecraft design, even this fictitious universe’s role as an inspiration for astronauts exploring the real universe.
Launched as a failed TV show - TOS, shorthand for “Star Trek: The Original Series,” only saw three seasons - this phenomenon is fueled by something mightier than Nielsen ratings: Fandom. “Star Trek” taught audiences that they could sway networks and studios, to demand new adventures on screens large and small, to reward their idols with standing ovations in Comic-Con’s Hall H.
“‘Star Trek’ shows the power of a brand,” said Mark A. Altman, co-author with Edward Gross of “The 50-Year Mission: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Trek.”
“No one could have predicted that 50 years later we’d still be talking about ‘Star Trek.’”
“Star Wars,” “Game of Thrones” and countless other pop culture titans owe a debt of gratitude to “Star Trek,” arguably the first to harness the energies of a dedicated, even obsessive, fan base.
Another institution indebted to “Star Trek”: A certain annual celebration of comic books and Japanese kaiju monsters, “Simpsons” and “Sin City,” “Flash Gordon” posters and “My Little Pony” collectibles.
“Comic-Con is immense, pulling in hundreds of thousands of people,” said Altman, who will join his co-author on a panel Sunday at 1 p.m. “But if you trail back through the many years of Comic-Con, you’ll find yourself in a little room where a small amount of people wanted to celebrate ‘Star Trek.’”
Living on, prosperously
Gene Roddenberry foresaw many things - his show is credited with anticipating cellphones and tablet computers - but not his creation’s endurance.
“I don’t think he would have anticipated it having the kind of success and fanfare that it is having today,” said Eugene “Rod” Roddenberry, Gene’s son. “It’s just growing exponentially every year.”
NBC introduced Americans to the Enterprise and her crew - Kirk, Spock, Bones, Uhura, Sulu, Scotty, Chekov - on Sept. 8, 1966. Ratings were good but not spectacular, and the second season was shadowed by rumors of the show’s impending doom.
Viewers’ aggressive letter-writing campaign is credited with guaranteeing a third season, but this was a brief reprieve. The series ended on June 3, 1969.
Yet the phenomenon, as Spock might have predicted, lived on and prospered. A New Jersey library hosted a small “Star Trek” gathering in 1969, and modest conferences popped up across the East Coast. Then came January 1972, and a three-day convention in the New York Hilton.
“It was meant to be in a small ballroom,” said Trevor Roth of Roddenberry Entertainment, who will join Rod Roddenberry on a 12:30 p.m. Saturday panel. “They just weren’t expecting the number of people who showed up.”
While 200 fans had been expected, about 2,000 appeared. Among those shocked by the turnout: Cast members who had agreed to appear, free of charge.
“They were just showing up because they were tickled that someone still cared about them,” Altman said. Seeing the crowd, “I think they were all stunned.”
Audiences continued to grow for the original show’s syndicated airings. Despite less-than-stellar reviews, 1979’s “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” proved a box office hit.
More movies followed - “Beyond” is the 13th in the franchise - and additional TV series. When the tentatively titled “Star Trek” debuts in 2017, it will be seventh time the networks have boldly ventured into the United Federation of Planets.
This creation outlived its creator - Gene Roddenberry died in 1991 - enjoying a robust, multimedia life. “Star Trek” novels, already numbering in the hundreds, are published in a steady stream.
If these books don’t enjoy Harry Potter-esque sales, “they have a very loyal readership and a very informed readership,” said Maryelizabeth Yturralde, co-owner of San Diego’s Mysterious Galaxy bookstore. “They can tell you the name of a captain of ship that only existed in one novel or novella.”
As the 1997 documentary “Trekkies” noted, there’s also a cadre of voracious collectors. Collectively, they spend millions on “Star Trek” uniforms, cardboard figures, props - Scottie’s chair! - model kits, cookie jars, jewelry.
Like Jean Graham, many of these people are fans for life. As a San Diego State undergrad in 1972, Graham founded the 300-member Star Trek Association for Revival (STAR). She lobbied Paramount for the TV show’s return, attended “Star Trek” conventions and Comic-Cons - Walter Koenig, the original Pavel Chekov, was a guest at the 1974, 1982 and 2006 Cons - and never lost her girlhood crush on Mr. Spock.
“We were nerds and geeks and did not fit in,” she said of her high school days. “When ‘Star Trek’ came along, it was like a breath of fresh air. Here was a character who didn’t fit in, either.”
Doubling down on hope
While some Trekkies live down to the stereotype of basement-dwelling losers, many are well-adjusted, intelligent, contributing members of society.
“If you look,” Altman said, “so many of these people who are aerospace engineers and even astronauts were inspired by ‘Star Trek.’”
Mae C. Jemison, the first African-American woman in space, has cited “Star Trek” as an inspiration. Ditto, astronaut Kjell Lindgren, part of a Saturday 6 p.m. Comic-Con panel that includes NASA systems engineers and astrophysicists.
Unlike another popular sci-fi franchise, “Star Trek” is solidly grounded in science and optimism.
“‘Star Trek’ has inspired countless people out there to work for a better world,” said Rod Roddenberry, who carries on his father’s mission as CEO of Roddenberry Entertainment. “‘Star Wars’ is great, but I’m not sure how many people have been inspired by ‘Star Wars’ to work for a better world.”
“Star Wars,” noted astrophysicist and science fiction writer David Brin, is set in an evil empire, combated by rebels who act as solitary X-wing pilots. “Star Trek,” though, unfolds in a democratic federation of planets. The crew of the Enterprise and its allies work together, uniting species in a common - and invariably successful - quest to defuse crises.
“‘Star Trek’ is one of the only science fiction series that is optimistic about the future of humanity,” Brin said. “‘Star Trek’ doubles down on the wager that our children will be better than we are.”
A moral framework undergirds “Star Trek,” said Janina Scarlet, founder of Superheroes Therapy and professor at Alliant University in San Diego. Counseling Marines at Camp Pendleton, she sometimes draws on this universe’s lessons.
“I was seeing one Marine who, after losing several of his Marines in combat, tried to avoid painful emotions by drinking,” said Scarlet.
Because the Marine was a fan of “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” he understood Scarlet’s example from that show: Data. In several episodes, the android tried to model a range of feelings. Data found that even unpleasant emotions can be beneficial.
“My Marine was masking his feelings because at that point he didn’t know any other way of coping with them,” said Scarlet, whose “Star Trek Psychology: The Mental Frontier” will be published in November. “Data shows a more adaptive way of healing and recovering and coping with life.”
Cupcake on the frontier
This universe is vast and endlessly diverse. “Star Trek” episodes are full of different races, species, genders. There’s room for everyone, Jason Matthew Smith found, even “Star Wars” fans.
In J.J. Abram’s 2009 “Star Trek” movie, Smith landed a role as “Burly Cadet #1.” He won a name - “Cupcake” - in the 2013 sequel, “Star Trek: Into Darkness” - and returns for more action in “Beyond.”
As if his sons care. He told the two boys, ages 4 and 8, that he’s in the new “Star Trek” movie.
“Is that ‘Star Wars’?” they asked.
“No,” he replied, “totally different.”
The similarities, though, are more than spacecraft deep. Both explore life on the furthest frontiers, and inspire passions that can be equally far out.
“I’ve never been to a convention before,” said Smith, who will be introduced to “Star Trek’s” fandom at Wednesday’s premiere. “From what people tell me, it’s complete insanity. I’m a little scared of the whole thing.”
Someone should ‘splain’ to this actor. Fans can be intense, sure, but they’re no Romulans.
firstname.lastname@example.org, (619) 293-1227, Twitter: @peterroweut
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