Star Trek into dorkiness
You know we’re past the midpoint of summer when Comic-Con is back in the news, with the usual coverage of big announcements, horrendous lines, and occasional bad behavior at the San Diego Convention Center. Comic-Con, of course, is a major business event these days, with the few remaining aficionados of comics themselves shuttled aside into remote floors and tiny conference rooms. Instead of a refuge for a subculture, it’s the headquarters of the monoculture, an overpowering declaration that we’re all nerds now, at least from the point of view of the major movie studios. As it happens, I ended up watching the 1997 documentary Trekkies for the first time over the weekend. And although the film is full of moments—as when we meet dentist Denis Bourguinon, whose office, Star Base Dental, looks like one of William Shatner’s fever dreams—when we seem to have strayed into Christopher Guest territory, it feels now like a bittersweet paean to something lost forever. (I ended up watching it, incidentally, because it was one of the only movies available at the beach house my wife’s family was renting in Michigan City. In summer cottages, we’re thrown back on an earlier world of entertainment, rooting through the same faded paperbacks and board games that generations did before us.)
And I’m glad it took me seventeen years to watch Trekkies. When it was first released, there were heated arguments about its true attitude toward its subjects: whether it was affectionate or condescending, a love letter or a freak show. Seen from the distance of close to two decades, though, it comes across as a surprisingly gentle portrait, especially now that the airwaves are filled with documentaries looking for other subcultures to mock, and it gains an added resonance that wasn’t there at the time. On its initial run, it would have felt like a report from the front lines of nerd culture; now, it’s a time capsule, capturing a moment in fandom that would never come again. It takes place during the most epochal event in the history of fan culture, the advent of the Internet, which allowed obsessive, often introverted personalities from all parts of the world to seek one another out in safe spaces online. We never hear the roar of a dialup modem in Trekkies, but as the camera pans across a fan’s lovingly curated Brent Spiner site on Geocities, it’s hard not to imagine it in the background. And this is still a transitional moment, with Kirk/Spock fanfic and bondage fantasies featuring Captain Janeway distributed in photocopied newsletters.
Today, we don’t need to go in active search of fandoms; the fandoms all but come to us. Internet culture and the Trekkie world overlapped so beautifully in those early years because they attracted people of the same stripe: to get online at all in the mid- to late nineties, you had to be pulled in by the prospect of what you’d find there, and willing to tolerate long nights in a dark room waiting for downloads at 14.4 kbps. Trekkies formed a natural community of early adopters, both because of their interest in technology—you can see rough versions of iPads in The Next Generation and the equivalent of a verbal Google search in the episode “Darmok”—and their capacity for solitary, meticulous work. It’s no surprise that when they logged on, they found people a lot like them. Now, with our options for going online all but beating through our screens, online comment sections have come to look more or less like the rest of the world. You don’t need to meet any particular threshold of patience or motivation to share an opinion: in some ways, it’s harder not to share. And while, on balance, it’s a positive development, it also leads to a form of engagement with pop culture that has little in common with the world that Trekkies depicts.
Call it whatever you like, but it boils down to the difference between hanging out with a few committed friends at the Magic: The Gathering table at lunch period and being thrown headlong into the full cafeteria. Drop into a discussion of Star Trek these days, and you’re less likely to encounter an analysis of the Klingon language than dismissive comments about the J.J. Abrams franchise and invectives against Kurtzman and Orci. (It’s an especially stark contrast with the treatment of creative figureheads in Trekkies, in which showrunners like Brannon Braga are treated like gods.) If online fandom seems generally less impassioned and more ambivalent these days, it’s only because it reflects the world as a whole, rather than the views of a handful of devotees who wouldn’t be online at all if they didn’t have strong feelings to share. In the world of Trekkies, there was room for everything but “meh.” Negativity has always been part of the fan experience; what it’s striking about it now is how so much of it seems to come from indifference. There’s a sequel to Trekkies, more than a decade old, that I haven’t seen, but I already feel that it’s time for a third installment, even if it’s less about uncovering an unseen stratum of pop culture than analyzing what is taking place all around us.