Fans of Star Trek, or 'Trekkies', are notorious for their zeal. (I count myself among the most rabid of them. Although I’ve only ever dressed up as Spock, once.) In a sense, Trekkies were the original geek superfans, turning up en masse for conventions and meetings, and hotly debating minutiae of the scripts of the original Gene Roddenberry series (1966-9) as if they were far more pressing than reality itself. As Kevin Lyons of the British Film Institute, says in his history of trekking, “Star Trek was the first of the media-led fandoms, the ‘mother fandom’ from which all similar followings sprang.”
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Trekkies may now bow their heads and pray to Roddenberry, for another new Star Trek series, Star Trek: Picard, launches today on CBS All Access in the US and Amazon Prime around the rest of the world. It is the eighth series in the Star Trek franchise – with more apparently in the works – since the first launched in 1966, with William Shatner as James T Kirk. It is building on more than 50 years of trekking history. At the helm of the production is what one might call a dream team of Akiva Goldsman, Michael Chabon, Alex Kurtzman and Kirsten Beyer (an Oscar winner, a Pulitzer Prize winner, an adroit media power player, and a battle-hardened Star Trek aficionado), all with serious writing chops, and all die-hard fans of the franchise.
In addition, the canon includes 13 feature films, with two more apparently in the works. (Dare one include Galaxy Quest, the hilarious 1999 Star Trek tribute?) Kurtzman collaborated with other heavyweights like JJ Abrams and Damon Lindelof on the most recent big-screen Star Trek reboot, featuring Chris Pine as Kirk, which produced three films in 2009, 2013 and 2016.
Goldsman and the other members of the Picard command team are vibrating with enthusiasm when I speak to them about working on this “amazing franchise” as he calls it. “Star Trek has a big fanbase,” Goldsman says; “But Next Generation has an even deeper fanbase.” What is it about Star Trek that turns Hollywood bruisers into excitable amateurs? Why has the series inspired such loyalty?
A utopian universe
One could argue that part of Star Trek’s power comes from the fact that it is utopian: the universe created by Gene Roddenberry in the 1960s depicts a post-scarcity future in which the Earth is united, and in turn part of a United Federation of Planets. So much sci-fi and fantasy is ugly and dystopian; Star Trek places great faith in humanity. As the film and TV academic Gerry Canavan has observed, “The idea of Star Trek is that the future might be good; we might be good; we might find a way, somewhere far beyond the stars, to become our better selves.” The future is multi-ethnic and multi-racial in the galactic sense. The future has also involved firsts, like the so-called ‘interracial’ kiss between Kirk and Uhura in 1968. The Starship Enterprise’s optimistic mission has been driven by curiosity, altruism, compassion, discipline, courage, camaraderie.
These virtues meant that the crew of the Enterprise in the original series always, or nearly always, came out on top; and this spirit is more or less carried over to the subsequent series and films. Think of another fictional film/TV universe that attempts to reflect the best of humanity back at us in this way. Positive visions of the future are scarce.
Little wonder that Trekkies hold on to it with fierce loyalty. Star Wars fans come close with their crazy devotion, their congresses, fan fictions, fanzines, chat sites and fetishised spin-off merchandise, their need to dress up as, and lose themselves in, their favourite characters, but the first Star Wars film was late to the party in 1977. And if you ask me, that universe lost its magic after the first three films, although as intellectual property it continues to bloat like Jabba the Hutt. Even the worst manifestations of Star Trek (episodes of the Voyager and Enterprise series, or the fifth film, the awful The Final Frontier) didn’t succeed in photon-torpedoing the franchise.
The local police came to my rescue and I was pulled from the throng. I made sure never to appear publicly again in Vulcan guise – Leonard Nimoy
Leonard Nimoy got a sobering dose of fan adulation in 1967 when he turned up in costume as Spock to be marshal of a parade in Oregon. The pointy-eared Vulcan character he played on the original series was superhumanly strong and intelligent, but also reserved, unshakably calm, and impeccably courteous, and no one could have predicted how iconic he would become. While Nimoy was expecting to make minor waves at the parade, instead he was mobbed by thousands. Fortunately, he recounted in his biography I Am Spock, “The local police came to my rescue and I was pulled from the throng.” He adds: “I made sure never to appear publicly again in Vulcan guise. But the crowds still kept coming.” Whether he liked it or not, the Vulcan identity would soon overwhelm his own.
The words ‘geek’ and ‘nerd’ have a certain cachet these days (think ’geek chic’, or the computer nerds who have succeeded in remaking the world in their own image in the big tech industries). But there was a time when those terms, meaning a fastidiously intelligent, socially maladjusted, and unfashionable person, were closer to mortal insults – and nobody was a greater target of them than Trekkies.
A now somewhat infamous 1975 article in the Calgary Herald, reporting on a Star Trek convention in New York, portrayed Trekkies as disgusting-smelling, ugly, and overweight; “The facial expression is a near sultry somnolence, except when matters of Star Trek textual minutiae are discussed; then it is as vivid and keen as a Jesuit Inquisitor’s”. (Ahem. Excuse me while I vividly and keenly type this essay.) To make matters worse, Shatner appeared in a 1986 Saturday Night Live sketch which mocked Trekkies and in which he told them to “get a life!”. He, like many of the higher profile actors in the Star Trek franchise, has had a love/hate relationship with his obsessive fans. And perhaps he, like Nimoy, was rather exasperated at never being able to leave his defining Star Trek persona behind.
How Trekkies fought back
The original Star Trek TV series was due to be cancelled after two seasons, but fans mounted such a vociferous letter-writing campaign that NBC agreed to extend it for a season – and then killed it. Bad decision. The proverbial ‘corporate suits’, who we sci-fi fans love to bemoan, lacked vision on cue. Whatever the case, the series became solid gold in syndication, its legend only growing with repetition. When I was a kid, the three seasons played weekly in a never-ending loop on one of the channels at home in Canada, and they became hard-wired into my brain.
And lo, 17 years after the show was cancelled, it was the most-watched show in syndication, and earning Paramount a mint. It was only a matter of time until the studio approached Gene Roddenberry to create another series, and in 1987 Star Trek: The Next Generation was born. That show lasted seven seasons, and again cleaned up in syndication. It also launched the sci-fi career of Patrick Stewart, who Roddenberry reluctantly cast as ship’s captain (believing the actor was too old and too bald), only to find that Stewart’s Jean-Luc Picard became a fan lightning rod of the order of Spock. His Picard was ... reserved, calm, and impeccably courteous, but also had a resonant charisma nurtured on the British stage. Meeting Stewart in a London hotel, I discover that his presence, in person, is absolutely magnetic.
I knew I’d hit the big time when I heard that Picard was being illustrated and quoted in business leadership courses – Patrick Stewart
Stewart tells me he knew he’d really hit the big time “when I heard that Picard was being illustrated and quoted in business leadership courses”. If there was truly a moment which cemented the series’ place in our cultural history, for me it came in 2012 when President Barack Obama was photographed beside Nichelle Nichols, the actress who played Uhura in the original series, making the Vulcan salute. These days, a list of out-and-proud trekkies makes one’s head spin: in addition to countless astronauts and scientists, we claim Colin Powell! Angelina Jolie! Leo Varadkar! Tracey Emin! Al Gore! On the down side, we also claim many of the madcap over and underlords in Silicon Valley.
The Next Generation was followed by two other spin-off series, Deep Space Nine and Voyager, both of which were reasonably successful, and went through seven long seasons. (Take that, Star Wars!) At present one could while away a lifetime watching the hundreds of episodes of Star Trek offshoots on the various streaming services.
Stewart had had enough of commanding a spaceship by the time he finished his last Star Trek film in 2002. The story is that Goldsman, Kurtzman, and Beyer went over to his place in 2017 to attempt to woo him into doing the new series. Kurtzman tells me they were trying to sell him on what they believed was “the first true adult drama in the world of Star Trek”. Stewart humoured them a little but firmly declined. They sent more information, and Stewart was intrigued to find that his character had moved on, that the new version of Picard, now 94 years old, “had undergone real changes in his life”, he says. Having quit Starfleet in disgust, Picard is retired and unable to come to terms with his apparent aimlessness. Stewart, who is 79, said that he understood his character’s predicament: “it’s inconceivable to me that I should retire,” he insists. Thus Picard is back.
The pace of the storytelling in the new series is very, very measured. The thing we all agreed on was, let’s not rush – Alex Kurtzman
I’ve only seen three episodes of the new Picard series, and it is therefore hazardous to review it. Streaming TV, with its big budgets and loose-limbed creativity, can be sophisticated, leisurely, and dense in its approach, in a good way – in a great way – and this means that one must be cautious about making judgements about episodes one and two without having seen episodes nine and 10. The Witcher series on Netflix, for example, has suffered from critical ignorance of its overall story arc, and complexities of tone. Equally, how on earth would you have any idea what was going on in the Watchmen series after only seeing a few episodes?
But what I have seen of Picard impresses me. It gives Stewart’s character a lot of room to breathe, and that’s an excellent thing. “The pace of the storytelling is very, very measured. The thing we all agreed on was, let’s not rush,” Kurtzman tells me. I think there is a good chance that everything is going to fall into place. Certainly it shows signs of turning into one hell of a space adventure, in the Star Trek tradition.
A Canadian website, I notice, said last year that “Trekkies are counting the sleeps until the premiere of Star Trek Picard”. Just like kids, I suppose the reference is. But doesn’t that say it all? Kids are the eternal optimists.
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