50th Trek: Just a Geek

In honour of Star Trek's 50th anniversary, I'll be writing a series of posts discussing a favorite example of Star Trek related media.

Star Trek created by Gene Roddenberry.

Just a Geek  by Will Wheaton.
Just a Geek 
by Wil Wheaton

Former child actor Wil Wheaton once came to a fateful decision during a 1989 Star Trek cruise. After observing the apparently unhappy state of the original series cast members in attendance, he chose to leave the television show Star Trek: The Next Generation and jump start a film acting career. This looked like a good idea, when considering the circumstances. Wesley Crusher was an unpopular character often perceived by fans as a Mary Sue standing in for Gene Roddenberry. His presence on the show was greatly diminished. And Wil wasn't getting along with new executive producer Rick Berman. So it seemed like as good a time as any to jump ship and try something new. But instead of leading to bigger and better things, his acting career would stutter and then come to a complete standstill. Wil would spend the next 15 years ruing his decision to leave the legendary franchise at the height of its popularity. Two byproducts of this rocky period were a popular blog he began in 2001, and a memoir published in 2004 called Just a Geek.

Wil’s connection to TNG was initially the obvious draw when I first discovered his blog. But it soon became clear that unlike most other actor’s websites, which usually function as a vehicle for self-promotion, Wil was more than willing to discuss his many failed efforts to land an acting gig. His early blog posts often attempted to be glib about these experiences, but over time would increasingly express anger, disappointment, desperation, and self-recrimination. This is carried over into JAG. Roughly half the book’s content is material reprinted from his blog posts. But unlike most bloggers, Wil developed a true command of story structure. His best posts are typically written as well-crafted anecdotes usually conveying some kind of point, or at least an amusing punchline.

But the meat of the book is found in the original content, designed to connect the disparate blog posts into a unified narrative. Wil’s blog was often praised for its candid and personal quality. But he admits here that there’s an element of public performance to his blogging. Wil initially tries to convince himself and his audience that his career didn’t take a nosedive after he left TNG. His narcissistic inner struggle is displaced and divided into two anthropomorphized duelling voices: "Prove To Everyone That Quitting Star Trek Wasn't A Mistake” and the “The Voice of Self Doubt.” But numerous failed auditions grind down whatever optimism he once possessed, and Will begins to express frustration towards the industry. He bitterly complains about Hollywood’s preference for “edgy” actors and pursuit of all things popular. And like many has-beens, his fragile ego takes a further beating as he’s reduced to dependency on the convention circuit, desperately hawking autographs, reminding fans (and even fellow cast members he’s fallen out of touch with) that he still exists, appearing on game shows or any event that would have him, and selling personal items on eBay. That’s when he hits rock bottom and starts reconsidering whether he even still wants to be an actor.

One remedy to Wil’s downward spiral of depression and denial is his love of Star Trek. Virtually all of the book’s emotional highs are about his intermittent involvement with the Star Trek franchise. Wil’s unusual position is that he blurs the line between  celebrity and fan due to his being a lot younger than the rest of the TNG cast, a factor that inevitably colors Wil’s personal interactions with them. He’s never quite their equal in terms of experience or maturity. So he ends up playing the role of the callow youth who looks up to his smarter, wiser, and more well-adjusted colleagues. This has the benefit of making him into a POV character for the reader whenever the cast convenes at a convention, or most memorably during the filming of the wedding scene in Star Trek: Nemesis.

But Star Trek is also a source of great ambivalence, which isn't surprising given the book’s premise. Wil’s pop culture legacy already includes an internet meme sometimes called “The Wesley.” Things come to a head in a famous blog post describing Wil having an imaginary conversation with a beloved Wesley Crusher action figure. The post is included in the book to document the author finally exorcising his personal demons. It’s an uplifting story about how Wil learned to see the character he’s most known for playing in its proper perspective. But whatever inner peace Wil achieves is later shaken when he receives news that not only was all his dialogue in Nemesis left on the cutting room floor, he was also snubbed from receiving any invitation to attend the film’s premiere.

12 years after JAG was published, Wil’s informal writing style remains just as engaging. It's a precursor to the uncomplicated, chatty tone now prevalent on the Web, minus the emojis. The book makes for a quick read. But a few things also stick out. Because JAG is based on blog posts revolving around Wil’s own quest for self-validation, none of the other characters ever come into proper focus. Not even his faithful wife who puts up with a lot of his sh__. No doubt this was a decision on Wil’s part not to reveal too much about his private life. But this does mean that the reader is stuck in Wil’s head for the duration of the entire book. The effect of this myopia isn't entirely satisfactory as it can at times leave the impression that a few crucial elements might have been left out of the story.

Another source of annoyance (at least to me) is the uneven quality of Wil’s authorial voice. Wil has a habit of switching back and forth from a more flippant attitude to one that's more confessional. He isn’t afraid to being a little sentimental when he’s being serious. But then Wil tries to inject some humor, and the effect can be a little dissonant. This is especially cumbersome when he juxtaposes very juvenile and crass statements with more doleful insights. An early example in the book is when he visits a Hooters restaurant, spends time ogling the waitress and talking about her boobs, only to be reminded of his status as a failed actor. His transition from leering fratboy to morose artist can be quite awkward.

JAG was fashioned to chronicle the experiences of a struggling young actor who transitions into a writer. But 12 years on, it’s become more than apparent that the internet has facilitated a new kind of fame, one which Wil just happens to be an early manifestation. His blogging would anticipate how today’s celebrities have become heavily engaged with social media. While many of them work hard to connect with their fans, Wil has already convinced his fans that he’s just one of them. He may not have fulfilled his ambitions for the silver screen, but Wil’s newfound popularity has helped to revive his acting career. And no matter what, Wil has still managed to preserve his brand of geek identity. Only now, he’s joined during the rapidly burgeoning convention season by a new generation of web-savvy nerdlebrities such as Adam Savage, Jonathan Coulton, and Felicia Day. Wil Wheaton isn't alone.