50th Trek: Trekkies (1997)

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

 Trekkies (1997), Director: Roger Nygard Host: Denise Crosby,  Star Trek created by Gene Roddenberry.
Trekkies (1997)
Director: Roger Nygard
Host: Denise Crosby

Star Trek created by Gene Roddenberry.
“I don’t know, I hope it lasts forever … As long as it’s thoughtful, it’s a good thing." 
- Leonard Nimoy (1931-2015)
One of the early criticisms levelled at Trekkies from the very community it was portraying was that it spent way too much time parading a more extreme version of Star Trek fandom instead of representing the majority composed of more “normal” fans. The documentary’s most infamous character was and continues to be Barbara Adams, an alternate juror for the Whitewater trial of Governor Jim Guy Tucker who achieved nationwide notoriety for wearing her Starfleet uniform to the courtroom,  tricorder, rank pips and all. When discussing her actions, she referred to her fellow fans, “I don’t want my officers to ever feel ashamed to wear their uniform.” On the face of it, it’s pretty ridiculous to compare a homemade costume to a military uniform. But she insisted on people showing respect for her rank of Lieutenant Commander, even at the printing press where she worked from within its binding and finishing department.

Trekkies quickly latches on to cosplay as a signifier of the more eccentric fan. Family man David Greenstein has a Star Trek-themed man cave and bathroom at home. To his wife’s horror, he admits to wanting to modify his earlobes in order to appear more Vulcan. Alas, he can’t afford the operation. Denis Bourguignon runs a sci-fi themed dental office, complete with staff wearing blue science officer uniforms. He and wife Shelly admit, to the embarrassment of the film’s host Denise Crosby (Tasha Yar from The Next Generation), that cosplay plays a significant part in their sex life. Richard Kronfeld is fascinated by Trek’s fictional technology. He’s seen motoring down a road to the local Radio Shack using a homebuilt replica of the Total Life Support Unit used by Captain Pike. But the most charming example is the teenager Gabriel Köerner, who would go on to become the film’s most recognised character after Adams. Always filmed in costume, Köerner is the kind of passionate, nerdy, self-aware kid who proves to be an eloquent spokesperson. He’s the one who when his interview is interrupted by an unexpected phone call, responds with the immortal line "Peter, this is the worst time you could have called! Go away! ... ok bye."

Naturally, the Klingons take things a step further. They write sex manuals and enact their mating rituals, learn the Klingon language, and translate everything from the Bible, William Shakespeare, popular theme songs, to sports terminology. Some of them even have time to be heavily involved with charitable work. Other fans are also inspired to follow different creative paths. Köerner proudly displays the CGI models he made for a fan film being produced by his club. Filk (science fiction folk singing) gets only a brief mention. As do several female fans who read and write “slash” fiction (erotic fan fiction), though Debbie Warner is singled out as a member of an anonymous mailing list and author of “The Secret Logs of Mistress Janeway.” This is juxtaposed with a scene of Crosby showing off her personal fan art collection, which includes several risqué illustrations of Tasha and Data (played by Brent Spiner in TNG) captured in flagrante delicto.

However, the true weirdos are only mentioned in passing. There’s the guy who wants to collect James Doohan’s (Montgomery “Scotty” Scott) blood. Another who paid $40-60 to drink the “Q-Virus.” Another who wanted Ethan Phillips (Neelix from Voyager) to help him ease his way into death. Or the guy who keeps sending brochures addressed to “Star Trek.”

It’s this fixed component of amused ogling that seems to have upset fans at the time. Still, it would be a huge mistake to think that Trekkies goes out of its way to mock its subject matter. The cast and crew being interviewed consistently express awe and admiration for Trek’s enduring popularity. A recurring motif is how Trek’s progressive message has inspired a lot of people, including women and minorities. And many of the actors (though William Shatner [James Kirk] is noticeably absent) can recall positive interactions with their fans, whether they were media personalities, NASA astronauts, or most notably, a suicidal woman who was gently coaxed by Doohan to turn her life around.

What’s become more obvious since is that Trekkies blend of carnival sideshow and joyous celebration is a product of a different era. While geek culture was becoming ascendent in the 90s, it was nowhere as ubiquitous as it is today. A throwaway line from Köerner and a fansite created by superfan Anne Murphy serve as a reminders that geeks were still in the early stages of colonising the World Wide Web in 1997. As such, the film is informed by the need to expound on the nature of fandom to non-fans. Some viewers will unfortunately see these people as stupid or hopelessly deluded. But there’s a certain underdog quality that shines through. Many of the interviewees come across as erudite and cognisant of their outsider status. For the most part, they seem happy to pursue a hobby the world doesn’t get. And In our highly polarised environment where Gamergate, the backlash against Miles Morales, and other stories that serve as a reminder that sexist and racist attitudes exist within fandom, the pro-science, inclusive world view expressed in Trekkies is almost salutary, if a little earnest at times. Or as Spiner puts it “I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone, Star Trek fan or not, who wasn’t peculiar…. We’re all peculiar.”

Another thing that stands out is the film’s focus on the convention as a defining characteristic of fandom. Apparently, not everyone knew back then what basically goes on during a convention. So Trekkies takes time to point out that people mingle with friends and other like-minded individuals, buy and sell a lot of merchandise, meet some of the personalities involved with the franchise, and take lots of pictures. When compared to the massive Hollywood presence seen in Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope, these conventions possess far humbler production values, and are more local in reach. Not that it stops anyone from spending thousands of dollars on, say, a genuine Klingon forehead prosthetic. But that sense of "I have found my tribe" is a constant. As one attendee speaking for herself and her friends recalls "The first convention we went to... we were all accepted. And when we left and went back home, we had to act normal again." Several Hollywood representations of fan conventions have since taken their cue from Trekkies.

While surveying a broad spectrum of modern fan pursuits, Trekkies is smart enough not to over-explain Star Trek itself. The film doesn’t go into any detail about Trek’s fictional universe, and only mentions a few of the people behind its creation. The references and technical jargon will be appreciated by the initiated. But the viewer isn’t punished for not knowing the meaning behind “The Emissary”, “saucer separation capability”, “Romulan Star Empire”, or for not caring about the never-ending debate over who is Trek’s favourite captain (thankfully, Captain Archer wasn’t in the running at the time).

One particular debate that actually hasn’t aged very well is whether fans should refer to themselves as Trekkies or Trekkers. The film’s participants express a range of opinions favouring one term over the other, but what underlies all their arguments is a wish for greater respectability. What all of them fail to recognise is how little control anyone has over the popular use of language. In an age where Internet memes are easily co-opted by an opposing side, the idea that a simple word change could alter the prevailing perception surrounding an entire subculture can feel a little naive. But then again, the same could be said of Star Trek.