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By Bruce E. Drushel
Intellect LtdCopyright © 2013 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
Live Long and Prosper: How Fans Made Star Trek a Cultural Phenomenon
[right arrow] In April of 1964, Gene Roddenberry, former fighter pilot and Los Angeles police officer, embarked on a mission to capture the imaginations of television viewers. Ultimately, he did much more than that. He and a small band of creative souls harnessed the world's newest telecommunications medium to attract both the geek and non-geek, and brought millions of individuals together in a decades-long movement that has forever changed the meaning of 'fandom'.
In its infancy, Roddenberry's Star Trek was trapped in something of a time warp. Audiences at that time did not value the programming in sufficient numbers until after its cancellation. Its proper audience simply did not have time to find it before it was gone, but their need for it persisted. The need grew so strong that thousands of fans gathered together and fought for a TV series, and they did so long before the Internet or e-mail. They found one another. They met. They wrote millions of letters and they never stopped asking for new programming.
The genesis of Trek fandom
Clearly, Star Trek's five-year mission was never realized; the series was cancelled after three seasons. It actually was cancelled at the end of its second season, but according to the authors of Bantam Books' Star Trek Lives! (1975), intense pressure by fans convinced NBC executives to grant a one-year reprieve. Unfortunately, the ratings in that third season failed to climb and the show suffered its fate a year later, despite a renewed letter-writing campaign by avid fans.
Marketing personnel at the network complained to management that the series' cancellation was premature. New techniques for profiling demographics later demonstrated that Star Trek's audience had been highly profitable for its advertisers. While this revelation came too late to resume production, Star Trek was far from over.
The original series (1966-1969) did not simply fade away like so many other failed shows. Its loyal fans lobbied incessantly for repeats of the original 79 episodes. The magic number to make an 'off-network' series marketable to mainstream television channels always had been (and still is) 100 episodes – a milestone Star Trek never hit. Much later, 80 episodes of classic Trek aired in syndication when NBC finally responded to constant prodding by fans and agreed to syndicate the original series despite its paucity of episodes.
Like Tribbles, Trekkies multiply quickly
In 1972, after it had cancelled Star Trek, NBC admitted it had made a mistake. The confession can be attributed solely to the efforts of the show's fans – not its creator, the writers, cast members or Desilu studio executives. The fans never stopped writing letters to the network. They never stopped calling ... and calling.
It took just under three years to convince NBC to syndicate reruns of the original series (which continue to air today, more than 46 years after the original show debuted). In 1972, Paramount also began to negotiate seriously with Roddenberry for a new live-action revival of the series, although it was many years before Star Trek: The Next Generation (ST: TNG, 1987-1994) would air.
Meanwhile, jubilation had started to spread among the show's fans. With the reruns now airing in syndication, the show's fan culture took on a life of its own far removed from Roddenberry's own efforts to revive Star Trek. The fans had found each other. Fans like teenagers Phil Sneed and Cheri Daw, who got involved with Trek right up to the tips of their rubber Spock ears. In the span of just three months, the 16-year-old duo started the first 'fanzine', completed their own Star Trek novel, and started the first of many Star Trek fan clubs.
What was truly remarkable about these very young Star Trek fans was that they were not unique. Star Trek fans were not just teenagers. The younger fans were inextricably linked to tens of thousands of middle-aged housewives, married couples, labourers and professors. Sneed and Daw later founded Star Publishing, the first publishing company devoted entirely to Star Trek literature. In so doing they unleashed the creative forces of hundreds of fantasy writers who developed a multi-million dollar industry of Star Trek fiction.
Hundreds of Star Trek authors published with Star Publishing throughout the 1970s, while still more fans continued to build new relationships with Star Trek based on a later animated cartoon series and reruns of the original episodes. The momentum that had begun with a simple letter-writing campaign kept the series on the air for a third season in 1968, got it into syndication in 1971, and eventually would give it an entirely new life in films.
Publishing proliferates and prospers
Publishing was at the centre of the fan phenomenon that propelled Star Trek throughout the 1970s. The first licensed books and comics appeared during the series' second season. In many ways, the publishing industry sparked the fan revolution that later served as a lifeline for every avid Trekkie. It harnessed their interest in the show and its characters, and kept them alive even when there was no starship Enterprise making the leap to light speed.
In 1968, the first non-fiction book on the series appeared, The Making of the TV Series, Star Trek, by Stephen E. Poe (writing as Stephen E. Whitfield). The author was employed by model maker AMT, known then for its plastic kits for assembling miniature Star Trek space vessels, communicators and weapons. Enthralled with the series from the first airing, Poe negotiated a deal with Desilu Studios and Gene Roddenberry to write Star Trek's first authentic behind-the-scenes history. The first Star Trek novels also began to appear that year, published by Whitman Books. In 1970, Bantam Books published the first novel intended for adult audiences, Spock Must Die! written by well-known science fiction author James Blish. Blish also would adapt each episode of the original series for a twelve-volume collection of short stories published by Bantam.
Long before Star Trek: The Motion Picture (Robert Wise, 1979) ever hit the screen, Bantam Books fulfilled fans' needs for visual and narrative material. It fed them dozens of 'Fotonovels' (adaptations of original episode scripts illustrated with actual photography from the series). Bantam's contributions also included thirteen original novels and two short story anthologies under the banner 'Star Trek: The New Voyages'. For the first time in history, fans would be paid to write about a show they loved. The anthologies allowed some fans to become professional authors, and some of them to become household names in the decades to follow.
From concept to con
Science fiction conventions had been around for years before Star Trek was conceived, but they were never the same after Trek fans joined in. Initially, Star Trek fans were barely tolerated at traditional sci-fi events. Then, two early organizers, Elyse Pines and Joan Winston, decided to gather a couple hundred acolytes in one location and celebrate Star Trek far from the sneers and jeers of other sci-fi aficionados. What began as a meeting in one fan's living room grew into the convention or 'con' that changed fan meetings forever. The inaugural event took place at the Statler Hilton Hotel in Manhattan, 21–23 January 1972, and featured keynote speakers Gene Roddenberry and famed science fiction writer, Isaac Asimov.
At a pre-convention talk designed to measure fan enthusiasm, event organizers were completely overwhelmed when a room they rented to hold 300 people became jammed by 750 actual attendees. It soon became clear that the pent-up demand for Star Trek was huge. So was its first major event. The first Star Trek con received a frontpage headline in the New York Times. In Star Trek Lives!, the loving tribute to fans and fandom by Joan Winston, Jacqueline Lichtenberg and Sondra Marshak, the authors report that both TV Guide and WABC requested entry to the first con and WCBS News later called expressing anger that it was not on the original guest list.
On Friday, 21 January 1972, more than 200 people stood in line for over six hours before the first-ever convention opened. By that Sunday afternoon, nearly 3,000 tickets had been sold, after which the committee simply started letting fans in free of charge. Once inside the event, awestruck fans were cooperative and courteous to one another, even friendly and grateful for the effort in organizing the con. But no one was more affected by the enthusiasm of the fans than Gene Roddenberry himself.
Roddenberry and his wife and Star Trek actress (portraying Nurse Christine Chapel) Majel Barrett attended the event and supplied what is now a well-known blooper reel, something that had not been seen from the TV industry before. Thousands in attendance were treated to the first public screening of the never-before-aired original Star Trek pilot, 'The Cage'. Even NASA got in on the act, supplying a gigantic replica of the Lunar Module for display in the con exhibit hall.
When the Roddenberrys first attempted to enter the exhibit area that Friday, a young volunteer stopped them at the door and asked to see their badges, explaining that only registered attendees and those affiliated with Star Trek were allowed to enter. Roddenberry replied, 'Young man, I AM Star Trek,' and marched right by, according to con organizer and author Winston.
Roddenberry was stunned by the turnout. He was overheard repeating throughout the day, 'I just can't believe it, all these great people coming here to honor Star Trek.' Then, the ABC and CBS television crews showed up and began filming. Chaos reigned. At one point, both Roddenberry and Asimov had to be secretly spirited away to private rooms for interviews, since the convention hall was over capacity and consumed in a joyous bedlam, wrote Winston.
Infinite diversity in infinite combinations
The Roddenberrys were mobbed everywhere they went. Speeches were made and scientific talks presented. Finally, at one point during the convention, Roddenberry opened the floor to questions. 'What does the "T" in James T. Kirk stand for?' a fan shouted. The room was suddenly silent. The question had been hotly debated among fans for years and speculation was rife. The most popular theory was that the 'T' stood for 'Tomcat', which would have embodied Captain Kirk's reputation for being something of a Lothario. Roddenberry answered, 'It stands for Tiberius.' Until that moment, even William Shatner did not know that this was his character's middle name, according to author Richard Keller Simon in his 1999 book, Trash Culture: Popular Culture and the Great Tradition.
The first memberships to the official Star Trek Fan Club were sold at the groundbreaking 1972 Manhattan con. It was after that first wildly successful event that the previously underground Star Trek fan movement began drawing mainstream attention. Followed closely by intense coverage in TV Guide, the convention sparked growth of the first official Star Trek Club. Before 1972, there had been no single, unified organization. In the years that followed, membership grew to include millions all around the globe. The initial con would serve as a template for thousands of events over the next four-plus decades. The basic event format included trivia contests, exhibits, vendors with memorabilia for sale, artwork on display, autograph-signing sessions and a 'costume call'. The fans had set the wheels in motion for a phenomenon never before experienced in fan culture.
At the close of the initial con, the organizing committee was presented with a banner made by attendees. It bore over 1,000 signatures and carried a simple message of thanks. To those committee members, it represented love. And love was what Star Trek conventions were made of; love ultimately was what Star Trek was all about – love of self and love of fellow man. Star Trek fans discovered that loving a show or an ideology was nothing to be ashamed of.
Tribbles, Tricorders and TV icons
Creation Entertainment was founded in 1971 by Gary Berman and Adam Malin, two teenage fans from New York. Today, Creation continues its 41-year tradition of producing conventions for fans of multiple television and film texts with huge fan cultures. It has been producing Star Trek conventions for more than four decades in cities all over North America and Great Britain.
At the height of Star Trek's new popularity in the early to mid-1990s, Creation was organizing 110 conventions a year, sometimes three in a single weekend. It built a licensing history with Paramount and Viacom Consumer Products, and together, these companies sold hundreds of millions of dollars in official Star Trek merchandise. More recently, they began holding an annual 'Official Star Trek Convention', as a main event in Las Vegas. Fifteen thousand people bought tickets to the initial Las Vegas convention in 2005. The convention should not be confused with 'Star Trek: The Experience', a separate themed attraction at what was previously called the Las Vegas Hilton in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Vegas attraction and museum opened in January 1998 and closed after a decade in September 2008.
A 40th-anniversary convention was held in Las Vegas in August 2006. Vegas also was a stop on the international tour of the '40 Years of Star Trek: The Collection' exhibition. In 2009, The History Channel produced a documentary, Star Trek: Beyond the Final Frontier (John Logsdon, 2007), which documented the overwhelming popularity of these conventions.
The official Star Trek website today is CBS Entertainment's startrek.com, although there are literally thousands of other Star Trek and Trek-related sites. TrekWeb.com also is popular, believed by many fans to be the more reliable or prestigious site because of its connection to Paramount Pictures, the production company that now owns all Star Trek properties.
No end in sight
In 1986, Roddenberry and a team of new producers finally succeeded in creating the much anticipated second Star Trek television series, set 100 years further in the future than the original. The original Star Trek was set 300 years in the future, in the year 2266; ST: TNG was set in 2364. The new embodiments of the Star Trek story enjoyed far greater commercial success than the original series. ST: TNG aired in first-run syndication on a loose confederation of US television stations and on channels around the world for seven full seasons, featuring an entirely new crew but exploring space with the same 'to boldly go where no one has gone before' mission aboard an updated starship Enterprise. Its popularity with viewers would spawn three additional series (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, 1993-1999; Star Trek: Voyager, 1995-2001; and Star Trek Enterprise, 2001-2005), the last two of which would anchor the schedule of a brand new US broadcast network, UPN.
Fans have continued to clamour for more Star Trek, although it took the early success of science fiction films like Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977) in the late 1970s to finally convince executives at Paramount that there was enough interest to begin production of a film that could possibly be expanded into a franchise. When Paramount finally made its move in 1979, it was a wise one. Star Trek: The Motion Picture grossed $82 million, even though most critics and fans alike agreed it was not a stellar piece of film-making. Still, it spawned a continuing series of feature films, seven of which featured the cast of the original series. Following a 'reboot' of the cinematic franchise intended to boost increasingly lackluster box-office returns and draw younger fans to the base, Paramount is currently in production on the twelfth Star Trek feature film.
Roddenberry and fans realized
Across all the series and films, the stories of Star Trek stressed teamwork and cooperation, something that America was ready for in the 1960s and that it has yet to grow weary of. Though Star Trek was nominally international and intergalactic in its characters, the franchise ultimately celebrated America's presence in the universe. If the mainstream populace of the 1960s was simultaneously awed and frightened by science, in Star Trek, the benefits of technology were celebrated. That so many intelligent Americans are still devoted fans speaks strongly to an underlying belief in the application of science to achieve 'belongingness', at the apex of human needs. Star Trek fans, along with Gene Roddenberry, explored the classic oppositions between individual and society, reason and emotion, common sense and technology, humans and aliens, and all of these common struggles were consistently and triumphantly reconciled in the world of Star Trek.
Excerpted from Star Trek by Bruce E. Drushel. Copyright © 2013 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
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