THE SELLING OUT OF STAR TREK
by Michelle Erica Green
Anyone who has ever been a part of a pop culture cult understands the betrayal fans feel when the objects of their adulation go mainstream. Few cultists failed to register their disappointment when R.E.M.’s lyrics became understandable, when Rocky Horror came out on videotape, when John Waters followed up Pink Flamingos and Lust in the Dust with Hairspray and Crybaby. Biannual bursts of Marilyn-mania never fail to trouble longtime Monroe fans, and lifelong Wanna Bes disdain Madonna fans who tune in and out in time with her latest hits and scandals.
But no group of groupies can rival the rage of Star Trek fen--in the fandom, “fen” is plural for “fans”--when confronted with the media meddling that periodically plagues Trekkies. (Some bookish fen insist upon being called “Trekkers” to distinguish themselves from the type who wear Spock ears to conventions, but such specious distinctions fail to deter many from using the earlier title.) Let me say quickly that in many ways, 1991 must be considered a vintage year for Trekkies. This twelve-month period marks the 25th anniversary of CST (Classic Star Trek, the original television series); the fifth season of TNG (Star Trek: The Next Generation); and the debut of ST:TOC (Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country). For several years now, Pocket Books has published bimonthly paperbacks and occasional hardcover novels containing new adventures of the earlier and later Trek generations; in addition, a company called Pioneer regularly brings out cheap-looking behind-the-scenes books about both series. In the past couple of months, we’ve been treated to feature stories in TV Guide, Entertainment Weekly, and even the Sunday New York Times.
But we Trekkies have never needed new Trek materials to keep us going. Our fandom thrived in the mid-1970s, when no new episodes were in the works, few novels were being published even by Bantam--then the only trade publisher of Trek spinoffs--and catalogues came only once a year from Lincoln Enterprises, the oldest official purveyors of crew insignia shirts and stuffed tribbles. But who needed mass marketing? We had fan conventions, pen pal clubs, home-produced newsletters (this in the days before the home computer) and fanzines (fen-produced publications consisting of poetry, short stories, and articles analyzing the series).
We also (as you may have noticed) developed our own language to discuss Trek. To some extent, this is because the fandom, like any group which seeks self-definition, needed something in its early years to distinguish real Trekkies from bleary-eyed television omnivores. But because a majority of people--the same majority which voted Reagan into the White House--had a habit of publicly oppressing dreamers, poets, and everyone else considered non-mainstream, it was easier for Trekkies to represent the more atypical elements of Trek and all SF (science fiction) with code words. So words coined by Robert Heinlein entered the language. Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek’s creator, became “the Great Bird of the Galaxy.” Stories in which characters from Star Trek met those from Star Wars became “Trekwar”; X-rated Trek stories became “Grup”; stories in which the author’s alter ego had sex with the main character of a CST episode became “Mary Sue tales”; and stories in which Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock were homosexual lovers became “K/S,” or simply “slash.” (The slash phenomenon, in which authors have two “buddy” characters become lovers in spite of social taboos and career obstacles, was not limited to Star Trek; fan writers have slashed Starsky and Hutch, Crockett and Tubbs, Cagney and Lacey.) Slash remains marginal even within the ST cult, which has been as persistent in its pursuit of pleasure as its attempt to spread Trek’s simple messages: respect your neighbors, protect your planet, love yourself.
But during the 1990s, a new generation of Trek fans emerged. Some of these were the children of the original fen, who were tired of Clasic Trek reruns and considered The Next Generation their birthright. Others had never even seen CST; TNG was their first exposure to alien mind-melds and planets ruled by women. Of course, the original Trekkies were initially delighted about the resurgent interest in Trekdom. More people were trekking in one form or another than ever before, which meant that the ideas and ideals of the original series were in wide circulation. Few would presume to criticize Star Trek’s next generation, on the screen or off, during this new era when has it become not only acceptable but praiseworthy--even, dare I say, politically correct--to be a Trekkie.
But along with the new show fans came new trends which threaten the fandom in ways that the old isolation never did. The first is a form of rampant consumerism which came into vogue at roughly the same time as the advent of TNG. In addition to all the books and videos, there are endless new comic books, dolls, costumes, model ships, jewelry, and chess sets fans are encouraged--and true fans expected--to buy. Trek has always been closely tied to consumer culture; its initial failure on television stemmed from low Nielsen ratings and poor name recognition, not from lack of quality. Yet this new materialism goes against everything being in the fandom has ever stood for.
Trekkies didn’t buy the old fotonovels because they thought they would be worth $30 at some convention in the future; they bought them because they considered an end to reruns an inevitability, and--remember, this was in the days before the VCR--feared that scene-by-scene replays of the episodes might be lost forever except in the little paperbacks. Nor did they buy Spock dolls for their possible future value in a House of Collectibles Official Price Guide; rather, they bought them for the memories and the sense of metaphysical connection which comes from owning a physical representation of the fictional character. Trek fandom is no longer primarily about ideas, or even the kinky pleasures of slash; it’s about objects. The best fan on the block is no longer the person most committed to diversity, but the person with the biggest gold-plate and sterling silver IDIC.
But the emphasis on acquisition in the fandom pales beside an even more insidious trend: the academizing of Trekdom. Star Trek has become the pet project of many celebrated mass culture critics. Feminist film theory professor Constance Penley, who found it necessary for her research to infiltrate the fandom at the deepest levels by pretending to be a Trekker extraordinaire, delved into slash fiction in order to speculate on the feminist subversiveness of the genre. Marxist mass culture critic Henry Jenkins studied fan-published fiction as “textual poaching,” placing it in a specious opposition to mass marketed Trek fiction. In addition to analyzing and patronizing the fen, these critics committed the grave sin of dissecting their fandom for intellectual purposes.
The reason Classic Trek worked was that it never got too smart or too preachy. Whenever the dialogue threatened to Make A Point, William Shatner managed to subvert it by allowing his overblown acting to put a comic twist on the proceedings. Fen watch countless reruns not to hear Captain Kirk sermonize about its ideals, but because it showed those ideals in practice by people who were having a good time. Star Trek’s Prime Directive, which insisted on the inherent wrongness of prejudging the ideas of others or attempting to interfere with their own development, put postcolonial theory into wider circulation than any philosophical tract on the subject. Fen wearing the IDIC (“Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations”) were celebrating multiculturalism long before most colleges followed suit. But people didn’t turn the show on because it espoused the least prejudiced ideology on television; they put it on to watch McCoy whine about “infernal machines,” Chekov scream at aliens, Uhura flirt with Spock. They put it on for familiarity, for comfort…for fun.
Penley, Jenkins, and other academics’ intellectualizing of fan pleasure seems worse than its commodification. Trekdom has always been committed to the exchange of ideas in as open a forum as possible, without scientific jargon, without poststructuralist jargon. Trek devotees from the slashers to the Trekkers are committed to the notion that their ideals can and should be allied with pleasure. Between the capitalists and the Marxists, Trek gets lost. The mainstreaming of Star Trek may have gotten it out of the closet and into the academy, but it’s costing fan culture its soul.
This article originally appeared in The Charred Phoenix in 1992.
Star Trek Essays