“GET A LIFE, will you people?”
William Shatner’s famous put-down of Star Trek fans reflects what many of you National Review Online readers (hello Kathryn Lopez!) think of those of us who attend the many science-fiction conventions around the country — clueless geeks who need to find a girlfriend and “grow the hell up.”
As someone who’s been to a bunch of conventions over the years, I can attest that, like most stereotypes, this one has a kernel of truth to it.
And yet, the conventions I’ve been to have been marvels of voluntary organization, the result of countless hours of effort by people whose specific interests Tocqueville could never have imagined, but whom he nonetheless accurately described. Of course, they have the same problems as every bowling league and church sodality and PTA, but also the same strengths. Not to put too fine a point on it, the fan clubs that run many conventions are the little platoons of the Star Trek universe.
Admittedly, my experience hasn’t been representative. Though I’ve been to quite a few conventions, they’ve all been large fan-run affairs in Baltimore. I’m told that other fan-run events can be amateurish in the worst sense, half-assed and disorganized, while the commercially run shows are often nothing more than people being herded like cattle through autograph lines and rooms full of dealers hawking licensed wares.
The conventions I’ve been to always had those vendors and celebrities, but also featured dozens of panels and workshops on topics trivial and serious, blood drives, food drives, art shows, costume exhibitions, etc., etc.
I’d always been a fan of Star Trek but never a trekker — I owned no rubber pointy ears or Klingon regalia. But a college friend of my wife’s is married to a guy who’s been writing Trek novels and comics possibly longer than anyone else alive (starting with an episode of the cartoon series more than 30 years ago), and as a speaker at many conventions, he’s frequently been kind enough to invite us as his guests. (Thanks, Howie!) The following are just random events that stuck in my memory:
Where’s his heart? Some people really do take this stuff too seriously. Once, a husky fan in full Klingon costume collapsed with a heart attack. When the paramedics arrived, they began to cut open his breastplate to do their ministrations when his friends howled in objection that the uniform cost thousands of dollars! The paramedics proceeded anyway — I never found out if the guy made it or not.
In the original Klingon. One standing-room-only panel featured a guy in Klingon get-up doing scenes from Hamlet translated into the made-up Klingon language (hey, it beats Esperanto). Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy and the scene with his father’s ghost were strangely compelling, as the very shy man explained in English the challenges of adapting the space-oriented vocabulary to Elizabethan theater, and then stepped out of himself as he recited the lines in all their explosive and guttural splendor.
“All I ask is a tall ship …” With the end of the Cold War, the Navy was casting about in the early 1990s for new constituencies. Someone had the bright idea to send the captain of the real USS Enterprise (no, not NCC-1701, but the real Enterprise, CVN-65, the aircraft carrier) to a Star Trek convention during the ship’s three-year-long overhaul in Norfolk. The sailors had a table in the dealers’ room during several conventions, selling shirts and hats and the yearbooks that crews prepare to document their travels; they also raised money for one of the ship’s rec rooms to be refitted in a Star Trek theme.
The captain (I forget his name) was a good sport, genial and avuncular, not at all what you’d expect from a high-ranking military officer in that situation. He presented a video he and his crew had done comparing (with a completely straight face) the seafaring and spacefaring versions of the Enterprise, their lengths, displacement, power sources, etc., and happily fielded questions until the session was wrapped up to tumultuous applause. As thanks, he was presented with a custom-made uniform (in the style of the first few movies), which the convention organizers had made from measurements secretly obtained from the captain’s wife. And when he appeared at the next day’s session — in full Star Trek uniform — he was greeted like a god. I don’t know if the Navy ever followed up on this outreach effort, but it was a great example of thinking way, way outside the box.
Assignment Earth. Contrary to the image of fans as examples of arrested development, wallowing in adolescence long after they should have grown up, the best conventions include well-attended panels on serious matters. During the 1992 presidential campaign, for instance, representatives of the Bush, Clinton, and Perot campaigns discussed their respective candidates’ views on space policy, with lots of knowledgeable questions and answers on plans for the shuttle and planetary probes.
Other panels have been on the Mars rover, the Hubble telescope, the International Space Station, and scientific questions regarding extraterrestrial life. Once, a scientist from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory lectured on progress in the still-new field of hunting for evidence of planets orbiting other stars.
It’s just a TV show. All conventions have celebrities, both from Star Trek and other science fiction shows, and they all at least pretend to be enjoying themselves. I’ve never seen Shatner, though I saw Nimoy once (but don’t remember anything about it). The late Gene Roddenberry’s second wife, Majel Barrett (who played Nurse Chapel and Troi’s mother and the voice of the ship’s computer) stuck me as a professional widow, à la Coretta Scott King. And even then, more than 10 years ago, it was clear to me that George Takei (Sulu) was not the marrying kind.
Some were (or had been) less enthusiastic. Brent Spiner (Data) said he’d avoided appearing at conventions until he started getting hate mail from fans asking, “Who the hell do you think you are?” As he put it, “I didn’t understand that speaking at conventions wasn’t voluntary.” He did a good job fielding stupid questions, like what it felt like to have the feeling chip implanted in his head and whether a female fan could have a kiss (he offered a “mental kiss”). Terry Farrell (Dax in DS9) was less gracious in handling lovelorn fans. One poor guy said that she was his favorite actress on DS9; her response, referring to the only other actress in the show: “There’s only two of us, dear; how long did it take you to figure that out?”
Some of the minor figures relished their appearances and made a career out of their few minutes of fame. William Campbell (Trelane in “Squire of Gothos” and Koloth in “Trouble with Tribbles”) clearly loved talking about his experience co-starring with Elvis in “Love Me Tender.” June Lockhart (the mom from “Lost in Space”) eagerly discussed her avocation as an unofficial den mother for NASA.
The only celebrity guest I sort of got to know was Jerry Doyle (Garibaldi of Babylon 5), who’s now a successful conservative radio talk-show host. I’ve done his show a number of times, though I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned to him that I first saw him at a convention.
Self-improvement. Good conventions also have workshops. My wife and oldest son went to one on computer animation last year and actually helped put together a ten-second scene of ships in orbit for Battlestar Galactica. The conventions I’ve been to also have lots of writers in attendance and lots of writing workshops — screenwriting, character development, finding the right editor, etc. However long the odds of ever being published, the very act of attending such an event suggests more of a connection to reality than the batleths and the “I Grok Spock” t-shirts would lead you to believe.
Get a life? Trek fans already have one that suits them fine.
– Mark Krikorian is executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies and an NRO contributor. For a sufficiently large contribution to his Center, he’ll be happy to put on Spock ears or a Klingon uniform.