ReelThoughts: May 13, 2013

"Star Trek Generations"

Commentary by James Berardinelli


It's "Star Trek week." Once upon a time, that meant something. For a Trekkie, it was a more special occasion than Christmas. After all, Christmas comes every 365 days - the usual break between Star Trek weeks was 2.5 years. I don't sense the same kind of excitement in 2013 that I felt in 1979, 1982, 1984, or 1986. Maybe that's because I'm more of a lapsed Trekkie than an active one, but I think it's more due to the way fandom has changed. Star Trek is mainstream now and its arrival is heralded much like any summer tentpole. Fans are considered only in passing when developing a Star Trek movie today. It's much more about packing in massive crowds on opening weekend, getting good word of mouth to sustain interest in a crowded field, and expanding the overseas box office. That means a greater focus on what generic audiences want (special effects, explosions, action, fight scenes, space battles) and a lesser focus on what fans want (traditional Star Trek themes, character interaction, story).

There are several "degrees" of Star Trek fandom. Because the franchise has been around for nearly 50 years (a longevity that places it in rarefied company), what it means to be a "fan" has morphed since the very beginning. So I thought it might be… fascinating… to look at the different groups of fandom and how things have changed over the years.

The Old Guard: Members of this class are those who watched the series during its original NBC run (1966-1969). They're the pillars of the fan community, the ones who staged the famous Bjo Trimble-led letter writing campaign that brought back Star Trek for a third season. Most members of The Old Guard were college age in the late 1960s; Star Trek was extremely popular on university campuses. Today, the average age of an Old Guard fan is about 65, although there are a few who are as young as their mid-50s. Many die-hard members of The Old Guard take a proprietary interest in Star Trek and more than a few are negatively disposed toward post-1986 TV efforts as well as the J.J. Abrams' "reboot." For some, Star Trek isn't just Kirk/Spock/McCoy, it's Kirk-Shatner/Spock-Nimoy/McCoy-Kelly.

The Young Guard: These are the fans who jumped on board during the "Syndication Years" - from late 1969 until the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture in December 1979. It's generally accepted that Star Trek gained popularity and momentum once released in a five-nights-per-week format. It has been called the most successful syndicated series in U.S. TV history and, by some accounts, fandom may have quadrupled in that ten-year period. In the pre-VCR era, syndication made Star Trek available on a nightly basis in almost every market. The entire roster of episodes was exhausted in four months so those who kept watching became familiar with every episode through repetition. This is where some of the obsessiveness over detail originates. In just ten years, a regular nightly watcher of Star Trek might have seen every episode 30 times. The early 1970s brought the first Star Trek conventions and (in 1973-74, on NBC) a Saturday morning cartoon. Perhaps the biggest contribution made by The Young Guard is that, with their numbers swelling fandom, the potential of new live-action Star Trek became attractive to Paramount, who initially commissioned a "Phase 2" TV series that eventually developed into Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Most members of The Young Guard are now in their late 40s and 50s. (I started watching Star Trek in syndication in 1978 at the age of 11, making me a younger member of this group.)

The Movie Generation: Those who came on board during the period between the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture and the debut of The Next Generation on TV belong here. The Movie Generation didn't swell the Star Trek fan base by a considerable amount. The first three theatrical films didn't generate the widespread mainstream appeal that was initially hoped for. When adjusted for inflation, their box office totals are impressive: $260 million for The Motion Picture, $216 million for The Wrath of Khan and $182 million for The Search for Spock. Those totals can be deceptive as guides to the films' widespread popularity, however. During a time when VCRs were prohibitively expensive for most consumers, fans sated themselves not by popping a tape into a heavy monster of a machine but by returning repeatedly to the theater: five times, ten times, twenty times, even a hundred times in extreme cases. The Voyage Home became the first Star Trek to achieve widespread appeal, breaking through the fan-centric barrier. Its success led directly to The Next Generation.

The Next Generation Generation: The arrival of The Next Generation was controversial. It also re-aligned fandom. During the series' seven-year run, members of The Old Guard and New Guard "dropped out," disappointed at the de-emphasis on the characters they loved in favor of "the imposters." At the same time, as The Next Generation gained in popularity, Star Trek fandom swelled in a way it hadn't since the early 1970s. The new blood re-invigorated Star Trek and it fueled Paramount's oversaturation plan that led to four additional TV series being produced. This phase of Star Trek reached its apex during the mid-1990s, with The Next Generation crew in films (the most popular of which was 1996's First Contact), and Deep Space Nine and Voyager on TV. By the early years of the third millennium, however, Star Trek was losing steam. Many of the older fans had moved on and The Next Generation fans were showing a diminution of ardor. Nemesis, the last of the pre-reboot films, was a box office disaster when it opened in 2002 and the final TV series, Enterprise struggled with mediocre ratings during its four seasons until it was finally canceled in 2005. Star Trek looked to be dead. Never in its then-40 year history had fandom been this moribund.

The Rebooters: Star Trek returned with a roar in 2009 when J.J. Abrams rebooted the film series. The revival of Star Trek brought some members of The Old Guard and New Guard back into the fold. A portion of those who had defected over Picard, Riker, and Data were lured back by the return of Kirk, McCoy, and Spock (with Leonard Nimoy reprising the part). The biggest contribution made by Abrams' 2009 Star Trek was to stoke fires that were sputtering. Suddenly, it was "cool" to love Star Trek. New fans, with no connections to the first series or the many iterations that aired on TV during the 1990s, gave Trekdom its second makeover. It's all part-and-parcel of the mainstreaming of geeks and geekdom.

Star Trek Into Darkness seeks to take Star Trek where it has never gone before: international success. Everything about the marketing campaign and release strategy is designed to boost the non-U.S. audience for the film, paving the way to making Star Trek a global franchise. (To this point, it has mainly been a North American success story. The 2009 film made 2/3 of its box office total domestically - almost unheard-of in this era of worldwide tentpole releases.) It will probably require a few more years and at least one other sequel before we know whether this has worked.

My years as a "hot fan" are long behind me but I retain a considerable soft spot for Star Trek. It was an important part of my youth and I'll never forget that. To use the love affair analogy: I fell for it in the late '70s, was married to it in the '80s, divorced amicably in the '90s, and still feel a little giddy every time I see something new related to it. I treasure the memories of those late summer nights staying up to watch a syndicated rerun on New York's Channel 11 using a rotating rooftop antenna to pull in a snowy picture. I remember sitting in a cavernous 2000-seat auditorium and watching The Wrath of Khan three consecutive times on a Saturday afternoon in July 1982. I recall the delight of being part of an enthused audience for The Voyage Home the night before Thanksgiving in 1986. And I remember gathered in front of a dorm TV with a bunch of fellow students in 1987 awaiting the airing of "An Encounter at Farpoint."

I have no regrets about my lengthy dalliance in Star Trek fandom. I never dressed up but I did attend a handful of conventions (although, by the time I went, they had become commercialized). When I think of the '80s, especially the early '80s, two things immediately come to mind: Star Trek and Dungeons & Dragons. Among the card-carrying nerds of my era, I wasn't unique. Now, I look back with fondness even as I hope that future Star Trek incarnations will keep the series' soul intact in the rush to make it more "accessible" to flashier and less substantive.


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