Confessions of a Lapsed Trekkie (Part One)

April 22, 2009
A thought by James Berardinelli

Backslider (n): One who slides back or falls away; one who abandons gradually the faith and practice of a religion that has been professed.

When it comes to Star Trek, I must admit to being a backslider. Some might think the use of a term normally associated with religion is inappropriate for a pop culture phenomenon, but the parallels are striking. Star Trek fans speak of "faith", "canon", and "devotedness." They quote lines with accuracy and fervor (complete with a Bible-like episode and season reference). And they live by the doctrine set forth in this futuristic universe.

A few words about the term "Trekkie" would be advisable at this point. "Trekkie" was the self-describing designation coined by fans of the program during its initial television run (1966-69) and during its early time in syndication. Beginning in the 1980s, however, the mass media discovered the word and began using it derisively, stereotyping the "Trekkie" as a member of the most outlandish, fringe elements of fandom (those who dressed in Star Trek costumes, learned Star Trek languages, and live action role played in the Star Trek universe), thereby tarring all Star Trek aficionados with the same brush. To be a "Trekkie" was no longer desirable. So fans arrived at a new term: "Trekker." Thereafter, "Trekker" was designated as a Star Trek fan who loved the show in moderation. "Trekkie" was reserved for those lampooned in the William Shanter/SNL "Get a Life" skit. However, since I'm old school, I'm okay with "Trekkie." I remember when it wasn't a term of ridicule. Hereafter, "Trekkie", "Trekker", and "Star Trek fan" will be used interchangeably.

SNL Get A Life

I place Trekkies in five categories. "Keepers of the Flame" are those who have been with the series from its beginning, and became advocates of it during its initial NBC run in the late '60s. They're the ones who organized the letter-writing campaign that returned it to the air for its third season after it had initially been canceled. "The Old Guard" represents those who joined fandom during the long ten-year stretch between the airing of the final first-run episode in 1969 and the 1979 arrival in theaters of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. "The New Guard" are Trekkies who entered the fold during the movie-only era from late 1979 until mid-1987. "The Next Generation," appropriately, is the designation for those who became Star Trek fans during the first run years of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Finally, "The Johnny-Come-Latelys" are those who jumped on the bandwagon just as the ship was beginning to list - post-TNG, or from the mid-'90s until today. For the record, I'm a member of "The Old Guard."

Was Star Trek ever hip? Probably not, but there were times when it was more cool than others. During the '70s, Star Trek was seen as the purview of nerds. In the '80s, with science fiction becoming more mainstream, Trekkies were regarded with less scorn; the movies, however, didn't substantially broaden Trek's appeal - until Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, which generated a (roughly) 33% boost in attendance. While the film's light tone and environmentally friendly message were believed to be prime reasons for the movie's popularity, 1986 ushered in a roughly ten-year period in which Trek was as valid a form of entertainment as any other television program or motion picture.

The first time I saw a Star Trek episode, I was probably in my crib. I was born around the time that the second season started its first run. My parents, although not Trekkies or Trekkers or anything similar, have told me they usually watched Star Trek, so images of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy probably passed before my infant eyes at one time or another. The first time I can recall seeing an episode of Star Trek was in 1974 or 1975. It was on a Sunday evening and I had just finished watching a movie on TV (I believe it was Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory). Flipping channels, I came upon a futuristic show featuring space ships, translucent "glow balls," and men with (what appeared to be) ray guns. This episode (which I later learned was "Return to Tomorrow") was my first exposure to Star Trek. It left a strong enough impression that I was able to recognize it when I next saw it (some four or five years later), but not a strong enough impression that I sought out more episodes. "Return to Tomorrow" remained my only exposure to Star Trek until the fall of 1978.

To properly set the stage, I was 11 years old and in sixth grade. My school day ended at 3:30 and, since my house was less than a tenth of a mile from the school, I could walk home in about five minutes (door-to-door). On a nice day, my friends and I would typically do something outside from roughly 3:45 until dinner (5:30 or 6:00). There was a small group of us (all boys): me, three younger than I, and one older. Starting in early October, the older boy (who at the time was a high school freshman) began abandoning our group at 5:00 for an unspecified reason. It turned out he was going inside to watch Star Trek. Since our games were considerably less competitive without him, we started joining him. Thus began my regular watching of Star Trek.

During late 1978 and early 1979, I was not a fanatical viewer of syndicated Star Trek episodes. They were on every weekday afternoon from 5:00 until 6:00 and I watched them when I wasn't doing something else. That usually meant two or three times per week. The more of them I saw, however, the more eager I became to complete my "education" and, by the summer of 1979, I was increasingly making it a point to be near a TV at 5:00. At the time, Star Trek was gaining media momentum. The Motion Picture was on the horizon and it was causing ripples of excitement throughout fandom - ripples that were washing over newbies like me.

I never endured the drought that The Keepers of the Flame had. They had mourned the death of the original series in 1969 and kept hope alive during a long decade when the only new Trek had been a few official novels, and animated Saturday morning cartoon, and reams of fanfic. By the time Star Trek: The Motion Picture arrived in theaters in 1979, I had still not seen all of the original Star Trek TV episodes (missing: "The Cloud Minders", "Patterns of Force", and "The Tholian Web"), so everything was still fresh to me. I hadn't spent the last ten years watching and re-watching the same stories.

Of course, this was the pre-home video era, so no one except the eccentric rich had access to their own copies of series episodes. Some fans did what I did: propped a cassette recorder against the TV speaker and made audio recordings of the episodes. That was better than nothing. I can recall getting annoyed with my sisters when they made noise in the background that I knew would bleed into the recording. My parents were also unsympathetic to my plight, refusing to avoid talking in a room where I was recording Star Trek. Apparently, they didn't realize how valuable the audio recordings were. And I wasn't recording only for myself. I had been dubbed the official Star Trek tape man by my friends and would often make dubs of the episodes for them. Technically, this may have been piracy, but I'm sure Paramount didn't care. By today's standards, it's laughably primitive.

To further incriminate myself, I will admit to taking a tape recorder into theaters for the first four Star Trek movies and making audio recordings. There was no need to "sneak in" the tape recorder - no one cared. This practice allowed me to re-live the movies away from the theaters. I can recall taking long car rides with my parents and listening to the movies using earphones. By the time I got my first VCR in 1985, I had all 79 Star Trek episodes plus four movies on audio tape (plus dozens of Doctor Who episodes and a fair number of other TV shows). The first pre-recorded movie I purchased for my VCR: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

On December 7, 1979, a day that will live in infamy, Star Trek: The Motion Picture arrived in theaters. My 15-year old friend saw it on Opening Day. I had to wait until Sunday, when my parents took me. We saw it at a duplex inside Cherry Hill mall, and the line stretched from the movie theater entrance all the way to one of the anchor stores. My parents were nonplused since they had expected to wait for five minutes, not twenty-five minutes. Nevertheless, we had gotten there early enough and there were enough seats available that we didn't miss anything.

For The Motion Picture, it was a case of the hype and build-up dwarfing the experience. I found the movie to be slow and turgid, and vastly inferior to many of the episodes. I am convinced that the reason I didn't fall asleep was because I had to flip cassettes every 30 minutes. There were heated debates among long-time fans about the movie. Some loved it (or said they loved it) while others hated it. Everyone, it seemed, was glad to see new Star Trek but many were disappointed to have waited for so long for something so underwhelming.

Over the years, my opinion of the movie has improved. I now see that the filmmakers were aiming for something more in the nature of 2001 than Star Wars, but they became overly infatuated with special effects and lost the characters. Robert Wise's recent direct-to-DVD Director's Cut was a significant improvement and, after watching that, I was finally able to declare that I liked STTMP. That may not have been how I felt in 1979, but the TV show was still new to me, so the failure of the film didn't bother me too much. Strangely, perhaps, it was Star Trek: The Motion Picture that catapulted me from casual fandom to something closer to hard-core. In the year after the movie's release, I evolved into a full-blown Trekkie.