From “BEAM ME UP, SCOTTY” to “MAKE IT SO”
Sci-fi fandom and Star Trek
October 10, 2017
“There is a mythological component [to pop culture], especially with science fiction. It’s people looking for answers—and science fiction offers to explain the inexplicable, the same as religion tends to do... If we accept the premise that it has a mythological element, then all the stuff about going out into space and meeting new life—trying to explain it and put a human element to it – it’s a hopeful vision. All these things offer hope and imaginative solutions for the future.” — William Shatner
The Art of Fandom exhibition at the Anchorage museum explores the things people like in our mass and global culture through collectables, contemporary art and design, fan art and fandom sub-culture. Science fiction is one of the largest fandom genres. It grew out of inventor Hugo Gernsback’s science-fiction publication Amazing Stories in the 1920s. Sci-fi fandom exploded as television came to American homes in later decades, thanks to shows like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Star Trek.
Star Trek, which first aired on NBC in 1966, created a template for fandom, transforming science fiction into celebrity-driven media events, pioneering merchandising operations, and inventing “nerd culture” as we know it today. Millions of people can quote the complete introductory speech at the beginning of each episode:
Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.”
The show hired established sci-fi writers, giving it intellectual credibility. It also depicted a society absent of poverty, war, or inequality. It even inspired science in the real world. Cellphones, iPads, touchscreens, universal translators, holographic projections, Bluetooth headsets, hyposprays and lasers all have analogues in Star Trek. Martin Cooper of Motorola, in developing the world’s first handheld mobile phone, cited as his inspiration Captain Kirk’s communicator.
When NBC threatened to cancel Star Trek after its first season, it sparked a fan-driven campaign to keep the show on the air. Letters were written and, in the largest of several protests on college campuses, 200 students marched to the NBC studio with signs reading “Draft Spock” and “Vulcan Power.” Despite the effort, the show was cancelled in 1969.
Syndication brought the series into widespread distribution around the world, ensuring its cult following. The first Star Trek convention was held in 1972 in New York, where “trekkies” could meet and enjoy their shared enthusiasm for the sub-culture world of Star Trek. The conventions continue today.
Star Trek is notable beyond its pop-culture fandom. It is also known for its contributions to civil rights and technology. Its multi-racial crew—including a Japanese helmsman, a Russian navigator, an African-American female communications officer, and a human/Vulcan first officer—was unprecedented on television at the time that it first aired. The original pilot also included a female first officer, but this was later changed, with network executives deeming it “too unrealistic.”
Banner image: Star Trek: Boldly Go - 2015 by Marco D'Alfonso