Star Trek Beyond has just opened in theaters, joining 12 other Star Trek films and about 538 hours of television, stretching back to 1966 – exactly 50 years this year.
All in all, it’s a miracle that Star Trek made it this far. Throughout its history, the space procedural starring Klingons, Vulcans, and almost painfully idealistic humans has been perpetually on the verge of oblivion. Its first iteration was cancelled in 1969 after just three seasons, and was in fact almost cancelled sooner (a fan-led letter writing campaign convinced NBC to give it one last shot). It was a decade between that show and the first film, 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which was a commercial success but a critical disappointment. Over the next decade, there were four more Star Trek films, equally divided between the sublime (The Wrath of Khan) and the embarrassing (The Final Frontier). Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered in 1987, and is widely considered to have been awful for its first two years. It survived that rough patch, and would go on to become a massive success, inspiring two more shows which aired throughout the 1990s, in many ways the true golden age of Star Trek. In the early 2000s, things took another downturn: more bad films and a risible TV iteration starring Scott Bakula as an aw-shucks captain came dangerously close to killing Star Trek entirely (as an example of his show’s puzzling, small-stakes plots, consider that one second-season episode revolved entirely around the health of Bakula’s puppy).
What has kept Star Trek going through all of these missteps? Its fans. The primary way these fans interact with each other is something pretty odd in 2016: actually gathering together physically in one place. These events are called Star Trek conventions.
The first widely-publicized convention took place at New York’s Commodore Hotel in 1972, three years after the original TV show was cancelled. The New York Times was in attendance, and its bemused report, under the headline, “Star Trekkies’ Show Devotion,” chronicled a scene more or less fully formed: memorabilia sales, a staff of excited volunteers, and attendees given to saying tortured, terminally nerdy things like, “We’re really into what you could call speculative reality.” The Times estimated attendance for the weekend at 7,000.
Over the next several decades, these conventions’ place in popular culture continued to grow, as this Google Ngram comparing it to that other sci-fi convention behemoth, Comic Con, shows. At their peak popularity in the late 1980s to the mid-1990s, hundreds of Star Trek conventions were running across the United States. Many of them were run by Creation Entertainment, a company focusing on conventions that put on its first event in 1970, when founders Gary Berman and Adam Malin were only 14.
Berman remembers the glory days well. He estimates they were running 110 conventions a year. “We’d draw 1000 to 2000 people no matter where we were,” he told me. “We were everywhere. We ran shows in Anchorage, that’s how popular we were. And 1000 people showed up!”
And those were just the conventions Creation was running. Smaller, fan-organized conventions were also blossoming at the time. Robert Duncan McNeill, who played Lieutenant Tom Paris on Star Trek: Voyager, particularly liked these more intimate conventions.
The ones were it was, “500 people in a Holiday Inn in Kansas City,” he told me from Vancouver, where he’s working on a new show for NBC. “You got to kind of talk to everybody and hang out . . . it felt the most sincere.”
“There was often a lot more activities that you were a part of,” he told me. “Talent shows at night. Judging costume contests.” He and his cast mates would do staged readings of Shakespeare while the guests ate dinner, or form bands between them and perform. “I remember, at some show, Garrett Wong [who played Ensign Harry Kim, also on Voyager] created a talent show where he would interview guests and they would come out and do something,” he said. “It was the kind of experience and work experience I enjoyed.”
McNeill attended his first convention before Voyager had even started airing. No one had seen the show, but he was still greeted with wild enthusiasm. “I remember everybody like standing up and screaming and I–it was the first time I had experienced it. I felt like a rock star. Like, I hadn’t even seen the show.” Once the screaming died down, he said he was confused about exactly what he was supposed to do. What did this screaming crowd want from an unknown young actor starring in a show they’d never seen? Just to be near him? To be safe, he’d prepared a speech.
“It was really awkward,” he said. “And then I sort of panicked and I think the moderator said, why don’t we just ask questions. And I was like, oh my god, the relief that I felt that I didn’t have to give this speech . . . it was a really warm welcome into the Star Trek community.” As he began to relax, he put down the iced tea he was drinking. Immediately, someone in the audience asked to buy the glass. Suddenly, he said, he was confronted with, “the commodification of every detail, including the first glass of iced tea at my first convention. It was kind of exciting and also kind of terrifying that everything was for sale.”
Items for sale at a typical convention include toys, memorabilia, stickers, costumes, photos with the stars, special VIP drink receptions with the stars, books and videos from people who appeared on even one episode, decades ago. I purchased one of the show’s iconic communicator badges for my girlfriend and a small wire sculpture of the original Enterprise for myself.
In Vegas, I met George Baxter-Holder, a curly-haired man in his late 40s wearing a smart labcoat and sitting next to a cardboard cutout of himself. Baxter-Holder appeared as a guest star on the Next Generation episode “Unnatural Selection,” which originally aired on January 30, 1989. He was there to promote his book, Drugs, Food, Sex, and God, about his life’s journey. He was asking fans for $20 for one book or picture, $30 for one book and picture, and $40 for a book and two pictures. A photo with a big star, like Voyager’s Jeri Ryan, who played the anatomically improbably Seven of Nine, cost a visitor $65 and a very long time in line.
“There’s kind of a carnival atmosphere that feels like we’re playing on people’s emotions and weaknesses in a moment where they’re kind of all wound up with the fever of fandom and the group kind of hysteria that happens at these things,” said McNeill. “And they’ll spend all the money they have.”
Several former stars now make a majority of their living attending conventions around the world. They are paid to appear, charge for photographs, signatures, and homemade merch. Some of them make as much as $50,000 in a single weekend.
This monetary component is just one material expression of the very real devotion Star Trek fans feel to the franchise. At the 2015 conventions, I met Kristin Dennis, a young mother who’s funny, a little nervous, and a serious Star Trek fan. She has the starship Enterprise’s model number, NCC-1701, tattooed across her knuckles. Her boss at the auto parts company where she works is also a Star Trek fan, she found out, so they added a 10-foot mural of the Enterprise bridge to the wall of their office (and Dennis hung a Klingon weapon, a battleth, over her desk). As we spoke, she was wearing a cadet uniform shown extremely briefly in the last Star Trek film, Into Darkness, which she had had custom-made in China. Dennis has more Star Trek tattoos, too: one of the series’ iconic communicator badges above her heart, and another Trek symbol hidden in a giant purple owl that takes up much of her left calf.
“It was my first Star Trek tattoo,” she told me, vaping. “It’s a Borg insignia. I hid it in the owl because I didn’t want to look dorky. But then the finger tattoos happened, and I was like, goddamn it. Fuck it. It’s over now.” I met Dennis in the bar at the Rio Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas during Creation Entertainment’s 2015 Official Star Trek Convention. What about Star Trek meant so much to her?
“What’s wonderful about Kate Mulgrew [Voyager’s Captain Janeway] is that she’s my daughter’s hero. That’s who she strives to be. Seven of Nine of was my hero. . . But Kate Mulgrew is excellent.”
In my day at the convention, I saw couples in full Starfleet uniforms pushing strollers, Klingons and Borgs greeting each other as old friends, and countless off the cuff, hallway catch-up sessions.
Morey Shankweiler was a 23-year-old woman with a Tinkerbell-ish pixie haircut and a Game of Thrones reference tattooed on her collarbone (valor morgulis). She’d snuck away from a family vacation, leaving her parents around the hotel pool, to come to the convention. What brought her?
“I’ve always been a fan,” she told me. “I would watch when I was a kid – the original series, Voyager, Deep Space Nine; I’d do that every Friday night with my dad.” She was struck by how much of the convention revolved around fans connecting with the cast.
“It’s like, we’re just going to hear Picard talk about his experience. Or, we just want to see what Kate Mulgrew, Jeri Ryan, and all of them have to say about a female starship commander or crew member has shaped female roles in sci-fi. It seems a lot more connected to being around the cast, rather than experience or learn something new.”
But then, we agreed, what was there really to learn at this point that was new?
Star Trek takes place in the 23rd and 24th Centuries, a time without hunger, greed, or even money – everything you need can be semi-magically produced by an alcove in the wall called a replicator. The crew of the ships we follow in the various shows are racially, sexually, and nationally diverse; the original series featured television’s first interracial kiss in 1968. One half of that kiss, Nichelle Nichols, has long said that Martin Luther King, Jr. personally begged her to stay on the show when she wanted to quit after the end of the first season. “Don’t you understand that for the first time, we’re seen as we should be seen?” she says he told her. “You don’t have a black role, you have an equal role.”
Much of Star Trek’s drama revolves around this enlightened crew meeting less enlightened aliens whom it has to convince of the truth and righteousness of its ways (and the barbarousness of theirs). For all the laser battles and shirtless fistfights the show is famous for, it’s really these kinds of debates that are at its heart, especially in the long-running Star Trek: The Next Generation.
This hopeful universe is what draws in fans, especially as children. You want to believe in a better future, where people behave rationally, and for an enlightened idea of the common good.
“I really enjoy meeting people who have made Star Trek and their relationship with Star Trek really deep,” said McNeill. “Maybe the stories have helped them through tough times in their life. They’ve related to the characters in ways that’s given them life lessons. And it really means a lot to them, and I really appreciate when they have an opportunity to share that.”
Alec Egan had a stand at the back of the vendor’s area at the 2015 convention in Las Vegas, selling small paintings of Kate Mulgrew as Captain Janeway and in her new role as Red in Orange is the New Black. He was asking a premium price because, in fact, Kate Mulgrew is his mother. He hadn’t been to many conventions, he said, and didn’t seem the type to come to them often (he was a hulking man with a thick, hipster beard). But he understood the appeal.
Star Trek conventions draw, “Really loyal fans, interesting people,” he said. “People obviously are really invested in [Star Trek] and kind of like developed their own sensibilities through this kind of fantasy structure, and invest a lot of time to come to these things. It’s pretty exciting! I dunno, it’s like, to me, it has as much integrity as like falling in love with your first book or something. I’d chase that author down.”
Featured image via Paramount Pictures. Other Photos by Chris Chafin.