These days mainstream media has embraced “geek culture,” mostly because it makes a boatload of money for TV and movie studios.But there’s still one TV and movie franchise that still tends to evoke the stereotype of the pedantic, socially adjusted nerd living in his mom’s basement: “Star Trek.” Sure, J.J. Abrams tried to make it cool in 2009, but let’s face it: If you have an opinion about whether or not Kirk or Picard is the better leader (it’s actually Sisko, fight me), then most non-Trekkies will still assume that you need to — in the infamous words of Will Shatner himself — “get a life.”
That stereotype doesn’t hold true, of course, and not just because many “Star Trek” fans are productive members of society (some are even scientists and astronauts themselves) — but because unlike the classic male nerd archetype that most people tend to picture in their heads, the quintessential “Star Trek” fan is a woman. Long before becoming part of a fandom was as easy as starting a Tumblr account, female Trekkies (or Trekkers, as some older fans of the series prefer) not only dominated the “Star Trek” fan community but helped to create that community in the first place.
“It redefined the classic nerd to be much more inclusive. There were more women involved,” Stuart C. Hellinger, one of the organizers of the first ever fan-led “Star Trek” conventions, told Revelist. “The entire show was diverse in many ways, including the people that worked on the show. You had women writers and women story editors, and that wasn’t as common back then. A lot of different areas were opened up because of Gene [Roddenberry]’s vision, and a lot of the fannish community took that to heart, which is a very, very good thing.”
The framework that these women and men and wonderful weirdos put into place not only extended the legacy of “Star Trek” into what it is today, but became the basis for many aspects of fandom that modern people take for granted.
"Star Trek" fans are responsible for the first — and most successful — letter writing campaign to a TV studio.
While it’s now a ubiquitous staple of American pop culture that gets a movie at least once every couple of years, “Star Trek” didn’t always start out that way. The original series floundered in the ratings when it first began airing in 1966, and was already in danger of cancellation by the end of its first season. Series creator Gene Roddenberry approached fellow science fiction writer Harlan Ellison to organize a letter writing campaign among his colleagues (it was the only show on television at the time that would actually buy scripts from real sci-fi writers) and that kept them going for another season — but in order to really succeed, he needed fans to take the helm.
He found just such passionate fans in the form of John and Betty Joe (Bjo) Trimble, a married couple he’d met at the 1966 World Science Fiction Convention in Cleveland (also known as Tricon). The three became friendly, and Roddenberry even invited them to watch the show film on set, which is where they learned that “Star Trek” was once again on the chopping block.
“By the time we got home, we’d mapped out a basic plan of action,” Bjo recalled in a 2011 interview with the official Star Trek website. The pair sent newsletters to addresses they got from science fiction conventions, bookstore owners, and even from “Star Trek” fan mail that Roddenberry sent them (according to William Shatner’s memoir, “Memories,” Roddenberry went so far as to steal those addresses from the studio mailroom during late night raids). Each newsletter asked the recipient to write a letter according to certain guidelines and pass the information along to ten more people.
In an issue of the fan-made magazine Spockanalia (more on that in a second), series writer D.C. Fontana claimed that NBC received over a million letters from fans; however, Leonard Nimoy and NBC vice president Mort Weiner both put it at around 110,000; and then-director of publicity programming Alan Baker said it was almost 12,000. Regardless, it was decidedly more than the studio could handle, and the show did get its third season after all — although some speculate that the network was attempting to appeal less to fans and more to viewers who owned color television sets.
In any event, the show’s third season became its most important, and not because of anything to do with its plot or characters — but because it finally had enough episodes to be considered for syndication, which, aside from the passion of the series’ fans, is what truly gave “Star Trek” its' staying power.
For her part, Bjo Trimble became immediately known as “The Woman Who Saved Star Trek,” although she does prefer to share the credit with her husband, John. “All the news at that time was about Women’s Lib and 'the little housewife speaking up,’ so the news media had little interest in a businessman,” she said. “Reporters focused on me instead of John. To my sorrow, John has seldom gotten even the fan credit he so well deserves for his part in making the ‘Star Trek’ we know now a reality for all of fandom.”
"Star Trek" enthusiasts also defined modern fanfiction and fan culture.
While 20th-century fans of pop culture didn’t have the internet on which to wallow around in their feels, they had another method of gathering to analyze, discuss, and even create fanworks for their favorite TV shows: the fanzine.
True to what the name suggests, fanzines were independent magazines that were often handmade and distributed; the practice goes as far back to 1940, when the term was first invented for the zine “Detours” (and, according to creator Louis Russell Chauvenet, replaced the “un-euphonious word ‘fanmag’”). Fanzines were especially popular among science fiction and fantasy enthusiasts, so it’s no surprise that “Star Trek” eventually proved an appealing subject for just such a publication.
The first and arguably best-known “Star Trek” zine was called Spockanalia; Although meant to be a one-shot, it ran for a total of five issues from September 1967 to 1970, as edited by Devra Langsam and Sherna Comerford. Much of what Spockanalia featured would be very familiar to modern fans, from in-depth analytical articles and theoretical essays about the nuances of Vulcan culture (the kids today would probably know this as “meta” and “headcanons,” respectively) to fanfiction where Kirk and Spock go on adventures together.
As was the case with other fanzines, Spockanalia was entirely a labor of love, drafted on a manual typewriter and copied with mimeograph machines. Even creating fanart for the zine was a laborious process — for one thing, they had to be ink illustrations because nothing else could be reproduced on a mimeograph, and for another, finding reference photos from the show itself proved to be incredibly difficult.
“If you wanted a beautiful picture of a character so that you could draw it, you had to get a film clip,” Spockanalia editor Devra Langsram told the audience of “The First Convention And How It Resurrected Star Trek” at Star Trek Mission this past weekend. “When they did the episodes, they filmed them — it wasn’t digital, it was a physical film. And then they chopped lots of pieces out and threw them away, and Gene Roddenberry rescued them and gave some to Bjo [Trimble], who sent them out to people they knew, and they were able to make photos from these negatives. Otherwise, it would be very difficult for you to have a model to draw from. It was just not available.“
All of that effort proved to be successful; Roddenberry himself called Spockanalia “required reading” for his staff, and several cast members and writers, including Leonard Nimoy (who wrote the foreword to the first issue), contributed letters and interviews to the zine.
Spockanalia was also particularly noteworthy for discussing the sexuality of “Star Trek,” to the chagrin of some of its readers. Pon Farr, the phenomenon where Vulcans feel compelled to mate every seven years, was a particular subject of interest. When readers wrote in to complain about a pon farr-related story in Spockanalia’s third issue, the editors’ comments for issue 4 read (according to Fanlore):
The recurrence of the theme of sex isn't surprising. Sex is a recurrent theme of life. The recurrence of the theme of sex involving Spock is also unsurprising. We STAR TREK femmefans find him attractive and highly masculine. Some of us are articulate, and the result is predictable (and even logical.)
Over time, pon farr became a tremendously popular aspect of female “Star Trek” fandom; it also featured heavily in the plot of the 1967 fic “The Ring Of Soshern,” the first published fanfic, albeit privately, to feature Kirk and Spock in a sexual relationship with one another. While Kirk/Spock was maybe not as ubiquitous as you’d perhaps expect from looking at any part of the internet today (Bjo Trimble, famously, was not a fan), putting a slash mark between the two names became common shorthand beyond “Star Trek” fandom for fic that featured a romantic or sexual relationship between two characters (The “Starksy and Hutch” fandom in particular also latched onto it in their zines). Now the term “slash” is used primarily to connote homosexual relationships in fanfic.
“Star Trek” fandom is also responsible for another popular term among fans: “Mary Sue,” which was originally used to describe a too-perfect, too-beloved fan-created character, and which first appeared in a satirical 1974 “Star Trek” fic known as “A Trekkie’s Tale;” In it, Mary Sue is a half-Vulcan 15-year-old Starfleet lieutenant who pilots the Enterprise so well she wins the Nobel Peace Prize, only to die tragically of a fatal illness as all the male crew members weep over her. The short 200-word piece was written by Paula Smith as part of a column for her fanzine, Menagerie, and the term “Lieutenant Mary Sue” quickly became shorthand within the zine for the exact type of character that Mary Sue ridiculed.
Spockanalia did not survive much longer than “Star Trek” itself, but the fanzine tradition that it helped to codify continued well into the early ‘90s and beyond — and you’d be honestly hard-pressed to find a single fanzine or publication that did not have a woman on its editing team.
"Star Trek" fans paved the way for modern fan conventions.
Science fiction conventions were not unheard of prior to the first “Star Trek” convention, of course — after all, Roddenberry met the Trimbles at just such a gathering in Ohio.
But the 1972 Star Trek Convention (or “Star Trek Lives!” as it was sometimes known, as the phrase was printed on all the program books) was not only the first convention to be specifically focused on one franchise, but it was also the biggest science fiction convention to date by a considerable margin — and it completely changed the game for the entertainment industry.
This convention was the brainchild not of NBC, the studio which then owned the rights to “Star Trek” — in fact they were so dismissive of the convention that they even refused to send news crews to cover it — but of “Star Trek” fans Joan Winston (who died of Alzheimer's in 2008) and Elyse Rosenstein (née Pines).
As Rosenstein recounted at Star Trek Mission this weekend, the two conceived of the idea while exchanging film for their “Trek”-themed slideshows. As Rosenstein recounted at Star Trek Mission this weekend, the two conceived of the idea while exchanging film for their “Star Trek”-themed slideshows. “For some unknown reason I turned to her and said, ‘Wouldn’t it be neat to have a science fiction convention for just ‘Star Trek?’ and she turned to me and said, ‘Yeah,’ we could invite 500 of our most intimate friends,’” she explained. “If she’d said that it was a terrible idea, none of this would have happened.”
At the time, “Star Trek” fans were looked upon dismissively within the science fiction community, which was more literary-leaning and less interested in media like television and movies; the pair figured that a convention specifically geared towards show would do a lot to bring fans together. In the summer of 1971, a group of young people (including “Spockanalia” creator Devra Langsam) who knew each other from Lunacon and from high school began to coalesce, and under Winston’s leadership, they set about trying to make their convention idea a reality.
None of the members of “The Committee,” as they were known, had much experience organizing events, but they had attended other science fiction conventions in the past and knew what a con needed to succeed — panels to attend, a guest of honor, an art show, a masquerade (in essence, a cosplay contest), and a dealer’s room. As an employee of CBS, Winston also had contacts who could put her in touch with Gene Roddenberry and knew how to draft contracts for guests and vendors. Another Committee member, Al Schuster, helped them book space in the Statler Hilton, now the Hotel Pennsylvania.
Of course, they weren’t prepared for the sheer number of “Star Trek” fans who would be interested in attending their event. Most science fiction conventions had an average 300 to 500 attendees; the largest at the time, Worldcon, had maxed out at 1,200. So they created enough badges, programs and other material for 2,000 people, assuming that only half as many would show. Instead, crowds upwards of 3,200 arrived unexpectedly to the hotel at 8:30 in the morning on January 21, 1972, having heard about the convention from news outlets — all thanks to the committee’s publicity efforts, of course, which even included a local commercial.
By that Sunday, The Committee had completely run out of badges and had resorted to creating makeshift ones, which made it much more difficult to keep track of who’d actually paid the $2.50 entrance fee. Someone even called the fire marshall on the convention that year, but when he arrived and saw how politely the hordes of attendees were behaving, he let them off with a warning. “‘Star Trek’ fans are some of the nicest, well-behaved, accommodating people I have ever met,” Rosenstein noted.
The convention’s first guests included both “Star Trek” alums and famous fans alike, such as actor Majel Barrett, series writer D.C. Fontana, science fiction novelist Isaac Asimov, and Gene Roddenberry himself, who brought episodes of the show and even a blooper reel to screen. Winston also worked her magic and managed to convince NASA to provide a display as well, and members of Committee became friendly with many of the “Star Trek” cast over the years, including George Takei and Leonard Nimoy.
But although TV professionals were certainly present, the community of fans were the real stars. They’d show up with art unlike anything that anyone had brought to science fiction conventions before, like jewelry, hand-embroidered wallets, replica costumes (one year, a man even arrived dressed Spock’s ear) life-sized models of the characters, a USS Enterprise in a bottle, or even a perfect replica of the Enterprise Bridge. And although men were certainly enthusiastic participants, Committee member Stuart C. Hellinger noted to Revelist that it was women who created the majority of these works — especially the costumes, as they tended to have more sewing experience than the men.
The Committee continued to run successful events for the next four years, and by their fifth convention in 1977 the landscape had changed considerably. Al Schuster had split apart from the group to run his own “Star Trek” convention, and many other conventions of the same kind had sprouted up all across the country. Burnt out and exhausted, Winston and the rest of the Committee decided that it was time to throw in the towel — after all, their “five-year mission” was over.
Their exhaustion was well worth the effort; in fact, it was most likely the driving force behind the staying power of “Star Trek.” After the series ended, Roddenberry continued to lobby Paramount Pictures to produce a “Star Trek” film, using the fans’ continued excitement for the franchise as leverage. After halting development on a film and even a second TV series, Paramount finally took Roddenberry up on his idea in 1979 with “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” and continued to make more movies — and more TV series as well — with only a (relatively) brief 7-year hiatus between 2002’s “Star Trek: Nemesis” and the 2009 reboot.
Now with its third rebooted film under its belt and another series, “Star Trek Discovery,” on the way, the “Star Trek” franchise is a powerhouse of American media history. But it would never have made it that far if it weren’t for fans like Joan Winston, Devra Langsam, Stuart Hellinger, John and Bjo Trimble, and countless other average, everyday people who happened to share a fascination with Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future.
"We never quite understood the scope of the people who were interested," Devra said at their Star Trek Mission panel. "All of us were working or we were in college, we were not people who had a job that was the Trek Con, we were people who had a job and then did the Trek con."
"None of us did this to make money," she added. "I think over the years I made about 12 cents an hour."
“The sense of community was one of the best things about fandom of that time," Hellinger told Revelist. "A lot of people stayed in touch, even if it was small groups. The ‘Star Trek’ convention brought a lot of people together in a very, very different way.”
Now, we have the internet with which to communicate with distant fandom friends — but the passion, love, and optimism that early "Star Trek" fans shared with one another still exists today. All you have to do is seek it out.
(Promo image via V Threepio on Flickr)