Understanding the Faithful
Turning a television show into a religion was an oddity, to say the least, when Star Trek fans first did so back in the 70s. Today, pop culture is just about the only touchstone Generation Xers have, so it’s perhaps not a coincidence that within the space of a year, two movies tried to sort out exactly what Star Trek means to the faithful. Trekkies and Free Enterprise couldn’t be two more different films, but each has a deep and abiding love of Star Trek at its core.
I have often wondered — as Barbara Adams does in Trekkies — why it is not considered bizarre to wear a football jersey with a player’s name emblazoned on the back, but it’s weird to wear a Starfleet uniform. Why are football fans seen as cool and normal while Star Trek fans are seen as strange and abnormal?
Barbara Adams, you may remember, is the Whitewater juror who wore her Starfleet uniform to court and caused an uproar. Figuring out what the deal is with her — and with the entire subculture of Star Trek fandom — is what the documentary Trekkies tries to accomplish. Hosted by Trek actor Denise Crosby — who played Tasha Yar on Star Trek: The Next Generation — Trekkies talks to a slew of fans and Trek actors and creators in its attempt to dissect the phenomenon, and comes to the basic conclusion that Trekism is an obsession, yes, but a harmless, and perhaps even a beneficial, one.
Adams is perhaps the most extreme of the slightly off-center fans we meet. She introduces herself to strangers as “Lt. Commander” — her rank within her local fan club — and wears her uniform regularly. “At heart,” she is “a Starfleet officer,” she says, and likens wearing her uniform to how any other military officer would wear her uniform for appropriate occasions. Of course, the Navy actually exists… One has to consider that this woman may not be drawing a line between fantasy and reality. But then we hear from her boss about what a model employee she is, and Adams herself talks about how the charter of her fan club requires community service — attention to civic responsibilities turns out to be a recurring theme with many of the fans Trekkies introduces us to. So Adams, and fans like her, are at least commuting to reality.
The reactions of Trek actors are even more powerful than the commitment of the fans. James Doohan (Scotty) loves the “love that just pours out at you” at conventions, and tears well in his eyes as he talks of a suicidal fan he took it upon himself to help. Brent Spiner (Data) is taken aback by the astounding devotion of his fans: he has to tell them not to spend money on gifts for him (the poor guy’s probably got a room full of teddy bears and t-shirts). And we learn the behind-the-scenes tidbit that the character Geordi LaForge (who was portrayed by LeVar Burton) was named after a wheelchair-bound fan of the original Star Trek series who took comfort and inspiration from the show before his death.
But the fans are the centerpiece of Trekkies, and for every obsessive willing to pay $1400 at an auction for a piece of prosthetic alien makeup (one slightly used Klingon forehead), there’s someone like Gabriel Köerner, the most incredibly articulate 14-year-old boy I’ve ever seen, whose attempt at making a Trek movie on his PC is quite, quite impressively executed. For every fan who dresses up his cat or dog in a Starfleet uniform, there’re are the doctors and shrinks and dentists who work Trek into their practices, using it as a way to relax patients and relate to them.
As entertaining as Trekkies is, I do wonder a bit about the motivations behind its creation. Nonfans aren’t likely to watch, so Trekkies’ plea for understanding won’t reach those who need to see it. Devotees won’t find anything earth-shattering here, but Trek completists will buy it, of course. Maybe making a buck off a group of people who will pay $1400 for a piece of latex is all the motivation that’s needed.
What would William Shatner do?
Free Enterprise isn’t a documentary, but it could be. It’s a tiny minority of Trek fans who ask people to address them as “Commander” and dress up their cats in Starfleet uniforms, and while the vast majority of people who call themselves fans will recognize the eccentrics Trekkies portrays, they won’t identify with them. Free Enterprise, though… wooo. I feel like screenwriters Mark A. Altman and Robert Meyer Burnett (Burnett also directed) have been spying on me and my friends.
Mark (Eric McCormack) and Robert (Rafer Weigel) — why do I suspect these are barely disguised versions of Altman and Burnett? — are the epitome of one slice of Generation X. Wily, creative, snarky, and independent to a fault, they speak in the Xer common language of popular culture: nearly everything out of their mouths is a Speed Racer reference, a quote from Star Wars, or a snide comment about the insult of pan-and-scan. X-Men is revered, and don’t even think about dissing Logan’s Run. Their money is spent on home electronics, letterboxed laserdisc editions (Free Enterprise hit just before the DVD revolution) of their favorite films, and toys. Robert and Mark are the hip Trekkies, the ones who wouldn’t dream of being caught dead in a Starfleet uniform but have no problems with worshipping William Shatner as a god.
So imagine their delight when they run into Shatner (as himself) in a Los Angeles bookstore one evening. They can’t resist introducing themselves, and Shatner, who obviously can’t get arrested in Hollywood these days, latches onto Robert and Mark. The guys rather inappropriately led Shatner to believe that they are in the movie industry — and they are, sort of. Robert works as a film editor at a production company, where Mark had recently made a losing pitch for his script, Bradykiller (about a serial killer who targets only women named Marsha, Jan, and Cindy). So now Shatner thinks they can help him produce his pet project: William Shakespeare’s and William Shatner’s Julius Caesar, a musical version with Shatner playing all the parts and featuring all the text “like Branagh did with Hamlet.”
It’s pretty funny, watching Mark and Robert have their illusions about Shatner shattered — the onetime Kirk turns out to be a real loser — and it’s a relief to see that Shatner doesn’t take himself too seriously. But Free Enterprise is about the shattering of other illusions as well. Both on the cusp of 30, Mark and Robert are worried for the first time in their lives about failure, about credit reports, about finding the right relationships. Robert is a bit of a ladies’ man, but he has surrounded himself with vapid women who don’t appreciate the finer things in life, like action figures. And then he meets the brainy and beautiful Claire (Audie England) — in a comic book shop! — and now that he has found the perfect woman for him, he has to face his own vapidness. And if Robert is Kirk, then Mark is Spock, emotionally frozen and incapable of any kind of romantic relationship. He’ll have to figure out how to thaw if he’s to face 30 like a man.
Funny and thought-provoking, Free Enterprise strikes home with its well-deserved skewering of Gen X obsessions, compulsions, and angst. A romantic comedy for our confused and rudderless generation, it’s a potent reminder that movies and television are no substitute for the real thing: real life.