Are "Trekkies" Onto Something?

Heidi Klum arrives at the premiere of "Star Trek" in Los Angeles on Thursday, April 30, 2009. AP Photo/Matt Sayles

It took just a few seconds of footage - a single trailer, dropped from the heavens with great fanfare - for the hue and cry to rise on Trekmovie.com, the top fan site for J.J. Abrams' new "Star Trek" movie. By the hundreds they weighed in, a contentious cacophony that would have jammed even Lt. Uhura's comms system.

Spock's voice is weak. The Enterprise bridge looks like it was manufactured by Apple in Cupertino. The ship wasn't built in Iowa; it was built in San Francisco. The transporter effect is too different. Anton Yelchin looks nothing like the original Chekov. John Cho is way too old to be Sulu. Jim Kirk was never this rebellious. Sounds like "Star Wars." Where's Shatner? It's a reboot. No, it isn't. Yes it is. How dare you. How dare YOU?

Those fans who loved the trailer unequivocally were dismissed as undiscerning Kool-Aid drinkers. Those who dismantled it point by point were whiners. The discussion kept coming back to one word - a word that contains much of the passion behind Gene Roddenberry's imagined world of the 23rd (and, later, 24th) century.

Canon.

In the runup to the film's opening Friday, fan passions are still running extremely high when it comes to debating "canon" - the notion that the details of the most enduring fictional universe in TV history are coherent, cohesive and should not be jumbled up for the sake of marketing.

"We're all hardcore. No one is more hardcore than anyone else, really. And we all love it. But I guess it's almost political," says Anthony Pascale, who oversees Trekmovie.com. "Some people have a very strict view of what `Star Trek' is: `It's this, this and this.' They've got a checklist."

Sure, it's easy to dismiss this with the old nerd-in-mom's-basement trope. William Shatner did, notoriously, years ago on "Saturday Night Live" when he jokingly told hardcore fans to "get a life." But that outlook misses the point. In reality, "Trek" fans run the gamut in America - including, apparently, the president himself.

It's more than that, though: In a nation where mass entertainment helps define the culture, and where the national narrative is based on exploring the frontier, "Star Trek" fans' sense of ownership about their fictional final frontier offers a glimpse into modern American mythmaking - and why our stories matter to us so much.

For 43 years, since before mainstream fandom even existed, "Star Trek" has been embraced by - and guided by - its fans. The original series, which aired from 1966 to 1969, might not have even had a third season had it not been for an uprising of the faithful that caused NBC to reconsider its cancellation.

The myth accumulated copious details over the decades as it moved from the original to an animated series, from theatrical movies to "The Next Generation" and three more series that ran until 2005. For those keeping score at home, that's 716 episodes from six series plus 10 films. That's a lot of nits for the picking.

"Once those details start to mount up, it becomes really fun to follow it. And we start to talk about events in these fictional people's lives as if they were really past occurrences," says James Cawley, an actor and producer who is behind a sophisticated fan-made "Star Trek" series that picks up where the original five-year mission left off. In it, he plays Kirk.

"It's been cultivated so well for so long that the fans just love it and are very protective of it," Cawley says.

Abrams' movie, though, creates a new frontier for the final one, re-imagining Kirk, Spock and all the beloved original characters in ways that are both familiar and different. He has said repeatedly that the new "Trek" targets fresh fans - people who may have never seen a single episode.

"We're not completely restarting everything," he told GQ magazine, but "the work we had to do is in many ways the same. You have to make sure you're giving people a way in."

There's where it gets dicey. Yes, "Star Trek" as a philosophy has always been about inclusiveness - racial, extraterrestrial, ideological - but in reality the fan base can come across as insular. The message often seems as if it's this: Come join us, yes, but on our terms.

How does the new movie get around this? It shrewdly (minor spoiler alert here) brings time travel into the equation. In other words, if the past is tinkered with, then any changes to "canon" fit in conveniently with the original story. This is sci-fi, after all, and it's how writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman have framed the new approach.

Other American sci-fi/fantasy tales have been reconfigured in recent years without big-time hand-wringing. "Batman Begins" emerged in 2004 to widespread acceptance at the re-invigoration of the "Dark Knight" story. And the TV series "Smallville," which reimagines the Superman myth, posits Clark Kent as a struggling young man - and recently took the unlikely step of making Jimmy Olsen, of all people, a drug addict.

Yet both Superman and Batman have always shifted with the times, keeping the core fragments intact while reconfiguring key details. Batman went from being dark and angry to smiling and collaborative to cartoonish, then back to dark and angry again. "Star Trek" always tried to follow its own details to the letter.

Still, most "Trek" fans, no matter how "canonista" they are, typically agree that the mythos must involve a sense of hope about the future, a feeling of deep friendship among the characters and a zest for exploration. As global as "Star Trek" is, those are fundamental characteristics of the American experience.

Now they're back for a fresh audience. Coincidence?

This is an odd, unsettling time in America. Disarray is everywhere, and long-accepted narratives are being questioned. It's a time not unlike the late 1960s, the tumultuous age when the original "Star Trek" first set its sights on the future.

"Stories survive partly because they remind us of what we know and partly because they call us back to what we consider significant," Robert Fulford writes in "The Triumph of Narrative: Storytelling in the Age of Mass Culture."

Viewed through that prism, the return of "Star Trek" to the American canon in the jumbled, dark days of 2009 - post-"Blade Runner," post-"Terminator," post-"Cloverfield," even - makes eminent sense. It's a coherent universe that functions as a roadmap back to sane times.

One of its better-known fans might even call it, say, the audacity of hope.


By Ted Anthony
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