Television

'Star Trek': Where Have All the Starships Gone?

L.D. Barnes

After the events of 9/11, many Star Trek fan clubs and online role playing ships disappeared from view. How do I know? I was one of the people in those communities.

One Fan's Journey from '66 to '16

Back in 1962, the nation watched as a dance of possible nuclear annihilation played out across 13 days in October, politely called the Cuban Missile Crisis. While Navy ships blockaded a mere 90 miles south of Florida, people built bomb shelters, schools drilled in ‘duck and cover’ and churches prayed for peace against the specter of nuclear war.

A year later in 1963, Thanksgiving was cancelled by the shock of the assassination of President Kennedy and his four-day funeral. As if that was not enough, it was followed by television coverage of the Civil Rights Movement and a shooting war in a far-away place called Viet Nam. War atrocities and protest marches showed us how uncivil we really were. With only three broadcast networks showing the same worldview day after day, things looked bleak, indeed.

The head of the Federal Communications Commission at that time, Newton Minow, acknowledged that television was no help for the national psyche. He stated in a speech to the National Association of Broadcasters that if you were to sit and "[k]eep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland." His sentiment is quoted to this day and all the thanks he got for his efforts was having the boat in Gilligan’s Island named the S. S. Minnow after him, despite his instrumentality in getting communication satellites and many public television stations launched.

In September of 1966, amid the glut of variety shows, comedies, re-hashed Broadway musicals, court room dramas and news coverage of the Vietnam war, the original Star Trek series first aired. There had been space operas before. Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, done as serial movies in the '30s, had more emphasis on swashbuckling than plot or futurism. They were played on Saturday morning television in the '50s, but they couldn’t compare to the sleekly futuristic world of Star Trek. Aboard the Starship Enterprise, we were fascinated by imaginative gadgets, avant-garde aliens, ultramodern uniforms, and a young diverse crew.

After each episode, I was mesmerized. My curiosity grew because there wasn’t a lot of backstory. The new worlds and situations were thought to be more important to the viewers, but I (and many others) hungered fore more. I wanted to be one of the crew members of the Starship Enterprise. I imagined myself as half Vulcan, half American who, unlike Spock, did not show the pointed ears, nor did I have the greenish complexion. In typical high school crush mindset, I tried putting the syllable ‘ock’ behind my first and middle names, only to create an unpronounceable mess. I settled on part of my actual last name with Yeoman in front of it, patterned after Kirk’s assistant, Yeoman Rand.

After all, it was a massive ship, with lots of people going about the business of space exploration. You saw them walking the decks, going on away missions, relaxing in the ship's lounge. Each week I had dozens of new questions about the show’s mythos, like what would one wear to impress Captain Kirk when meeting him? (I did it in jeans and a turtleneck, Chicago Trek convention 1975.) Which part of Asia did Lt. Sulu come from? (The Entropy Effect novel written in 1981 said Hikaru is Japanese/American.) Where in the South had Doctor McCoy lived? (Georgia, according to the USS Enterprise Officer's Manual.) I wanted Lt. Uhura’s sexy earpiece; when would they be available? (Sweden, Bluetooth, 1999.)

When I talked with other fans, they wondered why Scott and Spock were called "Mister" instead of having a rank. I referred them to the Naval Code of Etiquette. Theories abounded as to why Spock had pointed ears, from Vulcans being part feline to them needing the points because the thin air of their planet did not conduct sound as well as the Earth’s atmosphere. I liked the look of them regardless of the reason and that Halloween, my father the mortician was pestered into making me my first pair of Vulcan ears using his reconstruction supplies.

We shared our theories and questions in small confabs, but there was no place to reach out to make a community. (Remember, no personal computers until the ‘80s or internet until the ‘90s). On typewriters and in diaries, we wrote out fantasies. Week after week, we gleaned clues about the back stories of our favorite characters from each episode. By the end of the first season, I had a notebook full of facts, fantasies, and stories. I wrote about things I envisioned happening between episodes, especially interpersonal activities involving my invented character, Yeoman Gan.

Due to Captain Kirk’s preoccupation with women, like the Elan of Troyus or Yeoman Rand, we Earth girls shifted our focus to other males in the cast. Lt. Pavel Chekov was crafted as the intended teenybopper heartthrob with his cherubim face and haircut modeled after the Beatles. However, his accent and ethnicity didn’t sit well with a generation of women who were raised in the frigid climate of the Cold War between the USA and Russia. Still, I did wonder what it would feel like to be hugged by Lt. Chekov. (Pretty nice, thank you! Slanted Fedora Chicago Con, 2000.)

Yet, like most of the female audience at that time, I overwhelmingly chose Mr. Spock as the objet d’amour. There was such a fervor that Time magazine proclaimed it showed that “women prefer intelligent men”. Indeed, his appeal was so powerful that the first Star Trek fanzine was named Spockanalia. With drawings of him on the cover, and lots of fantasy on the pages, it was written by a predominantly female authors. During the three year run of the fanzine, some of the people who had made the show contributed, including the actors who would occasionally write as their characters. In the early '70s, these low budget publications were done by mimeograph or offset press and sold at a new phenomenon called a “Trek convention”.

But don’t let these humble beginnings fool you -- even Gene Roddenberry wrote articles for them. It’s said that Roddenberry used the popularity of fanzines, the first fan sponsored conventions, and the growth of the fan clubs to sell a concept of a TV series called Star Trek: Phase II to Paramount. However, while in pre-production, the show was scuttled by the release of a new movie from a guy named George Lucas. Luckily, the box office success of Star Wars demonstrated the hunger of the fans, convincing Paramount to do Star Trek: The Motion Picture instead.

Not being a fan of animation, to slake my thirst for all things Trek, I avidly read the novels that Simon and Schuster published after the original series was cancelled. Many of them were written by the same people who had done the screenplays for the original episodes. These books, the reruns, and the occasional convention where I could wear my ears kept me satiated until the release of the first movie in 1979, ten years after the cancellation of Star Trek.

In the buildup to the movie’s release, the first role playing game, Star Trek: Adventure Gaming in the Final Frontier was released. Using characters from the original series eliminated the need for character development. Characters were familiar crew members, given preset attributes and abilities which were enhanced during play based on the roll of dice. On the heels of the movie’s success, another role playing board game, Star Trek: The Roleplaying Game, hit the market. Done by the creators of Dungeons and Dragons, its method of play was of the same order as Dungeons and Dragons, but with the ability to create characters by profiles instead of gathering them by chance. People met in coffee houses and bars, often in handmade costumes, to play.

In 1998, the first anthology of fan fiction was published by Simon and Schuster, called Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. I was hooked. I wanted to write characters with backstories and personal conflict -- not play by rules of engagement, have mock battles, or win by points. After entering this community, I turned to the internet for venues where Trekkers like me could publish their stories. The new internet services, like Compuserve, AOL, and Prodigy had Trek bulletin boards. I joined several before I found IQC, a real time chat network with numerous chat rooms full of people pretending to be flying star ships to exotic places. They were not what I was looking for.

As the internet matured, websites like Borderlands, Memory Alpha, Bravo, Epsilon, Unity and Tango Fleets sprang up. These sites combined fanfiction with role playing, making it more convenient and satisfying than meeting for a few hours a month in a public venue to set up a board, roll dice, and trade situation cards.

Soon after, I joined a role playing website called SoulTrek that was created in 1997. It had nicely rendered graphics, many different ships of the line and best of all a writing platform that was modeled after the Deep Space 9 series. To play, you applied by filling out a character profile and writing a short bio. You were then assigned to a ship or station, given a rank and the email of where the short emails called posts should be sent. The play was moderated by the Captains, who posted our bits and pieces, which cobbled together into story lines. With their approval and occasional editing, the posts were added to the website on a daily basis.

Play consisted of taking on the viewpoint of our characters and interacting with each other. Each ship went on mission story lines, but because our ship DS23 didn’t move, we tended to explore the inner, personal relationships of the characters and the interactions between species, instead. To progress in the game, we didn’t use dice for the outcome of scenarios or the gaining of attributes, nor did we have the same scoring systems that were in the role-playing books and board games. We used a system based on storyline contributions and plot advancement for awarding rank and promotions. Better still, I could play in my spare time, on my commuter train or in my Trek jammies over the weekend, instead of going to a bar or restaurant to play.

I found out that we were a unique crew because we were not populated by teenagers with older folks as the ranking officers, like many of the other writing platforms in the fleets. Rather, we were a group entirely of adults: Vietnam and Gulf War vets, active duty military personnel, computer programmers, clerical workers, tradesmen, caregivers, and college students. We wrote stories that could be classified as ‘soap opera in space’ because we expanded our characters in slowly developed arcs much like a soap opera would do. We agreed upon storylines using an ICQ chat room also called DS23. In bi-weekly meetings, we worked out plot, gave promotions, and encouraged one another.

I wrote under my new Vulcan name T’Lar, a 200-year-old half Navajo / half Vulcan with a mysterious past, who was awarded the rank of Lieutenant Junior Grade and assigned to DS23 in the Soul Trek universe. Some of my stories were very personal explorations of issues such as how would one feel if they were cloned without permission, how to help a friend in an abusive love affair even if they are Klingon, or what to do to cope with the loss of loved one. Sure, we had the occasional run-and-gun fights with bad guys, but most of the stories were things that peeled back the force fields and allowed anyone reading the posts on the website to be a space bug on our portholes.

By 9/11, I had written enough short stories to fill a three-inch binder and thereby risen to the rank of Lt Commander, Chief of Security and Tactics. However, strangest of all, I had never come face to face with any of my shipmates. Earth geography prevented it. With players in Australia, Canada, Japan, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, South Carolina, Pennsylvania and Utah, most of us were just words on the screen. Remarkably, that enhanced the role playing. Accents or physical characteristics never interfered with the characterizations we invented.

When I saw the twin towers in flames on that fateful morning, my heart sank and my spirit returned to the malaise that I had lived through back in the ‘60s. Again the airwaves were permeated with images of tragedy, hatred and strife, but this time there was no Star Trek to light the way to a new future. Star Trek: Voyager had found its way home in May of that year, ending the series run on broadcast television. Sure, the Star Trek: Enterprise series appeared in late September, but it didn’t help. The show had darker sets, more interspecies conflict, and no Federation to guide it. It was Trek, but it didn’t take me to a better place.

Over the next year, everyone’s writing became intermittent. Attendance in the chat room turned sporadic and by the end of 2001, it had dwindled to nothing. In early 2002, most of the crew had stopped writing. I spoke with a few of the members via phone or email, and although we discussed 9/11, we never verbally tied it to what was affecting the writing. However, it became the touch point for the end of our ‘good old days’. We would reminisce about how things were before 9/11, vow to do better in future, but then not post another word.

Talking with a male friend who is a younger Trekker, one who was introduced to Trek by his father in the early ‘80s when TOS was being rerun, I found that he took the opposite approach to Trek, and sci-fi in general, after the 9/11 tragedy. He said that it “promised a future where terrorism was not necessary.” He said that Star Trek: Enterprise, showed him how the transition to a new society could occur. Unencumbered by pre-judgement of what Star Fleet stood for or the restrictions of the Prime Directive, which states that Starfleet personnel cannot interfere with the internal development of alien civilizations, Captain Archer and his crew had to deal with each new species that they met as best they could.

Further, he said that shortly after 9/11, among his friends, discussions of the differences between the first world and the third world, Christianity and Islam, made him ponder the implications of Star Fleet’s Prime Directive. How would a doctrine of non-interference in the evolution of other cultures apply in the post-9/11 world? Were we, the Americans, trying to impose our standards on others with our books, movies, and television shows, or were we the intended targets of another culture trying to impose its dogmas and philosophy on us? Should we ever try to educate others about our culture when their ideas conflict with ours? In other words, he wondered, What Would Kirk Do? I must admit, I wonder myself.

After over five years of writing together, my star base was disbanded by entropy. By 2010, the entire fleet website disappeared, along with many others from the early days of the internet. Now, if you try to find those websites with a Google search, you will get over 1.7 million hits. But on the first three pages of unsponsored roleplaying sites, many are inactive places that haven’t had anyone posting for a very long time; others seem to be placeholder pages with all the links broken or missing. Perhaps I’m the one missing the starship by not understanding how roleplay has evolved since that fateful day.

Although my shipmates and I lost the feeling of hope that TOS gave us back in the '60s on 9/11, I know that things are not all that different between younger Trekkers and myself. We have an immediate connection with one another. When we talk, it’s about the Trek universe. We speak the same lingo, know the inside jokes, have a species we would like to be and a planet we would love to visit. Believe me, we all want someone to hurry and make that damn transporter!

The resonance of Star Trek is and will always be hope for the future, no matter what's happening in the world when one is introduced to Trek. It will always be the shining city on a faraway hill that we all aspire to be a citizen of. It's the mythology of the modern era, the fables that Aesop would have written if he were with us today.

Perhaps, after I see the newest movie, watch a few episodes of any of the series, and go to a 50th Anniversary Convention, I might get my urge to write my Trekkies again. After all these years, I still use my Trek name for one of my email addresses and there is still a ship or two that might need an old Vulcan on its crew.

L.D. Barnes is a native Chicagoan whose writing started with Star Trek fan fiction. Now a member of Mystery Writers of America, FLOW Writers, and Longwood Writers Guild, she will be included in the Gwendolyn Brooks Anthology, Revise the Psalm, publishing stardate 2017.01.17.
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