This September 8 marks the 50th anniversary of Star Trek, the iconic science-fiction series that’s still going strong all these years later. The world has changed so much in those five decades since its 1966 debut, not least of which in the modern geek culture that Star Treks fans had a large part in defining. Video games, comic books and TV series like Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead get similarly dedicated fanbases. Still, there’s something special that Star Trek fans (or Trekkies) bring to their fandom. And it’s something that my fellow nerds could learn from.
Quite an Away Mission
I've been a moderate Star Trek fan since I first watched Star Trek: The Next Generation in the early '90s, so I expected to be overwhelmed at Star Trek Celebration in Las Vegas. (You can see how I handled it in the video above.) In my career as a geeky journalist, I'm used to being the expert when I'm at comic conventions or video game trade shows. Yet, at a Star Trek convention, I'm a dabbler. I'm a fair-weather follower surrounded by true believers who know everything about the thousands of hours of Trek content.
While I anticipated these experts would teach me about Star Trek, I didn't realize I'd learn so much about being a fan from these Trekkies. I met one of the most diverse groups of fans I'd ever witnessed at a convention. There were people of all races, ages, sizes, sexuality, gender. All there for the fiction they loved. Star Trek spoke to all of them, pulling them to the same place to celebrate exploring the final frontier.
I got to see this lovely, very human side of Trekkies by being involved in filming the Star Trek Fan Census. We asked dozens of people to film testimonials of why Star Trek is so important to them. I saw an African-American woman discuss how Star Trek's dream of equality got her interested in social justice. There was a member of the military who described how watching Star Trek while overseas helped him and his fellow officers deal with PTSD. I saw brothers from Columbia discuss how the show inspired them to study science. And I saw a mother talk about how much her family loves Star Trek, and then start to cry saying that she wished her late husband was here with them right now.
The Un-Neutral Zone
Over and over again I witnessed how the themes of Star Trek crossed all these barriers and personalities, connecting people in ways they probably never expected. In particular, I met a number of Trekkies identify as being on the autism spectrum, describing how the many different shows gave them direction in a world they could struggle with. As one person with Asperger's Syndrome described it, Star Trek showed him that he wasn't an outsider. This was a message I heard all weekend.
The constant across all those replying was what a sense of hope Star Trek gave them. Despite being created at the height of the Cold War, Star Trek's original vision was one where humanity came together to explore the stars together. Compare that to today, where so much pop culture imagines a future full of zombies or gasoline-obsessed warlords. Star Trek reminds you that imagining a better future can be just as narratively compelling and exciting as any other series.
And that hope for the future was alive in all the Trekkies I met. Thanks to social media and comments sections, geek communities around comics or video games have the reputation of being hostile to outsiders. You hear about what type of people can and can't be a gamer or a comic book reader. Or, as I've been guilty of, you end up with cynical outlooks on what the next Batman or Star Wars film might be like. But the fans I met in Las Vegas showed that all people are welcome in the world of Star Trek.
We're All in This Together
I can't help but think Gene Roddenberry's vision of a diverse cast helped foster such an inclusive fan base for 50 years. In a time where just about every show starred white men, Star Trek featured a black woman, a Japanese-American, and a Russian all part of the principle cast. Sure, parts of the 1966 series are hokey by today's standards, but even now that's a very diverse cast by network television standards. And that same commitment to diversity continued into all the following shows and films, up to today. And Trekkies certainly noticed.
As we celebrate 50 years of Star Trek, I encourage all my fellow geeks to foster the same sense of hope and inclusiveness that I observed in the Trekkies I met in Las Vegas. See that fans can come from anywhere, and that the themes of a given series can connect anyone. That's a dream for the future I'm sure Gene Roddenberry would agree with.