Guest Writer: John J. Zipay
Star Trek fandom is at a crossroads. Nowhere was that more evident than between August 2nd and 6th, 2017 at Creation Entertainment’s Official Star Trek 2017 Las Vegas Convention at the Rio Suites Hotel.
The theme of this year’s convention was the 30th anniversary of the premiere of Star Trek – The Next Generation. Last year’s convention celebrated the 50th anniversary of the premiere of the original Star Trek series. (Next year will be the 25th anniversary of Deep Space Nine, if you’re keeping score).
I fell in love with Star Trek during the mid-1970’s. At the time, WPIX – TV, Channel 11 (11 Alive!), was syndicating the series. It aired at 6 p.m. on weeknights and my grandfather (an Italian immigrant and day laborer) would sit in his recliner on the porch and watch Star Trek after dinner. My Mom and I spent a great deal of time at my maternal grandparents’ house and I quickly became caught up in the adventures of the crew of the Starship Enterprise.
My father took me to my first Star Trek convention in 1978. Star Trek America 1978 was held Sept 2-4, 1978 at the Statler Hilton Hotel in New York. I remember the enormous Dealer’s Room, getting a piece of notebook paper signed by James Doohan (for free!), watching uncut episodes of Star Trek on 35mm film, and hearing Isaac Asimov speak on topics like wormholes and shot glasses full of scotch.
My father may not have understood anything at the convention, but I was profoundly affected. I saw people of every race, people with disabilities, young and old, all united in the joy of Star Trek. Over the years, I went to many conventions, pursued an engineering degree, and have worked for NASA for 32 years (but that is another story…).
At Star Trek Las Vegas 2017, the first day of the convention was dedicated to Star Trek Discovery. The new series will premiere on September 24th and be available in the U.S. on CBS – All Access (on CTV in Canada and on Netflix for the rest of the world). Actors and writers talked about the legacy they were trying to uphold and there were displays of concept art and some of the new props and costumes. Displays showed the Star Trek Discovery logo, characters, and the trailer ran almost continuously on a screen as you entered the convention area.
But there was a troubling undercurrent that was clear as I spent five days in the middle of Star Trek fandom.
I am 51 years old. The fans that watched Star Trek when it was originally broadcast on NBC average about 10 years older than me. My generation came to Star Trek in syndication. Other people I met at the convention came to Star Trek during The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager’s first-run, the three films of the Kelvin timeline (yes, really), and the Netflix, DVD’s, or omnipresent re-runs of the various Star Trek incarnations on various broadcast stations.
But Star Trek fandom is diminishing. The convention was not sold out and the enormous outpouring of fans and stars for the 50th anniversary convention last year were nowhere to be seen. The usual suspects, Shatner, Takei, Nichols, Koenig, Mulgrew showed up and were entertaining and The Next Generation crew (with the exception of Jonathan Frakes who could not attend) knocked it out of the park. But the entire future of the Star Trek brand is riding on the success or failure of Star Trek Discovery.
Star Trek needs new fans. Star Trek needs millions of new fans all over the world. Star Trek Discovery has the unenviable task of delivering a new generation of fans, not just in America, but everywhere else. The question I asked to many convention goers was, “Are you looking forward to Star Trek Discovery?”
The responses that I received over the course of five days are worthy of discussion and serious consideration. Perhaps the well-publicized issues with casting and production staff have made folks a bit cynical. Perhaps CBS has failed to market the show, which represents a considerable financial investment, effectively to a broad audience. Or maybe, Star Trek as a franchise has run its course.
Some folks hadn’t seen any show publicity, others were cautiously optimistic, a few zealots at the convention were absolutely thrilled that there will be a new series. There was a sneak preview of some concept art and costumes and it was clear that the production design is impressive. But there was no great wave of enthusiasm. Some took umbrage at having to pay for CBS All Access to view the show. Others answered my question with a nonchalant shrug.
This may not bode well for the future of Star Trek. The groundswell of Star Trek fandom in the 1970’s preceded the Star Wars phenomenon and was the reason why the original cast (except for Leonard Nimoy) was rescued from Promise Margarine commercials and schlocky science fiction films to give us six movies and resurrect the franchise. There was not a lot of thrill among fandom at this convention when it came to Star Trek Discovery.
Star Trek is difficult to write and produce. Star Trek Discovery has generated negative buzz with the revelation that the lead is Spock’s, heretofore unknown, half-sister. Others hoped that the new series would have a post- Star Trek Voyager timeline. Still others criticize the depiction of the Klingons.
It seems that every person has their own mental vision of what a new Star Trek series should be. Star Trek Discovery will not be the greatest series ever put on television and it will struggle to find its place in the hearts and minds of fans. The production values appear spectacular and everyone involved understand the stakes. I left the convention wondering of the fans understand the stakes. There is no fourth movie in the Kelvin timeline on the horizon and if Star Trek Discovery fails, I may have attended the last big Star Trek convention. Only time will tell if one of the most groundbreaking story-telling mediums has reached its final, natural end.
I would be remiss in my duty to the readers if I did not recount the convention as a tribute to Star Trek – The Next Generation. Every member of the main cast except for Jonathan Frakes took the stage at least twice on Saturday. Michael Dorn and Marina Sirtis are always paired together and their straight man / boisterous woman routine never gets old. Denise Crosby and Gates McFadden discussed candidly why they left The Next Generation and the circumstances surrounding their returns. John de Lancie held forth on his portrayal of “Q” and how he is still amazed his character made the impression it did in only eight episodes. Finally, Sir Patrick Stewart, relaxed and loquacious, despite a battle with laryngitis, commanded the stage for a full hour in front of a ballroom packed with about 4,000 people.
The icing on the cake was a zany 90-minute reunion panel on Saturday night which also included LeVar Burton and Brent Spiner that was held without a moderator. The entire group took audience questions, bantered back and forth, argued and genuinely behaved like a group of old friends. The questions ranged from interesting to idiotic with several fans asking about minutiae that no working actor would ever recall. In fact, Sir Patrick Stewart apologized to the audience for not living up to the fans expectations when it comes to the recall of events that happened thirty years ago. He was greeted by thunderous applause. No reasonable person expects the actors to know things that die-hard fans study over and over again in repeated viewings of the episodes. The audience at the reunion panel gave The Next Generation crew a standing ovation as they exited the stage.
But the highlight of the convention for me was the panel discussion of “The Inner Light”. The episode’s writer, Morgan Gendel, Sir Patrick Stewart, and Margot Rose discussed my favorite episode of The Next Generation and an episode that is well-regarded by most Star Trek fans.
We learned that Sir Patrick Stewart descended into his performance as Kanin so fully that he had some difficulty returning to the Picard character after the episode was filmed. Morgan Gendel said that the story evolved from a glimpse of the Fuji blimp hovering over Los Angeles. Mr. Gendel came up with the idea of the Enterprise encountering a probe that implants memories. Over a five-month period, that idea evolved into the finished script.
The episode had a first-time director, so Sir Patrick essentially took control of the ensemble in order to help the new director along. The idea of the flute came about because it was necessary to visually convey the change from Picard to Kanin and the now unforgettable flute melody that Picard learns incrementally symbolizes his assimilation into life among the long-dead planet’s inhabitants. The somewhat dark ending where we learn the sun goes supernova 1,000 years earlier without a Deus ex Machina salvation for the planet’s inhabitants was the part of the script I found emotionally compelling. I am the least sentimental person that I have ever known and yet I tear up every time I watched the episode.
The other panels and guests ranged from entertaining to flat. Alice Krige, making her first convention appearance, is a soft-spoken, classically-trained actress, whose autograph line stretched for over two hours and who absolutely loved portraying the Borg Queen in both First Contact and Voyager. The Deep Space Nine panel, anchored by Ira Steven Behr and including Nana Visitor, Rene Auberjonois, Armin Shimerman, Aron Eisenberg, and Max Grodenchik and crashed by Terry Farrell, enthusiastically discussed the darker tone of their show as they were on the frontier and not protected by the Federation, so they needed to do what was necessary at times.
The other panels were mediocre. After all, how often can you reminisce? I asked myself that question many times as actors struggled to fill time and answer the audience’s well-meaning, but often irrelevant queries.
Walter Koenig, George Takei (twice), and Karl Urban genuinely felt the joy of being at the convention and their sessions were entertaining. Walter Koenig admitted that he doesn’t speak with Willian Shatner, but any differences between the cast members simply reflected regular people and had nothing to do with Gene Roddenberry’s vision of a better world as we journey together into the future. Nichelle Nichols did not appear on stage alone, (she did come on stage for a photo opportunity with astronaut Dr. Mae Jemison), but she signed autographs in the Dealer’s room for all five days and she and Mr. Koenig shared a warm embrace at her table. George Takei discussed his family’s internment and riled a few audience members by declaring that Donald Trump must go. Karl Urban felt a need to play Dr. McCoy as a tribute to DeForest Kelly’s legacy and is in talks for a Judge Dredd TV series. Kate Mulgrew talked about both Voyager and Orange is the New Black.
But of course, no convention would be complete without William Shatner. I claim he is the greatest living actor. He was accompanied on stage by three Orion Slave Girls and his first hilarious words are given in the caption below. He was charming, funny, and completely engaged. He told the audience that there will be a second season of “Better Late than Never” and he even took a fan to task for asking a stupid question that compared Kirk and James Bond’s prowess with women. He was as amazed and appreciative as everyone else that Star Trek fandom has lasted this long and talked about his joy at winning two Emmy awards.
Shatner went on to sign autographs for two hours and spent an hour taking pictures with fans on the Bridge set. Mr. Shatner is 86 years old, has a terrific hairpiece, and looks like he can take the Enterprise out of drydock today on a mission to save the galaxy.
Leonard Nimoy passed away two and a half years ago. Shatner’s tanned and trim form make it seem like he will live forever. He will not and no subsequent Star Trek convention will ever be the same without him.