Not the Golden Age

I recently watched a fun little documentary called “The Trek Not Taken,” about Star Trek spinoffs that were discussed, developed, in some cases written and even taken to the point where sets and costumes were built, but not released to an audience.I really enjoyed it, and thought it was nicely done. There was a point I took exception to, however. I bring it up here, not to criticize the producer of this video in any way, but more to examine how I, as an aging fan, tend to see things a little differently.

The makers of this video posited that, in fifty years of existence, Star Trek has gone through several “dark ages” and one “golden age.” These ages aligned with the times that a Trek TV series was or was not in production, so the first two dark ages were 1969-1973 and 1975-1987.

Interestingly, although four Trek films were released during that second interval, it’s the opinion of the documentarian that only televised Trek saves fans from a dark age.

The golden age of Trek, then, is listed as being 1987 – 2005, the period during which four Star Trek spinoffs were released, and one of them was always in first run.

I find this interesting, because, if you had asked me when the “golden age of Star Trek” was, I would have said it was 1966 – 1979. I guess that’s because I have a different gold standard.

For me, what was important about Star Trek was not how much content was produced by the studios, but what effect that content had on the viewers.

Star Trek energized a generation of fans. It inspired children to become scientists, astronauts, authors, actors, artists and filmmakers. It reached across barriers of gender, race and religion and encouraged people to make the most of themselves despite perceived social obstacles. (Granted, it could have done more to reach across barriers of preference and sexuality, but what it did accomplish was amazing.)

Trek fans ran letter-writing campaigns to keep their show on the air–the first time such a thing had ever been done. They held specialized conventions that drew thousands of people. They created demand for licensed products that created an industry and, consequently, a lot of jobs. They published fanzines, wrote plays, made films, and, in the pre-Internet days of the 1970s, maintained a connected network of fans throughout the US and the world by circulating newsletters and establishing clubs.

In the 1970s, fans had one goal–to bring back Star Trek. A new series, a movie, whatever. Fans just wanted to the Enterprise back on the screen, exploring strange, new worlds, seeking out new life and new civilizations, etc. Most of them also wanted Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the rest on the bridge, too. Most of the bashing of poor Bill Shatner hadn’t started then, thankfully. As fans, we knew we were geeks. We had decided to be something a lot of people frowned on or laughed at. We hadn’t yet started trying to make ourselves look cool by casting depredations on our heroes the way we do now. Geek was still a long way from chic.

But the movement had the energy of something young and developing. In many ways, the lack of televised Trek was a good thing. It meant there wasn’t a glut of material to keep up with, or Heaven forbid, get tired of. We watched the 79 classic hours over and over again. And then we watched the 11 hours of the animated series. We knew the dialogue by heart. We knew the name of every one-shot character. We knew the names of the actors who played them. We knew the names of the planets the ship visited each week. And, of course, we knew the episode titles. (Geek fact, here–contrary to what the infamous Shatner “Get A Life” sketch showed, I never met anyone who knew the episode numbers.)

Honestly? I’ve never seen all the episodes of the four spinoff series even once. Next Gen lost me in Season Six, DS9 before Season One was up, Voyager in mid-Season Two, and Enterprise about three episodes along. The writing was often poor, the characters were bland, and the universe they lived in became too defined and explored for me. It had no sense of wonder. Given the choice between an hour of DS9 I’ve never seen and a re-watch of a Classic Trek episode, I’m gonna watch the Classic Trek.

Is it an age thing? Am I lost in the past? Maybe. Trek imprinted on me young. As Wil Wheaton / Richard Dreyfus’s character observes in Stand By Me, you never have friends like the ones you had when you were twelve. No new Trek could ever compare.

But I don’t resent the new shows, or the 2009 reboot. I just have varying degrees of interest in them that are always less than the interest I had in their parent series.

So, for me, the golden age came early, when there was hope for new adventures, and the universe hadn’t been quite so well-explored. When the new adventures came, and especially as hundreds more of them came, well, it was a let-down, overall.

Why? Partially, as I said, it’s about the fandom. It just had more energy when I first became aware of it. And I wasn’t even attending conventions in those days. But I was reading books and fanzines. I was devouring the Best of Trek collections that analyzed the series in minutest detail. I was watching enthusiasm grow and imaginations run wild. People were speculating and writing adventures for our heroes that took them in directions no one ever imagined. And none of them claimed to be writing “official” Trek. They were just playing in the sandbox. We had something called “BNFs” (Big Name Fans) who were fans who tended to know the stars, or who ran cons or published zines. But we didn’t have “Superfans” who claimed to be the true heirs to Gene Roddenberry.

But wasn’t there a huge influx of people coming into fandom when STTNG came on the air? You know, there was. Attendance at conventions more than doubled in Baltimore around 1990. But the creative energy was less for all that. Costumes became more elaborate and prettier. Fanzines went away. The Internet brought us some wonderful archives of fan fic, and lots of discussion forums; but they weren’t the work of art that a good fanzine was.

And far fewer people wanted to be involved. When I was coming into fandom, everybody wanted to be on the con committee, everybody wanted to write or draw for the zine, everybody wanted to belong. Yeah, we wanted to meet the stars, too. But we knew they’d only be there for an hour now and then. Fandom was going to be there for us All. The. Time.

It came to pass that the average fan was interested almost exclusively in an autograph and a photo with the stars. That became big business, with actors charging into the three figures to scrawl their name on a photo and lean in for a snapshot. The above-average fan wanted to be a celebrity.

Fans became either consumers, or producers who were only producing so they could claim superiority.

That’s not a golden age to me, no matter how many Star Trek series were on the air.

I guess some would point out that creativity has survived. We have fan films now, after all, and they’re so slick they look like episodes of the show.

But that may be my problem with them. A lot of fan films seem to be more about copying what Trek did, and making the ships and costumes look right, than they are about taking the characters off in wild, new directions. And it strikes me they’re a lot more about turning their producers into “SuperFans,” and giving them some kind of nebulous cred, than they are about celebrating creativity.

Or maybe, as Spock once observed, I’ve grown so old and so inflexible that I’ve outlived my usefulness. I hope not.

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