In the long, often sordid history of network television, there has never been anything quite like the Star Trek phenomenon. Part cult mythology, part celebrity worship, it has endured for more than three decades, spun off into half a dozen movies, and spawned more than 63 million copies of Star Trek books--in 15 languages. The show's cliches and symbols ("Beam me up, Scotty!") have seeped into the common lexicon. Its ideals of ethnic and gender diversity now have deep roots in the popular imagination--if not deeper in the social fabric. Hey, little Whoopi Goldberg went nuts the first time she saw Nichelle Nichols on the tube in a position of authority.
This valentine to Trekkiedom (produced by, who else, Paramount) doesn't go in very deep--probably doesn't intend to--but it's also not quite the promotional piece the studio may have envisioned. Director Roger Nygard (High Strung) dutifully films the dentist in Orlando whose office is done up like a Star Trek set, looks in on the precocious 14-year-old who has already been to 28 conventions and sits with gee-whiz radio hostess Joyce Mason, whose Trekkie show "Talk Trek and Beyond" has been airing in Southern California for more than seven years. Actress Denise Crosby, who played Lieutenant Tasha Yar on the series, interviews some of her former co-workers, who are still agog at the series' success, and assorted fans, still agog at meeting her.
It's all very upbeat and even-handed. Trekkies all love Star Trek, even the ones who prefer to be called "Trek-kers," and everybody's had such a damn good time these last three decades that there's no reason for any of it to ever end.
Such outpourings of affection are largely benign, of course, and many appear to be therapeutic. Cultists who've traveled to 40 or 50 Star Trek conventions obviously believe they're with family. But in this bow to Trekkiedom, Nygard sometimes flirts with darker possibilities, perhaps without even knowing it. For instance, what are we to make of the frequent conventioneer who, syringe in hand, requests blood samples from various members of the cast? What state of mind affects the guy who paid 1,400 bucks at auction for a scrap of latex once worn as part of a Klingon headpiece, then declared that he simply "couldn't have gone home without it"? Or the woman who set aside her suicide plans only when an alarmed James Doohan, "Scotty" on the series, encouraged her to attend a convention instead?
Are we not to concern ourselves with the woman who, ever more drawn to cast member Brent Spiner, started calling herself a "Spiner-femme" and moved into the actor's neighborhood? There, on lonely evenings, she could gaze through the moonlight in the direction of his house. At the screening I attended, which was sprinkled with the faithful, the audience laughed heartily at this revelation. However . . .
By now, most Americans are also familiar with super-Trekkie Barbara Adams. She's the diminutive printing-plant worker from Little Rock, Arkansas, who, while serving on a jury related to the Whitewater case, insisted on wearing her Star Trek uniform in the courtroom. Fine. It's a free country. And Adams is not the first person whose hobby has turned into an obsession. But when Adams starts talking, quite seriously, about "my officers" and insists that co-workers address her as "Commander," you begin to wonder where fun ends and pathology begins.
That's a tough one, and so is this. If our institutions have crumbled, our religions have failed us, and our real lives are empty--inescapable subtexts of the Star Trek phenomenon (or the X-Files phenomenon) at its most extreme--what pop iconography will next emerge to take up the slack on the boob tube? Television is, after all, still the most powerful mass medium ever created. Or what manner of belief will be anonymously hatched via the Internet, whose several potentials have been recently reassessed in light of the Columbine High School massacre?
Will the next pop mythology feel this good? Or will it entail something else? Once you get past the impressive Vulcan makeup jobs on display in Trekkies, past the cute housecats dressed like "Bones" and the amazement expressed by stars Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner, questions like those come bubbling up to the surface, molten and dangerous.