Orson Scott Card on Trek Fandom

May 16th, 2005 | by Sqotty |

Orson Scott Card, in his piece, Strange New World: No ‘Star Trek’ asks many questions, and provides a disturbing view of Trek Fandom (and Fandom in general). The piece starts off with:

So they’ve gone and killed “Star Trek.” And it’s about time.

Well, if he is talking about the end of Star Trek: Enterprise, I couldn’t agree more.

The piece goes into the generally accepted beliefs behind the success of Star Trek, reminding the reader that the Enterprise first took to the airwaves before VCRs. Once it was canceled after three seasons, the only way to see it was when a local station opted to buy the series in syndication. A tough sell for a relatively short lived series. However, it proved a gold mine to those stations that did pick it up.

A little person history, and disclosure: I have never read anything by Orson Scott Card. I am also a long time fan of the original Star Trek series, and have attended many (well over a hundred) Science Fiction and Star Trek conventions. I have also been a member of numerous clubs, from S.T.A.R. Fresno and S.T.A.R. San Diego, the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society, as well as the Klingon Assault Group. I am also the Kahuna of the Klingon Surfer Dudes. I guess one could say I have a vested interest in refuting some of what Card wrote in his opinion piece.

In it, Card writes:

They tried it before, remember. The network flushed William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy down into the great septic tank of broadcast waste…

And I have to go back to Inside Star Trek by Herb Solow and Bob Justman, which has the inside scoop from what NBC was trying to get out of the fledgling Science Fiction series. Solow was an NBC executive at the time, and he has the straight poop there. For one, RCA owned NBC and during the first two seasons (at least) Trek was one of the top rated COLOR television shows. It may have been at the bottom of the ratings heap for television broadcasts over all, however, when you drill down in the data and see that is at the top of the heap for shows being broadcast in color, and the powers that be, meaning RCA in this case, want to sell more color TV sets, what are you going to do? Solow points out that Trek was in little danger of being cancelled during its first two seasons.

Card also hits on the quality of the show, and writes:

As science fiction, the series was trapped in the 1930s – a throwback to spaceship adventure stories with little regard for science or deeper ideas. It was sci-fi as seen by Hollywood: all spectacle, no substance.

Which was a shame, because science fiction writing was incredibly fertile at the time, with writers like Harlan Ellison and Ursula LeGuin, Robert Silverberg and Larry Niven, Brian W. Aldiss and Michael Moorcock, Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov, and Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke creating so many different kinds of excellent science fiction that no one reader could keep track of it all.

Little of this seeped into the original “Star Trek.” The later spin-offs were much better performed, but the content continued to be stuck in Roddenberry’s rut. So why did the Trekkies throw themselves into this poorly imagined, weakly written, badly acted television series with such commitment and dedication? Why did it last so long?

The show was pitched by Roddenberry as a wagon train to the stars (Making of Star Trek), and had writers from the SF genre including the aforementioned Harlan Ellison, as well as Robert Bloch and Theodore Sturgeon.

Okay, even I have to admit that the third season of the original series was comprised of a lot of turkey episodes. But the first two seasons had many high marks, like “Balance of Terror” and “Space Seed”. Not to mention the best loved episode, “The Trouble With Tribbles,” written by SF great David Gerrold at a time when he was just starting his writing career.

Even Niven got into the act, writing an episode for the very short-lived animated series.

Fans wanted more, and not the animated series. That just didn’t cut the mustard.

Yet Card continues, and isn’t satisfied with slamming what was at the time a darn good television series, he slams the fans:

They started making costumes and wearing pointy ears. They wrote messages in Klingon, they wrote their own stories about the characters, filling in what was left out – including, in one truly specialized subgenre, the “Kirk-Spock” stories in which their relationship was not as platonic and emotionless as the TV show depicted it.

Mostly, though, they wrote and wrote and wrote letters. To the networks. To the production company. To the stars and minor characters and guest stars and grips of the series, inviting them to attend conventions and speak about the events on the series as if they had really happened, instead of being filmed on a tatty little set with cheesy special effects.

Sure, there are people who dress up in Trek outfits, and put on ears, and ridges, and call it FUN! It’s a hobby, nothing more. And, yes, guilty as charged. The vast number of fanzines, including the “Kirk-Spock” stories did (and do) exist. Can’t say I have read any of the later…nor do I want to. Yeech!

Letter writing took place, including a campaign to have the first space shuttle named Enterprise, a write-in campaign that was successful.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, I have been to quite a few conventions, mostly on the left coast, from San Diego to Sacramento, lately in the Mid-west, and I have seen many of the actors and actresses, from the mainline stars, to the guest stars and the actors filling supporting roles. Never have I heard or seen any behavior such as card describes, where fans actually believed that the show was real…unless they were under the age of five. Only in the portrayal of some fans in the movie Galaxy Quest have I seen such behavior as Card has described.

Maybe he gets his facts from the movie Trekkies, which from what i have seen, went out of its way to highlight the wackos and not focus on the fans who lead normal lives.

And still more…

Here’s what I think: Most people weren’t reading all that brilliant science fiction. Most people weren’t reading at all. So when they saw “Star Trek,” primitive as it was, it was their first glimpse of science fiction. It was grade school for those who had let the whole science fiction revolution pass them by.

This is a good one. Yes, he may be right that Trek was for many their introduction to science fiction, yet, with few exceptions, they read and read. And not just the books based on the series, but Asimov, Herbert, Ellison, Silverberg and a host of others. By the time I finished Sixth Grade, I had read nearly every book Ray Bradbury had written at the time. In Junior High School, I read Heinlein and Asimov, and followed them up with Brunner, Zelazny, Herbert, Ellison, and a host of others, including many books outside of the SF genre.

The same was true with my friends, reading much of the same kinds of books, and digging back into the older stuff, including the likes of Robert E. Howard and Philip K. Dick.

Trek fans have grown up to become engineers, programmers, scientists of all sorts, as well as business leaders, lawyers, fire/rescue/police, defenders of our country thru military service, and yes, even a few politicians.

The original Star Trek series may not have been great science fiction, and not great television by today’s standards, however, we’re talking about a series that has been around for nearly 40 years, and put in its time and place, the late sixties, and throughout the seventies in syndication, it was better than a lot of the tripe being put on the airwaves, and to this day is better than much of what is pushed on the airwaves by Hollywood.

The question that Card should have been asking is not why did it survive so long. We’re talking about a series that has been, and still is, immensely popular, and hugely successful, with six television series and ten movies. Some good, some bad. Okay the last couple of movies were turkeys, however, several have been absolutely great: ST:II, IV, VI in particular were awesome pieces of Trek.

The question should be “why did the latest installment fail so miserably?” Maybe I am the only one to realize it, but the vision of ST:Enterprise departed from what made the original series great. Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the others were heroes. The character of Captain Archer was that of a criminal. Kirk and Spock, when trapped in time, used their brains to survive, Archer committed grand theft auto and bank robbery to survive, and had no remorse over doing such. Archer beat up defenseless prisoners and subjected others to torture by tossing them into an airlock and depressurizing it. How can you expect fans to accept someone who would commit such despicable acts as those as being a hero?

Add to that the fact that the executive producers of Trek had lost their way. Mass marketing and special effects took the place of good stories and interesting characters. They introduced characters and situations of a more “adult” level, skin tight costumes on well-endowed females, in order to boost ratings.

ST: Enterprise needed to end. And end it did, albeit the powers that be forced yet another season on the airwaves in order to get to the magic number of episodes for syndication. It should have ended sooner.

Voyager was also in many ways a failure, with few episodes really worth watching.

DS9 didn’t catch fire until it introduced a long term story arc with the Dominion War, and this was done in order to compete against the far superior series, Babylon-5, whose success put a fire under the you-know-what’s of the production staff for Trek.

TNG was a welcome and refreshing extension of the original series, picking up some years after the time of Kirk and Spock, yet even it was lacking, and rehashed some of the same plots, as well as bringing us Wesley Crusher, the most hated character in Trek history. Hated by the fans, that is.

Is there opportunity for Paramount and Viacom to rebuild the Trek franchise and satisfy the fans desire for good SF on television? You bet there is. Trek needs to return to the values that made it great: heroes not criminals, honor and integrity, not committing crimes for expediency.

As for fans, well, maybe Orson Scott Card should actually get out of his parents basement and go to a few good conventions and see what the fans are really like. Maybe have a few pints with them, and find out what makes them tick, why they like Trek. Trek fans are not the way he depicts them in his hit piece on Trek Fandom. Well, except, maybe, those under the age of five, however, that’s to be expected.

Oh, and Card, the best science fiction film of all time is 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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