Burbocentrism

Tom Shippey

  • Beyond Uhura: ‘Star Trek’ and Other Memories by Nichelle Nichols
    Boxtree, 320 pp, £9.99, December 1995, ISBN 0 7522 0787 3
  • I Am Spock by Leonard Nimoy
    Century, 342 pp, £16.99, November 1995, ISBN 0 7126 7691 0
  • Science Fiction Audiences: Watching ‘Doctor Who’ and ‘Star Trek’ by Henry Jenkins and John Tulloch
    Routledge, 294 pp, £40.00, April 1995, ISBN 0 415 06140 7
  • ‘Star Trek’: Deep Space Nine by Mark Altman, Rob Davis and Tony Pallot
    Boxtree, 64 pp, £8.99, May 1995, ISBN 0 7522 0898 5

Star Trek is a phenomenon, no doubt about it. Since 1966 we’ve had the original series, the Next Generation, Deep Space Nine (now in its fourth year) and Voyager (now in its second). There were 263 hours available for viewing in 1994, with more appearing all the time, seven feature films, and over one hundred titles in the novelisation series, of which 35 have made it into the New York Times bestseller list. With judicious channel-switching you can watch Star Trek pretty well all the time on American TV, and there are no doubt people who do. You might feel like saying to such ‘Trekkers’ – as, famously and unforgivably, Bill Shatner, the original Captain Kirk, did – ‘get a life.’ But it’s a good rule not to argue with success, at least until you understand what’s causing it, and anything which sparks such enthusiasm and active devotion among passive TV viewers can’t be all bad.

Fan activism is special to Star Trek. Write-in campaigns saved the original series from the axe of NBC executives after both its first and second seasons (though not after its third, in 1969). Now, almost thirty years later, over four hundred magazines are produced by fans of the series, and the Star Trek sections of the Internet are among the busiest. A ‘Star TrekEncyclopedia, a ‘Star TrekChronology, a ‘Star Trek’ Technical Manual, a collection of The Art of ‘Star Trek’, the Captain’s Logs (a guide to ‘the scripts that never made it to the screen’) and even the Starfleet Academy Entrance Exam (a set of ‘trivial pursuit’ questions) can be found in any bookstore in the US. Critics might say that Star Trek has replaced the interminable number of serialised TV Westerns, such as The Lone Ranger and The Virginian, with the major advantage that aliens, unlike Native Americans, do not form any part of the television audience and are, therefore, universally inoffensive. Supporters could claim that this is a classic case of an art-form – science fiction on TV – which has made and educated its own audience from scratch.

Yet one of the peculiar features of Star Trek is that it does not, on the whole, appeal to people who actually read science fiction. The late James Blish, a distinguished author with a foot in both camps, guessed that the audience overlap in the Sixties was only about 10 per cent; and in their study of science fiction audiences, Henry Jenkins and John Tulloch note the continuing rejection of Star Trek by ‘the male establishment of literary science fiction fandom’. Actually, no group of fans can be called an establishment: none of them has any power at all, not even, for all the write-in campaigns, over the producers of Star Trek. This is a dispute about likes and dislikes, not political suppression. Just the same, the existence of two largely separate audiences for material that on the face of it looks pretty similar is noteworthy. Possibly the antipathy of SF fans for Trekkers, and vice versa, says something about the Star Trek phenomenon itself. What is the secret of the TV series’ success with Middle Americans, and why are some people immune to its seductive powers?

You are not logged in