I’ve ranted a couple of times lately about ugly aspects of fandom, in both cases noting the rather unhealthy anger that some people have developed toward George Lucas because the last two Star Wars movies have not lived up to their personal expectations. (Those articles of mine are here and here.) I’ve been baffled by the phenomenon, which was lampooned in a wonderful episode of The Simpsons where Homer was cast as a new character for the “Itchy&Scratchy” cartoon. Comic Book Guy intones, “Worst episode EVER”, and goes on to spout how the creators of I&S owe their fans better, to which Bart replies, “They’ve given you hours and hours of fun and entertainment. Why do they owe you anything?” I wish fans would take that to heart, especially those who will claim that George Lucas or Steven Spielberg or anyone “raped their childhood”.
I did get a reminder this week about how positive an experience fandom can be, though, by reading William Shatner’s lovingly-crafted memoir of his experiences with Star Trek fans, appropriately titled Get a Life!. The title comes, of course, from that classic Saturday Night Live sketch Shatner did in which he, playing himself, appears before a Trek convention and proceeds to tell them all to, well, “Get a life”. That sketch has become one of the immortal SNL moments.
In this book, Shatner briefly details how the first Trek conventions came to be, and how the convention business grew over the years until they were massive affairs held throughout the country. He also describes how he did the conventions rather mechanically until he began to wonder about the whole phenomenon. Shatner’s central question is this, in his words:
“Why does Star Trek, as opposed to let’s say Three’s Company, deserve conventions and the kind of unconditional love that’s been tossed our way for more than three decades now?….How come you never find a convention hall filled with six-thousand people dressed like Mr. Roper?”
Shatner finds many answers to this question, which he poses to fans at the conventions, his fellow Trek actors, the show’s former creators, and more. Some people cite the show’s central message of acceptance and tolerance; others cite the show’s depiction of a positive outcome for the human race, a stark contrast to the dystopic visions that sometimes seem dominant in SF; others cite the show’s clear moral grounding in right and wrong. Along the way Shatner introduces us to a number of quirky, unforgettable people. There is the fan who is very short, and found particular inspiration in the episode “Plato’s Stepchildren”, which focused on an abused dwarf character. There is the shy veterinarian whose claim to fame in Trek fandom is that he takes his cats to the conventions, dressed in Trek regalia. And there is the psychiatric patient who suffers from multiple-personality disorder: several of her personalities are Trek characters.
Shatner also gives a number of anecdotes, most of which are very funny, about his own convention experiences. The funniest involve his early attempts at research for this very book, in which he actually donned some kind of rubber “alien head” mask to wander the convention floor unrecognized. And the brief transcript he gives of one Very Special Convention where he, Patrick Stewart, Avery Brooks and Kate Mulgrew all appeared onstage at once makes me wish I could have been there to see the shenanigans.
Most of all, Shatner captures the cameraderie and the warmth of these gatherings, providing a welcome reminder that fandom can — and should — be something positive. To be a “fan” of something should mean that that something has enriched one’s life. I’m not much of a Star Trek fan these days — I loved Deep Space Nine but never much got into Voyager, and I have yet to see a single episode of Enterprise — but Get a Life! makes me want to go out and track down all those wonderful old episodes that I haven’t seen in so long, some in nearly a decade.