MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 1999
Did Gene Roddenberry know? Did he have any idea what he was unleashing when he created "Star Trek," a sci-fi TV series that started in 1966 and was canceled after three years of dismal ratings? Did he understand the implications of his actions, that hordes of die-hard fans would devote their lives to his personal vision of a better future? Did he know it would create an entire subculture that is unrivaled by any other form of fandom, including even the most rabid sports fanatics?
Whether or not Roddenberry had the intent, "Star Trek" has become a landmark cultural obsession over the last 30 years. Roger Nygard's new low-budget documentary, "Trekkies," attempts (with varied amounts of success) to explore this obsession and understand the people who are so arduously immersed in it. From a dentist who makes all his staff wear Star Trek uniforms, to a man who wishes he could surgically alter his ears to look like Spock's, to the woman who showed up everyday as a Whitewater grand juror wearing her Starfleet uniform, "Trekkies" covers the gamut of fandom. Some of these fans are endearing. Some are quirky. Some are bizarre. And some are--excuse me if this offends anyone--downright creepy.
Nygard and his narrator, Denise Crosby, who played Tasha Yar on the TV series "Star Trek: The Next Generation," filmed "Star Trek" conventions and followed fans over a 12-month period in 1996-1997. The resulting 90-minute film, culled from over 35 hours of footage, plays like a bizarre anthropological document or a circus geek show, depending on your point of view. For the most part, Nygard stands back and allows the Trekkies (or, Trekkers as some of them like to be called) to be themselves and explain what motivates them to do what they do.
One man explains that everyone is different, and this is just his way of being different. The Whitewater jurist is one of the most vocal defenders, and the way she conducts herself shows that she truly believes that she is the commanding officer of the USS Artemis, the Little Rock unit of the Federation Alliance. That title has much meaning to her and gives her the same sense of dignity as a colonel in the Marine Corps.
Although entertaining and never boring, "Trekkies" is not a great documentary--it never really gets below the surface to show what makes these people tick. Nygard gives us a handful of fans who he covers in detail, but we are never given much background information on them. It is almost as if they were born "Star Trek" fans. Watching these people, one gets the feeling that there is something significant missing from their lives, and they filled the void with rabid fandom, yet we never find out what is missing. However, at the same time, Nygard is careful to show that many of these people do have lives complete with spouses and children and good jobs. Heck, most of them have to have good jobs considering the ridiculous amounts of money they spend on "Star Trek" collectibles and assorted paraphernalia.
"Trekkies" packs quite a bit into a short running time, and that may be its biggest flaw. The problem is that "Trekkies" is too scattershot. There are countless stories and themes to be explored in "Star Trek" cultism, and Nygard decides to give a quick overview of all of it, without really getting into any of it. For instance, a fascinating documentary could be made about just one strain of fandom known as slash 'zines. These contain homoerotic stories about Captain Kirk and Spock that are written and read almost exclusively by heterosexual women. But, because there is so much to cover, Nygard gives slash zines about two minutes of screen time before quickly moving on to something else.
Nygard intersperses the footage of decked-out fans prowling "Star Trek" conventions with interviews of the actors and actresses who have brought "Star Trek" to life in four different TV series and 10 feature films. The interviews include not only the stars of the original series like William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, but also stars of the spin-off TV series and some of the creative forces behind the camera, including co-creator/executive producer Jeri Taylor, make-up supervisor Michael Westmore, and, most interesting, Dr. Marc Okrand, the man who developed the Klingon language, which is actually studied by scholars.
For the most part, the stars don't reveal anything of significant interest, although James Doohan, the man who played Scottie, tells a touching story of how he helped a suicidally distressed fan. There are also plenty of amusing and sometimes hilarious anecdotes, such as when one cast members relates the story of how a fan asked him, in all sincerity, what it felt like to be "beamed up." And then there are the creepy episodes, like a fan who has spent the last 20 years asking "Star Trek" actors if he can draw their blood.
What this shows is that "Star Trek" has transcended most normal boundaries to become an unquestionable phenomenon. In her narration, Crosby makes the point that on every weekend, there is a "Star Trek" convention taking place somewhere in America. If there is one thing the film makes clear, it is that "Star Trek" is not so much an interest or a hobby for its fans, but a way of life. Whether that's healthy or not is left up to the viewer to decide.
©1999 James Kendrick