If Star Trek has any relevance left, it’s not in NASA visions, alien linguistics or the idea that life would be just peachy if an interstellar United Nations ran everything. Those are distractions. Star Trek’s real gift to the world is the image of Trekkies, which has become the template for angry pop culture fandom. This template has little to do with Star Trek itself or most of the people who enjoy it. But the Angry Fans are with us like syphilis, and here’s why.
A Delicate Question
We’re at Blizzcon 2009, the ultimate place for all things Blizzard. The conference hall at the Anaheim Convention Center is packed. Onstage is a panel for World of Warcraft, the most popular online roleplaying game on the planet. The panelists are very smart people. They spend their entire lives thinking about and creating World of Warcraft. As question time arrives, they’re willing to talk about nearly anything – vision, strategy, influences, possibilities, you name it. This panel is a window into the soul of another universe, and you can ask whatever you want.
A large guy in a black T-shirt stands at the mic. He’s nervous and sweaty, but he’s got his question ready. The panelists lean forward as he begins. It’s a detailed question. Very detailed, on a minor point of game mechanics that black T-shirt guy isn’t happy with. He demands to know how they’re going to fix his problem. He wishes they’d done it four months ago. The room squirms. The Blizzard panelists take a breath and dive in.
Behind black T-shirt guy’s excitement and body odor is a paradox. He loves World of Warcraft, but this isn’t about that: The key is that he desperately wants something from the panelists – not the answer to his question, but something much deeper and harder to define. Yet no matter how they reply, they can never give it to him. On a basic level he knows this, and it makes him angry. He’s angry at the creators of the thing he loves.
Consciously or not, black T-shirt guy is acting out a scene from the sci-fi documentary Galaxy Quest, itself based on the Star Trek cast and their encounters with fandom over the years. The Angry Fandom template says: If you crush things to death, they’ll never leave you.
William Shatner’s got a lot to answer for.
Image Becomes Reality
Trekkies themselves were never that numerous or important. Fans of the original TV series brought it back from cancellation in 1968 through a letter-writing campaign. Some used to wander around sci-fi conventions with costumes and pointy ears. This was nothing new – dorky group behavior has been a staple of sci-fi fandom since the first conventions in the late 1930s. Trekkies grew in number after the original series ended, but they were really just one more weird group in an era – the late ’60s/early ’70s – that specialized in crazy cults.
Heading into the 1980s, though, the image of a “Trekkie” got a series of public boosts, including a William Shatner sketch on Saturday Night Live. As often happens, this mass-media portrayal became more powerful than the thing on which it was based.
The key qualities of the Trekkie image were rabid obsession with a touch of repressed rage. Costumes were probably involved. They didn’t have much else going on in their lives. People have displayed these qualities for thousands of years in all sorts of pursuits, but the Trekkie image was tailor-made for the growing world of pop culture. It seeped into the public consciousness through movies, documentaries and parodies. People who’d never been to a sci-fi convention picked up cues. Marketers picked them up faster. The internet hurled them around at warp speed. And, if you ask me, way too many people started living the dream.
The Angry Fandom template says: If you run as fast as you can after a mirage, eventually you’ll end up in a spaceship.
It’s Not About Liking Stuff
Pop culture isn’t a ghetto, and most people who enjoy its products aren’t part of an exotic tribe. In Star Trek’s case, the reality of modern fans is that they include a small number of hardcore maniacs, a bunch of “Trekkers” who range from casual to semi-crazy and, well, people who just like Star Trek. It’s pretty much the same pattern as Star Wars or Battlestar Galactica or World of Warcraft: lots of people like this stuff. Nineteen of the top-20 grossing films ever are sci-fi, fantasy or superhero related.
But the Trekkie-based Angry Fandom template isn’t about liking stuff. Quite the opposite. Do the people who go batshit at convention panels or on web forums just “like stuff”?
I was obsessed with a girl at school when I was 14. She was a really nice girl, or seemed to be. I didn’t know her that well. But I’d read a bunch of books and seen a bunch of movies, and I knew how this worked: If I coveted her enough and proved that to her, she’d eventually let me into her world and everything’d be good. This girl was the solution to the problems of being 14.
You know how that ended up. Let’s just say brutal acne was less traumatic by comparison. My feelings had little to do with Miss Fourteen herself; the object of desire becomes irrelevant when you’re in the full throes of it. The real obsession is the obsession itself. And when that’s fed by the right circumstances or the wrong people, it can be a dark rabbit-hole to fall down. It can bite you in the ass, hard.
Remember the Browncoats? Everyone loved Joss Whedon’s Firefly and was sad when it got canceled. Some people, taking a direct lead from early Trekkies, went a bit further. The email campaign to resurrect the TV series didn’t work, so when a Firefly movie was announced instead, they were delirious. The Browncoats instigated a wave of grassroots fan action that took group obsession to Japanese-level heights. They mobbed advance screenings. They wrote songs, created amateur movies, held rallies and, yes, filled sci-fi convention panel halls. Browncoats loved being Browncoats. News coverage made it clear: Firefly‘s got the Trekkie touch. Who knows how big the movie could go with awesome fans like that?
Serenity opened. It was a good movie. It did mild business, but not great. It went quickly to DVD where it made back its costs. The Browncoats were disappointed. Some of them were angry – maybe Joss didn’t write a proper Firefly movie. Maybe Universal screwed up the marketing. They got very angry when it was suggested that maybe, just maybe, the image of the Browncoats themselves had hurt Serenity‘s box-office take by scaring away people who might otherwise have liked it.
The marketing was partly to blame, in that once the Browncoats phenomenon emerged it was nurtured, encouraged and manipulated by Joss Whedon and Universal. The hardcore/obsessive template often works well – look at Halo‘s online universe, a Microsoft-fostered environment designed to give rabid children something to be rabid and childish about. But the Browncoats went too far and ended up as an example of Angry Fandom’s downside, a lesson from which others have learned. Blizzard never touts the hardcore World of Warcraft players in mass advertising anymore, even though their game is a machine for generating detail-oriented obsession among those prone to it. Star Trek‘s producers themselves made the smart move of backing away from the Trekkie image with the new film, constantly reassuring people that it wasn’t one of those outings, that you could come along and just have fun and not have to deal with smelly misfits wearing Vulcan ears.
As a marketer, you have to be careful with Angry Fandom. Once you let tendencies like the Browncoats loose, there’s not much that can stop them, and at some point they will turn on you like scorpions. Hopefully, that’s after you’ve generated a good return on investment.
Get a Life
Our culture fosters too many people who, directly or indirectly, inherited the idea of angry fandom from Star Trek. They’ve been encouraged by a generation of marketers who see an obsessive grassroots core as crucial to building buzz around a product. Here’s a thought: Real passion is about making things yourself, investing fully in your own life and those around you without needing to turn entertainment into a totem pole. Gene Roddenberry was a secular humanist who didn’t believe in kooky religions or mass manipulation of any type. Where the hell did that bit of Star Trek’s legacy end up?
Colin Rowsell is a Wellington, New Zealand-based writer. Tell him why he’s wrong on firstname.lastname@example.org.