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Trek has never been cool: that’s not the point
HOLD THIS THOUGHT
The history of Star Trek is a history of nerds.
I say this with love, of course. While the franchise has today reached a point of Super Bowl ads and a widened general audience, the cultural image of a “Trekkie” remains far from that of, say, “an athlete,” or “someone popular,” or “literally any professional.” This is not to say there aren’t athletes, popular people or professionals who enjoy Trek, but it’s hard to break from the nerdy connotations of a franchise with roots that deep and that old.
As a result, Trek fans often have to strike a balance between two important parts of life: love of the multigenerational sci-fi franchise, and any shred of self-respect.
Enter Adam Pranica and Benjamin Harrison, co-hosts of Star Trek: The Greatest Generation and The Greatest Discovery, two of the most popular Trek podcasts on air. The shows are based on a core principle: “A Star Trek podcast by a couple of guys who are a little bit embarrassed to have a Star Trek podcast.”
(Be warned: these shows are hilarious but vulgar. I highly recommend them, but only to those not faint of heart.)
These two leading authorities on Star Trek-related self consciousness graciously agreed to an interview on the subject.
“We’re both married to very successful women, and when you’re at a cocktail party for work, and somebody asks you what you do for a living, it is really hard to say, ‘I make a podcast about Star Trek’ with a straight face,” Harrison said. “The fact that it has become our full-time thing has superseded how embarrassing it would just be as a hobby.”
Pranica said the shows’ premise, despite their success, remained hard to balance with any kind of a respectable business reputation. Imagine setting up a business bank account for such a show, and the paralyzing social anxiety that must come with a teller asking what kind of business it is.
Make no mistake: the two are adamant that their embarrassment stems from their professional commitment to Star Trek, not their status as fans.
“We’re only professionally embarrassed in professional circles having professional interactions,” he said. “We have an unusual career and I know it’s something we both really love, but it’s also embarrassing still, for all of those reasons.”
I’m in a slightly different boat. I maintain that Star Trek is worth being at least a little embarrassed about, but bear with me.
There are some interests you can take with you to work. Conversations about travel or the weekend’s football game or the newest blockbuster release are staples of water cooler talk. I’ve had a boss with a Monty Python “silly walks” clock. I’ve had professors with Funko Pop collections in their office. These are all socially acceptable interests and not that uncommon.
In contrast, I have spoken about Star Trek at work three times in my life. In 2016, when I worked at a Panera, a co-worker and I made a dumpster run and saw the nearby theater’s discarded Star Trek Beyond poster. The following conversation, word for word, went like this:
“Oh, did you see the new Star Trek?”
“Yeah it was pretty good, almost makes up for the other prequels.”
(Brief laughter, conversation ends.)
The second time was a few months ago, when I took a day off work to travel out of town for a live show of Greatest Generation. When I told a co-worker, I’d be gone the next day, they naturally asked why. I told them I was going to see a Star Trek podcast. We stood in silence for a few seconds, they asked if I was a Trekkie, I said kind of, and then we went our separate ways. Not an especially fruitful social interaction.
The third was earlier this week, when I pitched to my editor: “Hey, I’ve got a column idea we could run the Friday of TrekFest.”
It’s just not something easy to share with the rest of the world. The layman listener can appreciate the story of your big fishing catch, or a car you’re thinking about buying. The same cannot be said of this beloved sci-fi universe: you’re either into it or you’re not, and most people are not, and those people don’t want to talk about it.
So even if it’s not actively “uncool” to like Trek, it’s definitely never been cool.
In any case, the co-hosts said their embarrassment was outweighed by the positive impact their shows have had on fans.
“When we meet people who really enjoy our work, it hits the hardest when someone says our show got them through a tough life event or an illness,” Pranica said. “More and more, I notice how important it is, what we do, to other people.”
Stereotypical Trek fans — like those of many sci-fi franchises — focus on the minutiae: knowing the difference between a klingon warbird and a bird of prey, or checking how many pips are on the collar of a ranked Starfleet officer. It’s a mindset that demonstrates shared appreciation, but isn’t always constructive in online spaces, and can lead to gate keeping.
“When we started the show, it was very easy to focus on negative comments … to fixate on a mean tweet or a bad review and think, ‘Gosh, Star Trek fans can be so cruel,’” Harrison said. “But when you go to a con, they’re just like, so inclusive and welcoming and good-spirited. And it’s so nice to just be around folks that are gathering for a cool and fun thing that we also really enjoy. It’s a very affirming and positive experience.”
This is the magic of events like TrekFest. The gathering of these people in one space brings their shared appreciations to light.
“That’s the best feeling,” Pranica said. “That nice warm bath of nerds that you can get in where we’re all enthusiastic about the same fun thing and the really random, minor observation isn’t lost on the person you’re talking to, because we all understand it on that same level of granularity. That’s how me and Ben became friends, we both appreciated the little stuff in a way that revealed that we are super fans.”
So, is TrekFest capital-C-Cool? No, probably not, because it’s Star Trek. But that’s not the point.
Gatherings like this bring out the best in fans, something that doesn’t really get a chance to shine anywhere else, which makes it feel special. Because it feels special, it draws a sizable crowd. And because it draws a sizable crowd of supportive, enthusiastic fans, it facilitates the sense of community that these shows and films challenge us to imagine.
That is the point of TrekFest, and — I would argue — the entire Star Trek universe.
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