Do you have to be a Trekkie (or Trekker, if you prefer) to enjoy the documentary Trekkies? Not at all; in fact, it helps if you aren’t one. Trekkies is a peek inside the Star Trek fan phenomenon — a cult that, according to this film, is fairly benign if sometimes laughable. If it’s a snark-fest you’re looking for, don’t look here: Trekkies was distributed by Paramount, which would never dare to offend the supporters of its biggest, most lucrative franchise. No, director Roger Nygard has crafted a sort of neutral valentine to Trek die-hards, and if we occasionally snicker, it’s not because Nygard is encouraging us to laugh, and it’s not really because Trekkies are geeks, either: Obsession seen from the outside is always equal parts fascinating, scary, and funny. It’s also comforting, because we all have obsessions, though not all of them lend themselves to a documentary.
Why does Star Trek have such a tight grip on some people? Trekkies wheels out some of the same explanations we’ve been hearing for years, some of which can also apply to (and serve to explain) the Star Wars cult: easily defined conflicts, the ideal of teamwork, the optimistic and humanistic messages. Watching the documentary (narrated and hosted by Next Generation vet Denise Crosby with a mixture of awe and bemusement), I realized that the Trek following is essentially a huge melting-pot of people rejected by the rest of society. No matter who you are (according to the movie), you will be welcomed at Trek conventions, embraced by others who share your tastes; Trekkies are bound together with a sort of mystical understanding. We see gay men, lesbians, even a crossdresser — Star Trek appears to be a religion big enough, and democratic enough, to accept anyone willing to spend the money.
And the phenomenon is very much about money. Star Trek was really the first pop-culture creation to spawn an enduring collecting craze all by itself. Trekkies makes you see that all the Star Wars merchandising was merely following in Paramount’s footsteps. Other pop-culture crazes have come and gone — and even Star Wars died down a little from, say, 1984-1997, though there was still the odd book, CD-ROM, or line of action figures — but Star Trek has been in there pitching for 40 years, and, despite dire predictions, the Trek machine shows no real signs of going away. Trek‘s crossover appeal to non-acolytes may be fading, but the faithful are more faithful than ever, if Trekkies is any indication. There they are, spending untold amounts of money on autographs, rare mementos, and props from the movies/TV shows — we see one guy in full Klingon mode at an auction, dropping $1500 on a tiny Klingon headpiece, and we hear about another guy who bid $40 or $60 on a half-full glass of water (imbibed by Trek actor John de Lancie, who had a nasty case of the flu) and eagerly quaffed the stuff in hopes of getting the “Q virus.”
Nygard focuses on some memorable eccentrics. Barbara Adams, who made headlines in 1996 when she insisted on wearing her Starfleet uniform to the Whitewater hearings as a juror, prefers to be addressed as “Lt. Commander” — her rank in a local Trek organization. David Greenstein also goes nowhere without full Starfleet regalia — we see him shopping at the supermarket — and the movie makes the fair point that these people should be allowed to wear whatever they want; they’re not hurting anybody. Trekkies gets us on their side as harmless transgressors, challengers of the “norm” (hey, they look a whole lot less ridiculous than some of the teenagers I see slouching around town). And when you see footage of Barbara Adams entering the courthouse with throngs of reporters tracking her, you have to ask yourself who’s weirder: the lady in the Star Trek uniform, or the media hounds who think this is newsworthy.
At certain points, however, you feel a slight “click” where fandom crosses the line into genuine strangeness, as when Greenstein says he would have his ears surgically Vulcanized if he had the money. A few of the interviewees are borderline obnoxious, like 14-year-old Gabriel Köerner, who speaks very precisely and is obviously whip-smart and quite talented — we see some of his digital animation and see his 172-page screenplay — but just as obviously socially stunted, sort of like a Trekkie version of Rushmore‘s Max Fischer. (When a friend’s phone call interrupts one of his interviews, Köerner yells “Peter! This is the worst possible time for you to call! Go away!” and hangs up.) And I wouldn’t want to work for Denis Bourguignon, an Orlando dentist who has turned his office into “Starbase Dental” and makes his staff wear Starfleet get-ups. (Nor would I really want to have my tooth filled by a Data lookalike.)
Of course, in addition to Denise Crosby, we see past and present Trek cast members reflecting on the impact their characters — and the phenomenon they unwittingly signed onto — have had on millions of lives. William Shatner doesn’t sit for an interview, though we spot him at an event. Leonard Nimoy, James Doohan (contributing a moving anecdote about a suicidal fan), and a frail-looking DeForest Kelley are among the old-schoolers sharing their thoughts; some of the newcomers, like the consistently funny Brent Spiner, the raffish Jonathan Frakes, and the articulate Kate Mulgrew, steal the show from their more ponderous predecessors. Conspicuous in their absence: captains Patrick Stewart and Avery Brooks, as well as Whoopi Goldberg, whom Nichelle Nichols references in an anecdote that would’ve been a good segue to Whoopi discussing how Uhura made her realize she could do anything.
I would’ve also liked to hear from a couple of dissenters, like Harlan Ellison, who wrote what is perhaps still the most revered Trek episode (“The City on the Edge of Forever”) and has voiced little but contempt for Trekkies and Trek in general. Trekkies is nothing if not one-sided. You see the nurturing, family-values side of fandom, but you don’t see the dark side. You don’t see the vicious infighting, clearly on view in any message board on any fan site, not only dealing with Trek but with any popular entertainment from Star Wars to Buffy. You don’t see the hostility towards any outside view of the phenomenon — I always seem to get pissy emails whenever I give a sci-fi film (be it Star Trek: Insurrection, The Matrix, or Phantom Menace) a less-than-glowing review; it can’t be a coincidence. You don’t see the nitpicking, you don’t see the snobbiness among the more established and knowledgeable members of fandom; you don’t see the ugly side of enthusiasm taken too far, which is zealotry. Some of these fans are so touchy about being perceived as geeks with no lives that they get mega-defensive and end up coming off like … geeks with no lives.
And the PG-rated documentary glides quickly over a sub-subgenre deserving of its own documentary: the “slash” fanzines pairing Kirk and Spock (as well as other Trek characters) in a variety of sexually explicit scenarios. (I would’ve loved to have heard Nimoy’s take on those; Brent Spiner is typically witty about the erotic fan art featuring Data and Crosby’s character Tasha Yar, and he seems tickled to hear about his female fans, the “Spiner-fems.”) Since one of the enduring stereotypes of Trekkies is that they’re asexual nerds, the movie could’ve used more of this evidence to the contrary.
Trekkies is often entertaining; the footage of the late, great Bones the Cat is as side-splitting as anything in any comedy you’ll see. Just don’t expect an incisive, balanced documentary. Errol Morris might have cast a cold, clinical eye on Trekkies and let them hoist themselves on their own Picard, but this isn’t an Errol Morris film — it’s a gentle spotlight on a subculture. That spotlight is more warming than revealing; by the end, we’ve learned little that we didn’t know before, except that there are a hell of a lot more Trekkies among us than we might have imagined. Thank God most of them are benign — again, according to the movie.