Fandom's Lost Idealism

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Title: Fandom's Lost Idealism
Creator: Sandra Necchi
Date(s): mid-1984
Medium: print
Fandom:
Topic:
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Fandom's Lost Idealism is a 1984 essay by Sandra Necchi.

It was printed in K/S & K.S. (Kindred Spirits) #10 very shortly before appearing in Fesarius #6.

A related open letter by the same author from the same era is The Letter That Interstat Would Not Print.

The Context

The early to mid-1980s were a time of a feud between two groups of fans regarding the first three Star Trek films and their content, creation, and ideology -- some fans vehemently felt that Gene Roddenberry was the soul of Star Trek and was being disrespected by new fans and by TPTB, and some were fans of Harve Bennett and "his" vision of Star Trek. Some of this was reflected in what they felt was a skewed version of Trek, from one of peace and acceptance, to that of brutish militarism.

This feud encompassed some fans enthusiasms and disappointments in the film, their feeling of a lack of power to get what they wanted on the screen, and frustrations and anger aimed towards other fans regarding perceived access to the ears of TPTB, and of censorship and gatekeeping. There were some fans who felt pressure to support films they did not care for because they were afraid that without fan support, Paramount would cease making more movies.

This feud had center stage in the pages of Interstat, and spilled out into other venues.

Some Topics Discussed

  • the values of Star Trek, those of hope and peace and non-violence -- "STAR TREK provided hope. Its main impetus was hope. And fans loved the show for that. Or so they claimed."
  • fan apathy and narrow-mindedness
  • fans trust, and distrust, of TPTB
  • there is mention of conflict over fans purchasing a presumably pirated script at a con, one that was written by Harve Bennett
  • the "cage match" many fans felt between Gene Roddenberry and Harve Bennett
  • clueless new fans
  • increasing conservatism in culture and how it was reflected in the new Trek movies
  • Roddenberry as the heart and soul of Star Trek
  • Roddenberry's successes with the original series (not mentioning the third season that many fans found lacking)

Introduction

There has been a profound — and for me, disheartening — change in STAR TREK and its fandom ever since Harve Bennett took over as writer/producer of the ST films. What is particularly disturbing is that it has taken place with almost no comment or recognition by many fans. Indeed, it has occurred with fandom's willing consent. Whether consciously or unconsciously, is of little consequence.

One of the major reasons so many of us professed to enjoy STAR TREK was Gene Roddenberry's philosophy that served as the crucial underlining premise of the show. Even in the worst episodes, the ideals of IDIC, the joy and wonder of the universe and its infinite diversity, somehow peeped through. Further, STAR TREK also had the audacity to present a human race that had chosen peace over war, tolerance over hatred, understanding over selfishness. It dared to be hopelessly idealistic, which therefore made it extremely radical. Cynicism in science fiction is not at all difficult to present, nor is it rare, STAR TREK was one of the few places where you could toss away your hard realism, park your practical resignation in some nether realm of your brain, and recapture that most fleeting of human impulses: hope. When one realizes that history is often profoundly affected by foolish idealists (the American Revolution, the civil rights and labor movements, the independence movements of the Third World) who actually fight for a better way to live against enormous odds, it is easy to see how STAR TREK could inspire the more sensitive of us with wonder and delight; STAR TREK enjoyed being stupidly naive. And more, it celebrated it.

Certainly STAR TREK annoyed many of us with its ethnocentric American-style mission to "save the universe for democracy," It was, after all, part of the Vietnam era, with the Cold War still in full swing. Yet Roddenberry's message contradicted that immature self-rightousness which had Kirk breaking the Prime Directive all the time. It was the emphasis on tolerance, delight and respect for others not like us, that eclipsed the show's sillier lapses into jingoism. The message was too important, and too powerful, to be forgotten because of the show's lesser, culture-bound prejudices.

Or so I thought.
The advent of the films has made this assumption a lie. The films gave us STAR TREK without any enlightened idealism, and without Roddenberry. I do not consider Roddenberry a "modern-day Shakespeare," as some used to suggest. However, I do consider his original vision to be the true essence of STAR TREK and in none of the films has he had creative control. And fans have accepted these two developments with disturbing complacency. The dynamics of film and TV are quite different and some may say that Roddenberry is not a good choice to produce a motion picture. Films require a "larger-than-life" presentation of people and their conflicts. Yet. this doesn't necessarily make the prospect of producing entertaining films with Roddenberry's philosophy intact mutually exclusive. When he had creative control over the series, he contacted some of the finest science fiction and Hollywood wirters, and gave them tremendous leeway in what they could do. When problems arose, they were usually due to executive intransigence or the practical realities of national television. Roddenberry was hardly an obstructionist. He worked well with good wirters. And many talented people came away wanting to work under his cooperative, perceptive aegis again. It was the same for many of the finer directors. Had he been given creative control in the films, skillful science fiction writers, and directors with credible experience in motion pictures to work with him, the films would have given us the essence of STAR TREK, and probably some genuinely science fiction ideas.

But Hollywood, being what it is, did not let Roddenberry have control, handing the reins over to others whose vision of STAR TREK was adequate at best. Roddenberry has little power in the film industry. Bennett, whose television track record is hardly commendable, was chosen. Like all spheres of human interraction, power politics was the key to the decision-making. Because he had such a frustrating experience on the set of STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, Roddenberry informed Paramount that if he was not given creative control, he would rather not produce. So he was given the position of "consultant," which anyone knows is merely a token nod in the direction of "authenticity."

Then we had THE WRATH OF KHAN, which was a fine adventure film with a few nice character scenes. As science fiction, it was mainly a Buck Rogers/Flash Gordon version of STAR TREK. It was about hatred, vengeance, "us vs. them," total disinterest in aliens (actually, it presented us with disgust at another life form, the Ceti eel.) And it also gave us a contrived soap opera subplot for emotional manipulation. The film's perspective of the universe was as far from STAR TREK'S essential philosophy as THE A-TEAM. And Roddenberry himself expressed strong dissatisfaction with the film.

And still fans didn't care.

Apparently, the conservative shift in the country hit fandom as well, so that after 18 years of shouting IDIC, brotherhood and peace at each other, we embraced a film that was philosophically and morally bankrupt. Somewhat understandably, fans loved the film's character scenes, yet it was amazing how the essential spirit of STAR TREK could so easily be abandoned by those who for years espoused devotion to it. Roddenberry, as well, was quickly forgotten by fans, or made to be little more than an appendage to the heir apparent, Harve Bennett. A splashy, manipulative Hollywood potboiler was accepted as pure STAR TREK, and a cliche-ridden producer was accepted as its new creator.

The best way to explain Bennett's bankrupt vision of STAR TREK is to watch "Space Seed" and then make the leap to its sequel THE WRATH OF KHAN. The titles in themselves should give away the very basic difference between the intelligent, thoughtful subtlety of the series and the violence, cliched plotting, and "two-dimensional thinking" of the film. Though hardly a perfect episode, "Space Seed" confronted many interesting and powerful issues. Khan had his own dignity and three-dimensianality, It was easy to see how Kirk, McCoy, and Scotty could reluctantly admire such a man. The end of that episode cries for a deeply commplex, penetrating sequel. But can anyone fully reconcile the "atmosphere," the thrust and meaning of the script, and Khan himself, to the petty caricature in THE WRATH OF KHAN? The essence of the film's prequel is completely gone. As a sequel to "Space Seed," I lend more credence to Mary Schmidt's fanzine novel GEMINI LYNX (written before THE WRATH OF KHAN) than I do this film.

And now of course we do have THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK (another hopeless title.) Roddenberry has said that he was more involved in this film than the two previous ones. It shows. The second most essential element of the series is there in abundance, that of the character relationships, which is presented in a very moving, sensitive way, I credit this film's attributes to Roddenberry's larger role in the production and to Nimoy's understanding of the characters. But, to quote a letter writer in INTERSTAT, "The heart of TREK is as much in its moral integrity as it is in its characters," I will go even further. Of the two, it is Roddenberry's original philosophy — the show's "moral integrity" — that is the pure essence of STAR TREK, even beyond the characters. That is the basic framework around which the characters have always operated from. Without it, they are lost in a very different universe, as we see at the end of THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK when all the characters are together, but in a very empty context. They are no longer welcoming the universe, as they did in the series, but are fighting against it, surviving in spite of it. Realistic? Mature? Practical? Perhaps, Yet this is not the original STAR TREK, Without the crucial idealistic impulse pervading the storyline, the product is merely a ghost of the original.

THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK is merely a little more "corporeal" but still basically a shadow. In the series, we learned to view the villains with respect, Klingons and Romulans had their own dignity, their own point of view. And they were intelligent. The new Klingons are bestial, idiotic, and serve as comic-relief, We do not respect these adversaries. We laugh at them in contempt. We hate them. The other alien we see — the "big-earred" one McCoy meets in the bar — is also there for us to gawk and laugh at in disgust.
This is a major shift in the perspective of STAR TREK and its fandom, and most fans have not uttered one protest. On the contrary, they seem to welcome it. Is it that the world has worn out our sensibilities so completely that our devotion to STAR TREK's idealism has become merely rhetoric and nothing more? Have we became too psychologically drained to maintain delight and wonder of such abstract and increasingly obscure principles?

The films have obscured STAR TREK's soul, its spirit. New fans brought into fandom by them have no interest in STAR TREK's original message. They accept Harve Bennett's STAR TREK as the true version and so do many veteran fans. And those of us who criticize and seek to learn what Paramount is doing to our beloved show are considered troublemakers and are censured, even censored in some discussion zines.

The controversy over Bennett's script outline did not center around the merits of the storyline, but the temerity of some fans to actually going out and buying it. It used to be that STAR TREK fans were distrustful of all the executives and studios and other top brass in Hollywood. Fans were resistant to network authority. The only people we trusted were the show's creator, the cast and perhaps the production crew. And we would never have argued over whether it was right to buy a script outline (presumed to be pirated), but whether the outline had any merit. The approach to discussion is very different today. [Now], we simply leave it to "the big boys"; they know what they're doing.

It is a pity that this idealism has been abandoned since in today's turbulent, frightening time for the planet Earth, people need hope. STAR TREK offered it in its own small, wondrous way. As a conclusion, I'd like to quote from Bobbie Hawkins in INTERSTAT. Her letter makes me feel very old and silly, almost useless, since I am like her, an "old fossil." It is, sadly, a frustratingly accurate letter:

"Are there any other old fossils besides me still out there? ...Did the outcome of ST III make anyone else feel like a dinosaur? ...It suddenly became quite clear to me that Harve Bennett has always considered the hardcore TREK fan's approach to ST to be somewhat unsophisticated. He seems to be of the opinion that the original concept for STAR TREK was basically a good one, but that its ideals were somewhat wishy-washy, or too heavily-sugar-coated, or so corny as to be unrealistic, or...SOMEthing.
...Where are the themes of STAR TREK that we once knew? Whatever happened to brotherhood and tolerance and chivalry? Where is the optimism and enthusiasm that ST once generated? ... Apparently, the themes of death, revenge, insanity, and total destruction are much more in vogue these days. It seems to me to be a clear case where the dollars of the many outweigh the ideals of the few. It is unutterably sad because ultimately, Harve Bennett is quite correct. Not in his estimation of what TREK should be, but in his assessment of who his audience is ...I mean, these people — nearly the entire audience — clapped and cheered uproariously when Kirk uttered that superlatively ghastly line, "I have HAD enough of YOU!!I" while repeatedly smashing his foot into Kruge's face. I don't dispute the fact that Kirk would have done that to save himself and Spock, but he would not have said something like that while doing it. No way. That's not TREK. That's something that belongs in a DIRTY HARRY movie
...It is this which makes me feel that I am one of the last of a dying breed. And Harve Bennett, in no uncertain terms, has confirmed it. The death of the Enterprise makes the hardcore fan and his antediluvian ideals obsolete, and marks the end of an era."
The original STAR TREK is dead. The moral assumptions of 1984 make the show our dunsel. I offer a toast and a tribute to all such foolish dunsels that, for a brief span of time, inspire us with love, optimism, enthusiasm and idealism. Perhaps they depart from our souls so quickly because we do not deserve them.

Fan Comments

Hey! Just a cotton pickin' minute! Just because some fane can see some value in Paramount's efforts all of a sudden they've lost the original series' idealism? If that were true, why do those same fans write their own stories in an attempt to recapture it? I don't hear Ms. Necchi going after the fanzines for missing the mark, and some of the fanzine versions of Trek are even further off than Mr. Bennett's. That makes it sound very much like she's saying "Paramount and H. B. aren't fans, so they have no right to their own opinion and anyone who likes their stuff is just as bad as they are." Isn't this the sort of thinking that the original series was always pointing out as particularly deplorable? [1]

Sandra's article should be emblazoned in gold. Since I agree with almost every word, the comments that follow are mostly just random thoughts the article inspired.

1. "Idealism" vs. "realism." They're opposites, but dialectical opposites. The ideal Is often more "real" than reality itself — and what we think of as "real" often turns out to be a Potemkin village, shored up by myth and stereotype. I remember how, back in the 60's and 70's, people used to talk about how startlingly, surprisingly real STAR TREK seemed to them. Visionaries sometimes see a "reality" that "realists" can't or won't see, and as Sandra correctly points out, they often wind up creating the next phase of historical "reality." I think the original STAR TREK represented something that was quite "real" to many of us at the time -- and still is for a few of us. It was a reality that we had already arrived at, even if the rest of society hadn't; it reflected the material reality of our own experience.

2. I agree that the conservative shift in the country has affected fandom. But of course conservative ideas, like any other kind of idea, don't just whip in from the blue. Just as our original attraction to STAR TREK reflected where we were at in the late 1960's or early 1970's, our current attitudes reflect where we are now, in terms of our real, everyday experience. Fans, along with everyone else, have suffered from economic stagnation and the shrinking job market during the late 1970's and 1980's. In fact, they may have suffered more than the average, by virtue of their socio-economic position (fans tend disproportionately to come from the lower middle class) and liberal arts training.

3. "Characters vs. ideas" is not really a dichotomy. The characters engaged us so deeply because they embodied the ideas. Fortunately, they still do. In spite of the lousy scripts.

4. Sandra was so right about the treatment of aliens in TSFS. Again, I think the demise of IDIC may be related to changes in social experience. The original STAR TREK was made during the heyday of the civil rights movement, the international student and anti-war movements. Then, we were learning and growing from encounters with people who were different from ourselves. Today, we sometimes view people of other ethnic groups and nationalities with suspicion, as competitors for the shrinking economic "pie." [2]

Because the films come out one at a time, instead of once a week, we place much more emphasis on each one.

There is also David Gerrold's point that a movie must be the most important event in a person's life, but television cannot be. Therefore, we have the three Star Trek films, where we find our characters experiencing their most memorable moments. And therefore, we are apt to find much to criticize because we have only one film to criticize every two years, and every two years we find the most radical happening ever in Star Trek. Most of us do not like radical change. (The baby boom is growing older.)

Gene Roddenberry had his chance at total creative control. He blew it. Virtually everyone knows it save those who close their eyes to it. ST: TMP is not a very good motion picture, although for Trekkies it was manna from heaven. And I wish to emphasize that using a plot from the series was not what doomed it. (I loved that comment in Interstat that STIII is just a repeat of "Spock's Brain".) If it's a good motion picture, we'll forgive a lot. Indeed, I forgive a lot of Search for Spock because there's so much I like about it. Still, if we don't like it, we know who to blame — Bennett, yes, but also Nimoy and Roddenberry (who calls Search for Spock the best Star Trek ever).

I perceive that the movie format may have led to a greater emphasis on action/adventure, especially with the competition of Star Wars and Indiana Jones. But it is also apparent that the basic values of Star Trek are still there.

[snipped]

When I heard Roddenberry was not doing Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, I feared a disaster, much like what happened to Genesis II after Roddenberry gave it up. I was pleasantly surprised to see Harve Bennett and Nicholas Meyer handle our characters so deferentially. In my mind it was a far sight better than they were handled by Fred Freiberger in most of his episodes. So why are all of you complaining?

I want to take isssue with her portrayal of the Klingons as worthy of respect, as having dignity in the television series. On TV they were always meant to be terrifically nasty, cardboard characters, who we could hate without feeling guilty, in "Errand of Mercy" we saw them order the deaths of 200 hostages without remorse.

In the series they were ruthless, unprincipled, in short, as Spock would say, [not] the flower of humanity. In that sense they may have been meant to portray a mirror image of ourselves. They also, furnish us with adversaries akin to the Russians, who would shoot down an unarmed civilian jet without compunction (although our role in that is still unclear). The Klingons tried to shoot down a starship in "Elaan of Troyius", and that with no legal right whatsoever.

In short, they are truly nasty, and have remained so in the movies. While I would certainly prefer a more complex Klingon, with more complex motives, I cannot object on the grounds that they are different now than they were in the series.

Sandi makes a point about bureaucratic Star Fleet as if that were something new. The truth is that from word go Star Fleet has been obstructionist, uninterested in the personal problems of its officers and crews, and committed to orders to the utmost extreme. In "Amok Time" and many other episodes, it is Kirk who takes initiative to disobey orders, to break out of the bureaucratic mold, to solve problems in ways that regulations do not permit (see "Piece of the Action," "A Taste of Armageddon", "A Private Little War," etc.) Perhaps some find Star Fleet different now that we see them close up. How can anyone seem surprised that they act the way they do, given what our heroes have had to do in the past to get around them?

As for making aliens the butt of jokes, who has been the butt of more jokes about his alienness than anyone? Why, Spock, of course. The treatment of Spock in the series could easily be called racist in the extreme — pointy-eared, green-blooded. I really think that too many people look at the series with rose-colored glasses. You may say — "but that's not what was intended", the fact remains that the series had huge problem areas — I haven't even gotten to sexism. I grant that Gene had problems with the network and with the standards of the time, but if that is the case, then how come Gene always gets excused because of interference, but Bennett is always totally responsible?

Please — I do see that many quarrel with the new Star Treks, but I still do not understand. There are things I don't like also, but there are just as many things in the series, so long as we don't just isolate a few episodes, and even in some of those good ones there are flaws that are really obnoxious.

Maybe I'm not hard to please, or maybe all those years without Star Trek left me ready to accept anything, but I'm sure glad to have these episodes coming out every two years. They have been fun, and fandom's reaction to them has been fun, both the pro and the con. I really think the Star Trek phenomenon is something unprecedented for television to produce. [3]
I was going to comment at length on Sandra's article, then I realized I couldn't add a thing. I agreed with every word. Beautiful, beautiful! Hurrah for Sandra! ... The only thing that I worry about is that comments of this kind may encourage Bennett to dispense more of his own brand of philosophizing —like "the good of the many..." Kirk's birthday-book significance. That kind of specious crap I can definitely do without! You see, I'm sure that Bennett thought he did put into ST II & III what Sandra knows is missing! [4]

References

  1. comments in K/S & K.S. (Kindred Spirits) #11
  2. comments by Judith Gran in K/S & K.S. (Kindred Spirits) #11
  3. comments in K/S & K.S. (Kindred Spirits) #11
  4. comments by Barbara P. Gordon in K/S & K.S. (Kindred Spirits) #11