The Final Frontier: An Ethnography of STAR TREK Fandom

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Academic Commentary
Title: The Final Frontier: An Ethnography of STAR TREK Fandom
Commentator: James L. DiCostanzo
Date(s): May 1977
Medium: print
Fandom: Star Trek: TOS
External Links:
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The Final Frontier: An Ethnography of STAR TREK Fandom is a 6-page article by James L. DiCostanzo. The essay is a very early example of scholarly engagements with fandom.

It was published in the well-known and classic fanzine Interphase #4.

The author's main interviewee is a 28-year old fan named Janet who volunteered for the job.

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From the editorial of Interphase:
Jim DiCostanzo's article on the ethnography of ST fandom was originally prepared as a term paper for an Introduction to Anthropology course. (It got an A+.) Jim is not a Trekfan, and does not intend to expand on his study. There are, I think, some inaccuracies in his observations, due apparently to the very limited sample of fen that he was able to observe, but I made no attempt to correct the misconceptions. [1] As an (sympathetic) outsider's view of fandom, Jim has some enlightening and entertaining material that is best left unedited.

Introduction

"This paper is about the group of fans who comprise the culture called "Star Trek fandom." In the following sections, I describe the methods I used in my field work, the types of fans in fandom (as well as their relationship to other fans), the domains of the culture, and finally, I conclude by making tentative interpretations about the function of the culture."

Methods

At the beginning of the term, I shared my dilemma of selecting a culture to study for this course with a fellow employee. Her immediate suggestion was ST fandom. Although sympathetic to this interest or hobby of hers, my immediate reaction was to dismiss the idea because a study of ST fans seemed to be rather unsophisticated. However, her suggestion whetted my curiosity, since I had often made a point of watching ST when it was shown in prime time. This, coupled with the fact that she volunteered to be my informant, was all I needed to convince me to attempt this ethnography.

Thus, my selection of ST fandom as the culture on which to conduct my ethnography was based on three interrelated reasons: 1) the accessibility and willingness of a competent informant; 2) a true curiosity on my part to study this culture; and 3) a personal liking for the ST television series and for science fiction in general. The latter two of these reasons prompted my informant to label me a "closet trekker" on several occasions, implying that I am still a secret fan of ST.

Hy first information about and instruction in becoming a "trekker" occurred when I conducted a series of comprehensive interviews with my informant. (I'll call her by the pseudonym of Janet.) Of course, our dialog about the culture did not end with these planned interviews. It continued in spontaneous form even to this writing. Other information about ST fandom was gleaned from a wide variety of sources that I shall list: a lecture given by Gene Roddenberry, the creator-producer of ST; several published paperback books written about the series; articles in current newspapers (e.g., THE NATIONAL OBSERVER) and periodicals; an interview of several of the show's stars conducted on the "Tomorrow" television program; numerous letters and "zines" supplied by Janet; and attendance at a small party given by Janet for trekkers only, at which I was able to conduct a group interview with several fans.

Parts

  • Introduction
  • Methods
  • Fans in Fandom ("As I mentioned previously, trekkers were once largely an integral part of the conglomerate culture of science fiction (SF) fandom. (SF fandom included fen of Edgar Rice Burroughs, "Space Opera", Star Trek, "New Wave", film fandom, and many others.) This is important to note because many of the activities of trekkers are borrowed or adapted from SF fandom, e.g., fanzines and conventions. Initially, trekkers were welcome at SF conventions. But as the quality of ST episodes slowly deteriorated 1n the second and third seasons, a conflict arose in SF fandom.")
    • Characteristics of Fans
    • Types of Fen ("There are two types of "fen" (plural of fan} in ST fandom, the "F.I.A.W.O.L." and the "F.I.J.A.G.H." These two acronyms accurately describe the fen in each category. FIAWOL stands for "fandom is a way of life," while FIJAGH means "fandom 1s just a goddam hobby." Of course this distinction is a fluid one, measured on the continuum of activeness 1n fandom. Janet describes these fen as the "core" or "creative inner circle." She estimates that about 1,500 to 2,000 trekkers in the U.S. belong to this group. Janet is identified as a member of an elite group with the FIAWOL known as the "BNF's." BNF's (big name fans) are trekkers whose names are well known throughout the culture because of a variety of activities in which they participate and the contributions they make to the culture. (These activities will be described in the next section.")
  • Domains of Fans
    • History
    • Cons
    • Zines ("Zines are amateur magazines which are financed out of the editor's pocket. Most trekkers who are editors set the price of the zine only to cover their costs. There are over fifty zines now being published (and copyrighted) by trekkers.")
    • Direct Communication ("Three other important means of communication 1n ST fandom are the "Star Trek Welcommittee" personal letters exchanged among fen, and telephone conversations among fen.")
  • Summary

Excerpts

Who are the people who meet the criteria for membership in ST fandom? What are they like? The age range of the fans of ST is eight months to eighty years. However, the age range for trekkers is much more restrictive, probably fourteen to fifty-five, a majority of which are in their late teens through early thirties.
A most important point that was reiterated many times by several trekkers is that trekkers do not sell arts and crafts to make a profit. Rather, their purpose for selling these items is to help defray the costs (travel, hotel, etc.) of attending cons. In fact, there is a growing consensus to stop attending cons staged as business ventures. (Cons put on by trekkers rarely make money). I see this as a natural movement, since those who are marketing ST as a commercial commodity obviously do not have the same purpose (or needs) as trekkers, i.e., to develop a culture in which they are accepted and belong.
Trekkies is a term used indiscriminately by many outside the culture when referring to all "trek-fen" (ST fen). Although tolerant of trekkies at conventions, trekkers view the label as derogatory. Trekkies do not, in fact, share the same purposes as trekkers. Trekkers have created a culture 1n which they can be accepted and to which they want to belong. Trekkies do not have this need or unified purpose. This is reinforced by a further distinction made by trekkers, that the majority of trekkies became interested in ST only after 1t was syndicated. This is interpreted as a general lack of depth of Interest or sincerity on the part of the trekkies, this sincerity being a fundamental criterion for being accepted as a member of ST fandom. [Interphase editor's note — as we know, many trekkers and even BNF's have recently joined us, a fact apparently not communicated to Mr. DiCostanzo.]
The culture of Star Trek fandom seems to serve two basic needs of trekkers: "to belong" and "to be somebody." Insurances with regard to the former of these are achieved by uniting membership through three criteria: the person must be a fan of the Star Trek series; this fan must be an active member of ST fandom; and the fan must communicate with other trekkers. By implicitly controlling membership in this way, many of the uncertainties trekkers face in society as a whole are eliminated. Thus, people who were "socially less successful and introverted" have now found a niche. Star Trek fandom attempts to carry the theme Roddenberry presented in the show to its end: "a positive future where everyone has a part." The latter need, "to be somebody," was expressed both implicitly and explicitly by a number of trekkers. The intensity of this need is probably proportional to the activeness of the fan. BNF's, for example, exhibit this as a strong desire. My informant said it frankly: Janet: For me and for a number of people, it (ST fandom) is a way of being somebody within a small, reasonably defined group. On another occasion, she said it much more concisely: "It's a case of a large frog in a small pond."

Reactions and Reviews

It was entertaining to read this from an "outsider" pov. It was basically an explication of fan lingo (fen, filking, trekker/trekkie, FIAWOL/FIJAGH...) and concludes with the usual stereotype of trekfolk as social inadequates in need of a place to belong. [Well, yes, we know those people are there, but so they are in any group, are they not?] [2]

References

  1. Actually, she does interject an observation/correction at one point.
  2. Star Trek Zinedex (TOS) - Contents - I, Archived version