Taking Back “Trekkies”
Updated: Dec 30, 2022
Why I’m proud to wear the badge of fanboy (dis) honor.
I caught my first glimpse of Star Trek during its original run, although my viewership was spotty at best. Cajoling our parents into a half hour of Batman, Mr. Terrific or The Green Hornet before 8pm was all we could hope for on a school night before TV privileges were surrendered. I recall seeing promos and snatches of the show in the first two seasons, but all I remember are the colorful uniforms of the crew on planets with eye-popping skies of magenta and green. (NBC was in cahoots with RCA, to sell color TV sets).
At 11 years of age, I was a junior space cadet of the first order, and was entranced by the setting and scope of the show, particularly the majesty of a gigantic yet graceful spaceship which was always heralded by inspiring music. Even though I followed every launch of the Apollo missions with incredible fervor*, they were few and far between, and the snowy, shaky visuals were often not as inspiring as I would have liked.
Star Trek was a lot more fun, with prettier pictures and more frequent flights. I finally began watching the show during its ill-fated third season in 1968. What I remember most about that period was waiting for the “good parts,” namely the strange alien creatures, vivid special effects and occasional fist-fight. But with a 10:00 pm start time, I was frequently drifting off to sleep before the episodes were over. And then it was canceled.
A year later, the series resurfaced on our local TV channel. Not only were the reruns available to watch at a reasonable time (6:00 pm) but it was a magic hour. The dinner dishes were cleared but our folks were not yet ready to hunker down for the evening news at 7:00. All 79 episodes were being shown in rotation at least 5 days a week, which meant that it was possible to watch the entire series two or three times over a year, if you were diligent.
Boy, were we diligent. My brothers and I watched the show daily. Even if we were busy with other pursuits, we tuned in for the “good parts.” We loved science fiction and there were few good choices available. I even started recording episodes on audio cassette (with better quality tapes.) Someone said that Trek was written and performed like a radio drama, with the action spelled out verbally and sonically. Every device had a distinct sound effect, and every exploit was underlined with potent musical underscore. I replayed my favorite episodes on tape and memorized a few in the process.
Best of all, we got to know the characters inside and out. Secondary players like Lt. Uhura and Scotty didn’t have much to do in any given episode. But seeing them daily, we got to know their quirks and catch phrases and they became more than mere acquaintances. As for the leads, Kirk, Spock and McCoy were the show’s “holy trinity” of heroes with great rapport and friendship. Better still, their core strengths as Body, Mind and Spirit on the bridge, mapped pretty well to the personalities of brothers Joe, Steve, and Rob in the basement. We related and observed them as role models.
So here was an unusually well-crafted and high-minded science fiction show, widely available to a burgeoning adolescent audience. A one-of-a kind creation that caught the zeitgeist of the youth culture with a promise of a better tomorrow—and nifty gadgets to boot! I loved how the sci-fi concepts were often a springboard for very human drama. Morality tales wrapped up in time travel, parallel universes and artificial intelligence. The space program might be on the wane, but the Trek adventure was only beginning.
No wonder that a legion of fans sprung up to support the show and its values, leading to clubs, zines and spectacle of spectacles, large scale conventions. The first cons took place in New York City, the media capital of the world, and news organizations could not ignore them. There was a lot of coverage of those early events, which were run by amateurs but attracted record-setting crowds. The mismatch of inexperience and enthusiasm lead to feuds, financial mismanagement, and overcrowding. In other words, catnip for reporters looking for an angle.
Journalists could not fail to ask the question: “Can you believe anyone cares this much about a canceled TV show?” Nor could they ignore the sea of pointed ears and tribbles. Such a crowd required a label. The name “Trekkies” was coined years earlier, when fans mounted the first large-scale letter writing campaign to rescue a TV show on the chopping block. The campaign worked, the show was renewed (briefly), and the name stuck.
In the mid-1970s, there arose a backlash among the cognoscenti. Rather than accept the put down, fans lobbied to be called “Trekkers” because it seemed more serious. As a regular attendee of the conventions, and the object of some teasing myself, I tried out the new moniker. But it was not the deflector shield we hoped for. The more that we “trekkers” protested, the more “trekkie” we became. I decided, so what? I love the show and what it represents: Progress, Discovery, and Hope. Who cares what they call us?
Trekkie is a word that comes out of the same time and vernacular of “hippies” and “yippies,” which were also meant to be pejorative. You can liken it to slurs applied to oppressed minorities, but let’s face it—most Trek fans have not encountered a fraction of the bullying, violence and hate speech that others have suffered. But we can learn from their example. Taking back the slur reduces its power to hurt.
Aren’t we lucky that Gene Roddenberry had a poetic streak? Maybe it didn’t suit his unused lyrics to the theme song, but Star Trek is a much more artful choice for an action-adventure series than you’d expect. The show’s creator had experience serving as a bomber pilot and a police administrator, but he chose to highlight the journey rather than the mission. Would the series have lasted if it was called Star Patrol, Galaxy Fleet, or Space Force?
Writing about early fandom, I use the name “Trekkie” as an affectionate catch-all for fans of all persuasions. Even though half of the stories that I tell in my memoir are related to other parts of sci-fi and fantasy, Trekkie paints a picture like none other. It’s recognized by a broad audience and instantly communicates who and what we’re talking about. Today, in the far-flung future of the 21st Century, the shame of being a nerd, geek or fan has faded. So let’s embrace it. The show is optimistic, visionary and utopian—just like us fans.
Besides, I just think it’s fun to say. TREKKIE! Let’s have some fun, shall we?
* I went so far as to spend several weeks worth of my meager allowance on a pile of 29¢ cassette tapes—in order to record an entire mission for posterity. Of course this meant I had to remember to turn over the cassettes every 15 minutes during the mission, yoking me to the TV through a week of coverage. Mom wasn’t too happy about that, and neither was I. Especially when the junky tapes that I purchased became jammed, unthreaded, or otherwise unplayable afterwards. So much for my plan to relive space travel on a daily basis. Fortunately, there was another option.
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If you enjoyed this story, perhaps you would also enjoy my graphic memoir entitled When We Were Trekkies, now available online from Birdcage Bottom Books