Nerd Culture and the Star Trek Paradox

Nerds are living in a golden age.

The billion-dollar movie club now includes:

  • Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
  • The Avengers (2012)
  • Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
  • Iron Man 3 (2013)
  • Captain America: Civil War (2016)
  • The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003)
  • The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
  • Rogue One (2016)
  • Star Wars: Episode I (1999)
  • The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)
  • The Dark Knight (2008)

The current top six highest grossing movies of 2017 includes:

  • Wonder Woman
  • Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2
  • Spider-Man: Homecoming
  • Logan

Let’s add in the DC “Berlantiverse”, the Marvel Netflix universe, and the X-Men shows Legion and The Gifted. And I’m not even bringing in shows like The Walking Dead and Preacher which are also based on graphic novels.

Notice a pattern?

Nerd culture is popular culture. This is a huge cultural shift from the nerd culture of the 80s or 90s. Watch Revenge of the Nerds (1984) and you get a good picture of how pop culture treated “nerds.” Computers, technology, synthesizers, integrated and multicultural — nerds are anti-hegemonic in the 20th century. Nerds were abnormal and weird, something to keep at arm’s distance. When the Tri-Lambs get the girls in the end, it’s a subversion, a punchline. The Big Bang Theory continues this stereotypical lineage, albeit with modern context and plotting.

This has been completely turned on its head in the 21st century. Star Wars is cool now. Comic books are cool. Cosplay is a billion dollar industry. Entire companies exist solely to do youtube reactions to movie trailers and argue over Batman canon.

But in this golden age of Nerd Culture, Star Trek is nowhere to be found.

Where is Star Trek?

Star Trek is the ur-nerd franchise. Trekkies established the roots of modern fandom: write-in campaigns, conventions, “cosplay.” All of it comes from Trekkies. And yet, Star Trek is a completely irrelevant franchise as far as pop culture is concerned.

After the original series, Star Trek was on TV and in movie theaters continually from 1987–2005 but it was increasingly unpopular. After TNG, DS9 ended strong, but VOY was derided at the time, and ENT was barely watched. Then Star Trek Nemesis killed Data, effectively ending two decades of continual Star Trek with an exclamation point.

Enter JJTrek. In 2009, JJ saved Star Trek. Trekkies don’t want to hear it, but he did. The 2009 movie made almost $400M dollars, easily becoming the highest grossing Star Trek movie. The cast was great and Chris Pine did the impossible: he convincingly gave us a non-Shatner Captain Kirk. The movie was kind of simple and it certainly wasn’t the heady philosophical tome hardcore fans wanted. But that was ok, the body Star Trek needed a jumpstart.

Then Star Trek Into Darkness happened. STID is one of the most creatively bankrupt, morally objectionable, and intellectually insulting scifi movies I’ve ever seen. And y’know what? It started off with a really great set-up: Star Trek during the Age of Terrorism. I’d love to see Starfleet struggling against fear and the slow creep of militarization. There’s one scene where Kirk is walking through Starfleet HQ and the hall is filled with security guys with guns. Wonderful. Then Cumberbatch says “Khan” and the whole movie nosedives into a flaming pile of quadrotriticale. Inexplicably, non-Trekkies loved it. The movie made $460M, smashing all the previous Star Trek records. But Trekkies, myself included, loathed it and the internet tore it apart.

JJ left and made Star Wars a billion dollars, Orci and Kurtzman were correctly fired because they’re hacks and/or frauds, and Simon Pegg — an actual scifi fan — wrote a wonderful script that stripped the new franchise of its bloated nonsense and highlighted the fantastic cast while adhering to the rules of the Star Trek universe. Star Trek Beyond was great! I want to see more from this “Kelvin timeline.” Unfortunately, the studio decided to forget how to market a big summer blockbuster and the movie was a “failure” “only” making $340M. Tragically, just when it was getting good, JJTrek was now dead.

To hammer home the point: we live in a world where GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY makes more money than STAR TREK.

I’m baffled. I don’t understand how such an easy touchdown has been fumbled over and over again. I don’t understand how Star Trek has not transcended and gone mainstream.

Marvel is currently shepherding their integrated cinematic universe, a primetime Agents of SHIELD series, an integrated Netflix universe, the Spider-Man universe (with Sony), and the integrated X-Men universe spanning multiple timelines, and media platforms (with Fox).

Star Wars is currently coordinating an integrated universe of “saga” movies, “stand-alone”movies, and adult-friendly cartoons. (And I’ll throw in the rumored Netflix series.)

Star Trek has a dead JJverse that was nothing more than a straight reboot of The Original Series, and a 15 episode miniseries that might be in the “Prime” timeline but probably isn’t, and is aflame in fanhate for reasons legitimate and not.

Yep.

The depressing result of this stagnation is that there are no new Trekkies. Full stop. Why would anyone embrace a franchise rooted in an irrelevant past when every week there’s a new comic book or fantasy movie to watch?

Where are the creatives and producers who grew up Trekkies and understand that it’s not about spaceships but rather a future where humanity betters itself?

Why does it seem every single step forward is countered by four steps back? Star Trek Beyond sheds the dead weight from Team JJ, only to have them show up on STD. CBS throws money into a new Star Trek series, only to have it paywalled from its fans. STD’s producers attempt to assuage the fans by telling us Klingons are nativists who want to make Kronos great again. Ok.

And I don’t want to hear about the split-rights problem. Paramount owns the movie rights, CBS owns the TV rights, blah blah. Go ask Marvel about how having your IP split among different producers stifles creativity and profits.

In a time when nerd culture has completely overwhelmed pop culture and “nerd movies” have developed into a distinct genre with subgenres including space operas, Westerns, political dramas, and satire, Star Trek flounders along, hoping to just survive the next round of executive realignments.

It’s hard to blame anyone other than the suits in Hollywood. It’s certainly not the actors’ or crews’ fault. And it’s not the fans’ fault. Trekkies are the godparents of the very nerd culture that fills Hollywood’s pockets, and for our efforts we get disdain. A worldwide fanbase is treated as disposable and dumb.

CBS All-Access is a direct insult to Trekkies. Having Alex Kurtzman in charge of STD is a direct insult to Trekkies. Where comic books fans act as if they’re just happy to see quinjets flying around on screen, Trekkies are told they’re being “bad fans” and “irrelevant” if they voice any concerns.

And so we’re left with this paradox. Nerd culture will be fine and the factory will keep mass producing Marvel and DC movies well into the future. But in exchange for this mainstream success, nerd culture has been forced to abandon its soul.

Academic and Trekkie. I talk about the politics of culture, review nerd stuff, and golf a lot. Co-host: @podmeandering, #TopFive, @folkwise13

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