Wednesday, August 06, 2014

My very first Star Trek convention: It wasn’t what I expected, but it sure was fun!

I recently attended my very first Star Trek convention in Las Vegas. Though I had some professional reasons to be in Vegas, it was a thrill to experience it as a long time Star Trek nerd. 
Not having been to one of these before, I really didn’t know what to expect, expect for the stereotypes I’d gotten from those making fun of Trekkies (or Trekkers, as they prefer to be called), and many of my preconceptions turned out to be wrong! 

Here’s what I found:

Trekkers are nice and polite. 
I personally found it thrilling to be around people who were into Star Trek as much as me (in fact, I’d say most of them were into it way more than me, which is saying a lot). I’d also say that about 70% of the people I talked to had been to a Star Trek con before, and each had advice about what to do and what to take in. The much smaller contingent of first time convention goers like me were a little overwhelmed.
One guy, who had flown up from Austin, remarked how polite people were at the convention, compared to other types of conventions he’d been to. He wondered if it had to do with the Star Trek themes of inclusiveness and respect for others – whether it was other creed or colors or planets or species. Not may non-fans know this, but Star Trek was groundbreaking in the sixties partly because of the diversity of its bridge crew – from a black woman to a Russian (trivia fact: Star Trek featured the very first black/white kiss on TV in history, and as a result was blacked out in many states in the South).
I don’t know if it was related to Star Trek philosophy or not, but everyone was friendly and polite. There just weren’t as many jerks (male or female) or posers as you usually see in Las Vegas (except for when you left the convention center and were back in the casinos and clubs!).

Everyone had their favorite series, but no one was fighting about it!
One of the topics of discussion was always which Star Trek series you preferred. The most popular of course were the original series from the 1960’s and The Next Generation from the late 80’s/ early 90’s. 
Even so, I realized that I brought with me mental images from a classic Simpson’s episode (the one where Homer goes to college) about geeks arguing snottily about why “Captain Picard is better than Captain Kirk!”. OK, I did see one guy wearing a T shirt that had 10 reasons why Kirk was better then Picard, but most of the people who saw it just smiled. As a group, trekkers seemed to way too polite and nice to get into real heated arguments about this. Everyone seemed happy to have a favorite show, and different days of the show focused on a different series. There was more discussion about what our favorite episodes were, since so many people watched more than one show.
Even as a fan of the series, Enterprise, which isn’t very popular among star trek fans (and may be the least popular of all the series), I felt included. 

Any actor from any episode of the series is a minor “hero” at the Star Trek con. It was fun seeing them, and even a little sad. Speaking of Enterprise, see some of the images of me with actors from the show below – Connor Tinnear who played Trip, the lead Engineer, Anthony Montgomery, who played Travis, the helmsman, and Dominic Keating, who played Malcolm Reed, the chief tactical officer. The three of them were sitting at tables right next to each other, and there was a panel about Enterprise.
Even for someone like me, who has been involved in independent films, it was fun to be able to go up to people whose faces you’ve been seeing in your living room and actually talk to them. I even spent a few minutes talking to Richard Hatch, famous from the Battlestar Galactica series (the original series, and the more recent one). What does he have to do with Star Trek? He’s in a fan film. More on these later.
There was the guy who played Mark Twain on a classic Next Generation episode, and a panel with guys who had recurring roles on Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and even people who had only appeared in one or two episodes. You could talk to them, get their autographs and pics (for a fee – more on this later).
Someone remarked that it was a little sad that actors that had become so well known were reduced to “hawking pics and autographs” for money at the convention. It was a little sad to see that so many of the actors we loved didn’t seem to have as much on-going success or were in between series, making $20 to $75 per pic as one of their sources of income. But, on the other hand, they got to bask in the adulation of fans of their series, something which every actor probably aspires to and few achieve. That must be fun for them too.

A lot of women like Star Trek. A lot of couples too. And kids. 
When I was growing up, the really big Star Trek fans that I knew were mostly geeks, and mostly males. Maybe this is why I expected the convention to be kind of like my old engineering school – 70+% male. 
But it wasn’t. In fact, I’d say the con was split pretty evenly between male and female. And the girls were hot. Or maybe it was just the sixties version of future outfits (short dresses) on Saturday, cosplay day, which game me this impression. OK maybe not Vegas club hot – OK maybe I just have a thing for smart, geeky girls who like to dress up LOL. But there definitely were plenty of interesting costumes to see and admire. The Klingons and a Cardassians were among the best costumes I saw.
A lot of couples were there too, and these were split half and half between those who were both big star trek fans, and those where one was a big fan and those who dragged the other along to “see what it was like” at their first con. Many of them had matching Star Trek costumes – which was cute. Many of them brought their kids, and it was eye-opening to some of us older fans to realize that a whole new generation of fans existed, even though a real Star Trek series hasn’t been on the air in 10 years!

The Captains were the big thing, especially Shatner. While any actor from the series was a hero, the big draws were definitely the “captains”. William Shatner was there and drew the biggest crowd. I wondered how he would be with this crowd. There was a famous parody on Saturday Night Live of him making fun of Trekkies and telling them at a con to “Get a Life!”.
He certainly didn’t do that, but he was equal parts self-deprecatory, self-congratulatory, and serious. He handled the crowd well, and they seemed to hang on his every word. He made fun of himself and the fans, but in humorous ways that the crowd laughing even when the most embarrassingly adulatory questions were asked such as: “I want you to know that Captain Kirk was my hero and taught me how to be a man, and I aspired to be like him,” Even though he seemed a bit absorbed he went on about some story about breeding horses (he had recently hurt his foot). One fan asked him about Ricardo Montalban, who played Khan, and he had nothing but great things to say about him and Shatner told us how he felt when Ricardo passed away, which made Kirk seem to be a sensitive guy too!
Two other captains made it, Scott Bakula (Captain Archer from Enterprise), and Kate Mulgrew (Captain Janeway from Voyager), and, though they weren’t nearly as big as Shatner, I got a personal kick out of seeing them – and of course I had to stand in line to get a picture with them!

Be Prepared to Bring Your Checkbook. 
Star Trek conventions aren’t cheap. Actually, it is pretty cheap to get in with “Basic Admission” ($40 a day or so), but a good number of the repeat attendees had “Gold” passes and “Captain’s Chair” passes. These cost many hundreds of dollars. On top of that, every single autograph costs money. For example, I wanted to get two autographs from Scott Bakula, one for me and one for a friend, and had to pay $75 for each one. Plus every single picture that they are autographic costs money. Oh, and you want a pic with an actor, well be ready to shell out at least $20 for that (and over $100 for the more pouplar ones). 
I met some couples who spent many thousands of dollars just on the Star Trek con getting artifacts, not to mention travel and lodging in Vegas. Of course, you don’t have to spend money on these “extras”, but the convention is much less fun if you do. For me, this wasn’t a turn off by itself, but I could see how it might be for some folks, especially if you thought you can just show up and mingle with your favorite actors.

Star Trek fan films are all the Rage. 
An interesting recent phenomenon is that fans have started to make Star Trek fan-films and mini-series and post them onto the web. For the most part, these are done without permission from Paramount, and are often funded via kickstarter. The interesting thing is that they star real Star Trek actors, which makes them 
I hadn’t even been aware of these films nor had I taken them seriously. I met with Tim Russ, who played Tuvok on Star Trek Voyager (and whom I had met years ago at, of all things, a SETI convention), and he’s directed two fan films, including Star Trek: Of Gods and Men, and the upcoming Star Trek: Renegades, each of which have many Star Trek actors in there. I also met Richard Hatch, who stars as a Klingon in the upcoming fan film, Star Trek: Axonar. There was also buzz about Star Trek: Continuum which was said to be among the best ,and I met a group that shoots episodes of a fan series in the Star Trek universe in Atlanta each month.
There are of course the big JJ Abrams Star Trek films to keep the franchise alive, but in the absence of a true series, even though these are unauthorized and Paramount/CBS will most likely be clamping down on them, there does seem to be a lot of creativity in this arena! 

Star Trek, the Music, and the Wonder. 
Anyone who’s been to one of these conventions will tell you that they’re a bit overwhelming, with so may different things going on. There was one event that actually stood out – and I almost didn’t go. I decided to go at the last minute – it was a concert of Star Trek music. The Nevada pops orchestra was on stage one evening, and it turns out their conductor was a very big fan of Star Trek, and to prove it — he told all kinds of insider Star Trek jokes and lines that he and his wife quote regularly. 
I gotta say, this event stood out because when they played music from the various pictures, from Star Trek: The Motion Picture from 1979, or The Wrath of Khan from the early 80’s, or Star Trek: The Next Generation, or Voyager, it took me right back to those times in my life. 
I felt like a kid again, watching the TV with wonder in my eyes, and that excitement that maybe, maybe someday, I too would get to go the stars! 

For now, the next Star Trek Con will have to do!

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