Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Star Trek's Geek Attraction

I've been rewatching the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation this month. It's been years since I've seen the show (or any Star Trek property, for that matter) and I figured that I'd gotten enough distance from it to be able to enjoy it again. I remembered loving it, but the rip-offs Voyager and Enterprise and the last couple of movies soured me on the whole franchise.

I'm happy to say that with the exception of a few early episodes, my fond recollections of it are being reinforced and I'm looking forward to watching the later seasons (a lot of which I'll be seeing for the first time). But as I'm watching, older and wiser than the first time around, I'm also realizing something about myself and why Star Trek conventions are full of the most socially awkward people imaginable.

I've only been to one Star Trek convention and that was because Michael Dorn, who played Worf, was there. I'm a huge Worf fan. You don't see it so much in Season One, but he became the coolest, most butt-kicking character on the show. The Klingon sense of honor also endeared him to me and made me -- and lots of other fans -- into big fans of Klingons in general. I've got a book somewhere called The Klingon Way: A Warrior's Guide that arranges quotes from Klingons throughout the various Star Trek shows into a geeky version of Life's Little Instruction Book. How weird do you have to be to buy a book that tells you how to live like a Klingon?

Thankfully, I never tried to put the guide to practical use, but as I've been watching Season One again, I've been thinking about my fascination with Worf and wondering why I identified with him so strongly. It wasn't until later seasons that I began to do that and there's where my answer lies. Worf, in Season One, is a geek. Yeah, he boasts about his warrior spirit and his rough style of lovemaking, but he's a big nerd. He's completely out of his element on the Enterprise and doesn't know how to interact normally with his human crewmates. He's socially inept.

So is Data, obviously. So is Riker, a little less obviously, but look at him: he's so obsessed with becoming the captain of a starship that he falls in love with a hologram-woman because he doesn't know how to balance his obsession and a real relationship. It's not just Next Generation characters either. There's Spock, Quark, Seven of Nine, T'Pol.

And here's why Star Trek has such a large nerd demographic. The shows depict an environment in which social losers are accepted and even loved without condition. Remember that these characters were created to provide an outsider's perspective of humanity. They were the ones through whose eyes we were to see ourselves: the Kirks, McCoys, and Picards. How ironic that instead of seeing ourselves in the human characters, so many fans began identifying with the outsiders -- vicariously feeling the acceptance and love of normal people. I mean, if Worf can find love with a babe like Jadzia Dax, there's hope for anyone, right?

I've got a great wife and a great kid and a loving extended family and lots of friends, but I work at those relationships. I've learned the social rules and figured out how to make my behavior something that other people are comfortable with. Sometimes though, I think it'd be nice to just be as grumpy as Worf and have no one give it a second thought. It wouldn't be nice for the people who have to live with me, but that's what makes it a fantasy. I don't identify with Worf because I am him; I do it because sometimes I'd love to be him. Nothing wrong with that.

Where it becomes creepy and weird is when people who haven't learned the social rules use Star Trek as a way of feeling some kind of pseudo-acceptance without having to go to the trouble of changing their behavior.

5 comments:

Annette said...

I enjoyed the original series and TNG. I fell off the fan track after that. DS9, Voyager, and Enterprise repeated many of the old storylines and the characters just didn't have the stuff that holds my interest. The Klingons were always great characters. I really enjoyed Data as well.

Michael May said...

I dismissed DS9 as a Babylon 5 rip-off (not that I watched that show either) until Worf became a regular character. I don't know much about it up to that point, but afterwards it became very dark and filled with war and conspiracies and espionage. I dug it.

Too bad Voyager went back to formula, and Enterprise too.

Annette said...

You were commenting on how people identify with the characters. I think another aspect that draws people in is the uniqueness of the characters. For myself it's comforting to see characters accepted as being unique - such as Worf. They're not just geeks - they are distinctly unique geeks. They are vastly different in opinions, interests, goals, etc, and yet they all accept each other (most of the time) just as they are. It's ok for Worf to hate everything that everyone else likes. It's ok for Data to have more knowledge than everyone else.

It's ok to be a geek, but more importantly you can be accepted as you are.

Obviously my mind isn't nearly so preoccupied during mornings.

Michael May said...

I agree and that's a big part of why I still love the show and will continue to be a Worf fan. It's a good point you're bringing up.

There's obviously a couple of levels to this. I wasn't thinking about your run-of-the-mill geek who just has unique interests or tastes. I was thinking about folks who genuinely don't know how to interact with other people. That seems extreme, but I saw a lot of folks like that at the convention I went to. Those are the kinds of people who allow the show to take over their lives. Who can't seem to figure out that Michael Dorn is an actor who PLAYS Worf and isn't Worf himself (for real).

Star Trek also has many other less-extreme fans who appreciate it for the reason you mentioned, or just because the acting is great or the plots are interesting.

Annette said...

What do you mean "Michael Dorn is an actor who PLAYS Worf. . ."? *gasp*

;)

Now the truth has been revealed. I'm only a demi-geek.

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