Opinions about Star Trek and its recent reboot by J. J. Abrams are strong within the Star Trek fan base, and it made me wonder why. Why were so many not only disappointed but truly angry about the new movies? And why do the fans maintain their vision of Trek so well on their own in brilliantly produced works? Why are we as excited by the fan-support projects as we are about the next official series?
There is no one typical Trekker. Fans approach Trek in several ways which I have grouped into four broad tribes. These groupings are admittedly artificial and fans often have attributes of more than one tribe (I’m strongly like the fourth tribe I’ll describe, but I also have attributes of the first and second tribe). By grouping the fan base into these tribes, we can see that the reboot satisfied only one fan segment and left others justifiably feeling ignored, dissatisfied, or deliberately rejected.
Star Trek fans may be divided into four broad groups:
Futurists: Star Trek showed a believable future based on real and theoretical science, technology and engineering. Scientists and engineers were treated realistically — even heroically. Futurist fans are inspired by that future, and have used its imagined technologies as goals for actual engineering and scientific projects. Indeed, some Futurists became leading engineers, physicists, astronomers, and astronauts because of the show. Futurists openly acknowledge Trek inspired their achievements. The rebooted Trek has shown little interest in science, technological solutions, or goals.
Historians: These fans treat Trek as a historical future, and like archeologists unearth more and more details from each episode. It is these fans who carefully map out sets, create starship blueprints, argue over uniform development and incongruities between adventures, and are the defenders of The Canon. As Historians, they carefully expand their understanding by inferring facts and discovering implied events. Historians are active fans and strongly believe precedence must be respected. Other fans seek their opinion on trivia, timelines, and subtle series details. The rebooted Trek deliberately cut out the Historians, who in turn feel the rebooted Trek is heresy against Canon.
Adventurers: From space battles to hand-to-hand combat, Trek provides action and excitement. Adventurers enjoy the energy and dazzling special effects. The Adventurers accept the rebooted films as much as the older shows, and equally enjoy other action-packed movies and games. Adventurers expect amazing, realistic visuals and cliff hanging plot devices. Their emotional bond with the Trek universe may be less than other fans.
Humanists: The Trek universe created by Gene Roddenberry is an optimistic one with individuals acting in concert to achieve humane goals. Humanists cherish that philosophical vision. Humanists are the show’s evangelists, bringing its stories into philosophy classes, juries, and editorials. Their interest is on character interaction and ethical dilemmas, and while they may enjoy action and special effects, dialogue and plot are central — a bare set would do. Humanists found little to appreciate in the rebooted Trek with its emphasis of special effects and action, and its superficial treatment of characters and issues.
The rebooted Trek only satisfied one fan type. The adventurers enjoyed the movie, but they may have less allegiance to its unique aspects than, say Futurists or Historians. The next Transformers or Bond film may get their equal attention. The reboots rejected the Historians completely: the producers instead created an alternate timeline, deliberately abandoning Historians to reruns and fan films. The Humanists were willing to join the reboot but found nothing amidst the weak dialogue and action-driven plot to ruminate over. Some Futurists might still be aboard the rebooted Enterprise, but barely. Science was not emphasized, and engineering (in the form of a cartoonish Scotty) was used for comic relief. If the next iteration fails to adjust its perspective, Futurists may abandon ship as well.
For any Trek to succeed it must take all the fans into account. That means it must incorporate solid science and engineering speculation, but be about the human condition. It must treat the existing Trek universe with respect and not casually disregard precedence. While enhanced by special effects, the plot should focus on the meaning of the action rather than the action itself. Like the original series, it must confront ethical dilemmas and social issues. But most of all it must show us the vast, wondrous universe. It is Trek’s great promise that we will one day explore the starry unknown together. The Trek producers need to take all the tribes along if their efforts are to succeed.