Sometimes, being a Star Trek fan feels like having Stockholm Syndrome -- you don't love it because you want to, but because you have to. The bug bites you early on, probably when you're young and impressionable and a probably more than a little geeky. Then you spend the rest of your life grappling with your fandom, always aware that you're in love with a franchise that is frequently impenetrable to newcomers. You're not a real Star Trek fan until you've told a potential friend or partner about your fandom, received a raised eyebrow and never heard from them again.
So, that brings us to the big question of the moment: how does someone actually become a Star Trek fan? How do you ease someone into loving the greatest science fiction franchise of all time without alienating them?
Well, the good news is that J.J. Abrams has already done a lot of the heavy lifting for us. His 2009 reboot of Star Trek is the most accessible take on the material yet, a movie that takes the iconography of the original series and transforms it into a big action spectacle suitable for just about everyone. Sure, old-school fans like me can b*tch and moan all day long about how it "doesn't really feel like Star Trek," but that doesn't change the fact that it's a frequently spectacular movie that made our nerdy little corner of the universe look cool and appealing to millions of people around the world.
Abrams' Star Trek is the bait. It's such an energetic and fun movie that it's hard to watch and not want to learn more about the Federation and Starfleet and the Vulcans and the crew of the Enterprise. But once a potential new fan is interested, how do you reel them in?
This was the big question I had with my girlfriend, who adores the 2009 Star Trek but had little-to-no familiarity with any of the other movies or TV shows. We had discussed Star Trek before (i.e., she's listened to me ramble for hours on end about Trek minutiae while politely nodding her head), but I had no idea how to introduce her to the old stuff. At its best, Star Trek can be thoughtful and exciting and truly humane science fiction. At its worst, it's cheesy and preachy and practically made of cardboard. It's like finally convincing a friend to check out Star Trek: The Next Generation and they watch that episode where Worf's son Alexander and Lwaxana Troi team up.
It takes a certain amount of time to truly appreciate Star Trek. You've got to let it hold you hostage. You've got to suffer through the rough starts to get to the good stuff. Despite the bargain-bin production values, the original series contains some of the coolest science fiction ever written. After a shaky couple of seasons, Star Trek: The Next Generation becomes like hanging out with a group of dear friends. People don't believe me when I tell them that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine emerges from a rough start to become the greatest, most complex and most emotionally satisfying sci-fi series of all time.
But it all takes time… and it's hard to blame someone if they don't want to commit to suffering through hours of bad television to find the sublime stuff.
So what did I end up doing to put the girlfriend on the road to true Star Trek fandom? Simple: I programmed a double feature of the original series episode "Space Seed" and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
As all of the fans know, "Space Seed" introduces the villainous supersoldier Khan to the Star Trek universe, who attempts to take over the Enterprise after being discovered and revived from hypersleep by Captain Kirk. Although there are better episodes in the first season of Star Trek ("The City on the Edge of Forever" is tremendous and "Arena" is a hoot), it felt like the natural warm-up for the evening and I was surprised by how much my Trek fan in the making enjoyed it. The episode shows its age at every possible opportunity, but the dynamics between the crew members haven't aged a day. There's a reason the Kirk/Spock/Dr. McCoy triumvirate is so iconic: these three manage to bring any outrageous scenario down to earth.
Of course, the real meat of the evening was Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, commonly regarded as the greatest film in the series… mainly because it is. In addition to being a kick-ass dueling submarines movie where the submarines are actually spaceships, it's the direct culmination of two decades worth of James T. Kirk stories. After watching the great captain of the Enterprise cheat death for dozens of of TV episodes and one movie, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan places its hero into an unwinnable situation. Sure, the movie has cool space battles, but it's really about forcing one of pop culture's great supermen to face death, aging and his own mortality for the first time. Although new Trek fans may not have seen many episodes of the original series, they know enough about Captain Kirk's reputation through cultural osmosis to understand what a huge deal this is. That makes the emotional moments of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan just as powerful for newbies as they are for longtime fans.
Hell, the girlfriend already knew that a certain major character bites the dust at the end of the film (once again, cultural osmosis), but it didn't make it any less devastating.
So what's next for the burgeoning Star Trek fan in my life? I'm probably going to show her Star Trek III: The Search For Spock and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home next. We'll skip Star Trek V: The Final Frontier because I don't condone torture. And after that, maybe she'll be ready for the rest of the original series. Maybe it'll be time for me to start parceling out good episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. She's probably not ready for the endurance test that is the first season or three of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, but we'll get there soon enough.
After all, being a Star Trek fan is all about time and patience.