To Boldly Go To The Las Vegas STAR TREK Convention
Star Trek debuted on September 8th, 1966, making this week the 47th anniversary of the series. We'll be bringing you some Star Trek-related content all week long to celebrate.
Everybody at the Las Vegas Star Trek convention hangs out at the Masquerade Bar, a depressingly dingy casino-side drinking spot in the Rio Hotel. It’s Masquerade because the area is supposed to be Carnivale-themed, but the whole ratty, smoky place has long ago given up any pretense of being festive.
It’s at the bar where you meet people, people dressed like Vulcan ambassadors and people with elaborate Borg tattoos. And people who write official Star Trek tie-in novels. I’m fascinated by this, because the tie-in novels are still being produced and are still set in the original, pre-Abrams continuity. They sell very well, comparatively. There’s a side universe where the reboot never happened.
I’m talking to this writer and I’m curious about what the rules are now that the reboot has occurred. It isn’t like the tie-in novels and games and comics were truly ever canon, but now they’re living in a pocket universe all their own. Does the fact that the mainstream Trek moved away from their continuity give them more freedom? What can they do in a Trek tie-in novel these days?
“They let us do pretty much whatever we like, as long as we don’t do something like blow up Vulcan,” the writer says. “But then again, what kind of asshole would blow up Vulcan?”
He’s my spirit animal. He’s a chubby teenaged boy dressed in Original Series science blue, with a phaser on his hip and a tricorder slung around his chest. He’s sitting all by himself in a mostly empty ballroom (dubbed the DeForrest Kelley Theater for the length of this event) waiting for karaoke to start. He keeps eyeing these two girls to his right, both colored blue and sporting antenna - Andorians. One is wearing a lovely blue and purple dress, the other is in leathers. Both seem pretty. To be honest it’s hard to tell with cosplayers; the best ones become whole different people when out of costume.
Karaoke was supposed to have started a half hour ago already. It’s Thursday night at Creation’s big Star Trek convention in Las Vegas, and the entire convention center at the Rio Hotel and Casino has been taken over by uniformed Starfleet officers and a motley assemblage of aliens. Also one lone asshole in a Han Solo costume, because there’s always going to be a guy like that at these events. On Saturday drunks would walk the halls of the convention center singing the Star Wars theme at passing Federation cosplayers.
You wouldn’t think that there would be karaoke at a Star Trek convention, but it’s got me excited. I love karaoke. I like getting up on stage and belting out one of the two or three songs I know I can nail. I like watching other people get up on stage and really put their hearts into it, and tonight I’m going to get to watch them do it in costume.
Which brings me back to my spirit animal. The KJ (Karaoke Jockey, for you squares in the audience) is late and taking forever to set up and there’s restlessness in the room. It’s almost 10pm and people are filtering out; everybody heading to the Masquerade Bar. There’s a small bar set up in the DeForrest Kelley Theater, but the energy is out on the casino floor. My spirit animal senses that maybe karaoke isn’t going to happen, or that these two gorgeous Andorians he’s been eyeing will leave, and he gets up - I notice he’s even wearing regulation boots - and ambles over to them.
Discolsure: I’m drunk right now. I had been drinking at the Masquerade Bar with Jordan Hoffman, King of Star Trek and occasional Badass Digest contributor, and on the way to karaoke he forced me to get one of those huge slushie alcoholic drinks. I would have skipped it, but the slushie booze booth had renamed their electric blue concoction Romulan Ale - it was in the spirit of the weekend. Secondary disclosure: I’m a shitty journalist because I don’t feel comfortable walking up to people and just engaging with them. I feel like I’m bugging them, and I never know if I should be like “Derp, I’m a journalist” or just talk to them like a regular person. These disclosures are meant to let you know that what follows is my perception of the next few minutes, colored by my drinking and my reluctance to actually talk to people.
So my spirit animal goes over to where the Andorians are hanging out; they’re with a whole clique of people who clearly know each other, post on the same message boards, go to the same cons, etc. He stands around the outskirts of the group for a minute. The group is laughing, having a good time, and my spirit animal edges his way in and, after a few moments, says something to the Andorian in leather. She smiles and nods and says something back to him - I can’t hear what - but that’s it. He stands around another moment and then makes his way back to his seat. Alone.
Even at a Star Trek convention there are cliques.
Everything that we know as fandom was largely popularized, if not invented, by Star Trek fans - everything from rallying to save a show on the edge of cancellation to cosplay to fanfic and slashfic to regularly scheduled topic-specific fan conventions can trace their roots in some way to Trek fandom. Coming to a Star Trek convention is like hearing the Catholic mass in the orginal Latin, a real roots experience.
It’s refreshing after a number of years at San Diego Comic-Con, a show that draws a very generalized crowd that doesn’t have the deep, monkish devotion that true Trek fans have cultivated over the decades. Comic-Con is like Intro to Fandom, while a great Trek con is a Master’s program. There’s also a passion on display that’s unlike anything you’ll see at Comic-Con; while Hall H may be the ultimate focal point for all fan ENTHUSIASM in a given year, a Trek convention is filled with the day-to-day passion of people who live for the property.
That can seem a little sad at times. This year’s Las Vegas Trek show was slow to warm up, and the people who were there on the first day carried a noticeable scent of desperation - which is impressive when you realize that desperation is the official metropolitan odor of Vegas. But once it warmed up the convention revealed itself not as sad or awkward (although like any gathering of nerds it could sometimes be those things as well) but rather inspiring. There’s a sense of community that is strong there.
A sense of community that even Creation can’t beat out of the fandom. I’ve written in the past about Creation’s nickle and diming ways at a Supernatural convention; while those same expensive photo ops and autograph lines existed at the Trek show they didn’t feel as predatory. For one thing Levar Burton just is worth the money in a way that Jim Beaver, as great as he is, isn’t. Even the worst Trek (cough, Voyager) has the weight of the franchise behind it, lending gravitas to the aging actors who will gladly stand beside you for forty seconds while a photographer snaps a picture for thirty bucks.
The dealer room is small but fairly well-stocked, especially if you’re interested in Star Trek commemorative plates, which are in extraordinary abundance. The dealers have obscure toys and odd little bits of memorabilia, and while most of the stuff on display is Trek-oriented there’s just enough junk from other franchises to keep it all from feeling claustrophobic. One booth, Intergalactic Patches, has scifi insignia patches so obscure that Jordan Hoffman - king of Star Trek and occasional Badass Digest contributor and one of the biggest nerds I know - and I had to take to Google to figure out what some of them were.
That deep cut mentality extended to the cosplay. Star Trek costumes come in two forms: generic uniforms (Original Series and DS9 were neck and neck for ubiquity) and absolutely bonkers specificity. There was a guy dressed as Old West Worf, a lady with a remote control Horta and someone dressed up as Jackson Roykirk, a character who only appeared as A PHOTOGRAPH in one episode of the original series. And I saw these people on Friday, the day before the big costume competition, which brought out some truly unique flavors of costuming.
There are lots of opportunities to spend money at this convention - that’s the Creation way - but there are also lots of ways to just be with people who are like you. I haven’t been to a Trek convention since I was in high school - I saw James Doohan in a wheelchair with a Klingon honor guard - and I feel like an apostate, since the Original Series is the only Trek I really call my own (I do love the Enterprise outfits, though). But there’s such a welcoming feeling; even though I’m nowhere near as devoted as these people (even with a Starfleet symbol tattooed on my arm!), I’m welcome.
Still, there are cliques, just as my spirit animal learned at karaoke.
There’s this huge ballroom called the Gene Roddenberry Theater, and it’s never full. I don’t know how it could be - it’s like a fucking aircraft hangar. But it gets sort of full a couple of times. I’m in there watching Alexander Siddig, Dr. Bashir from Deep Space 9, talk about his trip to Africa. He’s really standing on this stage all alone talking about the animals he saw on safari. It’s weird, like he’s just sharing his vacation stories with a thousand rapt strangers. The room is so big that I can barely even see his form from the back, but I can hear him talking about seeing an elephant.
He dodges a question about being a feminist - a really easy question, I think - and then wraps it up. We’re told that he’s going to be doing autograph signings later, part of a big DS9 20th anniversary reunion. I imagine they had to spring Avery Brooks from the loony bin like the A-Team did with Howling Mad Murdock at the start of so many episodes.
I only see one other speaker in this big room, and I had to leave after only a few minutes. It’s Nichelle Nichols, Uhura from the original series, and she’s not doing great. She begins telling stories about her mom and then in the middle gets distracted and then starts telling the story over again from the start, seemingly unaware she’s already covered this ground. She begins an anecdote about her mother being so smart everyone in her school thought she was cheating about three times. The moderator isn’t a huge help; at one point he makes a comment about how sexy she still is and it manages to be both creepy and sad all in one stunning moment.
I watch as much as I can stand to watch; the original series actors are on their way out and you have to wonder how many more of these shows they have in them. I hear Walter Koenig’s mind wanders on stage as well - which is no surprise, as he’s 76. Nichols is 80. I ended up chatting with some folks behind the scenes at the convention and I ask them when they’ll stop booking these old people, stop making them get up on stage and be confused. The answer seems to be that the stars have their people, and their people make those decisions.
So basically expect to see a Star Trek actor die onstage at some convention someday.
There are a lot of original series uniforms being worn at the con, but I keep finding my eye catching on the few folks wearing reboot uniforms. There’s something weird about every single person wearing a reboot uniform, and eventually I figure out what it is: the cut of the shirt makes everybody look sloppy. The original uniform tops have a tighter, more fitted look that makes everybody - even the many, many heavy people at the show - look pretty good. It’s like The Next Generation jumpsuits, which are fairly flattering on most frames. But the JJ Abrams-era tops are shapeless and baggy on everybody, whether they’re wearing cheap knock-offs or well-made replicas. Is this a metaphor?
I spend a lot of time looking for examples of the fandom embracing the Abrams films. It’s hard to judge visually beyond the few people in baggy reboot tops. But it all becomes very clear during Jordan Hoffman’s One Trek Mind panel where the fans gather in the DeForrest Kelly Theater to argue the ranking of the twelve Star Trek movies (plus Galaxy Quest, a surprise addition).
First: Hoffman’s panels are a delight. I keep wondering aloud why they’re not being recorded; Hoffman himself is a fun, engaging MC who brings hardcore nerdery together with a rubber chicken Catskills showmanship, but more than that the fans are wonderful to hear. They’re articulate and funny and they really, truly give a shit. That’s refreshing in a world where fandom has taken on the blandness and changeability of a colored ribbon of the month.
This one, though, is especially exciting. Here’s the format: Hoffman reminds everybody of all the Star Trek movies and then fans line up at mics on either side of the stage to make their nominations for where on the ranking continuum one film should fall; ie, a lady will take the mic and explain why she thinks Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home deserves to be the fourth slot. And get this: the Trek fanbase actually starts in the middle. I am sure that it’s going to be all about the #1 and the #13 (remember, Galaxy Quest is in the mix) spots, but the fans start right in the middle.
That’s partially because everybody knows what will be number one. I tell Jordan in advance that First Contact will get number two and he doesn’t believe me, but I know that this is the only way The Next Generation gets a decent showing on this list and the fans will demand that. The real nerd action comes in the middle, in ranking the okay movies and the not that great movies. But it’s the last spots that bring the passion, the anger and the yelling.
So you get up to the mic and you say why you think a movie belongs at a certain spot and someone in a projection booth manipulates an image of a grid so that the poster for that movie pops up in that spot. And then everybody yells. It’s raucous at times, but always positive. There is booing and there is cheering and it all feels like a good debate, like everybody is going to slap each other on the backs on the way out.
But there are divides. A woman takes the mic to defend Star Trek: The Motion Picture. She’s older, and she talks about what it was like to be a Trekkie in the 70s, when there were no video tapes of the show and no new series and only scattered reruns; getting Star Trek at the cinema was a revelation and yeah, maybe there were some lingering long shots of the Enterprise, but a Trekkie in 1979 would never have complained about too much footage of the Enterprise playing on the big screen. It’s impassioned, and I like how contextual it is. The movie’s still a total fucking bore, though. I saw it in theaters when it came out; my dad took me and halfway through the film melted and we just left. I didn’t see the second half for years and years.
Like I said, I’m interested in how the hardcore base - the people dressed like M’Ress from The Animated Series - feels about the reboot. And judging by the crowd in the theater they’re mixed, with the dividing line coming by age. The older Trekkies are vocally against Star Trek Into Darkness, with one guy in his late 40s saying the Abrams films aren’t even Trek and thus shouldn’t be ranked. Some of the younger folks are pushing to have the 2009 Star Trek ranked higher, and are booing vociferously as Star Trek Into Darkness gets pushed into the dead last slot.
But did they come to Trek through Abrams? It’s been four years since the reboot, more than enough time for the new continuity to have created its own rabid fanbase. In case you missed it before, I’m a terrible journalist and so I never actually talked to these people, but the loudest group of booers (ie, supporters of Star Trek Into Darkness) are wearing Starfleet uniforms circa Wrath of Khan. Based on appearances (the best you’re going to get from this shitty journalist), these aren’t newcomers to the franchise.
But is the Abrams reboot bringing new people into Trek? It’s hard to say, but it doesn’t feel that way. It feels like the Abrams reboot is appealing to the Comic-Con crowd, the people taking survey courses in fandom.
To read the full breakdown of the rankings, go here.
I bomb out at karaoke. I sing Born to Run, which is my go-to song, but lately I’ve been shit at it. I don’t know what happened; some of my karaoke magic has been taken from me. I’m like Captain Kirk looking through his bifocals in Wrath of Khan. I feel old, Bones.
Jordan kills it. He sings Stevie Wonder’s Living For the City, and he dedicates it to Gabriel Bell, a DS9 reference so obscure nobody in the crowd even gets it. I only get it because Jordan tells me what it means. Despite nobody getting the Gabriel Bell reference an impromptu dance party starts in front of the stage. Jordan’s reign as the king of Star Trek continues.
Then one of those Andorians - this one in a flowing blue and purple dress that beautifully complements her blue skin - takes the stage. She’s joined by a guy dressed as Data, and they do a rousing rendition of Love Shack. Data as Fred Schneider is pretty perfect. These people are popular people with this crowd, the center of a big clique, and they’re also great, so everybody’s going nuts. Even my spirit animal, sitting alone and rocking out in his chair, smiling.
I’d like to end this with the story of how that kid and one of those Andorians ended up going off together. Maybe they did later on in the weekend, but I had to go home, so I never saw it. I’d like to end this with some sort of moral where a Star Trek convention is a magical spot where everybody is equal and there are no social divisions, like on the Enterprise-D. But reality is more complicated than that.
Maybe that’s the big moral about Star Trek: there are a lot of Star Treks now. There are different flavors, ranging from the adventure idealism of the original series to the utopian chattiness of The Next Generation to the complicated moralities of DS9 to the wham-bam-I’m-dumb action of the reboot, and the Trek fandom encompasses all those flavors. We can get together in a room to yell about which is the best, but we can also get together in a room to to sing together. That it's the devotion to something that brings everybody together.
Or maybe the moral is that nerds are people too, and no matter how tight your original series uniform game is, the hottest girl in the room still isn’t going to get with you. I don’t know, I did a lot of drinking. It was Vegas.
All photos yanked from Jordan Hoffman's Instagram. Click here to see more, and to follow him!