An investigation into pop culture fandom

Stuart A Blair wrote about competing Star Trek shows in the first issue; this time he has a look at the sub-cultures of fans that dedicate their lives to the celebration of their favourite hero.

2016 marked anniversary celebrations for a lot of the classic pop culture TV shows that many of us have grown up watching as adolescents or have discovered via re-runs or on DVD. Like the countless thousands of fans around our world, we have continued to follow the adventures of our heroes and villains; their evolution through comic book serials, books, gaming, and for a chosen few, up on the big screen in the form of motion pictures.

The 1960s spawned what we refer to now as the classic era for popular culture; it was the era of social and cultural change that was developing at a pace even it could not keep up with. Cultural revolutions, political change, and war were forming new opinions and dividing society around the world, and television was the teacher for a new generation. Teenagers were now taking advice from Patty Duke and That GirlArchie and Betty and Veronica and following their lead on how to handle peer group pressure, love, and breakups, albeit in thirty-minute time slots!

Television had taken over from the radio as the meeting point in the homes of families in the western world. Families were sitting down every night at 6pm and enjoying the antics of Leave it to BeaverMister EdMy Three SonsThe Adventures of SupermanBatmanGilligan’s IslandI Dream of Jeanie and The Munsters, to name but a few. All of Hollywood’s greatest performers of the era were lining up to take on roles or at least make a cameo, and fans of BatmanGilligan’s Island and I Dream of Jeannie and Lost in Space, in particular, would marvel at just who would appear as a special guest each week.

Sammy Davis Junior, Jerry Lewis, and Lucile Ball (already starring in her own TV show, I Love Lucy, and host to many of the classic TV shows as she was the ‘Lu’ in Desilu Productions) were known for popping up in other classic shows from time to time. This was an era that set the bar for all television shows and films to follow, and the height of this bar still remains a difficult obstacle for many of the current programs to topple or even equal.

I refer to the quality of acting. During this era of low budget productions and no CGI or elaborate special effects, actors were required to produce their craft, in some instances, in a single take. The class of the 1960s oozed professionalism and style, and the ability to ad-lib with one’s fellow co-stars creating a chemistry/bond in a cast compared to today’s technology that permits many re-takes to create a near-perfect scene but lacking in authenticity.

One of the most influential television shows, and voted the number one cult TV show of our time by TV Guide Magazine (2007) was Star Trek, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2016.

The creator, Gene Roddenberry, had submitted drafts of his idea for Star Trek to the networks with little success before being given the chance to present a pilot at Desilu Productions. With the original pilot having been rejected, a second pilot was successful in convincing the network chiefs to produce the first series.

Star Trek commenced on television in 1966 and even though its ratings were poor, it was gathering a loyal fan base. After the second season, a third was not planned due to the show being deemed to be ‘too intellectual’ for the current viewer demographic, who had been used to a plethora of classic western television shows like GunsmokeWagon TrainHigh Chaparral and Zorro. All were great television shows with fine actors and marvellous adventures of the Wild West, but worlds away from science fiction.

Star Trek was set for decommissioning at the end of the second season but word soon spread among the fan base, and a letter campaign had spawned at the hands of Bjo Trimble (a fan in the US) gained momentum at an explosive pace. The campaign would eventually make its way to the network executives and a third season was granted.

One of the earliest documented scenes displaying an interracial kiss on television was seen on Star Trek, between Captain Kirk; (played by William Shatner) and Lt Uhura (played by Nichelle Nichols); and set in a scenario where there was an extra-terrestrial being forcing them to kiss. Nothing out of the ordinary in today’s standards, but in the 1960s, a black woman on a TV show was more often than not, playing the role of a maid than that of a main cast member with authority.

The uniform made the statement, particularly the officer’s band on her sleeves that would be obeyed and respected by all subordinates, and of course, the privileged position of being a bridge officer.

This was Gene Roddenberry at his best, in taking on the standards and pushing the point of equality.

‘Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combination’ is what Star Trek professes to its viewer, and has done so for the past fifty years in producing six television shows and ten motion pictures with a new series of “reboots” – three thus far, following the continuing adventures of an original series crew. Exciting times indeed for the Star Trek enthusiast with a seventh television series; Star Trek Discovery continuing ‘to boldly go’ for the sixth generation of fans!

Yes, some Star Trek fans have been labelled hypocrites for the diversity being presented in the new tv show, Star Trek Discovery, for example; the inclusion of homosexual characters openly displaying their affection and relationship during an episode/s. This type of affection had not been displayed in previous Star Trek canon (there is one instance in the Star Trek series Deep Space Nine that has the character, Jadzia Dax kissing another female who has a symbiont host inside her that was once joined with a male who was in a relationship with Jadzia Dax. This is often debated as a homosexual scene but in reality, the two former lovers are drawn together by the memories of the symbiont that now resides in the female’s body.

Each year in the city of Las Vegas, Nevada, in the United States, thousands of Star Trek fans from around the world assemble as a community and participate in the largest single show convention of its kind in the world. The 50th anniversary of Star Trek convention was a most special occasion indeed and one to be a part of, and I was!

Yes, the five-day event is a convention of all things Star Trek.

My current thesis investigation and book project research involves pop culture fandom and the sub-cultures of fans that dedicate their lives to the celebration of their favourite hero. This dedication and often swathing devotion can be displayed via one’s wearing of costumes adorned by their character, the changing of their given name to that of their hero’s name or keepsake tattoo on one’s body, and for a select sub-culture, conversing in their chosen constructed language that is spoken by their hero.

I travelled to Las Vegas with VIP ticket package in hand and a selection of Star Trek t-shirts in my travelling ensemble, to meet and gain further insight from fans from other countries as I had visited many pop culture conventions around Australia since the late 1980s.

The Rio All-Suites Hotel in Las Vegas is the venue every August for the Star Trek convention, conducted by Creation Entertainment and helmed by joint CEOs, Adam Malin and Gary Berman – themselves long-term Star Trek fans since the 1970s and major players on the pop culture convention circuit in the United States.

The main auditorium at the Rio All-Suites Hotel houses close to 9,000 fans with a secondary auditorium with 2,000 (approx) Star Trek fans during the five-day convention.

Las Vegas is a convention city, with most hotels playing host to an event or multiple events. Upon walking the Las Vegas Strip, I could purchase a ticket to see Jennifer Lopez in Planet Hollywood (which I did, no-brainer there), Rod Stewart, Celine Dion, even Mr Las Vegas (Wayne Newton) is pulling in sell-out audiences after fifty plus years in the city!

The city never sleeps, and invites you to join in on the fun 24 hours per day! If there is a distraction for the Star Trek fan it is the heat. The average temperature whilst I was there for the week-long event was 45 degrees, which proves to be a challenge for the Cos-Player (costume-wearing fan).

The convention schedule is action packed from 9 am in the morning to 1 am the following morning, with a constant line of appearances and guest panels from over 100 actors from the Star Trek films and television shows. This year some of the headliners were Whoopi Goldberg, who played Guinan from Star TrekThe Next Generation and Kirstie Alley, who made her acting debut in Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan. Of course, the fan favourite, William Shatner, lead the way for most of the actors from all TV series in attendance, for photo opportunities and autographs with fans.

Social activities play a large part of the convention;  many romances spawning into marriage between fans, and long-term friendships forming between fans from many regions of our world. When I asked fans during the convention why they were attending, many replied that they were here, ‘to be able to talk with a common frame of reference’. Many fans that I had spoken with said that they feel that they can talk freely without inhibition and feel safe when attending a Star Trek convention. They can talk about their level of fandom as a norm, as their peers share the same level of devotion.

The Tintin Journal has a slogan; ‘For the children aged 7 to 77 years,’ and upon observation of fans in Australia, The United Kingdom, Europe, and The United States, age is not a barrier when displaying one’s devotion to one’s idols. Families attending events in the theme of the event and commenting on how much enjoyment they receive during their annual vacation to the Las Vegas Star Trek Convention, or a visit to the Harry Potter Studios in London, or the Hergé Museum in Belgium, providing them with a common frame of reference whilst spending quality time with their spouse and children.

After five days of little sleep and much enjoyment, I departed Las Vegas with many fond memories, some great images and a plethora of research material that I am currently adding to my presentations being used during the next stages of my National Speaking Tour taking in the cities of Perth, Melbourne, Brisbane, and Adelaide.

My next port of call during my research tour took me to the city of London in the United Kingdom where I had visited and conversed with officials and fans at the Harry Potter Studio Museum to discuss the franchises immense success, and the dynamics of the parochial fanbase and their devotion to their favourite character.

A common denominator was ever present when asking why a fan dons a costume and attends pop culture conventions; one feels safe in being able to express oneself and communicate with a common frame of reference with one’s fellow peers at a pop culture event.  The pop culture convention is seen as an environment where the sub-culture of fans that dress up as their favourite character can feel accepted without ridicule.

 

Stuart attended the London premiere of Harry Potter and The Cursed Child theatre production in 2016.

 

The final stop on my research tour was in the home of comics, Belgium. Specifically, the Musée Hergé (Tintin museum) and Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinée (International Comics Art Museum in Brussels), where I further investigated Tintin’s creator, Hergé, and the controversies surrounding his employment as an illustrator during the Second World War.

 


Stuart is seen here at the International Comics Art Museum in Brussels, Belgium

 

The next portion of my research tour will be to France to attend the second largest comic convention in the world in the city of Angoulême, which attracts over 200,000 fans to their event.

Will I make a return journey to the Star Trek Las Vegas Convention?

In the immortal words of Mr Spock… It’s only logical!


Stuart is pictured here with the actress, Kirstie Alley, during a fan photo opportunity at the 50th anniversary Star Trek convention in Las Vegas.

Stuart A Blair B. Lang., BA Hons Flinders

Stuart is a Pop Culture Historian and a Keynote Speaker in the field of classic European comic book literature. He is in the final year of his Master of Language Studies Degree at Flinders University in Adelaide – South Australia.

Stuart can be booked as a presenter at your event via www.stuartablair.com

(c) StuartABlair 2018