Beam Me Up to the World’s Largest STAR TREK Convention

August 20, 2010

Las Vegas seems like an unlikely place for the world’s largest STAR TREK convention, especially with the untimely demise two years ago of a STAR TREK-themed attraction at the Las Vegas Hilton that was shuttered just as the long-running TV and movie franchise was (once again) running out of steam.

In a move never fully explained to the TREK faithful, the frothy attraction that brought Trekkies to Vegas like moths to a flame was snuffed out.  Today, the exhibition space remains unused in the large but shopworn Hilton hotel.  It was a sign that perhaps TREK’s time had come and gone.  Even the popular STAR web site was put in stasis during this period of wandering, with its staff suddenly let go and no updates made to the popular site for years.

In a corporate spat, rights to STAR TREK — one of the crown jewels of the Paramount Pictures empire – were split in half.  Paramount Pictures still controls any STAR TREK movies.  Viacom’s CBS Television got rights to the various TV series incarnations for exploitation. It is a very odd arrangement.

Ironically, CBS had turned down STAR TREK forty years earlier because it already had a science fiction TV show on the schedule with “Lost in Space.”  Rival network NBC gambled on STAR TREK, but canceled it after a brief 79-episode, three-year run.

It was 1970’s re-runs that reinvigorated the franchise and the success of STAR WARS (created by George Lucas and distributed by Fox) that convinced Paramount to try to catch lightning in a bottle a second time with 1979’s moribund STAR TREK: The Motion Picture.  STAR TREK was declared dead, once again.

But the franchise was rejuvenated with opera fan Nicholas Meyer’s brilliant direction of STAR TREK II: The Wrath of Khan, which featured scenery-chewing antics of both William Shatner and Ricardo Montalban. (Generally, even-numbered STAR TREK films are the better ones.  STAR TREK I, III, and V are so-so.  STAR TREK II, IV, and VI have better stories.)

In 1987, another TV series — this time called STAR TREK:  The Next Generation — took flight.  It was followed by Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise.  After the fifth STAR TREK TV series was canceled five years ago, and after 10 films, the various powers declared that STAR TREK needed a breather.  It also needed a swift kick in the pants.

Despite the support of legions of fans who carry the torch for their favorite episodes, the future of the science fiction cash cow was seriously in question.

Seven Hollywood warehouses filled with props and costumes from the various TREK incarnations have since been liquidated through a series of high-profile auctions.  Now TREK fans have closets brimming with screen-used costumes and props.

The future of the STAR TREK movie franchise was left to Hollywood uber-director J.J. Abrams and his production company that had brilliantly executed rebirth for another tarnished Paramount property (“Mission: Impossible”) and also developed the mystic TV series “LOST.”

STAR TREK would not be lost for long.

Abrams’ re-imagining of writer Gene Roddenberry’s creation not only breathed new life into the wheezing franchise, it also re-ignited the rocket fuel of TREK fandom.  While in some fannish circles, Abrams is regarded as an upstart who ignored the biblical canon of STAR TREK history (“Spock would never get it on with Uhura”), most of us have found something to love about both approaches.  For the diehard Trekkies, there is a convenient exit ramp with the Abrams retelling of TREK history – it exists as an “alternative timeline” that allows the familiar TREK past to live on, too.

Certainly, the 2009 STAR TREK movie – which will soon be followed by another sequel – introduced the gallant crew of the Enterprise to new generations of younger, passionate fans who are discovering for themselves what we like so much about the galaxy-hopping starship on a mission to explore the “final frontier.”

I’m delighted that a younger generation is now plugging into to TREK, popping DVDs into players to view never-before-seen episodes as though they are lost relics of an ancient civilization.  (It is interesting to note that STAR TREK episodes have been a favorite of virtually every type of home video in history:  Beta tapes, VHS, SelectaVision Disc, LaserDisc, DVD, Divx DVD, HD-DVD, and now Blu-ray.)

In early August, with temperatures in the Nevada desert climbing above 105, the most devoted STAR TREK fans made a pilgrimage to Vegas.  Thankfully, the convention meeting rooms were well air-conditioned, insuring a comfortable costuming experience.

There were many devoted fans from every chapter of STAR TREK history in attendance in August at the annual confab that establishes the superlatives in the convention business.  Make no mistake, this is a very big business.

Professional convention organizer Creation Entertainment assembles an outstanding array of stars – this year some 70 TREK actors took to the stages in Las Vegas to talk to some 3,500 STAR TREK fans, hundreds of whom had shelled out $700 for the privilege of an up-close seat in a massive ballroom temporarily renamed in honor of Gene and Majel Roddenberry, who have both passed from this earth.

Next door, a 32-thousand square foot ballroom (bigger than half a football field) was jammed with dozens of vendors plying their wares:  STAR TREK photos, costumes, autographs, model kits, replica props, uniforms, patches, buttons, plates, commemorative statues, fuzzball Tribbles, and a wide assortment of t-shirts, jewelry, and even tables selling reservations to STAR TREK cruises in the Caribbean.

Sprinkled throughout the Vendors room are tables with photos for sale and actors whose younger faces graced the TV screen when STAR TREK was on the air.  A handful of graying actors sign photos of themselves as guest stars of the original TREK series more than 40 years ago – at $20 a pop.  Even actors from unrelated science fiction shows make an appearance for the four-day love-fest – from “Jaws” in that James Bond movie to “Boomer,” one of the characters in the original Battlestar Galactica.

At every turn, Creation Entertainment (widely known for their fine-tuned convention events for STAR TREK and now the TWILIGHT franchises) offers fans an opportunity to get closer to the actors and images they love.

Autographs are no longer free with convention admission, like the old days.  Instead, a quick autograph from Leonard Nimoy (Spock) runs $79.  A very brief photo session with William Shatner costs $90 for an 8×10 print, and $10 more if you want that as a .JPEG image for impressing your friends on e-mail.  Your “brush with greatness” with a well-known actor is literally two seconds in length.  Smile.  Snap!  Next…

STAR TREK writer David Gerrold penned one of the most popular episodes of the entire STAR TREK series, when as a 19-year old college student he submitted the draft for what became “The Trouble with Tribbles,” which was ultimately produced as a light-hearted December episode in 1967.

These conventions have changed quite a bit since the early days, Gerrold recollects to a small crowd during one of the side-show convention sessions.

“In 1968, it was all male – a dreadful gathering of human beings.  But the panel discussions at that time had incredible writers like Isaac Asimov, Robert Bloch, Harlan Ellison, and more.  It was like Disneyland for the mind,” explains the writer.  But by the time World Science Fiction Convention was staged in 1969 there was another force that had entered fandom.  “It was those damn Trekkies, and they were mostly women.”

The first STAR TREK conventions appeared in 1972.  I convinced my parents to take their 12-year old TREK fan to Chicago for a landmark 1975 convention that brought the original cast together for the first time since the series wrapped production in 1969.

Conventions have evolved over the years.  Until the late 1980’s, there was a good mix of fan-run conventions and professional offerings.  Now, it’s mostly Creation Entertainment that stages the events.  Things are different, and in some ways better, than the old days.  But nostalgia is a powerful force and many of us fondly remember the gatherings of the 70’s and 80’s.

We’ve lost some of the original STAR TREK stars and producers to time.  Actors DeForest Kelley (Dr. McCoy), Majel Barrett (Nurse Chapel) and James Doohan (Scotty) are gone.   So are production icons like Bob Justman (associate producer) and series creator and executive producer Gene Roddenberry, who died in 1991.

From the stage in Vegas, Gene’s son Rodd Roddenberry tells the crowd that he has finally finished a documentary about the impact of STAR TREK that he is now shopping to film distributors.

“’Trek Nation’ is done.  The reason for the delays is that this is the first documentary for me and our producer.  A lot of people only knew my Dad as the creator of STAR TREK and they put him on a pedestal.  And he was a genius and a visionary.  But I don’t want us to look up at Gene Roddenberry.  I want us instead to look AT him.”

Rodd was a teenager in 1986 when his father got a symbolic star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.  Today, he carries the family mantle through his production company and, which is one of the few places licensed to sell prop recreations and other merchandise.

Early on a Saturday morning, I join 543 other costumed STAR TREK fans as we set a Guinness World Record for most people ever assembled for a photograph while wearing a real STAR TREK costume.  It seems strangely satisfying to be in that group, while I donned my Captain Kirk tunic, sparkly space trousers, and custom-made boots.

Later that day, the Hilton ballroom was at full capacity for the star attractions of Bill Shatner (Kirk) and Leonard Nimoy (Spock), who appeared in succession.

They are still a study in contrasts.  Both actors are pushing 80 years old.  Nimoy declares that he is again retiring from acting (after a superb role in the latest TREK film), and that this go-around is his last one on the convention circuit.

Shatner, on the other hand, gleefully describes the FOUR television series he now has on the air.  A favorite is “Aftermath,” where he interviews names in the news several months after their moment in the spotlight.  He talks about a landing airplane manufacturer Bombardier as a production sponsor (providing an airplane for the production crew), after learning that the Canadian manufacturer’s CEO is a STAR TREK fan.  Shatner is electric with energy, and answers questions from the crowd.  He is rumored to have never seen the latest STAR TREK film, but quashes that rumor with a declaration.

Diembodied voice at microphone:  “Why won’t you see J.J. Abrams STAR TREK film?”

Shatner:  “I saw it!  I saw that wonderful motion picture.”

All of the fans in the room know the undercurrent and backstory.  Shatner actively campaigned for a cameo role in the latest film.  But that never happened.

“I sat by the phone, day after day,” Shatner tells the audience.  “And then the phone rang, and it was Leonard Nimoy telling me that he was going to be in the new film!”

Nimoy is up next.  He wears a black t-shirt with four letters emblazoned on the front:  “LLAP.”

“Do you know what it stands for?” he asks the faithful.

“Live Long & Prosper,” we all shout back.

Nimoy talks about his passions, beyond acting.  Later in the day, he will lead a photography seminar.  A fan asks him a question about the 1970’s book “I Am Not Spock.”

“I caught hell for that book,” the actor admits.

“What are your favorite STAR TREK episodes?” asks another fan.

It’s a question Nimoy has been asked hundreds of times, and he rattles off the answer – a list that is agreeable to many in the audience.

City on the Edge of Forever.
Space Seed.
Amok Time.
This Side of Paradise.

“Amok Time was very important episode for Spock character.  Theodore Sturgeon wrote beautiful script.  It was memorable because it was the first time that ‘Live Long and Prosper’ was spoken and also the first time that we introduced the Vulcan salute.”

Another fan asks the inevitable question:  “Would you consider doing another STAR TREK movie.”

Nimoy is forthright.

“That question comes up regularly.  I am very flattered.  I have learned time and time again — particularly in my STAR TREK career — never to say never.  But as we stand here now, I have no plans to be involved.

Together on stage at the end of the session, Shatner and Nimoy relish the opportunity to reflect on being working actors together on a 1960’s TV series.

“They were trying times and very physical work, typically six days a week.  It was a great and proud experience,” Nimoy says, as he turns to look at Shatner.

And as they end another convention appearance together, the actor who played the non-emotional, logical science officer from another planet turns to colleague Shatner with a warm smile.

“You are an emotional brother to me, and you always have been.”

And in that moment, these two actors perfectly capture what attracts so many to the STAR TREK universe.  After almost 50 years, it’s the human stories of conflict, adventure, love, and longing that continue to draw thousands to the world of the Starship Enterprise.

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