In the beginning there was Star Trek, and Star Trek begat media fandom, and media fandom begat Star Trek: The Next Generation.
There is more than a grain of truth in this oversimplification. If Star Trek did not create media fandom, it did, at the very least, provide the original impetus to bring media fans together, and the power of media fandom has permanently changed the nature of the producer/audience relationship.
In 1967 Star Trek was on the ropes, and in danger of cancellation. Recognizing the leverage value of organized fan support, Trek creator Gene Roddenberry contacted two long-time sf fans, John and Bjo Trimble, with an eye toward rallying fandom in support of his series. The Trimbles were established in fandom and sympathetic to his plight, and interested in having the network continue the program. With under-the-counter donations of Desilu/Paramount supplies, postage and cash, and using mimeos of a letter written by Roddenberry himself, the Trimbles master-minded a massive resistance effort to the proposed cancellation among sf fandom, largely by way of urging fans to write to NBC to petition a reprieve.
This letter-writing campaign provided the initial organizational stimulus for the thinly scattered and heretofore mostly unconnected pockets of visual media sf fandom. Once organized, however, there was no stopping media fandom. Star Trek fans were "welcomed" into traditional sf fandom out of respect for their large numbers, if nothing else. Soon there were Star Trek-only conventions, and, of course, large amounts of revenue-generating ST merchandise, including fan-produced magazines (fanzines, or, later, 'zines) patterned after the decades-long print sf fanzine tradition, and featuring original ST fiction and poetry. ST fanzines appeared in prodigious numbers, especially when one considers that, like their print sf progenitors, they were not as a rule profitable operations.
'Zines and their fan-produced narratives gained legitimacy directly by their appearance in the convention venue, linking them in the minds of attendees with the series creator and principals, who often made personal appearances. Additionally, Paramount, holder of all Trek copyrights, conferred indirect legitimacy by not pursuing legal action against 'zine publishers, who were technically copyright violators; at the time, Paramount considered fan products, including 'zines, not worth the effort of prosecution 1.
Once fans crossed the line between spectator and producer, fan fiction took "a much different course than the one originally plotted by its creator" (Alexander 486), namely, the large-scale scale creation of narrative patterns, organizational patterns, and character types that were markedly different from those found in the primary source material. As Henry Jenkins says, Star Trek fandom "re-mixed" the elements of the original series (TOS) to create a vehicle through which they could express concerns more central to their daily lives, often stories that could never have appeared on network prime-time television due to their content. This customizability of the narrative form with regard to the lives of the members of Trek fandom's subculture, combined with fandom's appetite for new stories and the legitimacy conferred by the venue in which it was offered, made fan fiction enormously popular.
Presumably for the expedient of appealing to a built-in audience, Roddenberry (and later producers, including Rick Berman and Michael Piller) either consciously or unconsciously included in Star Trek: The Next Generation some of the more popular fan fiction (or "fanfic") inventions, widely represented in fanfic but conspicuously absent from TOS. Their inclusion represents a fundamental shift in the classic "producer/spectator" paradigm of television production and consumption.
An excellent example of both a narrative category and a character type found only in fanfic and TNG, but clearly removed from TOS narrative patterns, is the "Mary Sue" story. "Mary Sue" is a generally pejorative term for a class of narratives that can perhaps best be described as wish fulfillment. In the "Mary Sue" tale, the heroine (almost always female, young and stunningly beautiful, blonde and blue-eyed, and ever-brilliant2) comes aboard the Enterprise, usually fresh from Starfleet Academy. During the course of the standard Mary Sue story some threat arises which only the heroine can defeat, often at the cost of her own life, and in a less scientific and more fantastic manner
Mary Sue has no counterpart in TOS. (As we shall see later, this is an arguable point.) TOS has a very conservative attitude toward children and young adults in general, viewing them as easily corruptible moral innocents. By way of example, the titular character in "Charlie X" plays out adolescent father/son conflicts with Kirk, for instance, but augmented by mental abilities taught him by the alien Thasians, he becomes a danger to the Enterprise and the entire Federation. Similarly, the children in "And the Children Shall Lead" become the pawns of Gorgon the "Friendly Angel," participating in the murders of their parents and later attempting to take over the Enterprise. "Miri" shows that the humanoid children of a planet on which all adults perished as a result of an engineered virus immediately revert to a delinquent state, and the humorous "space hippies" in "The Way to Eden" are easily duped by a warped scientist. Children in TOS are never benign, heroic geniuses.
By way of illustration, Bacon-Smith includes in full "A Trekkie's Tale," the "Mary Sue" parody by Paula Smith that itself coined the term:
"Gee, golly, gosh, gloriosky," thought Mary Sue as she stepped on the bridge of the Enterprise. "Here I am, the youngest Lieutenant in the fleet—only fifteen and a half years old." Captain Kirk came up to her.
"Oh, Lieutenant, I love you madly. Will you come to bed with me?"
"Captain! I am not that kind of girl!"
"You're right, and I respect you for it. Here, take over the ship for a minute while I go for some coffee for us."
Mr. Spock came onto the bridge. "What are you doing in the command seat, Lieutenant?"
"The Captain told me to."
"Flawlessly logical. I admire your mind."
Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy and Mr. Scott beamed down with Lt. Mary Sue to Rigel XXXVII. They were attacked by green androids and thrown into prison.
In a moment of weakness Lt. Mary Sue revealed to Mr. Spock that she too was half Vulcan. Recovering quickly, she sprung the lock with her hairpin and they all got away back to the ship.
But back on board, Dr. McCoy and Lt. Mary Sue found out that the men who had beamed down were seriously stricken by the jumping cold robbies, Mary Sue less so.
While the four officers languished in Sick Bay, Lt. Mary Sue ran the ship, and it ran so well she received the Nobel Peace Prize, the Vulcan Order of Gallantry and the Tralfamadorian Order of Good Guyhood.
However, the disease finally got to her and she fell fatally ill. In the sick bay as she breathed her last, she was surrounded by Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy and Mr. Scott all weeping unashamedly at the loss of her beautiful youth and youthful beauty, intelligence, capability and all around niceness. Even to this day her birthday is a national holiday aboard the Enterprise. (94-96)
Admittedly, "A Trekkie's Tale" is a parody of the type. Nevertheless, in order to be successful a parody must draw upon conventions of the story type that will be obvious to those to whom it is meant to be humorous. How well does this parody follow the type?
In Roberta Rogow's "Loyalty," Yeoman Ellen Grey, newly rescued from a hopeless life on a down-on-its-luck planet, attends Starfleet Academy and is assigned to the Enterprise as Kirk's personal assistant. The illustrations accompanying the story (Figure 1 and Figure 2) make Grey's youth and attractiveness clear; the second illustration depicts her in a sick bay bed after having saved the life of an old family friend, and who is being transported by the Enterprise to a penal planet.
Sharon Emily's "The Misfit" (a telling title, given Bacon-Smith's comments on the psychological connection between Mary Sue and the fanfic author) tells the story of Lorna Mitchell, a transplanted 20th century woman. Lorna saves the life of Sarek, Spock's father, a character almost as frequently used in Trek fanfic as the TOS regulars themselves; she then proceeds to initiate a romance with him. Mitchell signs off her tale as follows: "This is the story of how I...became the wife of Sarek of Vulcan—and a 'misfit' no more" (87). One illustration shows Mitchell standing on the transporter pad with Kirk, Spock and McCoy. In contrast to the Starfleet men's pose and dress, Mitchell's arms-spread-stance, her innocent expression, and her flared skirt and high-heeled shoes almost recall Dorothy Gale of The Wizard of Oz (Figure 3).
The heroine of Rice and Schultz' "Diamonds and Rust" series, Chantal Caberfae, steps somewhat out of the Mary Sue boundaries. Still younger than her shipboard love interest Kirk, she is nevertheless not a teenager, nor is she subject to the teenage anxieties usually associated with Mary Sue. However, in the Mary Sue vein, during the course of her multi-part adventures she saves McCoy's career and beds Kirk. A strong hint of the story's and the character's proximity to the soap opera genre is in the introductory text: "Jim and Chantal...they have more than love" (30).
Morrow Akal Damian, "The Daneswoman," at age 31, is also quite a bit older than the standard Mary Sue. She holds the rank of Captain and the position of starship commander, the theoretical equal of Kirk. Following the "Mary Sue" pattern, she both saves the life of and falls in love with Spock. Also, as a "Mary Sue" superheroine, her service record (reported to Kirk as follows) is nothing short of exemplary:
Damion, Morrow Akal...Commendations: Granite (sic) order of tactics, class of excellance (sic). Prentares ribbon of commendation, first class. Awards of Valor, Federation Service Cross. Wounded once in the line of duty. Non-military commendations, Star Cross of Kerran, Vulcan Scientific Legion of Honor.
Born on Kerran and citizen of Kerran and the Federation. Daneswoman of the House of Edem. Entered Space Academy on special scholarship, age seventeen...Spent four years in post-graduate work at the Vulcan Academy of Sciences. With special permission changed fields and entered command as navigator and science-computer officer...Advanced rank to Lieutenant Commander one year then promoted to Commander. (24)
Worth noting are Morrow's early age at the time of entering the academy, her ability to master diverse fields of knowledge, and her rapid rise through the ranks of Starfleet. Also noteworthy is the title Daneswoman, which apparently signifies that she belongs to a caste of royalty. Finally, Morrow makes mention of a bond with Spock that exists before they meet: "Something happened to her. The closer the ship grew to the Republic, the stronger the feeling grew inside of Morrow. Something was going to happen, to her. For a brief instant an image shimmered against the viewing screen...She was being caressed by an...alien. Down on Kerran someone would need her" (iii).
At least one commercially produced Mary Sue novel (and its almost inevitable sequel) grew out of the sub-genre: Dreadnought, by Diane Carey (sequel Battlestations). Among the "Mary Sue-isms" in the novel are:
- the female lead, Piper, manages to destroy Star Fleet Academy's training simulators during her Kobayashi Maru test using a method gleaned from a girl's adventure novel.
- Piper feels a psychic bond with Kirk, claiming that in a "previous life" he had been her "Aristotle."
- Piper is called upon to free Kirk from the novel's villains; she creates a diversion by leading three cohorts in a bunny-hop past Kirk's guards.
- In the climax Piper takes command of the Dreadnought.
- In the denouement she is promoted to Lieutenant Commander (the youngest to receive that rank), and becomes the youngest to receive the Federation's second highest honor.
- In closing, she makes a date with Kirk to go sailing.
Mary Sue stories draw mixed reactions in fandom. Some view them as detrimental to the effort to have fandom taken seriously ("Mary Sue is ... the most universally denigrated genre in the entire canon of fan fiction" [Bacon-Smith 94]), others as a psychological autobiography that has more to say about the author than the world around her ("[Mary Sue] is a way people build an alter ego, an ideal image of themselves" ), and still others as a useful therapeutic tool in the author's own growing sense of self within the culture ("Mary Sue [stories] often expressed a cultural truth of their time ... to make the transition from child to woman, the active agent within [the author] had to die" )4.
Bacon-Smith argues that the Mary Sue story is the author's rite of passage, combining traits found in the author, such as intelligence, that were culturally undesirable in women in the time frame in which the author passed through adolescence, with the physical beauty and self-effacement culturally required of women. The argument has been advanced that James T. Kirk himself is the Mary Sue prototype, the creation of the male, action-oriented target audience and, specifically, Gene Roddenberry's fantasy life. He represents "similarly exaggerated ideas of strength, intelligence, charm and adventurousness" (Bacon-Smith 97).
This argument is not completely without merit. Kirk displays abilities and characteristics that can be thought of as a template for Mary Sue. He is established as the youngest individual to ever command a starship as of his time frame, for instance, and "Court Martial" establishes that he has received many of the Federation's and Star Fleet's highest awards. Certainly, he manages to save the ship and crew in manners that can be deemed outrageous on many an occasion.
Nevertheless, the Kirk/Mary Sue argument breaks down in one key area: context. Its supporters attempt to rationalize establishing such a young character as Mary Sue as a Star Fleet Academy graduate in the context of the 19th century seafaring tradition (i.e., the Horatio Hornblower model that Gene Roddenberry ordained for the Kirk character from the beginning). In support of their argument they stress that it was not unusual in that time for teenagers to put to sea to begin their shipboard training, and that Mary Sue's exceptionally young age, as well as Kirk's age at the time of the TOS, both hold with this tradition.
Roddenberry's plan notwithstanding, however, the context of TOS episodes themselves are clearly grounded in late 20th century America, with episodes either directly or indirectly addressing the issues of the day (civil rights, the Vietnam conflict and the counter-culture movement, to name a few). In this context, while it may be conceivable for a 34-year-old to command a capital ship, it is unlikely at best that a 14-year-old could ever gain admission to the Naval Academy.
A better case can be made for the classification of The Next Generation character Wesley Crusher as a Mary Sue candidate. Primarily the creation of Eugene Wesley Roddenberry, Crusher is young (14 at the beginning of the series run), and largely inexperienced, in almost every meaning of the word. On the other hand, he is exceptionally intelligent, beyond even the level of what would be considered genius. In "Where No One Has Gone Before" the Traveler, a member of a more advanced order of beings, likens him to a natural in the arts of space and time manipulation, a prodigy the equal of Mozart in the field of music. Wesley saves the Enterprise from destruction more than a dozen times times before he leaves the ship to attend Starfleet Academy (including three times in the first season, and twice in the first five episodes, and one memorable example in which he uses a futuristic science experiment set to augment the Enterprise's tractor beam), one of the fans' biggest complaints about the character5.
Captain Picard, Crusher's commanding officer, is initially distrustful of children in general and Wesley in particular. By the end of the series' 6th episode, however ("Where No One Has Gone Before"), he has invited Wesley to man the conn position (analogous to the navigator position in TOS) and bestowed upon him the title of Acting Ensign; by the second season Crusher has been permanently assigned to the position, one in which we later see experienced officers run into difficulty.
Also interesting is the development of the character before the program hit the air. The December 10, 1986 casting call, the first for the proposed series, lists "Leslie Crusher—An appealing 15 year old caucasian girl...[with a] remarkable mind and photographic memory" (Nemecek 13). Producer Bob Justman (who also worked with Roddenberry on TOS) remembers that the issue of whether the TNG young adult character would be a boy or a girl remained undecided for quite some time; differing announcements listed male and female characters in the slot through the next few months, until, on Roddenberry's insistence, the character was finalized as male6.
Having shown that the Mary Sue character, created by and for fandom, migrated to TNG, receiving the virtual equivalent of sexual reassignment surgery in the process, the next question must be, "Is this behavior unique to Star Trek?"
Without a doubt, other fandoms attempted to influence their respective interest's producers. On the other hand, even when these fandoms showed an interest level equal to that of Trek fandom, they were almost universally content to be passive receptors for the producer's message. A. Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes probably came closest to enjoying the Trek audience/creator relationship, when he was resurrected from his untimely death at the Reichenbach Falls, his new lease on life courtesy of large numbers of letters from Holmes' fans. Nonetheless, the Holmes fandom community, like those of James Bond and other Trek contemporaries, never progressed to the point of creating and publishing original stories in large numbers, and those few that were produced did not stray far from the narrative and character patterns established by their respective master narratives. Holmes fans may have forced the resurrection of Holmes (against Conan Doyle's wishes), but Holmes remained Holmes, and Holmes stories remained largely the same as they had always been.
Before The Next Generation began co-opting fan-generated characters and narratives, the bipolar audience-producer paradigm dominated television production. Program producers created material, and put it before the audience, who accepted or rejected it with little further say in the process. To be sure, the producers had an interest in making the material desirable to the audience, but this was approached in an abstracted manner, at best through audience surveys, at worst through gut instinct. Audience interactivity was limited to interpretation of the Nielsen ratings.
When TNG was on the drawing boards, it was the first television program to have a) an audience that was all but guaranteed, and b) a large body of material created by that audience, clearly indicating what it wanted that program to be. The producers, of course, heeded this call, first by working fan narratives and characters into The Next Generation master narrative, and later by accepting unagented submissions (another television first), allowing fans the possibility of directly influencing the production.
Alterations in the audience/producer relationship have continued, aided by the world wide web. Several programs (including Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena: Warrior Princess, Farscape and Stargate: SG-1) have maintained websites at which they request audience input concerning the shows. J. Michael Strazcynski, creator and producer of Babylon 5, has hosted on-line gatherings of the show's fans, during which topics of discussion included the how the fandom community would like to see the characters developed.
These changes will doubtless continue and accelerate. The increasing growth of the web, and the creation of electronic fanzines (e-zines) will ultimately remove the only barrier between those inclined to produce their own fiction and the presentation of that fiction to the public: the cost of the publication itself. Even without computers of their own, fans have access through public terminals, and web-page bandwidth is becoming available at rates rivaling those of magazine subscriptions. Web resources make it simpler for the fandom community to access producers, and for producers to query the fandom community, and meetings like those hosted by Strazcynski are becoming commonplace. When widely available, web access through television sets and cable links, combined with the ability to provide hotlinks within television programs to assist calling up tertiary information, will cinch the relationship.
The initial step toward audience interactivity pioneered by Star Trek has opened a door that is unlikely to close. The age of audience participation has begun.
- This has changed dramatically. Paramount (under the Viacom umbrella) has until recently seen Star Trek as its primary franchise and actively pursues licensing agreements or lawsuits for any merchandise related to Star Trek—with the interesting exception of fan produced literature. Very few legal actions have been brought against 'zine publishers. [Back]
- If not beautiful in the human standard, Mary Sue is cast as the exotic Vulcan beauty T'MariSue, who takes her name from the practice established in TOS of prefixing all Vulcan female names with "T." [Back]
- Enterprising Women includes comments from fanfic author Paula Smith, relating details of one such story wherein the heroine, by virtue of her solution, dies, but saves herself from death. [Back]
- Fandom itself is split over its own reactions to Mary Sue. The initial issue of Maiden Voyages contains a story by Mary Cowan humorously accepting the character in its title: "Take Me Home, Yellow Brick Road (or, not your typical Mary Sue story.)" Pat McCormack writes "In Defense of Fan-Written Characters" in the Landing Party 6 collection, trying to convince the reader that her Faulwell character is not Mary Sue. Anne Crispin, fanfic author who later turned professional, is less forgiving in INTERSTAT: "Please quit classifying many Star Trek stories as Mary Sue and non-Mary Sue ... Seems to me that this is going a bit far, since for me at least, the term 'Mary Sue' constitutes a put-down" (Bacon-Smith 98). [Back]
- Actor Wil Wheaton took a great deal of heat for portraying a character to which many fans reacted negatively. In defending himself in Star Trek: The Official Fan Club Magazine, he said "[Wesley] directly saved the ship only one and a half times and had a hand in contributing to the solution of the problem two times! That's it!" (Nemecek 149). What manner of computation Wheaton used remains unclear. [Back]
- Aside from the more than casual coincidence of their names, Roddenberry confirms his intimate link with Wesley Crusher: "I identify ... more ... with Wesley Crusher because he is me at seventeen. He is the things I dreamed of being and doing" (Nemecek 14). [Back]