SN&R’s own columnist attended the local Star Trek convention and, like the Borg, assimilated everything in her path
In my dreams, I attend the 40th-anniversary Star Trek convention looking like a sassy—albeit pale—version of Lt. Uhura. I sashay through the crowd at the Doubletree Hotel in my go-go boots, setting Starfleet captains’ hearts aflame and uniting the universe in a common appreciation of my charisma.
Two days before the event, I share this vision with the staff at Zoots, where Halloween-costume season is just beginning. “I want one of those cute polyester mini-dresses the women wore on the original series,” I explain to a smiling female clerk. She hustles upstairs and returns after a lengthy rummaging session, not with my sassy frock, but with two tired-looking Next Generation spandex unitards dangling limply from wire hangers. “This is all we had,” she says apologetically, pointing me to a dressing room.
I’ve already struck out at the area’s other costume stores, and online sites only stock a stripper version of the dress with a plunging neckline and a hem short enough to make sitting down an act of indecent exposure. Though Zoots’ jumpsuits are a far cry from “sassy,” they are my last chance at an outfit that will help me fit in at the three-day event.
It seemed like a small miracle, if not overdue recognition of Sacramento’s eternal sci-fi geek love, that William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy were visiting the capital city to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the show that launched a thousand spaceships (and a cartoon show, four spinoff series, 10 movies, hundreds of novels and an ocean of fan fiction). Though I had seen only a handful of episodes in my life, I knew this was a big deal. Kirk and Spock were beaming down to the town that spawned four Star Trek bands, a town featured prominently in Trekkies 2, the town that was the (recently dissolved) United Paramount Network’s top market for Star Trek TV series. I could think of no better event for the first Nothing Ever Happens cover story.
I made reservations for the convention, and then I panicked.
In a town renowned for Trek savvy, what did I really know about the franchise? I couldn’t even name all the TV series, and I wasn’t sure if any of them were still on anymore. I studied the convention schedule with confusion. Shatner and Nimoy I knew, of course, but John de Lancie and Armin Shimerman? Trivia competitions, autograph signings and costume contests? How was I going to communicate with the real fans?
I began assimilating information like the Borg assimilates alien races. I watched Star Trek movies and episodes of the original series and Next Generation late into the night. I sought advice from my stepmother: “Don’t drink Romulan ale,” she said. “It’s blue, and it gets you really drunk. In fact, avoid Romulans altogether.”
From my intern: “Are you sure Shatner and Nimoy are going to be there together? That sounds suspicious. They don’t like each other. I’d be careful if I were you.”
From my editor: “A convention is like Halloween. You’ll feel awkward if you’re not wearing a costume.”
Which is why I need this jumpsuit. The right costume will lend me the confidence to boldly go where I haven’t gone before. Unfortunately, I can barely squeeze my arms into the mustard-yellow torso. After a fair amount of contortion, I manage to zip the suit most of the way.
I study the effect in the mirror. The spandex leggings end at mid-calf. I have to slouch to keep the shoulders from pulling painfully on my skin, and the uniform’s camel-toe effect is in total violation of my body’s prime directive. I peel it off in defeat. No matter how many movies I watch or costumes I don in my attempts to pass as a Trekkie, I simply cannot make it so.
Still, Kirk never shied away from a mission, and neither will I. I might not know a Romulan from a Cardassian, but I am smart enough to recognize the only course of action open to me. Shatner and Nimoy are coming to Sacramento, and—boldly or meekly—I will go.
Becca’s Log: Stardate … um, Friday, September 8, 2006
At the registration table, I’m given a hot-pink wristband I am forbidden to remove for the next three days and an embarrassingly bright orange “PRESS” sticker I immediately hide in my notebook.
My costume anxiety was for naught. Trek-related T-shirts are de rigueur, but no one is actually dressed up, except a crew of CSUS students in Next Generation uniforms and a pair of female Jedi knights flanking the door to the vendor room. (The Trek-convention universe seems hospitable to fans of other storylines. Before the weekend is over, I’ll see Princess Leia, a storm trooper, Master Chief from Halo, a Stargate soldier and several more Jedis with illuminated light sabers.)
Upstairs in the Grand Ballroom, hundreds of chairs are lined up in front of a large stage and a video screen. I take a seat just in time for a Star Trek trivia contest. The audience is challenging a volunteer panel of self-appointed Trexperts in exchange for prizes.
“In ‘Deadly Years’, what is the name of the character that hands Kirk the fuel-consumption report?” shouts a middle-aged man with a bandanna and a gray ponytail. The panel is stumped, and the man wins a prize before revealing that one would only know the correct response, Yeoman Atkins, by studying the credits of that episode.
I immediate think, “Who has that kind of time?”
I stifle my cynicism and focus on the questions flying over my head, both literally and figuratively: “What is the name of Christopher Pike’s horse?” “What three species did Mark Lenard play?” “What kind of dog did Janeway leave behind?” As the panel successfully answers, a conversational buzz swells in the room. Finally, the emcee, Creation Entertainment co-founder Adam Malin, says, “You’re not supposed to comment at this point. Imagine that the cone of silence has descended.”
The audience erupts into cacophonous laughter as I sit in bewildered silence. I have the curious sensation that I am in a foreign country, listening to a language I’ve only studied in books. I understand the individual words, but the meaning and humor is lost.
Malin announces that J.J. Abrams, creator of Lost, has signed on to direct the anticipated 11th Star Trek movie. The film will cover the early days of Kirk and Spock at the Starfleet Academy. “No one’s been confirmed,” he says, “but the front-runner we’re hearing for young Kirk is Ben Affleck.”
Angry booing fills the air. “I suddenly feel ill!” a man behind me yells. For the first time since I arrived, I understand the people around me. Thank God for the unifying power of Ben Affleck’s offensive mediocrity.
As Ricardo Montalban reminded us in Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, “It is very cold in spaaaace.” Perhaps to simulate this effect, the thermostat in the Grand Ballroom seems stuck at around 42 degrees. My teeth chattered during the entire Q-and-A session with John de Lancie (“Q” on many of the series) in which he discussed his current work as an actor and director and seconded the disapproval of Ben Affleck for the new film. By the time Turbo Justice and the Rockinauts hit the stage, I’m cold enough to pass for a blue-skinned Andorian—sans antennae.
Luckily, I am warmed slightly by my indignation that a Star Trek convention in Sacramento—a town with four Star Trek bands—features a group from Rohnert Park. Were the Rockinauts in Trekkies 2? I don’t think so.
There’s really no acknowledgement of Sacramento’s unique affection for Enterprise culture present anywhere. The sterile hotel environment could be Any Town, USA, and judging from the sign-in board out front, that’s where most people are from. There are few Sacramento signatures among the names from the United Kingdom, Denmark, Japan, Canada, Hawaii, Texas, Louisiana, Maryland and Nevada. I don’t know what’s sadder—that locals are missing their chance to meet Shatner, that the conventions’ international visitors will think Sacramento is nothing more than the strip malls of Arden Way, or that I am going to die of hypothermia before the band finishes its set.
I shiver my way to the vendor room past the hundred or so people in line for an autograph from Marc Alaimo (Gul Dukat on Deep Space Nine). I must purchase something to keep me warm—an oversized Nimoy T-shirt, Beam Me Up Sockies, Vulcan earmuffs, anything.
Alas, the vendors have closed for the night. I am frozen and alone.
The lineup for the Friday Night Cabaret was listed on the Creation Entertainment Web site as de Lancie starring in The Devil and Billy Markham (for adults only) and Shimerman in Shakespeare Selections. On the day of the show, Alaimo’s name was suddenly substituted for Shimerman’s. Apparently, all Star Trek aliens have a variety of Shakespeare monologues at their command.
It was said in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country that you can’t understand Shakespeare until you read it “in the original Klingon.” Alaimo technically plays a Cardassian, but his nuanced performance of Hamlet’s “The Players” speech may be the closest I’ll come to such an experience.
De Lancie steals the show by reading all six parts of Shel Silverstein’s humorously vulgar “Billy Markham” poems, which tell the story of a beaten-down musician’s recurring battles with Satan, while lounging in a director’s chair and wearing priests’ robes. He had originally planned to perform only the first three poems, but audience members bribe him to continue by bringing him a succession of double bourbons on the rocks. I make a mental note to read more Silverstein and watch more de Lancie.
Stardate Saturday, September 9, 2006
As I approach the Grand Ballroom, I see Lt. Uhura streaking out the door as fast as her high-heeled boots can carry her. The young lady has exactly the outfit I’d hoped to find: a gorgeous red-velour version of the dress, a perfectly coiffed wig, knee-high boots and a silver communicator. She also has a rather aggressive fan club. At least 10 people are following her with cameras, and, within the ballroom, a male voice is yelling, “Come back! Please!”
She spins around in the lobby, her face flushed with a mix of delight and worry. “They want photos with you,” the door attendant says.
“Oh my!” she replies, sounding just like Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz. Taking a deep breath, she turns and strikes a pose. Flashes go off, and the crowd peppers her with comments: “Where did you get that dress?” “Look! She’s even got the earrings!” “Are you into modeling?”
In a predominantly male crowd, where most women are dressed in the unisex style of The Next Generation, there’s no question that Uhura is the belle of the ball. For the rest of the day, all antennae, helmets and goggles are turned in her direction.
I covet Uhura’s dress with an intensity I hadn’t thought possible. Though she is surrounded by fans most of the day, I spy her sitting alone just before the costume contest. I sneak into the expensive “gold weekend” seats to ask where she got it.
Uhura is actually Ms. Ava Dutton, 32. She’s visiting Sacramento from Oklahoma City for her first convention, and she had the dress professionally made from a vintage child’s Halloween-costume pattern she bought on eBay. She never, ever expected it would garner this much attention.
“People are attacking me!” she says in mock horror. “It’s unbelievable. I’m a celebrity all of the sudden.”
A Trekkie for nine years, Dutton converted “literally overnight” after a friend made her watch The Wrath of Khan. “I didn’t know Spock from a hole in the wall,” she says, “but by the end of the movie I was crying my eyes out.” She immediately watched all the other films and eventually broke into fan fiction. Her original-series fan-fic forum on Yahoo! Groups now boasts 100 members.
She balks at the money she’s spent to come to Sacramento but figures the weekend is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. “Shatner and Nimoy aren’t going to be with us much longer,” she says. “I had to do it!”
Minutes later—amid cheers of “Ava! Ava!”—Dutton wins the costume contest and a $250 grand prize.
Here it is, S-A-T-U-R-D-A-Y night, and I haven’t made any friends to party with. There’s a dessert reception in the Grand Ballroom for gold-weekend patrons, but my press pass won’t get me in.
This afternoon, I overheard a woman in a Hawaiian shirt and Federation earrings complaining to a pointy-eared Romulan ambassador: “Of course, at conventions you never get any sleep.” Hmm. I’m getting plenty of rest. What is everyone else doing?
Resolved to meet people, I commandeer a table in the Doubletree lobby and fashion an inelegant cardboard sign that says, “Talk to me about Star Trek!” I feel like a panhandler of words. Conventioneers pass me on route to the dessert party. Many read my sign, but no one stops. I can’t blame them for choosing cheesecake with Armin Shimerman (Quark from Deep Space Nine) and Dominic Keating (Lt. Malcolm Reed from Enterprise) over conversation with me. I don’t even have store-bought cookies.
Charlie Wall from StarTrek.com, the only other press person I’ve seen in two days here, stops by. “Ready for the party?” he asks. I’m embarrassed to admit the event organizers forbade me to go. Clearly, SN&R doesn’t have the clout of StarTrek.com.
Minutes later, Dutton saunters by in a slinky black dress. I almost don’t recognize her without her wig. “I won the costume contest!” she says excitedly.
“Congratulations!” I say. She tells me she’s going to check out the dessert shindig before heading to a room party upstairs. I hold my breath to see if she’ll invite me, but she just waves and heads off. “Have fun!” I call after her.
A couple wearing convention lanyards peer at me. “'Talk to me about Star Trek!’ Aw, that’s cute,” the woman coos. I smile, hoping they’ll sit down. They keep walking.
Ernesto M. Luton, Sacramento resident and Starfleet Quartermaster, hands me his business card. A large man with an earring chain and a ruby Starfleet Academy ring, Luton estimates this is his 20th convention. Luton sells hats, sweatshirts, class rings and other Starfleet Academy items online for role-playing purposes. “I don’t sell anything with the words ’Star Trek’ on it,” he explains. “That would be admitting it’s a TV show.”
Luton’s got other plans, like convincing Motorola and Paramount to release a walkie-talkie modeled on the Star Trek communicator. He tells me he was in talks with the companies, but the project was ultimately dropped due to projected low sales.
“Communicators sell like hotcakes on eBay for $110,” Luton explains, “and those are just toys.” He remains certain there’s a market for real communicators and plans to stay on the project. “If I can do that, I’ll really feel like I’ve done something,” he says.
Tired. Thirsty. If no one talks to me in the next 20 minutes, I’m putting on my pajamas and watching Comedy Central.
“Talk to you about Star Trek? Like what?”
“Like anything,” I say to the voluptuous African-American woman leaning over my sign. She smiles and hands me a flier for her blog, at www.spockjones.blogspot.com, and introduces herself as Francine.
“I’m going to a room party with fan-fiction writers,” she tells me. “You should come. There are these women there who do a weekly podcast about William Shatner’s butt. It’s called Look at his Butt!”
“Is there really that much to say about Shatner’s butt?” I ask, incredulously.
She fixes me with a stare like she can’t believe I could say something so foolish. “You’d better come to the party,” she tells me.
“Hey, it’s the reporter lady!” Francine calls as I walk into room 552, where a dozen women are watching Shatner’s horribly campy thriller Impulse. I am handed a glass of wine and offered a chair in the corner, next to the room’s sole male occupant, Gregory from New Zealand.
Lene Taylor, a thin woman in a white girlie T advertising her podcast, Look at his Butt!, wields the remote control. She fast-forwards, pausing at crucial plot points—like whenever Shatner takes a woman to bed. These brief revelatory moments are analyzed for chest-hair status, toupee quality, muscle tone, attentiveness during lovemaking and EVEs.
“There are a lot of episodes of the original series where Kirk has a semi-hard-on, and you can see it pretty clearly,” Taylor explains. “We call those Easily Visible Erections, EVEs, and we rate episodes based on EVE content.”
Though Impulse tops the Shatner scale for cheesy leisure suits, it scores low on EVE sightings. Fortunately, a folder of glossy photos supplements the action. “That’ll put your eye out!” Francine says, holding up a color image of Shatner singing onstage in tight package-defining pants. “Dressing to the left!”
“Always!” Taylor agrees.
“Trouble with Tribbles!” Francine yells. “You can see it when he sits down.” The room fills with the raucous laughter of a slumber party, and a red-haired woman bursts through the door calling, “I’ve got the Romulan ale!”
I’ve been warned, but the blue liquid is too intriguing. I drain my wine and refill with the sweet neon beverage. Gregory leans toward me. “See, there are other Star Trek fans, probably over there,” he says, gesturing out the hotel window, “who think Star Trek is about weapons and time-and-space travel. But the real fans know Star Trek is all about sex.”
The women contemplate whether there are any naked photos of Shatner (no) and Nimoy (yes, but only the backside) and whether anyone will ever make a Vulcan dildo (Vulcans have two ridges on their penises). Maybe it’s the ale talking, but Shatner is starting to seem a whole lot sexier. Taylor pauses the movie so Shatner’s rear, in tight white pants, is frozen on the screen. Just then Dutton comes in, surveys the scene and yells, “You guys! I invited Dominic Keating! You had me invite Dominic Keating to a Kirk ass party?”
More people drop by, though Keating is not among them, and laughter can be heard from the hallway. Over more ale, Taylor levels with me. “Media coverage of conventions always sucks,” she says. “They find the freakiest person they can find—the people that scare us—and stick a microphone in front of their face.”
Jungle Kitty, Taylor’s podcast co-host, agrees. “All of us here at the party are what I call ‘pass for mundanes.’ If you saw us at work or on the street, you wouldn’t know we geek out like this. Then there are those who are so far gone …”
“Like the Rat Lady!” Taylor says. Though unfamiliar with this epithet, I had certainly noticed this woman stumbling around the convention in too-small shorts, a red ball cap and sparkly New Year’s party glasses. (True to Taylor’s prediction, The Sacramento Bee will run two photos in its September 11 article on the convention: one of Shatner and Nimoy and one of the Rat Lady.)
The discussion turns philosophical. “Kirk is better than all of us,” Taylor explains, “physically, mentally, morally. We get to watch this great man faced with tough decisions and see what he chooses to do.”
“There were flimsy sets, cheesy costumes and sometimes bad plots, but Bill always gave 110 percent,” she concludes. “He never phoned it in.”
Stardate Sunday, September 10
I’m shocked at how deeply I slept. Romulan ale, which is marketed in America as Hpnotiq liquor, certainly calms the nerves. I shower, scrape the blue fuzz off my tongue and head to the Grand Ballroom. I find a spot against the wall in the crowded room, which holds more than 1,000 anxious Trekkies. I can’t believe how excited I am. I find myself making plans to watch the original series and to make an Uhura dress (though I have no idea where I’ll wear it).
A Gene Roddenberry memorial video plays on the screen. “[Star Trek] speaks to a basic human need,” Roddenberry is saying, “that there is a tomorrow, that it’s not all going to be over with a big flash.” The video continues with a montage of footage set to Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” Blame it on the sentimental piano chords or the collective emotion of a thousand fans, but suddenly I’m crying, and I don’t know why. I think about watching Star Trek with my parents as a child, about the fate of humanity and how much I want us to evolve for the better. My thoughts are overly simplistic and overwhelming, but I feel helpless to stop them. I blink back tears and watch Shatner and Nimoy onscreen, and then they are there for real.
The two actors joke onstage with the polished ease of seasoned performers who are also old friends. They share hilarious anecdotes—Shatner eating a smelly, purple octopus for endless takes on a Klingon set; fans stealing pieces of Nimoy’s shrubs out of his yard; Shatner being pulled over for speeding on his way to a set in his uniform and “pulling rank” on the policeman. They answer even the most bizarre questions with grace.
Shatner only appears shaken when a fan pulls off his shirt to reveal Kirk and Spock tattoos and, inadvertently, about half of his rear end where his pants have sagged down.
“I don’t know what I’m looking at more, the tattoo or the crack in his ass!” Shatner quips. “That is quite a plumber’s view.” He directs the man to bend over so the crowd can appreciate the magnitude of the sight.
“That is the strangest thing that’s ever happened to me onstage,” Shatner continues. “The next time someone asks me that question, I’m going to say, ‘There was this guy …’”
“Did he have a question?” Nimoy asks.
“No,” Shatner says, “but ours is ‘Why?’”
Malin announces that it’s time for the 40th-anniversary champagne toast and hands Nimoy and Shatner two glasses. Everyone stands, and the gold-weekend patrons raise their complimentary glasses. The actors face their fans as hundreds of cameras flash. Then, with a practiced noble air, Shatner says, “All of us are linked together by our joy in Star Trek. So, here’s to 40 years and another 40 years!”
A joyful noise erupts throughout the room. It’s a sonic quake of optimism that extends through the ballroom and into the universe, affirming that there are still new frontiers, in fiction and in life, and we will see them yet.