Essays · Movies

The Fandom Film Legacy of Trekkies

By  · Published on September 8th, 2016

The 1997 documentary pioneered a whole nonfiction genre.

For someone who has never cared about Star Trek, its fans can seem exotic. Maybe laughable in their obsessions. The infamous 1986 Saturday Night Live “Get a Life” sketch, written by then unknowns Bob Odenkirk and Judd Apatow and featuring a fan-mocking William Shatner, angered true Trekkers but was hilarious to the rest of the audience. A decade later, a documentary sought to unite those on the inside and the out. Trekkies achieves a balance that few fandom films manage, playing to the Trek enthusiasts of all levels as well as to the curious non-fans, some of whom may indeed go in expecting to ridicule supposed weirdos in need of lives.

The 1997 feature was a pioneer for a genre of documentary that now flourishes thanks to various reasons, one in particular being direct-marketed projects crowdfunding on the internet. And it’s still probably the best one because of its inclusive approach to the subject matter. Its 2004 sequel, Trekkies 2, which expands globally while also improving upon issues criticized about the first movie, also arrived before the onslaught of followers focused on fans of Back to the Future, Indiana Jones, The Big Lebowski, and more. It’s not necessary to argue what makes it the best of its kind, as our friends at io9 did a perfect job doing just that a year ago:

So what does Trekkies teach about making a good fan documentary? Love your subject, but don’t try to force your audience to love it too. The moment that sums up Trekkies is an early scene of Adams explaining why she sat on the Whitewater jury in costume: “I don’t want my officers to ever feel ashamed to wear their uniform.” It’s a ridiculous statement: it’s not a real uniform, for Pete’s sake. But it’s touching that Adams feels a responsibility to make other fans feel comfortable and confident, that she wants to live the utopian ethics ofStar Trek. The film leaves the viewer to decide how to feel. Elsewhere, Brent Spiner voices the film’s perspective: “I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone, Star Trek fan or not, who wasn’t peculiar.”

Although there may not be any better than Trekkies, there have been some good fandom films to be found in the wave of titles released over the past 10 years. They’re in the minority, but they stand out for some of the reasons that make the Star Trek docs work so well. If they’re less satisfying, it might be because they’re comparatively limited in their focus and in turn inferior in the extent of their quality elements. Smaller scope can be a good thing, however, since many fandom docs are all over the place without a cohesive point or motif to hold them together. Below is a sampling of the films that have carried the legacy of Trekkies forward fairly successfully.

We Are Wizards (2008)

One of the earlier entries in the wave of fandom docs is this SXSW crowd pleaser concentrated on the section of Harry Potter fandom involving music acts with names and lyrics based on J.K. Rowling’s novels and their movie adaptations. It also explores other creative endeavors of Potterphiles, such as fan fiction, and that’s what makes it interesting. Rather than looking at the obsessed, We Are Wizards spotlights the inspired, the ones who’ve turned their fandom into a source of creativity. Trekkies 2 also features fan bands but the original’s dentist office and “slash” writings fit this idea, as well.

Of course the music stuff is more fascinating and accessible, because both docs’ look into this part of fandom raises the idea of there being fans of fans. And that can allow for fans of “filk” and “wizard rock” acts that may not even be hardcore fans of the property inspiring those groups. We Are Wizards is not just a Harry Potter fandom film but also partly a music doc, which is another genre relevant to fandom films in their limited appeal to built-in followings. But this ranks among those that music and fan docs that transcend the obvious draw of those already interested in the subject.

Movie Franchise Fandom Ranked

A Brony Tale (2014)

While the better-known, Kickstarter-funded My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic fandom film Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of My Little Pony is a little more set up for outsiders to watch with amazed disbelief and disdain, despite it also being more fan-servicing, this later release is the more rich exploration of the Brony subculture, complete with claim that Bronies are the new hippies and grew in response to 9/11 and its aftermath. It presents them not just as an eclectic bunch to study and try to explain but as an important part of culture in the context of modern history.

One thing it shares with Trekkies is that its origin comes from an actress involved with the worshipped material, and an objective director friend of theirs is at the helm. While the Trek doc follows Denise Crosby (Star Trek: The Next Generation) as a sort of onscreen reporter, A Brony Tale stars Ashleigh Ball (the voice of “Applejack” and “Rainbow Dash” on Friendship is Magic) as she inquisitively attempts to understand her show’s fans. So the film has a curious point of view that approaches the subjects from a place of stunned yet open-minded attitude. Like the fans, it’s positive and respectful.

How Fandom Documentaries Help Hollywood

Ghostheads (2016)

One of the most memorable elements of Trekkies is its highlight of deeply sentimental stories, such as James Doohan’s emotional telling of his interaction with a suicidal fan, and the address of how Star Trek has touched people and helped with issues like diversity. A number of fandom films do mention similar things, and another doc worth noting is Batkid Begins, about a Make-A-Wish project turned phenomenon where a young Batman fan got to play superhero for a day, but this year’s Ghostbusters fandom doc Ghostheads is particularly devoted to that line of human interest.

Although initially developed with promise that it was a doc for the fans by the fans, which is the very thing that tends to stunt the appeal and value of these films, Ghostheads actually has a more dedicated focus that may endear it to non-fans as well as lower-level fans who wouldn’t normally be interested in a doc about the hardcore set with their cosplay and memorabilia. There are stories of people overcoming addiction and of people incorporating their fandom into acts of charity. It also presents the fanbase as a community rather than a collection of odd individuals. Like A Brony Tale it focuses on positive people, which is especially appreciated at a time when so much attention has been hogged by negative “Ghostbros.”

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.