Keeping the Star Trek fan community a welcoming place

I didn’t realise it until a few weeks ago, but I’ve officially been a Trekkie for more than thirty years. The earliest episode of The Next Generation that I can solidly remember watching was Season 2’s The Royale, which aired here in the UK in June 1991. Although I’m fairly sure that The Royale isn’t the first ever Star Trek episode that I saw, it’s the earliest one that I can remember and thus I can officially date my entry into the fandom to more than three decades ago.

I quickly became enamoured with The Next Generation, tuning in to watch every new episode as they aired, and even renting copies of some of the episodes on video as and when I could find them. In the rural part of the UK where I grew up, there weren’t many other fans of science fiction and fantasy, so being a Trekkie could be lonely. This was years before I got access to the internet, too, so finding fellow Trekkies wasn’t easy.

The Royale is the first episode of Star Trek that I can definitely remember watching.

That being said, there was a sci-fi magazine that I subscribed to for a time, and I think it must’ve been in one of the issues that I found out about a Star Trek fan group that was organising a meet-up. This would’ve been in late 1994 or early 1995, around the time Generations was in cinemas. Because my mother thought I was too young to travel more than two hours by train on my own, she accompanied me – much to my horror – but promised me she’d find other things to do in the city where the meet-up was taking place.

I was nervous as I got ready to attend the meet-up. I’d seen as much of The Next Generation as had been broadcast on terrestrial TV in the UK, and a few other episodes on video, but I’d only seen a handful of episodes of The Original Series and just one of the films (The Search for Spock, weirdly, was my first Star Trek film) so I wasn’t really sure how older fans would react. I felt like a bit of an imposter at first; a newbie barging into an established group.

It took two hours to travel by rail from where I lived to where the meet-up was being held.

But all of the Trekkies I met were incredibly welcoming. At the meet-up I was the youngest person there by a considerable margin, but everyone was very nice to me and made me feel part of the group. Nobody tried to tell me that I wasn’t a “true fan” of Star Trek because of my limited knowledge of The Original Series, and I had a great time talking to other fans for the first time, seeing different collections of merchandise – some imported from America – and hearing a few people share their experiences of meeting William Shatner or other members of the cast. I left the event having had a great time and feeling excited to continue and expand my fandom. Someone had recommended that I watch The Wrath of Khan, so shortly after I was able to rent the film and see it for myself.

I went back to several meet-ups with this group in the mid/late-1990s, but as I got ready to go to university and started getting online, I sort of drifted away. It was never an official fan club or anything as far as I recall, just a group of Trekkies who’d get together to trade merch and chat once in a while.

Kirk in The Wrath of Khan.

Those early fan meet-ups meant a lot to me as I began my journey as a Star Trek fan. The people I talked to were all very welcoming, and they seemed pleased that a younger person was interested enough in Star Trek to associate with their group. I think they recognised, even back then, that a franchise like Star Trek needs new fans – because new fans are the lifeblood of any fan community. Making sure that community is a welcoming place, however people come by it, is incredibly important.

I was quite sensitive as a kid, and if I’d been met with a wall of negativity at that first meet-up, I don’t think I’d have ever gone back. It would almost certainly have put me off Star Trek entirely, as I’d have associated the franchise with unkind, unwelcoming people. I might have never gone back to watch The Original Series, and perhaps I’d have switched off and skipped Deep Space Nine and Voyager when they came along, too. The words people use matter, and how we treat new fans or people on the cusp of joining the fan community is incredibly important.

It’s so important to be kind to everyone in the fan community – especially newbies.

Meet-ups like the ones I remember still happen within the fan community, but nowadays most people’s first contact with other Trekkies is via the internet and social media. In a way, I’m jealous of that! As a kid I would have loved nothing more than to have found a ready-made Trekkie community that I could share my love of the franchise with any time I wanted to, but I first became a Trekkie years before I got online! I grew up in a rural area, and there just weren’t any other Trekkies in my immediate circle of friends or neighbours – at least none that I knew of at the time.

But social media and the internet have brought with them trolls and unkind people who seem to delight in crapping all over anything that someone else likes. That’s unfortunately true within the Star Trek fan community as well, and there are enough people who are unkind and unpleasant to others online that I fear for anyone just getting started with Star Trek. The community that they encounter on social media is, unfortunately, plagued by a vocal minority of people like that.

The online Trekkie community can be an unkind, even hateful place.

I’m not the most active person on social media. But even I’ve seen the way that some people behave, and how the relative anonymity of the internet and social media seems to amplify some people’s absolute worst qualities and tendencies. Even conversations that start off politely, or questions asked in good faith and with no bad intentions at all, can become toxic incredibly quickly.

I believe that it’s up to all of us to be considerate and thoughtful in our interactions within the fan community. New shows like Discovery and Prodigy are hopefully going to continue to bring on board hordes of brand-new Trekkies, and all of us have a responsibility to ensure that the fan community these folks discover is a kind, welcoming place. Trying to act like gatekeepers by telling new Trekkies that their opinions are invalid because they haven’t seen a particular film or episode, or that the show they like isn’t “real Star Trek,” is going to upset people and make the Star Trek fan community look like an unkind, selfish, closed-off place.

Prodigy is hopefully going to bring lots of new fans into the Star Trek fan community for the first time.

New fans are, as I said earlier, the lifeblood of any fandom. If Star Trek were to remain the sole preserve of fans from the ’60s or the ’90s it wouldn’t last very long at all – and it wouldn’t deserve to. The fan community needs new Trekkies joining in and sharing their excitement for the franchise in order to grow and remain relevant. If we try to shut those people out or tell them they’re only “allowed” to join in once they’ve met a particular threshold then the fan community will stagnate, online fan groups will become unpleasant places, and the resultant decline in online chatter will harm Star Trek and could easily lead to a decline in viewership in general.

There are many fans for whom Star Trek has always been a complete product. There were a lot of arguments in the ’80s and ’90s about how The Next Generation was taking over from The Original Series, whether Deep Space Nine was too dark in tone, and whether the Star Trek franchise needed a prequel – to name just three examples. Star Trek has always been developing and evolving, episode by episode and season by season. But for fans who missed those conversations and didn’t see the slow progress that the franchise made over the span of decades, Star Trek has always existed as a complete product: a DVD box set or a full series on a streaming platform. It seems to me that it’s those folks who are more likely to act as gatekeepers and try to keep new fans who don’t share their opinions out of the fan community.

Star Trek hasn’t always been a complete DVD box set. It took decades to get to that point.

Star Trek has always meant different things to different people. And consequently, fans have always had preferences within the Star Trek franchise about which episodes, films, series, and even characters that they prefer. If someone doesn’t like one part of Star Trek, that’s okay. It doesn’t make them “less” of a Trekkie. And if someone’s new to the franchise and isn’t up to speed on every film or episode, that doesn’t make them “less” of a fan either.

The people who are trying to play gatekeeper need to stop. It doesn’t do anyone any good to try to exclude people – especially new fans – from the Star Trek fan community. Although I’m a fan of Star Trek in its older and newer incarnations, I understand that there are people who don’t like some or all of what Star Trek is currently doing. I was even in a similar position myself once upon a time, as I wasn’t particularly keen on Enterprise when it was announced and only tuned in sporadically during its original broadcast run. But in the early 2000s I would have never dreamed of telling anyone that they weren’t a “real fan” of Star Trek because they liked Enterprise, or because Enterprise was the first Star Trek show they’d ever seen.

I freely admit that Enterprise didn’t seem like my thing when it first premiered. But I was wrong about that.

The message I have is a simple one, at the end of the day: we all have a responsibility to keep the Star Trek fan community a kind, friendly, and welcoming place.

Fans can be passionate, and the desire to talk about the things we like – and dislike – is a powerful one. Making sure that the Star Trek fan community feels welcoming to newcomers doesn’t mean whitewashing Star Trek and never sharing a critical opinion, but it does mean that criticism needs to be carefully considered and offered in as constructive a manner as possible. ViacomCBS has definitely made mistakes with the Star Trek franchise in recent years, for example, but my criticisms of the corporation or my negative reviews of individual episodes here on the website have never strayed into attacking fellow fans. If you like an episode that I don’t, that’s okay! And I think that’s the attitude that we all need to try to adopt going forward.

A series like Prodigy has the potential to open up the Star Trek fan community, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see an influx of new, younger fans in the months and years ahead. Those of us who’ve been Trekkies for a long time should try, for their sake, to keep conversations and debates civil in tone and to ensure that the fan community is a kind, friendly, and welcoming place. Shutting down or tuning out as much of the toxicity as possible is a big part of that.

Let’s try to make sure fans of Prodigy feel welcome as they get started in the Star Trek fan community.

I’ve lost count of the number of negative, toxic, and even bigoted and hateful messages and posts that I’ve seen in recent years. Practically all of them appeared not because they were sent directly to me, nor because I sought out those groups or follow individuals who hold those views, but because they were amplified on social media by other folks – often with good intentions – who chose to interact or engage. There’s an expression from the early days of the internet that I think is relevant in a lot of cases: “don’t feed the trolls.”

A lot of the anti-Trek content spewed onto social media by people like that is done for attention, and by engaging with it in a big way it gets amplified, giving the attention-seeking trolls exactly what they want. There are some instances where calling someone out or shutting down someone espousing hurtful, bigoted views is going to be important – but in many cases there’s no need to engage with people who are throwing out hate and toxicity just for the sake of it. Because of the way social media works, with algorithms promoting content that gets the most engagements, doing so often ends up drawing more and more attention to something that really should just be ignored. Most social media platforms offer users the ability to block individuals, groups, or even whole words and phrases – so we should use those tools when necessary.

Don’t feed the trolls…

So I think that’s about all I have to say. I was prompted to write this piece after seeing a lot of chatter on social media about the state of the Star Trek fan community, and with Prodigy now airing and potentially bringing younger fans on board in large numbers, I wanted to give my two cents on why it’s important to make sure the fan community is as welcoming and friendly as possible.

Ever since I attended that first meet-up in 1994 or 1995, I’ve remembered the kindness that I was shown and how I was made to feel welcome as a new fan. I try to keep that spirit going in all of my engagements with the Star Trek fan community, and though there are episodes I dislike and things on the corporate side that I will continue to criticise, in my very limited way I try to make sure that I’m contributing positively to the overall discourse surrounding Star Trek. There’s room for constructive criticism and there’s room for differences of opinion – but there’s no room for toxicity, hate, and bigotry. It’s the responsibility of all of us to do what we can to keep the Star Trek fan community a welcoming place.

The Star Trek franchise – including all series and films mentioned above – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Do you have to love everything Star Trek does to be a “true fan?”

This essay was inspired in part by a couple of conversations I had over the holidays with fellow Trekkies, as well as a number of social media posts and groups that I’ve seen over the last few years. Though I’ll be addressing the question of “do you have to love everything the franchise does” from the perspective of a Star Trek fan, much of what I have to say can easily be applied to other fandoms and franchises as well. This essay isn’t an attack on any individual nor on anyone else’s position; it’s a defence of my own and my way of doing things here on the website. Let’s get started!

As I state in my methodology, and as I’ve said on a number of occasions in essays, reviews, and other pieces that I’ve published, I reserve the right as an independent critic/commentator to speak honestly and share my genuine thoughts and feelings on any of the subjects I write about here on the website. That includes the Star Trek franchise, and although I’m happy to say that I love Star Trek, that doesn’t mean that I necessarily love everything that the franchise puts out. Nor can I offer ViacomCBS – the corporation which owns and manages Star Trek – my support for many of the decisions that they’ve taken in recent years.

What does it mean to be a fan of Star Trek?

I think we can break this subject down into two main parts: firstly we have criticism of individual episodes, films, seasons, and entire series for things like narrative choice, visual effects, acting performances, pacing and editing, and so on. This is a basic outline of media criticism in a general sense, and any review or impression of an episode of television, a film, or an entire season or TV show should be expected to talk about at least some of these topics.

Secondly we have the corporate side of things. Business decisions, the leadership of the corporation, the timing of releases, the effectiveness of marketing campaigns, the overall direction of travel for the franchise that’s being set by the corporation in charge, and many other related matters. These are all things that fans of any franchise need to be aware of – and I would argue that critics should be able to discuss corporate affairs because of how they can impact the quality of content produced. Corporate matters can also spill over into the fan community.

Logo of ViacomCBS, the corporation which owns and manages Star Trek.

On the first point, I’m proud of the fact that I have a space on the internet where I can share my genuine and honest impressions of the latest Star Trek episodes (as well as other films, games, and television shows). I don’t want to restrict what I can say in any way, let alone confine myself to only sharing positive impressions and glossing over the negatives. This isn’t a space for whitewashing, and as I’ve said multiple times: I’m not aiming to be a cheerleader for any franchise, even one that I love as much as Star Trek.

That being said, out of more than eight hundred episodes and thirteen films (at time of writing), there really aren’t many that I consider to be irredeemably awful. Even Star Trek at its worst usually has redeeming features, and if you’ve read my reviews or write-ups of the handful of episodes that I dislike, you’ll see that I still find positive things to say about certain elements of them.

Spock’s Brain is widely considered to be one of the worst episodes from The Original Series.

I also try to offer as much of my criticism as possible in a constructive way. Rather than simply saying “this episode is crap” and leaving it at that, I try to lay out in as clear terms as possible what it was that I didn’t like, why specific elements of the narrative failed to resonate, and offer anyone reading my reviews an explanation for my conclusions. One of the problems with social media – especially with platforms like Twitter that encourage very short posts – is that any kind of explanation or nuance is lost. One of the main reasons why I created this website in the first place was so that I could expand properly on my thoughts and not find myself curtailed by word or character limits.

It’s that nuance that I think too often gets lost in the fast-paced world of online media discourse. People see a tweet, a headline, or an out-of-context excerpt and then move on to the next one, not stopping to read a longer review or listen to a longer podcast or video essay. It isn’t possible to summarise a review in just a couple of lines – and as you’re probably already aware, I have a somewhat longwinded writing style that is especially unsuited to short-form reviews and posts!

On a related note, follow me on Twitter!

Nuance is key to any decent review – and to any piece of media criticism in general. It’s incredibly rare to come across a film, video game, or episode of television that is completely perfect or utterly awful, and even in a positive review it can be worth drawing attention, however briefly, to negative aspects or things that didn’t work quite as well as others. This is something you’ll often see in my own work, and while I freely admit it can come across as “nitpicking,” for the same reasons of being constructive with criticism I stand by it.

It’s on the corporate side of things where I think it’s fair to say I’ve been far more critical than I have in any analysis or review! ViacomCBS has, in my view, mismanaged the Star Trek brand in significant and damaging ways in recent years, and the corporation’s failures have led to serious problems for the franchise as well as exacerbated divisions within the Star Trek fan community. I haven’t held back when it comes to criticising ViacomCBS and its board, and I will continue to do so as I see fit.

I’ve been critical of ViacomCBS – as illustrated by this edited poster I created for an article a few weeks ago.

The way I see it, there’s always going to be a spectrum of opinion on any franchise or work of media. At one end are people who totally hate it and find it awful, and at the other you have those who find it perfect (or who are paid to say nothing but positive things in public). As is happening in all walks of life, though, the middle ground is being increasingly pushed out. The shades of grey are less popular than ever before, with folks being encouraged to go all-in with either the haters or the lovers. For too many people, there’s no longer any room for a nuanced, moderate take on any film, video game, or television series.

I see this through my limited interactions with the Star Trek fan community first and foremost, but it’s also just as prevalent in practically every other fandom and many other walks of life – not least politics! There are a growing number of people who are quick to write off any new Star Trek as being automatically bad – in many cases without even bothering to watch it. And on the other side of what increasingly feels like a two-sided, black-or-white argument are those for whom Star Trek can do no wrong, with every single episode being flawless. I find that I can’t fit in with either group.

It can sometimes feel like my position doesn’t fit with either side of the fan community.

I’m too in love with “Nu-Trek” for those that consider anything post-2005 to have no redeeming features. And for some on the pro-Trek side, my very direct criticisms of ViacomCBS in particular, as well as some of my critiques of the handful of episodes that I didn’t like, make me too much of “a hater.”

Sometimes it’s fair to invoke the old adage that if I’m being criticised by both sides – on the pro side for being too anti and on the anti side for being too pro – I must be doing something right. But it doesn’t feel that way, and it seems that, no matter what I say about Star Trek, I’m going to attract criticism from one side or, in some cases, both. Taking a position where I try to offer constructive criticism while also expressing my passion for a franchise I truly care about is difficult, and for some folks who seem only to want to have their pre-existing biases about Star Trek reflected back at them, my independent position and willingness to consider both positives and negatives isn’t what they want.

The Star Trek Universe is a big place, but sometimes it feels as though it’s divided into just two camps.

All of this leads me to the question I asked at the beginning: do you have to love everything Star Trek does to be considered a “true fan?” For some people, it seems that the answer to that question is a resounding “yes.” I’ve spoken with some Trekkies who say that, if they ever did find something within Star Trek that they didn’t like, they’d prefer to keep it to themselves rather than say anything at all that could be considered critical of the franchise.

But to me, that isn’t how fans should react. Blind, unquestioning love or devotion is what some religions and cults seek from their adherents, but when it comes to something like a science-fiction franchise, surely we should feel free to speak as we find? And more importantly, if there aren’t people willing to offer constructive criticism, how will the creative teams and corporate leaders know what’s going wrong? Failing to offer valid criticism where valid criticism is due can only lead to the franchise repeating mistakes or doubling-down on them, and that will lead to Star Trek coming to harm in the medium-to-long term.

This sequence in the Lower Decks Season 1 episode Envoys is one that I criticised in my review.

Star Trek, like all major franchises, has its own team of paid cheerleaders. ViacomCBS has a marketing department, social media channels, a website, and a number of people on its books either as full-time employees or freelancers. The corporation doesn’t need blind, unwavering support from fans that glosses over or ignores criticism. It needs honesty from its biggest fans.

At the same time, there are too many so-called “fans” who have come to deal in nothing but hate. Ironically, these people often undermine their own cause by being too spiteful and vitriolic – and that’s before we get into the blatant bigotry, homophobia, transphobia, racism, and other unsavoury characteristics that seem to be prevalent in some anti-Trek social media groups online. By offering one-dimensional hate – often for shows or episodes that they will admit to never having even watched – these people make it easy for ViacomCBS and the creative teams in charge of Star Trek to write off any kernels of legitimate criticism that they may have had to offer.

It must be some kind of visual metaphor…

Since Star Trek returned to the small screen in 2017, there have been a handful of episodes that I disliked. I haven’t reviewed all of them here on the website (because I’ve only been here since late 2019) but for those that did get the full review or write-up treatment, I’ve tried to be both fair and constructive in my criticisms.

We often hear about toxic negativity within fan communities, and you can find many examples of so-called “fans” who take their dislike of certain narratives or characters to ludicrous and often hateful extremes. But I’d posit that there can be such a thing as toxic positivity as well, where fans are unwilling to so much as entertain the possibility that some aspect of their favourite franchise is wrong, or that the company running that franchise has made a mistake. Both forms can be damaging, both can lead to arguments and disagreements within fan communities, and I would argue very strongly that neither serves the franchise in question well.

Discovery has attracted criticism – and a lot of support, too – since it debuted in 2017.

I can empathise, to an extent anyway, with people who haven’t enjoyed Star Trek’s return to the small screen. Around the turn of the millennium, I was listening to the radio when the news of a new Star Trek show was breaking. I was dismayed to learn that the planned series was going to be a prequel, as I felt that Star Trek was a franchise that should aim to look to the future rather than look backwards at its own past. I also felt that prequels in general were problematic – this coming in the wake of the disappointment of The Phantom Menace over in the Star Wars franchise, which had been released around the same time.

Though I ultimately tuned in to see Enterprise’s premiere in late 2001, for much of the show’s four-season run I only tuned in sporadically, and was far from being a fan – or even regular viewer – at that point in my life. I can relate to at least some of the folks who haven’t been wild about everything Star Trek has done in recent years because I was once in a similar position. I actually find it somewhat ironic, considering the divisions in the fandom that were prevalent around the time of Enterprise’s premiere, how so many of these anti-Trek folks seem to lump Enterprise in with all of the previous Star Trek shows as being the franchise’s “heyday” and a time at which there was no division. Just because they missed those arguments doesn’t mean that they didn’t happen!

I nearly missed out on Enterprise, but have since used it as a great example of a show that exceeded my expectations and had more to offer than I initially thought.

I did eventually get around to watching all of Enterprise when I got the series on DVD a few years after it went off the air. And I was pleasantly surprised by what I found. It was a true Star Trek series, one that embodied the spirit of exploration of the franchise’s early days – something that had been, to an extent, lost in the Dominion War arc of Deep Space Nine’s later seasons and that played second fiddle in Voyager’s journey home. I came to respect and even admire what Enterprise had to offer – even though I didn’t see it at first. In time, I wonder how many people on the anti-Trek side of things will come to similar conclusions about the current crop of Star Trek shows.

That’s just part of my personal history as a Trekkie, and I hope it provides context to some of the things we’ve talked about today. I very firmly believe that fans don’t need to adore everything that Star Trek does. Disliking an episode or two here and there or feeling that the franchise’s corporate leadership is making mistakes doesn’t make anyone less of a fan, and calling these things out is actually important. The franchise, and those who lead it and are responsible for taking it forward, need that kind of honesty from Star Trek’s biggest fans.

Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 1 was an episode I criticised heavily.

However, it’s important that criticism is presented in a constructive way. There are many forms of constructive criticism, and trying to dismiss any or all of them as unwarranted hate isn’t the right approach. As Trekkies, I feel we should be bold – fearless, even – in calling out mistakes or problems as we find them. That’s what I try to do here on the website, offering a balanced and I hope fair approach with all of my reviews and commentary.

There have been mistakes made by ViacomCBS. We won’t get into all of them again here, but suffice to say that I also feel that it’s important for us as Trekkies to hold the corporation to account when it screws up. We saw an example of this recently with the Discovery Season 4 debacle, and that represented a rare moment of unity within the fandom – fans from all sides of the debate, and even some Star Trek creatives, all joined in to call on the corporation to do something to address the self-inflicted problem. The end result was a victory (of sorts) for fans.

ViacomCBS shares took a big hit in the wake of the Discovery Season 4 debacle last November.

We’re lucky that, right now, there’s more Star Trek on our screens than ever before. I noted with happiness in 2020 that it was the first year since 1998 where three different Star Trek productions were broadcast – but 2022 is going to eclipse that by a country mile! We’re on course to see five different Star Trek productions hit our screens between now and Christmas, and the varied mix of different shows with different focuses should mean that there’s something that the franchise can offer to every Trekkie. As someone who has generally enjoyed what modern Star Trek has had to offer, I’m incredibly pleased with that!

But that doesn’t mean I’m going to ignore missteps or problems. Several of these upcoming shows won’t be available for every Trekkie because the rollout of Paramount+ is painfully slow and plagued by problems. That’s by far the biggest issue, and it’s one I’ve been calling on ViacomCBS to address since Lower Decks Season 1 only aired in the United States back in 2020.

Much of the world – including my native UK – is still waiting for Paramount+.

My approach to Star Trek will continue to be nuanced. I’ll continue to say that I’m thrilled that ViacomCBS is producing so much Star Trek, while simultaneously criticising the corporation for failing to bring these new shows to fans around the world. I’ll continue to say that, as long as ViacomCBS and Paramount+ deny shows like Prodigy to international fans, piracy is absolutely morally justifiable. And I will, of course, continue to criticise everything from bad acting and crappy editing to poor narrative decisions. Does that make me less of a “true fan?” I don’t think so.

But if you disagree, that’s up to you. I’m not in the business of telling anybody what to think, and I offer my reviews and commentary as-is. Take it or leave it, and if folks don’t like what I have to say or the way I approach my discussions of Star Trek, they’re free to click off my website and seek out other critics and reviewers whose content they prefer. There are always going to be a plethora of opinions and a wide spectrum of views about Star Trek – such is the nature of media criticism in general. I offer my take to folks who are interested, and although I find myself speaking negatively about Star Trek and the corporation that owns it, I like to think I do so from a place of love.

There is a lot to love about Star Trek in both its older and modern forms. There are also elements that deserve criticism, and I don’t believe that anyone should be considered less of a “true fan” for pointing those out.

The Star Trek franchise, including all properties mentioned above, is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.