It’s Life, Jim: Star Trek, Fan Culture, Slash Fiction
and the Queering of Starfleet Command
Originally published in Bent Street 4.1, 24th July 2020.
‘Beam Me Up, Scotty!’
Many will immediately recognise this catchphrase as a testimony to nerd culture and cult television. Yet in its day, it was a somewhat covert signal between adherents in much the same way as talking about being ‘a friend of Dorothy’ indicated membership of another fringe group.
When considering how technology has transformed social norms regarding sexuality and intimacy, we might think most readily of Grindr, social media, and even more rudimentary tech such as mobile phones and the Internet. My story begins before any of this technology existed, back in the days of what may now be considered dinosaur tech, such as free-to-air television, the typewriter, the fordigraph machine, and the film camera. This now-outdated tech helped plug me into a Matrix of alternate reality that introduced me to my first ‘out’ gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans and queer friends, in an era when male homosexuality was still illegal and LGBT people were shunned by polite society. This dinosaur tech also introduced me to a counter-culture of bohemian people whose lifestyles and views were open expressions of inclusion, diversity and difference.
There was a time when the apex of popular communication technology in Australia was recently-colourised free-to-air television, comprising a stand-alone box with an antenna. There were no videotapes or DVDs, no satellite or cable TV, no streaming or iTunes, so viewers relied totally upon the whims of local TV station programmers for whatever content they might get to view. Those seeking other visual entertainment could go to the local movie cinema.
Amidst the cultural fare of programs like The Beverley Hillbillies, Are You Being Served? and The Paul Hogan Show, my young teenage self sought somewhat higher inspiration and aspiration. I found the world of Star Trek. It was a wondrous place, filled with spaceships and aliens, diverse peoples and galactic technological marvels. Although it offered no explicitly queer themes or characters, its variety of aliens implicitly endorsed the principles of diversity and inclusion. The addition of the half-human, half-Vulcan character, Spock, was also extremely popular with audiences, with many people admiring different aspects of his complex character. Stephen Fry asserts the Spock character to be a Nietzschean counterbalance to his two closest human associates as a symbolic representation of different aspects of the human psyche (Knight, 2010). Barbara Jacobs has even suggested that Spock serves as a possible role model for those with Asperger’s Syndrome (Jacobs, 2003, 38); while SF author Joanna Russ explores the idea that ‘Spock is a woman’ in that he displays attributes or characteristics that were common to gender expectations for women in earlier times – cyclical and uncontrollable sexuality, a submissive and subservient nature, etc (Russ, 1985, 29). This gender subversion would arguably become important within a cultural phenomenon that I will discuss shortly.
Many fans upheld Spock as an archetype in that he embodied optimism amidst the universal human condition of loneliness: ‘This is an optimism that says it is possible to find somebody who understands your innermost silent and lonely battles’ (Lichtenberg et al, 1975,101). Such sensitivities within the character appear to have come directly from the background of Star Trek creator, Gene Roddenberry, who spoke of his childhood as a time when he felt different and isolated (Roddenberry, 1976). The universal nature of Spock’s inner conflicts: balancing logic with emotion, and alien with human, led one Star Trek analyst to declare that, ‘We Are All Spock’ (Blair, 1977,160). He became popular among many adolescents such as myself, who were seeking a role model as a metaphoric other exploring the strange new world of adult life. Added layers of nuance within his character were undoubtedly familiar to young LGBT kids in my day: being someone who was ‘emotionally guarded’ and living a life that testifies: ‘it’s no big jump from alien to alienated…’ (Russ, 1985, 29). In a 2015 fan eulogy for the actor Leonard Nimoy, I wrote of his character’s significance in my own life some decades earlier, when I had faced stigma, prejudice and discrimination:
Spock was a kindred spirit, someone who had found strength, pride and nobility in being different … Spock’s resilience and quiet dignity in the face of intolerance, or bullying, or alien dangers; served as an example to ennoble and enable the lives of many fans who might otherwise have felt isolation or despair. (Allshorn, 2015, 13)
Star Trek was a utopian fantasy that explored galaxies of diverse ideas. While Australia was grappling with the idea of multiculturalism in the 1970s, I was absorbing the Star Trek philosophy of Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations (IDIC). The Star Trek fan base has always been welcoming of those whom normal society might consider to be aliens in our midst. Star Trek actor and LGBT activist George Takei elaborates on this conjoining of diversity with inclusion: ‘The show always appealed to people that were different — the geeks and the nerds, and the people who felt they were not quite a part of society, sometimes because they may have been gay or lesbian’ (Lang, 2015). Even after Star Trek’s popularity had peaked, it was reported that Star Trek Voyager was equal third most popular TV show (alongside The Simpsons) in San Francisco (PlanetOut staff, 2000). LGBT viewers have always been attracted to this TV program – even though its implied diversity has not explicitly included queer characters or themes – and they have been prepared to translate its sense of inclusion into real life.
As part of this inclusive mindset, enthusiastic fans sent letters to the Star Trek offices offering constructive suggestions for future Star Trek adventures. Among their suggestions back in the early days of gay liberation was a request that gay characters be included in order to demonstrate and promote tolerance (Sackett, 1977, 166). This call was ignored by Star Trek creators, so the fans created their own reality. They took ideas from television and translated them into real life.
Typewriters and Fordigraph Machines
Star Trek fandom attracted a large influx of female authors and participants, indicating that something specific within Star Trek must have attracted the interest and passion of such women. Part of the attraction, it seems, was an interest in what became known as the Kirk/Spock relationship. This was possibly first glimpsed in a 1967 episode of Star Trek called Amok Time, which featured exotic Vulcan (hetero)sexuality with just a hint of homo-suggestive entanglement. (Sinclair, J. and D’Anne, eds, 2016).
Eager for more Star Trek adventures, fans wrote their own. Female Star Trek fans grabbed their typewriters and fordigraph (or similar hand-operated spirit duplicator) machines to assertively self-publish fan fiction (‘fanfic’ or ‘fic’) stories within amateur fan magazines (‘fanzines’ or ‘zines’). Actor Leonard Nimoy acknowledged the popularity of heterosexual fanfic written by these women, whose zines ranged from generic Star Trek stories to others that were outright erotic – some of which transgressed beyond heterosexuality into the homoerotic:
The cover of one of these ‘fan-zines’ in particular shows `a very well done drawing of Mr Spock stripped to the waist, his lower portion covered for the most part with a draped toga exposing one bare leg, his hands manacled and a belt from the manacles chaining him to a post. The title boldly reads ‘Spock Enslaved!’ The obvious suggestion is that Spock in this case is a love slave, much in the same way that women have been used for years in erotic or semi-erotic literature. I suppose in this case, turn about is fair play. (Nimoy, 1975, 55)
Expanding upon this idea, heterosexual Australian fan Diane Marchant wrote a story entitled A Fragment Out of Time, which was published in a 1974 issue of an adult US Star Trek fanzine called Grup (Roberts, 2015). Her story is widely recognised as being the first zine-published slash story (so-named after the coded slash symbol in ‘K/S’ being shorthand for ‘Kirk/Spock’), although there are other claimants to the actual origins of slash (fanlore, 2020b). The slash symbol refers to stories containing what became popularly known as ‘the premise’, that is the practice of taking established or potential character relationships and extending them into deeper same-sex attraction (fanlore, 2020 b & d). Diane was a friend and mentor of mine, and I know that her reticence to identify Kirk and Spock within her story – and her reluctance to ever talk about it – reflected a lifelong sensitivity regarding material which may create contention, friction or scandal, evocative of the era when ‘… gay relationships of any variety, even fictional, were considered deviant, overtly sexual and perverted’ (Smith, 2018). Nonetheless, the precedent she set, and the aspects of Star Trek fandom that arose in response, gave women an avenue for expression of ideas which were, for their time, quite unconventional:
As the first depiction of a love scene between Kirk and Spock, it wasn’t just hot; it was a way of making visible the thread of attraction that runs through the complex bond between the two characters. It elevated subtext to text. In doing so it gave rise to an entire writhing, sweating universe of romantic and sexual pairings. But slash isn’t just about making porn out of things that weren’t already porn. It’s also about prosecuting fanfiction’s larger project of breaking rules and boundaries and taboos of all kinds. (Grossman, 2013).
In the historical context, the burgeoning female fan movement helped to provide women with liberated and liberating expressions of recognition, sexuality and empowerment, and many chose this freedom to lend support to other marginalised forms of sexual or gender identity. They also expanded their scope to other science fiction and TV/literary identities: Blake’s Seven, Starsky and Hutch, Babylon 5, and many others. However, slash as a genre is not without its potential problems: ‘Slash is important in creating queer representation; it’s fun and pleasurable for many people and that’s important too; but slash can sometimes be regressive, sexist, or fetishizing.’ (Flourish, 2017).
As a young gay man, I personally never found slash fiction to be particularly appealing or authentic to my life. I concluded that slash was not exploring the gay experience so much as it was presenting women’s fantasies of idealised romantic/sexual love liberated from oppressive patriarchal and homophobic traditions. In my day, slash was believed to be the purview of predominantly heterosexual women, but later fan media discourse began to recognise the presence of LGBT authors and readers (NB, 1992) and then go beyond the gay/straight binary into fuller recognition of a spectrum of ‘queer’ identities (Lackner et al, 2006, 193 – 4). By the early 2000s, women had greater freedoms to ‘come out’ than they had in earlier decades and this has led to the increased visibility of LGBT people: ‘Anecdotal evidence and informal polls suggest that the number of not-straight women is proportionately higher in fandom than in the population at large’ (Busse, 2006, 208).
This female fan cohort may have actually resuscitated and saved the Star Trek franchise (McNally, 2016) and forever changed the gender ratio within the science fiction community. Many of these women became prominent in Star Trek and science fiction clubs, convention committees and fanzines, reshaping the role of women in such community activism. The number of Star Trek clubs and fanzine titles worldwide peaked at approximately 450 each in 1977 (Verba 2003, 35). These fanzines – predominantly written, illustrated, edited and read by women – were often comprised of multiple issues of adult or slash content. This helped to not only promote female self-empowerment, but their gender subversion included voluntary exploration of non-heterosexist, liberated, erotic, subversive, female-directed, queer-normative literature:
Many fans took it upon themselves to read more into the Kirk/Spock relationship than had ever been hinted at on screen. In the early days of fanzines, some were dedicated to amateur fan stories that explored various facets of this non-canonical relationship. This was never recognised on screen, and in general Star Trek has been heavily criticised for its relative failure – at a time when the television landscape was becoming even more diverse – to depict lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) characters or to craft stories dealing with the issues of LGBT rights … (Robb, 2012, 184).
Now long superseded by digital publishing, paper fanzines have gone the way of other dinosaur tech and been replaced by online fanfic repositories such as Archive of Our Own. Slash also proliferates on the Internet via apps such as Pinterest and Instagram. Meanwhile, fanfic continues to grow (Joyce, 2016). The Star Trek franchise has never officially acknowledged the role of these fans, nor the immense marketing potential of slash or other fanfic.
New Tech, New Trek
Star Trek fans have always been at the forefront of using or adapting technology. For their originally rudimentary forms of costumed roleplay (cosplay), they created costumes out of velour and glitter and papier-mâché and tinfoil, and cobbled together props out of whatever was at hand; they took photos off the TV screen, and they recorded episodes on audio cassettes. For social networking and Star Trek news, they might join a local club and await its fordigraphed monthly newsletter. Those wanting international networking generally relied on the snail-mail postal service (and maybe an occasional operator-assisted overseas phone call from their home phone). International pen-pal (and free holiday visit) networks sprang up around the world. This tendency to innovate and reinvent led many fan authors, artists, scientists, computer wizards, astronauts, medical specialists and others to change the world with new ideas and tech ranging from medical scanners to mobile phones (Evangelista, 2004; Handel & Jones, 2005).
In the early 1970s, after the original Star Trek had been cancelled, the explosive growth of paper fanzines helped to revive the franchise, until their eventual demise in the 1990s. More recently, during the early years of the 21st century, fans once again began to reclaim the temporarily-stalled franchise through their increasing use of more modern technology: fan films. Such films have been around since at least 1974 (Wikipedia, 2020) and Melbourne’s own local Star Trek club, Austrek, produced its own fan films in 1979 and 1993 (Maxwell, 2017?), but the arrival of digital technology led to an explosion of fan films on the Internet from the early 2000s onwards.
One fan film series, Star Trek: Hidden Frontier, included gay characters and queer outer space romances that were treated with the same acceptance that the original Star Trek extended towards heterosexuality. One episode even featured Star Trek’s first openly, out-and-proud gay on-screen kiss (Hidden Frontier, 2004) – not a relationship layered in metaphor (Wong, 2018).
Another fan film series, Star Trek: New Voyages, featured a two-part story that gave Star Trek writer, David Gerrold, the chance to revisit his Blood and Fire episode which had been rejected by Star Trek back in the 1980s. The story featured a gay couple and allegorised the AIDS epidemic which was at its height when the script was originally written. One commentator spoke with hope about the optimism inherent in such fan films and within Star Trek in general:
… its central theme of a future where mankind actually gets along no matter what our race, gender, age, hairline, or even species is a very positive one that I think appeals to a gay audience. (Cross, 2007).
Once again, fan fiction would precede the franchise in promoting LGBT rights.
I have been, and always shall be, your friend
The Star Trek franchise has a long history of homophobia and LGBT erasure (Author Unknown, 2003). Although modern-day audiences today often interpret older episodes or characters to be queer-supportive or queer-friendly (Hennessy, 2019), an analysis of these same characters and allegories within their contemporaneous settings reveals heteronormativity and covert homophobic insinuation (Ex Astris Scientia, 2020; McNally, 2020). Conversely, Star Trek has been appropriated by its legions of LGBT and other followers – if not in a strictly legal copyright sense, then certainly as a source of intellectual and philosophical inspiration. Although the franchise has avoided LGBT characters and stories – prompting one Australian LGBT commentator to lament: ‘… there are no poofs and no dykes in the future’ (McKee, 1996, 13) – the LGBT community and slash supporters continue to be fascinated by the implied diversity in its fantasies. It is interesting to see how Star Trek as a Hollywood franchise has evolved – or not – in response to this social evolution.
In 1979, the novelisation of the first official Star Trek movie contained a cautiously coded reference to slash fiction by acknowledging the Kirk/Spock relationship as being t’hy’la – somehow more than brothers but less than lovers – and firmly rebutting any suggestion of sexual interaction (Roddenberry, 1979, 18 & 19). Subsequent Star Trek movies toyed with coded gay comic references (‘Please, Jim, not in front of the Klingons’) and in 2016, the most recent Star Trek film contained an acknowledgement of the character Sulu being gay in a scene that actor George Takei described as, ‘If you blinked, you missed it’ (Kooser, 2016). The most recent Star Trek shows, Discovery and Picard have somewhat reluctantly begun including LGBT characters but still cannot not resist deferring to problematic old Star Trek tropes such as killing off their queer characters (Duffy, 2018; Diaz, 2019; Opie, 2020). The Star Trek franchise – one that proclaims itself to ‘boldly go where no one has gone before’ – is still struggling to be out and proud, falling behind any number of other television and film franchises, over fifty years after its tech-savvy LGBT-friendly fan base built an inclusive community of queer-friendly bohemians and others who not only proclaimed diversity, but actually lived it. These pioneers are heroes in the history of LGBT civil rights; may their memory live long and prosper.
The author wishes to thank Dr Mirna Cicioni for her assistance with this article.
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©2023 Geoff Allshorn