My first Star Trek convention

03-Jan-14 12:21 PM by
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This past June, I attended my first Star Trek convention.

"WHAT?!" you say. "You've been a Trekkie since TNG debuted in 1987, and you've never attended a con?! What's wrong with you?!"

For one, there hasn't been an abundance of Star Trek conventions in Boston, at least not that I've been aware of. Two, I've traditionally gotten my Star Trek celebrity fix at Super Megafest, where I've had the honor of meeting Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, Brent Spiner, and Marina Sirtis. Three, I wasn't really sure what a Star Trek convention would consist of. Video game conventions like MAGFest or PAX East have panels, workshops, seminars, and speeches on topics from programming to gamification to gender representation to crowdfunding. I didn't imagine that a Star Trek convention would boast such variety.

But when Creation Entertainment brought to Boston a convention featuring almost the entire Next Generation cast — only Stewart, Frakes, Diana Muldar, and Wil Wheaton would be absent — as well as actors from TOS and DS9 (though none from Voyager, Enterprise, or the new movies), I knew it'd be worth at least the short trek into Beantown.

As it turned out, my expectation of the con agenda's homogeneity was right on the mark. Other than a costume contest, every session was dedicated solely to celebrity Q&A, with almost no preamble, presentation, or even moderation — the actors simply took the stage and immediately turned to the audience for topics. Almost no actor appeared alone, instead being paired with someone with whom they shared screen time, such as Michael Dorn with Suzie Plakson (Worf and K’Ehleyr), Brent Spiner with Gates McFadden (Data and Beverly Crusher), and Rene Auberjonois with Nana Visitor (Odo and Kira Nerys). The questions were fun, ranging from personable ("What was it like working with so-and-so?") to technical ("Why doesn't the Prime Directive apply to a planet's flora as well as its fauna?"). My favorite line was from someone who had done his research, who presented this fact to Dorn: "We watched every episode of TNG, and the number of times the captain took one of Worf's suggestions in seven years was only once!" The audience roared to learn what a pansy our favorite Klingon was.

IMG_3262 The best panel was Saturday night, when Brent Spiner, LeVar Burton, Gates McFadden, Michael Dorn, Marinia Sirtis, and Denise Crosby all shared the stage while ostensibly being moderated by William Shatner. From the camaraderie exuded by the crew, it was easy to imagine the show was still on the air, with everyone working together every day and having bonded into a family. At one point when discussing an issue of diversity, Shatner said, "Let's ask our resident black person." Dorn appeared ready to speak as Shatner turned and, pointedly ignoring the Klingon, asked, "LeVar?" Dorn immediately clammed up, got up from his chair, walked to the corner of the stage, folded his arms, and pouted. Only a hug from Burton brought him back to the group. My co-attendee Gene related more anecdotes from this panel in his blog.

The auditorium in which these panels were held, part of the Hynes Convention Center, was massive, seating thousands of people. Although some seats were better than others, there was never concern about not getting into a panel, unlike the massively overcrowded Super Megafest.

As fun as these hour-long sessions were, I preferred the one-on-one interaction offered by autograph sessions, no matter how brief. I got to tell Michael Dorn that I had backed his failed Kickstarter project for the movie Through the Fire. He reflected that fans can be rabidly loyal, but only within a genre, as he found when trying to crowdfund his romantic comedy. I was going to tell Gates McFadden that I'm a fan of her photography with her Beverly Crusher action figure, but she beat me to it when she saw me pick up her business card advertising exactly that exploit, telling me I should check it out. I told LeVar Burton how much I enjoyed the PBS music remix of Reading Rainbow. There was surprisingly no line for Denise Crosby, who was an absolute sweetheart. I reflected how surprised I was that they actually killed off her Lois & Clark character — "Denise Crosby always comes back!" I insisted. When I asked her to make the autograph out to Ken, she said, "A name I know well — my husband's name is Ken." I quipped, "You have excellent taste." She actually had to put down the pen for a moment while she laughed.

All of the above happened on Saturday, and I would've had my fill then, except that the DS9 actors I wanted to meet were attending Sunday only. After a power outage delayed opening of the convention hall that morning, I got in to meet Nana Visitor. I thanked her for portraying the strong yet nuanced female character of Kira. She demurred, "That's just the way she was written." Still, I thanked her for bringing the character to life, though I neglected to suggest how different the show would've been with Michelle Forbes. I also commented how surprised I was to see Visitor appear on the news not for her acting work, but as a person on the street affected by Hurricane Sandy. She laughed, acknowledging that of course she'd be caught on TV without any makeup on!

I got Visitor's autograph twice: once for myself, and once for a friend's daughter (who I described as my niece), who had just started watching DS9 as her introduction to Trek. Visitor asked how old my niece is, and I guessed (correctly!) eight, which gave her pause — DS9 is pretty dark for such a young person to be watching. But it's how old I was when I started with TNG, and we all have to start somewhere!

Next in line was Rene Auberjonois, who earlier in the day had been selling simple line drawings of Odo's bucket in exchange for a donation to Doctors Without Borders — a worthy cause, but I wanted the standard 8"x11" autographed glossy. When he started signing my photo, I asked him to make it out to my first name. "Well, Ken," he hesitated, "here's the deal: I'm personalizing autographs only if you make a $5 donation to Doctors Without Borders." Given that I'd spent almost all my money on other autographs and had already spent $25 to get this far in Auberjonois's line, I felt a bit ambushed. Had this surcharge been advertised sooner, or if the autograph had been $5 less, I might not have been so caught off-guard. Fortunately, when I emptied my wallet on the table, showing him the only $4 I had, he accepted that donation. I made up the difference and then some when I got home, as again, it's a great cause, and I admire Auberjonois for lending his celebrity status to it — I just thought the delivery could've been better.

STcreat13_10 The last treat of the weekend were the photograph opportunities, which are sold separately from the autograph sessions. If you want to drop a ton of money very quickly, autographs and photographs are the way to go. Photographs ranged from $80 (William Shatner) to $40 (almost everyone else), and autographs were $90 (Shatner again) to $20 (Suzie Plakson). Not rich enough for your blood? A single photo with Shatner and the entire TNG panel he moderated was $379 — oof! The saving grace is that these prices are valid for one or two guests in the same photo, and my cohort Gene invited me to share the stage with (and expense of) LeVar Burton and George Takei. I appreciated his generous offer and graciously accepted!

I enjoyed my first Star Trek convention, but although I can imagine many other sessions and topics it could offer, I'm hardpressed to imagine that this con's 2014 return to Boston will be much different from the 2013 event. I'd like to eventually collect autographs from the entire TNG cast — I'm currently missing only Wil Wheaton and Diana Muldar, and their attendance would lure me back. I'd also like to meet more actors from the three post-DS9 shows, as well as some of the shows' directors, producers, and writers. The Boston con featured Morgan Gendel, author of award-winning TNG episode "The Inner Light", but how about getting Rick Berman, Brannon Braga, Manny Coto, or Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens?

Every Star Trek fan should attend at least one convention in her or his life. I can now say that I've attended mine!

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The Blessing and Burden of Methuselah

09-Jan-08 4:17 PM by
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They say the mind is the first thing to go — yet it's a part of the organ we understand, and are able to replace, the least.

Now, Dr. Gordon Bell intends to bring Harry Potter's pensieve to life by developing a way to duplicate the memories of the human mind as easily as any other storage device. Via Slashdot, Fox News asks, "What if you could capture every waking moment of your entire life, store it on your computer and then recall digital snapshots of everything you've seen and heard with just a quick search?" A query meant to excite — or scare?

This is more a science and human interest story than a cinematic one, but consider how many films deal with cybernetic transplantation of humanity. Recreating the essence of man through artificial means is at the core of films such as Blade Runner and episodes of Star Trek like "What Are Little Girls Made Of?" in The Original Series and "Schizoid Man" in The Next Generation (in contrast to Bicentennial Man, which is about a robot becoming human). These fictions embody a very real fear of death and a desire to live on after the failure of the organic body.

But at what price immortality? Besides ethical and spiritual dilemmas, there are also legal and privacy issues inherent in such permanent records. Consider the low-tech solution currently employed by the inventor cited above: "Bell wears a SenseCam, developed by Microsoft Research, that takes pictures whenever it detects he may want a photograph. The camera's infrared sensor picks up on body heat and takes snapshots of anyone else in the room, adjusting itself as available light changes." How would you like to be in that room with Mr. Bell, knowing he was playing Big Brother?

There's a film that employs uses a similarly problematic technique for recording human experience: Robin Williams' The Final Cut. In this movie's world, parents have the option of having their unborn child implanted with an EyeTech Zoe chip. This chip piggybacks on its host's senses to create a visual and aural record of its carrier's experiences. This chip is extracted upon death; someone with the profession of "cutter" then uses this footage to create a 90-minute "Rememory", a montage of experiences by which the living can remember the deceased. A cutter is bound by only three rules: he cannot sell Zoe footage; he cannot mix footage from different Zoe implants for a rememory; and a cutter cannot himself have a Zoe implant.

I stumbled across this film two years ago, roughly at the same time I was given an open-ended assignment to "write something academic about something cinematic." At the time, I had also been reading plenty of Star Trek novels, and the intersection of the two media begged for comparison and contrast. I put two different implants — the Zoe chip and a Trill symbiont — under the microscope and came up with a 2,000-word paper entitled "Preservation of Memory as a Means of Immortality: A Science Fictional Approach".

Though the professors evaluated the essay favorably, neither were familiar with the background material. I've yet to find to find someone who is and can thus evaluate my work from that perspective. If you're a Trekkie who's seen The Final Cut and are interesting in reading the implications of each medium's method of providing permanent mental capacity, please drop me a note.

One Giant Leap for Klingonkind

18-Dec-07 2:37 PM by
Filed under Celebrities, Star Trek, Television; 1 comment.

I was finishing up the second season of Quantum Leap on DVD last night when the opening credits for the episode "Sea Bride" revealed a John Hertzler. Suspecting that he would become better known by his initials, I did not keep an eye out for a face I wouldn't recognize without extensive makeup, but an ear open for an unmistakably gruff voice. Sure enough, there he was — the man better known as Deep Space Nine's General Martok.

Quantum Leap

In the above shot, he and Scott Bakula share a victory; below, they toast their glory with a mug of bloodwine.

Enterprise

His characters are surprisingly similar, with almost interchangeable lines. You'd expect the following retort to come from Star Trek — but it didn't:

TNG at 20: The Voyage Continues

26-Sep-07 6:00 PM by
Filed under Star Trek; 1 comment.

Twenty years ago this autumn, I was a sophomore in college. I remember watching the premiere of Star Trek: The Next Generation (or TNG) with friends. While most of us were fans of speculative fiction, we had little idea of how entertaining and influential TNG would become.

I had grown up on the writings of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke, but I had watched the original 1960s Star Trek only in reruns. During freshman year, I had fought for the dorm lounge television with people who preferred The Late Show With David Letterman over some old show with people wearing colorful pajamas, odd makeup, or both. But we were a small but dedicated band, and we made it to the stars. Among the friends I met then was my future wife.

Over the course of many late nights and foosball games, I learned about the United Federation of Planets, its Starfleet, and the Prime Directive that forbade its explorers from interfering in the internal affairs or development of alien worlds. The so-called "Wagon Train to the stars" combined Westerns with ray guns, and mythology with scientific speculation.

By the time TNG began, I was indeed a Trekkie — or "Trekker," as some prefer — having learned the cant among the franchise's fans: phasers, warp speed, and the Vulcan nerve pinch and salute. Of the eventual six movies with the space opera's original cast, the best two — Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and IV: The Voyage Home — had already been released. Thanks to magazines such as Starlog and various "technical manuals," I learned about transporters and Jeffries tubes (the access tunnels throughout starships, named after an original series art director). Around Thanksgiving of 1987, I would attend my first science fiction convention, one run by Creation Entertainment in New York.

It's also worth remembering the context into which this Enterprise was launched — that, despite the success of multimedia franchises such as Planet of the Apes and Star Wars, there was little genre entertainment on television at that time. As we look forward to 2007's premieres of Heroes, Lost, or Battlestar Galactica: Razor, among others, note that 20 years ago, there was only Stephen Spielberg's anthology Amazing Stories, horror drama Friday the 13th: the Series, and another Earth-based movie spin-off, Starman. Weak visual effects, even weaker writing, and a lack of interest among mainstream viewers and networks had doomed all but the U.K.'s Doctor Who to short lifespans or syndication.

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These Are the Voyages…

01-May-07 3:36 PM by
Filed under Star Trek; 3 comments.

May 13th marks the two-year anniversary of the airing of the series finale of Enterprise — what may've been the last episode of Star Trek ever. My viewing habits precluded catching most of the fourth and final season when it originally aired, so this past weekend, I engorged myself on the last 19 episodes (which I shall attempt to discuss spoiler-free).

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