In a small, flourescent-lit conference room at the San Francisco Star Trek Convention, Tasha Yar is sitting next to Worf while Data exchanges friendly banter with a young red shirt. Geordi walks in behind Data and pinches him on the nipple, eliciting so small a reaction that the gesture seems a commonplace greeting for the pair.
I’m a fairly seasoned reporter; interviewing important people is part of my job. I don’t usually get flustered. But I’m also a lifelong Trekkie who grew up watching The Next Generation with my family and kept watching reruns and DVDs in my adulthood, roping friends and dates into the fun and magic of the series.
Seeing the USS Enterprise bridge crew just hanging out like this completely throws me off my game. I stand there like an idiot deer in the headlights, looking dumbly at my press pass with a suddenly blank mind. After 25 years of being a fan, what am I going to say to them?
More than that, as a reporter, how am I going to ask them good questions — ones that don’t bore them, disappoint my readers, or make me sound like a breathless groupie?
Needing a cup of water and a minute to regroup, I begin slowly backing away from the table, looking at the TNG stars and trying to collect my thoughts. As I back up, I feel a solid bump on the left side of my body. I turn around and OH MY GOD! I just ran into Q! Like a nervous cat, I bolt for the door hissing, “Shit! Shit! Shit!”, leaving a soft wake of laughter (from both the autograph-seekers and the stars) behind me.
I’ve only been at the convention for five minutes, and I’ve already blown it.
Finding my way via fandom
With shaking hands, I tell myself that actor John DeLancie did not actually have the power to turn me into a cardboard box and that I have to pull myself together and do my job, dammit. I walk slowly away from the autograph room and toward the vendors’ area, the mini-mall set up inside the Westin St. Francis where fans of the show can snag T-shirts, pick up posters, purchase action figures, and hang out.
Predictably, I run into a few tech folks there: Echo exec Chris Saad; Michael O’Donnell, a ubiquitous tech photographer known for his trademark red button-down shirt (among other events, he photographed VentureBeat’s MobileBeat conference earlier this year); and Jon Marcus, a recruiter I interviewed last fall, all have a good chuckle at my expense, but their jokes help to settle my nerves.
Honestly, the odds are great that I’d run into tech people at a Trek con. My first introduction to Star Trek had been through my sonar-technician stepdad (my network engineer father was more of a Star Wars guy), and most of the other Trekkies I’ve known, I’ve met at tech events.
Star Trek is a wonderful, easy topic to bond over (unless your new friend actually likes Voyager), and in spite of the technobabble that goes on in Engineering, it’s an inspiring, accessible show for tech people.
When I interviewed Levar Burton earlier this year, he and I had a wonderful talk about how the technology present on the Enterprise set led directly to the development of technologies we use today. He sees a strong, undeniable link between the “future” of science fiction and the present world of tablets and voice control and gestural interfaces.
Of course, Star Trek can be a great bonding experience for non-techies, too. Two days after the con, I would find out that my sweet, young, blonde hairstylist was also a huge fan and had actually been in the autograph room at the same time as I had.
And as I wander through the convention, snapping pictures of fans and trying to think of questions for the stars, I meet Alrik and Beth Bursell, two fans whose Star Trek bonding experience took them to the logical extreme of marriage.
Alrik is wearing a TNG crew costume, and Beth has donned a cute, powder-blue dress in an Original Series design. They are both happily glowing and are more than delighted to talk about their Star Trek experience.
Beth tells me that the couple met through friends, and on their second date, she revealed to Alrik that she’d always wanted to go to a Star Trek convention. A few months later, they made the journey to Las Vegas for the big show; today, they wear Star Trek bathrobes around the house and are working on a movie about a married couple of scifi fans. (That link takes you to Alrik’s Kickstarter; you should go support him.)
Hearing about the Bursells’ happy meeting and creative union reminds me why I am at the con in the first place: to connect with people, to hear great stories, and to figure out a little bit of the Star Trek magic that attracts so many people — teenagers, mall goths, grandparents, startup guys, and me — to the series and the conventions.
Levar Burton is awesome, but you don’t have to take my word for it
Five percent more confident but still not knowing what to ask, I head back into the autograph room, hanging back toward the end of the lines. In a blur of flashing metal boot tips and billowing scarf, Levar Burton enters the room.
Miraculously (or because he’s really polite), Burton remembers me. As he continues to whirl through the room, take-out bag in hand, he asks me to walk and talk with him until we are standing at the door of the cast-only green room. He waves me inside and bounds out again.
And there in the lushly quiet, ornate inner sanctum, Deanna Troi is going to town on a sub sandwich in a most un-Troi-like fashion. Not being one to interrupt an eating television star, I quietly wait for Burton to return.
When he does, we delve into a Reading Rainbow app. The 5-month-old iPad app has a total of 650,000 books read so far — Burton emphasizes this means three- to nine-year-old kids are collectively using the app to read 30,000 books per day. He’s enormously excited about the progress, as well as about his upcoming Series A fundraise. I ask who he’s raising from, being a good VentureBeat reporter, and being a good co-founder, Burton politely declines to tell me. We laugh. His passion about this part of his work is familiar and contagious.
“If I’m alive and upright, I’m talking about Reading Rainbow,” he says. “We will always have books. Look at what Picard has encased in glass in his office: the collected works of Shakespeare.”
Our chat meanders to Burton’s legacy, to his struggle to find ethical VCs, to ego mania in Silicon Valley, and finally, to the economic engines of the last few centuries: religion, power, capitalism, and culture itself.
“I’m betting on culture to get us through,” Burton says. “It’s about collaboration and celebration of what we have in common.”
That last phrase — celebration of what we have in common — is the cornerstone of today’s event. It’s like Burton is setting up a segue for me to ask what I really came here to ask. I finally jump off the high-dive and ask my childhood idol about my favorite TV show; the mental sensation is not unlike ripping off a Band-Aid.
Isn’t that what we’re here for, I ask Burton, to celebrate our common culture as Trekkies?
“Star Trek is so mainstream culture!” Burton begins. “There isn’t another species on the planet that can imagine its own future and, in the process, create its own future.”
Character versus actor
He also notes that the show gave young women a new set of role models for the best cultural values a girl could adopt: equality, intelligence, strength. And, as I note aloud, positive sexual expression. “That woman over there,” I say quietly, indicating Troi and shaking my head in awe. The character of Deanna Troi was “girlie” in many traditional ways — an emotional chocolate lover with ample and prominently displayed cleavage. But she also took control of her sexual choices, expressing love and affection without using sex as a weapon against herself or others. It was thoroughly badass.
And, Burton notes, those attitudes made Troi hugely popular with everyone — men, women, Black men. He hollers across the room for confirmation from the actress.
“The brothers fuckin’ love me. I don’t know what it is.”
Marina Sirtis has taken a break from her sandwich to utter those two lines. She does not smile. She does not “smize.” Her voice is a solid octave lower than you’d expect, and her tone is perfectly sardonic.
She’s not Troi, obviously; I knew that when I started out today. But now, it really sinks in: These people are all actors, and some of them are completely and utterly opposite of their characters — which means they’re damn good actors.
Burton is the only cast member I’d spoken to in the past, and he was a passionate presence not too unlike his character, Geordi LaForge. But I wasn’t expecting Sirtis, who played the effusive Troi, to be quite so caustic.
One thing the actors do have in common with their characters is the close friendships. The chemistry you see onscreen between Data and Geordi is absolutely present between Brent Spiner and Burton, and I’m pretty certain it’s not just the result of spending years shooting a show together and decades on the convention circuit afterward.
“This is my family,” says Burton.
We prepare to leave the green room. I’m as ready as I’ll ever be to go back and talk to my all-time favorite, Brent Spiner. Which is to say, I still have no questions to ask and am horribly nervous, but I’m in a Band-Aid-ripping mood.
“You’re 31?” Sirtis asks me as we walk out. “I have shoes that are older than you.” I’ve yet to see the woman crack a smile.
A gentleman and a Klingon
As George Takei, the legendary actor from the Original Series, takes the main stage at the con, I march back into the autograph room for the third time. The crowd has relocated to watch Takei’s talk, so the TNG stars are mostly unoccupied.
John DeLancie, the actor who plays Q, sits alone at the end of the long table, tapping away at a smartphone. I shakily apologize for running into him earlier and ask him what he’s doing. He tells me he’s downloading navigational charts in preparation for a four-week sailing trip to Tahiti.
“I enjoy [the conventions] when they are busy,” he tells me. But on days like today, he says, “It does just come down to passing the time.”
Toward the other end of the table, Michael Dorn’s cell phone buzzes to life. “Captain, you have an incoming message!” it says in the unmistakably cranky tones of Lieutenant Worf. I make small talk with Dorn, whose own voice is mild, sweet, and higher, with no traces of his character’s gruffness. I think to myself that playing the character must have given Dorn plenty of sore throats during the series’ long run.
Dorn talks about being a vegan, a decision he made during his battle with prostate cancer. “My doctor said he’s never seen a vegetarian with prostate cancer,” Dorn tells me. “I’m a real Nazi about being vegan. … Your whole body changes, you get clarity.”
Like any longtime fan who’s never seen Dorn out of character, I’m truly struck by his nature. He’s strong, but he’s incredibly gentle. I ask him how he relates to fans who come to a con expecting to meet Worf.
“I don’t relate to them,” he tells me softly. “They come in looking for this big, scary guy … they are very shy about approaching me.
“To a lot of them, [our characters] are real. There’s a relationship that they have with each of us.”
But the relationship, as I’ve learned, is one-sided. I look next to Dorn, where Spiner sits. His face is as familiar to me as any; I confess without shame to having a childhood (ok, ok, and adulthood) crush on Data, which perhaps explains my uncanny knack for dating emotionally unavailable computer people.
But that’s my relationship with a fictional character. As I eavesdrop on Spiner’s conversations with other fans, it’s clear he only looks like the fictional man of my dreams. It’s like biting into something that looks like a hamburger but tastes like a cake — pleasant but wholly confusing.
I shyly ask Dorn if I can take an unposed picture of him and Spiner interacting with fans.
“Sure,” he mutters, “if it’s okay with fuckface.”
A couple snaps later, I’m taking the cheater’s way out: I’m paying Spiner for an autograph as a way to get started with a mini-interview. Lucky for me, the room is almost empty, and the actor literally has nothing better to do than talk to me.
Or mortally embarrass me in front of my husband. You know, whatever.
I stammer something to him about being press, handing him $40 and the reporter’s notebook I carry with me.
“You’re not a reporter,” he scoffs.
Granted, I’m acting a lot more like a nervous fan than a professional, but I assert that I am, in fact, a reporter. On assignment and everything, writing a story about the Star Trek convention.
For the autograph, Spiner asks me for my name. He asks me who’s standing next to me; it’s my Trekkie, neckbeard-developer husband, Aaron, who has joined me at the con. I explain to Spiner that we just got married a couple weeks ago. Spiner tells me I’ve made a huge mistake.
His eyes are pale blue and piercing. “Jolie,” he asks me, “would you leave your husband for me?”
It’s the same joke I’ve been making to Aaron for a year and a half; Spiner and Sir Patrick Stewart are my two celebrity freebies.
“Yes, sir,” I say without hesitation and with a red face.
“You’ll have to change your name to Spiner,” he says.
“That’s fine, sir,” I say.
The jokes continue, with Spiner dogging Aaron and teasing me about my glitter-sprinkled hair (it made sense that morning in the bathroom). I have trouble in the moment deciding whether Spiner is a huge jerk or the potential next love of my life, but I end up thinking he’s only a demi-jerk who puts on a small front because he has to interact with a huge range of very strange people for three days.
During the Q&A portion of his onstage talk later that afternoon, Spiner is asked by a rude audience member whether he’s gay. When Spiner declines to entertain the question, the supposed fan continues to ask Spiner if he is in touch with his feminine side. It’s not meant seriously or kindly; the fan is a troll expressing his love for the series in the most terrible way.
Spiner handles the experience professionally; he doesn’t retaliate against the heckler. He continues the show, politely flirting back with the fangirls who whisper into the mic, “I love you.”
“I love you, too,” he says to each one.
All original photos by Jolie O’Dell
VB's research team is studying web-personalization... Chime in here, and we’ll share the results.