Thursday, July 18, 2013

What was responsible for the geek renaissance?

...It’s obvious that we live amidst a “Geeks Rule the World” vibe these days, right? For a lot of us over a certain age, it’s incredible that Star Trek fans and every other nerd nirvanist of all ages are allowed—nay, encouraged—to wear their con badge of honor openly, their heart on their sleeve, as it were…in full uncloseted view of everyone! The “geek girl” explosion, the cool-kids cosplay club… football Trekkies... the designers of cell phones, iPads, even a Vulcan-loving President —yep, it’s an amazing time, when you think about it. What lit the fuse on such an explosion? Well, network TV can play a big role in changing the culture, reaching millions easily and putting new memes and ideas into play almost overnight —and there’s the clue.
This is the week of Comic-Con International in San Diego. There are plenty of similar conventions around the world, but this one, more than the others, has become the geek equivalent of the Cannes Film Festival. I went there in 2007, and it is everything you imagine it is and much, much more. Anyone who has any interest in geek culture should make the pilgrimage at least once in their lifetime. It wasn't always this way, however. Over the past twenty years or so, CCI evolved from a simple, provincial comic book convention into an epic event that embraces not just comics, but film, television, video games and more, and its growth reflected the gradual mainstreaming of geek culture.

How did we get here, though? The preceding quote is from an article that argues in favor of the rise of the TV show Star Trek: The Next Generation, and specifically, the season-ending cliffhanger of the seminal two-part episode "The Best of Both Worlds," in which Captain Picard is captured by the soulless, voracious Borg and turned into one of them. The article writer, Trek historian Larry Nemecek, pinpoints this as the moment when geek culture began to go mainstream.

It certainly had a tremendous impact. At the time, there were rumors that star Patrick Stewart was leaving the show and that this was meant to write him out (not true). TNG still struggled with being in the shadow of its predecessor, the original and greatly beloved Star Trek, though by this time the show had begun to find its own identity. And by ending the third season on such a dramatic cliffhanger, it fueled much fan speculation throughout the summer and into the conclusion, which began the fourth season. So there was already a great interest in this show and its future from the audience's perspective.

Still, I suspect there was something else that had an even greater and more immediate aspect: the remastered re-releases of the original Star Wars trilogy in 1997, and I believe the reason why is simple: loathe as I am to admit it, SW has always been cooler than ST. The re-releases were preceded by a tsunami of hype that bordered on the reverent, especially when it was understood that George Lucas was planning to return to the SW universe with new films. Even though ST came first, Episodes 4-6, the original SW trilogy, have been treated as holy scripture by its fans over the years, and this reverence has showed absolutely no signs of abating, particularly not now, when the promise of new SW stories is in the air again.

ST, by contrast, has often been looked down upon by certain segments of fandom. For a long time it was considered nerdy, and not in a cool way, while SW was more heavily embraced. Think of all the movies you've seen about kids, especially in the 80s, in which you saw a bedroom containing SW action figures, or a replica Millennium Falcon, or even a SW bedsheet or something like that. SW, for many of my generation, represents a crucial link to childhood that for whatever reason, isn't associated with nerdhood - the way "nerd" used to be defined.

ST's true legacy, I believe, is in the realm of television. TNG, and its successor, Deep Space Nine - a show which employed serialized storytelling long before any of the current hits - raised the bar not just for genre TV shows like Babylon 5, Xena, The X-Files, and so forth, but television in general, from Law and Order and CSI (shows that spawned franchises), to Lost and Alias (stronger genre shows with an ongoing mythology) to Mad Men and Breakiing Bad (serialization as the accepted norm). And while I don't deny that TNG's success played a crucial, even critical role in the geek renaissance, I think that even now, ST has been and perhaps always will be second to SW in overall popularity and influence. But a very... very... CLOSE... second.

Then again, that catalyst could've been something else entirely. Here are a few other possibilities:

- Maus winning the Pulitzer Prize. Comic books play a central role in geek culture, but ever since the 50s they had a stigma attached to them as being juvenile and worthless - until Art Spiegelman's graphic novel was feted with the Pulitzer in 1992. Suddenly comics were no longer just for kids.

- Batman '89. The younger generation who have grown up with Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight may never truly appreciate how huge Tim Burton's interpretation of the superhero was when it first came out, especially in terms of merchandise.

- The "death" of Superman. It was what got me back into comics after a brief hiatus, and even though I eventually gravitated towards more sophisticated comics in other genres, this was the first time DC and Marvel realized that events like this within the funnybooks themselves could attract mainstream media attention.

- The rise of the internet. In particular, the Usenet groups, in which like-minded fans could talk to each other directly and with greater immediacy.

It could have been any one of these, or it could have been any combination, or it could have been something completely different.

I'd be very interested in hearing your opinions on this.

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Related:
Five times Trek and Wars have crossed paths
Confessions of a cynical and crotchety fanboy
Is pop culture reaching a critical mass?

5 comments:

  1. It's also very hip to watch "Doctor Who" all of a sudden. The dapper Matt Smith and his Tucker Carlsen bow tie are now more iconic than the 17 foot long scarf worn by the homely bohemian vagabond Tom Baker. Some point to David Tennant as the icebreaker, but Tennant himself will admit that the actor who truly broke the mold and ushered the new series into the public consciousness was Christopher Eccleston, with his battered black leather "U-Boat Captain" jacket, work boots and severe borstal haircut. Between the three actors, along with the striking special effects and cerebral (yet whiz-bang) writing talent, "Doctor Who" and his legion of adult and child fans are proving to be a force to be reckoned with. Trekkers, Jedi and Sith should watch their backs. The Doctor is in.

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  2. Possible, I suppose, but I don't see Who as being that big a catalyst, at least in America.

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  3. "The dapper Matt Smith and his Tucker Carlsen bow tie are now more iconic than the 17 foot long scarf worn by the homely bohemian vagabond Tom Baker." NEVER!

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  4. Uh oh. 'Who's the best Doctor' wars are almost as bad as 'Who's the best Trek captain' wars. ((puts on hard hat and heads for bunker))

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