Friday, September 13, 2013

When Fandoms Collide

It's been a good week for fans of space exploration.
  • Monday marked the 47th anniversary of the debut of Star Trek The Original Series (ST-TOS).
  • Wednesday marked the 21st anniversary of Mae Jamison becoming the first black woman to travel in space. Extra nerd points if you know that she was inspired to become an astronaut by ST-TOS cast member Nichelle Nichols' personal encouragement and vis-a-vis her portrayal of Lieutenant Uhura.
  • NASA publicly announced that Voyager I had became the first man-made object to leave the solar system. Super-duper extra nerd points if you know that the fictional unmanned space probe Voyager VI was central to the plot of the first ST-TOS movie. Also, you totally win the Internets today if you (like me) can't help but think of that movie as a reworking of The Changeling episode of ST-TOS.
In my universe, many things come back to Star Trek The Original Series. This self-indulgent post tells the story of how that has come to be.

I've outted myself before on this blog, albeit casually and in passing, as both a long-time Star Trek fan and a doll collector. With these important space-related events this week, it seems as good a time as any to explore some personal history and these brave worlds of mine.

So behold, this is a post about getting peanut-butter-in-my-chocolate, about Ultimate Nerditry, about colliding fandoms.

This picture?

I can explain that.

Eventually. Some background first.

At the tender age of 9 I discovered Star Trek in afternoon reruns on my local NBC affiliate. I was immediately hooked.  In adolescence, the superficial trappings of fandom sucked me in immediately.  I watched each episode multiple times, collected all the James Blish anthologies, could recite entire swaths of dialogue verbatim. I saved my allowance to buy fandom anthologies and shipped Spock and Uhura before it was ever a Thing. I had Star Trek toys. I read and reread the occasional Lincoln Enterprises mail order catalogues that graced my doorstep (these were newspapers filled with lists of relatively inexpensive and probably cheaply-made Star Trek trinkets endorsed by Gene Roddenberry. I anticipated their appearance with as much excitement as I did the Scholastic book order catalogues that competed for my allowance (except little there was in the way of competition, as I never had much of an allowance. I don't think I ever ordered anything from the Lincoln Enterprise catalogues. I still have them up in the attic somewhere, decaying the way things do that you can't let go of but have no use for)).  I organized groups of less-enthusiastic teens to see the movies when they debuted in theaters. And in 1983 I won tickets to and attended a Star Trek convention in Pittsburgh with Walter Koenig as the guest of honor.

I know how this sounds. At this point, you're thinking that William Shatner was probably talking directly to me back in 1986 during his famous Star Trek Convention skit on SNL:

And maybe he was. Although in my defense, by 1986 I was too busy trying to support myself and applying to grad school to pay attention to Star Trek any longer. I did manage to see The Voyage Home that year but it was the last ST-TOS movie I saw.

I now regard enmeshment in fandoms warily, but cannot deny the formative developmental influence of this series. While I am theoretically old enough to remember the series debut in 1966, I was but a wee Sue, and thus my experiences with Star Trek do not correspond to the epiphanies that first-time viewers had. Still, imagine me, an overly-analytical, over-protected kid isolated in the rural semi-suburbs. In my world de facto racism and classism were normative if not overtly hostile, as it was simply expected that everyone know their place based on race and class differences; participation in organized religion was obligatory; and in my immediate family 'feminism' was a dirty word. For a sheltered kid like me, episodes of Star Trek really and truly were my first examples of Some Other Way To See The World.

Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry himself wrote  
The whole show was an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but to take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in life forms. We tried to say that the worst possible thing that can happen to all of us is for the future to somehow press us into a common mould, where we begin to act and talk and look and think alike." 
Roddenberry was a humanist at heart and soul.  His “IDIC Philosophy” (Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combination) spoke to my spirit and intellect at crucial developmental points.

And then there were the characters. Mr. Spock was my philosophical godparent and Uhura a career mentor. The dichotomy between intellect and emotion that was articulated in the tension between McCoy and Spock was one I readily embraced in adolescence, although fortunately I've become far more nuanced as an adult. I am not one to be ruled by my heart, and deeply emotively expressive people push me away. So for better or worse, I thank Spock's logically-detached modeling. And while it took me far longer to become wary of the charisma of space cowboys like James T. Kirk, I learned from Trek to avoid the lure of the superficial.

The character of Uhura and the actress who played her, Nichelle Nichols, taught me other things.
Ms. Nichols' personal Trek story is legendary: weary of uttering nothing but "Hailing frequencies open, Captain" and longing to pursue grander opportunities, she planned to quit the show at the end of its first season. None other than Martin Luther King pointed out that she had been gifted with a life-changing opportunity. Ms. Nichols has shared this story many times but here is one iteration of what King said to her when their paths crossed at an NAACP fundraiser on the eve of her intended departure from the show:
"For the first time on television we will be seen as we should be seen every day – as intelligent, quality, beautiful people who can sing, dance, but who can also go into space, who can be lawyers, who can be teachers, who can be professors, and yet you don’t see it on television – until now….Gene Roddenberry has opened a door for the world to see us. If you leave, that door can be closed because, you see, your role is not a Black role, and it’s not a female role, he can fill it with anything, including an alien.”
Inspired, Nichelle Nichols remained with Star Trek through its remaining two seasons and went on to serve as a spokesperson for NASA and the NAACP, personally inspiring innumerable women and African-Americans to reach for the stars (including Mae Jamison).

I did not pursue careers remotely resembling anything done at NASA, but I was nonetheless inspired by her example to pursue my personal dreams, to reach for my place in the grander scheme of things, and to be proud of my appearance and my brains and never allow myself to be objectified.

Heady stuff for a TV show featuring a guy with pointy ears who bled green.

Now strictly speaking, my life as a doll collector dates back farther than my relationship with Star Trek. Like many little girls I've loved dolls for as long as I can remember, but it wasn't until my own daughter was born that I began collecting in earnest. I like to joke that a complimentary edition of the American Girl catalogue came home with my newborn. While that's an exaggeration, it's not too far from the truth.  Company founder Pleasant Rowland was a marketing genius who found a way to sell overpriced dolls and their accessories vis-a-vis a highly appealing educative mission. I do not mean to diminish the resulting American Girl (AG) brand but I do view it with a critical eye, for I've learned to trust neither space cowboys nor marketing spin.

The scene-creating possibilities that doll collecting offered lured me in by connecting with my love of creating dioramas, and so I began actively collecting for myself.  Collecting is primarily a private artistic creative endeavor for me, a way of making history manifest in miniature. Despite that, for a few years I stumbled into a very public role as the administrator of an online adult AG collecting community -- an experience which further sealed my wariness of adult fandom communities. For a time I also ran a historically-oriented American Girl Club for kids at a local bookstore. I've completed my collecting goals and now quietly enjoy using what I have to portray the worlds of  historical characters in particular eras of interest in 1:3 scale dioramas.

Okay, so, now is the part when we make the fandoms collide. I've created a number of modern characters 'personifed' in doll form. Many of them reflect personal interests of mine to the point where I've described that particular aspect of my collection as mini-Sue interest horcruxes. By far my favorite character has been Phoebe, a bright 14 year old who counts Nichelle Nichols and other female aviation pioneers as role models and inspirations, and who wants more than anything to learn to fly and perhaps to become an astronaut. I acquired an Uhura ST-TOS uniform for the doll from a talented seamstress and my character Phoebe became the original Uhura fan-girl, ehrm, fan-doll:

When Greta, a fellow collector, Star Trek fan and author of a blog entitled The Adventures of Steampunk Addie asked me if I'd like to send my Phoebe character off in the above regalia to meet Nichelle Nichols at the 2013 Phoenix Comicon, I jumped at the chance. Thanks to Greta, I am now the proud owner of the above photograph of Phoebe the Original Uhura Fangirl posing with Greta's legendary Steampunk Addie and the incomparable, inspirational Nichelle Nichols.  Ms. Nichols was even so kind as to autograph my doll (an unusual request from me since I do not normally seek autographs, but one I indulged just this once since I figured a doll surely can't be the strangest thing she's ever been asked to sign).

For the record, Ms. Nichols absolutely loved these doll character homages and requested a customized one from Greta for herself. You can read more on Greta's blog link above and view photos on her Facebook fan page. (Please do not hold Phoebe's messy hair in those photos against me, for she's a high maintenance traveler).

So there you have it, infinite diversity in infinite combinations, even doll ones.

1 comment:

  1. I'm so sorry it took me so long to find this! It was out pleasure to host Phoebe. Steampunk Addie misses her dreadfully.