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Star Trek fandom thrives at Chicago Comic Con

Photo by Caroline Siede

This weekend Wizard World’s Chicago Comic Con took over a vast convention center inconveniently distanced from the city. The likes of Stan Lee and Anthony Mackie signed autographs and attended Q&A panels while colorful cosplayers roamed the vendor show floor. It was impossible to stand anywhere without getting in the way of someone documenting a particularly good Joker costume or trying to snap a picture of David Boreanaz. The culminating event of the long weekend was a celebration of Star Trek: The Next Generation featuring a reunion of the show’s key players. After four days of nonstop geekdom, Trek fans gathered at Rosemont Theatre on Sunday evening for a conversation about Star Trek and its legacy with Michael Dorn (Worf), Marina Sirtis (Deanna Troi), LeVar Burton (Geordi LaForge), Brent Spiner (Data), Gates McFadden (Beverly Crusher), Jonathan Frakes (William Riker), and Patrick Stewart (Jean-Luc Picard). The panel was moderated—and at times slightly derailed—by the original Star Trek captain, William Shatner.

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The Star Trek franchise is still represented by those who attend conventions in costume, but characters from Doctor Who, Supernatural, and The Avengers far outnumbered Klingons and Vulcans. The newest J.J. Abrams-rebooted films have made Star Trek cool for a mainstream audience, but they’ve also disappointed some of the show’s original fan base—who haven’t had a Star Trek series on TV since 2005 (and not a critically acclaimed one since 1999). Which is not to say the convention was devoid of Trek enthusiasm. Most of The Next Generation cast held individual or two-person panels throughout the weekend, which were attended by fans eager to ask questions about episodes that first aired over 25 years ago. (It’s hard not to get flashes of Shatner’s “Get A Life” Saturday Night Live skit.) Yet the franchise lacked the “buzz” of more current properties. The row of The Next Generation autograph tables (which I dubbed “Star Trek alley”) had moderate lines throughout the weekend but felt subdued compared to the throng surrounding newer stars like Matt Smith and Norman Reedus. (Patrick Stewart was swamped but he’s had plenty of post-Trek work as well.)

The relative calm surrounding Star Trek and the more mellow atmosphere of a Sunday at a convention lowered my expectations for the evening’s event. That made it even more delightful when the reunion turned out to be one of the most energetic activities of the weekend. Fans nearly filled the 4,400-seat theater and the crowd far outnumbered the Doctor Who reunion panel that had taken place in that same space earlier in the morning. And though the average age of the crowd was much older than the teens who filled the Who panel, it was no less animated. The cast took the stage to thunderous applause, particularly for Patrick Stewart (who strolled onstage wearing a T-shirt and striped hoodie and proceeded to wear the hood up for quite a while).

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Burton was quick to comment on the unique legacy of Star Trek, joking that the cast of Miami Vice isn’t regularly selling out theaters for reunion panels, a proclamation that was met by another round of applause. From there, the evening was turned over to audience questions that mostly centered on the long-lasting impact of the series. While other panels during the weekend descended into stories of prank wars or inside jokes, there was a certain maturity to the Star Trek panel. The actors have been doing the convention circuit long enough that they are pros at working a crowd without losing the thread of their conversation. Spiner earned uproarious laughter with just one line of his infamous Patrick Stewart impression.

The cast has a well-documented real-life friendship, though onstage they relied less on banter with one another than on banter with the audience. They teased latecomers as well as a fan who filmed himself asking a question. The audience ate up every minute of it. The past three days at Comic Con hadn’t worn out the crowd so much as energized them for the event. The cast couldn’t hear a woman in the back yell, “Where’s Wil?” (referring to absent cast member Wil Wheaton), but after a particularly unintelligible woman shouted something from the front section, Sirtis deadpanned, “If you’re gonna heckle, honey, enunciate.”

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Throughout the evening questions brought the cast back to the idea of sci-fi as a genre and its impact on the world. Spiner proclaimed Star Trek The American Epic” (comparing it to Britain’s epic: Doctor Who). McFadden emphasized Star Trek’s optimism and Frakes mentioned creator Gene Roddenberry’s vision of hope. Sirtis, meanwhile, mused that The Next Generation may have helped inspire the current trend of big sci-fi blockbusters. Shatner was particularly interested in science fiction that stirs the imagination of its audience, a concept he returned to at the end of the evening as the conversation turned to real-life technologies like iPads and smartphones seemingly inspired by Star Trek’s fictional technologies. It turns out not all the cast share a love of modern technology, however; Stewart revealed he still has yet to learn how to cut and paste on his computer.

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The 75-minute conversation jumped from the Shakespearean nobility of Klingons to the disappointing film Nemesis to the sex lives of the show’s various characters (Stewart and Burton wanted more relationships for their characters; Sirtis wanted fewer). Sirtis and McFadden also spent a good deal of time speaking about their experiences as women in the Star Trek world. (It’s fascinating to see these types of conversations become increasingly acceptable in the public sphere. Comic Con held three separate panels on diversity and questions of representation popped up in various Q&As throughout the weekend). Sirtis succinctly summed up the show’s successes and failures by explaining: “Although we were doing a show about the 24th century, it was written by 20th-century white men.” As such, concerns that Sirtis looked too “fat” in her regular Star Fleet uniform explain Counselor Troi’s unusual costuming while McFadden had to stay in the uncomfortable spandex version of the uniform (so as to better highlight her figure) long after the male cast members were allowed to switch into a more manageable two-piece version. Both women expressed annoyance that their scenes together always revolved around exercise, that the show lacked multi-female scenes in general, and that neither of their characters got much in the way of backstory.

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No one person dominated the panel but neither did it feel like anyone got left out of the conversation. Like any good ensemble, the Next Generation actors slotted neatly into complementary roles. Sirtis is the brassy comic relief (and self-described “evil cow”) while Burton, Spiner, and Frakes offer more subtle humor. McFadden is the elegant artist and Dorn is the quietly thoughtful one, with Stewart as a somewhat reserved figurehead. Yet he was perhaps given the most humanizing moment of the entire panel: After a fan asked whether their characters matched their real-life personalities (Sirtis, Dorn, and Spiner said no; Frakes, Burton, and McFadden said yes) Stewart stole the night by explaining, “By the end of the third season, I truly didn’t know where Jean-Luc Picard left off and Patrick Stewart began.”

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Sirtis wrapped up the evening (but not before Stewart vociferously plugged his favorite Chicago-based theater company, Improvised Shakespeare) by thanking fans for watching the show. “We basically owe everything we have to you. Star Trek fans are the most loyal fans in the business.” The audience and the cast rose to their feet in simultaneous standing ovations to salute the mutually beneficial relationship that has kept Star Trek alive for close to 50 years.

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