Friday, January 22, 2010

How to Convert a friend into a Trekkie

Richard’s essay on Why He Loves Star Trek mentioned trying with limited success to convert others into Trek fans. Well, it just so happens that this is something I’ve given a fair amount of thought – it has always been a desire of mine to have a significant other who was at least close to my level of fandom. But, I didn’t necessarily want to troll the local conventions for a mate, either. So conversion was the key.

The method I settled on was a sort of bargain with my target. Watch five episodes with me. If, at the end of episode 5, you don’t want to watch any more, you’re free to go (it puts the lotion in the basket…). But if you want to watch episode 6, then you’re stuck, and I have lease to watch a lot more Trek with you over the course of our relationship.

There are a couple of key concepts in this strategy. First of all, presumably, the field is relatively fertile. You wouldn’t be dating someone or friends with someone who was wholly temperamentally disinclined towards liking Trek, would you? It is more likely someone who just hasn’t been exposed to it, or has a mild social disinclination towards trying it. Second, they’re probably emotionally invested in you, so they’ll be relatively charitable towards the enterprise, so to speak. Third, you’re selling them on the conceit that 5 episodes ought to be enough to tell if they’d like it or not. As Richard mentioned, sometimes the sheer bulk of Star Trek is daunting to a potential convert. Finally, it requires a certain strategy on your part – which five episodes do you pick?

Here are the 5 I’ve settled on.

Encounter at Farpoint – although the 2nd half is kind of a snooze, I really feel it’s a necessary story to introduce key characters, relationships, and concepts. You get Q, Troi/Riker, Picard/Beverly, the whole Wesley idea, etc.

Where No One Has Gone Before
– To me, this is the most “Roddenberry” of TNG episodes. It introduces the Traveler, Wesley’s special destiny, notions of warp drive, and the like. This is one I expect argument on, but I stick to it. I love it, and if love is contagious, etc. etc.

Q Who – A must see from the 2nd season. Not only is it a great episode with a wonderful atmosphere, but it sets up the crucial “Twist” at the end of my conversion scheme.

Hollow Pursuits – I think it’s important to show a potential convert that Trek can be very funny, too. Can’t go wrong with Barclay. Plus, this introduces the holodeck to your target.

The Best of Both Worlds, Pt. 1 – A Ha! This is episode #5. You all know how it ends, and this is the sneaky (but pleasant, hopefully) surprise that you’ll spring on your target. You can stop here (at “Fire!”), or we can go on and watch more, but that’s a larger investment on your part.

I’ve found that the sheer narrative momentum of BoBW pt.1 is enough to get a hasty affirmative from the acolyte, but also that the previous shows have made enough of a case that the project will be enjoyable either way.

We can see here that I’ve used only TNG in my plan. This owes itself to the fact that TNG is what made me a Trekkie. If I’m going to design a plan that compresses my conversion for someone else, I have to go with what I know.

So now I’ll open up the floor to discussion. What do you think about this plan? Our panelists will be me, Kevin, Richard Lorenc, and Kelly Pollock (my lovely wife and one of the converts referred to above).

Some questions:

Is TNG the series to start with? Should you tailor a series to your audience? Mix them up? Start with a different one entirely?

Kelly: As it turns out, my favorite series is Voyager, but I don't think Matthew could have predicted that. It seems that everyone I've ever heard answer the favorite series question has listed TNG as first or second. I think with any other series, you run the risk that someone will dislike it who would otherwise like Star Trek. I definitely think it's better to start with one series and not try to mix it up. It's important to develop a rapport with the characters, and you can only do that by sticking with one series.

Kevin: I actually have some experience getting people watching TNG. The last two years of college, I lived in an apartment with three other people. One day I decided to get some of my Star Trek tapes from home. We did not have cable, and network TV by and large sucks. Eventually, I ended up with all my TNG at the apartment, and at first it was just me watching them, but over time my roommates would also start watching them. To this day, one of my roommates is still reduced to hysterics by the observation that human bonding rituals have a great deal of talking...and dancing...and crying. I won't say that they are hard-core trekkies now, but we all enjoyed it.

I think what did it was that TNG is better than most television regardless of your fan status. Also, I didn't push it; it just became the default background TV noise, and it was something we could all watch and enjoy. Also, they were getting me into baseball, so it seemed fair. Kelly made this point in her "Why I Love Star Trek" essay, and it applies here: I was as willing, if not moreso, than they were to make fun of the absurd aspects. Trekkies get an obsessive reputation that is not entirely undeserved, and if we act high and mighty about even the bad stuff, it turns people off.

Richard: The most recent attempt I made to create a Trekkie was over two days during Thanksgiving 2008. I tried Matthew's idea of picking five episodes with the promise I would never try to push Trek on her again. I decided to pursue a Borg story arc spanning two series (and to count the two two-parters as four episodes). We started with Q, Who?, followed by The Best of Both Worlds, and then Deep Space Nine's premiere episode Emissary. I wanted to show her three of my favorite episodes, and also illustrate how rich the Trek universe is. She got a few kicks of of Whoopi Goldberg's performance in Q, Who? but fell asleep some time during The Best of Both Worlds. (I blame the tryptophan.) It's worth noting my friend made me an Alias fan during this same holiday. At least some sort of conversion happened.

Kelly: It should probably be noted that Matthew didn't try to show me all five (six) episodes at once. I think it was over the course of five days and probably not consecutive days together, at that. I'll now happily watch five episodes in a day, but spreading it out kept my attention better. Richard, I think DS9, especially the premiere, is a really tough place to start for someone who's uninitiated. It's just too alien and dark. I guess if you are trying to win over someone who already loves sci-fi, it could work, but otherwise, I think starting with all TNG episodes, even high concept ones, is somehow more familiar.

Regardless of series, what would your 5 episode list be? Should it be a longer list? Shorter?

Kelly: I like the idea of five episodes. Like Matthew said, it's a manageable number. It's not difficulty to agree to something that will take less than four hours (well, four and a half hours, since the first episode on the list is a double episode). Fewer than five episodes, and you don't really have enough chance to care about the series/characters. More than five episodes, and the convertee basically has to commit before sampling. I'm not going to suggest a different five episodes. Obviously these ones worked on me. However, I will say that the one problem with this approach is that is changes how you watch the first three seasons. The twist in Best of Both Worlds Part One would have a bigger impact if you had watched the whole first three seasons, and I missed out on that. Frankly, if Matthew had shown me the first five episodes of TNG in a row, I probably still would have agreed to keep going, even as weak as three of those five episodes are.

Matthew: Yeah, I'm sure some people would need 5 GREAT episodes, where some would be impressed by most any 5. The 5 I chose are in the middle. My list is guided more by being 5 episodes that are necessary to appreciate other TNG. Are "Yesterday's Enterprise," "Tapestry" and "The Inner Light" better shows? Sure. But would you care about them at all if you hadn't been introduced to the characters properly? It would be like watching "Empire" without watching "A New Hope" beforehand. Of course, the first 5 in order would ensure that no character development was missed. But "Code of Honor" as an inducement to convert? Hmmm.... maybe as unintentional comedy...

Richard: Five episodes is enough. If your friend isn't catching on by then, well, it may not be the right fit.

What have been the problems with trying to convert someone?

Richard: Are we actually "converting" people? The default position isn't anti-Trek, so why do we use a term that sounds like we're revolutionizing someone's fundamental viewpoint? When we share Star Trek with someone we're trying to expose them to a story over 40 years in the making. It's a lot to take in, but people aren't necessarily hostile to it on the outside. Sure, they've heard of nerds wearing Spock ears at conventions, and the phrase "Beam me up, Scotty" (which was never actually said in the shows). But what people find is they can either relate to the characters...or they can't. Infinite diversity in infinite combinations.

Kelly: I would say I was mildly hostile at the beginning. Sure, I'm the right demographic to win over, but to me Trek was something that weirdo nerds watched. To take someone like me who had never watched any episode or movie (and certainly I could have), and to make me into someone who loves Trek and goes to conventions, I think that's a conversion experience.

How does converting someone make you see the franchise differently?

Matthew: Although my first run-through of all of TNG and most of DS9/VOY was with family, most of my subsequent viewings (of VHS tapes from TV, wow I'm old) were solo affairs. But in converting people, especially Kelly, Trek has become more social again, and this is definitely a plus. I've been able to laugh more at it (and with it), and I have an audience for my witty asides. So my appreciation has deepened. I may have done more deep thinking when I was alone, but I enjoy it even more now, I think. And we still discuss the deeper issues of various stories, too.

Richard: When you get to know someone you learn what entertains them. Some people like fight scenes, others like character development, and others like things that are in space or set in the future. Star Trek has something for everyone as long as they're willing to look for it.

1.5x speed with subtitles. Blasphemy?

Matthew: Kelly and I have taken to watching all Star Trek with subtitles at 1.5x speed via our PS3. It compresses a 45 minute show into 30 minutes or so, which means we can watch a lot more Star Trek in the same time period (or do other stuff, I guess...). We put subtitles on, just in case the audio is hard to make out - which we find it almost never is. It's pretty amazing how s..l...o...oo...wly everyone talks once you get acclimated to 1.5x speed.

Kelly: I love the 1.5x speed. When we bought the slim PS3, my first question was whether we'd still have 1.5x speed. :) I did the first watch-through of TNG on regular speed and started Voyager that way. I probably could have handled DS9 and Enterprise on regular speed, but there's no way I would have watched TOS without 1.5x speed. The pacing is just toooooo slow. Plus, who doesn't like getting to watch more Star Trek?

Kevin: I have this discussion with one of my roommates all the time. He hates it. I love it. I will say it's a matter of personal taste, and when watching in a group, if anyone objects, you should watch it at normal speed. I also think that this should be reserved for the advanced viewer. It's not for the timid.

Matthew: It really doesn't detract from understanding dialogue once you get used to it. Data and The Doctor can be pretty fast, but even they aren't difficult to understand. Really, the subtitles end up being more useful for catching trivia than anything else.

Kelly: I do think that part of the reason I like 1.5x speed is that it's a good excuse to use subtitles. When no one else is around I turn on subtitles for almost everything. For me, subtitles really help with understanding/remembering names of alien species and characters.

Richard: Sometimes I turn Star Trek on in the background as I'm working or just messing around online. It's a familiar sound that helps me to relax. So having it on a 1.5x speed would be dumb for me. I want it to last as long as possible before I have to look up again and scroll to the next episode.

When do you introduce the movies? Is there an argument for doing them sooner than later?

Kelly: I think you should watch the TNG movies after TNG, but watching the TOS movies might be a good way into TOS, which you will presumably want to do after the other series. Of course, now all bets are off if your convert has seen the Abrams movie and nothing else...

Kevin: I actually saw the TOS movies before seeing the series. II and IV stand on their own as great movies. VI, III, and I certainly entertain existing fans. Everyone hates V. I'm actually glad I saw WOK before seeing Space Seed. I tended to identify more with secondary cast who were playing catch up with this story, but I was never lost. Enough of the back story was there to keep me up to date without slowing down the movie. Seeing it again, after Space Seed, was like getting to watch it again for the first time. I would go so far to argue that the TOS movies are a good intro if you can't sit them down for five episodes of TNG.

Matthew: I can't imagine the situation of trying to convert an Abrams victim. I suppose you should go with TOS, then, just to show them what the real characters are like. In that case, I might go with The Menagerie, Space Seed, Amok Time, Mirror Mirror, and City on the Edge of Forever. Then, with that foundation down, one could move to TNG at their discretion.

If TNG hadn't existed (shudder...), the movies probably would have gotten me into Star Trek. But I imagine it would have been a Star Wars level-fandom instead of the deeper and richer experience that Trek fandom is.

Richard: Sadly, I'm not at the point where I'd show any TOS to a first-time viewer. It's just too campy for me to get them to take it "seriously" (meaning as a good sci-fi story about the future). That said, I would probably begin with some TNG, then some DS9, and then, if the friend is willing, explore some backstory in the films. Since most of my interest lies in the TNG-era shows, that's where I'd begin, providing supporting details later. I know it may sound heretical to call the TOS crew "supporting details," but that's what they always were to me. Perhaps some day that will change. Matthew and Kevin's reviews of TOS episodes may help.

Matthew: Burn him! Cleanse him with fire!

Kelly: I think you could do a one-episode conversion of anyone by showing them City on the Edge of Forever. There is camp in TOS, but the best episodes are as good as anything TNG has to offer, both in terms of sci-fi story and in terms of character. And the TOS movies, at least the best ones, aren't that campy. I think if your intended convert is more into moves than TV, the TOS movies (not Abrams) could be a great place to start.


Well there you go folks! Start converting! Share your war stories with us in the comments!

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