Even Star Trek captain William Shatner has poked fun at Star Trek conventions, those assemblies of eager fans that take place in dozens of cities around the world each year. But his famous Saturday Night Live Trekkie-mocking sketch aside (see below), Shatner would also be among the first to credit the audience of the Trek universe with ensuring that there is a Trek universe.
As Trekkies gather this weekend at Star Trek: Mission New York to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Gene Roddenberry-created sci-fi TV classic, we offer up a few facts you might not have known about Trek conventions, and how vital they’ve been to the series’ ability to live long and prosper.
1. The first official Star Trek convention was held Jan. 21-23, 1972, at the Statler Hilton hotel (now named Hotel Pennsylvania) in New York City. The gathering was started by a group of Trek fans who pooled their money and rented the hotel’s ballroom, expecting just a few hundred fellow Trekkies, as they would later be called, to come and share their Trek love. Instead, roughly 3,500 people showed up to see guests like the series’ creator, Gene Roddenberry, author and professor Isaac Asimov, and original series writer D.C. Fontana. In the wonderfully fun, now out of print 1975 book Star Trek Lives! by Sondra Marshak, Jacqueline Lichtenberg, and Joan Winston (used copies are available at Amazon.com, Half.com, and other used book stores), Winston — one of the original organizers of the first convention — devotes a whole chapter to the event, which included a costume contest, screenings of Trek episodes and a blooper reel, and, thanks to a surprisingly generous loan, more than 4,000 pounds of space-related exhibits directly from NASA.
2. It was during the 1972 convention in New York that most fans first learned what the “T” in James T. Kirk stood for: Fontana revealed that his middle name was Tiberius. In Star Trek Lives!, Joan Winston wrote that most fans at the convention thought the “T” stood for “Tomcat,” because of Kirk’s many romances.
3. Winston, who was on the set for what turned out to be the filming of the original series’ final episode, went on to help organize the first five conventions. She wrote Star Trek fiction, edited a ’zine devoted to Star Trek: The Next Generation character William T. Riker (played by Jonathan Frakes), and became a celebrity herself among Trekkies. When she died of Alzheimer’s disease in 2008, the New York Times ran an obituary, declaring her a “superfan” in its headline.
4. By 1974, the third Star Trek convention in New York drew 15,000 fans, according to The Fifty-Year Mission: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Trek: The First 25 Years, a must-read by Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman that came out this year. Six thousand more had to be turned away, and the conventions became such well-attended events that they began to spring up in other cities, like Los Angeles. The Equicon Trek gathering in L.A. in 1973 was co-organized by another fan heroine, Bjo (Betty Jo) Trimble, who shepherded the fan-letter-writing campaign that prompted NBC to green-light a third season of the original series, ensuring that there would be enough episodes to send Star Trek into syndication, where it cemented its status as a cult favorite.
5. In his 2016 book Leonard: My Fifty-Year Friendship with a Remarkable Man, William Shatner credits the early fan conventions, which came after the original series’ 1969 cancellation, with keeping “the franchise alive and [leading] to the movies and the various TV series.”
6. Not that he was always that supportive of the fan gatherings. In a 1986 episode of Saturday Night Live, Shatner, as host, played himself in the sketch “Trekkies.” Facing a crowd of diehard fans, whose questions got a little too obsessive and specific for him, Shatner becomes frustrated and tells the Trekkies they need to “get a life,” move out of their parents’ basements, and realize Trek is only a TV show. After a scuffle with the convention host, Shatner returns to the podium and tells the relieved fans he was just paying homage to the “evil Kirk” from the episode “The Enemy Within.” But after years of being lukewarm, at best, about the conventions, the Emmy winner redeemed himself with his 1999 book Get a Life!, in which he took his convention appearances more seriously, interviewing his cast mates, convention organizers, and fans, and developing an appreciation for them as he finally began to understand their devotion to the Star Trek universe.
7. The first official Star Trek convention Shatner attended: the fourth one, in 1975, at the Americana Hotel in New York. “Did I mention that the first — and last! — notes of the musical scale are do?” Shatner wrote in his 2008 memoir Up Till Now: The Autobiography. “The money they offered me to attend this convention was… Do I dare? Yes, I do! Out of this world!”
8. The first unofficial Star Trek convention, known as “Star Trek Con,” which some fans insist was less convention and more just a simple gathering, took place in New Jersey on March 1, 1969, before the original series was canceled. Nearly 300 people gathered at the Newark Public Library, where, for a $0 admission fee, they viewed slides from the series set, sang folk songs — “filk” music — inspired by the show, heard a lecture about the science of Trek, and, of course, held discussions about why they loved Star Trek so much.
9. Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine producer Ronald D. Moore (also the executive producer on Outlander and Battlestar Galactica) on the influence of Trek fan conventions, from The Fifty-Year Mission: “In the pre-Internet era, and being from a little town in central California, I didn’t have access to any of the stuff that was going on with Star Trek, so I had no idea what was happening out there in fandom. My knowledge of Trek in the ’70s was fairly limited to Starlog magazine. … That’s where I realized there were Star Trek conventions. … It was just this TV show that I loved, that I didn’t even know anyone else liked but me. Then I read there were these conventions and these people out there who did love the show, and that the actors went.”
10. There’s no Star Trek convention in space (yet), but there is one on water. Star Trek: The Cruise, the first official fan cruise event for the series, leaves from Miami in January 2017, and will sail for six days and six nights to Cozumel, Mexico, and Nassau in the Bahamas, with William Shatner, Jonathan Frakes, Robert Picardo, Marina Sirtis, and John de Lancie among the cast members on board. The bad news: It’s already sold out. The good news: You can join a waiting list, or start planning for 2018’s Trek cruise, hosted by George Takei.
Star Trek: Mission New York runs Sept. 2-4 at the Javits Center in New York City.