I watched an interesting documentary the other night called Get a Life. Written and directed by William Shatner, the show took a look at the culture of Trekkies, those people who continue to venture out to Star Trek conventions nearly fifty years after the original show first aired in 1966.
It's funny that Shatner, who also wrote a book by the same name, got the title from a Saturday Night Live skit he did where he mocked the nerdy stereotype of the show's most ardent fans. I think for many years that was his view of those who came to see him at conventions. But that's not what the documentary ended up being about. It got much more interesting, especially for those of us who write about heroes.
The question Shatner wanted to ask was why? Why do people continue to LOVE a television show to the degree they do all these years later?
At first you're introduced to people arriving at a convention dressed in their Star Trek shirts, Vulcan ears, and Klingon forehead prosthetics. And perhaps you respond with a predictable groan as they parade past the camera waving their Spock salutes. But then the documentary goes a little deeper and you learn about the individuals, their situations at home, their reasons for coming, and how, for a few, their lives were altered in sometimes dramatic ways through their relationship with the show and its characters.
And then, once you get a feel for who these fans are, the whole documentary shifts into the framework of storytelling and the mythos of hero. When Shatner sits down to speak with Robert Walter, President of the Joseph Campbell Foundation (by the way, if you don't know who Joseph Campbell is, you really need to go read about the Hero's Journey now), they discuss how television, when it was new, became the "hearth" from which modern stories were told. But there is more going on than simple admiration for an entertaining story among these Trekkies.
In fact, Walters goes so far as to say that the people who raise their fandom to the level of participating in conventions are "buying into a narrative, a mythology, that helps them figure out how to relate to other human beings and their tribe." Also, that brand of "rabid fandom" doesn't occur unless the myth/hero being admired "speaks to the common human experience." In the case of Star Trek, it embodies the spirit of a society that doesn't exclude people based on race or gender, as we see experienced by a crew who care deeply about each other's welfare. All are welcome from whatever corner of the universe, and that is a powerful message that can continue to resonate into the future.
As a storyteller I found this very enlightening. I mean, people write about all sorts of characters and heroic situations, but most never reach that level of fanaticism or capture the imagination of multiple generations. And yet stories like Star Trek, Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, The Wizard of Oz, and, yes, even Twilight and The Hunger Games have all somehow hit that vein by touching on universal themes that people recognize and want to exalt.
Joseph Campbell once said, "The myths of tomorrow are in the psyches of the artists today."
So how can you ever know as a writer if you're tapping into something that universal with your story? Can you even seek it out? Or is it a matter of writing the best story you can and leaving the rest up to The Force?
And just for fun, what's your favorite Star Trek episode? Because I know you're a nerd like me.
Can't help it, I'm a fan of the Gorn episode. Such a metaphor for life, don't you think? Everything we need is there for us, if we can only figure out how to put it together. :)