Myth, Ritual, and People Who Love Star Trek
by Curtis Webster — Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
September 06, 2010 – 00:00
What is it about Star Trek? Why are Trek fans so obsessive about the universe that Roddenberry built?
The popular media would have you believe that Trek fans are a cultural fringe group.On a slow news day, send a camera crew out to the nearest convention and get some shots of these nut-cases strolling around in their funny costumes.
Even a cursory review of the history and anthropology of human rituals, however, should caution us against such a dismissive attitude toward fandom behavior. By immersing themselves so thoroughly in Star Trek, fans are doing what their ancestors have done for countless millennia: They are participating in a mythological narrative that has profound meaning for them
The work of Carl Jung and others has demonstrated the importance of the archetypal content of mythological narrative for the human psyche. Narrative motifs such as the Reluctant Hero and the Trickster recur in myths and legends in a myriad of different cultures.
Humans have never been content simply to tell their great mythological narratives. We have also been persistent in our pursuit of rituals which help make our narratives present realities in our lives. For Jews, the celebration of Passover is not simply the commemoration of a seminal event in the history of their faith. The holiday of Passover is designed to place celebrants symbolically into the Exodus narrative. Similarly for Christians, the Lord’s Supper places them at the table with Jesus the night before the crucifixion. We don’t just remember the event; we become part of the story.
In the clip which accompanies this paper, we see images of Star Trek fans observing rituals that give them roles in the Star Trek narrative. They don Starfleet uniforms, make themselves up to resemble Klingons, and speak in Star Trek jargon. One group of Bajorans goes so far as to honor the religious faith of Bajor, paying homage to Benjamin Sisko as the Emissary of the Prophets. I believe that there is something more significant going on with these fans than playing dress-up for the weekend. They are entering the mythological universe of Star Trek. This is not to say that fan rituals are somehow equivalent in all respects with established religious rituals, but it is to say that the ages-old impulse to create ritual is very much in evidence with Star Trek fans.
Star Trek has emerged as a narrative with a mythological significance for our culture. Gene Roddenberry foresaw the joys and the challenges of cultural diversity, and provided us with a mythic narrative to help navigate the exhilarating and confusing waters of life in the most diverse civilization in human history. Great mythic narratives inevitably spawn rituals. The rituals of Trek fandom are manifestations of a universal human phenomenon. They are evidence not of the mental instability of Trek fans, but of the enormous mythic power of Star Trek and its enduring value as an epic narrative for our time and our circumstances.