Where no Travel Writer has Gone Before
Travel Stories: In a five-part series, Rolf Potts joins Trekkies aboard a "Star Trek" theme cruise to Bermuda
11.16.09 | 10:21 AM ET
Im 30 minutes into my lecture in the cruise ship conference room when I realize the audience is beginning to sour on my travel presentation. I was doing fine when I was telling tales and sharing photos of faraway places—but when I switch to the topic of travel writing, folks in the crowd begin to tense up.
A man in the back raises his hand. “If you’re a travel journalist, does that mean you’ve come here to write about us?”
“Yes, as a matter of fact I’ll be writing about everything that happens on this cruise.”
A woman in the front row wrinkles her brow at me. “So that means you’re kind of like the Talosians from ‘The Menagerie,’” she says.
“Yes, the Talosians,” she says. She gazes at me for a beat. “You’ve come to observe our behavior like we were animals in a zoo.”
I give the woman a neutral look; I’m not sure what she’s talking about.
“Season one, episode 11,” the guy in the back offers. “Original series.”
“I guess I didn’t see that one,” I say finally.
Fifty or so people stare at me with a mixture of pity and disbelief: It’s as if I just told them I’ve never seen a sunrise.
I’ve been at sea with these folks since we embarked from New York a little more than 24 hours ago. Two days from now we’ll sail into port at Bermuda, but most of my travel companions are less focused on our earthly destination than on more far-flung corners of the universe—places like Vulcan, Romulus and the Klingon homeworld.
Indeed, this journey is not your average vacation—it’s “Cruise Trek,” an annual sea-pilgrimage for fans of the “Star Trek” TV and movie franchise. For the next week I’ll be sharing passage on the Norwegian Dawn cruise ship with over 100 gung-ho sci-fi fans. In addition to the standard cruise amenities (bingo, shuffleboard, all-you-can-eat restaurants), I’ll be participating in “Star Trek” trivia games, attending Q&A sessions with mid-level “Star Trek” celebrities, sitting in on science fiction writing classes, and witnessing a “Star Trek” theme wedding.
The twist to all this is that I’m not much of a “Star Trek” fan. I enjoyed J.J. Abrams’ 2009 “Trek” movie—and I’m familiar with the old TV series from years of cultural osmosis and syndicated reruns—but the show’s universe is largely uncharted territory for me. In a way, the “Star Trek” franchise is like a country I’ve visited a few times en route to other places: I can recognize the basic landscape, but I’m not familiar with the customs, nor do I speak the language.
All of which leads to a valid question, which the woman in the front row asks after a few moments of uneasy silence. “If you don’t know that much about the show,” she says, “why did you choose to spend a week at sea with a bunch of ‘Star Trek’ fans?”
I knew this question would come up eventually, but I have yet to prepare a concise answer. I want to confess that I’m fascinated by the idiosyncrasies of Trekkie culture in the same way some people are intrigued with Inuit or Maasai culture. I want to admit that I have a weakness for counterintuitive travel strategies, and this seemed like a wacky, entertaining way to enjoy my first-ever sea cruise.
Instead I say something about exploring imaginative landscapes in the context of physical landscapes. I talk about how the travel sensibilities of Trekkies can hold a mirror up to American ideals, just as the travel sensibilities of Herodotus held a mirror up to Greek ideals. I mention that, metaphorically, a cruise ship is kind of like a space ship.
All of which is true enough, I guess, but the woman in the front row isn’t buying it. “And I bet you want to poke fun at the weird people who bring Vulcan ears and Starfleet uniforms on their vacations.”
She says this in a playful tone, but in truth I very nearly wasn’t allowed to come on the cruise for fear that I would write the kind of glib, “Trekkies = über-dorks” story that has characterized four decades of mainstream reporting on the “Star Trek” phenomenon. Cruise Trek organizers interviewed me by phone two separate times before they would sell me a ticket—and my travel writing lecture this afternoon is as much a method of identifying me as an outside journalist as it is an educational seminar.
I’ve assured the Cruise Trek gatekeepers that I haven’t come to cherry-pick flamboyant Trekkie clichés for my story—but to be honest, exotic preconceptions are half the fun of travel. Take a trip to Ethiopia’s Omo Valley, and you’ll be disappointed if the Mursi tribeswomen turn up wearing sneakers and blue jeans instead of lip-plates and goatskins; journey into the jungles of Papua New Guinea, and you’ll want to take photos of the locals who wear penis-gourds, not the ones wearing soccer shorts. In the same way, I’m hoping this “Star Trek” cruise will yield a cornucopia of color and eccentricity—not just Vulcan ears and Starfleet uniforms, but Klingon-speakers and Cardassian-costumed cross-dressers. I’m hoping for “Trek”-themed folk-band sing-alongs and angry three-hour arguments about starship registration numbers. And, as much as anything, I’m dying to know what it’s like to experience a sea voyage to Bermuda when your travel companions would rather be making a space voyage to Romulus.
Of course, I don’t admit this to the “Trek” fans in the audience. Instead, I assure them of my sober journalistic objectivity, and proceed with my presentation about the ins and outs of travel writing. When I’ve finished, the woman from the front row comes up and introduces herself as Irene Nemster. Her husband, a soft-spoken fellow who stands behind her, is named Stuart.
“I didn’t mean to sound cynical during your talk,” she tells me. “I guess I’m afraid you’ve come here to stereotype all Trekkies as oddballs.”
“She and I definitely qualify as Trekkies,” Stuart says. “We’ve evolved to the point where we had to designate an entire room of our home just for ‘Star Trek’ collectibles.”
Irene furrows her brow at Stuart. “But we do have lives outside of ‘Star Trek’!” she says. “We’re parents, we’re musicians. We’re active in church and synagogue. We play tennis and go fishing.”
Stuart gives me a wry look. “She owns a book of Leonard Nimoy’s poetry.”
“OK, that’s true,” Irene admits. “And believe me, Mr. Spock cannot write. But at least it’s autographed!”
After several minutes of listening to Stuart and Irene detail their collection of “Trek” memorabilia (including a life-sized Klingon cutout that spooks unsuspecting houseguests in their basement), I ask Irene to clarify the story behind the Talosians.
“The Talosians are highly evolved observers,” she says. “They study emotions by keeping a menagerie of more primitive species, including humans. And they can control their captives’ behavior by altering their senses.”
“How do they do that?” I ask.
“Basically, they use telepathy to make people see things that don’t really exist. They use people’s own ideals and expectations to create seductive illusions that have no basis in reality.”
When I first hear this it sounds like a nifty little critique of consumer travel writing—but in coming days I will discover that it just as readily applies to the baffling idiosyncrasies of the leisure-cruise industry.