Star Trek, Star Wars & Beyond: How Geek Culture Became Pop Culture



Star Trek, Star Wars & Beyond: How Geek Culture Became Pop Culture

VOICE OVER: Rebecca Brayton WRITTEN BY: Nick Spake
Once niche and ridiculed, geek culture has exploded into the mainstream - and the rise of sci-fi is a prime example! Join us for the first episode of our new series "How Geek Culture Became Pop Culture", where we look at how science fiction evolved from pulp fiction and film serials to "Star Trek", "Star Wars", and beyond. Beginning our story in the 1920s, we look at the history of the genre in modern times, and how it's become ubiquitous in mainstream culture.
Today, sci-fi is … everywhere you look! Space opera, artificial intelligence, time travel ... it’s all just part of mainstream culture. But it wasn’t so long ago that an obsession with tech and far-flung worlds came with ... certain hazards …

Welcome to WatchMojo’s series How Geek Culture Became Pop Culture and today we’re exploring the evolution of science fiction!

Once niche and ridiculed, geek culture has exploded into the mainstream - and the rise of sci-fi is a prime example. How exactly did sci-fi go from being a genre of limited appeal to inspiring today’s biggest blockbuster franchises? Let’s step into our time machine and find out.

Modern science-fiction has its roots in the works of celebrated writers like Mary Shelley, Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. But it was actually the now-relatively-obscure pulp magazines of the 1920s that shaped the genre and fandom as we know them today.

One of the most influential was Hugo Gernsback’s “Amazing Stories”- the first magazine dedicated exclusively to sci-fi. Debuting in 1926, it inspired and eventually featured the tales of the genre’s “Big Three”: Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. Crucially, the magazine also printed the addresses of readers in a letter column, allowing them to mail each other directly. Soon, sci-fi enthusiasts were sharing their passions in unofficial publications that came to be known … as “fanzines”! Thus, pulp magazines actually gave birth to fandom!

However, the pulps weren’t exactly seen as high art. Even the word “pulp” derived from inexpensive wood pulp papers, whereas more prestige magazines were printed on glossies and slicks. So, they were niche from the get-go. Nevertheless, sci-fi continued to mature, through seminal dystopian works, and a renewed emphasis on scientific research.

As the genre gained momentum, its reach was broadened through films and film serials. And in the 50s, this “golden age” culminated in a string of relatively high-production films now considered classics.

By the 60s however, small publishers had been pushed out of the market and the golden age of science fiction was over.; a new generation of more experimental writers began picking up the torch. Ultimately though, it was a little TV show called “Star Trek” that took the genre where no fan had gone before...

Originally hitting the airwaves in 1966, “Star Trek” was the brainchild of Gene Roddenberry, who drew inspiration from Westerns and “Gulliver’s Travels”. The series quickly accumulated a cult following known as Trekkies and Trekkers. Alas, the show’s fanbase was niche and following a ratings nosedive in Season 2, rumors spread that NBC was ready to pull the plug. To save the show, a fan named Bjo Trimble helmed a then-unheard-of letter-writing campaign. NBC renewed “Star Trek” for another season, but its new Friday time slot at 10pm meant the writing was on the wall. Although the starship USS Enterprise crew signed up for a five-year mission, the series only lasted three seasons. Regardless, Trimble and her fellow Trekkies proved that a small yet devoted fanbase could make a difference.

The show’s impact and legacy extended far beyond the “Original Series.” Three years after its cancellation, fans gathered at the Statler Hilton for “Star Trek Lives!,” the franchise’s first major convention. Although fan conventions had been popping up since as far back as the 1930s, they only really gained traction in the ‘60s and ‘70s. They represented the next step in fandom, bringing people together to express their mutual passions in person.

Nonetheless, these fans remained part of a select group, while outsiders continued to poke fun, particularly at cosplay elements. Dedicated fans were still seen as the butt of the joke; it would take a universal hit to change the general public’s perception.

Fortunately, sci-fi was going to bold new places on the big screen as well. By 1968, critics started seeing the genre in a new light thanks to “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Planet of the Apes.” Even so, nothing could’ve prepared Hollywood for the cultural phenomenon to come …

If “Jaws” invented the summer blockbuster, then “Star Wars” proved it was here to stay in 1977. George Lucas’ epic space opera borrowed heavily from pulp fiction and film serials. At the time, space opera remained a very niche subgenre. That all changed when “Star Wars” broke box office records, much to the surprise of Lucas and 20th Century Fox. Even more surprising was: it wasn’t just geeks who made “Star Wars” a hit. Its popularity leaked over to mainstream audiences and even the Oscars, scoring seven wins and a nomination for Best Picture. “Star Wars” was a turning point that demonstrated just how big sci-fi and fandom could be - with hordes of fans showing up for the sequels.

This popularity led to the revival of “Star Trek” on the silver screen. From 1979 on, the Enterprise crew continued their voyages in cinemas, a torch passed on in 1994 to “The Next Generation”. This newfound interest in sci-fi also led to cult classics like “Blade Runner,” lighthearted adventures like “Back to the Future,” and special effects extravaganzas like “Jurassic Park.” Meanwhile, “The Matrix,” which owes a lot to the 1984 cyberpunk novel “Neuromancer,” was integral in making the genre cool. Suddenly, computers and philosophy could be sexy.

The same year “The Matrix” came out, audiences returned to a galaxy far, far way in “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace.” The hype for this prequel was unprecedented, but the saga was forever changed thanks to Jar Jar and Midi-chlorians. “Star Wars” became increasingly divisive going into the 2000s. Fortunately, a new hope was emerging on the small screen.

Television shifted to high-quality scripted television in the new millennium. “Lost” was a notable game-changer with its ambitious premise and overarching mystery, bridging the gap between mainstream TV and cult TV. One of its creators, J. J. Abrams, was tasked with rebooting the “Star Trek” film series. The result was the franchise’s highest-grossing entry to date. Nostalgia was clearly big business, influencing other studios to greenlight more reboots, remakes, sequels, prequels and spin-offs in the 2010s. For many, no franchise was more nostalgic than “Star Wars,” leading to Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm for $4.05 billion in 2012.

Abrams subsequently jumped ship from “Star Trek” to direct Disney’s first “Star Wars” film, “The Force Awakens.” The first entry in the “Star Wars” Sequel Trilogy was a critical hit and the biggest domestic box office success ever. The response to “The Last Jedi” and “Rise of Skywalker” was all over the map, however, with some praising them and others saying, “bring back the prequels!” Wherever you stand on Disney’s handling of “Star Wars,” fans seem to agree on one thing: “The Mandalorian” is so worth the Disney+ subscription.

Disney+ is just one of the several platforms currently engaged in the Streaming Wars. The entertainment industry was never the same after Netflix revolutionized the streaming business in 2007. Netflix went on to produce numerous original programs, including “Stranger Things,” the ultimate homage to sci-fi, fantasy and nostalgia. In a way, “Stranger Things” has brought things full circle. The geeks who grew up dressing up as “Ghostbusters” are now the ones producing a majority of the content. What was once described as “niche” is the new norm.

Through “Star Trek,” “Star Wars,” “Stranger Things,” and others, sci-fi fans have earned their place at the cool kid’s table!

Make sure to tune in for our next episode of How Geek Culture Became Pop Culture, where we’ll be talking fantasy - from hobbits to Harry Potter!