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Friday, February 04, 2005

When Has Nostalgia Outlived Its Usefulness? 

(Just thinking out-loud here...)

I wasn't going to say anything about the cancellation of Star Trek: Enterprise mostly because, as a person who never really liked Star Trek in any of its incarnations I didn't feel like I had anything to say about it. Besides, there are plenty of otherwise reasonable people out there who can approach the cancellation of the show from a more useful context, being that they are fans of the show. But, for me, the continual attempts to keep Star Trek alive in some form has always had the whiff of nostalgia for the past. And you all know how big a fan of nostalgia I am.

Trek reached its peak a long, long time ago, and has basically been supported by an ever-decreasing number of fans. The kind of audience Enterprise was pulling in is probably a good indication of how many Star Trek fans there are left in this country. Was anyone watching the show who hadn't been a long-time fan? I seriously doubt it. And so the cancellation basically means that there aren't enough Trek fans left to keep the property viable, at least not in the commercial television sense.

Much of the publicity for the show strikes me as an attempt to engage that dwindling audience of Trek fans by reminding them how much they liked previous incarnations of the show, by bringing actors and villains from prior versions to this show. And all it seemed to do was remind fans how much more they liked those older shows than this current one.

By contrast, the other example of "your grand-father's child-hood", Star Wars, takes the opposite approach. Lucas almost seems eager to alienate as much of his intended audience as possible, and yet the next Star Wars movie is almost guaranteed to be a success. Does that mean that, at heart, there are more Star Wars than Star Trek fans out there? No, probably the numbers are about the same. But Lucas better understands that no matter what you do, your core audience isn't going to go away. They'll suck it up because it's still Star Wars and they feel compelled to watch it, if only to complain about it. So Lucas does whatever the hell he wants in the hopes of bringing people who aren't hard-core Star Wars fans to the theater. And it works, mostly. His films bring in a general audience, including children and teens who are too young to have experienced the original films the first time around, by giving that new audience what they want: lots of dodgy CGI, the barest minimum of plot or character, and lots of action sequences. The producers of Star Trek seem unwilling to go that route, the give the outside audience what they want route, preferring to cozy up to the hard-core fans and give them what they want, which is a comforting familiarity.

And to tie this, tangentially into comics, as I observed the other day, the recently cancelled Monolith outsells G.I. Joe at our store. Monolith had beautiful art and new characters. G.I. Joe has had decent enough art and picked up the story right where the previous comic-book and cartoon series left off. In fact, most of the revived properties that have been released in the last few years have picked up right where the prior incarnations left off. It's that comforting familiarity again. And each of those revivals sold really well. At first. They've all dwindled, rapidly in most cases, down to a point where most of the people buying the comics are the faithful. (Which is, perhaps, an unfair criticism of nostalgia could say the same thing about the comics industry in general, and probably should.) Dreamwave has already gone under, the number of Transformers fans being unable to support the number of titles they were putting out.

So, I don't really have a strong conclusion or a thesis here. As I said, just thinking out-loud. We seem to have reached a point in the culture, particularly in the fan/nerd culture where the appeal of nostalgia if falling to the realities of the commercial marketplace. It'll be interesting to see if a new cycle of nostalgia starts up again, with new properties, or if people actually start to look forward and try new things.


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