Live Active Cultures 

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I’ve never truly been a Trekkie. Sure, I’ve seen an episode or two (hundred) of Star Trek, but growing up I found the 1960s-era reruns boring compared to Star Wars. At my first convention, I got booed by the crowd for asking a shitty “Shatner on SNL”-esque question of the late James “Scotty” Doohan (he graciously let me apologize with a six-pack of Guinness). I’ve flown cross-country to meet Buffy cast members and stood in line for Chewbacca’s autograph, but never bothered for a member of Starfleet. The sole exception to my Roddenberry ennui: 20 winters ago I traveled to New York City with a 100-degree fever just to see Patrick Stewart play Scrooge on Broadway, and I’ve been waiting ever since for the opportunity to see him in person again.

Judging by the thousand or so fans at last weekend’s Vulcan Events Away Mission: Orlando convention, I’m not alone. The upscale Hilton at Lake Buena Vista was invaded by Andorians, crawling with Klingons, and awash in expendable redshirts. Attendees paid $70 and up for a weekend pass to see guest of honor Stewart – aka Trek’s Capt. Jean-Luc Picard/X-Men’s Professor X/Dune’s Gurney Halleck/Mr. MacBeth.

Behind-the-scenes DVD features and TMZ-style tabloids may have stripped away the mystery and glamour of moviemaking, but fan conventions remain a refreshingly unfiltered forum at which to hear dirt direct from the stars’ mouths. I’ve covered countless celebrity Q&A’s, but Saturday’s session with actor David Warner (Chancellor Gorkon in Star Trek VI and Gul Madred on Next Generation) was among the most disarmingly unguarded I’ve attended. Warner, who also starred as Dillinger in Tron and Jack the Ripper in Time After Time, was uproariously upfront about not remembering much about many of his cult movies; when asked for memories of horror movies he’s made, Warner admitted he’s never even seen Waxwork, and recalled that The Omen was so “preposterous” that Gregory Peck said “we all deserve Oscars” for getting audiences to buy the silly story. Asked if he regretted turning down any roles, Warner quipped, “I haven’t turned down much, if you’re familiar with my lesser works,” then favored fans with his favorite line as the Evil Genius in Time Bandits: “Nipples for men!”

Though the festivities focused on Trek, there was fodder for non-Federation fans too. Co-headliner Jewel Staite (Firefly, Stargate: Atlantis, Wonderfalls) shared humiliating tales of practical jokes played by Serenity co-star Nathan Fillion and of being too starstruck to speak when meeting Lost’s Matthew Fox, but was clearly embarrassed when questioned about her mid-’90s Nickelodeon series Space Cases (“It’s like having your baby pictures on YouTube”). Staite elicited groans by shooting down a Serenity sequel – though she did toss fans a “never say never” bone – but Joss Whedon devotees could drown their sorrows later at the Dr. Horrible Sing-Along Picture Show, a Rocky Horror-style “shadowcast” of the Neil Patrick Harris Internet musical presented by Tampa’s Crazy Random Happenstance cast.

For a nightcap, Skill Focus: Burlesque, Orlando’s original “nerdy girl” striptease squad, showed off with Damn It, Jim! It’s Trek Burlesque! Last time I saw this troupe, led by local actress-designer Lora “Dorothy” Massey, they were playing sci-fi heroines in a dingy dive bar; this time, they had a standing-room-only ballroom of velour-shirted cadets clamoring to hand over dollar bills as an ersatz Kirk, Spock, Seven of Nine and a “fully functional” Data undressed. Looks like these ladies have found their target demographic; I’m looking forward to their upcoming Batman villains production.

In the end, I finally got my “Encounter at Farpoint” and thanked Sir Pat for that Christmas Carol long past (scoop: He may reprise the play “one last time” in 2012!), but it was at arm’s length over a microphone. Convention admission got you in the building, but an up-close autograph ($75), photo ($100) or cocktail ($200) with Capt. Chrome Dome cost extra.

Ultimately, these conventions aren’t really about the stars, but the fans, and the community they form. By midnight, a boisterous crowd bearing a Crayola box of various skin colors had gathered around the lobby bar piano, drunkenly singing along to Beatles songs, their battles with the Borg apparently behind them. Even in an ailing economy, as long as there is still latex and liquor in the universe, cons like this look to live long and prosper.


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