According to the Internet Movie Database, Trekkies was released in 1997. It was a documentary about Star Trek fans, hosted by former Trek actress Denise Crosby, and was generally lauded for being funny, yet affectionate towards its subject matter.
Free Enterprise came out – again, according to IMDB – the following year. It upgraded its former Star Trek star to William Shatner, but was also touted as being a funny, affectionate look at Star Trek fans. Perhaps you’ll forgive me for confusing the two.
I didn’t watch either of them. I like Star Trek more than the average person, and when Next Generation was on, I wouldn’t have been able to argue too convincingly if you'd called me a Trekkie. Even went to a convention once to meet Michael Dorn. But I never went to another. Frankly, the hardcore Trek fans made me uncomfortable. Especially the ones who seemed unable to distinguish Dorn from Worf, the character he played on Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. You’d think that the makeup would be a clue.
Anyway, I sure didn’t feel the need to run out and watch a couple of movies about them.
A little while ago, I posted about the fan-created series Star Trek: The New Voyages and was contacted shortly afterwards about reviewing Free Enterprise, since a special edition DVD of it has just been released. While I’d never wanted to pay money to watch what I thought was a documentary about hardcore Star Trek fans, doing so for free was another matter, so I agreed. What I learned is that a couple of major assumptions I’d made about Free Enterprise were way off.
First of all, it’s not a documentary. It’s an honest-to-Spock feature film with actors and a story and everything. You’ve even seen some of the actors before, like Erick McCormack from Will & Grace, or maybe Jonathan Slavin from Andy Richter Controls the Universe.
Secondly, it’s not just about Star Trek fans. It’s about fan-culture in general. The main characters of Free Enterprise aren’t just fans of Captain Kirk. They also groove on Luke Skywalker, Logan’s Run, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, and Shazam's old Saturday-morning partner-in-crime, the mighty Isis. They’re non-partisan geeks. But more on that in a second.
Thinking that I was going to be watching a geek-filled documentary, I decided to spare my wife the experience and watch it when she wasn’t home. She ended up coming home about two-thirds through it though and I found myself embarrassed to explain what I was watching. Just not for the reason you might think. I was uncomfortable with what the movie said about me, but not in the way you might think.
The characters in Free Enterprise are geeks, but they’re geeks with lives. They're funny, they have friends, and they don't live with their folks. Mark (McCormack) is a successful writer with a nice place and plenty of money; his best friend Rob (played by Rafer Weigel) has more sex than Colin Farrell. Mark has relationship problems too, but the film mainly focuses on Rob who, in spite of his between-relationship promiscuity, really wants nothing more than to have a long-lasting, monogamous bond with a woman he loves. His problem is that his relationships always end at the same point, with his girlfriends’ complaining about how he spends all his rent and utilities money on movies, comics, and statues.
That’s where I got squirmy explaining the movie to my wife. I knew that in explaining Rob to her, she would see some of me in the description of a guy who's financial priorities aren't always where they need to be. But that is also exactly why the movie is more than just a harmless homage to geek obsession. Whatever your fixation, whether it’s comics, sci-fi, sports, or shoes, there’s a message in Free Enterprise for you.
William Shatner sums it up best in the movie when he explains to Mark and Rob that as great as Imagination is, true happiness can only be found in Reality. That’s the point of the film and the Shatner sub-plot supports it. When Mark and Rob first meet Shatner, they’re immediately star-struck, but after spending some time with him they come to appreciate the reality of his life: he’s all too human and he has the same kinds of problems that they have. But it’s in reality where all the risk is. And happiness doesn’t come without risk.
I called Shatner’s story a “sub-plot” and that’s something else that will come as a surprise to people who’ve never seen the movie. For all his top-billing and the talk in the DVD’s “Making of” featurette about his being the lead, the movie isn’t about William Shatner. That’s another misconception about the film that, unfortunately, the marketers didn’t correct. It’s unfortunate because focusing on Shatner in the marketing limits the potential audience for the movie’s message, which is so universal.
We all long to escape from reality from time to time. Some of us do it in the pages of a new Batman comic or Terry Brookes novel, some by watching Battlestar Galactica or Lost, and some folks do it by immersing themselves in politics or professional sports. Everyone has an obsession. Free Enterprise happens to talk mostly about science fiction, but that’s really a metaphor for them all as it warns us that escaping from reality is no longer escape when it becomes reality. Retreat is great, but it doesn’t compare at all to the joy of being rewarded for having risked something that matters.
Free Enterprise succeeds in getting all this across because it makes its point with such affectionate humor. Mark and Rob are genuinely funny. They certainly have flaws, and they're a little weird in a geeky way, but they're not the kind of people who freaked me out at the Star Trek convention. They're the kind of guys anyone would enjoy hanging out with. Even for just a couple of hours as you watch them in a movie.
Now that I've seen Free Enterprise and understand what it's really about, I'm suddenly very curious to also see Trekkies and find out if there's also more to it. I'm certainly excited to see Free Enterprise 2 when it comes out later this year.
(By the way, you can view clips from the movie here and this site has details on how you can win free copies of the DVD by helping spread the word about it.)