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Fifty years on, Star Trek fan clubs bear the brunt of modern technology

William Shatner, left, DeForest Kelley, center, and Leonard Nimoy pose on the set of the television series ‘Star Trek’. The series has clocked up an incredible 725 episodes.The rise of the internet has been a double-edged sword for Star Trek clubs like Austrek, helping win over a new generation of fans but reducing their need to join a fan club in order to stay in touch with the adventures of Star Fleet.
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As we mark 50 years since the USS Enterprise’s maiden voyage, Melbourne-based Austrek is also celebrating its 40th anniversary, making it the world’s second oldest Star Trek fan club. In that time interest in science fiction has boomed, losing much of its social stigma, yet fan club membership numbers have dwindled.

Austrek was born in a world where Star Trek fans could only watch the show when it screened on live broadcast television — an age before home video recorders, pay television, DVD box sets, catch up TV and subscription video services. This isolation drove Star Trek fans to seek each other out, says Austrek co-founder Geoff Allshorn.

When Star Trek wasn’t on the air you simply didn’t hear about it, says Allshorn — who formed Austrek in 1976 with fellow high school students after the arrival of colour television brought Star Trek re-runs to Australian screens.

“Fans were driven to make contact with each other to find out news about Star Trek, especially when they started making the movies in the late seventies,” Allshorn says.

“There was this whole fan network of letter writers passing news back and forth because, unless there was a tiny article in the TV guide, you just didn’t hear anything.”

The Australian representative of the international Star Trek Welcommittee, Diane Marchant, helped kickstart Austrek with the donation of 100 stamps so Allshorn could mail out the first newsletter via Australia Post — a far cry from the free yet powerful social media channels available today.

Austrek has experienced peaks and troughs in its membership numbers as each new series of Star Trek has attracted new generations of fans, while older fans have dropped away. Rather than Klingons and Romulans, today Austrek’s greatest foes today are Facebook and Netflix which ensure everything Star Trek is always at your fingertips.

Before the rise of the world wide web, the primary reason for joining a fan club was to receive the newsletter, while the social side of gathering with like-minded fans was a bonus, says Austrek club historian Darren Maxwell. These days Facebook plays the role of both newsletter and social club – Austrek has around 140 paid-up members, with roughly 40 people attending monthly meetings, while its Facebook page has more than 500 followers.

Social media isn’t solely to blame for the club’s struggles to attract new young members. While it’s become more socially acceptable to be a science fiction fan and even dress up at conventions, Maxwell says there’s still a stigma attached to joining a fan club.

Maxwell joined the club in 1984, after seeing Wrath of Khan at the cinemas as a teenager, and at that point most people in the club were in their 20s and 30s.

“Today those people are all in their 50s and 60s and the younger generation hasn’t come through as strongly,” he says. “There’s still a psychological line which means that, even while the Star Trek franchise might be gigantic, clubs like Austrek can struggle to grow.”

“The passion of Star Trek fans has kept the show alive for 50 years, and we want clubs like Austrek to live on, so we really want to encourage people to get away from the keyboard and meet up with other fans face to face.”

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