|Gee, golly, gosh, gloriosky! It’s Lieutenant Mary Sue!
Oh boy, here we go. Yes, my friends, the time has finally come.
“A Trekkie’s Tale” needs no introduction. A notoriously vicious bit of satire attacking a particular trend within Star Trek fanfiction, the story is infamous for introducing the world to the hated Mary Sue. It took no more than five brief paragraphs to completely tear Star Trek fandom asunder and, as a result, “A Trekkie’s Tale” has transcended fan circles to become ubiquitous in the larger pop consciousness such that it’s had a truly transformative, profound, and arguably profoundly negative, effect on the way we look at genre fiction even to this day. A case could be (and has been) made that the introduction of the Mary Sue archetype is one of the largest and most sweeping acts of reactionary silencing tactics in the history of genre fandom.
And yet “A Trekkie’s Tale” itself is misread and misunderstood by pretty much everyone.
First, some background for those perhaps less familiar with what this is than others. “A Trekkie’s Tale” is a piece of satirical fanfiction published in 1973 and featuring a character named Lieutenant Mary Sue who is the youngest, most beautiful and most talented officer in the entirety of Starfleet. On her first day on the Enterprise, Lieutenant Mary Sue outperforms everyone else on the ship, causes Kirk to instantly fall in love with her at first sight, outwits Spock with logic (that is never fully explained) and singlehandedly saves the ship, the crew and the Federation at least twice before tragically dying randomly at the end of the story to be mourned by everyone and essentially turned into a modern-day saint. Lieutenant Mary Sue, and “A Trekkie’s Tale” more generally, is fairly transparently an attack on a certain kind of Star Trek fanfiction, and is most often read as a parody of (usually female) writers who create author avatar characters as wish fulfillment, thus sidelining the original cast and narrative in the process. In the years since the initial publication of “A Trekkie’s Tale”, the term “Mary Sue” has become a stock character archetype and nowadays gets tossed around rather carelessly, most typically as a knee-jerk reaction from insecure male fans to the concept of “strong female character I don’t like and who makes me uncomfortable with my masculinity.”
What’s the most interesting thing about the Mary Sue archetype to me, however, is how uniquely Star Trek a concept it really is. Star Trek fandom has, in my opinion, a very peculiar fascination with an *extremely* specific sort of fantasy: It’s an almost omnipresent dream amongst Star Trek fans of all ages, generations and genders to be captain of their own starship, command their own crew and, essentially, to be the star of their own Star Trek spinoff. This goes totally contrary to the stereotypical conception of the obsessive fan, which would be someone fantasizing about the characters or the actors, either in a romantic or sexual way or just a desire to meet them in person. But that’s not what Lieutenant Mary Sue does (indeed, the fact Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the others are largely incidental to her story is the whole point of it) and it’s not what Star Trek fans seem to want either: Instead, they want their own personal slice of the Star Trek universe to themselves and they want it to revolve around them, or at least to explore it on their terms. It’s the entire point of things like the Star Trek Experience in Las Vegas or the video games Star Trek Starship Creator, Star Trek Bridge Commander and Star Trek Online.
So, despite how much the fans will talk up Star Trek’s commitment to strong character development, it seems that when the cards are down they’re ultimately going to default to projecting themselves onto the show. To me this is very interesting and unusual, if for no other reason than it doesn’t match up with my own personal history of Star Trek fandom at all. This was never a fantasy that ever would have crossed my mind for a moment: What I always liked about Star Trek was its sense of wonder and exploration, the familial atmosphere the crew shared with each other and the characters themselves. I admired Jadzia Dax and Tasha Yar, saw them as role models and wanted to be like them, so a lot of my experience with Star Trek consists of looking up to people like that and trying to learn from them to better myself, and to, in a sense, take a little bit of them into me. From my perspective, that’s as fundamentally, purely Star Trek as it gets, but it seems like my emotions aren’t shared by fandom at large in this case.
But the other thing that defines my experience with Star Trek is wanting to write my own version of it, and for that there is a precedent. Here’s where the other half of “A Trekkie’s Tale” comes into play and, for my money, it’s the more interesting half. So, if we’re going to get anything remotely near an understanding of what these five little paragraphs actually are and how they fit into the history of Star Trek (as opposed to merely the way people have responded and interpreted them), we need to establish some simulacrum of context. By this point in the mid-1970s, Star Trek fandom was largely clustered around a series of fan-published and distributed zines. In the 1960s, the fan culture around the show, despite how loyal and vocal it had been, was still largely a disperse mainstream phenomenon. By the 1970s with the Original Series in syndication and hardly anyone watching the Animated Series (or at least hardly anyone seemingly willing to write and talk about it), Star Trek fandom was now very definitively a niche thing, with the first proper Star Trek convention (that is, separate from larger science fiction conventions) taking place in 1972.
As such, the 1970s Star Trek fandom comprised mainly two different factions: Middle-aged women who had been general science fiction fans in the 1950s and 1960s and remembered when Star Trek first started and the scene people like Bjo Trimble belonged to (and that Gene Roddenberry overtly tried to court), and younger college-aged women who were just getting exposed to the show through syndicated reruns. Both groups were very much interested in writing their own Star Trek stories, and there was such a surplus of them the zines had trouble keeping track of them all. So a situation arose where fans would be inspired by zines and cons to write, thus necessitating the need for more zines and cons so the cycle continued to self-perpetuate in perpetuity for awhile.
Back then, there was a stronger link between science fiction fans and science fiction writers than we might think would be the case today, perhaps a holdover from the days of the Golden Age conventions where readers and writers commingled and the dividing line between was quite blurry. It was not an unheard of scenario even as late as 1973 for science fiction authors to get their start writing for zines, and the fan culture sort of acted as an unofficial pipeline to more professional gigs. The problem was, of course, there was nowhere to go if you were writing about Star Trek, because the famous live-action show had been off the air for half a decade and, once again, nobody cared about the animated reboot. So you’d frequently get a lot of writers contributing a lot of really excellent, professional grade Star Trek stories as fanfic to zines because there was nothing else to do with them. Because of this, the fans introduced a kind of loose structure of their own, with zine editors oftentimes acting as a kind of surrogate script editor. One of the most prolific and influential of these semipro writers and editors was Paula Smith who, as it so happens, wrote the story we’re talking about today.
Yes, shocking as it may seem, the person responsible for giving us the insecure femmephobic fan’s favourite trump card is, in fact, a woman. It’s at this point I’m probably expected to pull a Margaret Armen and take Smith to task for internalized misogyny issues, but I’m not going to because I actually don’t think that’s what’s going on here. Like all works of satire (including Gulliver’s Travels), “A Trekkie’s Tale” has been badly, badly misinterpreted by generations of clueless readers who don’t seem to get the joke. In fact, an even better point of comparison might be Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle: Intended as a condemnation of wage slavery of migrant workers in the United States, which is helpfully and blatantly compared with the literal enslavement of Africans by that same country, history has largely proven itself to be the domain of white male middle class authoritarians by comprehensively missing the point and using it as a call-to-arms against lax heath code regulations in the meat packing industry. I feel something similar happened to Paula Smith.
The key to figuring out what I think Smith is actually saying here is to keep in mind her status as a kind of D.C. Fontana for fan culture. She was responsible for vetting hundreds upon hundreds of Star Trek fanfics and giving an innumerable amount of writers tips on how to hone their craft (actually, it was from interviews with her that I gleaned the majority of the historical information I use in this post). Indeed, one of the most classic, foundational maxims of fanfic, Langsam’s Law, comes largely from her. It states that (in Smith’s words)
“There is a special caveat for writing media-based fiction. Don’t make an established character do or say something out of line with his established character, of if you must, give good, solid reasons why.”
which is frankly just good writing advice in general as far as I’m concerned. This touches on the other side of the 1970s zine culture, which was that because Star Trek was off the air, and regardless as to whether or not they knew about the Animated Series, the fans sort of saw themselves as penning if not the official continuation of it, at least one semi-proper, semi-authorized version of it. So it would kind of make sense that these people would take good care to make sure their stories could plausibly have been Star Trek episodes themselves had the show not been canceled.
And this is the nut of “A Trekkie’s Tale”, because what Smith is lampooning with Lieutenant Mary Sue is not women daring to write Star Trek fanfic, or introducing new female characters, or introducing female author avatar characters or even introducing new female characters who go on to be love interests for canon characters. What Smith is lampooning is bad writing in general. As many good editors often are, Smith was a prolific writer herself, penning countless fics (debatably literally so, since she used a different pseudonym practically every single time she wrote something, making her work a headache to track down today) for not just Star Trek, but also Starsky and Hutch, Harry and Johnny, The Professionals and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.. She had written enough and been around the scene enough to know what worked and what didn’t, and “A Trekkie’s Tale” is her way of compiling and caricaturing the most egregious and problematic trends she noticed in an attempt to show new writers “Here: This is what not to do”.
And if we divert our attention momentarily from Mary Sue herself, who is indeed admittedly a veritable perfect storm of painful amateur writing mistakes exaggerated beyond infinity, it becomes obvious she’s not the only thing we’re supposed to pay attention to. The fic’s dialog is stilted, repetitive and awkward, plot developments happen out of thin air, there’s no sense of internal coherence or consistency, a general feeling the whole thing was banged out in a terrible rush and even the tense keeps jumping back and forth between past, present and future. Even the title “A Trekkie’s Tale” itself is a dead giveaway, eschewing completely any and all pretenses that this is going to be anything remotely resembling a straightforward or recgonisable Star Trek story because, their obvious boundless energy and enthusiasm notwithstanding, this is something the writer has clearly put next to no effort into (not, it must be stressed, that this is entirely their fault, however: They’re clearly too young and/or inexperienced to know any better). As the saying goes, it takes talent and skill to craft something this memorably awful.
So, while Smith did hold up the Mary Sue archetype as something to be avoided, unlike successive people who have appropriated the concept, she recognised it for what it was: One type of mistake among many that beginning writers have a tendency to make but that can be expunged through experience, guidance and support. But as noble as Smith’s intentions with “A Trekkie’s Tale” might have been, and I do think they were noble, the question remains: Has the story actually done what it was supposed to do and had a net positive effect on fandom such that it’s help blossoming writers, fanfic or otherwise, to learn and develop their skills? Of that I’m not so sure, because the Mary Sue as it exists today is a terribly problematic concept loaded up with toxic connotations and, as is well known, a favourite silencing technique of the patriarchal hegemony. Decades of reactionary reappropriation have twisted and distorted the Mary Sue archetype into a misogynistic weapon.
It’s an altogether too common story to hear female writers, even professional ones, confess that they consciously avoid having too many female characters in their cast or writing their women too strong or too independent out of a very serious and legitimate fear they’ll be scorned and attacked for writing “Mary Sue stories” and will never be respected or recognised as proper writers (or even worse, have their careers completely destroyed outright) as a result. Anybody can write a character like Lieutenant Mary Sue, and such a character can be of any gender. But the “Mary Sue” archetype has become exclusively female and that’s a problem. That does retroactively harm the original work and make me wonder whether the actual satire was ever all that clear to begin with. Because of that, I’m uncertain that Smith’s original five paragraphs can now be taken apart from the tangible, material and very negative effect they had on female fans and writers, as riotously funny as those five paragraphs might be (and they are riotously funny: Phrases like “Gee, golly, gosh, gloriosky”, “Tralfamadorian Order of Good Guyhood” and “beautiful youth and youthful beauty” crack me up every single time).
But regardless of the quality of the actual story, let’s make sure we don’t damn the author as well. Good writers have bad days. We all do. The most important thing about Paula Smith is that she always kept trying no matter what: She wrote an incalculable number of stories, oftentimes just on a dare or as an attempt to do an experiment or proof-of-concept for just herself. Like anyone, she missed her target just as much, if not more, than she hit it. That’s only called being a writer, after all. Because she was involved in zines and conventions to the extent she was and ran so much (and kept so much running), I’d call her showrunner of her own underground version of Star Trek. Hell, given the staggering scope of her fanfic resume even beyond Trek, Smith should probably be seen as someone just as seasoned as the most experienced TV writers and producers of her day. So, even if she did strike out with “A Trekkie’s Tale”, it’s ultimately one minor bump on the very long and winding path of a career that spans literally decades and frankly puts most professional writers to shame.
Paula Smith never gave up, never stopped trying to challenge and better herself and never let anyone stop her from writing what she loved. And I think that’s the lesson she’d like her readers to take with them most of all.
|Paula Smith keeps the Enterprise running at warp speed.