Episode 7: The Corbomite Maneuver – Cosplay at Star Trek, Las Vegas
I’m on a brightly lit stage hiding under a black curtain that hangs from the shoulders of the large puppet head I made for my costume. To the hundreds of Trekkies in the audience, my costume appears to be an imposing alien from the episode “The Corbomite Maneuver.” This is my version of the same frightening face that the crew of the Enterprise see on their view screen, but like the creature they come to know as Balok, I also have a surprise.
The MC of the costume contest matter-of-factly says, “So what we have here is a well-made Balok head…” I hear a smattering of laughter along with polite applause before I lean towards the mic and pompously declare in a deep voice mimicing the character, “Greetings, Earthlings. I am pleased to see that you are all seated in awe of me.” I pause for the laughter to settle before bellowing, “Is it safe to reveal my true self?” After I hear a few people yell, “Yes!” I come to life, tearing open the curtain and stepping out to reveal the other costume I’d been hiding; my interpretation of the actual Balok, who in a Star Trek variant on the Wizard from Oz, is revealed to be a bald, child-sized alien with bushy eyebrows and a penchant for a drink called Tranya.
My hair is stuffed under a sweaty, latex bald cap. The ridiculous red eyebrows glued to my forehead are made from a fake handlebar mustache that I cut in half and flipped upside down. Strapped tightly around my neck and hanging in front of me as if it were my own body is a headless 3-foot-tall doll, dressed in a silver, shiny costume I sewed. The rest of my body is clothed in black to hide my skin and enhance the effect of the doll/puppet, which has a small stick attached under his right hand, allowing me to raise and lower his glass of Tranya.
I change my voice into a higher nasally pitch as I enthusiastically squeal, “Yes! Balok is here! Thank you for waiting so patiently. I would like to raise a toast to you with a glass of… Traaanyaa!” As my gloved hand pushes up the stick raising the puppet’s glass, I look out over the cheering crowd and realize I have reached an artistic plateau, merging with an institution of culture that I’ve watched, pondered and discussed for my entire life. I have taken something loved by millions of fans and used it as inspiration, adding my own skills and ideas to create something new. I have gone from passive observer to active participant.
My eyes water as I look out in awe over the room, absorbing the overwhelming love and joy I feel from the crowd. For that one brief moment, I truly am Balok.
People always ask Trekkies what is it about Star Trek that makes it so special. Most offer the same response about the series creator, Gene Roddenberry, and his optimistic vision of an idealized future. Sure, that philosophical utopia is a vital characteristic which adds to its longevity, but for me it’s really about how these characters and situations are not only interesting, but also so easily relatable. As a kid I’d watch Star Trek filled with anxiety due the limitless potential of the unknown encounters they’d have as they explored “strange new worlds.” I knew it was fake, but imagined it as real, with my friends, Kirk, Spock and McCoy, forming a perfect balance of friends and co-workers. They were an imperfect family in outer space, sharing in the adventures and occasionally bickering along the way. As a kid, I didn’t give two hoots about the socialist dream it represented, but rather, every day after school I’d see these friends encounter something unknown and manage to emerge unscathed on the other side. It wasn’t simply an escapist TV show for me, it gave me hope that I could travel beyond the limits of the town I grew up in, encountering the unknown while being able to resiliently remain okay.
I stand on stage watching the other contestants including my girlfriend Julianne, who is dressed as the creature commonly called the “unicorn dog,” but technically known as the canine from Alfa 177 from the episode “The Enemy Within.” As we watch the proceedings in the bright stage lights, I take Julianne by the hand and she whispers, “Will you be disappointed if neither of us win?” I reply, “Babe, we already won. Look at us up here! Deciding the winners or losers is just a formality. Could you imagine that you’d meet another Trekkie and within a year end up holding hands on stage at Earth’s largest Trek convention?” She smiles and then I see an excited kid run up to the edge of the stage holding an iPad and waving towards me. I look down as he holds the pad up which shows an image of the 8-year-old Clint Howard as Balok and he enthusiastically says, “This is you!” I reply in my Balok voice, “Yes! Yes! That photo was taken of me many years ago!” The kid smiles with delight before he disappears back into the darkness of the crowd.
Being a Trekkie isn’t just saying that you like Star Trek, but if you’ve read the books, had discussions, collected the comics, learned Klingon, or watched the same episodes more than a few times then you qualify. Fans invest time and money into the passion and it’s never casual. For me, designing and building the costume fulfills only part of the experience. Similar to making art, I feel that it isn’t complete until it leaves my studio and has an audience. I love the idea of transforming myself into something or someone in such a way that I no longer recognize myself in the mirror. Once that occurs, I discover that I can “play the part” without being self-conscious.
In public, strange things occur since I never know what I will encounter. Of course non-nerds will stare in confusion. This is always fun at the convention in Vegas, where you can feel safe walking through the casino as an oddball since the tourists are looking for anything unusual and memorable. But the real joy of costuming comes from fan interaction. It’s always a pleasure to watch the happiness and delight that fans have when they see someone dressed as something they have invested so much energy into, something that has come to life that they didn’t expect, a costume that simultaneously challenges and reaffirms their own interests and passions.
An ideal non-nerd analogy would be how some people love a sports team, wear the team shirt and watch the games that cause emotional outbursts. With costuming, an ideal costume not only allows you to fit in as a fan, it also triggers feelings of happiness and love in other fans, which is then projected back onto you as the costume wearer. It’s a strange and unique experience to feel so much empathy and love from strangers.
Imagine making a jersey to wear which resembles the uniform of your favorite sports team. Now wear that jersey in public and have people treat you as if you’re a member of the actual team. If you want to feel like a rock star, dress in an unusual costume at the Star Trek convention. It will trigger more smiles and excitement than you’ve ever imagined.
One day at the convention while riding the elevator, a kid gets on with his parents. The elevator stops and a tall man dressed as a Klingon steps in. Everyone continues riding in silence. The Klingon leaves the elevator and I hear the kid struggling to contain his enthusiasm as he beams to his parents, “This place is paradise to me!”
My first trip to the Trek convention in Vegas was for my birthday four years ago, and although I hadn’t worn a costume to a convention before, I immediately concluded that I couldn’t attend without one. Because I had no sewing skills nor a machine, I was dependent on my girlfriend at the time to sew together most of my costume, which was a Vulcan Executioner from the classic episode “Amok Time.” I did however make my own Vulcan axe. During the two costume fitting sessions I paid special attention to how the costume developed, since I find it frustrating to depend on other people to make things for me. A few months later I bought an old sewing machine and taught myself to sew.
During that first con (or Khan, as it’s known to the Trekkies there) I didn’t make it into the finals of the costume contest, but I knew I had to return. I had obsessed over the details of the costume, which included regular visits to the gym so I would feel comfortable walking around shirtless, as well as loads of self-tanning solution, along with shaving off half of my eyebrows. Going to the Khan was unlike anything I’d ever known, and wearing the costume was a large part of that experience. It was my first time “being part of the tribe,” an apt description since participating in fandom provides an extended family, encompassing both good and bad aspects.
On stage, the MC is announcing the winners, “And for First Place with his Traaanya, it’s Balok by Jeff Gauntt!” I step forward to the edge of the stage, overwhelmed with emotion as everything slowly blurs from my tears. Julianne is jumping up and down, thrilled for me. Other contestants who are my friends run up and hug me as I stand overwhelmed. I shake my head in amazement and gaze out across the room as I whisper to myself, “This is unreal.”
The contest is over, but it takes time to exit the stage area since people line up asking for photos, a reporter for StarTrek.com conducts a brief interview, and I meet one of the judges, Doug Drexler. Doug is a hero of mine, having started his own Star Trek store in New York in the 1970s, which included a “museum” with recreations of props from the original series. He then taught himself makeup and special effects, working in Hollywood with legendary makeup artist Dick Smith, until he eventually arrived at Next Generation and contributed a fundamental part to the design and look of the show, as well as all of the later Trek series. Hearing his accolades for my costume is something I’ll never forget.
Julianne and I leave the stage exhausted, but I’m also exhilarated. We return to the room and I loosen the tight straps holding the Balok doll around my neck. I rip off the tight bald cap glued to my head and run my fingers through my sweaty hair before looking in the mirror to tear off the fake eyebrows. I stare at my reflection, finally recognizing myself even though I’m covered in fragments of latex, makeup and sweat. I turn on a hot shower and step in, letting the steaming water pour over me as I lean against the shower wall and begin to cry. I’m overwhelmed by the emotions of the day but I’m finally letting myself relax as I realize that I’ve just participated in an experience that few people will ever know. Julianne comes into the bathroom, asking if I’m okay and holds my hand as I continue to sob.