Where no geek has gone before

"Star Trek" fans love to hate Ensign Wesley Crusher, but actor Wil Wheaton is a nerd hackers have come to respect.

Published December 12, 2001 8:30PM (EST)

Wil Wheaton will forever be associated with the television role he played more than a decade ago: Wesley Crusher, the whiny, wimpy teenage ensign on "Star Trek: The Next Generation."

As one might expect, the 29-year-old actor's enduring fame is more a curse than a blessing. A quick glance at the Web's "Star Trek" oeuvre reveals that the Crusher character is a geek's nightmare, one of the most hated science fiction characters ever to grace the small screen. Bilious commentaries slam Crusher for ruining episodes; other sites argue that he's one of the top three "really annoying things about Star Trek." Some incensed Trekkies have built pages describing their preferred ways to kill Crusher off. Not even the end of the show's run, in 1994, stemmed the tide of caustic malevolence.

And yet, while Wheaton did in fact play "one of the most hated icons on the Internet," as one Web site creator put it, Wheaton, in real life, isn't all that different from his detractors.

"I'm a geek," he says simply. "I spend a lot of time with my Web site."

Wheaton built the plainly designed site himself this summer. By fusing the acting experience of his mother's side of the family -- Wheaton's great-grandfather had a small role in "Citizen Kane" -- with the legal expertise of his father's side, he's turned it into not just a marketing tool but also a platform for geek advocacy. He uses the pages to praise everything from nerds to digital music and Ralph Nader.

Some Trekkies found the site on their own, but Wheaton's true geek coming-out party occurred last month when the tech news site Slashdot interviewed him. Then, on Nov. 26, he took his new role mainstream, raising money for the Electronic Frontier Foundation -- an online civil liberties nonprofit -- by appearing on "The Weakest Link."

Salon chatted with Wheaton about the state of online political issues, "Star Trek" and his sudden transformation from Geek Enemy Number 1 to vocal public advocate.

Why did you decide to raise money for the EFF?

I believe very, very strongly in what the Electronic Frontier Foundation does. I am particularly concerned right now with the political climate in this country. Everyone, or at least the vast majority of people, seems to be all too willing to give away the basic rights that separate America from so many other countries.

It really bothers me, for example, that the Justice Department wants to do warrantless searches, and it really bothers me that they want to be able to go to my ISP and monitor my e-mail and monitor my traffic in real time across a cable modem. Stuff like that really makes me angry.

These debates have been going on for a long time, but it seems like a lot of the things that are being crammed down our throats with the USA-Patriot Act are things that the FBI and the Justice Department and a lot of the corporate sponsors of government have wanted for the last year or so. And they're using everyone's fear of terrorism to ram laws down our throats that are so clearly unconstitutional, and so blatantly violate due process. They would never pass in any other political climate.

When did you first discover your passion for these kinds of issues, specifically the intersection of computers with civil liberties?

I used to play-test for Steve Jackson Games and when the Secret Service raided him during Operation Sun Devil, I learned about what the government was doing, and that's when I became aware of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Eric Corley, who publishes 2600 Magazine, is also a friend of mine. So I've been aware of this stuff since around 1990, and I've always thought that every time something new comes out, which decentralizes the ability to communicate, which gives people the opportunity to share information relatively freely -- going all the way back to the printing press -- people in power have freaked out about that. And in their attempt to guard that power, they've tried to get in the way of people's basic ability to communicate with each other.

You see it happening now. Fucked Company is being forced to turn over all kinds of logs, and that so clearly violates people's free speech rights.

Did anyone at "The Weakest Link" even know what EFF does? What's it like being a geek in Hollywood?

I'm a geek and a libertarian, so I'm really on my own. There aren't very many people who are aware of these kinds of issues. The vast majority of the people who I deal with in Hollywood are convinced that AOL is terrific.

Do they, unlike so many geeks, love the Motion Picture Association of America as well?

Well, it's interesting because as an actor, a lot of what the MPAA says they're going for would actually be useful for me. It would be great for me if there was a way to make sure that my stuff doesn't get pirated. When I sign a contract with a distributor, my payment is based on their receipts, so when someone is sharing those files in pirated form, I'm losing money. It would be great to stop that.

But the way the MPAA and RIAA [Recording Industry Association of America] have gotten behind the DMCA [Digital Millennium Copyright Act] is real cynical. It's not about protecting copyrights. If I go buy a CD or some other form of media and it's going to expire in three years, that's just asinine. Things like that really bother me. Sure, I'm on the board of directors at the Screen Actors' Guild and as a union, we're working really hard to protect our images, to protect our likenesses -- to protect our work. But there's a much better way to do it. And I think a big, big problem is that the vast majority of the public doesn't understand what the issues are, and I would say that nearly all of our elected representatives don't understand it either.

What do you make of the Second Circuit's decision to uphold the injunction against 2600 for distributing DeCSS, the code that decrypts DVDs?

I haven't read the decision yet so I only know what I've read at Slashdot but what I think is absolutely ridiculous is the way that the studios have portrayed the DeCSS code. It's completely false. It's for playing movies on Linux, but they won't admit it. And again, it's because these laws were written by people who don't understand the technology; they're written by people who are so deeply up the ass of corporate America that they can't stop to think for two seconds about civil liberties. I know that it's cynical, but I feel that civil liberties -- for a lot of these people in Congress -- are either an inconvenience or a campaign slogan. They care only about money and power.

I really hope that people realize that freedom of speech and expression, and the right to due process trumps Sony's desire to make an extra $100. But I don't know how much the people in the entertainment industry really understand what this is about. I'm very active with my union and work with the emerging technology committee at SAG, and the number of people who do not understand technology is frightening to me. It's not a stretch to say that teenagers understand technology better than the CEOs who are trying to put the teenagers in jail.

Let's talk about Star Trek. How does it feel to have played one of the most hated sci-fi characters ever created? Are you still taking heat for it?

I still get a little bit of flak, but since I've really made my presence known online, since people have gotten to know me instead of my character, a lot of that has cooled off. I get at least one e-mail a day saying, "I really hated Wesley Crusher, but I've sort of gotten to know you through your site, and you're sort of an OK guy."

That's great, because what used to really hurt when I was younger was that no one would draw that distinction between Wil Wheaton the person and Wesley Crusher the character. What a lot of people needed to do was stop and consider that I was 14 years old when that show started. I had zero input into what the character was going to do.

Why do you think everyone disliked Wesley so much?

There are two theories that I think are most accurate. One comes from someone who e-mailed me; he said that Wesley started out with all this promise, as being an insider's look at life on the Enterprise. He was a person who could be easily identified with -- young, smart and socially awkward but intellectually able to hold his own with all these adults around him. And this guy who sent the e-mail said to me that basically that was how a lot of the people who watched Star Trek were.

So the show starts out with Wesley walking out onto the bridge and he's got this amazed look on his face; it's like Wesley's living the dream. He's doing this thing that we all thought would be so cool. And then, two episodes later he turns into Superman. People felt betrayed. The writers had made this promise to the audience that Wesley would be complex, and they broke it.

The other theory that sounds accurate to me is that people really dislike it when something they don't like in themselves is shown on-screen. A lot of people may have had this weird Trekkie jealousy or anger at the fact that this kid was out being on the spaceship.

Other TV shows seem to have had more drama off-screen than on-screen. Did anything interesting happen when the cameras weren't rolling?

I was a young teenager when we did the show, so all my opinions have to be processed through that filter of 10 years of memories. But as far as I knew, everyone liked each other. All of the adults would go to concerts together, they would go to dinner at each other's houses. Everyone saw each other all the time.

We had people come and do guest-starring roles on "Next Generation," and there would be people who had worked on other shows, and they all said that they couldn't believe how much we liked each other. I always held onto that because I just took it for granted. I just assumed that everyone working on a series would be so happy to be there so they'd be cool. I've since learned that that's not the case. I've since learned that Hollywood is swimming in complete A-holes, but at the time, I just assumed that's the way it was.

Are you doing any work in the sci-fi Hollywood world?

I'm actually on my way to a meeting with some people at the Sci-Fi channel to talk about possibly hosting a show for them.

What do you think of "Voyager," "Deep Space 9" and the other Star Trek spinoffs?

Well, I'm doing a role on "Nemesis" and I'm really excited about it. But I did not like "Voyager." I could never get into it. I tried because I really like "Star Trek" a lot and I really like science fiction. But I could never really get into it. And the same thing with "Deep Space 9."

The kind of science fiction that I really like is truly galactic in scope: the whole "Foundation" series, all the "Ringworld" novels. And I also like stuff that's philosophically challenging like "Stranger in a Strange Land."

I'm asked all the time if I watch "Babylon 5," "Andromeda" and the other shows that are on, but I don't. It's not because I don't want to; it's just that I don't watch much TV anymore. I spend time with my family or read or work on my Web site.

By Damien Cave

Damien Cave is an associate editor at Rolling Stone and a contributing writer at Salon.

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