The Beginnings of the USS Inferno
The group was quickly dubbed Star Trek’s “first fans,” but it was only the start of what would become a worldwide fandom lasting well over fifty years.
That fandom stretches all the way to Pittsburgh as well, with the USS Inferno chapter of the STARFLEET: The International Star Trek Fan Association (SFI) being the Steel City’s base of operation for local Star Trek fans. The Inferno is a relatively new organization, having been commissioned by STARFLEET in 2004, and is an offshoot of various similar Star Trek clubs that existed in the 1990s.
Larry D. French Sr., who would later serve as Commanding Officer of the USS Inferno, was one of the driving forces behind the Inferno being certified by STARFLEET, the culmination of a personal journey that began decades earlier.
“I started out in something called DonTrek and progressed through an organization called Fleet Command International (FCI),” French explained in January 2013. “I served in FCI on another vessel, the USS Bozeman, during the late 1990s. After a while, I decided to give up the command of the Bozeman and leave FCI to rejoin SFI. The Commanding Officer of the Inferno at the time suggested that he’d like to bring the USS Inferno into SFI under the Existing Fan Club Program. In 2000, we started the process to get commissioned. In order to get commissioned in SFI, a chapter had to have a Commanding Officer, an Executive Officer, and a total of at least ten members. We started out at two members, so it became evident that he wanted me as the First Officer with him as CO. It took us four year to get enough members to get commissioned.”
Larry French has been a fan of Star Trek since the original television series premiered in 1966. “It became my primary entertainment while my mother worked late hours,” he says. “In high school, I started my own Star Trek Club with a few members, but it wasn’t until I was in the military that I got my first taste of organized fandom. I had been involved in a few Star Trek clubs over the years before joining SFI in 1991, leaving it for a while in 1995, and then rejoining in 2000. I have been a Commanding Officer or First Officer in SFI chapters almost the entire time I was in SFI. I enjoy the comradeship and social aspect of membership.”
Since its acceptance into the STARFLEET: The International Star Trek Fan Association in 2004, the USS Inferno has been involved in numerous activities and community service projects in the Pittsburgh area. In addition to attending both local and out-of-state conventions, for instance, the USS Inferno has participated in charity events organized by the Susan G. Komen Foundation for Breast Cancer, the Highmark Walk for a Healthy Community, Scouting for Food, Toys for Tots, the American Liver Foundation and the Adopt-A-Highway Program.
Although it took a few years for the Inferno to meet the membership requirements dictated by STARFLEET, a surge of new recruits followed shortly thereafter, with membership effectively doubling within that time period.
Another member of the USS Inferno, George Edwards, likewise became a Star Trek fan at an early age, watching the show during its syndication run during the 1970s. Like French, Edwards was also involved with other local organizations before joining the Inferno, which he describes as more than simply a collection of Star Trek fans.
“STARFLEET is the International Chapter that we are proud to be part of but it does not define who we are,” he explains. “We talk and cosplay many types of sci-fi. Sometimes I am Kuruk the Klingon, other times you may see me as a member of Stargate SG-1 and if I had the cash I would have a Stormtrooper outfit. The Inferno is simply a group of sci-fi fans that get together to see films, play games, go to cons, go camping, donate time to many different charities and have fun.”
Star Trek, of course, is one of those rare television shows that is more than a television or motion picture franchise. Fans have been passionate about Star Trek from the very beginning, and even engineered the first “Save Our Show” letter writing campaign when it appeared that NBC might cancel the series after only one season.
More significant is the influence that Star Trek has had on its fans as well as society. Numerous teenagers of both the 1960s and 1970s chose science as a career because of Star Trek, and the show’s futuristic technology in effect shaped contemporary technology, with floppy discs, cell phones and even Bluetooth earpieces inspired by Star Trek designs. Gene Roddenberry likewise created a future where mankind lived in unified peace, with Russian Pavel Chekov working on the same command bridge as the Iowa-born James T. Kirk, and Lieutenant Uhura demonstrating that neither race nor gender played a factor in the Star Trek Universe.
“I think Star Trek draws so many active fans because of the plausibility of an alternate or futuristic society that works,” Larry French offers as to why Star Trek has remained popular through the years. “It is just good science fiction that closely relates to science fact.” George Edwards has a similar viewpoint. “The writing, the idea behind the stories,” he explains. “The idea that humans can be more than what we are today. Not motivated by greed but motivated to just be better than we were the day before. I like other sci-fi but nothing competes with Trek. Star Wars is always pitted against Trek but Star Wars is the same story as Harry Potter, Superman and others—orphan boy saves the world. Trek is a story that shows us our downfalls and how we can be better all in the same story.”
2013 Commanding Officer Larry D. French Sr. and Executive Officer George Edwards share an equally optimistic view for the future of the USS Inferno. “We have built the USS Inferno from the ground up, starting with just two members to a holding pattern of ten members for a large number of years, but within the last two years, we have doubled our membership,” French says. “We hope that in the future, with each new leadership, they will find a way to grow it again to new heights. We don’t know what the future holds for our crew, but I hope that we will continue to expand our horizon and our membership with each passing year.”
Edwards is even more confident in his assessment of the future. “The Inferno will continue to grow and get bigger and better,” he flatly states. “Eventually I would like to see the Inferno have enough members to break into four different ships that would cover North, South, West and East Pittsburgh. I would like to see the Inferno join with the Browncoats, any and all of the Star Wars groups, the Pittsburgh Ghostbusters and any other sci-fi group in the Pittsburgh area in a united effort to either bring a sci-fi convention back to the area or pull all of our resources and put on a fan-run convention ourselves.”
Sounds a lot like the future that Gene Roddenberry first introduced to the 850 fans attending 1966 World Science Fiction Convention in Cleveland—a future that continues to inspire each new generation that has come of age ever since.