Movies

Finally, a Sensitive Portrayal of Both Autistic Women and Star Trek Fans

Please Stand By boldly goes where too few films have gone before.

Dakota Fanning walks along a road with a small dog in her bag in Please Stand By.
Dakota Fanning in Please Stand By.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo courtesy Magnolia Pictures.

It’s a hell of a time to be a Star Trek fan. Whereas just a year ago the options for a follower of the long-running sci-fi franchise would have been limited to watching The Next Generation for the umpteenth time on Netflix, we’re now living in a Trekaissance. There’s a new episode of the bold, experimental Star Trek: Discovery on CBS All Access every week—or, if you prefer something a little more nostalgic, there’s The Orville, Seth MacFarlane’s comedic homage on Fox. And if Deadline is to be believed, J.J. Abrams will soon be bringing us an R-rated Star Trek movie from none other than Quentin Tarantino.

It makes a certain sense, then, that with that renewed interest in Star Trek comes a renewed interest in Trekkies, the franchise’s most devoted followers. Historically, these fans, also sometimes called Trekkers, have been depicted on screen as overzealous nerds—think The Big Bang Theory or William Shatner’s infamous Saturday Night Live sketch—whose devotion to the tiniest minutiae of the canon is the punchline to a joke they’re not in on. That, or they’re studied with a kind of anthropological fascination.

Director Ben Lewin takes a more affectionate, nuanced approach to Trekkies in his new indie road-trip comedy, Please Stand By. The film’s protagonist is Wendy Welcott (Dakota Fanning), a young autistic woman residing in an assisted living facility in San Francisco, where she greatly prefers her evenings watching The Original Series to her day job at Cinnabon or her therapy with the group home’s Trekkily named supervisor, Scottie (Toni Collette). Wendy is enjoying the franchise’s revival to the fullest, particularly after Paramount announces a fan fiction contest in honor of Star Trek’s 50th anniversary, which seems like the perfect opportunity for her to submit her 400-odd page screenplay—which, from what we gather, involves The Original Series Spock and Kirk, time travel, tribbles, and Deep Space Nine—and claim the $100,000 prize.

There’s a catch, though: Wendy misses the deadline to submit her script by mail, so she sets off on a journey of hundreds of miles to deliver it by hand to Paramount Pictures’ studios in Los Angeles, accompanied only by her quiver of a dog, Pete. On Wendy’s tail are not only Scottie and her son, Sam (River Alexander), but also Wendy’s sister, Audrey (played by Star Trek: Into Darkness’ Alice Eve, in a meta bit of casting). It’s Audrey, we learn, who placed Wendy in Scottie’s care after their mother died, a decision that was both painful and expensive.
That’s where the other motive for Wendy’s journey comes in: She thinks that by winning the contest and collecting the prize money, Audrey will finally see that Wendy is capable of being an aunt to her infant niece, Ruby, who she has never even been allowed to meet.

There’s a dearth of sensitive representations of autistic people on the big screen, and that goes double for representations of autistic women. Though I can’t recall a single character using the word autism in the film, Please Stand By takes its name from the phrase that Scottie and Wendy use as a calming exercise when Wendy is on the verge of a meltdown. It’s a relief to see Wendy played as more than simply a bundle of symptoms. While her color-coded sweaters, nervous knitting habit, and deep well of Trek knowledge might seem quirky—she is in an indie comedy, after all—she’s also a fully realized person who is determined to prove that she’s been underestimated, while also showing off a softer side, which we see in her interactions with kids and babies along her trip.

Please Stand By arrives on the heels of Black Mirror’s “USS Callister” episode, another examination of a Trek superfan. But where “USS Callister” showcases the worst of Star Trek fandom—the morose fanboy who casts himself as the hero when he’s really just another kind of bully—Please Stand By highlights the very best. The film is perhaps a little heavy-handed at times in pointing out the reasons Wendy identifies with Spock, another outsider who struggles to process emotion and to pick up on social cues. But it also shows a side of Trekkie-dom that we rarely see on screen, the instant connection that comes from meeting someone who shares the same passion. One of the best scenes in the film involves a police officer (Patton Oswalt) coaxing Wendy out of hiding by appealing to her in Klingon. “What language is that?” asks his partner, impressed, and it takes some cajoling before he’s willing to sheepishly admit the answer. But that police officer is also the first person to understand Wendy’s mission, whose response to her script isn’t condescension but genuine enthusiasm.

That’s not to say that you need to speak Klingon yourself to appreciate Please Stand By, which is as much about fandom in general and the lengths we go to for it as it is about Trek, specifically. The road-trip narrative hits a few potholes along the way as Michael Golamco’s screenplay keeps inventing new impediments to Wendy’s journey, and the scenes with Alice Eve veer toward schmaltz. All in all, though, it’s a pleasant journey to take with Fanning, and one that should be required viewing for anyone who has ever ridiculed the labor of love that is writing fan fiction. Wendy pours her soul into her screenplay, and it’s telling that when she hits her lowest point, she reaches not for the wisdom of James Kirk or Jean-Luc Picard, but for words of encouragement from her own script: “Captain, there is only one logical direction in which to go: forward.”

It may be Spock giving voice to those words, but it could just as easily be the Doctor, or Sherlock Holmes, or Hermione Granger. Please Stand By is a comedy, but even as it occasionally pokes fun at Trekkie stereotypes—as it does when a group of nerds place bets on Wendy’s ability to answer trivia questions—it takes even the silliest aspects of fandom, and the people who love it, very seriously.

One more thing

You depend on Slate for sharp, distinctive coverage of the latest developments in politics and culture. Now we need to ask for your support.

Our work is more urgent than ever and is reaching more readers—but online advertising revenues don’t fully cover our costs, and we don’t have print subscribers to help keep us afloat. So we need your help. If you think Slate’s work matters, become a Slate Plus member. You’ll get exclusive members-only content and a suite of great benefits—and you’ll help secure Slate’s future.

Join Slate Plus