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Future Imperfect: Weird State of Star Trek Geekdom

by Corbie Hill

July 19, 2016

One of my earliest memories is of watching Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan with my dad.

I was very young—3 or 4 years old—and I loved it. Some of the scenes from the 1982 film terrified me, such as the maggot-like Ceti eel larva burrowing into poor Chekov's ear, and I was certainly too little for Khan's bloody death scene.

"That's ketchup," my dad told me, and his simplification of Hollywood makeup did the trick. I got it—this is just a story. It's an excellent story, one that speaks to me and stirs something in my young mind, but just a story.

That was 30 years ago, and I'm still watching. But why? Habit for the sake of habit, as Spock would no doubt point out, is both irrational and illogical. I've had decades to figure this out, and I've come to realize that I continue to watch Star Trek because I want to believe humanity can rise above the prejudice, greed and sheer meanness that perpetually threaten to consume our species. In series creator Gene Roddenberry's bright vision of the future, there is no money, humanity is united in a quest for its own betterment and racism and sexism are behind us, banished to our barbaric past. And the Enterprise, though well-armed, will only fire its weapons in defense.

If I identified so totally with this show, I realized, I needed to see the whole thing, meaning all 720-something episodes and 12 movies. Appropriately, it took me five years in total. I progressed sequentially through the shows—The Original Series (TOS), The Next Generation (TNG), Deep Space Nine (DS9), Voyager (VOY) and Enterprise (ENT). I tried to watchThe Animated Series—lord, did I try—but it felt like Space Ghost Coast to Coast minus the comedy.

After the shows, I watched the feature films, finishing just a few weeks ago. Thursday I'll be seeing Star Trek Beyond, the thirteenth movie in the franchise—which opens this week at theatres throughout Charlotte—and then in early 2017 will excitedly stream a new show helmed by people with trustworthy Trek accolades that debuts then.

On top of all that, this is Star Trek's 50th anniversary, a major milestone for the space opera franchise I have loved to the point of obsession nearly my entire life. Yet even with the anniversary, the new film and the upcoming series, I don't feel as excited as I should. I feel anxious. I feel shut out of the conversation, as if the studios footing the bill for these potentially worthy new stories have forgotten who their true target audience is—they're behaving as if they either don't know what we want or simply don't care.

From the outside, perhaps, the most offensive thing sounds fairly innocuous. It's common enough knowledge that Star Trek is a popular springboard for fan films and fan fiction—even William Shatner has playfully told my overactive subculture to "get a life ... It's just a TV show!"  But there's a rich and varied fan film community, spanning all eras of Trek.

In late June, CBS and Paramount Pictures released a set of fan film guidelines. Ostensibly, these were drafted to defend copyrighted characters, ships, logos and whatnot. I get it—I don't have to like capitalism, but I get that part. What makes me so queasy, though, is that the guidelines are specifically targeted at already existing fan films. These rules are unreasonably restrictive, nakedly and unapologetically punitive and, dare I say, petty.

Star Trek fan lit and fan films have existed for decades. Granted, there is some fan-made Star Dreck out there, but there is also legitimate greatness to be found in these unofficial tales. The idea is to create stories in this universe that believably expand on the official timeline: this isn't canon, the conceit goes, but it could be. These films are made by and for people who don't believe there's such a thing as enough Star Trek. Put plainly, these are the people the studios should hold close rather than push away. These are the people who keep the franchise alive during the lean years, such as the 11 years since the last televised Trek series ended.

There had been a tacit detente of sorts between CBS and Paramount and fan film makers—they weren't legal, per se, but these fan expressions were generally tolerated or ignored. That changed when Axanar happened—or, more realistically, when it didn't. In 2014, Prelude to Axanar, a 21-minute teaser, shot documentary-style, came out on YouTube. Created by artist and writer Christian Gossett (who, in another universe, designed Darth Maul's double-bladed lightsaber) and Alec Peters (who cast himself in the hero role), the writing was fantastic and faithful to the Trek spirit. The sheer gravity of the premise hinted at a complex and rewarding storyline that was, again, meant to expand upon canon, not compete with it.

Yet it was too ambitious, dangerously toeing the for-profit line. It had a respectable crowdfunded budget and a cast of beloved Trek guest stars like J.G. Hertzler, Gary Graham and Tony Todd as well as Battlestar Galactica alums such as Richard Hatch and Kate Vernon. In 2015, Paramount filed a lawsuit against the Axanar team, citing violation of intellectual property. Suddenly, Paramount and CBS were treating fan films as competition. The long honeymoon was over.

And then came one of the 21st century's nerdiest civil wars, the one between Trek fans who took Axanar's side and the ones who took the studio's side. As Trek turned 50, then, its fandom was split and embattled, each side seeking out and trolling the other on social media ("Get a life!" indeed). There's even a movement to boycott Beyond and the new series in protest.

In this climate, two things happened back-to-back: first, J.J. Abrams and Justin Lin, producer and director of Beyond, respectively, came out against the lawsuit. "This is not an appropriate way to deal with the fans," Abrams said. They were pressuring the studio to drop the suit, they said. Not long after, the fan film guidelines appeared on the official Star Trek site, souring the pro-Axanar camp's incipient celebrations.

To be clear, the fan film community had been asking for guidelines this whole time. They simply hadn't anticipated how harsh and unreasonably specific they would be: actors "currently or previously employed on an Star Trek series" could not be used, for instance. This, in particular, seemed aimed squarely at Axanar and the fan-made series Renegades, which has since dropped the Star Trek from its title. In another restrictive twist, fan films could now be no longer than 15 minutes and were limited to a single sequel, not to collectively top a half-hour total (There goes Horizon, a remarkably well-written and acted fan film in the ENT timeline.).

The franchise founder Gene Roddenberry on the original set

There's a budget cap, too, accompanied by a requirement that any props or uniforms have to be officially licensed and commercially available—a steep expense, as Star Trek's official uniforms and replicas are typically priced for the collectors' market.

What these guidelines blatantly ignore—and what Abrams and Lin were likely getting at—is that the people who make fan films don't want to destroy Trek, they simply want more Trek. It's reductive to think of this in terms of hard binaries—official Trek and fan-made Trek are not mutually exclusive. The latter is simply there to flesh out this fictional universe for those of us who are into this franchise up to our pointed ears.

There are more troubling developments, too. Details about the new show are still vague, but we do know that it will be exclusively available via second-tier streaming service CBS All Access (the IMDB page currently refers to it as Star Trek: All Access, which kind of stings). Releasing it there, rather than on a network or more prominent service like Netflix or Amazon, reads like an attempt to simultaneously gouge the fans and launch All Access. Adding insult to injury, it was announced Monday that the new show would stream on Netflix everywhere but the U.S. and Canada.

Granted, the first five series all ran on commercial stations.  Roddenberry himself knew he was working within the system, admitting that "television only exists to sell products," as quoted in exhaustive Star Trek oral history The Fifty-Year Mission: The First 25 Years. Yet these were all networks that were either widely broadcast or, in the case of late-season VGR or ENT's cable homes, already included in available package deals. The pay-to-view approach, where new show fans must pay directly for Star Trek, and only for Star Trek (as it is the first streaming-only series on All Access), seems like a slap in the face of Roddenberry's utopian ideals. This is the man who created a post-capitalist future, after all, where neither Kirk nor Picard even comprehended money, much less carried it.

Yet not all is lost. I have faith that the universe will unfold as it should. Despite my misgivings upon seeing the film's muscle-headed first trailer, I feel hopeful about Beyond. Lin and Abrams are as pissed as the rest of fandom about the Axanar lawsuit, while Simon Pegg, the newer films' Scotty and one of the writers of Beyond, recently published a bold entry on his site about the alternate universe the new films exist in. "It can mutate and subvert," he wrote. "It is a playground for the new and the progressive and I know in my heart, that Gene Roddenberry would be proud of us for keeping his ideals alive."

Thankfully, the new show has experienced navigators at the helm—executive producer Bryan Fuller was in the writing room for both DS9 and VGR; Nicholas Meyer, who directed the finest two original cast films, Star Trek II and VI, is on board; and Rod Roddenberry, the franchise creator's son, is a co-executive producer. In a recent interview, Fuller said the casting for the new show is both gender-blind and color-blind, continuing in the respectably forward-thinking tradition that put women and minorities in positions of authority on a network TV show in the 1960s.

Ultimately,  I think I can stomach a little anxiety if it means Roddenberry's vision is still alive. I won't boycott the new film or show—I'd potentially miss out on something fantastic. Still, after 50 years, it's frustrating that the studios, by all evidence, simply don't get their own fans. Maybe they're like the admirals from TNG, forever missing the point of the Federation or pushing the Enterprise crew into some ethical bind (did any of them even watch the show?). And maybe the writers and producers of the new films and series—official and fan-made—are the captains, fallible but trying to do the right thing regardless.

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Tags: Star Trek, science fiction, fan lit, film, Gene Rodenberry, J.J. Abrams, the Enterprise, Deep Space Nine, Paramount, CBS

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