If the internet is known for one thing, it’s porn.
Wait, that came out wrong. Let’s start over:
If the internet is known for anything (besides porn), it’s shopping.
For fuck’s sake! Let’s do this right this time, OK?
If the internet is known for anything (besides porn and shopping), it’s for giving people a way to share their love for (or hatred for) just about anything (including, ironically, shopping and porn). Fanfiction, message boards (hey, StoryWonk forums!), social media (hey, #OddWonks!), fan art, podcasts, websites……seriously, people put a lot of work into goofing off on the internet. And they certainly aren’t doing it all alone, either, which was highly difficult to do before the internet became a thing. And with this interaction comes bigger and better things. Websites (not this one, obviously) are looking more professional than official websites, fanfic collaborations are happening with greater frequency, and since the rise of YouTube, fan films have become a new and promising avenue of creativity.
The birth of the modern fan film can be traced to Troops, a rather genius parody of both Star Wars and Cops. While Troops was not a “fan” film in the strictest sense (Kevin Rubio, the driving force behind the project, was working for Fox Kids at the time, and recruited people he knew from working in the industry, including the film’s top-tier voice cast), it inspired and entertained Star Wars fans across the globe, so much that Lucasfilm eventually backed a fan film competition, The Official Star Wars Fan Film Awards (which is now known as The Star Wars Fan Movie Challenge). It was an unprecedented show of support by an IP holder, and has been rewarded with an engaged fanbase (even as the Prequel Trilogy has become increasingly criticized and reviled).
Contrast this with Paramount (and, as a result of the Viacom Split, CBS as well), who has had a bit of a contentious relationship with Star Trek pretty much from the very moment they purchased Desilu in 1967. The series was a big money-loser and Gene Roddenberry wasn’t easy to deal with at all, so Paramount happily helped NBC to kill the show in the third season (after which they proceeded to gut Desilu’s other TV series, Mission: Impossible). And when fandom (which was powerfully active from the moment that the series began to air) exploded in the ’70s, Paramount cracked down on fanfic, declaring that it couldn’t be included in fanzines that charged money (a necessary move to help offset the costs of publishing).
Naturally, this backfired, and soon pornographic fanzines (including ones with the first examples of “slash” fan fiction involving Kirk and Spock) spread like wildfire.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, once the internet became a thing in the ’90s, Paramount C&D’d (cease-and-desisted) a number of fan websites into oblivion. Granted, the late ’90s were the days when many websites were loaded with itty-bitty, low-res screen grabs and dialogue quotes, but this was an extremely fan-unfriendly move (and one echoed by 20th Century Fox, who produced three shows with heavy internet popularity: The X-Files, The Simpsons, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer).
Now, however, Paramount and CBS have taken things to a new extreme: sparked in large part by their legal action against Alec Peters and the Axanar fan film, they have released a set of fan film “guidelines” which in essence shut down every single fan production. Stories can only be 30 minutes long, in two parts of 15 minutes, with no further episodes. No Star Trek veterans of any type can work on fan films. And any Kickstarter-type campaigns can only raise $50,000. Period.
The thing is, every one of the major fan productions (Axanar, Star Trek: New Voyages, Star Trek Continues, and Star Trek: Renegades) has enlisted multiple alumni, with Renegades featuring Tim Russ (Tuvok from Star Trek: Voyager) as director. Additionally, all of these projects have raised far more than $50,000, with the sets alone costing far more than that (James Cawley, the primary mastermind behind New Voyages, has sunk at least quadruple that of his own money on sets alone over the years). So, quite frankly, this shatters all further plans, including multiple episodes in various states of completion (as none of the crews want to be sued like Alec Peters).
Worse, fandom has blamed Peters because he demanded that Paramount and CBS provide firm guidelines right as he was sued, as well as him taking a salary so he could devote all of his time to the project. Granted, that last part is rather dubious under the previous “non-profit” rule, but there is precedent (the heads of non-profit organizations in the real world do take salaries). There seems to be some accusations that Peters is trying to use Axanar to “go pro” (i.e., use this production as the basis for a professional, for-profit operation). This is where I cry foul, because let’s face it: fan films are posted to IMDb. So for the amateurs involved in these productions, these films have been a way towards building a legitimate career in film and television. (And for a number of actors in the fan productions, it has led to work on the franchise.) While Peters’ methods appear questionable, they aren’t so far removed from the norm, as there are people involved with these fan productions who do get paid. Peters was just open about it, and is the first showrunner to do so. While he’s not innocent, Peters is not the only guilty party here: Paramount and CBS went above and beyond by suing him, and have behaved even worse by invoking these new guidelines.
As a final postscript to this entire awful mess, Paramount and CBS have officially licensed James Cawley to offer tours of his version of the Enterprise TV sets. So, Star Trek: New Voyages, in some perverse fashion, gets officially sanctioned, but at the cost of multiple episodes (across the various fan productions) never getting finished, and likely never seeing the light of day. While it’s good that Cawley will eventually recoup the costs he incurred over the years, it was never about the money: it was about the love of Star Trek.
Next time, we discuss a milestone of women’s rights.