Crisis of Infinite Star Treks: Of Paramount and Puppets

This is the 13th of the ongoing series about Star Trek’s future and its fandom. I’m as surprised as anyone it keeps going, but hey, that’s why tagging is so handy (or click on Crisis of Infinite Star Treks).

So, a pair of links today. The first is an article by Marc Perton that appeared this afternoon in Newsweek. If you haven’t been following this story for months like some of us nuts, it does a splendid job of catching you up. However, even as one of those nuts who has been following the story, well, he’s a reporter. He does some fine dispassionate reporting uncovering aspects of the story I wasn’t aware of, so I feel you’re getting a fair primer of Star Trek fan films and Axanar by reading it.

That said, I do hope he does a follow-up, because his “3rd party observer” approach allows a better look at one of the greyer areas of the case. I’m referring here to the suggestion that Axanar is being targeting because of its quality, that it’s a victim of its own success in emulating “true” Star Trek so well.

And Axanar looking so good –so professional– is by design. Alec Peters and the Axanar crew want it to look good. However, I think Perton touches on the fact that Peters and company really do not want this to be a cute curio that’s the result of hobbyists. Like many an ardent fan before them, they want a seat at the IP table. Previously, fans haven’t had that chance unless a studio hands them the keys to the IP kingdom, as they did for Peter Jackson and Lord of the Rings and reportedly have done for Justin Lin of the upcoming Star Trek Beyond (i.e. both of them are avowed fans of the IP they then get to direct movies of).

But in our modern age of sophisticated fan films, it’s almost as if Axanar is making its own table within the space traditionally granted by Paramount/CBS for fan films and saying, “Hey, we can come over to the main table any time you want.”

From a Star Trek fan perspective, this is great news.  If we’re going to hear a cover band, we want it to be a good cover band, not just people who are really exciting about playing musical instruments — and let’s face it, many a Star Trek fan film has been the equivalent of spastic guitar playing.

It's as if this guy said, "I can make a Star Trek TV show."

It’s as if this guy said, “I can make a Star Trek TV show.”

 

We don’t want spastic. We want good songs played in that classic Trek style or at least “sound like Trek.” Besides which, more Trek is good. But beyond the use or misuse of this or that part of someone’s intellectual property, there’s the attitude behind the fan production — and that’s something I haven’t seen written about much.

It strikes me that Axanar Productions is doing two things. On the one hand, they’re trying to make a fan film about Star Trek, something that the IP rights holders have allowed for over a decade at least. On the other hand, they are trying to build a sustainable business model… using, in part, these same IP rights.

It’s clear that the people behind Star Trek: New Voyages (aka Phase II) and Star Trek Continues not only want to keep making Trek, but have gotten increasingly professional about how to make sure they can keep making Trek — just like any good business would, non-profit or otherwise. In fact, if I’m not mistaken, it’s not individuals who are renting sound stages for fan productions nor paying for building sets, it’s production companies. They’re still labors of love. I’m sure the showrunners have spent their own money and probably still do — and a lot of people work on these productions for no or low money. However, it’s way more of an official operation than some people happening to get together one weekend to see if they can make a film. Thousands of people know this model and approve of this model because they’ve given them money in crowdfunding campaigns. Simply put: fan film producers want Trek fans to give them money so they can make Trek fan films. They’re using Trek the IP as a draw to raise money to make Trek.

Axanar Productions appears to be taking that approach and being very forthright that they want this to be an ongoing enterprise (you knew I’d use that term). As I indicated last month, I thought Axanar was trying to do this as a non-profit enterprise all to honor the official unofficial rule from CBS/Paramount: thou shall not make a profit. All the fan productions appear to be using the idea of Star Trek, the Star Trek IP in other words, to fuel their crowdfunding campaigns. So they totally are using CBS/Paramount’s IP for business reasons, albeit non-commercial ones, right? I think it may come down to attitude.

I believe lawyers would characterize this in terms of “intent” and “good faith” and so on: basically the legal of equivalent of “well, we know Godzilla rampaged across Tokyo and destroyed buildings and the inevitable plastic tanks. However, was he destroying things because he wanted to as in the original Godzilla or was he destroying them because he was, in fact, defending Tokyo from an evil monster as in Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla?”

Really, if there were more legal opinions that referenced Godzilla, I think we’d all be better off –or at least entertained– but I digress.

This seriousness of Axanar Productions is something that non-lawyers have picked up on when the topic of the Axanar lawsuit comes up. I’ve talked with many casual fans or people who haven’t been following the story closely and we all sense that there’s something a little bit different here: a disturbance in the Force, to mix franchises.

Unfortunately, I feel the issue of making a fan film using someone’s IP and the issue of making a sustainable business using someone’s IP is being conflated in most articles. After all, the CBS/Paramount lawsuit appears to be mainly concerned about making a fan film using their IP, like the other fan films. Heck, they’ve even come out wanting to protect the Klingon language which, like most real languages, is now out in the wild, with speakers making their own minds up about what is and isn’t Klingon. So rulings that shutter Axanar Productions and its fan film could have the consequence of shuttering all the other increasingly good Star Trek fan films.

Axanar Productions is pushing the limit of what fan films can be and, to be fair, they’re quite up front about wanting to push the limits of what fan films can be. That could be the issue: that they’re making this more professional and not a hobby. They’re trying to make Star Trek their livelihood. It’s as if instead of just doing cosplay as a Klingon, I started selling my versions of Klingon armor — and that’s how I earn my daily bread. At some point, CBS/Paramount is going to say, look, ya gotta license that — and they’re right to do so.

That said, how about making some of these labors of love licensed? I would love for this to be a sustainable non-profit endeavor for some of these Trek fan productions. Just as JJ Abrams went to the R2-D2 hobbyists for some of their droid work and just as LEGO goes to some of its ardent fan builders on occasion to become new Master Builders, so too do I think that CBS/Paramount could look to fan production for new ideas and new blood (green, purple, or otherwise).

Lest we forget, this is how Trek did it in the TNG/Ds9/Voyager era: they were open to writing submissions. Ronald Moore, Robert Hewitt Wolfe, and others joined through their scripts and made deep impacts on Trek.

Now you could have a series of not-for-profit R&D groups not only writing scripts, but shooting films: all trying to excite the Star Trek fanbase. You basically have a bunch of Star Trek zealots ready to make some proof-of-concepts for you. Good ideas can be promoted up to the ‘major leagues’ while other ideas can remain in the ‘minors’ as ‘Star Trek Legends’ or something similar.

At the same time, for better or worse, I think that’s CBS/Paramount’s call for how they want to allow fan productions to continue (to say nothing of learning the Klingon language). They own the rights. Fans do not, nor will ever own the rights. (See Letting Go of the Canon last week). I can only hope they do it in such a way that encourages innovation and fan creation. I am convinced that the wider universe of Trek will be better for it.

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Okay, so that’s all very serious, so let’s have a second link I found this afternoon. The second link is an immeasurably more entertaining link, it’s Stalled Trek: Prelude to Ax’d-We-Are, a puppet/animation version of Prelude to Axanar. If it was just a parody of the fan film or Star Trek in general, it’d be fun, but of course, getting extra meta, they manage to fit in the lawsuit as well.

Luckily, allowances for satire and parody should allow it to remain around, though it really makes you wonder what the intellectual property legal landscape will be when all this dust settles.

And will I be able to call it space dust without being sued?

One response to “Crisis of Infinite Star Treks: Of Paramount and Puppets

  1. Pingback: Crisis of Infinite Star Treks: The Briar Patch | Bjorn Munson

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