This is the 32nd and final entry in a surprisingly long series of posts about Star Trek’s future and its fandom called Crisis of Infinite Star Treks. It was… fun.
Way back in November 2015, I started musing about the state of Star Trek… and I kept on blogging about Trek so much that in 2016, that I retconned those early posts into what has become Crisis of Infinite Star Treks. There have been long posts and shorter ones. This is one of the longer ones (not including all the linked articles and videos, it’s easily over 15 minutes).
It’s also the last one.
That’s because of the unstated premise of the whole series, that the Star Trek franchise was in trouble: the feature films were floundering after an underwhelming response to Beyond, there were no new TV series on the horizon, and many fans were behaving like a bunch of Klingons at a bar that just ran out of bloodwine. This was not something that could be fixed in 47 seconds by reversing the polarity.
Long story short: that premise no longer rings true.
I’m not going to be some stand-in for Captain Archer or Admiral Ramirez saying “the state of Star Trek is strong,” but circumstances have changed to the extent that I have a new premise.
That premise? The Star Trek franchise is doing fine. They have both an audience and a generally positive critical response to the latest show — enough so that the corporate owners of Star Trek are confident enough to expand their Trek offerings into concurrent shows (something we haven’t seen in almost 20 years). By any measure, they are boldly going.
Now, some folks don’t like what the corporate keepers of the Star Trek franchise are doing, which I’ll touch upon. However, the umbrage of a few long-time fans will not puncture said corporate keepers’ belief in the 21st Rule of Acquisition: “Never place friendship above profit.” Oh, they love fans and fandoms, but they’ll go for profit every time. And we, the audience, are benefiting (cue more umbrage).
So what makes me think that Star Trek is doing okay, or “operating within normal parameters?” Read on!
CBS Succeeded with Star Trek: Discovery
If you recall in a previous Crisis of Infinite Star Trek entry, I mused that Star Trek: Discovery was in the precarious position of needing to find a new audience, please old fans, and launch a whole new streaming service.
Okay, technically, CBS All Access has existed since 2014, but CBS executives were up front that they were using the launch of Star Trek: Discovery in 2017 as their incentive to get viewers to sign up.
And it worked.
They had record sign-ups in the wake of the Discovery premiere and, as of earlier this year, over 4 million subscribers. In fact, they had a 2020 goal for streaming subscribers that they’ve already met in 2019.
Now, this isn’t all thanks to Star Trek: Discovery. Like any network (or streaming service) in these content-hungry days, CBS All Access has added a whole bunch of original programming. However, just like Netflix had found success in “flagship shows” like first Orange is the New Black and now Stranger Things and HBO has certainly found with Game of Thrones, Star Trek: Discovery is something execs clearly credit with the streaming service’s success.
CBS All Access was never going to be a “Netflix killer.” That will happen (or not) with the launch of Disney+, Peacock, and Apple‘s offerings (The Mandalorian is reportedly the most popular show in the world right now). Tremors have already been felt in Netflix’s subscriber base in 2019 and it’s a safe bet that all the streaming providers will find where they rank in consumers’ personal hierarchies of content in 2020.
But in terms of content, CBS has a playbook and it’s using it. And Star Trek is a huge part of the playbook.
The naysayers who hate Star Trek: Discovery (and boy howdy, some people hate it) aren’t on the field, aren’t making the calls, and are not a critical mass that has prevented CBS All Access from achieving its millions of additional subscribers.
Multiple Trek TV Series are about to leave spacedock
Unless you’ve been down in a dilithium mine, you know that CBS has been working on new Star Trek series in addition to Discovery, including one that is particularly anticipated:
(Hint: It’s not just because they’re clearly leaning into the notion that Vulcans are Space Elves).
In addition to Picard, they also have one with Michelle Yeoh and Section 31, an animated comedy series with ” one of Starfleet’s least important ships” called Lower Decks, and maybe a series for Nickelodeon.
Having read industry news for some time by the likes of Hollywood Reporter and Variety, I’m used to pie-in-the-sky predictions of “multi-platform content leveraging” and other ridiculous business-speak at the announcement of massive development deals. The difference here is that both Picard and Lower Decks are in production. Both should premiere this year, presumably also with the third season of Discovery. Star Trek is used to not only having multiple series on the air, but also having a vast array of tie-in novels, comics, and so on. They’ve already leveraged “multi-platform content” and anything they’ve lost from being literally “on the air” in the era of streaming over broadcast, they’re more than trying to make up with social media and online presences.
In other words, CBS was testing the waters with Discovery, decided it was fine, and decided to rebuild the fleet.
You can learn more of what was revealed at San Diego Comic Con in this recap from StarTrek.com and also check out this panel video:
(note: the video above is about 40 minutes).
CBS and Viacom are back together
As most of you may only be vaguely aware, there was a split between the Star Trek film rights and the Star Trek TV rights due to a split between CBS Corporation and Viacom. I mean, that’s a really simple summary, but, as of August 2019, the companies decided to re-merge.
Along with the fact that all the Star Trek rights are now very much under one corporate roof (ultimately), this does end a host of weird conspiracy theories perpetuated online about how different this Trek could be from that Trek, etc. — none of which I ever heard from actual legal experts.
(I’m not saying that it’s a requirement that all intellectual property lawyers are Star Trek fans, but I will say that an inordinate number of intellectual property lawyers I know are Star Trek fans — and all intellectual property lawyers I’ve met, Star Trek fans or not, appear to love explaining the more non-intuitive aspects of intellectual property law).
So if you’ve avoided wacky conspiracy theories about the “legality of canon” and bizarre percentages thus far, congratulations on avoiding Internet crazy! Now go and enjoy some Trek!
General fandom remains grumpy
Okay, so one thing you might not be able to avoid is the current state of fandom. That’s not just for Star Trek, but for just about every bit of pop culture you can imagine. Fandom has gone mainstream, including some ugly bits. If you’re reading this, you’ve probably encountered this toxicity in one or more realms.
I mean, I had a good chuckle at Steven Porfiri’s 2018 piece in The Hard Times noting the increased unemployment in “pop culture gatekeepers.” Of course, satirical takes are fun and perhaps necessary, but that does not seem to have stemmed the tide of “rage lemmings,” which, admittedly, appears to be a feature, not a bug, for how social media is engineered to operate these days. (I don’t know who first used the term “rage lemmings,” but it’s a perfect term for this kind of umbrage).
And besides the sadly now garden-variety Internet outrage, there’s the perceived ownership and entitlement. To date, over 1.8 million people signed a petition to “remake Game of Thrones season 8 with competent writers.” Statistically, they can’t all have just been “blowing off steam” on the Internet or realizing “redoing” a whole television season is a crazypants idea from the get-go. Some of them must have believed HBO would acquiesce. Some Star Wars fans similarly wanted Last Jedi all but erased from existence Thanos-style. Some of them probably think that’s possible some way some how. But there’s no reality stone that will help them change this timeline where they’re so terribly disappointed in a creative work. The main action a fan can take is the same action they can always take.
Don’t watch it.
If the show or movie is sure to disappoint you, don’t waste your time.
Is that action disappointing in and of itself? Possibly. The difference nowadays is that there is so much more to see. We’re in a golden age of television, and if films or comics or music are one’s fancy, there’s plenty of great stuff to be found there too. It just might not be all the stuff you loved before.
If art is great, you get something different out of it as you age. But whether or not you get something out of a particular piece of art at every age, your relationship with art will change. I view the character of Batman differently than I did when I first read The Dark Knight Returns some 30 years ago. Heck, I view The Dark Knight Returns differently than when I did 30 years ago because of all my life experiences. But here’s the thing: all the comic writers of Batman in the past 30 years have almost certainly read The Dark Knight Returns and absorbed it and translated it into what they want to write about Batman here and now. And their relationship with Batman, by definition, is different.
The end result? You just might not be able to read every Batman comic anymore, to use an example from Susana Polo’s excellent article in Polygon. In it, she comes to terms with how she engaged with Batman comics as they went in directions that were at odds with her expectations. It’s hard because within the fandom is enthusiasm, ardor, and, yes, love.
You love something, but you don’t own it — and sometimes you walk away from what you love (or loved). Sometimes you have to.
This inability to walk away, or even to admit that –no matter how much the fandom informs your identity– you are not owed anything by the creators, is something that has puzzled a lot of the creators… who are also fans.
For example, George R. R. Martin, the creator of the book series that begat Game of Thrones, started as a fan writing fanzines. He finds both the success of Game of Thrones and the toxic backlash against it surreal.
(Incidentally, if you want much more about Martin’s very fannish odyssey, including his continued fandom for films and classic movie palaces, check out the full 90-minute interview at Maltin on Movies).
Polo and Martin and Maltin among others aren’t the only ones to find that there are particularly virulent and vitriolic strains of fandom these days — and how the Internet may aid and abet said strains. Rob Bricken, former editor at io9 and self-described “professional nerd” has an excellent, autobiographical take on it from September 2019. It’s ironic that, as “nerd culture” is arguably triumphant, there is reason to be embarrassed by one’s nerdiness again (the Rick & Morty “Szechuan Sauce” incident has to be chief among examples).
So what about Star Trek?
I know. I’ve spent many a paragraph just now not discussing Star Trek, but as many of you probably gleaned, I wanted to lay out the landscape of modern fandom and its endemic umbrage, because –boy howdy– is that the same landscape where Star Trek sits.
People hate Star Trek: Discovery. They hate it just as passionately as any the aforementioned hate for Game of Thrones or Star Wars or insufficient Szechuan Sauce. As with many of these hatreds, there’s a mix of old Star Trek fans who really haven’t cottoned to anything since the original series or original cast films, the ones who really don’t like it because of it feels to visually akin to the JJ Abrams films (which are too “pew pew” for their tastes), and the ones who don’t like it because of the visual discontinuity of it being a prequel with way more modern looking production design than the 60s.
Aaaand then there are those who don’t like it for the same old, same old ugly reasons involving a character’s race or gender or both — which you really don’t want to believe exists until you spend a few minutes looking at some comment threads and experience some of the embarrassment that Rob Bricken talked about above.
Perhaps most vexing to those who dislike recent Trek for creative reasons is that those who dislike recent Trek for bigoted reasons frequently cite the same reason creatively displeased fans cite: that the current Trek is not “true Star Trek.”
I sympathize for the earnestly displeased Trek fans (not the bigots), but arguing “true Star Trek” really isn’t the line to draw expecting no one will cross it.
First, unless one owns the intellectual property rights, there’s very little one can do to assert what is or isn’t “true Star Trek” in any way that matters.
(For anyone who doubts this, I am happy to introduce you to some of the aforementioned cheerful intellectual property attorneys who are Star Trek fans, which includes some who aren’t enamored of recent Trek.)
Second, true Star Trek includes Charles Napier as an exuberant singing space hippie.
And actually, he’s not the only one engaged in cringe-worthy singing.
(According to some, this is the greatest moment in DS9.)
In other words, I think we can all take the fervor around “true Star Trek” down a notch.
I understand a lot of the critiques people have raised about more recent Trek even if I don’t agree with all the critiques. Not the bigotry, though. To quote Captain Kirk: “leave any bigotry in your in your quarters. There’s no room for it on the bridge.”
Fans of Star Trek are presumably ready to watch Star Trek because they want to see some of the same things they loved in the previous Trek incarnations. And if they’re not seeing anything to love, nothing that they loved in a previous version of Trek, it’s not illogical to ask, “Is this Trek?”
It’s also not illogical to conclude, “This is not my kind of Star Trek.”
Take, for example, the Michael Bay Transformers films. As near as I can tell, the pop culture cognoscenti and film critics in general have deemed them trash. Having seen the first film, I tend to agree, despite my general appreciation for John Turturro, Glenn Morshower, and seeing an AC-130 gunship in action.
It absolutely is Transformers and I don’t care for it. I could rage about the injustice of massive entertainment conglomerates ignoring me and my one data point of negativity — or I could get on with my life, perhaps revisiting the Transformers films when my expectations are appropriately managed. For example, I heard Bumblebee was pretty good and one of my kids was interested as well, so we might check that out some time.
Note that, in the case of Transformers, film critics and pop culture mavens have my back. They don’t like Transformers either. In fact, I haven’t heard any Transformers fans laud the films. But even with hundreds, nay probable millions of negative data points about the Transformers movies, they have continued to be commercially successful. Somebody likes them otherwise they wouldn’t make money. In fact, several somebodies must have watched every single one of Michael Bay’s Transformers films and liked them. That would make them, wait for it, Transformers fans.
Readers who have hung with me up until now will recall that one criterion I mentioned above was the millions of subscribers Star Trek: Discovery has arguably attracted to CBS All Access. The people who decide whether it’s responsible for such a feat, the CBS executives, have decided it has. That’s led to season two of Discovery, soon season three (shooting began in July 2019), and, of course, Picard, Lower Decks, and the other nascent series.
Now, people may rightly point out that the size of an audience does not necessarily correlate to how good a TV show might be. Star Trek fans may also point out how an honest-to-goodness letter-writing campaign helped keep the original series on the air… and expanded love of Star Trek in syndication and in the conventions in the 70s help give rise to the motion picture and, basically, all that followed.
In other words: fandom matters. Fan support matters. Studios, CBS executives in this immediate case, should listen to fans. All true. And in fact the executives and showrunners do listen to the fans in this case (as evidenced by various touches in Discovery, season two — and arguably the very existence of Picard).
But they don’t listen to fans to the exclusion of everything else… and they never did. Fan fervor didn’t see the first Star Trek series complete its original five-year mission. Robert Wise and the creative team behind the first motion picture were able craft a story beloved by many an old school Star Trek fan as “true Trek” despite an insane theatrical deadline. That didn’t prevent executives from radically changing course for the sequel. Many a fan would have none but the original cast when word of a new Star Trek series popped up in the mid-80s, but we still got The Next Generation.
Time and again, Star Trek fans have made their voices heard and time and again, the powers-that-be went ahead with something some fans were certain was going to be awful. It’s not like they’ve always been firing on all cylinders.
However, some of those fans’ furrowed eyebrows have been aimed at what turns out to be Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, The Next Generation, and Deep Space Nine. In fact, I know Star Trek fans that don’t like any of those Trek iterations.
Each new version of Trek is trying something different — and it’s rare that I find anyone who likes all the iterations. In fact, it’s highly likely that I and millions of other Trek fans will not like all of the new iterations. At the same time, it’s highly likely someone is going to experience Star Trek for the first time through one of those series and that will be “their Trek.”
Does it bother me knowing that someone is going to love the comedic hijinks of Star Trek: Lower Decks yet have absolutely no time for the rest of Trek? Would it irk me if they stopped watching the original series’ “The Doomsday Machine,” TNG’s “Chain of Command,” or DS9’s “In the Pale Moonlight” because they “were too serious?” Of course it would. But that’s my problem. They get to like what they like.
I did a ridiculously fannish “research project” of sorts in the past few years, rewatching –and in some cases watching for the first time– every single episode of every series of Star Trek. And I asked people about their favorites.
Guess what? Every single series, including some that aren’t invoked as often, like Voyager, Enterprise, and even the animated series, had its champions. Every iteration of Star Trek has someone standing proudly and saying, “that’s my Trek.”
People get to like what they like and they still get to be fans. Is it really any surprise that Discovery has fans?
Yet if you go strolling through social media amid fan groups or click on a fan news YouTube video, you’ll find fans who hate every inch of it and are eager to latch onto anything that can validate their antipathy. Changes in personnel? Must mean cancellation is soon! Emmy nomination for the title sequence? That’s because the rest of it sucks! I’m actually not going to link to these items because they’re easy enough to find if you want. However, it’s best to bear in mind that these are the people I talked about long ago as inhabitants of the Briar Patch, to make an oblique Star Trek reference. They like the inside baseball/Parrises squares nature of their conversations and either don’t want or can’t get out of their carefully built echo chambers.
How to best describe this? Well, the more benign inhabitants of these “Briar Patch” realms of thought get upset when they ask a question about Star Trek that has an obvious real-world answer, but no readily available in-universe one. So, for example, why did the uniforms change so radically from The Motion Picture to the Wrath of Khan? The actual answer is, naturally, that Nicholas Meyer, the director of Khan didn’t like the old costumes (and he wasn’t alone) and wanted new ones. He’s said so on at least one director’s DVD commentary.
I understand that it’d be fun, even cool, to have an elegant or clever reason that the fictional Starfleet changed the uniforms. It would help with the worldbuilding which is part of the fun of getting into any speculative fiction universe, science-fiction, fantasy, et cetera. But sometimes such in-universe explanations aren’t forthcoming because they simply aren’t a priority for the people making the show. Some reason on the uniform change may have been given in a Star Trek novel or other work which I’m unaware of, but we can enjoy Wrath of Khan without ever knowing that reason.
But for some fans, they can’t. It’s a missing worldbuilding piece whose absence tasks them. It tasks them and they will have it. They won’t give it up. In fact, if I had a slip of latinum for every social media thread where a Briar Patch denizen could not abide by real-world practicality and priorities, I could buy that moon off of Quark’s cousin. They must know. They are entitled to know. By pulling away the curtain that Star Trek is fictional is, in and of itself, rather offensive.
Now, add to this fan ire the notion that their experience, their viewpoint of Star Trek is the ‘correct’ one. It’s correct because of their level of knowledge, their time being a fan, and their outright devotion. Thank goodness not all Star Trek fans (or even Briar Patch denizens) operate this way. But for the commenters who produce volumes on how horrible Discovery or the J.J. Abrams films or whatnot are, that premise of knowing what the “true Trek” is –of even being empowered to be the judge of what “true Trek” is– comes through again and again. They hold that truth to be self-evident.
To point out that Star Trek is an economic entity as well as an object of fandom is to provide a wholly unwelcome real-world answer to their in-universe questions and longings. That they have no intellectual property rights to their object of fandom is an affront to how they want to interact with it. That decisions will be made in making Star Trek based on economic reasons is sinful. That people can love the current outputs of Star Trek that they do not love is basically heretical.
Into this contentious environment of Star Trek fandom comes Picard. Thomas Bacon has a wonderful article touching on Picard over at Screenrant.com. In it, he explores the divisions in Star Trek fandom and what avenue Picard may offer to fans disinterested to downright disgusted with the more recent offerings.
I find it ironic that, as sure as some people will keep hating Discovery, its success has helped usher in shows like Picard which promises to be a favorite of many a Star Trek fan. Myself? I’m ecstatic we’ll be exploring the prime universe past Nemesis and am hoping for notes of some of the best of Picard’s Next Generation episodes, with more than a few hints of Shakespeare.
And what about Axanar?
For readers who don’t know, Prelude to Axanar was a quite enjoyable 20-some minute Star Trek fan film that was released back in 2014. It featured professional actors, including Star Trek alumni, as well as some nice visual effects.
Over a million dollars was raised for a feature film version. For a variety of reasons, CBS/Paramount filed a lawsuit with the makers in 2015 and they settled in early 2017. The settlement allowed the makers of said fan film to make up to two 15-minute installments albeit without some significant members of the cast and crew who were involved with Prelude — who have since moved on.
I happily share the link to the original short above and would be open to check out any shorts the remaining team might make — though over two years since the settlement, they’re still busy raising money. The over a million dollars has evidently been spent (if allegations made in court documents are to be believed, many of those dollars went to personal expenses).
For anyone wanting to know more, I caution you that this does mean stepping squarely into the Briar Patch. You can read about my first delve into the controversies around Axanar back in 2016. As a good number of my entries here in the Crisis series were dedicated to Axanar, I felt I should close out thoughts on this topic as well, though my most linked and visited article, “The Naked Greed Time” pretty much sums up my disgust at it all. Suffice it to say, my disgust has not abated. In fact, there’s additional financial skullduggery that may have occurred.
I appreciate the folks over at Axamonitor (both its own site and a presence on Facebook) for continuing to monitor and call shenanigans on both the Axafaithful and some of the aforementioned rage-based fans. I need less umbrage in my life, and fan rage is something of an abyss for me, so much like those Transformers movies, I’m going to try and limit my contact. I suspect many of you will want to do the same.
The sky is no longer the limit
The wonderful note to end on? For me –and I hope for many of you– we don’t need to wallow in umbrage. This new year should bring us a host of new Star Trek to enjoy. We can simply be Star Trek fans.
Here’s another aspect of Star Trek fans that bears remembering: Star Trek has been made by Star Trek fans since the original series. Lucille Ball was a fan of the idea enough to override her board of directors to make Star Trek a reality. Michael Chabon, behind the first season of Picard, is more or less a lifelong fan. Fans often do justice to the objects of their fandom. However, just like the writers of Batman discussed above, their takeaways from Star Trek might be different from yours or mine. Their execution of said takeaways may not be perfect. In fact, I’d be surprised if they were. But, for me, they are always welcome.
I think of what J.J. Abrams (cue fan umbrage!) said in a recent interview about Star Wars, “
I don’t know anyone who has a spouse or a partner or any family member or any friend, who loves and agrees with every single thing that that person is and does. We have to return, I think, to nuance and acceptance. And so I feel like, as a Star Wars fan, do I love every single thing about each of the movies? No. But do I love Star Wars? Hell yes, I do.J.J. Abrams, Esquire, November 2019
I know there are people who are so intent on hating this particular messenger, that they’ll ignore the message. Don’t be one of them. Fandom is mainstream and there’s a lot of stuff out there to love. For this new year, let people like what they like… and perhaps, find a few new things to like yourself. For myself, I’m guessing that will include Star Trek.