Thursday, January 7, 2016

The Alternative Factor: Axanar and the nature of fan fiction

For decades, Paramount and CBS have tolerated and even encouraged fans of the Star Trek franchise to use their imagination at will, but on Tuesday the entertainment companies went to their battle stations and launched a legal missile at a production company touting the first independent Star Trek film.
Axanar, the subject of a lawsuit filed on Friday in California federoriginal, is no ordinary Star Trek film. The forthcoming feature film (preceded by a short film) is the source of more than $1 million in crowdfunding on Kickstarter and Indiegogo. The producers, led by Alec Peters, aim to make a studio-quality film. As the pitch to investors put it, "While some may call it a 'fan film' as we are not licensed by CBS, Axanar has professionals working in front and behind the camera, with a fully-professional crew — many of whom have worked on Star Trek itself — who ensure Axanar will be the quality of Star Trek that all fans want to see."
Paramount and CBS see a violation of their intellectual property.
I didn't expect to begin my year-long series about the Star Trek legacy quite so suddenly, but ever since this story broke over the Christmas/New Year's period, I've been following it pretty closely, so I wanna address it right off the bat.

Axanar executive producer and star Alec Peters
Last month, after the announcement of a new Star Trek series planned for 2017, I wrote that the surge in higher-quality fan films has lessened the need for Trek fans to rely on corporate parents CBS and Paramount, particularly when the quality of Trek material they've offered in recent years has been questionable at best. I also stated, though I should have emphasized, that none of these fan films can profit from their work, since they don't hold the rights to Trek. CBS/Paramount has suffered them to live as long as they adhere to that basic tenet, but now, it looks like things have changed.

When I first saw the donor-enticing "proof of concept" short, Prelude to Axanar, I thought it was the most exciting thing to happen to the world of Trek in at least a decade. (Seriously, even if you're not a fan, take a look at the video while you still can.) By taking a small, yet established piece of Trek canon and building an original film around it, with production values comparable with any current Hollywood genre film, executive producer Alec Peters and his team had set a new standard for what fan films can be.

That said, while the news of CBS/Paramount's lawsuit against Axanar Productions is sad, not to mention a horrible way to usher in the 50th anniversary of the franchise, the things I've been reading since make me believe that this case may have merit after all, and is not, as many Trekkies suspect, just a means for the parent company to cut off any threats to the upcoming film Star Trek Beyond and the new series. Still, that's not what I want to talk about at this time.

The 1997 Star Wars parody Troops received worldwide
recognition and praise, even from LucasFilm.
I wanna address fan fiction and art in general: creative endeavors based on pre-established intellectual property. (I'm grouping fan films in with fan fiction for the purposes of this discussion.) As we've talked about here before, it was fan-made stories and art that helped keep Trek alive in the years since its cancellation in 1969 and the first feature film a decade later. Indeed, modern fandom in general owes a debt to the work Trekkies spawned during this period.

I can understand why fans create these kinds of stories: a love of the original creative work and a desire to apply one's imagination towards adding to the canon, even if only in an unofficial capacity. If a work lasts long enough, sometimes the quality fluctuates, and then fanfic is made in an attempt to "course-correct," to erase any perceived mistakes in the canon. Mostly, though, it's made for fun.

I'm no stranger to fanfic. Years ago, I wrote a fanfic inspired by a Fantastic Four story that I wanted to eventually pitch to Marvel Comics as a limited series. (It was like Axanar in the sense that it didn't actually star the principal characters from the original source material, in this case, the FF.) Life happened, priorities changed, and I never pitched my story, but I liked it enough to change the names and turn it into an original work. I still have it, both on my computer and in my Dropbox file. I may do something with it someday, but I'm in no rush. My point is, I understand the compulsion to want to make fanfic.

The 2004 mock trailer Grayson re-imagined Robin
as a Batman-level badass.
Is it a waste of time to write a story or make a film based on someone else's IP - something you can't financially profit from? The legality issue is a separate one, and has been discussed at length. (Coincidental aside: I'm currently reading the Harvard Lampoon's Bored of the Rings, a Christmas present from my pal Bibi, and as you can guess from the title, it's a Lord of the Rings parody, written by fans.)

I think the answer depends on your goals. If it's something you only wanna share with your family and friends, that's one thing. If it's a means to a long-term financial goal of some sort, I might question your methods, at the very least. Either way, love should be a driving factor, whether it's love for the medium you choose to work in or love of the original property you're working from. Without that, I suspect, your audience will recognize your work as hollow.

In my old comics column, I would advocate to my readers that if they didn't like the way their favorite corporate-owned comic was going, they should try making their own comics, though I always emphasized creating something new. I never recommended fanfic as an option. If I were to be honest, it probably wouldn't be something I'd suggest now, either, especially since I'm pursuing original fiction on a more regular basis.

A recent animated 20th anniversary Rocketeer short
received lots of attention.
And yet, I don't necessarily think it was wrong for any of the recent Trek fan films to have gotten off the ground. I think they were trying to fill, if not an outright void, then at least a dearth of Trek programming as the result of parent corporations who weren't promoting the franchise as well as they could have, and who were being overtaken in the marketplace by newer IPs that were and are Catching Fire with the younger generation.

As a Trekkie, I was drawn to Axanar and Star Trek Continues and Starship Farragut and even Renegades (until I actually saw that one) because the product being turned out by CBS/Paramount was less satisfying to me, and there was less of it being made. If amateurs could do the job better, my attitude was and is, why not? Yeah, the people behind these fan films could've done something original instead, but that's not what they chose because they're Trekkies too. Besides, if they had - and here we reach a Hard Truth of the marketplace - would their audiences have been as big? Relatively speaking.

Like I said, love needs to be a vital part of the equation when creating fanfic or fan films. Therefore, if someone wants to indulge in it, I try not to judge if it's done for the right reasons, and with the knowledge that they're playing with someone else's toys - which the owners can take away at any time.


  1. I wish the big guys could see that more, and good, product is only good for everybody. However, the world doesn't work that way. How I would love to see that film made!

  2. At this point, the odds don't look good, though Alec Peters is carrying on anyway. He claims shooting will begin in February but he's still casting - and he's been criticized for taking far too long to shoot, among other things. There's a great fear that CBS/Paramount won't stop with just AXANAR, either, though there's no proof of that yet. It's just a mess all around.


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