When I first read the headlines last week that Paramount/CBS had settled their lawsuit with the Star Trek fan film project, Axanar, I rejoiced. But I quickly realized that, no matter how it’s being spun, the settlement was a big defeat for Axanar and all the makers of Star Trek fan films.
A quick history: the past decade has seen an explosion of wonderful Star Trek fan films, made by passionate Trek fans for other Trek fans. One of the first and best was Star Trek: New Voyages (who for a period retitled themselves Star Trek: Phase II, after the aborted sequel Trek TV series that eventually morphed into Star Trek: The Motion Picture). This group, headed up by James Cawley, set out to create the never-made fourth season of the original Star Trek series. Over the past decade they released ten full-length episodes, with near-perfect recreations of the sets, costumes, and props used in the Original Series and the still-unbelievable involvement of original Trek cast-members Walter Koenig and George Takei as well as many other alumni of the various official Trek shows. (I have reviewed a number of their terrific episodes, most recently the Klingon-centric Kitumba; Mind-Sifter, an adaptation of a famous Star Trek novella; and The Holiest Thing, which depicted Kirk’s first meeting with Dr. Carol Marcus.) A competing group with a similar goal to create new Original Series episodes soon emerged, Star Trek Continues, headed up by Vic Mignogna. This group has released seven full-length episodes, which also boast an extraordinarily impressive degree of accuracy to the look and feel of “official” Classic Trek episodes. (I have reviewed all seven episodes of Star Trek Continues, including Pilgrim of Eternity, a sequel to the Original Series episode Who Mourns for Adonais?; the Orion-centric Lolani; and the recent Embracing the Winds.) Then there is Tim Russ (Tuvok from Star Trek Voyager)’s feature-length movie Star Trek: Of Gods and Men, which included a number of actors from the various Trek series reprising their roles (Tim Russ himself, Walter Koenig, Nichelle Nichols, Alan Ruck, Grace Lee Whitney) or playing new characters (J.G. Hertzler, Garrett Wang, Ethan Phillips, Cirroc Lofton, Chase Masterson, and Gary Graham). (Click here for my review.) Mr. Russ recently got back into the Trek game with his attempt to launch a new, independently-produced Trek web-series Star Trek Renegades (click here for my review of their Renegades pilot). There are plenty more Star Trek fan film projects that are much-loved on-line but that I haven’t seen, such as Hidden Frontier, Farragut, and many others.
Then, in 2014, Alec Peters and a talented group of collaborators released the astonishingly professional-looking short-film Prelude to Axanar (click bere for my review), and announced plans to release a full-length Axanar film that would tell the story of Captain Garth’s historic victory to end the Four-Years War with the Klingons. This is an unexplored period of Trek history, set before the events of the Original Series. (Garth appeared in one Original Trek episode, “Whom Gods Destroy”.) Axanar would feature an array of professional actors (including Battlestar Galactica’s Richard Hatch and Ellen Vernon, and Trek veterans J.G. Hertlzer and Gary Graham, reprising his role from Enterprise as Vulcan ambassador Soval) and looked to be the most ambitious, most polished Trek fan film yet.
This apparently threatened CBS/Paramount, who launched a lawsuit against Alec Peters and Axanar. With the recent hints that the in-development new Trek series Discovery will also be set in the period of the Four-Years War with the Klingons, it seems clear that a motivating factor was that they felt the need to protect the uniqueness of their in-development new project.
Not only did CBS/Paramount move to shut down Axanar, but they released a draconian set of “fan film guidelines” that included outrageous restrictions such as no fan film is allowed to involve anyone who has ever been involved with Star Trek professionally, and no fan film can be longer than 15 minutes. This totally demolishes the types of wonderfully innovative and entertaining fan films that have been made over the years.
The result? Star Trek: New Voyages immediately closed its doors, leaving several in-production episodes unreleased. Star Trek: Continues announced that they would be wrapping up their series with several additional episodes (though I’m not sure any new episodes will ever see the light of day). Star Trek Renegades took Star Trek out of their name, and changed the costumes and visual effects and script to remove references to any familiar Star Trek elements. They have two soon-to-be-released episodes and I don’t believe they have any plans to make any more. (Their original plans of a twelve-episode season are not to be.)
During this past summer’s release of Star Trek Beyond, producer J.J. Abrams announced, to the joy of Trek fans, that CBS/Paramount would be dropping the Axanar lawsuit, but that never happened. The lawsuit proceeded and a trial was approaching.
So what is the result of last week’s settlement? It’s unclear what if any payment Alec Peters will have to make to CBS/Paramount (payment that would be drawn from the fan-donated money that was supposed to go towards the making of the Axanar film). Axanar can go ahead, and utilize former professional Trek actors, BUT rather than a full-length feature film they can make, wait for it, two fifteen-minute episodes. That’s it.
Not only does this completely squash the dream of the Axanar film, but it upholds this ridiculous new fifteen-minute limit for all Trek fan-films, thus appearing to prevent any OTHER Trek fan-film group from continuing to make Trek fan-made episodes as they had been doing. This is the end of the Trek fan films as we have known them.
It’s hard for me to recall another instance of a franchise so turning against its own fans. Star Trek would not exist if not for its fans. It was the fans whose letter-writing campaign got CBS to renew the original series for a second season, and then again for a third. It was the fans who turned those original 79 episodes into such a huge hit in syndication that the studio sought fit to create The Motion Picture and the subsequent film series.
Are these fan films infringing on CBS/Paramount’s copyright? I have no trouble accepting CBS/Paramount’s claims that they are. But where is the harm? I guarantee you that the people who are making and watching these projects are the same people who are the first ones to support “official” Star Trek product with their wallets. I’m a huge fan of these fan films (obviously). And my house is full with Star Trek blu-rays and DVDs, Star Trek books, Star Trek soundtrack CDs, Star Trek posters, and all sorts of other Trek stuff that has meant money right into CBS/Paramount’s coffers. To spit in the face of the fans in this way, to crush these fan-made projects borne from a true love of Star Trek, is jaw-dropping to me. I take this very personally as a Trek fan.
This isn’t just a philosophical issue. I, like many other Trek fans, have given money in kickstarter and indiegogo campaigns to support Axanar, as well as Star Trek: New Voyages and Star Trek Continues. By putting the kibosh on these projects, Paramount/CBS are flat-out taking the money that Star Trek fans like I have given.
Does this mean I will refuse to watch Star Trek Discovery or any future “official” Star Trek project? No, it does not. I’d like to say it will, but in all honesty, I don’t see myself staying away. But this will certainly color my feelings towards the franchise moving forward. There’s no question that my feelings about Discovery will be affected by the crushing of Axanar. The idea that the two projects could not co-exist is ludicrous to me, and insulting to Star Trek fans everywhere. It’s a shame, and a colossal missed opportunity for the franchise. I’m about as down on Star Trek, at this moment, as I have ever been.
Enjoy the fantastic Prelude to Axanar here:
Watch the high-point of Star Trek: New Voyages, their episode “World Enough and Time,” starring George Takei himself:
Watch “Lolani,” my favorite episode so far of Star Trek Continues:
And here is Tim Russ’ Star Trek: Of Gods and Men: