Tony Black on the legal dispute over Star Trek: Axanar…
Fan films have existed in the Star Trek universe almost as long as the licensed ones. Just look at Star Trek: New Voyages which frequently includes major stars from Voyager or as far back as The Original Series, frequently playing the roles they are beloved for by millions in projects that aren’t canon, aren’t licensed and aren’t making real money. These people do it for the love of Trek, hence why it was disappointing to hear Paramount Pictures & CBS–now joint owners of the franchise–were going after the team behind fan-made film Axanar for war last year, citing “direct, contributory and vicarious copyright infringement”, treating them like they were all devils with Photoshop. Colour me surprised therefore to hear J.J. Abrams, at the Star Trek fan event last weekend where the Star Trek Beyond trailer dropped, declare Paramount & CBS are dropping the Axanar lawsuit after Beyond director Justin Lin, to paraphrase Abrams, “had a word”. Now the cynic in me wonders if this isn’t all conveniently good for PR purposes, appealing to a fandom who after a poor first trailer for Beyond, were very underwhelmed about this summer’s 50th anniversary movie, but regardless – if this is true, then it’s great news, not just for Trek but also fan-made fiction as a whole.
Just to put all this in context, let’s explore what Axanar actually is, because outside of Trek fandom it may still remain a relatively unknown quantity. A project in the works since as far back as 2010 from producer Alec Peters, Star Trek: Axanar has been designed to sketch in an area of Trek lore which was hinted at in The Original Series – the final, climactic battle between the Federation and the Klingons following a long and bloody war, led by the Kirk of his day, leading Federation commander Garth of Izar–who of course appeared in the TOS S3 episode ‘Whom Gods Destroy’ as a power-crazed, shapeshifting antagonist. Much like several TOS characters almost thrown away by scripting of the 1960’s, Garth’s backstory is ripe for deeper exploration and by weaving it into the battle of Axanar, the climactic battle in the war, Peters saw an opportunity not just to explore an interesting character from the early days of Trek but a rich, fascinating period of Federation history roughly two decades before ‘The Cage’ and the beginning of TOS.
Attempting to raise $10,000 to fund a ‘prelude trailer’, essentially a proof of concept, Peters turned to Kickstarter where he raised a whopping $101,000. The eventual trailer released on YouTube, Prelude to Axanar, was presented as a documentary-style, after the fact piece of history, starring sci-fi luminaries such as Richard Hatch, J.G. Hertzler, and Gary Graham reprising his Enterprise recurring role as Vulcan Ambassador Soval. The critical and fan praise for the trailer was staggering; many felt it matched the production values in its acting, script and special effects of the show or movies themselves, and TOS writer David Gerrold–a veritable legend in Trek circles–was so impressed by what he saw in the script for the movie to come, he signed on as a creative consultant. Fans, aware their next dose of Trek was years away and for many not purist Star Trek as they love it, wanted more. This, arguably, is where Paramount & CBS became jittery.
Don’t get me wrong, I understand the need for copyright, and the protection of it. I’m on the verge of seeing my first piece of fiction writing published in print form, and the last thing I would want is for my personal property to be copied and exploited wholesale. One of the reasons, however, Paramount for years have let fan films such as the aforementioned New Voyages stand is because they’ve never been made for profit, meaning nobody slaving days and weeks and months creating these films is making a dime from using the Trek world and its characters. Axanar has always been the same, not for profit – so why go after them so vociferously? It could be because Axanar, unlike New Voyages, may well appeal to beyond the Trek fanbase.
The other fan films, even with luminaries such as Walter Koenig or Tim Russ or Nichelle Nichols involved, have always looked and sounded slightly less professional. Prelude to Axanar felt like a real challenge to Paramount’s professionalism, especially at a point where a lot of the Trek fanbase wanted a different direction; this was the year after Star Trek Into Darkness, pilloried by many for being a pillage of the venerated Wrath of Khan, and a long way off from the CBS All Access deal that gave Bryan Fuller the keys to the Trek TV kingdom. What does he make of Axanar? You can bet similar to Abrams and Lin: that it’s A Good Thing. This, you see, is the paradox of copyright law – studios or estates are free to sue and threaten fans for encroaching on their entities when the majority of people who make these fan films or write these scripts are doing it for the love of that property. If people wanted to make serious cash, why would anyone make a fan fiction Star Trek film?! There are much much easier ways to make a buck.
Given his intervention at Paramount, and how he explained suing the Axanar production sends the wrong message to fans who are invested and love Star Trek, Lin is standing up for the creative fraternity who don’t exist within the closed off club that make up Hollywood. It would be hyperbolic to suggest Lin’s actions here, convincing a major studio to pull back on a lawsuit, will mean open season on Star Trek and copyright material at large, but it represents a sea change in how these productions are perhaps viewed from the inside. The way we digest media in all its forms has changed; people make films for YouTube on a daily basis, people can self-publish novels through Amazon using public domain legendary characters such as Sherlock Holmes if they wish, and any old Tom, Dick or Harry can pick up a microphone and create their own radio podcast show on a million different topics, including Trek.
Fans are no longer just digesting the media they love, they are participating in it, and while copyright should never be ignored or taken for granted, and indeed the rights and sanctity of creatives should never be tarnished – equally fans who devote time, passion and energy into honouring their greatest interest shouldn’t be treated like criminals. They should be, if not celebrated, then at least encouraged to live and love their fandom, not be persecuted for it. So well done, Justin, and good luck Axanar – it’s a battle I know I’m looking forward to seeing.
Tony Black is a freelance film/TV writer & podcaster & would love you to follow him on Twitter.