In September 2015 while looking through star trek fan videos I came across this particular gem:
After seeing this I was understandably excited. For those of you who do not know me. I am a big fan of star trek. Admittedly I haven’t watched much of the original series (was too young to fully understand or remember when it hit tv screens here in India) but I have watched most of TNG and a fair amount of DS9. Long story short I was anticipating the final release of Axanar and its take on the star trek universe.
There is of course one catch- This is a FAN production. And therefore operating under a grey area of US and international copyright law. and therefore likely to have their butts sued off by Paramount and CBS.
Which is exactly what happened:
Naturally I am bummed about this but then that is life. Star Trek is owned by CBS and Paramount and they hold the right to make new Star Trek movies and TV shows and no one else! No argument there. HOWEVER, fan fiction isn’t something new, and fan episodes and series have cropped up over the decade that Star trek has been off the air. Some of these have been quite successful such as Star Trek Hidden Frontier and some even have the original cast members involved like Star Trek Renegades So why is CBS and Paramount Suing Star Trek Axanar and not these other fan productions?
For an answer lets analyze the timing- The suit was filed on December 29th 2015. A few days after Star Wars The Force Awakens broke a bunch of box office records and also 2 weeks after the first teaser for Star trek beyond was released.
Since its announcement after Star Trek Into Darkness, Star Trek Beyond has had a troubled production: J J Abrams after 2 movies of being cruelly nick named Jar Jar Abrams by whining Trek fans, left Star Trek to direct Star Wars, a franchise he actually cares about. Roberto Orci after blowing up at fans (http://www.tor.com/2013/09/06/bob-orci-blows-up-at-star-trek-fans-for-not-adoring-into-darkness/) also distanced himself from the franchise. This meant that the unenviable task of writing the screenplay of Star Trek beyond went to Simon Pegg who also acts as Scotty in the Film and Direction went to Fast and the Furious director Justin Lin.
Shortly after that rumors spread that the initial script was rejected for being “Too Star treky” (http://screenrant.com/star-trek-3-beyond-script-orci-simon-pegg/)
Unfortunately this means that the suits at paramount were reinventing the franchise. Making it more accessible to “main stream audiences”
So on December 14th 2015 to match the release of Star Wars The Force Awakens, we get This:
yup that is the Star Trek Trailer.
And this is how most “Trekkies” reacted to it
From the 1 minute and 34 seconds of this footage we can see the direction things are going. Is it going to be a bad movie? Nope. Is it going to make Paramount quite a chunk of change? Yup.
But is it Star trek?
that depend on your interpretation of the famous opening narration from TOS and TNG:
because that opening narration is what embodies what star trek is about and why it has the fandom that it has today.
Star trek at the end of the day is not an epic fantasy story where the fate of the galaxy rests on the shoulders of a rag tag bunch of misfits
The story of star trek has always been about self discovery. It explores the idea that we are not alone in the universe, that there are creatures of intelligence equal or even greater to our own and that humanity’s greatest challenge is finding our selves and our place in this universe of infinite diversity and infinite combinations.
Now, Compare this to the Axanar trailer:
You see the problem right?
On the face of it these two videos look and feel totally different. One is a big budget action movie, the other is a fictional documentary. one has got the beastie boys pumping in full volume the other has Tony Todd making an impassioned speech. Both have CGI space battles and have stuff blowing up.
Based on the video, what is Axanar? Is it Summer block buster material? Nope, it looks more like something that would air on the History channel.
But is it Star Trek?
Even though it is filmed in a documentary style with characters talking about events interspersed with a few CGI battle scenes, it still holds the overall theme and message of star trek. It is about humanity facing a race that holds war and prowess in battle above all else. How we rise to the challenge of defending our homes our civilization and our right to explore the galaxy.
Now a fan production that is popular with other fans isn’t anything new. Like I said fan films have been around for quite sometime now. they have their own followings and are made by groups of passionate people. So what is different about Axanar?
Well, This is what Hidden Frontier, one of the more successful and popular fan series looks like:
The difference, in case you haven’t already noticed is that Hidden Frontier was made by a few fans in a guy’s house using whatever costumes and equipment he could afford. It is still a compelling series but it looks like an amateur production.
Axanar on the other hand has had 3 successful crowd funding campaigns which got it over a million dollars. It has professionals both in front and behind the cameras. It has high quality CGI effects that make it look simply amazing. All this however has attracted a large amount of the wrong kind of attention.
A youtube video of a bunch of kids LARPing in front of a green screen is cute and harmless.
A youtube video of a professional quality albeit crowd funded low budget documentary with slick special effects, beautiful makeup and awesome acting? That my friends is seen as a threat.
It isn’t difficult to see where this is coming from. CBS/Paramount is fully aware that fans are less than happy about the new direction trek is going. And it isn’t 1966 anymore. Advances in computing, the internet and social media have lowered the costs of making and distributing films and series and crowd funding has enabled fans to make even more ambitious projects. They no longer need to start letter writing campaigns to get back their Trek. Axanar is the culmination of these trends. As a result the outcome of this trial if it goes to court will set an interesting legal precedent. It could fundamentally redefine the dynamic between IP holders and their customers.
The timing of this lawsuit and fan outrage at it proves that there is a line that fan productions cannot cross in terms of production values and scale. It also proves that CBS and Paramount view Axanar as more than a harmless tribute with free advertizing and more of a genuine threat to its business and intellectual property.
Whatever the outcome of this lawsuit, one message is clear, Fans and independent filmmakers no longer need the help of a massive studio to make a movie exactly the way they want.
There are 2 possible outcomes to this lawsuit:
option 1: CBS and Paramount win and Team Axanar gets ground into the dust with legal fees ensuring that they all never get to work again.
option 2: A settlement is reached and Axanar will be allowed to continue to film but would have to hold off on the release till Star Trek beyond is out of the Theaters. And Paramount will be able to interfere in its final production, mandating what can and cannot be used.
While option 1 is the more likely outcome, fighting someone as big as CBS/Paramount is insanely expensive it does make you question the idea of copyright laws. Copyright law exists to protect the owner’s right to make a profit out of their ideas. However there is a time limit to copyrights. Its called the statue of limitations. Different countries have different forms of copyright law and the all have different statue of limitations. In the US, copyrights last a whopping 120 years before they expire. And given Paramount and CBS probably renew their copyrights every year, their hold on Star Trek which has for all intents and purposes transcended from just a trade mark into a cultural phenomenon like Shakespeare before it, will last well into the 22nd and 23rd centuries (the actual time the Series is set in! I wonder if they will try to sue NASA for the warp drive) which means that the fanbase can go screw themselves.