Star Trek 50th Anniversary — The Latest Example of a Corporate Creator Failing Fandom

Star Trek — and its fandom — deserve better.

Last week officially marked the 50th anniversary of the first airing of Star Trek: The Original Series. If you’re an avid fan, you probably already had a rewatch planned for September 8th. If you’re not, you might not even know the 50th anniversary happened.

Though Paramount and CBS — the corporate entities that currently own the rights to Star Trek — planned and executed some events  to mark the occasion, for the most part, it has been a lackluster effort for one of the most important American franchises of modern pop culture. Not to mention a storytelling universe that still hopes to make money in both movies and TV.

Frankly, Star Trek deserves better. Let’s take a look at what Paramount and CBS has done to mark the 50th anniversary year and all of the ways in which they are missing a great opportunity (both financially and culturally) to mobilize the Star Trek fandom…

What Paramount/CBS is doing…

In many ways, it is an exciting time to be a Star Trek fan. The franchise is returning to its original home: TV. This very month, a new Star Trek TV seriesStar Trek: Discovery — will start shooting in Toronto under the showrunning eye of Bryan Fuller, he of Hannibal, Pushing Daisies, and — yes — Star Trek: Voyagerfame. This will be the first new Star Trek TV series since Enterprise went off the air in 2005, and it is all kinds of exciting.

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That’s the good news. The bad news is that we won’t actually be seeing said new Star Trek TV series until next year, which just seems like a lack of foresight on CBS’ part. Can you imagine the hype and cultural momentum to be gained from launching a new Star Trek TV series in September 2016, exactly 50 years (potentially, to the day) that the original Star Trek aired? Frankly, we would have even settled for CBS getting its act together enough to release a real trailer for the new series on September 8th…

Of course, we did get a Star Trekreboot this film with Star Trek Beyond, arguably the Star Trekreboot film most accepted by Star Trek fandom so far. As someone who was lucky enough to attend the Star Trek Beyondworld premiere at San Diego Comic Con, I can tell you it was a personal year highlight. Paramount pulled out all of the stops to celebrate this important nerd event, inviting all of the cast, setting out fireworks, and debuting the new movie with a live orchestra. Also, they gave out some truly epic swag…

Of course, a mass majority of Star Trekfans were not present for this fun event. Not to mention this was an event that, though celebrating Star Trekas a franchise, was really more about the celebration of this specific movie.

For the official 50th anniversary day, CBS released this celebratory video that left much to be desired. As noted by io9 in a similarly-themed article, the video only features footage from The Original Series, The Next Generation, and the reboot films. It’s also pretty dude-heavy, which isn’t very representative of the Star Trekuniverse’s progressive mission…

When it came down to the actual day, those who seemed to be doing a majority of the celebration were individual fans and media sites composed of Star Trekfans (a la Den of Geek). For the corporate license-holders soon looking to launch a new Star Trekseries, as well as to continue enthusiasm for an existing Star Trekfilm franchise directly based on the show this anniversary celebrated, this was an underwhelming and arguably even financially irresponsible effort.

CBS/Paramount vs. Fandom…

In many ways, 2016 has been The Year of The Fan vs. The Creator (or, in this case, The Copyright Holder). As one of the biggest franchises and most active fandoms in the world, Star Trek would not be spared from this ongoing cultural war. Though corporations are often striking back against fan works that step over the line from not-for-profit to commercial venture, Axanar would prove the white whale of Star Trek copyright law.

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For those who are unfamiliar with the case, Axanar is a crowdfunded, relatively big budget Star Trekfan film about the early days of the war between the Federation and the Klingon Empire that was hit with a lawsuit from CBS/Paramount earlier this year. Since the initial lawsuit announcement, there has been some backtracking on it (as announced by J.J. Abrams himself during the Star Trek Beyondpress tour) that was later denied by CBS/Paramount, who obviously have more say in if this lawsuit will go forward.

Though it’s arguably not that hard to make a case that Axanar threatens the copyright Paramount/CBS holds for Star Trek, the corporation fired a shot across the bow of the entire Star Trek fandom when they released a document officially titled CBS and Paramount’s Guidelines For Avoiding Objections. Here’s an excerpt, announcing intention, which kind of comes across as a thinly-veiled lawsuit threat:

CBS and Paramount Pictures are big believers in reasonable fan fiction and fan creativity, and, in particular, want amateur fan filmmakers to showcase their passion for Star Trek.  Therefore, CBS and Paramount Pictures will not object to, or take legal action against, Star Trek fan productions that are non-professional and amateur and meet the following guidelines.

The thing is: some (though not all) of the guidelines are pretty limiting. They put a limit on the length of the fan production (15 minutes for a single story). Bootleg merchandise cannot be used in any fan films, which means any props, costumes, etc. will have to be bought from the official store. You can’t use Star Trek clips. You can’t spend more than $50,000 on the production. It must be family friendly, and you can’t involve anyone who’s worked on Star Trek previously.

If you’d like to hear more about the Axanar lawsuit, copyright law, and/or the Guidelines for Avoiding Objection, I strongly recommend podcast Fansplaining’s episode on the subject…

This is a big moment in this Fan v. Creator cultural struggle, but, in the context of Star Trek fandom, it is also the worst timed moment ever. During a year in which Paramount/CBS should be celebrating the fandom that has kept this cultural property alive for the last 50 years, they are instead attacking it. It is the latest example of a media conglomerate misunderstanding the aims and interests of fandom and, in many ways, squandering their own financial opportunity.

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After all, if there is anything else that the Powers That Be have recently become woke to, it is the understanding that fandom is a strong cultural and financial resource — if courted, celebrated, and listened to in respectful ways. Here’s a clue, Paramount/CBS: the Guidelines For Avoiding Objection is not an example of this.

Doctor Who: A 50th anniversary comparison…

It’s hard not to compare the Doctor Who 50th anniversary celebrations, which went down a few years ago in 2013, to the Star Trek 50th anniversary celebrations (or lack thereof). After all, they hit only a few years apart and both are titans of the pop culture nerd world.

Unlike CBS/Paramount, the Beeb took full advantage of the chance to celebrate 50 years of Doctor Whowith great, well-organized enthusiasm. Not only did they have their regular Doctor Who season, but they also created a 50th anniversary special (screened in 3D in theaters) and a better than it probably should have been docudrama about the creation of Doctor Who, written by Mark Gatiss and starring David Bradley…

Both “The Day of the Doctor” and An Adventure in Space and Time were not just enjoyable standalone adventures in their own right, but joyous celebrations of all that had come before. They were loving tributes to this world and its characters. They were fan service in the best possible way — rewarding long-time and new fans alike for their faithful fervor with moments like this one, which sees the Eleventh Doctor meeting The Curator, played by the Fourth Doctor’s Tom Baker…

Doctor Who is so on top of all of these things, it even remembered to wish Star Treka happy 50th anniversary and welcome it to “The 50 Club.” Stop being such an overachiever, Doctor Who.(Just kidding. Never stop.)

— Doctor Who Official (@bbcdoctorwho) September 8, 2016

Television has a relatively short history, compared to film or theater, which is why these 50-year series are such treasures that deserve to be celebrated.

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Maybe I’m being picky, but…

You may accuse me of being too picky. After all, aren’t we getting a new Star Trek TV series, a new Star Trek film, and some cool events? That’s far more than nothing. And, yes, I completely agree. It is a wonderful time to be a Star Trek fan and, as someone who grew up on the show, I cannot wait to see it back on television again — where it belongs.

However, I can’t shake the feeling that Paramount/CBS is really missed (and continues to miss) an opportunity to celebrate the rich Star Trek universe and its enthusiastic fandom. From where I’m sitting, it represents a distinct lack of planning and organization, as well as an underappreciation for a franchise (and fandom) that has inspired so much in so many. Perhaps more than any other year in recent memory, we really could have used an official celebration of the diverse, inclusive, and peaceful future Star Trek has always optimistically imagined for us.