Star Trek is an enormous and complex cultural entity whose impact on politics, technology, and storytelling are undeniable. It’s also as flawed and problematic as any other massive media franchise. Lifelong Trekkie and Deadshirt Editor-in-Chief Dylan Roth attempts to make sense of it all for die-hards and outsiders alike in his bi-weekly column: Infinite Diversity.
“You know, there’s nothing wrong with a healthy fantasy life, as long as you don’t let it take over.”
– Counsellor Deanna Troi (“Hollow Pursuits” [TNG])
The words “fan film” usually evoke the image of a shaky home video shot in someone’s living room, with obviously thrown together costumes and horrible acting. It’s blackmail material. And while that description is definitely accurate for the majority of amateur tributes, Star Trek is one of a handful of media entities whose fans are willing to devote months of their time and, collectively, hundreds of thousands of dollars to create fan films that look and feel as close to the real thing as possible. High-end Star Trek fan productions date back at least to the mid-eighties, varying greatly in quality and frequency, but the past decade has seen an unprecedented boom in fan-created films and series that are not only watchable but actually hold up against the source material.
While plenty of TV shows and movies have fanbases as devoted as Star Trek‘s, Trek has a few unique qualities that make it particularly well suited for fan recreation. For one thing, the original Star Trek series was made on a shoestring budget in the late 1960s, so replicating that show’s sets, costumes, and effects is a fairly attainable goal with 21st century resources. For another, many former Star Trek cast and crew members have been willing, even eager, to take part in fan productions. Actors from all five Star Trek TV series have appeared in fan-produced films or guest starred in fan series. Writers from The Original Series, The Next Generation, and Deep Space Nine have adapted unused pitches or even created original scripts for use in ongoing fan productions. In short, Trek alums have just the right combination of enthusiasm and spare time to get involved and raise the bar for quality in fan films.
Finally, the structure of Star Trek allows for a great deal of experimentation and adaptation. The adventures seen in the core series only represent a small fraction of the goings-on in the Trek universe. There are hundreds of Starfleet ships boldly going where no one has gone before, plus the world outside of Starfleet, so there’s plenty of room for stories starring original characters in the Trek idiom.
The result has been a wealth and variety of fan-created, not-for-profit space adventures, each building off of what has come before until the peak of true Trek quality is within reach.
The earliest forerunner to the Trek fan film renaissance began way back in 1985-86, when actor George Takei agreed to reprise his role as Lt. Hikaru Sulu in Star Trek Yorktown: A Time to Heal, an amateur effort produced by college student Stan Wu and directed by Da Han. While the story was set between the The Original Series and The Motion Picture, it was filmed between production of Star Trek III and IV, meaning that George Takei was technically a movie star when he took part in this backyard project. While principal photography for A Time to Heal was mostly wrapped, including all of Takei’s scenes, the film was never completed, and while there’s been a recent effort to finish it,
conflict over ownership of the footage may tie up release indefinitely. [UPDATE: As noted by the producer, who commented below, there is no such conflict and A Time to Heal is expected to see release.]
Over the next fifteen years, legitimate Star Trek media ballooned from reruns and the occasional feature film to a ubiquitous transmedia phenomenon, reaching its zenith in the mid-nineties with two concurrent TV series, a string of hit films, and a constant stream of novels, comics, video games, and merchandise. With so much real Trek to absorb, there was little demand for fan productions, nor was there a reliable method to finance and distribute them. But as the franchise’s mass appeal wound down, the internet’s capabilities were expanding. Even before YouTube, fan productions were beginning to once again find an audience of Trekkies hungry for the fix that television was no longer providing.
The year 2000 saw the launch of Star Trek: Hidden Frontier, a fan series set after Deep Space Nine that would become an institution of sorts, with fifty episodes and three spin-offs, spanning the entire decade. Hidden Frontier‘s early work was amateurish to say the least, shot entirely on a green screen with just the worst non-actor actors reading awkward dialog to uninspired stories. Over time though, as producer Rob Caves gained confidence, experience, and a stronger stable of actors, the show became a lot more watchable. Hidden Frontier was also notable for its CGI space battles, and for featuring gay characters, something the real Star Trek franchise still hasn’t done to this day. If nothing else, HF proved that fan-produced Trek could gain a large, loyal viewership over time, especially if it was willing to offer fans something they craved that was missing in the official canon.
Around the same time Hidden Frontier was gearing up, fans of The Original Series were producing Starship Exeter, set in the 23rd century aboard one of the sister ships to Kirk’s Enterprise. With a cast of original characters and replica sets, props, and costumes, Exeter sought to tell new adventures with new characters, but to hold true to the look and feel of the original Trek. The premiere of its first episode in 2002 caused so much traffic on SlashDot that they actually had to remove the video or risk crashing the site. Sadly, only one additional episode was produced, and post-production took so long that it was only finally released this year (though to much fanfare). Exeter wasn’t out to trick anyone into thinking they’re watching a real TV show, but it was a passionate effort that whet the Trek audience’s appetite for more classic-style fan projects. Since then, other series with original crews set in the TOS era, like the popular Starship Farragut and more recent Star Trek: Secret Voyage have emerged.
But if you’re looking for new Trek episodes in the classic style, look no further than:
Captain James T. Kirk’s first five-year mission aboard the USS Enterprise was famously cancelled in its third season, but there are currently two ongoing fan series that picked up where The Original Series left off, effectively acting as Star Trek: Season Four. Each of them has the same goal: to create new stories featuring the original crew, to recapture the tone of classic Trek, and to expand the story with new characters and situations. However, the two series have gone about it in slightly different ways, learning from each other and developing what seems to be a friendly competition.
Actor/producer James Cawley’s Star Trek: The New Voyages (later renamed Star Trek: Phase II after the aborted 70s series, but both titles are currently in use) began in 2003 and quickly became the gold standard for Trek fan productions. You could easily mistake New Voyages/Phase II for a real TV show: it boasts perfect replicas of the original costumes and sets, impressive visual effects, and most notably, the endorsement and involvement of a slew of Trek alumni. Walter Koenig and George Takei have each reprised their roles as older versions of Chekov and Sulu, respectively, and TOS & TNG writers D.C. Fontana and David Gerrold have both contributed scripts to the series.
There’s also Star Trek Continues, produced by and starring voice actor Vic Mignogna, whose dedication to recapturing the magic of TOS goes even deeper than Cawley’s Phase II. While Phase II has attempted to broaden the scope of The Original Series with modern space effects and filming techniques, Continues attempts to exactly capture the look, feel, and pace of the original Star Trek rather than improve upon it. By this measure, Star Trek Continues is hands-down the best fan series running. Everything from the camera angles to the pace of the story to the cadence of the dialogue is a pitch-perfect emulation of classic Trek. It’s hard to even put your finger on exactly what it is Mignogna and his crew are doing right, it just feels like the show. Their commitment to bringing The Original Series to life is so obsessive that it can really only be understood on a subconscious level.
The continuing existence of professional-quality fan-created shows like Phase II and Continues is only possible due to the growing popularity of crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo. In 2014 alone, Phase II raised almost $65,000 to complete post-production on their latest set of episodes. Crowdfunding of this nature has allowed them to complete a full replica of the Desilu soundstage where The Original Series was filmed in the 1960s, and to begin producing two versions of each episode–one with modern effects, and one with effects that look more in line with those of TOS. Star Trek Continues raised $126,000 this year to produce three episodes. With this kind of heat behind it, even these non-profit series can produce episodes that look and sound as close to the real thing as we’re ever likely to see again.
The Pros Try their Hand
To celebrate Star Trek‘s fortieth anniversary in 2006, actor Tim Russ (Voyager‘s Lt. Tuvok) directed his own tribute, a feature-length film entitled Star Trek: Of Gods and Men. This fan film utilized the existing New Voyages sets, but was otherwise financed entirely out of pocket by superfan Sky Conway. Of Gods and Men stars Russ, Walter Koenig (Chekov), Nichelle Nichols (Uhura), and Alan Ruck (of Ferris Bueller fame) each reprising their Star Trek roles, plus more Trek veterans as new characters to tell the story of a Trek timeline gone horribly wrong. Despite its unmatched pedigree, Of Gods and Men suffers from the same pitfalls that many lesser fan productions do: it’s boring and poorly paced. The movie looks and feels like a SyFy Original Movie, but it’s a worthwhile one-and-done watch for fans of The Original Series, particularly because it allows Koenig and Nichols to do some real acting, something they were never able to do as supporting players.
Nevertheless, Of Gods and Men was successful enough that Conway and Russ have gone to work producing a new project, Star Trek: Renegades. Renegades reunites Russ, Koenig, and a handful of other Trek veterans like Robert Picardo, and is pitched as a darker, edgier, “not your grandad’s Star Trek” type effort. Renegades is meant to be a pilot, one they hope rightsholders CBS will pick up as a series. (This will never, ever, ever, happen.) If this effort fails to catch the network’s attention (it will), then the plan is to continue the series as a nonprofit, crowdfunded online series. This future isn’t so unlikely, seeing as the pilot alone has raised over $370k across two plaforms.
Kickstarter has opened the door for more and more ambitious Star Trek fan productions. After all, as long as no one actually makes a profit off of it, an unlicensed fan film can have as high a budget as its producers can raise. They just have to spend all of the money. That money can go into professional-quality special effects and name brand actors.
The upcoming amateur film Axanar puts to work every lesson learned from previous fan endeavors and is shaping up to be an unparalleled production. Writer/producer Alec Peters has assembled a cast of actors from Trek and Battlestar Galactica, led by Richard Hatch, to create a 90-minute movie that’s meant to look not like a classic Trek episode, but like a modern Trek feature film. The film will tell the story of the Battle of Axanar, the climax of the first open conflict between the young Federaton and the Klingon Empire. In a brilliant marketing stroke, Peters first raised money for a proof-of-concept short film, an in-universe documentary about the feature’s backstory. Prelude to Axanar, which featured BSG‘s Richard Hatch and Kate Vernon, and Trek alums Tony Todd, Gary Graham, and J.G. Hertzler, raised $101,171. That’s for the twenty minute short film. Then, based on the strength of that short (which is amazing), Peters raised the budget for the feature, an unfathomable $638,471.
That’s an enormous sum for a fan film, but a small fraction of what it cost to make, say, Star Trek Into Darkness ($185 million). If Prelude to Axanar is any indication, Peters and director Christian Gossett have to potential to make a Trek feature that can stand toe-to-toe with the big studio feature, at least visually. Of course, the visuals aren’t what matters, it’s the story and performances that will really set it apart, but Prelude was promising in those departments as well. We’ll see how well this most ambitious Trek experiment turns out in Fall or Winter 2015.
Alec Peters isn’t the only person getting ideas: another feature-length budget fan film with impressive production values, Star Trek: Horizon, is due as soon as this winter. If projects like Axanar and Horizon can get traction among fans, then it won’t matter as much how long we have to wait between feature films, or for CBS and Paramount to finally develop a new legitimate television show. We can make Star Trek all by ourselves. We’re getting really good at it.
- In all my research for this installment of Infinite Diversity, my favorite fan-film to watch was an hour-long computer-animated movie called Star Trek: Aurora. It’s a very emotional sci-fi story that doesn’t seem at first as if it needs to be a Star Trek film at all, but then takes a very Trek twist about halfway through. A second installment that aims more for comedy than drama is currently being released in bits and pieces.
- The closest thing The Next Generation has gotten to a New Voyages-style continuation is, no foolin’, a porn flick called Star Trek: The Next Generation XXX: A Parody. It’s not actually a parody–it’s a respectful fan-written episode of the show with a fairly interesting plot that’s just interrupted now and then so the characters can have sex on the holodeck. The full film is hard to find, but you can watch it with the sex scenes cut out here and here.
Next time: The Maquis, 9/11, and Trek‘s complicated relationship with terrorism.
Infinite Diversity will return in two weeks! Follow @DeadshirtDotNet on Twitter to keep up with what’s new here on Deadshirt, and feel free to tweet @DylanRoth with suggestions for future topics for Infinite Diversity, or just to talk about Trek. He truly never gets tired of that.