Are Fandoms Their Own Worst Enemy?

We are living in what could be seen as a golden age of Geek culture and fandoms. That which once once the domain only of small groups of “geeky” or “nerdy” teenagers such as superheroes, sci-fi and toy collecting has branched out so significantly that it is, or is practically, mainstream.

This has meant that many franchises that the more traditional groups of Geeks were fans of have been rebooted to widen appeal, often with more success than anyone could have imagined. However it seems that the “old guard” don’t really like it.

The first signs of this effect were probably felt way before the rise of what we now see as Geek culture. After the rumours of the return to television as Phase II, the arrival of the very different in tone Star Trek: The Motion Picture was met with some disgust by the “die hard” fans of the original TV show, and so small a group as they were, they didn’t like the departure from the rather more upbeat and actiony tone of the Original Series to allow Robert Wise (director of The Day The Earth Stood Still, no less) to bring his high-level sci-fi blockbuster, in it’s 2001-esque glory, to the big screen. Even in 1979 the film style was perhaps a bit outdated. With Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the film was probably a bit more Star Wars-like with it’s space battles, and less thoughtful than it’s predecessor (much like Kirk’s Star Trek was more wagon train to the stars than Pike’s was) it was a bigger success, and cost less to make.

To be fair though… early release images like this didn’t help…

Fast forward to the release of Star Trek: The Next Generation. You wouldn’t believe it now, but the outcry about trying to redo Star Trek without the original cast at the time was immense (or as immense as it could be in the pre-internet age.) There are still, even now, hard core original series fans who reject Next Gen as being Star Trek and perhaps was the start of the plunging of knives, metophorically speaking, into Gene Roddenberry’s back.) This echoed on the big screen in 1989 to Batman where the outcry about Michael Keaton, a comedy actor, getting the role of the Dark Knight and thus making it as jokey a the 1960’s show was massive… and on par with the outcry at the rumours that it wasn’t going to be like the 1960’s show… Face palming doesn’t seem to cut it.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine stirred the hornets nest once more, with both original series and TNG fans objecting, whilst after a while the obvious parallels between DS9 and Babylon 5 would cause tensions (but that’s a whole other story, for another time.) The darker edgier tone of DS9 upset lots of fans (and boy would it get much darker, with what Captain Sisko would get up to to save the Alpha Quadrant…) Star Trek: Voyager was accepted a little more easily, but then as Voyager was in it’s 6th season Sci-Fi fans were getting their claws into George Lucas and Lucasfilm as Star Wars: The Phantom Menace started the prequel trilogy and upset fans across the globe. To this day the prequel trilogy is thought of with derision by the Star Wars fanbase (and one character in particular whose initials would return to haunt the director of the seventh chapter in the saga.)

Isn’t that just an Akira class?

In 2001 the “fan” response to Enterprise (later Star Trek: Enterprise) as it hit UPN in the USA seemed to cement the term “hater” into the geek lexicon. The outpouring of bile against this show was staggering, considering what was being attempted, though perhaps a lack of explanation for why things were different to “known” future “history” of the Star Trek universe would have calmed things a bit (after all, all they had to say was – Star Trek: First Contact – that’s why!) That was a lesson learned for the future, but no-one believed that the response to Enterprise from the fanbase could be topped, and certainly not by the Trek fanbase, surely?

Russell T Davies then led the return of a British Icon… well actually a whole set of British Icons, really bringing back Doctor Who to the small screen in a fashion that lead to the BBC having not only a huge domestic, but worldwide hit, which annoyed many fans of “classic Who” (though perhaps a burping wheelie bin in the first episode may not have been the best choice.) However Russell and the BBC seemed to have got a handle on it pretty damned quick as by the time everyone had seen “Dalek”, half was through the first series of “NuWho” all but the most stubborn and vocal of the old guard had been silenced, be it in a library or elsewhere. The majority of the backlash against the new series, in fact, disappeared in but a “Blink” when tenth (or is that actually eleventh?) Doctor was settled in properly. Hell who wouldn’t enjoy the showrunner throwing the Cybermen to the Daleks in a manner that produced Dalek sass and something that wasn’t so much war as it was… well you know.

Time Wars (UK Marvel G1 comic)

Then there’s Transformers. After multiple reboots taking the original multiverse that we now know as Generation One or G1 (which in itself had multiple continuities from the nuggets of story in the box bio-profiles on the “tech specs” to the Marvel comic, to the TV show, to the Ladybird books, to various other variations) going to Generation 2 (comic wise, a darker continuation of G1), to Beast Wars, Beast Machines, Rid (2001), Armada, Energon and Cybertron, all being generally accepted (though the Trukk not Munky brigade against Beast Wars was as visceral as it was small – fortunately the TV show proved to be a bit of a gem), it was the jump to live action (to use the term liberally) that really put the cat amongst the pigeons.

The fan base was split down the middle. Even before the 2007 Michael Bay Transformers finished filming the fan backlash started as the designs of the characters were light years away from the G1 characters that the film-makers had promised that the movie was based on.

The release came, and the fanbase fractured badly – in many cases due to the fact that the characters in the film, for some, carried only the names of that which had gone before, rather than the essence of the characters. Indeed if Optimus Prime had acted like Optimus Prime, according to some, it really wouldn’t have mattered what he’d have reformatted into. Then the movie took so much money both at the US box office and worldwide, that it spawned a series of films that is still growing in instalments and box office takings.

However even with all the Bayformers Vs GeeWun nonsense the Michael Bay Transformers films have generated, the level of hatred not only towards the media and those making it, but also fans of other versions of the franchise pales into insignificance next to the fandom that is supposed to uphold ideals embedded into the very fabric of the franchise, and it’s very active fanbase – yet their track record as mentioned above is hardly spotless.

Early fan service

IDIC. Infinite Diversity In Infinite Combination. The 2009 Star Trek reboot on the big screen is by far the worst example of fans turning not only against a new media from “their” franchise, and those making (and starring in) it but against each other in an almost gang-like territorial manner that frankly would make Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, spin in his grave far more than anything they could have done with the creation that he started and developed with teams of people from 1964 onwards (with the original start to the development of the adventures of the SS Yorktown, that would morph into the pilot “The Cage” featuring Captain Pike of the United Earth Space Ship Enterprise.) Visceral was not the word. The fans who didn’t accept The Motion Picture came out of the woodwork along with those who hated Next Gen, DS9, Voyager and Enterprise to lambast the Bad Robot/Paramount release along with many of those who loved all the previous Star Trek iterations. In fact it seemed there were more Star Trek fans that hated the new film than those who would accept it or even enjoy it.

Zachary Quinto, and Leonard Nimoy, at Comic Con in San Diego, Calif. on Thursday, July 26, 2007. (AP Photo/Dan Steinberg)

The reasons for this were many. Not liking the cast (which this writer, frankly, doesn’t get), the major changes in technology (which were explained away in the comics, but not on screen, rather inappropriately), but the major factor seemed to be that it was Trek-light… The film had become a bit too much like Star Wars, and lighter on plot and moral back-bone for many of the fans of the “Prime” universe (in fact it’s no surprise that director JJ Abrams was never a Trek fan and wanted to get his mits on Star Wars…)

However what was absolutely unforgivable was the public denigration of those who dared to like the film. The internet was of age, of course, by 2009 with Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media platforms giving a voice to millions of people across the world. Star Trek 2009 was attacked and attacked, and those who publicly supported the film and had been fans of Prime universe Trek were also in the firing line. Then it turned out the 2009 film had taken more money than any other Star Trek cinema outing… by a very VERY long way. In fact by some measurements it had done better than all the films featuring the original series crew put together.

The film brought in hordes of new fans, as for every fan of the Prime universe who didn’t like it, it seems there were 2, probably much younger, fans of the reboot. The very definition of franchise longevity was rearing it’s head. It wasn’t welcomed, at least on the internet. You would have thought that an influx of new blood, interested in checking out the other episodes of Kirk, and the crew of the Enterprise, let alone the other versions of the shows would energise the fan base, with them welcoming the newbies with open arms, and regardless of their feelings towards the new film, introducing and sharing their love of The Original Series and the other Star Treks. Fortunately a small number of fans did and even with making a bit of fun of the 2009 film and 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness, welcomed the new fans in. The interesting thing, and this maybe keyboard warrior syndrome, was that the fans who actually went out and did Trek events, and in turn raised money for charities and the like here in the UK were the most welcoming to new fans. Online a very vocal portion of the fandom, however, which in fact may have been a majority (far more than seemed to be the case with Transformers fans reacting to new interest thanks to Michael Bay’s 4 going on 5 Transformers films, certainly) rejected those discovering Trek for the first time via JJ & Bad Robot’s interpretation… not that JJ (and other cast and crew members) had helped matters in certain interviews. If anything Into Darkness polarised fandom even more with it’s version of scenes from the hallowed Wrath of Khan being interpreted by many as almost spoof in nature.

With Geekdom gaining a massive foothold in popular culture thanks to franchises like Harry Potter through the 2000’s and the not inconsiderable impact of Iron Man in 2008 and the ensuing Marvel cinematic universe (MCU) the Transformers fandom would benefit from the influx of new fans, but the Star Trek fandom, rather ironically, appears to reject the new diversity, regardless of the number of combinations it manifested itself in.

Okay, hands up, this writer was put off a bit by the technology in 2009’s Star Trek, is no fan of Star Trek: Into Darkness and finds the Michael Bay Transformers films quite distressingly poor examples of how to treat a franchises characters… However as a huge fan of the original Transformers comics and toys (rather than the TV show) and a massive fan particularly of Star Trek: The Next Generation, but actually, in all honesty of all Star Trek, really, I saw the influx of new blood as an opportunity to expand the fan bases, allow them to grow rather than die, and introduce the newcomers to the older media, though perhaps in a measured way with a bit of a social history lesson to go with it (explaining that the USA had only passed their Civil Rights Act in 1964, two years prior to Star Trek airing, and thus ending their version of apartheid, making the bridge crew of the Enterprise rather a big deal, for instance.)

Nudging those who enjoy 2007’s Transformers into reading Target 2006 (UK G1 Marvel comic), watching Beast Wars, or checking out a G1 reissue of Optimus Prime was it’s own reward, in a “be one of us” kind of way. The same could be said of introducing the new wave of Trek fans to episodes such as TOS’s Balance Of Terror & Space Seed, fans of Into Darkness to Wrath of Khan and generally letting them lose to view Patrick Stewart own the screen as Picard, Avery Brooks provide a tour de force such as “Far Beyond The Stars”, Kate Mulgrew get her coffee from that nebula or even the wonder that is the fourth season of Star Trek: Enterprise… As for suggesting a binge watch of TNG’s Neutral Zone follows by “Q Who”, “Best of Both Worlds” and then Star Trek: First Contact it is a treat best shared with those new to assimilation! It’s no real surprised that Screen Junkies Honest Trailer of the 2009 Star Trek film boomed out “Who cares? Because STAR TREK IS AWESOME AGAIN!”

Fan films have also had a polarising effect, but even those who derided them as a waste of time had to admit that what those behind them was doing, *was* kinda cool. Of course fan films are hardly  a Trek only domain (the first “fan film” known dating back to the 1920’s) and if anything it’s brave soul who tried to do just that with Paramount having gone after fan film producers in the 1980’s. However since 1999/2000 Paramount and/or CBS as the franchise is now split pretty much left fan films alone. Various productions occurred from Star Trek: New Frontier to New Voyages/Phase II which set a whole new production standard. Behind the scenes machinations and politics then led to Star Trek: Continues happening following the fall out of what happened during the production and post production of Phase-II’s “Kitumba” which ended up being released late but the end product was great. The fall out was the start of Star Trek: Continues and the enlistment of a new Kirk for New Voyages (but that’s a story for others.) Even with the fan in-fighting behind the scenes on these productions and involvement of original series alumni, CBS (the main rights holders for The Original Series) pretty much ignored the fan films as they were not raising huge swathes of money, nor selling anything – episodes were just released on YouTube and the like. Okay this showed CBS didn’t have the foresight of Lucasfilm with their fan film awards, but at least they realised it did them no harm and thus didn’t go after the fans. Then Axanar happened.

Star Trek: Axanar, as it was originally titled, seemed like a damned good idea – go back to the period between Star Trek: Enterprise and The Original Series and fill in the gaps of a period mentioned in brief in relation to the character Garth Of Axanar. Great – as a fan film that would have been great. Unfortunately it went a bit further than that. A stunning (and it was an absolutely fundamentally stunning production for something allegedly being a fan film) production was released as a teaser for the main film, which also was used to help raise money for the production through crowdfunding. Some fans immediately saw a problem with this… Well not the crowdfunding per se, but the pledge rewards. Axanar branded promotional items were effectively being sold… the funding being raised was absolutely immense, and all but one of the cast of “Prelude To Axanar” were professional actors… and if people were being paid any more than just expenses, the production would be wandering into commercial territory. The fandom had potentially over-stepped the mark, a mark that admittedly hadn’t be made clear, but anyone could realise that making money from a fan film and using funds in a remotely commercial manner simply wasn’t on.

The legal departments from CBS, Paramount and their parent company sharpened their claws and went for the jugular… but it’s not like they really had much choice. A company called Axanar Productions were literally on their turf, operating as a commercial entity and producing an independent Star Trek film. Under intellectual property laws in various parts of the world, including the USA, those who own IP rights have to be seen to protect their IP or else they may, in fact lose their rights to it. So of course, Axanar was taken to court. The fandom split – some believed Axanar had overstepped a mark, and some felt that CBS/Paramount were overstepping a different mark… The court case against Axanar led to a call for fans to boycot the next Star Trek film, slated for release during the 50th Anniversary year. With Axanar very much in their sights, CBS and Paramount then released fan film guidelines which were rather draconian in nature and both the court case and the guidelines further angered fans (including fans of the shows and films who had worked on them and various official media!) Rather than take Lucasfilm’s lead the limits put on fan productions pretty much put an end to many fan’s dreams, as rather than just trying to contain fan films within the realms of non-profit film making, the rules are quite invasive. Indeed some of the rules were a sign that CBA and Paramount were about to start hunting down companies who had been using their IP commercially – cosplay companies seeming to be a target of late.

The court case also had a further nasty effect. Commercial Trek event organisers saw an opportunity to maximise their profits and sought to enlist CBS lawyers to go after smaller fan run non-profit events that existed to celebrate Star Trek and other franchises and raise money for many charities. On both sdes of the atlantic long running and new fan-run non-profit events were served with cease and desist orders and a set of guidelines to avoid CBS going after events was kinda worked out by the events themselves (e.g. actors can’t be seen on posters and promos in character, replica sets etc. can’t be used in promo images, etc.) Cause and effect – the fans pushing too hard in one way has been to the detriment of others in a rather major way.

The boycot probably didn’t have a huge effect on Star Trek: Beyond in the end. At least let’s hope it didn’t as it grossed less than the 2009 film and Into Darkness, whilst being the most “Star Trek” of the three reboot films. Beyond hit the sweet spot of balance between action, comedy moments and a moral tale that the original series and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home did. It deserved to do better than the 2009 film and certainly Into Darkness.

Mind you 2016 was the 50th Anniversary year, but you’d be forgiven if you’d missed it,  as it was handled so badly by CBS and Paramount that only fans really knew. Star Trek: Beyond had no mention of the 50th in it’s marketing, and though new merchanside has a new 50th logo on the packaging, there was so little released during 2016 that no-one really noticed.

Were CBS and Paramount’s attention focussed too much on legal shinnanigans? Did the fan boycot actually have an effect on Beyond and merchanside sales? Well it doesn’t matter now, as it pretty much means the 4th film will be less Trek-like as a result. Well done Trek fandom…

Transformers fans haven’t really gone down that path and criticism of recent official productions have been fairly on-point – the new RiD (as opposed to 2001’s RiD) is aimed squarely at the under 12s market, and the teen and adult aimed official Machima Transformers: Combiner Wars web series was so bad and so derided by the fan base, that it has simply disappeared from Machima’s YouTube channel, leaving the G1 fanbase facing another lengthy period of nothing.

Meanwhile the money printing machine that is the Michael Bay Transformers returns later in 2017 with the fifth film, Transformers: The Last Knight which appears to be mixing in Arthurian legend to Transformers lore whilst perhaps, it seems from the trailers, messing with the concepts of Unicron and Nemesis Prime. Cue further online arguments.

Then there is the up and coming Star Trek: Discovery. A show whose first season has pretty much been paid for by a deal to have it first run on Netflix… as long as you are not in the USA or Canada. CBS’s decision to show the pilot on CBS itself and then make the show only available in North America via it’s own subcription streaming service seems a little strange, if not just money grabbing in nature. Pitched as set in the “Prime” universe (well, it would have to as the “Kelvin” universe is the playground of Bad Robot and Paramount, and not CBS), fans hoped to see a more traditional look at the period 10 years prior to The Original Series. Of course, the first ill-advised footage of the USS Discovery herself and a leaked image of a faction of Klingons from the new series have caused uproar. All this over a shp based on a redesign of the Enterprise mooted for a film that turned into Phase II and then finally morphed into Star Trek: The Motion Picture… that film that introduced Klingons with ridges for the first time… I think I’ll wait to the thing comes out before I make a judgment, but I think it’s safe to say a big chunk of the fandom will do no such thing.

Being passionate about that which you are a fan of, is of course, natural… otherwise you wouldn’t be a fan. Fundamentalism in fandom starts to make that fandom look like a medieval religion, though, and needs to be kept in check. Heathly, reasoned and respectful debate about “your” franchise is a massively good thing, and creative juices from such thoughts and discussions can produce the most wonderful fan fiction and fan films (should you be allowed to make them at this point.) Anger towards others is not on, however.

The thing is that without new developments in a franchise, a continual updating and reimagining as you go, it will get stale, and without new fans – new blood into the fandom, the fandom will die. Even little things like refusing to accept the term “cosplay” and refering to fans as not being real fans as they are only into “NuWho”, or “NuTrek, or “Bayformers” simply shows how small minded you can be. It’s interesting that for the two main franchises mentioned in this article, both of which I am a fan of in the main, avoided the reboot route of just remaking previous media, and have gone off in other directions – one with an actual in-universe set of reasons and the other just existing as part of an ever expanding multiverse of stories (mind you in Star Trek terms, a multiverse is also what has happened as with all the time travel exploits of the various crews there are at least 47 Prime-like universes from the TV shows and pre-2009 films!) Things need to stay relevant… as the reaction of my 20 year old daughter to RoboCop 1987 and RoboCop 2014 showed – with the 1987 film being seen as being laughably bad from her point of view. The references if nothing else need to make sense to the public of now… not 10, 20 or 30 years ago.

New TV shows and films from your favourite franchise are *always* good. You may not like them, but they bring in new fans, and you know, your books, DVDs, Blu-rays and VHS tapes won’t disappear as a result of new productions. Heck they will be replaceable without too much difficulty if you wear them out (well, unless you want the pre special edition version of the original Star Wars trilogy, anyway…)

Regardless of your feelings towards newer media in the franchise you are a fan of, there is absolutely no excuse for treating those who are fans of it badly – in the end, you make the fandom a smaller place, limit what will come along in future and sound the death knell of that which you profess to love. Dont’ be *that* guy.

Sven Harvey

(Life long fan of Star Trek, Transformers and a few other things, as you may notice.)

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: