Friday, January 16, 2009

Of The People, By The People, For The People: Part 4

This week we're breaking away from "Star Wars" (at least for a while) and turning to the other giant of sci-fi TV, "Star Trek". Based on what I've found so far, these two franchises seem to produce very different types of fan films.

Generally speaking, "Star Wars" fan productions tend to demarcate canon and fandom very clearly - I'm not just talking about the obvious gaps in visual effects, but in terms of story, films like "Revelations" and "Dark Resurrection" are less interested in recreating what George Lucas put on the screen, instead focusing on innovation, inserting new twists and concepts into familiar settings. As a result, there's a great distance between the source material and the way each fan production uses that material.

The "Star Trek" franchise, curiously enough, seems to have the opposite effect on its fans, because that line between canon and fandom gets considerably blurred. Today's fan film serves as a perfect example: Renegade Studios' Of Gods and Men. This fan film is remarkable - and problematic - for several reasons, but let's start with the basics: the plot.

Twelve years after James Kirk's death, Uhura, Chekov and John Harriman reunite aboard a museum ship modeled after the original Enterprise. They're summoned to a familiar planet, where an old enemy of Kirk's goes back in time and changes history. We then find ourselves in a dystopian alternate timeline where the Federation has been usurped by the Galactic Order, a tyrannical organization that bullies and intimidates entire populations to maintain "security". Our three heroes - now living completely different lives - have only the vaguest memories to guide them, and must find a way to restore the timeline.

"Of Gods and Men" could have easily served as an episode (or two) of the Shatner-era "Star Trek" - its plot structure is very similar, right down to the convenient deus ex machina that ultimately resets the status quo. If "Star Wars" productions try to step out of Lucas' shadow, "Of Gods and Men" (like other "Star Trek" fan films we'll be talking about in the coming weeks) seems to embrace the source material, to the extent that it tries to recreate that fictional universe without redefining it at all.

I'm curious as to why this is the case - why "Star Trek" generates the sort of loyalty where adaptation and homage are prioritized over... not originality per se but that whole process of using the extra-canonical position to address blind spots and bypass network-imposed constraints. It's not as though "Star Trek" doesn't have a large Expanded Universe of its own - in fact, I'm reasonably sure that its output in novel format is considerably larger than "Star Wars" - but "Star Wars" fan-creators use that largely-obscure playground to get away from Luke Skywalker and that whole familiar milieu. "Star Trek" fans run in the other direction.

This might have something to do with the memory of Gene Roddenberry; on the whole, fandom seems more inclined to remember him fondly as opposed to the oft-vilified (and perhaps not unjustly so, given the whole Jar-Jar Binks thing) George Lucas. I also imagine some degree of sensitivity is called for when the creator whose fictional world you're entering into is gone. But there could also be a completely diegetic reason for this: the flaws of the "Star Trek" universe, while numerous, aren't as grossly obvious as those of "Star Wars", in the sense that the "problem areas" of Roddenberry's creation don't necessarily demand immediate correction. I mean, we've covered the issue of women in "Star Wars", and Kirk's series was very much a product of its time, but women are represented with much higher frequency starting with "The Next Generation", and if they're not exactly on equal ground there, "Deep Space 9" gives us Kira Nerys, and Kathryn Janeway would've made a much more positive impression if the writers hadn't saddled her with the Idiot Ball of Bitchery after a season or two. In fairness, this is a franchise that four decades to evolve, across twenty or thirty seasons of television and ten films, while Lucas only had those two trilogies to work with... on the other hand, the twenty-year gap between "Return of the Jedi" and "The Phantom Menace" should have pushed "Star Wars" a lot further forward than it did.

Let's go back to the whole process of adaptation. One example, with regards to "Of Gods and Men", is the high amount of intertextuality with the original series; in fact, there's so much continuity that if you're not familiar with specific episodes (ie: "Charlie X"), I don't know if you'll really understand what's going on here. I had to make extensive use of Memory Alpha to figure stuff out, and the whole principle of having to research the finer points of a story is something I find problematic. So points off for that, at least from the perspective of a casual viewer: more dedicated fans will probably be very pleased at how strong those connections are. It also reinforces the notion that we're meant to see this film as a natural extension of the series, rather than a conscious step away from the conventions and tropes that defined the source material.

Another way that "Of Gods and Men" diminishes the boundaries between canon and fandom has to do with its cast, featuring a frankly astonishing number of "Star Trek" alumni from every series: Nichelle Nichols, Walter Koening, Alan Ruck, Tim Russ (also the film's director), Garrett Wang, J.G. Hertzler, Chase Masterson, Gary Graham, Cirroc Lofton and many others. There's even a bit of fan film crossover, as "Phase II" stars James Cawley and Jeffery Quinn put in cameos (more on "Phase II" next week). The entire project has an air of camaraderie about it, of iconic actors freely and gladly participating in a celebration of the series.

All of this creates an interesting dilemma: is "Of Gods and Men" a fan film? Most of its cast and crew came from "Star Trek" in the first place; granted, it's not backed by Paramount, but so what? Visually, it takes its cues from the '60s incarnation, and by those standards it looks better than any episode of the original series. It doesn't do anything "Star Trek" didn't or couldn't do on its own (with the possible exception of Xela, the Orion slave woman, being portrayed as the real power behind Harriman's captaincy in the alternate timeline - that was a nice twist on a traditionally icky aspect of the Trekverse). What is it, then, that separates "Of Gods and Men" from canon at all? Not script quality - even when it stumbles, it still does so more gracefully than some of the clunkers in the original series. Not the use of amateur actors, because even bit characters like Stonn are played by their original actors. Resources? Maybe, but... eh, I've said all along that I don't like to bring the financial aspect into the reviews, because creativity tends to find ways around budget-oriented obstacles.

I don't really have an answer to that question, and it's one that'll pop up again in the coming weeks. The level of interaction between Trek canon and Trek fandom runs deep, and that problematizes my initial definition of what a fan film is: here, unlike "Star Wars" fan films (and, on a broader level, all fan fiction), the goal isn't to modify the fictional world on any level, or to plug any ontological gaps that were never addressed on-screen. Rather, it seems simulacra is the objective here: how close can you get to the original? How much does your production feel like "Star Trek"?

On that level, "Of Gods and Men" feels very much like the real thing; "Star Trek" always had a knack for decent, if not consistently good, alternate timeline stories, and this one's no exception.