The limits of fan fiction

Science fiction is not the only genre which attracts unauthorized fan fiction – I have a family member who once wrote a great short story using the modern-day characters of the BBC series “Sherlock” — but it certainly attracts its share.

When I was a teenager, there were science fiction fans who published “fanzines,” little mimeographed newsletters. The rise of computers, the Internet, and other technologies has completely transformed the way in which genre fans can express themselves creatively. Now, fans – with relatively small budgets, at least by Hollywood standards – can produce their own short films, complete with special effects.

There have been several fan-produced “Star Trek” series, some of which have quite nice special effects and which have even managed to secure stars from the real “Star Trek” in guest roles.

The increasing sophistication of these products leaves Hollywood studios in a tricky legal position. On the one hand, they want to encourage the enthusiasm of the fan base – those are the people, after all, who the studio will need in order to make its next big movie or TV series a success. But – and this is a gross oversimplification from someone who is Not A Lawyer — there are principles in copyright law that require you to protect your rights consistently or else you might lose the right to protect them at all. That sometimes forces you to go after a relatively-minor infraction, not because the minor infraction is any threat to you, but because you want to preserve your legal rights in case of a major infraction somewhere down the road.

The owners of the “Star Trek” franchise – formerly Paramount Studios, now CBS – have apparently had an unspoken rule of thumb that they would not go after fan films as long as they were non-commercial. I don’t think they actually approved of such productions, but they made no attempt to stop them.

But now, they’re going after something called “Axanar,” a fan production which has raised more than a million dollars on crowd-funding sites. Here’s a promotional video for the project. The promo is done as a faux documentary, although I assume the finished project would be straightforward storytelling. You can see the high level of production value:

This is light years beyond some mimeographed fan fiction story being mailed out to a few dozen friends. This is, in some ways, actual competition for the authorized “Star Trek” movies and TV shows. Sure, the writing probably won’t be as polished and the acting may not be as great. But the gaps between the fan product and the commercial product are closing.

Apparently, Lucasfilm has published and distributed specific rules and guidelines for “Star Wars” fan projects, something CBS (and Paramount before it) has never done.

It’s a tricky situation. A year from now, CBS will be trying to get “Star Trek” fans to sign up for its online streaming service so that they can watch a new Star Trek TV series.  As the owners of the Star Trek copyright, they have the legal right to stop or regulate competitors from using their content. But they will have to step carefully and find a way to preserve their rights without alienating the very fans whose money they will need a year from now.

spoiler-free, I promise

This will be a spoiler-free reaction to “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens,” although I may create a separate blog post to talk about the movie for those of us who’ve actually seen it.

I saw the movie this afternoon at the Capri Theater in Shelbyville. I loved it. Loved it, loved it, loved it. It was everything the original “Star Wars” movies were that the prequels weren’t.

I loved the new characters – and the movie spends a lot of time setting up the new characters. Daisy Ridley and John Boyega are both terrific. But of course, I also loved what we saw of the original characters.

The movie has some fun parallels to the original 1977 movie, which was released as just “Star Wars” and is now known as “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.” Some critics (even some with generally positive reviews) have dismissed this as pandering or fan service, saying the new movie hews too close to the original. But I don’t think so. I thought it was all presented in fresh and unexpected new ways. I thought there was just enough homage but that things were well set up to go in new directions as we move forward. Unlike the prequels, in which the fates of Obi-Wan and Anakin were already known to us and loomed over everything, this movie opens up infinite storytelling possibilities.

Because of the way this one ended, I’m glad the next movie is due in the summer of 2017 – only a year and a half, and not the three years we had to wait between segments of the original trilogy. (Summer 2017 will also be the 40th anniversary of “A New Hope.”)

It’s a great movie. See it sooner rather than later, before someone really does spoil it for you.

A long time ago on a Christmas far, far away

I hesitate to even try to post this, because I suspect it won’t be on YouTube very long, but my co-worker Brian posted a link to it in the comments of a previous post and I didn’t want you to miss it. It’s from one of the most notorious — and never re-aired — Christmas specials of all time. UPDATE: Actually, it looks like it’s been on YouTube for a year now. Go figure.

May the Force be with you this holiday season.

The force was with them

I called my West Coast brother today to wish him a happy birthday. I mentioned that even though I’m not a big “Family Guy” fan, I would probably watch their “Star Wars” special tonight. My brother’s response was that he wouldn’t watch “Family Guy” if they were doing a parody of his own family.

Actually, though, the special is great — and I’m not, as I say, a big “Family Guy” fan. It’s a scene-for-scene parody of the original 1977 movie, with some surprisingly detailed animation of the space battles. In some ways, it’s even funnier than the very funny “Robot Chicken” “Star Wars” parody from earlier in the year.