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How the Web saved Star Trek

On its sunniest days, the Internet is simply a place for creativity to flourish

From Friday's Globe and Mail

And they said Star Trek was dead.

It's been four years, almost exactly, since the last episode of the last TV series wheezed off the air. It was the end of a long, spiralling decline that had turned off casual viewers and left the franchise in the hands of a rump caucus of die-hard fans who, by the end of it, were trying to raise funds to keep the show going with their own money. It didn't pan out.

Now, here we are in May of 2009, and I see that Burger King is trying to sell me commemorative Star Trek mugs. Trek is upon us again, in the form of a blockbuster movie, or at least a movie that's being promoted like blocks are about to be busted. William Shatner has been jettisoned, and Kirk, Spock and company have been recast with hot young things. In the trailers, things blow up and clothes come off. I haven't seen it yet, but the critics say it makes a good show.

The conventional wisdom is that the franchise has been saved from the sweaty clutches of the pocket-protected. (The Onion, the nominally fake newspaper, issued a report headlined “Trekkies Bash New Star Trek Film As ‘Fun, Watchable. ' ”) But pay close attention to the movie, and you might see a face that suggests a different story entirely.

Star Trek never actually went away. Even before the show went off the air, fan-made productions were taking root online, and what they've achieved since then is nothing short of remarkable. The most impressive among them is a production called Star Trek: Phase II. A fan named James Cawley – an Elvis impersonator by trade – did what any self-respecting fan would do: built a studio in an abandoned car dealership in upstate New York, spent $100,000 of his own money to meticulously replicate of the original 1960s sets and costumes, and cast himself as Captain Kirk.

With a ship full of re-cast characters, they set out to complete the Enterprise's original five-year mission. So far, five full-length episodes have been released online. Yes, the acting is sometimes flat and the stories sometimes bloated, but the producers are deadly serious about their work.

It's the kind of thing that you could never pull off without a straight face, the ultimate in ballsy appropriations. Cawley and his company didn't just make off with the Star Trek universe, they inserted themselves into roles that were already iconic – to say nothing of trademarked. They argued that these characters transcended their actors, and can be passed on from portrayal to portrayal, just like Hamlet and Willy Loman.

And how did Star Trek 's corporate overlords react? With what seems like remarkable grace, in this age of copyright crackdowns. CBS, which owns Star Trek these days, allows fans to create derivative works as long as they're not for profit. But Phase II wasn't just tolerated: It was impressive enough to attract many Hollywood veterans of the “real” Trek series. Legendary writers and special-effects producers pitched in, and even several of the Star Trek bridge crew, now aging movie stars, came back to reprise their roles.

And when the new Hollywood movie was in production – the one that casts new actors in old roles – Cawley found himself on the Paramount lot, and was invited onto the set. By the end of it, he'd been put into a Starfleet uniform, and given a cameo. And as the starship Enterprise relaunches with a crew of unknown young actors taking over roles created by their elders, there's a vindication for his ideas. The new movie might seem like a triumph of new over the old, but really, it's the revenge of the nerds.

Cornball optimism. It was the seed that Star Trek grew from, and it lingered even as the spirit of the times in life and fiction (and science fiction) has turned more towards impending apocalypse. And there's something about this story that warms my tarry little heart as well.

There's a lot of things you can do with the Internet. You can sit around all day, strip-mining the Net for free movies. You can disappear into virtual worlds. You can log onto your favourite website and leave a comment that will cause readers to wonder whether the planet wouldn't have been better off left to the dolphins.

You can buy a webcam and do something profoundly embarrassing that will render you unemployable for years. You can spend your days filling up Facebook with a hollow performance of yourself. You can create a Web service that seems destined to change everything, only to discover – several billion dollars later – that it really changed nothing, because people are people, and the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Or you can make something. On the sunniest days, I look at the Web and I see a world of people making things. Maybe they're cat videos; maybe they're full-blown recreations of science-fiction series from the late sixties. Either way, the creative process never happens in a vacuum. It's an endless back and forth of ideas and materials, and some of them will always cross the lines of ownership and copyright.

It's unusual to tell a story of an online project that takes a corporate work, uses its intellectual property to make something new, and gets rewarded instead of sued. But then, Star Trek has always envisioned an inexplicably cheery future in which creativity trumps commerce. It's science fiction, all right, but let's run with that.

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