How “Star Trek” Created, Lost, And Won Back Pop Culture’s Most Devoted Fandom

On a cool, bright afternoon in late May, Gen X'ers and twentysomethings, grandparents, teenagers, and at least one baby lined up on a narrow sidewalk outside the Paramount Pictures studio lot in Los Angeles. Some of them wore suits; others came in T-shirts and jeans. A handful sported bright red, yellow, and blue shirts with a soaring, asymmetric chevron over their hearts. A few had notably pointy ears. They were, unmistakably, Trekkers, or Trekkies, or just, you know, Star Trek fans.

These 500 people — some invited, some winners of an online contest — were guests of honor for a full-court press event celebrating the 50th anniversary of Star Trek, the most venerable science fiction franchise in popular culture. Over the course of the evening, they toasted the dedication of Leonard Nimoy Way on the studio lot, with the late Nimoy's family also raising glasses — and Vulcan salutes — before being the first to take in the debut of the latest trailer for the franchise's newest movie, Star Trek Beyond. They got the chance to record their own 50-second tributes on how Trek helped connect them with their father, or make them feel more comfortable with their autismafter picking up a swag bag including a special commemorative Beyond movie poster. And they sat inside the same soundstage where the original series was shot in the 1960s and listened to Beyond stars Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, and Karl Urban banter about playing Kirk, Spock, and McCoy.

It was at once a heartfelt celebration of Star Trek and a savvy promotion for the new film. But the event had a third, unspoken theme, one of earnest contrition: We know you are not happy, and we're here to set things right. That became apparent before the event even began, as fans discussed the previous two Trek films starring Pine, Quinto, and Urban — the ones directed by J.J. Abrams to record-setting box office, and the ones meant to reboot Star Trek into the 21st century.

J.J. Abrams, Justin Lin, Zachary Quinto, Chris Pine, Karl Urban, and Adam Savage at the
Star Trek Beyond fan event at Paramount Pictures on May 20, 2016.

Alex J. Berliner / ABImages

“When Spock yelled out 'Khan!' — I was done,” Tim Robertson, a NASA engineer, told BuzzFeed News about 2013's Star Trek Into Darkness. “All the fans I know didn't like it because of that.”

“I only saw the first reboot, and that made me not want to see the second one,” said Trina Phillips, a creative futurist at the consulting firm SciFutures, of the 2009 Star Trek. “It's like, even if you strip the Star Trek name away, I think it failed as a movie.”

It was amid these fans that Abrams, sitting on a circular stage that vaguely resembled the Enterprise bridge, began the event by more or less officially handing the Trek baton to Beyond's director — Fast & Furious impresario Justin Lin.

“He would watch [Star Trek] with his parents,” Abrams said of Lin. “He knew this world so well, and … I just felt that this was someone who, unlike myself, loved it from the beginning. And though I fell in love with it later, I feel like we were so lucky, all of us, to get to work with Justin on this movie.”

A teleprompter over Abrams' shoulder then scrolled to an ominous direction — “AD-LIB PENDING LAWSUIT” — but instead, moderator Adam Savage of MythBusters fame brought Lin to the stage to fanfare and applause, and started asking the filmmaker about what it was like to get to make a Star Trek movie. Lin smiled and offered some quick, canned sound bites about what he wanted to bring to the franchise. But it seemed like he was waiting for something. And then Abrams cut in.

“I gotta say just one thing that Justin did,” said Abrams, raising his finger. “A few months back, there was a fan movie, Axanar, that was getting made, and there was this, like, lawsuit that happened between the studio and these fans. And Justin … was sort of outraged by this, as a longtime fan. We started talking about it and realized that this was not an appropriate way to deal with the fans. The fans should be celebrating this thing, like you're saying right now. We all, fans of Star Trek, are part of this world.”

Simon Pegg and director Justin Lin
on the set of Star Trek Beyond.

Kimberley French / Paramount Pictures

Unbeknownst to Abrams or Lin, Alec Peters — the creator of Axanar, and the Trek fan at the center of “this, like, lawsuit” — was sitting not 20 feet away in the audience, as a guest of one of his project's crowdfunding backers. As soon as he heard Abrams say “Axanar,” which has become a kind of crucible for the limits of the franchise's relationship with its most hardcore fans, his face turned to stone.

“So you went to the studio and pushed them to stop this lawsuit,” Abrams continued, directly speaking to Lin. “And now, within the next few weeks, it will be announced: This is going away.”

As the rest of the audience broke into applause, Peters began frantically texting on his phone.

In many ways, Star Trek has rarely been in a better position than it is at this moment. Between Beyond's world premiere at Comic-Con this July and the brand-new Trek series set to debut in January, the twin engines of Trek's success will be ostensibly firing together for the first time in 15 years.

But the franchise's journey has also rarely been more fraught. For 50 years, Trek has spent its life in an uneasy equipoise between its fans, Paramount Pictures (which owns the film rights) and CBS (which owns the television rights), and the people tasked with commanding it into new storytelling frontiers. In an era in which movie studios and TV networks spend cosmic amounts of money to seek out new franchises and new fanbases, understanding how and why that relationship has evolved provides an instructive insight into how fans have exerted their power over one of the most valuable properties in Hollywood — and paints a fascinating picture of Trek's bold and uncertain future.

Star Trek conventions from the 1970s to today.

Clockwise from top left: Dan Farrell / NY Daily News Archive / Getty Images; AP Photo; Albert L. Ortega / Getty Images; Mark Peterson / Corbis / Getty Images

The complex relationship between fans and creators began in Trek's earliest days. After meeting Star Trek mastermind Gene Roddenberry at a convention for fans of sci-fi literature before the original series debuted in 1966, Bjo and John Trimble wrote the Star Trek Concordance, a kind of proto–fan wiki for the Trek universe, and then the husband-and-wife team launched a successful letter-writing campaign at the end of Trek's second season to keep it on the air. NBC ultimately canceled the show in 1969 after its third season, but by that point, Trek had amassed enough episodes to go into syndicated reruns — which ultimately led to its revival with Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979. And yet, despite helping to save what became a multibillion-dollar cultural behemoth, both Trek's original production company Desilu and its subsequent corporate owner Paramount “never acknowledged our existence,” Bjo sniffed in a 2011 interview.

Bjo Trimble with William Shatner and
David Gerrold on the set of
Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

CBS Studios

Since its inception, Star Trek has logged 12 feature films and some 725 hours of television across six separate series, a gargantuan cultural footprint that has created generations of fiercely loyal — and vocal — fans like the Trimbles. They have sustained Star Trek, and practically invented the concept of organized fandom as we think of it today. Through the ’70s, as those reruns played during off hours and on weekends, the first Trekkers pioneered and popularized common fan expressions, from elaborate cosplay to provocative slash fiction to organizing conventions devoted to a single series. These self-reinforcing mechanisms became a kind of positive feedback loop as fans kept flocking to the show, pulled in by its indelible characters and utopian vision of the 23rd century.

“As a kid, I remember seeing a Starlog magazine on the drug store shelf one day, and it had a cartoon on the cover that was Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, hanging from a chandelier with a horde of fans underneath them at a Star Trek convention,” said TV writer-producer Ronald D. Moore (Battlestar Galactica, Outlander), who started his career working on Star Trek: The Next Generation. “That was the first moment that I realized that there was a fandom.”

Clockwise from top left: Continues: Trek Continues, Hidden Frontier: Hidden Frontier Productions, Renegades: ST Renegades, Books: Amazon, Horizons: Horizon Productions

Perhaps the most extreme — and definitely the most intensive — expressions of that fandom are Star Trek fan films. Written Trek fan fiction is almost as old as Trek itself, but it wasn't until the 2000s, as filmmaking tools and the mechanisms for distribution on the internet became cheaper and easier, that amateur film productions set within the worlds of various Trek shows began to proliferate online. Things especially heated up after the fan-created web series Star Trek: New Voyages launched in 2004, sporting a full re-creation of the main bridge set from the original series.

“People realized that telling these stories is no longer just limited to people who had millions of dollars,” said Tommy Kraft, who released his Star Trek: Enterprise–based fan film Star Trek: Horizon on YouTube last year after shooting it largely in his parents' basement in Michigan using green screens. “It's kind of like cosplaying in a way. You get the costumes and the props, and if you're extra lucky, you get all these sets and stuff. A lot of it, I think, are fans who just want to interact with a franchise that they love.”

Several Trek actors have even reprised their roles in fan productions, including George Takei and Nichelle Nichols, and Star Trek: Voyager co-star Tim Russ directed the 2015 fan film Star Trek: Renegades, which featured Walter Koenig as a 143-year-old Pavel Chekov. Other fans treat their productions as a chance to fix a lapse in official Trek canon: Star Trek: Hidden Frontiers has featured prominent LGBT characters, which have been virtually absent from all the official Trek shows and films to date. And Vic Mignogna, a voice actor and creator of the fan production Star Trek Continues, said he sees his project as “the equivalent of another TV season” of the original series that completes the Enterprise's five-year mission, which had been cut short when the show was canceled.

“There's a sense of ownership that is part and parcel of the fan experience, where you start to feel like this character would never do that,” observed Damon Lindelof, co-creator of Lost and a central creative presence in the first two Trek movie reboots, who's said he sees himself as a professional writer of fan fiction.

For some producers of fan films, that is where the ambition ends. For others, the endearingly nonprofessional nature of these projects keeps them from feeling like full, authentic Star Trek productions. Along with several rounds of crowdfunding, Star Trek Continues creator Mignogna said he sunk $150,000 of his life savings into building elaborate, faithful re-creations of multiple sets from the original series in a warehouse in southern Georgia. “Almost everything I do professionally today, I tried for the first time because I was inspired by Star Trek,” said Mignogna, who also plays Kirk on his show. “I am a part of every element of this production. It is the lion's share of my time right now.”

Historically, CBS and Paramount have been happy to look the other way with fan productions, content to let them feed fan enthusiasm, without ever officially endorsing them. This year, however, one of those productions plunged the franchise into a precarious standoff that pitted Trek's owners against its fans, its fans against one another, and forced Lin and Abrams to rush in to try to keep the peace.

Prelude to Axanar.

Axanar Productions

“The green dress all the way down there on the right is the one Persis Khambatta used in a costume test for the Star Trek: Phase II series that was turned into the [first Star Trek] movie,” said Alec Peters, sitting on a couch outside his office in Valencia, California, in late April. The platoon of mannequins and hangers sporting original Star Trek costumes from his personal collection touch on virtually every iteration of Trek since its inception, but Peters is particularly proud of the costumes he's acquired from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, his favorite series. “I have all of Nog's costumes,” he said, speaking of the recurring Ferengi character with pride.

Alec Peters in Prelude to Axanar.

Axanar Productions

For most Trek fans, a collection this vast would make for major bragging rights, but over the past six months, Peters has become notorious in Trek circles for a different reason entirely. “I am introduced at parties now as 'the guy getting sued by Paramount,'” he said, weeks before the 50th anniversary event. “Which is kind of funny.”

Peters is the creator and main creative force behind Axanar, the Trek fan production that CBS and Paramount sued in federal court last December for copyright infringement. The companies alleged that Peters infringed on “innumerable copyrighted elements of Star Trek, including its settings, characters, species, and themes” — a rather surprising claim, given the dozens of other thriving fan productions. Few, however, have equaled Peters' ambition.

“You can put any Star Trek in front of me, and I'll probably watch it. But I wasn't crazy about fan films,” Peters said. “Everyone does their best, but not everyone has access to a great DP, or a great gaffer, or a great director.”

Inspired by his experience on an as yet unreleased episode of New Voyages playing a relatively obscure original series character named Garth of Izar — Kirk's hero, and one of Peters' favorites — Peters decided he wanted to make his first fan project: a feature film about Garth's pivotal role in the Battle of Axanar. “So we tried to figure how we could do it so it would look really professional,” he said. Axanar would be essentially a feature-length war film, and that meant space battles, which meant sophisticated visual effects, which meant raising a lot of money.

To help generate interest, Peters created a 21-minute short film called Prelude to Axanar, a newsreel-style faux documentary about the run-up to the battle, raising just over $100,000 on Kickstarter to make it. He secured visual effects and filmmaking professionals to give the project an expert spit and polish, and he hired several respected actors, including Tony Todd (Candyman), Kate Vernon (Battlestar Galactica), and Richard Hatch (Battlestar Galactica), who had been Peters' acting coach 20 years earlier.

Kate Vernon in Prelude to Axanar.

Axanar Productions

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