Friday, January 15, 2016

The Star Wars Universe Reset

WARNING: This article contains spoilers for Star Wars Episode VI: The Force Awakens, which has been out for almost a month now and has been seen at least once by everyone in the Western world.

A big complaint some folks have about The Force Awakens is that it takes away the happy ending we saw in Return of the Jedi. In what seems to be kind of a trend these days, the movie has a ton of backstory that's only addressed in ancillary material (books, comics, etc). Supposedly, after the events of Return of the Jedi, our heroes reestablished the Republic and spent a good many years kicking the Empire's butt all over the place. But eventually a newly-armed Empire reinvented itself as the First Order and came roaring back with a vengeance thanks to the New Republic's complacency.

I have no idea what historical parallel they're trying to draw here
In the movie, the First Order destroys the Republic's seat of government and space fleet with their totally-not-a-Death-Star, so now our heroes are essentially back where they started in the first trilogy: part of a tiny resistance against a more-powerful Empire, and some fans are not happy about this.

My question to this upset group of fans is: what did you think would happen when Disney announced that they were making a sequel trilogy and that Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, and Harrison Ford were coming back? Did they think we'd get three movies full of Luke, Leia, and Han reveling in how trouble-free their lives are now? That the new trilogy would be named Episode VII: Life Is Good, Episode VIII: No Problems Over Here and Episode IX: Let's Take The Rest Of The Day Off?

When Disney decided to move ahead with this new Star Wars trilogy, they had three basic options:

  1. Set the story a hundred years or more after the original trilogy when the original characters have all died.
  2. Have our heroes face a completely new threat that's not the Empire.
  3. Have the Empire rise again and spoil Return of the Jedi's happy ending.
Any of these options would have let to some kind of fan complaint. In this day and age, unfortunately, being a "fan" of something too often means complaining on the Internet about how much you hate the newest iteration of it. 

If Disney went with Option 1, the fans would have complained that they missed a golden opportunity to bring back Luke, Han, and Leia.

If they went with Option 2 and ditched the Empire altogether, the fans would have complained that the new movies didn't feel like Star Wars.

But maybe you're saying: "I'm not mad they brought the Empire back, I just don't like how they did it. It should've been more like the Thrawn Trilogy: everything's going well and then the Empire shows up. They didn't need to break up Han and Leia or have Luke exile himself after his students got killed."

I sympathize, but I think the way things were ultimately handled is far more compelling. Part of the fun of The Force Awakens is figuring out the new status quo. We're thrown into the middle of things and have to figure out what's going on.  And I like how the mystery of Luke Skywalker drives the plot along,  making his final reveal a very powerful moment.

As for Han and Leia, it was never going to have a happy ending, anyway. As soon as we knew Harrison Ford was definitely returning, I knew Han Solo was going to die. Both Ford and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan wanted it to happen in Return of the Jedi thirty years ago, and I assumed Ford would insist on it as a condition of returning. Han and Leia breaking up over their son's fall to the Dark Side of the Force may not be very happy, but it does feel very real.

Also very genuine is Luke's failure with Ben Solo (a.k.a. Kylo Ren) and the destruction of his new Jedi Order. Remember, Luke barely had any Jedi training, and most of what he did get came from Yoda, whose rigidity was a big reason why the Jedi in the prequels were blind to Palpatine's machinations until it was too late. And I have a feeling that Luke's failure will be more understandable once we learn more about Supreme Leader Snoke.

I certainly understand why some longtime fans are upset with The Force Awakens, and they're entitled to their feelings. But I found it to be a pleasant reset of the Star Wars universe, and I'm excited to see what comes next.

NOTE: Because the topic of the post before this one is very controversial within a certain Internet fan community that rivals the Westboro Baptist Church in its tiny size and irrational hatred for anyone who even slightly disagrees with them, I've enabled comment moderation for the time being. Thank you for understanding.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Axanar Meltdown

In June 2014, Star Trek fans were treated to the release of a truly original fan film: Prelude to Axanar.  It was a History Channel-style documentary about a war between the Federation and the Klingons twenty years before the adventures of Captain Kirk, with a professional director and professional actors and crew. The stellar cast and special effects that were within a whisker of feature-quality got a lot of people excited about the production team's intention to make a full-on movie about the Battle of Axanar itself.

Thanks to generous Internet publicity and even the public support of George Takei, it raised over $1 million through Kickstarter and Indiegogo campaigns. The production team used the money to rent a Los Angeles-area warehouse to convert into a studio and began to build sets with the promise that production on the film would begin in January 2016. People attached to the production grew fond of saying that Axanar was not a fan film, but a professional independent Star Trek movie.

In retrospect, these things were huge red flags. And an article on The Wrap back in August entitled "How $1.1 Million ‘Star Trek’ Fan Movie Has Escaped Studio Shutdown (So Far)" contained this ominous quote from CBS:
“CBS has not authorized, sanctioned or licensed this project in any way, and this has been communicated to those involved. We continue to object to professional commercial ventures trading off our property rights and are considering further options to protect these rights.”

But Axanar had blossomed into a mini-movement in Star Trek fandom, and its supporters remained optimistic about the film's prospects. Conventional wisdom said that CBS and Paramount would never risk the negative PR backlash that might come from going after a fan film, that they believed that the existence of fan films was good for the Star Trek franchise as a whole.

That conventional wisdom was torpedoed last week when CBS filed a lawsuit in federal court against Axanar seeking monetary damages for copyright infringement and an injunction to have the project shut down. 

I'm not going to discuss the legal side of this whole affair since I have no expertise in that area. Instead, I'm going to talk about what really fascinates me: the truly unhinged reactions of the Axanar fan community. If you read this blog primarily for its Disney-related content, then you probably never heard of the Axanar fan community prior to right this minute. But it exists, and it's an extremely devoted bunch of folks. And by "devoted" I mean "a lot of them are crazier than a bag of enraged ferrets". Very generally speaking, the online comments by Axanar supporters in the wake of the lawsuit have taken one of these two forms:

"That guy I never met who died 25 years ago? He would totally agree with me."

Incoherent rage with a smattering of Klingon words

Amazingly, that last comment appeared in the comments section of--I kid you not--The Wall Street Journal. I suspect that if you were to meet these folks in person, they would come across as perfectly normal, rational, well-adjusted human beings. Well, maybe not that second guy. But my question is this: what is it about this situation that makes perfectly normal-seeming people react so embarrassingly? I think it's more than just the natural ability of Facebook and Internet comment sections to bring out the stupidest side of people. 

As I said earlier, Axanar has become a mini-movement in Star Trek fandom. For the record, I do not believe that Axanar head honcho Alec Peters cynically set out to unite disaffected Star Trek fans into a movement around his fan film to get money or satisfy his ego or whatever. I do believe he recognized what was happening and encouraged it to help crowdfund the project. But why did the Axanar movement coalesce in the first place? 

For at least the last 20 years or so, there's a segment of Star Trek fans who's been growing progressively angrier. They haven't liked the newer TV shows and movies, and as each new Star Trek installment has ignored them and aimed at other, more profitable segments of the entertainment market, they've come to feel abandoned, disenfranchised, and yes, hopping mad. A common refrain among these angry fans is that Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry would never approve of these newer TV shows and movies, that the new stuff is"not their Star Trek", and that it's time for the fans to take Star Trek back. Some of these folks are enthusiastic supporters of fan projects that aim to re-create the Original Series, like Star Trek Continues. But Axanar has become this group's cause celebré.

Let's really break this down: we have a group of angry people: predominantly white, male, and middle-aged. They're passionately devoted to a thing to the point where they feel a certain ownership of it, and they're mad because the people who control that thing aren't managing things in a way they agree with. They fervently believe that, were the founder of this thing still alive, he would completely agree with them. They feel like the people in charge have abandoned the founder's original intentions, and that it's incumbent upon them to take this thing back so that the founder's original intention for it can be restored and things can be like they were in the good old days. Does any of this sound familiar?

Yes. Axanar fans are the Star Trek Tea Party. Now, this is not a political blog. Both it and myself are politically neutral, so I'm not saying that the Tea Party is good or bad. Just that the Axanar fan community is demographically very similar, and if you swap out a few proper nouns ("George Washington" for "Gene Roddenberry", "America" or "the Constitution" for "Star Trek") a lot of the stuff they say sounds very similar.

But Axanar supporters are united by more than just anger and discontent. Axanar has given a lot of these people a sense of community and belonging to an important cause. And since the CBS lawsuit threatens the existence of that community, they've become defensive. And honestly, I feel sorry for them. I hope that each of them can take something positive from this.

I said earlier that I wouldn't discuss the legalities of the situation, but since this is, after all, my blog I'm going to offer my personal, non-expert opinion:

Axanar is finished. It has no leg to stand on. Star Trek fans (myself included) sometimes express the romantic notion that Star Trek belongs to us, but that is not true in a legal sense. It belongs to CBS and Paramount. Maybe it's true that the existence of an Axanar film would do no harm to Star Trek Beyond's box office earnings or the viewership of the as-yet-untitled TV series. But as the intellectual property holders, CBS and Paramount are within their rights to shut it down, and ignore all the other fan productions if they choose to. Maybe that doesn't seem particularly nice or fair. 

But that's real life, isn't it?