Star Trek Fan Films: Prosuming’s Final Frontier?

One of the hottest topics in management and marketing this year has to do with something that I originally began studying in the context of fans cultures. I’m going to go back into a discussion of fandom to talk about that topic of participatory consumer communities.

From 1966-1969, the three original seasons of Star Trek were telecast on NBC’s peacock network. The show was cancelled in the third season (1967-1968), then revived by a historic fan-letter writing campaign for one more season. But that certainly is not the whole story.

Before the series even hit the air, there was community involvement of the highest order. Gene Roddenberry, the series’ creator, was promoting the series to the existing science fiction fan network in person, showing it to them through the organized network of science fiction conventions and fan clubs that existing in the United States of the 1960s. At that forward-looking time, in the full-on heat of the Space Race and the Cold War, those fan networks had a distinctly technologically utopian orientation. Star Trek fit into their worldview perfectly. They saw it as a breakthrough—quality science fiction on the networks, mass media that really said and meant something.

Because of this communal interconnection, the fans, from the beginning, were involved with Roddenberry and with the show. So when Roddenberry recruited them and encouraged them to help him save the show in 1968, the letter-writing campaign didn’t come out of nowhere, but already had a strong institutional base to go along with the strong, emotional, communal ties that had been built.

Now, flash forward a few years. Star Trek is in syndication. Even more than this, Roddenberry continues to work with the fan network that was courted and captured by him before the series even aired. The stars are involved. The fans are using the text, working it like Biblical hermeneuticians. After the first moon landing, and as the space program progressed, Star Trek looked even more relevant.

What did fans do? Not just watch the show. But, as Henry Jenkins, Camille Bacon-Smith, Constance Penley and others have written about, they used it as the basis for their creativity. They opened up its universe and used it to write stories with, to base songs upon, to pen and paint pictures, make sculptures, sew uniforms and other garb, mount plays, hold conventions, and start businesses. Star Trek, the text, the ideology, the figures, the personalities, the look, the feel, became woven into the fabric of people’s communal existence and daily lives.

Dressing in Star Trek uniforms (“garb”) is one way that fans expressed their devotion to the text and its lofty utopian ideologies.

Fan could enhance their experience with books and texts and manifest it physically with collectibles such as these attractive (to me, at least) limited collector edition plates.

Fans also became dealers of the proliferating multitude of Star Trek products. Through buying and selling, being a member of the expansive, generous, acquisitive and middle class Star Trek community could now become a type of lifestyle.

In all, over a ten year period starting around Star Trek’s cancellation, went from being a TV show that people audienced and discussed to being a social text that people worked with and expanded in small and large groups. As a cultural phenomenon, I believe that this was largely unprecedented.

But we see that pattern of behavior more and more today. It’s becoming the topic of some new and important books. For example, in 2005 Alex Wipperfürth published his book Brand Hijack: Marketing Without Marketing. In it he argues that

“Marketing managers aren’t in charge anymore. Consumers are. Across the globe, millions of insightful, passionate, and creative people are helping optimize and endorse breakthrough products and services…” (page 6).

Isn’t this exactly what happened with Star Trek back in the 1960s and 1970s? With the permission of the series creator and owner, organized fan networks built the show’s universe and promoted it. They added the community. They added all their creations. They turned into marketers for the show.

Alex Wipperfürth doesn’t actually mention Star Trek, but he draws on many recent examples, including Starbucks, Palm, Red Bull, the Blair Witch Project, Krispy Kreme, Apple, Seven for All Mankind, Viagra, and Pabst Blue Ribbon. He offers a great “Brand Hijack Manifesto” which includes the advice that marketers should “co-create” their brands by collaborating with consumers. This idea of co-creation has been around consumer research and marketing for a while, but the nuts and bolts behind it are still fairly mysterious.

Brand Hijack talks a lot of about meaning and promotion in terms of relating to co-creating the brand. A lot of this has become subsumed under the rubric of Word of Mouth Marketing, of which the industry group WOMMA is becoming a major player and information resources.

But the next step up is consumers actually creating the product or service, or altering it. Eric von Hippel at MIT has been writing about lead users doing such things for over three decade. His 1974 thesis looked at the role of user input in corporate venturing, and he has amazing things to say on the topic.

Another excellent recent book that looks at this topic of consumers actually co-creating products and services, as well is Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything. In this book, Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams argue that

“the growing ease with which people can collaborate opens up the economy to new Linux-like products everyday. People increasingly self-organize to design goods or services, create knowledge, or simply produce dynamic, shared experiences.”

Tapscott and Williams offer an impressive range of current examples like retail Best Buy’s Geek Squad, the Toronto-based mining company Goldcorp, the scientific endeavor Human Genome Project, the movie Snakes on a Plane, the toy company Lego, the CPG company Procter & Gamble, as well as tech companies like Skype, eBay, Flickr, YouTube, Facebook, and in Virtual Worlds like Second Life. All of these examples show how networked consumer turn into producers, into “prosumers” (Toffler’s old term, modeled after McLuhan’s old idea) who use contemporary technology to create huge amounts of value for companies and other institutions at high tech and traditional companies.

Star Trek fans are amazing examples of these active prosumers. Star Trek fans were among the earliest adopters of the Internet (there’s the evolutionary payback of being a technological utopian in a technologically utopian world, where that belief and its accompanying potential skillsets have definite survival value). And so their skilled use of networked collaboration tools combined with their existing community and its passion for active presuming of the Star Trek cultural universe.

The result is that Star Trek fans are the creators of the new Star Trek series. Serieses. Many series. Star Trek fans worldwide are creating their own new series that take off in interesting directions from the old series.

I write about this phenomenon and its implications for our understanding of these co-creative prosumers, and the entire consumer culture phenomenon that this reveals, in my chapter for the Consumer Tribes book.

Here’s a quick, edited taste of that chapter:

“Star Trek is dead; Star Trek has never been more alive. In May 2005, the two-hour seasons finale of Enterprise, titled “These are the Voyages”-was broadcast on Paramount’s UPN network. Perhaps it should have been titled “Those were the Voyages.” There would be no new Star Trek series from Paramount, although a film is tentatively in development.

The cancellation broke 18 straight years of Star Trek series, with at least one, and sometimes two series airing at any time. Despair hit the fan community. Letter writing campaigns were marshaled. Fans fought valiantly, but unsuccessfully, to Save Star Trek yet again.

Yet Star Trek persists. Today, in apartment buildings, basements, livings rooms and public parks in Virginia, Texas, Scotland, and across the world, the fan base that sustained the series throughout its forty-year incarnation is producing new and professional looking episodes of Star Trek. Although many of these new fan-made series are recapitulating familiar themes and characters, others are being used to take the series to uncharted new territories, to blend in alternatives lifestyles, meanings, and identities that had long been excluded from the official Star Trek universe.

By analyzing this phenomenon, its popular reception, and its implications for understanding the mutating variegations of contemporary consumer culture, I suggest that this phenomenon of fan production is an act of tribal reclamation with wide-ranging implications.

. . . .

In the old days, fans would write fiction in the form of written text (for a fascinating history, see Hellekson and Busse 2006). The fan effort that previously went into the production of printed written fiction (“fanfic”) and convention organizing is now being channeled-and it even seems amplified-into efforts to create a stunning variety of Star Trek-based entertainment product. Star Trek fans create their own podcasts and radio broadcasts. They have produced animated series such as the humorous Finnish “Star Wreck” and the Flash animation series “Stone Trek” which hybridizes Star Trek’s world with that of The Flintstones. There are fanmade Star Trek music and rap videos, Star Trek novelizations, Star Trek protest trailers, and films-even a parodic Mystery Science Theater 3000 version of the official (and reviled) Star Trek V feature film. This is a burgeoning enterprise existing in a legal vacuum. As Jenkins’ (2006a, p. 255), emphasizing the role of fans, rightly notes, “we might think of fan fiction communities as the literary equivalent of the Wikipedia: around any given media property, writers are constructing a range of different interpretations that get expressed through stories.”

We are in new conceptual terrain and lack terms to describe what has happened to Star Trek as a media property. Star Trek has gone native or, better, it has gone wiki-it is now “wikimedia.” Fans add to Star Trek and correct one another just like Wikipedia encyclopedia contributors add to the famously expansive universe of the online encyclopedia. By the term “wikimedia” I mean to describe a distinct media content form that has, either deliberately or unintentionally, gone open source and begun spawning new content through the efforts of non-profit, do-it-yourself, collaborative media creators acting outside of the structure of corporate, institutional organization or sanction. The existence and notioning of wikimedia has major implications for our understanding of contemporary consumer culture. But it is still almost entirely unexamined by academics. It also may have major implications for marketing strategy, as this chapter will only begin to unpack further on. The following section begins this undertaking by proceeding to the centerpiece of this chapter: a look at the production of new Star Trek episodes by fans.

As Russ Belk and I have noted in numerous other articles related to videography in consumer and marketing research (e.g., Belk and Kozinets 2005), technological and manufacturing advances in digital videocameras and digital video production and editing software have enabled amateur film-makers to create professional-looking videographic works that would have been prohibitively expensive even a decade ago. These technologies have freed up the art and craft of video making so that they are accessible to almost anyone with some ingenuity and access to a budget of a few thousand dollars. The increasing pervasiveness of Internet access and broadband connections has simultaneously made distributing these films easier than ever before. Fans had been making their own small-budget films for many years. But fan creations have reached new heights of professionalism and pervasiveness and, as in many other spheres, Star Trek fans are leading the way.

According to a recent article “up to two dozen of these fan-made ‘Star Trek’ projects are in various stages of completion, depending what you count as a full-fledged production” in countries such as Holland and Belgium (Hakim 2006). And according to various FAQs posted on web sites and quotations in various articles covering the phenomenon, Paramount, the studio that owns the rights to Star Trek has been tolerant, and its executives have consistently declined comment on these developments. As long as fans do not sell or profit from their work (an established fan community standard), Paramount allows them to continue creating and distributing new episodes of Star Trek.”

Star Trek as Wikimedia is the subtitle of that chapter. I wonder is this really is the final frontier? What happens when fans are able to create, distribute, and market their own creations? And that’s where I’m going to let this story lie.

But check out some of the brilliant fan creations of Star Trek online, including the following all-original new fan series:

  • New Voyages--which includes guest writers and actors from the original series, with high production values to boot
  • Hidden Frontiers–the longest running series, and the one that takes the most liberties with the canonical Star Trek universe
  • Starship Exeter–great sets and interesting characters; limited number of episodes so far

One Response

  1. Jeff Podoshen June 8, 2007

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