Also known as: fanatical devotion and greed, versus respect and storytelling
This is a topic that spent a long time swimming around in my brain, only now crystallizing into a form I feel properly encapsulates my thoughts in writing.
The final motivation I needed to finish gestating on the topic came from following various threads about updates in the Star Trek universe, particularly as they have changed to focus on the new show, Star Trek: Discovery. My own misgivings with the new direction aside (along with the general status of the franchise since the end of Enterprise and The Next Generation via Nemesis), the sharply divided reaction of the fanbase is especially damning. Now, this isn’t a new thing on the internet, indeed it is hard to come across any fanbase that isn’t divided on one topic or another (almost hilariously reminiscent of the way religions fracture into denominations over any and every disagreement). However, the wake of Discovery and the damage done by the J.J. Abrams-produced Trek has made anything to do with following Star Trek news a divisive, depressing, and thoroughly toxic experience for me. When a person cannot voice reasonable, measured critique for a property’s iteration without falling under attack from those who fight to protect a show as though they owed its owners some blood oath loyalty, there is a problem. When I or others in a similar boat are said to “not be true fans of Trek” if we don’t like Discovery, I take issue. Then I realized there is a bigger problem at work here.
“Fan,” in this context, is after all derived from “fanatic.” It doesn’t sound as nice when you say it that way, does it? I’ve been exposed to fanaticism my whole life, but only until more recent times have I noticed its insidious grasp on many more aspects of our civilization. Religious and political fanaticism is obvious, blatant. Even when I was a child, its presence and influence was generally hard to miss. Then I came to realize how that same sort of infection, that haze of self-righteous belief that You Are Right and all who are not like you are Wrong, carried over to other things I thought were innocent, like sports. When I saw visitors from Michigan be abused by Ohioans all because of some stupid sports rivalry between colleges, I realized there was a problem. When I saw rioting, looting, and maiming of animals over a game, I knew that this was an issue deeply embedded in the civilization around me.
When I stepped back and saw how this toxic, corrosive mentality also invaded my domains, those of video games, music, writing, and storytelling in general, I questioned whether or not I ever wanted to be a “fan” of anything. All of this culminated in my horrible experiences in both watching the new iterations of Star Trek, and trying to have a civilized discussion about canon and why I think it is important as a storyteller and story appreciator.
Canon is important to me as a creator and a partaker. Canon is about respect, consistency, integrity, cohesiveness, and service to those who are invested in the story. It goes beyond the staid definition in the dictionary, as it is more than being about the officially accepted works. Something that is canon is what makes an entity or a property, that very thing. Otherwise, it is another story, and to say otherwise is a lie, a deception that is a disservice to the creator of the story and to the audience it cultivated.
It is from this perspective that I approach the liberties taken with franchises, with stories, with disdain. I used to write fan fiction, but could never find myself feeling at home in it. When I used to write fan fiction and nothing original, I felt something off about the experience that I had difficulty expressing to others. I always felt a keen respect for canon and had a desire to only add to it, never to remove from it or contradict it in any way, but even when devoting myself to trying to write a proper, respectful Mass Effect story, for example, something always seemed off. It then occurred to me, after taking a break and stepping back, that I was trying to write for something, trying to fill in the gaps for a property whose narrative was already broken, whose canon was already disrupted by those responsible for creating it in the first place. The creative forces behind Mass Effect broke the canon before I ever had the motivation to touch it. Already by the third game, there were too many fingers in the Mass Effect pie, as it were, too many objectives trying to be fulfilled by the game, the story, too many creative directions trying to be balanced in a narrative that fell apart the moment cohesion was needed the most. Most telling in this example, Mass Effect: Andromeda, a piece of fan fiction if I’ve ever seen one, was told in another galaxy 600 years after the end of Mass Effect 3, all to sidestep the impossible task of restoring an adherence to the canon established in Mass Effect and expanded in Mass Effect 2, which was destroyed by Mass Effect 3’s failure of an endgame. All this, while still using the franchise’s name, built in fanbase, and remaining goodwill in order to generate interest and sales in a story and game that otherwise might be too much of a risk to develop and launch as an original IP (at least in the mind of a company like Electronic Arts, whose clear endgame is profit above all other consideration).
This fascinating video by Jonathan Pageau (especially starting around the 8:30 mark) helped me further crystallize my thoughts on the matter of fan fiction versus canon, especially after I felt tangibly sick from watching The Last Jedi. There is a certain fetishism, of fantasy and wish fulfillment from fan fiction that is bleeding over into officially accepted and produced works, something that is actively eroding the very idea of canon and establishment. It is as though an entire generation of storytellers and story receivers is taking the Assassin’s Creed motto, “nothing is true, everything is permitted,” to a literal and absurd degree. Now I have words to adequately sum up why, despite high production values, charismatic actors, and high quality cinematography, The Force Awakens and subsequently The Last Jedi rubbed me the wrong way: they feel like fan fiction. The Force Awakens felt like it was written and made by kids who grew up idolizing the original Star Wars, but only learned how to copy its visual style, action, and pacing, without learning why it resonated with people or why the story was effective to such a wide audience, beyond the obvious sensory details. The Last Jedi took this even further and flipped the bird to canon, to the stories that came before it, all for the sake of poorly disguised socio-political agenda, subversion used as a placeholder for good writing, and giving a sick sense of empowerment to the idea that “nothing that came before matters.”
Fanatics who are devoted, no matter what, to coming to the defense of the Star Trek franchise and its creative overlord, CBS Studios, exhibit to me this same corrupted mentality. Worse, at least to me, many of the most ardent defenders throw around the term IDIC (Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations) as some sort of justification for the powers that be at CBS to do whatever they want with Star Trek and we’re supposed to be okay with it.
I need a moment to clear the short-circuiting of my brain matter, over the sheer breakdown in logic in hearing such a defense. Excuse me.
Infinite means something without beginning or end. When introduced as a Vulcan philosophy in Star Trek: The Original Series, it was a neat way to summarize part of Gene Roddenberry’s vision, that of diversity and cooperation between different races, ethnicities, genders, and all other things different about each of us. It represented the Enterprise’s mission to seek out new life, regardless of what form it took. It was a way of saying, “the universe is capable of presenting us an infinite amount of diversity in an infinite amount of combinations.” I find that to be pretty great.
That philosophy and ideal does not give a writer carte blanche to do whatever they want with Star Trek, or specific characters like Spock, all because “well that’s IDIC at work.” No. The word infinite is not the same as omnipresent or all-encompassing. It means that there is no end. If I say there is an infinite number of hot dogs in a cart, that means the hot dogs won’t run out. It doesn’t mean I get to say that the hamburgers being sold across the street are also hot dogs because, well, IDIC. That’s why I had the same feeling watching Abrams’s Trek movies as I did watching The Force Awakens: it felt like fan fiction. It was someone else’s grossly off the mark interpretation of characters and stories we Trek enthusiasts already knew well.
That would be okay, if it wasn’t passed off as being canon. CBS and Paramount spent a lot of money and effort trying to weave the new Trek and the old Trek together into the same canon. The comic book Countdown was all about Nero’s escape from Romulus’s destruction and his reason for hating Spock, using The Next Generation as a springboard and an excuse to legitimize the 2009 Star Trek movie, one that wiped out almost the entirety of the canon that came before it. CBS pressured Perfect World and Arc Studios into changing Star Trek:Online, forcing them to scrap their planned Romulan arc in favor of shoehorning in the events of Countdown in order to add further legitimacy to the new movies. Marketing for Star Trek: The Original Series DVDs were even changed to tow the line for the Abrams films, being advertised as the adventures of Kirk and Spock after the movie… too bad no one told the person in charge of marketing that Abrams blew up Vulcan, so there’s no way the episode “Amok Time” could be a sequel to his movie. The eventual backlash to the Abrams movies did seem to have an effect, as more recent Trek materials have been altered to refer to the Abrams films as taking place in the Kelvin Timeline, effectively an alternate universe. But unless you are invested in the expanded lore and materials outside of the core shows and movies, how are you supposed to know that? Instead, new Trek is still portrayed to the public as the equal to and even that which surpasses what came before. Discovery supposedly takes place before the original show, despite being aesthetically the same as the Abrams movies and displaying the same brazen disregard to canon in its writing and presentation. It does not feel like Star Trek, and instead of adding anything to what we already had, it is actively undermining it. The creative forces behind the show clearly want to do their own thing and follow their own agenda, but due to greed, lack of creativity, the people who ultimately control what gets produced would rather use the built in fanbase of the Star Trek name in order to push their new product.
This is an image on t-shirts I’ve seen for sale in bookstores. The new Abrams Enterprise is here instead of the original. Because, fuck the original, I guess is what the new generation says.
If storytellers and property owners followed the comic book model, we might not be experiencing this, at least not to this extent. In many comics, especially the giants like Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, and so forth, it’s accepted that there are multiple universes, multiple continuities of the same general character and/or idea. This means that one new take on Batman doesn’t necessarily mean a previous incarnation is moot, rather, they are all legitimate takes on Batman, and you can go with what resonates most for you. I don’t think this approach can work for every kind of story, but I think it is a healthier way of tackling stories that are so huge that they become ingrained in our popular culture, like, say, Star Wars. It is painfully clear to me that the people in charge of the stories and franchises near and dear to me have no respect for the idea of canon at all, and are only in it for notoriety and money. The writing, directing, and producers of The Last Jedi were obviously more concerned with being “oh so cool” with their subversiveness and millenial line towing that they didn’t bother with learning how to graduate Creative Writing 101.
The culmination of this article is that I no longer have any interest in being associated with the term “fan,” because, just as I needed to distance myself from religious and political fanaticism to survive as a teenager, so to do I need to cut myself off from it in storytelling in order to not feel toxic for being part of it. Now, after this reflection, if someone says I’m not a fan of Star Trek because I don’t like Discovery, instead of taking offense, I’ll be happy to agree. Better that than have blind devotion to a property. That sort of unthinking, ceaseless defense of something because of what it espouses to be is exactly what companies want. They want to be able to slap a popular name on something and watch the money pour in. Greedy corporate tactics like that are no different than a televangelist on TV, asking for money in the name of the Judeo-Christian God. It’s built-in brand recognition, after all, with an established user base.
Finally, here’s my disclaimer. If you like something because you legitimately like it, it resonates with you, it touched you, you think it’s cool, hey, thumbs up to you. If you enjoy Star Trek:Discovery for what it is, hey, props to you for finding something in life to enjoy. If you like reading or writing fan fiction, hey, hats off to you, especially if it leads to some happiness, makes you a better writer, or even opens the door for you to make original content. But if you don’t respect canon or the people who do, if you will accept whatever is shoved in your face because of the brand tied to it, I implore you to think before you speak about it.
The entirety of human civilization, and by extension storytelling, is all about us building on what came before. People who design cars today didn’t invent the things, but they build on what came before to make them better. Doctors of today didn’t perform the first dissection, but they know more about anatomy and how to better treat the sick and injured than their predecessors. What do you think would happen if the same regard for was given for canon in these fields as it often is in creative works? The whole fucking wheel of progress would come screeching to a halt, that’s what, and it would also be a tremendous slap in the face to the hard work, dedication, discipline, and sacrifice of those who came before. Our ancestors, I doubt, would have gone through the hell they did just so their children, their descendants, could toss it all aside on a whim. They, whether for selfish or altruistic reasons, wanted to make the world a better place for themselves or in general, in many cases so that their kids could avoid the same pitfalls they did.
When you take a shit on canon in creative works, you’re saying “fuck you” to the person or persons who worked so hard on creating it. Example: the negative backlash to the Star Wars Special Edition. Aside from messing with an established character, the lite remake casually brushed aside the hard work of men and women who created costumes, set pieces, and special effects that helped make the original a success. George Lucas may have created the story and the universe, but the production team around him is what made the original movie possible. To erase that work is to me an injustice. I feel the same way about any established, officially recognized piece of creative of work that is sabotaged, undermined, brushed aside, or rendered moot by a later work. It’s deeply, intensely disrespectful.
Canon is what makes a story or the universe it occupies what it is. It’s ultimately what separates Star Trek from Battlestar Galactica, Buffy from Dracula, The Good, the Bad, & The Ugly from the serial Western novels you can buy in a supermarket. When you break that down, you lose the point of cohesive storytelling. Character arcs stop mattering. Respect and discipline are tossed aside. Details become unimportant. You’re told to just “go with it.” I for one do not want to be part of a storytelling world where it’s okay for Into Darkness to replace The Wrath of Khan. I don’t want to watch the creative powers that be toss aside the lessons and stories of those that came before them for the sake of being edgy, cool, and oh so subversive. I see an erosion in quality, in care, in respect across the mediums of that which I enjoy, and that, finally, is the pin on the long-winded diatribe of why I advocate respecting canon, and why I no longer care if I am a “fan” of anything or not.