Friday, June 8, 2012

Originality in Fan Productions

Lack of originality is another defect that is pinned on fan productions and I will go so far as to say that breathing originality into *any* derivative work, irrespective of whether it is fan-made or professional, is one of the many major challenges a writer and producer is faced with.

As regards the originality of fan productions, I don't believe you can just throw out a blanket generalisation over them all because some are more susceptible than others.

As I've said before, your base level fan fiction author couldn't give a Tinker's what you think of their work because they are doing it for their own satisfaction and although they will be pleased if you complement their work, they aren't really interested in your critique because they didn't write it to exercise their art and are not interested in trying to improve. I'll not condemn them because writing for any purpose can lead to bigger and better things and bring them closer to the realisation that there might be a bigger audience than one for their work and will some day start to listen to critique which will lead them onto the path towards learning how to express themselves better.

You might have noticed that I have made the distinction between fan productions that use Canon characters and those that use OC's or Original Characters? This is no idle speculation, it is at the same time one of the things that frees us and a responsibility that binds us.

I very seldom do anything with canon characters because to write something that develops our appreciation of them is hard, *very* hard. I do however use canon races, settings, technology, backgrounds, etc so I'll stand up and be counted on that part. Have I used them with originality? That's for the audience to say, I suppose. I've had positive feedback, from die-hard fans as well as audio buffs, I am only one part of the small cast and crew who made it what it is but in general I think of it is something I'm proud to be associated with.

Star Trek Excelsior, Outpost, Eras, Henglaar MD - there is quite a healthy list of Star Trek fan audio dramas thank you very much - are examples of fan productions that use OC's and yet the canon details that they are built on are meticulously checked to make sure that they conform with the ideas of the original writers. The Klingons are honourable and warlike, the Vulcans are logical and unemotional, the Feddies are driven by an ethical code of conduct whilst playing the wildcard of humanity.

The Star Trek universe was created by professional writers, actors, designers and producers using an investment of hard cash from the entertainment industry which means that, no matter how loosely your production is based on the copyrighted work, it is still a fan production and as such must be bound by the fan production rules of engagement - no diverting revenue, all credit acknowledged...

How much harder is it to reconcile making a derivative work using canon characters? To my mind that is an immense task and, if done well, adds immensely to the franchise - done poorly, it can ring its death knell!

I'll admit to being a Batman fan. The tortured, brooding character is iconic. I was entertained but only occasionally impressed by the early movies, I was stunned by the Batman Begins reboot, I've listened to some of the OTR classics and I've heard promo excerpts from Dirk Mag's Knightfall which one of these days I've got to buy a copy of. I enjoyed Pete Milan & Seth Adam Sher's Ace of Detectives (a finalist for a 2007 Parsec Award) and I absolutely loved Laura Post's Batman: No Man's Land, which has been sadly in abeyance for two years.

Why did the early movies fail to convey the essence of the Dark Knight when the fan productions did? Because the studio played it for kitsch, they thought the public wanted an entertaining Batman and so they gave them a Batman (Val Kilmer) who actually smiled once! It was only with Batman Begins that they actually started to show the character the respect it deserved and were rewarded by critical acclaim.

Therein lies the crux of creating something based on an earlier work, especially something that was successful or has a strong fan following - you have to find the essence of the character/s and create something that respects that core and develops on it.

This is the usual failure of baseline fan fiction because a fan will generally want to write something that shows a character as they would like them to be and in so doing flies in the face of canon. Spock loves Kirk, the Emperor Palpatine cries, Dante from Devil May Cry becomes a Pokemon trainer! Yes, it has all happened in the fertile mind of a fan but is it Trek / Wars / DMC? Hey, I believe in IDIC so do whatever turns you on baby, just don't expect me to include it with fan productions that attempt to address their canon with some degree of accuracy. In the over-the-top world of Star Wars, the Emperor Palpatine, certainly in ep's 1-3, is as caring-and-sharing as Atilla the Hun! Works that make no attempt to rationalise these changes of character are called character rape by the unkind and I find them hard to defend.

The three times I can remember writing something using Trek canon characters I have tried to write about them based on my understanding of them from canon but taking it just a little further. I would no more have one of the canon characters I have gained so much enjoyment from do something out of character than I would write a lie about a real person.

So does that mean we need to regurgitate carbon copies of canon episodes? That would indeed be unoriginal but using canon characters to say something new? Why is Nechayev such a hard case? What would it have been like at the Court of Inquiry into the loss of the Enterprise-D at Veridian 3? What would happen if...? What happened next? Why didn't they...? What are the consequences of...?

Hard to do in Star Trek but even harder in any franchise that depends on the characters for its driving force: Buffy is a perfect example because without those central characters Sunnydale is just the same as any other Hellmount!

I suppose my point is that originality of premise, whilst creatively admirable, is not an automatic ticket to greatness just as it should not be assumed that it is impossible for a derivative work to be original. I've listened to some Indie audio dramas that have laboured valiantly to create an interesting, original fictional setting for their work and just not made it, whilst I've also heard some fan shows that either re-captured the original nicely or took them in new directions... and vice versa!

Whilst I will admit to open admiration of anyone who creates an interesting original fictional setting are we saying here that anyone's work which is based on another's fictional setting is to be automatically castigated? Dirk Maggs' Batman? Joss Whedon's Avengers? Joss is not averse to wanting to place his own personal stamp on franchises that he admires and I dare say the suits at DC are collectively kicking themselves for not letting him have his way with Wonder Woman... creatively speaking of course!
Talk to me of originality and, I will turn on you with rage. I am a crowd, I am a lonely man, I am nothing

On The Honesty of Star Trek Fan Productions

Fan productions have a number of innate advantages over professional work. Being free from commercial restraints is one such boon – I only have to worry about what I want to put into my creation, not what my audience demands. If I wish to write a political polemic that espouses the virtues of Ferengi existentialism I don't have to worry that it won't sell! We can, and many do, put whatever message we want into our fiction without worrying about the interference of media executives.

Because my work is free from the need to be a financial success I can take any chance I desire without worrying if it will make enough money from the mugs and mouse mats I might be selling from my website to pay for the server costs for the month.

If I am confident about what I am trying to do, I can call down to the Engine Room, “Full speed ahead and damn the critics!”

Without belittling the required technical knowledge needed to be a critic, all too often their reviews are not constructive and survive on the public's vicarious enjoyment of their negative attitude. All to often they use the cheap-shot yuks of Mary Sue jokes to take a holier-than-thou attitude towards fan productions. Alas, they suffer from the same commercial imperative as others who see their work as a salable commodity: their purpose is not to improve the work of those being reviewed but to entertain the public and in so doing improve their Alexa web ranking.

Years ago I wanted to write an audio drama series that dealt with the themes of aggression, bravery and honour - Tales of Death and Honour - and I chose to build my premise on the diametrically opposed cultures of the Klingon and Vulcan in Star Trek. Knowledge of he TV program and movies is so pervasive throughout Western Society and beyond that there would be few who can read the English language who would not have a working knowledge of it! The very names are synonymous with the concepts of aggression and honour as against pacifism and logic.

[sighs] So why not do the same thing based on your own fictional universe, I hear you say? Because my story requires that I use these two memes, because if I tried to make my own fictional universe that could do the same thing, all I would be doing would be copying the Star Trek universe and giving it different names. That, dear reader, is true plagiary to my mind!

I will accept the slings and arrows that say this is a cop-out and my only defense is that I'm a Trek fan who has such an immense respect for the fictional universe which the professionals have created that my own creative processes march in synch with theirs.

Like most Star Trek fan producers, as I've said before, for the most part I don't use canon characters - all my characters and situations are original and simply use the Star Trek fictional universe as a framework. However my work is still a fan production and I must acknowledge my debt to those professionals who made the fictional universe - the memes of Klingon and Vulcan - so engrained in popular culture. The actors, the costumers, the prosthetics makers, Marc Okrand and a dozen different writers, directors, producers, Paramount, Desilu and The Great Bird of The Galaxy.

So, in answer to the question how do I rationalise using someone else's Intellectual Property to tell my own story, all I can say is that I honour the purpose of the law rather than the letter of the law. The purpose of the law is to provide a mechanism of monetary return to the creator to recompense them for their work. The copyright owners and licensees of Star Trek have made a small fortune out of me over the years by my purchase of books, merchandise, role playing games, movie tickets, costumes (yes, I am the proud owner of an Enterprise era uniform that I will be wearing to Supanova this year) and all I ask in return is that they allow me to develop my fandom along creative lines.

Douglas Bader in Reach For The Sky says, "Rules are for the obedience of fools and the guidance of wise men." Rules are created for a reason - find out what that reason is, address that problem and then you have honoured the rule. The purpose of copyright is to either make money for the creator or to make sure that they do not lose any money that they might otherwise make.

If I do NOT write my audio drama series it will not make one extra penny for Paramount. I am not given any realistic mechanism for paying Paramount for using their IP. I could buy a license but since I don't have a six-figure sum sitting in my back pocket this is unrealistic. If I could pay Paramount $10-$50 for a mini-license to write a fan production on the proviso that I make no profit on it, I would be delighted to do so but I can't.

So if I want to exercise my fan experience creatively as an audio drama I have two choices: give them indirect profit and ensure that no money is diverted from them that they would otherwise make.
  • My story supports their fictional universe, develops it and, hopefully, enhances it.
  • By doing so it keeps interest alive in their IP so that existing fans will continue their support of the franchise and new fans will be introduced to it.
  • This is viral promotion - something that professionals paid thousands are struggling to do for them commercially. I give it to them for free.
  • Nothing that I do generates any revenue - I don't have any Tales of Death and Honour T shirts, mugs or mouse mats for sale. If I did, these could be seen as a revenue that is trading at least in part on their IP.
  • In the same way, I don't have a tip jar for myself or a charity (more's the pity) because these could be seen as a revenue that is generated in part on their IP.

Yes, I am using their Intellectual Property but I'm given no realistic way of paying for it, so I use it in a way that gives them indirect revenue and does not divert revenue from them. All I ask in return is to add a rider to my work: "The author reserves the moral right to be identified as the creator of any original work." This is not just ego on my part, it also safeguards them if my work generates any negative publicity. If the public thinks it is crap, its my fault but if it is good I would ask that my original contributions be acknowledged.

Not too much to ask I think.

By the way, with regards to usage of canon characters, I've since remembered that the audio drama, Star Trek Grissom uses canon characters and extrapolates on the classic movie era storyline leading up to The Search For Spock. However the characters are a small part of the whole production and the audience's foreknowledge of the Grissom's tragic fate gives the whole production a dramatic flare that tinges our developing love of the characters. Only an Irishman could think up this!