The LIEF Erikson

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

~(>!<)~ Notable Fan Films?

Wikipedia is an internet phenomenon. The idea is that it is an encyclopedia written, not by experts, but by ordinary folk such as you or I. The very name says it all: "What I Know Is". It is meant to be an accumulation of the personal knowledge and experience of a wide range of individuals. It is "peer reviewed" in that the equals of the author judge it for accuracy. Unfortunately, like the horse designed by a committee, it does not always end up looking like our original idea.

Over the past months I've been involved in an attempt to compile an encyclopedic article on the Star Trek fan film scene. My original idea was to make it comprehensive and all inclusive, from the largest and most complex projects to the smallest concept groups. Others have a different idea, that it should be a summary article that includes only the most notable productions. This sounds simple enough, but you are faced with a knotty decision: What do you put in and leave out? What are your criteria for selection?

Even Wikipedia is open to interpretation as regards to what should and should not be allowed in. Wikipedia has seemingly given up on trying to define what it is but has (quite reasonably) an extensive list of things that it is not. On the one hand they say that it is not a paper encyclopedia and thus has no limit to the number or (within reason) size of articles, then on the other hand they make an issue of notability.

I have a definate problem with the idea of using the concept of notability to say what stays and what goes, not least of which is the fact that "notability is not formal policy (and indeed the whole concept of notability is contentious)". What is more, the definition of notability is so subjective that it is virtually impossible for personal bias not to play a part. The only objective, quantifiable criteria that have been suggested are Google hits and IMDB moviemeter ratings, both of which measure popularity rather than notability.

Popularity, even critical acclaim, should not be the only criteria for notability. Read any hundred word summary of Star Trek and the odds are it will mention the fact that it had the first interracial kiss on TV. Yet how many would be able to give you the name of the episode? It is by no means the most popular episode, any number have been given that accolade although I reckon it must be a toss-up between "The Naked Time" and "The Trouble with Tribbles". If we were to choose the most popular by critical acclaim, it would probably have to be "The City At the Edge Of Tomorrow" which was awarded the 1968 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation.

Even if we accept Google and IMDB as a ratings system (more, much more, on this later), the values you end up with are comparative rather than absolute. I mean how many Google hits makes a production "notable" or a "major project"? To illustrate, the productions which have been culled from the article so far fall into the following broad groupings…
  • A few entries were for fan films that could not be found mentioned anywhere else on the internet. Anything listed needs to be independently verified otherwise there is a possibility of inaccuracy - accidental or on purpose! [cough:entfan!:cough]
  • A second group encompasses the "Concept groups" who might only be as far as getting a script together and investigating resources - not seriously in pre-production, even though they may be seriously working towards starting production.
  • Pre-production groups, which have not started filming yet but are in the process of actively preparing resources for production are constantly described as "vaporware", even though they might be auditioning cast, building props, creating cgi, even filming trailers.
  • Most contentious of all are the fan film productions which are simply not popular because they are not well known. They might only mentioned on a single web page that has no free download link. This group includes mentions of fan films produced long ago in VHS that are not available in electronic form and might not be available at all now. The very existence of some of them has been doubted because they are not mentioned on the internet. Much as I love my 'net it is not the only repository of knowledge on the planet!
The first group is against Wikipedia rules and I have no problem with their being dropped. The others represent different stages of development of a fan film. In biological terms, it is easy to say when the pupae become the caterpillar, the caterpillar a larvae and the larvae a butterfly. The different stages of a fan film are much harder to define. I have used the following categories…
  • Concept group - Investigating possibilities but no major commitment of resources or money.
  • Pre-production - A group that shows an investment by casting, building, learning and testing.
  • Post production - A group that has started or finished filming and is preparing the raw materials for final presentation.
  • Fan film - A group that has a finished production available to the public.
I can understand dropping the concept groups from the Wikipedia article. They haven't committed themselves to production yet and it is the production of Trek fan films which is the subject of the article. I might even be able to understand dropping pre-production groups if the size of the article were an issue, however it's not. It has been said that Wikipedia is not a crystal ball, meaning that it should not be used to write about future happenings, in this case productions. This is the one and only concrete claim I can see that can be levelled at pre-production groups that is defensible.

The way I see it, this article is meant to be about fan films of the Trek genre which do not spring fully formed into the world like Venus on the half-shell! They are progressively built works that demand a massive investment of infrastructure and time - anything from months to 6 years! The fanchises that they build up along the way are a work in themselves which can include podcasts, trailers, webcomics, convention appearances and a massive web of inter-relationships, sharing personnel, props and experience.

Fan films are not a commodity like a loaf of bread that you pick up at the shops. They are a major investment of the lifeforces of the hundreds of people involved and to say that they have no place in Wikipedia is to say that Wikipedia is focussed only on commodities and not the social and cultural forces that have created them. Cut out the pre-production groups and you ignore a field of endeavour that is becoming a potent force in the fan world.

In my opinion this represents a departure from the whole principle that Star Trek fan films have been built on - films produced by fans for their own enjoyment and the enjoyment of their friends. Certainly everyone takes pride in their work and tries to create something to the very best of their abilities whether they are in front of the camera or behind it. However there has always been an element of respect on the Trek fan film forums whereby groups are non-competitive and supportive, rather than elitist and exclusive. Perhaps this hearkens back to Roddenberry's principle that Starfleet and the UFP are built on community or group efforts, cooperation rather than confrontation?

Indeed, my initial impulse is to stand toe to toe and argue that this fan film is more worthy of inclusion than that one is. However this leads to an insidious downward spiral because to show that one is better, I have to imply that the other is worse, that there is something lacking in it. I must make a subjective value judgement and if I win my case, although one group wins, another looses. I have chosen not to play this game for I feel that this leads, not to an equitable grouping, but to elitism.

By far the most distasteful aspect of this whole deal for me is the idea that notability is a popularity contest that is graded by using a rating system - Google & IMDB - and anything that is not notable is not worthy of inclusion. When did we start having an entrance exam for inclusion in the Trek fan film community? The next thing we'll be getting will be a scoreboard, grading fan films by their popularity.

For God's sake people, don't do this to us! We've just lost "Star Trek: Enterprise" and all professional Trek production has been put on hold because it didn't rate highly enough. Now you want to do the same thing to fan films? Are you nuts?

Who gives a dead dingoes donger about ratings?

I thought Trek fan films were supposed to be a free expression of our fandom. So you like The Original Series? You want to see more and you have a group of like-minded friends? Go for it! Do it! You will have to search for the talents and develop the skills needed to make a film production - if you believe in your production enough to put your hard-earned cash on the line, I'm assuming you will want to make the effort to make it the best film you can. Beyond that, its nice to get accolades, perhaps you might want to show it at cons or in film festivals, perhaps you might do it again, but are you really worried if it isn't popular? You're doing it for yourself and those who enjoy TOS, if it doesn't come up to scratch on some ratings board outside TOS fans, Google, IMDB or Neillson, should you be bothered?
Mark my words, we're not talking about constructive criticism which is offered to improve your work here, we are talking about a ratings system that is trying to deny your work's existence as a Trek fan film!

Up to now the Trek fan film community has been supportive and non-judgemental. Smaller groups, some not even having their own website at times, have been welcomed onto the forums of the larger, more well established and respected groups - one of the top three of which I might point out is Exeter's "Subspace Forum" which was not deemed as notable as " Star Trek: The Pepsi Generation". Shouldn't Wikipedia reflect that? Isn't an encyclopedia supposed to reflect reality rather than change it? Why would any one want to change it?

I can only give you my opinion based upon what I have seen in my short time as a Trek fan production observer. It is up to you, the Trek fans and film-makers and, to a wider extent, SciFi fans in general to make your own decisions.

If Wikipedia is meant to be a reflection of reality, if it is going to be a true, authoritative work on the subject, it's going to have to report on all productions regardless of size or quality. I'm not suggesting equal mention for all, some need only be a linked name, but their position in the broad scheme of things needs to be acknowledged otherwise readers will get an unbalanced view of the field. When did we start making value judgements about which productions were "notable" enough to be called fan films?

I've got a bad feeling about this.


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