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Just don't wear the red tunic

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on August 3, 2007
(Issue 2531, DVDs - Readers, Writers, Recorders)

The original "Star Trek" series was originally saved after its second season when fans started a letter-writing campaign in 1968, convincing NBC to give the low-rated series another shot.

While it still ended after the third season, the fans of that franchise have had a unique relationship with the owners of the various Star Trek films and series. While the fans don't call the shots, obviously, their loyalty, self-organizing abilities and willingness to speak their minds have given them the ear of producers like no other show's fans.

A new frontier

Now, though, the Internet is letting fans really have the final say – with "Star Trek: Enterprise," the last of the Star Trek-themed TV shows, off the air as of 2005, fans have turn to themselves to provide new episodes in the Star Trek universe, and share those episodes with other fans online.

Paramount still owns the copyrights and trademarks for Gene Roddenberry's franchise. No one can make a commercial TV series or movie with Star Trek references without Paramount's permission (and presumably a hefty cash payout or generous share of royalties).

But what if there are no profits? No income stream at all?

Copyright and trademark law only prevent others from seeking financial gain from your intellectual property. And enough fans are willing to create new Star Trek series for free that it is becoming a bit of an online phenomenon.

Two of these ongoing online "series" have become quite popular, with polished Web sites and their own fan clubs.

"Hidden Frontier"

For Trekkies who just can't get enough of their favorite alternate universe, "Hidden Frontier" has the most punch with 47 different episodes spread over seven "seasons."

The early seasons are pretty rough in the acting department (although oddly, the special effects and video production are fairly good, if more akin to the CGI graphics in "Quake 4" or "Halo" than the TV series), and each episode is closer to 10 minutes than an hour. But the later seasons are much better acted, as well as better written. All of them, though, are clearly acted in front of a blue screen, like a TV weather report, with the backgrounds added later.

You can watch the episodes in your browser or download the videos to the hard drive for repeated viewings, so you have some control in your viewing options that's nice.

The folks behind this series have wrapped it up and are working on their next Star Trek online fan series: "Star Trek: Odyssey," plus an early spin-off – or sister series – from Odyssey, "Star Trek: The Helena Chronicles."

All of them can be found from

"New Voyages"

"Star Trek: New Voyages" is subtitled "The five-year mission continues." With a cast of volunteer actors (and volunteer costume and set designers, camera operators, video editors, lighting directors, etc.), the original U.S.S. Enterprise with Kirk, Spock and the rest of the familiar crew continue where the original series left off when cancelled 60 percent of the way through its advertised mission.

Original series writer D.J. Fontana has written an episode for "New Voyages," and actor Walter Koenig reprised his role as Chekov in one episode and George Takei returns as an older Sulu in another.

Two episodes are listed as having been completed, available for download to view, with a third to be released in late August.

Across the board – acting, writing, production – "New Voyages" is head and shoulders above "Hidden Frontier." Of course, that quality obviously takes time, and thus the significantly fewer episodes for "New Voyages." But unlike "Hidden Frontier," the series is taped on a real set, which is startlingly similar to the original series'.

For Scotty

Actually dedicated to Rodenberry but produced in the Scottish homeland of original cast character Chief Engineer Scott, the Star Trek Intrepid project has produced one long episode, "Heavy Lies the Crown."

Other than every character having a brogue far thicker than that faked by the Canadian-born James Doohan, the production, acting and production here are comparable to those on "New Voyages."

What it shares with its two American brethren is a refreshing attitude toward casting: Most of the actors in these fan-based shows are normal-looking. In "New Voyages," Uhuru is attractive but not a bombshell, and the other characters are rather plain. They look like, well, the folks you see in the real-world astronaut corps, military and merchant marine – or in your own office, for that matter.

Which grounds these series and gives them a realism the commercial shows never had. If you had to be gorgeous to join Starfleet, there'd be no room for the rest of us.