I am a Trekkie.
I’m not the slightest bit embarrassed about that. Star Trek in all its many incarnations is awesome. I love it, and I have loved it as long as I can remember.
Though I have never been professionally involved in the Star Trek franchise, I did spend a lot of years working on a similar shared-world property: the Forgotten Realms. Working as part of that team for a long time I tried to keep an eye on what other transmedia properties were up to, what helped them succeed, what drove them to failure or near failure, what ignited their fan bases in a good way, and what sent them off into flaming rage.
I quickly learned that you can’t please all of the people all of the time, and no matter what you do, the internet will provide a forum for everything from well-considered and entirely reasonable dissent to babbling, hate-filled nonsense. The only real way to filter through that to get a sense of what works and what doesn’t is by looking at what sells and what doesn’t. A very small core group of Star Trek or Forgotten Realms fans will continue to buy everything (or almost everything) even if they feel the people in control of the franchise have failed them, but the largest part of the audience will take a “fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me” stance and will drop off when you give them stuff they don’t like.
With the announcement of the new edition of D&D burning up the internet I won’t get too deeply into a discussion of my experience with 4th edition D&D and 4th edition FR, just to say that a whole lot of people were making a whole lot of decisions that a whole lot of other people wanted to make differently and everybody involved with 4th edition (including me) was blissfully happy with some parts and miserable over others. It’s the nature of a beast when that beast is made by committee.
But last night I finally sat down, thanks to Netflix, and watched Star Trek: Into Darkness. This is the first Star Trek movie I did not pay to see in the theater. I didn’t even rent the DVD. I waited until I had already paid for it (via my Netflix subscription) and, well, I finally just couldn’t resist.
And I didn’t just not like it, it fully pissed me off.
And here’s where we get to the title of this post:
PRECISELY WHAT NOT TO DO . . .
Let’s say you’re smart, resourceful, creative, and lucky enough to either create or inherit a massive international transmedia franchise fueled by a giant army of rabid fans. What you need to do is approach that like a doctor would: first, do no harm.
Now, I know there are at least a few people reading this who would say that the 4th edition Forgotten Realms did considerable harm to that setting, and being a part of the team that developed that, I share the blame if that was so.
A lot of what went into the 4th edition FR world was forced on us by radical revisions to the D&D game, especially in the way magic worked. Some of the changes were things I honestly believed, and continue to believe, would reinvigorate the setting, making it more open to players, authors, and game designers alike. And if 4th edition was a failure across the board everybody affiliated with D&D at Wizards of the Coast gets a spoonful of “blame”—but which one of us was assigned to know ahead of time that the entire global economy would crash the moment the game was released? That wasn’t me. And let’s face it, video games long ago siphoned off the lion’s share of the D&D (and other RPGs) audience so the huge customer base from even the 3rd edition days wasn’t there to either like it or not.
But one thing I can say with complete confidence that we did right in the development of the 4th edition Forgotten Realms was that we started with the simple concept that everything that came before is still good.
Every FR novel is still canon. Every FR game product is still canon. That, more than anything else, was why the timeline for the “base” setting moved up so far in the future, so we could figure out how to apply the 4th edition D&D rules as the “new normal” in the FR setting while not tossing out anything you’ve previously read or played.
Drizzt wasn’t recast with a hot young actor and sent through a reverse-order version of The Crystal Shard. Drizzt progressed into the new setting, a setting in which the events of The Crystal Shard were a part of the history of the setting. Remember the Deep Space Nine episode “Trials and Tribble-ations”? Just exactly like that. Deep Space Nine was set in the “future” relative to the original series, but was firmly based on the idea that the original series episode “The Trouble with Tribbles” actually did happen. Right?
But the extraordinary violence that’s been done to Star Trek with these new movies has done just the opposite. Using this time travel thing from the previous movie we’ve been told by the people who, whether they’ll admit to it or not, are temporary caretakers of Star Trek, the same way that I was one of a team of temporary caretakers of the Forgotten Realms, which is now in the hands of a new team, who, for what it’s worth, are doing some really clever things to move the setting forward as they undo some of what the previous edition of the D&D game forced on the setting.
But the new Star Trek said to fans, like me, who have lived with this universe for our entire lives (I was two years old when Star Trek first premiered): “Hey, listen, all that time you spent watching Star Trek: The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, Enterprise, all of the previous Star Trek feature films, and all the books, comic books, and various and sundry collectibles and whatnot? Yeah, all that’s no good anymore. But look, Uhura is really young and skinny and has the hots for Spock!”
“You wasted more than 500 hours of your life watching all of those other Star Trek series and movies that all of sudden just never happened, but look: Scotty has a goofy sidekick now!”
You have got to be f-ing kidding me.
I sat through Star Trek: Into Darkness, appreciating the visuals—I dug the aliens in the very beginning—but the backwards-ass retelling of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, one of my all time favorite movies, and one I can literally recite line by line, was painful and depressing to watch. I didn’t deserve that. I’ve done nothing but love you, Star Trek, and help pay for you. And this is the thanks I get? Everyone, including people who’ve never seen any Star Trek until this deserve lots more than a few lines stolen from the real movie and otherwise a two-hour J.J. Abrams’s Star Wars audition piece (job well done on that score, J.J., but Star Wars fans be warned).
This is precisely what you do not do when you’ve got a popular transmedia franchise. You do not stop and restart. Ever. You keep moving forward, and take none of your backlist off the table, ever.
And to think, we almost did that to Dragonlance . . .