The Continuing Voyages: 'Star Trek' Reboot Fandom and 'Prime Universe' Canon
Just as there's no beginning or ending to works of the imagination, the possibilities of story cannot be exhausted.
The 2009 Star Trek film’s introduction of the Kelvin Timeline and its canonical “Alternate Universe” offered a plethora of possibility to fans old and new. While Trek fandom has never gone away, the new film invigorated it with its fresh take on beloved characters, and new fans came to the numerous digital platforms of fandom in droves. Almost immediately various resources were organized and created for the benefit of the new fans, not just to entice them to watch The Original Series (TOS) and its fellows, but so that they would have references useful for their fanfic and fan art.
What was the name of McCoy’s ex-wife? Why was Tarsus IV seminal to Kirk’s development as a leader? Where are all the characters that aren’t white guys or Uhura? Reboot fandom drew strongly on these resources, adding canonical characters that were functionally deleted from the first film (like Kirk’s older brother) or exploring the new ones that were introduced (Gaila, who may well be the first Orion woman in Starfleet). With the newest film just out, a new series in the wings, and the franchise’s golden anniversary at hand, how do we make sense of 50 years of adventures?
Fans of TOS in the '70s kept fandom alive through numerous fanzines that collected fan fiction, critical and speculative commentary, the occasional poem, checklists of episodes with summaries and character information—resources that were incredibly useful when the shows was in syndication but there were no VHS recordings, let alone the possibility of binge-watching. (Fun fact: TOS’s popularity in syndication trumped the usual model for re-airings; even today, a television show usually needs 100 episodes to be re-aired. The Original Series consisted of only 79 episodes, plus the unaired pilot “The Cage”.)
In 1975, Bantam Books published Star Trek Lives!, a collection of nonfiction fan writing that included a primer on fan fiction. It was followed in 1976 by Star Trek: The New Voyages, the first of two volumes that collected fan fiction pieces in whole rather than just excerpts. Shortly afterwards, Pocket Books licensed media tie-in novels for the series, which in the early days included work by numerous fan authors who turned pro (like A.C. Crispin) or up-and-coming pro writers (like Joe Haldeman). None of these works were considered canon per se, but they explored the possibilities of life in and outside of the Federation. After the conclusion of the last television series, Enterprise, in 2005, and a change in editorial apparatus, the novels created a more coherent and canonical “world-picture” of the stories of various characters.
Unfortunately, this has led to something of a tamping-down in certain lines, such as the brief Reboot-era Starfleet Academy series that included only four volumes published between 2010 and 2012. The reason put forth for the suspension of this particular line was that certain plot elements in the books hinted too much towards the story of what would become Star Trek Into Darkness, which in retrospect was either wishful thinking or a red herring altogether.
The lead-up to the 2009 Star Trek film (alternatively referred to as XI, NuTrek, AOS for Abrams’ Original Series, or simply as the Reboot) included a four-issue comic entitled Countdown that took place entirely in the “present” of the Prime Universe. Here, Ambassador Spock is still working to reconcile Vulcan with Romulus (as seen in the two-part episode “Unification” in Star Trek: The Next Generation all the way back in 1991) and prevent its star from going nova with red matter; appearances are made by Data, who is now Captain of the Enterprise-E; Picard, now the Federation Ambassador to Vulcan; Geordi LaForge, who designs and builds Spock’s ship, the Jellyfish, that is seen in the film.
Nero is introduced as a Romulan who wants to assist Spock’s efforts to save his planet, but the loss of his homeworld, wife, and unborn child drive him to madness, and to attacking the Federation vessels that arrive to assist refugees. General Worf of the Klingon Empire arrives to render assistance, and in the events that ensue, both Nero and Ambassador Spock inadvertently time-travel—and from there, the new reality is born from the ashes of the Kelvin Disaster, in which George Kirk sacrifices himself to save his family and crew from Nero.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Reboot fandom is how it’s not a “true” reboot -- the Prime Universe still exists. All of the events of TOS, The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, Enterprise, and all of the films -- they still happened. The Kelvin Timeline is distinct, with connections and callbacks to the other universe, and as such, presumably all of the characters we have seen will be seen again in other iterations. As a simple example, most recently in Star Trek Beyond there was a very brief scene with Sulu’s partner and daughter; Demora Sulu was introduced in the 1994 film Star Trek: Generations.
It's seemingly small “seeds” like this that provide not just fan service to viewers, but more food for thought for the serious fans (and fan writers). The ongoing Star Trek comics, recently retitled as Star Trek: The 5-Year Mission, published by IDW flirt with canon in both universes, introducing alternative takes on classic episodes that are accordingly different from the original. For instance, in the retelling of “Operation -- Annihilate!” Kirk’s brother Sam and his family are rescued from Deneva, with a familial reconciliation being reached. In the original episode, a reconciliation between the brothers is not needed, but the colonists all perish except for Sam’s son. Other stories in the series push forwards arcs like the Vulcans’ recovery from the destruction of their homeworld, while special issues take on favorite fan tropes, like a story told in the Mirror!universe, or a peek into yet another universe where the characters are gender-swapped.
The most recent -- and concluding -- arc of the series this summer was entitled “Connection” and drew together both the TOS and Reboot crews in a lovely rumination. Rather than being a straightforward crossover, the characters only meet mentally, with an interesting use of visual art to render the effect as puzzle-pieces that fit into a whole rather than only a divergence. A final connection brings us full circle, as the Enterprise’s databases now contain information from both universes.
It is this element of connection -- pulling together information and stories across generations, that ultimately speaks to how fan writers and readers work: putting pieces together to create new wholes. We see this most clearly in fanon, or fannish canon, which pulls from all of the stories told officially, and unofficially. Fanon runs the gamut from character names or alien biology to the interpretation of events in characters’ lives. Indeed, Uhura’s first name, Nyota, which was first used on screen in the 2009 film, originated from William Rotsler’s 1982 tie-in book Star Trek II Biographies; it was also used in a number of other works, licensed and fannish. Similarly, Sulu’s first name, Hikaru, was first used by Vonda N. McIntyre for her 1981 tie-in novel The Entropy Effect; it was not adopted on screen until the film Star Trek VI.
For another example, in the TOS episode “The Conscience of the King” we find that Kirk is the survivor of a eugenics-related genocide. The colony governor, Kodos, who perpetrated the murder of over four thousand civilians escaped justice and has always been a ghost of Kirk’s past that he must reckon with when it seems that Kodos has resurfaced. The “Tarsus IV Disaster” is meant to recall elements of the Holocaust; it also implies strong psychological links between Kirk’s belief in no-win scenarios and this formative childhood experience. Interestingly, while only a few (comparatively) fan stories examined the event in the period of zines, in the time of digital circulation it's a well-known trope, with tags and even a community dedicated to sharing stories that expand on this element of fictional history.
What we might take from these volumes and volumes of licensed (there are quite literally hundreds of novels and comics) and fannish works (hundreds of thousands of fanfics online and in print) is fandom’s deep interest in exploring the possibilities of the worlds of Star Trek in all its iterations. Just as there's no beginning or ending to works of the imagination, the possibilities of story cannot be exhausted. Whether it's fannish writing on page or screen, or officially licensed material, there's always room for expansion and possibility.
Fifty years on we can still see this the most clearly through a vision of diversity: not until this year and the new Sulu has Star Trek had an onscreen gay character (though there have been gay characters in the novels, and they are abundant in fan fiction). There's been a recent pushback on the “faux progressivism” of slash writing in fandom (which boils down to queer romances, most famously in K/S or Kirk/Spock stories), but I would nonetheless argue that decades of slash writing effectively normalized the ideas of gay relationships for a number of readers whom I have met -- and many of whom also recognized and learned to celebrate their own queerness because of it. Roddenberry’s famous Vulcan principle of IDIC, or Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations, remains something to aspire to, both onscreen and in the real world. As in fandom, it's a place we can get to by joining together in celebration of one.
Cait Coker is a genre historian specializing in science fiction fandom and women’s writing. Her essays have appeared in The Journal of Fandom Studies and The Journal of Transformative Works and Cultures, among others.