09 May 2009

"Star Trek" Canon and My Grudge Match with David Mack

So, like a good little Trekkie, I bought (and reviewed) Star Trek Countdown, the graphic novel prelude to this year's Star Trek film.  And, in true good little Trekkie fashion, I revisited the official message boards at startrek.com for the first time in...I honestly don't know.  I've had my account for quite a while, but I sincerely could not tell you if I had ever posted before last night.  Anyway, I stumbled upon a thread about whether or not Countdown is considered canonical.  You can link to the whole thread here.

First, though, some background for you Trek newbies.  For decades now, all kinds of comic books and novels have been published taking place in the Trek creative world.  These are good for Simon and Schuster (whose imprint, Pocket Books, has held the literary license for quite some time now) and the various comic book publishers (currently IDW Publishing) who have forked over respectable sums of money in order to produce stories that will hopefully turn a profit for the license holder.  So as not to incumber the writers of the actual movies and television episodes (who have already complained for years now that they are entirely too beholden to things established in previous movies and episodes), there is an operational rule.  Namely, only things that appear on screen are accepted as "canon," no matter how interesting the story may be.

My response to the aforementioned thread elicited a back-and-forth debate with David Mack, author of two episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and several paperbacks.  I have copied and pasted, verbatim, the entirety of each of our posts to one another for your benefit.  (Partly to document the debate as it was, without summation, and partly because I suspect I won't have an active account with startrek.com for much longer.)

ME
I disagree with the notion that Countdown "never happened."  It takes place in the post-Nemesis 24th Century of the "original" continuity.  Because the comic story explains the impetus for Ambassador Spock and Nero arriving at the black hole through which they time traveled, it cannot be shirked as something entirely of the old timeline, either.

The rule of thumb has always been that only things that go up on screen are canon (excluding even anything added to a novelization of something in the canon), and so Countdown would seemingly be dismissed as non-canonical.

However, because the story originated with screenwriters Orci and Kurtzman, I am inclined to accept it as canon; I suspect that, were they not afraid of the movie becoming too confusing for the lay audience they hoped to bring into theaters, the events of Countdown might have found their way into the beginning of the film.

MACK
^ It doesn't matter who wrote it: if it wasn't on the screen, it's not canon. Period.

Star Trek Voyager executive producer and co-creator Jeri Taylor wrote a pair of Voyager novels about Kathryn Janeway. Both were later contradicted by later seasons of Voyager itself. Ergo, her books = not canon.

ME
The unique nature of this project, though, I think offers more allowance than previous continuity.  Essentially, Orci & Kurtzman are the founding authors of the 2.0 continuity.  Granted, the actual events of Countdown are in the 1.0 timeline, but as they are validated on screen in Star Trek, I accept them as canonical until and unless superseded on-screen based on this logic.

MACK
^ What you "accept" has nothing to do with it. "Canon" has a strict definition in regard to Star Trek. It includes only what was expressly depicted and stated in the TV series and the movies. Nothing else. The determination of what is or isn't canon is not for fans to make; it is set by the licensor --- in this case, the current rights-holder, CBS Television. 
ME
Maybe it's this attitude toward fans that has alienated so many of us over the years.  "Your money is good enough to put food on my table, but your opinion isn't good enough to be discussed--even if we do officially make statements to the effect that we're courting it."

I'm not a license holder, so I'm not concerned with what the lawyers say does and does not matter.  And I'm not just a fanboy; I hold a degree earned in history and see the franchise through those eyes.  You know, there are supplementary texts like the Mishna and the Hadith that are not part of the singular religious texts of Judaism and Islam, but they are accepted as valid within those faiths because of their relationship with the primary texts.

What a seventeenth century imam has to say may be interesting, but is not relevant; what Muhammed said is relevant.  In this instance, Countdown, by virtue of its authorial origins and on-screen validation in the new film, exists on this secondary level.  And you, Mr. Mack, sound like a jealous imam begrudging the acceptance of the words of the religion's founder over your own.
MACK
^ Wow, projecting much? I am just someone who writes Star Trek stories professionally and knows what the rules are. The fact that you don't like them doesn't make them less true. And I don't have an attitude toward fans --- just toward people who presume to think they know more about my business than I do. 
ME
If you define canon as the regulation that licensed writers may not contradict things established on screen and that there is no guarantee that anything they write will be respected by anyone else, then yes, defer to the small fine print in your contract.

If, however, you realize that Star Trek, at the end of the day, is still a work of art, then you must accept that once an episode airs or a book is published...it is in the hands of its audience.  Of course, the franchise has been regarded almost exclusively in monetary terms for so long, I can understand that its participants have forgotten its existence as a collaborative work of art.
MACK

Those of us who write Star Trek stories professionally have forgotten no such thing, and it is extremely insulting and presumptive of you to accuse me or my peers of such. I strongly recommend you never try to pull this stunt to my face.
ME
Mr. Mack, I am greatly disappointed that you have chosen lording your status as a paid writer as a means of bullying dissenting opinion rather than participating in a meaningful discussion.  Questioning things is not "pulling a stunt."  Shame on you for your embarrassing behavior.  I sincerely hope your peers lack your hot headed machismo.

Star Trek does not belong to you or your peers.  Without an audience, a work of art is meaningless.  Star Trek, as a work of art, is imbued only with the relevance its audience gives it.  Your behavior in this thread makes clear the regard that you have for the franchise's audience--and, again, I sincerely hope you are not representative of your peers.

As for the perception that the franchise has been dominated by monetary considerations, Michael Dorn's Worf was brought to Deep Space Nine for ratings.  Jeri Ryan was cast to add sex appeal to Voyager.  Enterprise originally did not include "Star Trek" in its title so as to break free from the franchise and when its ratings dipped, the title was added to try to cash in on its association.  These are but a handful of business based decisions from recent years that were not made with storytelling in mind, but money.  I do not begrudge these acts, nor the reasoning behind them; I do, however, insist upon calling a spade, a spade.

Remember when stories about the Klingons were really about the Russians?  Sorry to say, but while I do not question your patriotism, as it were, I do in fact question whether you're serving your country...or your government.   There IS a difference, and most of the licensed stories have been entirely too interested in building on the mythos (or, more realistically, name-checking the mythos) to tell a meaningful story.

I also submit that the incessant crossing over of characters that has plagued the licensed novels for the last decade does not, in fact, contribute to the mythos.  Instead, it smacks of fan fiction rather than the thoughtful storytelling we had come to expect from Star Trek all those decades ago.
MACK
^ Your comments are insulting and arrogant beyond belief. I have nothing but love and appreciation for fans of my work and of Star Trek in general, and I am more than willing to engage in polite debates about the content of my work. However, I will not sit back and let you or anyone else impugn my motives, character, or professionalism, nor will I be lectured to by someone such as yourself.

And I really have to wonder what you meant by this remark:

Quote
Sorry to say, but while I do not question your patriotism, as it were, I do in fact question whether you're serving your country...or your government.

Excuse me? In all seriousness ... what the hell are you talking about? Is this merely a failed metaphor? Or did you just dare publicly to question my loyalty to my country?

If my reaction earlier shocked or disappointed you, maybe you should first learn to consider your own remarks much more carefully, especially when you're lobbing insults without provocation and accusations without evidence.
Me
It was, in fact, a metaphor and its lack of clarity would seem to suggest it is of the "failed" variety.  My point was that your gung-ho allegiance seems to be more to the business side of the franchise.  You were quick to quote contract stipulations as the definition of canon, and to cast yourself as representative of your novel writing peers.  The franchise, though, has more facets to it than simply who gets to cash a check, and I wonder whether you've lost sight of that.

If, by your own admission, the stories written by yourself and your peers have no bearing on anything whatsoever, then the only distinction between them and fan fiction is that you get to cash a check and see your work on a bookshelf.

As a fan, I long for a return to the days when 
Star Trek stories were allegories for our own social issues and not namedropping Trek minutiae.  Not only do other fans agree; the powers that be agree too.  That's the whole reason, after all, for the new movie eschewing established continuity.  Your vehement defense of old definitions make me wonder whether you get the purpose of this new project at all.

If, as I understand it, the idea is to break free and establish a new incarnation of 
Star Trek, then that must extend to supporting materials as well.  Countdown's role in canon was the question of this thread, and due to the nature of this new project, I think it's a perfect time to reevaluate what canon means.  If it's business as usual, though, then what was the point?

As for contrasting our behaviors, go back through this thread.  Not only were your words inflammatory before I exhibited anything "arrogant," but I am also not a representative of the franchise--as you clearly cast yourself.
MACK
Quote
the only distinction between them and fan fiction is that you get to cash a check and see your work on a bookshelf.

Wrong. There are several important distinctions between professionally authored fiction and fan fiction, as explained superbly by my friend and fellow scribe Keith DeCand!do 
in this post from his blog.

Quote
As a fan, I long for a return to the days when Star Trek stories were allegories for our own social issues and not namedropping Trek minutiae.

If you think that's an accurate description of my work for 
Star Trek, either on screen or in print, or of how I see my work, then you clearly have never seen nor read any of my work and have no idea what you're talking about.

Quote
That's the whole reason, after all, for the new movie eschewing established continuity. Your vehement defense of old definitions make me wonder whether you get the purpose of this new project at all.

Are you kidding me? You think they broke with 43-plus years of continuity for 
artistic reasons? How deluded are you? They did it to make the film more commercially viable to a wide audience. In other words, they did it to make more money.

Quote
Countdown's role in canon was the question of this thread, and due to the nature of this new project, I think it's a perfect time to reevaluate what canon means.

Except that it's not your place, or the place of any fan, to "reevaluate what canon means." The only entity that has the right to make that determination is the copyright owner, which currently is CBS Television. That's not just some petty distinction in the "fine print" of my contract --- that's a right guaranteed by U.S. copyright law. You need to understand this, because it's important: the fans do not own 
Star Trek. They consume it; they support it; but they do not own it.

Nor do writers Orci and Kurtzman, nor does director J.J. Abrams. They might be guiding the film side of the franchise and 
making canon at the moment, but they don't own it, and they don't get to define it. Neither do I. Neither do you.

Quote
If it's business as usual, though, then what was the point?

The same point as always in Hollywood: to make money. Anyone who tells you different is selling you something. In order to make money.

Quote
As for contrasting our behaviors, go back through this thread. Not only were your words inflammatory before I exhibited anything "arrogant,"

Absolute rubbish. I merely stated unequivocal facts about the definition of canon as it currently exists, and provided an analogous example from earlier in the franchise's history.

YOU chose to respond to that presentation of facts by accusing me of taking fans' money but never listening to their opinions (which is demonstrably untrue, based on my years of public online interactions with fans on various sites, especially the TrekBBS), and YOU compared me to "a jealous imam."

YOU made this personal. YOU were the first to level ad hominem attacks. YOU were the one who crossed the line and insulted my work (which clearly you have never read) and impugned my professionalism. You want to see who copped an attitude first? Look at your own posts.
 
Now, here's where it gets fun.  Between Mr. Mack's response and mine were two comments from other posters, which I will also quote in their entirety.

THE_MIGHTY_QUARK
Quote
As for contrasting our behaviors, go back through this thread. Not only were your words inflammatory before I exhibited anything "arrogant,"

Absolute rubbish. I merely stated unequivocal facts about the definition of canon as it currently exists, and provided an analogous example from earlier in the franchise's history.

YOU chose to respond to that presentation of facts by accusing me of taking fans' money but never listening to their opinions (which is demonstrably untrue, based on my years of public online interactions with fans on various sites, especially the TrekBBS), and YOUcompared me to "a jealous imam."

YOU made this personal. YOU were the first to level ad hominem attacks. YOU were the one who crossed the line and insulted my work (which clearly you have never read) and impugned my professionalism. You want to see who copped an attitude first? Look at your own posts.

Davey boy, you are and were the one who started being disrespectful, what with your "What you "accept" has nothing to do with it."  and "Wow, projecting much?"

You have been aggressive, rude, arrogant and inflamatory.

Sir, I have never read any of your works, and I never will.  You are a overbearing jerk with the pissy attitude of a child.  Certainly no professional.

Good-day.
B_4
What in the hell is going on? :laugh:  :laugh:  (eats popcorn) this is just as entertaining as the new movie, lol.

To MinL Shaw: You really have impugned the honor of Mr. Mack and fellow star trek authors with your comments. If Mr. Mack were Really a Klingon he would challenge you to an honor dual and you would be split in half now by his batt'leth. I would ask you to consider appoligizing for your thoughtless comments but I will not since you will not really mean it if you did, so I'll just call you an ass'hole instead. 
:honorable:

To The_Mighty_Quark: It's a good thing that you will not read any of Mr. Mack's novels because it seems a person of your...character would not be able to understand such complex, dramatic, amusing, entertaining stories such as Mr. Mack writes. So, you should continue to read first level picture books that I'm certain you enjoy now and leave such enjoyable mature reading material such as Mr. Mack writes to the adults. I and thousands of other fans certainly read and enjoy all of Mr. Mack's current novels and will continue to do so as long as he has stories to tell. 
:logical:
 
ME
Quote
As a fan, I long for a return to the days when Star Trek stories were allegories for our own social issues and not namedropping Trek minutiae.

Quote
If you think that's an accurate description of my work for Star Trek, either on screen or in print, or of how I see my work, then you clearly have never seen nor read any of my work and have no idea what you're talking about.

I was speaking generally about the entire franchise, actually. As for your work, I did in fact enjoy both episodes of 
DS9 that you wrote. "Starship Down" was a suspenseful submarine story that was fun to watch. "It's Only a Paper Moon" was one of the highlights of the Dominion War arc for me, as it brought a level of realism to that war not seen before in the franchise. Imagine my disappointment when I looked at the summary for "Destiny" and learned it was yet another multi-book crossover story.

Quote
Are you kidding me? You think they broke with 43-plus years of continuity for artistic reasons? How deluded are you? They did it to make the film more commercially viable to a wide audience. In other words, they did it to make more money.

Of course they made the movie to make money; that's not in dispute.  But, time and again, Orci, Kurtzman and Abrams have insisted that they would only touch the project once they were told they were free to break away from established continuity in order to tell a story without being burdened by the restrictions thereof.  Other writers over the years have also been quoted as complaining about the restrictions of the continuity as well.  You'll forgive me for interpreting this as meaning that having storytelling freedom was the impetus for breaking from continuity.

Quote
YOU chose to respond to that presentation of facts by accusing me of taking fans' money but never listening to their opinions (which is demonstrably untrue...)

Quote
Except that it's not your place, or the place of any fan, to "reevaluate what canon means." The only entity that has the right to make that determination is the copyright owner, which currently is CBS Television. That's not just some petty distinction in the "fine print" of my contract --- that's a right guaranteed by U.S. copyright law. You need to understand this, because it's important: the fans do not own Star Trek. They consume it; they support it; but they do not own it.

Reconcile those and let me know where I was wrong in my characterization of you.

Quote
YOU made this personal. YOU were the first to level ad hominem attacks. YOU were the one who crossed the line and insulted my work (which clearly you have never read) and impugned my professionalism. You want to see who copped an attitude first? Look at your own posts.

The_Mighty_Quark disagrees.  Granted, B_4 sides with you, but he also thinks you should be a Klingon and cut me in half for not worshiping you.  I'm feeling pretty good about rational, reasonable people understanding my point.
B_4
^^First off, I'm a she and that was a joke about Klingons and honor since you have impunged Mr. Mack's honor, completely rational and reasonable that I would make this joke, lol. I shouldn't have to explain this to you but apparently you have no sense of humor along with a bad attitude. I said nothing about worship :laugh: Apparently YOU are not able to understand the POINT that Mr. Mack has patiently explained to you. I'm feeling pretty good about rational, reasonable people classifying you as a big loser, jerk. :p 


B_4
Enough insults for today, i'm off to lunch. 
MACK
Really, MinLShaw? There are "rational, reasonable people" agreeing with you? I don't see any. All I see are you and one other humpty fan who doesn't like being told when you're off-base, and then gets all high-and-mighty when called on your own B.S.

I stated facts. You responded with baseless insults.

Quote
Reconcile those and let me know where I was wrong in my characterization of you.

You are wrong in your 
every characterization of me. And it is unbelievably arrogant and presumptive of you to think that you "know" me at all. You know nothing about me except that I get pissed off when lectured to by smug, condescending fans who think that just because they buy Star Trekbooks or merchandise that I owe them something, or that I answer to them. I don't.

It's not a matter of opinion that fans do not own 
Star Trek, it's the law. And no matter what you think of it, it's not going to change.

As for 
The_Mighty_Quark, try reading those posts again. I posted facts. You and MinLShaw have posted attacks and insults. If either of you would like to come out from behind your anonymous nicknames and own your words, I'll be very surprised -- because the only time I ever have to put up with this kind of preachy, self-righteous crap is from keyboard cowboys who are too spineless to post under their real names.
ME
Quote
Really, MinLShaw? There are "rational, reasonable people" agreeing with you? I don't see any. All I see are you and one other humpty fan who doesn't like being told when you're off-base, and then gets all high-and-mighty when called on your own B.S.
So let me make sure I've got this straight.  Once upon a time, a long forgotten post asked whether a comic book could be taken as canonical.  I conceded that, tradition holds that the answer is "no," but in the spirit of the new movie's breaking free from established norms, I tried to explore the possibility of reinterpreting those norms.  You responded by saying that fans have no say in anything.  Then you want to know why I feel the fans have been marginalized over the years?

There's a reason that 
Star Trek ratings fell, mass merchandise stopped selling and the franchise went on hiatus for so long: The fans quit caring.  And I don't know what fans you know, but all the ones I know quit caring because they felt that Paramount only cared about milking the franchise and not telling meaningful stories anymore.  If you want to insist that you're a company man, fine, but that means that when we have a beef with the company, that extends to you as well.

Quote
Reconcile those and let me know where I was wrong in my characterization of you.

Quote
You are wrong in your every characterization of me. And it is unbelievably arrogant and presumptive of you to think that you "know" me at all. You know nothing about me except that I get pissed off when lectured to by smug, condescending fans who think that just because they buy Star Trek books or merchandise that I owe them something, or that I answer to them. I don't.

First of all, you have not answered my question.  How can you tell me that I'm wrong about you representing a mentality that sees fans primarily in dollar signs, when your argument rests on your own assertion that fans only get to spend money on the franchise?

Secondly, I never said you, or any other writer "owed" me anything other than a story.  I prefer it be interesting and thoughtful, meaningful if you can swing it, but as long as I pay for a story and you give me one, then the transaction's over.  If I ever buy a book and it has blank pages, then I'll start complaining about being owed something by a writer.

Finally, I have never presumed to "know" you.  You could help little old ladies cross the street, or you could beat the neighbor's dog for all I know.  This isn't about you as a person, and never was. This was always about the franchise of 
Star Trek and, I thought, a discussion about some aspects of it.  It quickly turned into your lecture about how you know the rules because you're a professional writer.

I never questioned the legality of who owns 
Star Trek.  I simply argue that Star Trek, beyond its identity as a copyrighted property, exists as a work of art.  And, as a work of art, it can be (and should be) evaluated by its audience.  I should think a professional writer would understand the nature of art and its relationship with its audience.

See beyond the business/legal side of things.  See it as an art form, and I ask how can you not see this perspective?  When you wrote "It's Only a Paper Moon," the transaction consisted of you providing a teleplay and Paramount providing you with a paycheck.  The fact that it is regarded as a highlight of that season of the series is because the fans responded to your work, while other episodes have already been forgotten.  What role does ownership have on that?  And in another ten years, when fewer highlights remain fresh on the mind and another corporate board could have ownership of the property, would that negate any high regard fandom would have of the episode you wrote?

As for "hiding" behind the anonymity of my post, allow me to return B_4's favor and paraphrase a reference from the franchise.  "Who I am is not important; that I have [my point] is."  Who makes an argument ought to have no bearing on the validity of said argument.  Or is it that attacking me personally is more important to you than exploring the nature of the franchise and its relationship with its audience?
MACK
^ You have every right to evaluate Star Trek as a collaborative work of art. I never said otherwise.

My only assertion was that the term "canon" has a specific meaning in regard to Star Trek, one that is not open to interpretation.

The fact that canon has a strict definition for the Star Trek franchise in no way negates fans' right to formulate and espouse critical opinions, favorable or unfavorable, about its body of work as a whole or its constituent parts. Evaluate it all to your hearts' content.

When I and my partner wrote the story for "It's Only a Paper Moon," the paycheck was part of our motivation for doing so. But so was the opportunity to help create a story about a young soldier coping with post-traumatic stress disorder after being horrifically wounded in combat. Would I have been willing to spend all the time it took to pitch, develop, and write that episode if I had been told that I would not be paid for my efforts? That's difficult to say. Maybe. Maybe not.

Basically, I am saying that you have presented a false choice. Being a professional means getting paid for your work. But just because one insists on being paid, that doesn't mean one doesn't care about the quality or integrity of one's work. Art is no less valid because the artist was fairly or richly compensated. The "starving artist" is a romantic myth. Artists who are starving might well be hungry because they are bad artists.

That's how I "reconcile" those statements. Yes, I care about the artistic side of what I do --- but I insist on being paid for it, at a rate that allows me to pay my bills and make a living.

As for why Star Trek declined in popularity over the past decade? I don't honestly know. Perhaps some of what you say was a factor. But maybe it might be attributed to fatigue on the part of its writers, timidity on the part of network/studio executives, the push-and-pull of egos behind the scenes perverting the story-development process, and a hundred other things that can go wrong in such a huge collaborative undertaking that spans decades.
ME
QuoteThe fact that canon has a strict definition for the Star Trek franchise in no way negates fans' right to formulate and espouse critical opinions, favorable or unfavorable, about its body of work as a whole or its constituent parts. Evaluate it all to your hearts' content.

Perhaps we could compromise and have Canon ™ as the definition of what is and is not protected for screenwriters, and canon as defined more abstractly as the essence of Star Trek, informed by the various stories told in various media.  I do not presume to be enough of an authority to make the determination of what would go into such a canon, but surely there must be some way of recognizing such works as Countdown and its relationship with the new film?

QuoteWhen I and my partner wrote the story for "It's Only a Paper Moon," the paycheck was part of our motivation for doing so. But so was the opportunity to help create a story about a young soldier coping with post-traumatic stress disorder after being horrifically wounded in combat.

And, despite some of the unpleasant things you and I have said to one another in this thread, I daresay you (co-)crafted not only one of DS9's finest hours, but one of the most compelling episodes of all the series.  Plus, it featured Vic Fontaine and I loved James Darren in that role.

QuoteBasically, I am saying that you have presented a false choice. Being a professional means getting paid for your work.

That was never my intention, and I take responsibility for failing to clarify that.  My argument over artistry vs. profit was simply that too many of the plot devices of the last several years have come across as marketing contrivances rather than story elements that evolved organically (such as moving Worf to DS9 or replacing Jennifer Lien with Jeri Ryan).

I never meant to suggest that cashing a paycheck invalidates one's status as an artist.  Even Plato agreed that collecting payment does not compromise the identity of a physician as a healer.

I've no doubt that our debate would have been far friendlier in person, where things such as inflection, tone of voice and body language come into play.  Even my closest friends have often gotten into heated debates because they failed to realize how their typed words could be interpreted.

So, if you're man enough to chalk this up to heat-of-the-moment intensity magnified by a failure to more clearly convey meaning, I am.
MACK
MinLShaw, I'm happy to bury the hatchet, so to speak.

To answer one of your questions more specifically, there is a way of recognizing Countdown and other such works. The terminology used by theStar Trek licensing office is that they are "officially licensed Star Trek stories." What this means is that the body in charge of vetting products or stories based on Star Trek has read and approved the stories, and has verified that they do not contradict Star Trek canon as it exists at the time the tie-in story was written.

That's why "canon" needs to have a specific and limited definition in this context; it needs strictly defined parameters that can be used to evaluate licensed material based on it. If the definition were "broadened" or open to outside interpretation, it would not be possible to make objective evaluations of licensed stories, such as novels, comic books, video games, etc.
Now, you may be wondering why, in the last few posts, I became so concilliatory toward a guy I clearly do not like or respect.  It's simple.  I realized that I was dealing with a stark-raving egomaniac and that there was absolutely no way that any outcome in which he publicly rescinded his holier-than-thou attitude would ever come to pass.  I contented myself to simply expose his ego, which I believe I did successfully.  To wit, notice that his tone changed dramatically after I tossed him some flattering comments?  An ego only wants to hear praise.  Once it's heard that, it becomes satiated and approachable.  David Mack is no exception.

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