CBS halts sales & Phase II's version of long-lost 'Star Trek' episode
Now CBS, but once Paramount Pictures, have had little to say about the many internet fan series based on their property of Star Trek (Hidden Frontier, Intrepid, Farragut and New Voyages: Phase II to name just a few) over the years. They clearly saw a workable, symbiotic relationship with fan productions and the mainstream TV shows and movies. As long as the fans never changed the conical nature of the established main characters (be it TOS or its many spin-offs), they were given (a mostly) free rein to expand the Star Trek Universe. But recently, someone within CBS, or over at Paramount, have suddenly raised a red alert.
It all began back in October when a fan approached Norman Spinrad, who wrote the episode The Doomsday Machine, to autograph the script for another episode of Star Trek Gene Roddenberry commissioned him to write in 1967 called He Walked Among Us. The episode dealt with Kirk and crew grappling with a well-meaning but messianic sociologist whose conduct threatens to destroy a planet. Since he violated the Federation’s Prime Directive, the crew of the Enterprise had to figure out how to remove him, without further disrupting the planets natural development. It was also meant to give actor/comedian Milton Berle a chance to play a more serious role, since he would be playing the man who caused the problems. Producer Gene L. Coon ended up rewriting the script, but believing that Berle was being cast because he was a comedic actor, turned the serious script into a laborious comedy. According to Spinrad, “It was so bad that I complained to Roddenberry … I killed my second Star Trek, which, down through the years has cost me tens of thousands of dollars in lost residuals.”
According to the New York Times article, “Spinrad soon donated his sole copy of He Walked Among Us and other papers to California State University, Fullerton. With several other drafts of the script, it lay in the archives for decades.”
While copies of the Coon altered script have popped up from time-to-time at conventions, Spinrad’s original script seemed gone. But that changed last fall, when a fan handed him that original version he had picked up at another convention. Spinrad wrote on his blog: “I thought the text of my original version—written on a typewriter!—was lost forever until recently a fan asked me to autograph a faded copy he had bought somewhere. I did, and in return he sent me a pdf off a scan, and that’s what I’ve put on Amazon, not a great copy maybe, but the only one that exists or probably can exist.”
Then, a short time later, Hugo-nominated web-based Star Trek: New Voyages: Phase II announced that they were going to produce the nearly 45 year-old script this summer. What set Phase II apart from a few other internet shows which relied on “virtual” backgrounds, they used real sets based on the original series. They also re-created, costumes, props, and used Trek’s music cues. They also enlisted the help of some original cast members and commissioned new stories by writers like D.C. Fontana, who wrote for TOS, the Animated Series and The Next Generation.
Excited about the idea of finally seeing his story made, Spinrad even issued an open plea to William Shatner to guest-star as the villain, stepping in the footsteps of both George Takei and Walter Koenig, who have made appearances on the web-series.
But now all of this has been derailed by CBS, who’ve fired photon torpedoes across Spinrad’s bow. They sent a cease-and-desist letter to him and James Cawley, Star Trek: New Voyages: Phase II Senior Executive Producer who also plays James Kirk in that production. Spinrad was told to stop selling the script, and remove it from the internet and Cawley was told to stop plans to adapt it.
For CBS, they argue the script still legally belongs to them and no one can sell it and make money off it, except them.
Though, I will add, that no one at CBS or even Paramount blinked when Phase II adapted Blood and Fire a few years ago, a script commissioned by Roddenberry and written by David Gerrold for Star Trek: The Next Generation.
But there may be a reason for that: no money was made on it.
While James Cawley maintains he still has a good relationship with CBS that status may have soured since he went public with his dissatisfaction with J.J. Abrams reboot of Star Trek that was released in 2009. Abrams has been a vocal supporter of the fan productions, and invited some of them, including James Cawley, to the set when the film was in production back in late 2007. Cawley even ended up as a background crew member on the bridge, and there is a quick shot of him included in the film.
But it appears Cawley, like a few hardcore Trek fans, did not appreciate the galactic changes to franchise (which it needed), but especially they took umbrage with new versions of crews origins. And because Cawley played Kirk in Phase II, it he seemed even more upset. So his team at Phase II decided that they were going to do an origin story of Kirk at the Starfleet Academy and said this was the true origin of Captain Kirk. This seemed to be a public retort by Phase II to both CBS and Abrams.
In the end, is this a simple issue of Norman Spinrad making money off a script that essentially does belong to CBS?
On the other hand, though, could Cawley’s public displeasure with Abrams reboot also factored into the cease and desist? I think that’s more than possible, as this might fall under the phrase of “biting the hand that feeds you.” From their point of view, CBS allowed the fans to produce their versions of Star Trek without much interference, and even allowed some of them to precipitate in the new Trek movie, and then you publicly diss it later? I still think CBS clearly sees that as long as the fan series stay within certain parameters, they’re willing to let them co-exist with the “real” Star Trek if only because it is mutually beneficial that they do. But I also see them stepping in when those fan productions step on the toes of the people who are allowing them to have their fun.
Meanwhile, Norman Spinrad has been quiet since the legal actions, posting on his web page that he and “CBS have agreed to resolve our disputes concerning the ownership of the Work; as part of the settlement between the Parties, the Parties have agree that there will be no further comment; and CBS is considering opportunities to offer licensed copies of the Work. Because of the above, I can no longer comment on the He Walked Among Us screenplay myself. “
But in a very roundabout sort of way, Spinrad wrote an answer to a fan who speculated doubt that Abrams had any involvement in the cease and desist. He said while he could not discuss the legal aspects “I am not legally bound not to say that I found J.J. Abrams’ first Star Trek film quite inferior to the Phase II videos and his cavalier attitude towards the decades-long legacy of what Star Trek has come to mean to the general culture quite reprehensible, and indeed artistically counterproductive.”
So, he thinks this was all J.J. Abrams.