Simon Pegg and the case for an “open source” sci-fi universe

Simon Pegg has posted a lengthy and thoughtful essay on his web site about how “nerd culture” is infantilizing society. While making it abundantly clear that he is a proud member of that culture and loves sci-fi, Pegg makes some compelling arguments. Among them he points out that prior to “Star Wars”, popular films dealt with real world people and issues and since that time Hollywood has focused on spectacle.

The thing is that it doesn’t need to be that way. In an increasingly post-religious world sci-fi and fantasy form a large part of our shared mythology. Star Wars, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, Batman (and the larger DC and Marvel universes), Doctor Who, Battlestar Galactica and scores of others are the places where our common mythology takes shape. They are the places where our morality plays take place and our fables play themselves out.

The problem is that, just like the old mythology, there is constant infighting among factions. Large portions of, for example, Star Trek fans don’t like the new movies. The studio doesn’t care, there are also plenty of people who like the movies and one fan is as good as another. Seniority counts for nothing at the box office. It would be easy to list off similar examples for the Hobbit/Lord of the Rings, the Marvel Universe, Star Wars, Doctor Who etc.

All of these ‘universes’ are owned and tightly controlled by large corporations. Those corporations, despite obligatory lip service, are not invested in the mythology so much as the return on investment. Because of this, each of these franchises is tightly controlled, executive produced, focused grouped and heavily censored. They do their best to avoid controversy (beyond fan infighting), and to appeal to as many people as humanly possible.

Because of this many of the ‘morality plays’ and ‘fables’ are shoved aside in favor of explosions, car chases and attractive, scantily clad actors. Every attempt is made to avoid an R rating so that teenagers can see it over the summer without their parents approval.

Pegg made news earlier in the week, in an interview with the Irish Examiner, when he said that he was hired to make Star Trek 3 because the studio wanted it to be “less Star Treky”. The previous Star Trek film (which wasn’t at all Star Treky) made only half-a-billion dollars to the Avengers 1.5 billion and the studio wanted that extra billion.

Personally, I’ve had ideas for new Star Trek shows and I know that a great many people have. Nearly every serious Star Trek fan I know has an idea or two for new movies and/or series. They are, obviously, never going to get to make them.

If you, as a fan, don’t like what a studio is doing with a franchise and think you can do better you are out of luck. Your only real options are to create bits of (much-derided) fan fiction or to somehow, someway convince studio executives to let you try it. Chances are, unless you have a long list of IMDB credits under your belt, those executives will never even speak to you. Even if you do somehow, someway manage to get a green light for a project it will be tightly controlled, executive produced, focus grouped and shifted to match demographic targets. By the end your “better way” will probably be replaced by whatever the studio was doing before, only with your name on it.

So, it occurred to me that what might be useful as a home for a shared mythology is an “open source” universe - one that is not owned by and can never be sold to a major corporation.

It would be a universe where planets, empires, locations and characters were created that would eventually become familiar. Those same characters, locations, and planets could then be re-used, with only minor and largely temporary, restrictions by anyone for new stories, books, web series, films, comic books and video games without any fear of being sued and without any tight controls over what you do with them.

The way I envision it working, at this early stage, is a wiki in which people, places and things are described. All of it would have some form of Creative Commons license and each of them would have a traffic signal graphic set to red, yellow or green.

A red light would indicate that the creator was busy with it right now ‘I’m currently busy with this character or location, please don’t create anything new until I’m done.’

A yellow light would indicate that the person, place or thing might be available, depending on how they were being used “I’m still writing about this character but it’s possible she could play a small part in your thing, depending on what it is - please email.”

A green light would indicate open availability “I’m done with this character, do as you please”.

Characters could also be green or yellow lit with certain provisions: Certain things that cannot be changed about the person, their personality or history.

In some cases people might create a place or a character just because they liked the idea and have no plans to use them in anything, ever (green light).

Creators would be encouraged not to ‘hoard’ - to green light things as soon as they can and to try to find a way to say yes when they’re approached about a ‘yellow light’.

So, creators could pick a small, unimportant character from someone else’s work and build an entire mythology (web series / book / video game etc.) about them. They could take well known characters, where appropriate, and have them make cameo appearances in their own work. The possibilities are nearly limitless and, as with almost everything open source, will probably take on a sort of organic evolution.

It would allow for an environment where if you don’t like a story, you can write a better one. If you don’t like the direction something has taken, you can chart a new course.

Tie ins would be easy because the entire 'universe' would be designed to be integrated from the beginning.

Of course this approach is not without its drawbacks, some of which I’m sure I haven’t thought of yet, but two are apparent.

First, people would have to make a decision about sci fi vs fantasy (or create two universes). The difference is that sci-fi, is supposed to be based on science fact. If you travel fast than the speed of light in sci-fi you’re supposed to explain, somewhat convincingly, which theory of theoretical physics you used to do it. In fantasy you can say “because magic”. So the two aren’t always very compatible.

Second, people will have to get over their need for “cannon”. In Star Trek or Doctor Who only the official, licensed stories are true. So a timeline and rules are established and people get very irritated if that timeline or those rules are contradicted later. In an open source universe there is the potential for thousands of stories to be created around a person, place or thing and the odds that none of those stories will contradict each other are almost nil. It’s something that people would just have to live with.

Also, obviously, ‘open source’ does not mean communist. Creators would still be free to make money from their projects. Successful books, movies or video games could potentially make a fortune. Creators would simply have to accept that they didn’t totally own the universe that their story takes place in - making it very difficult to sell to Disney.

In this Universe the best of both of the worlds described in Pegg's essay could be realized. We could have our sci-fi spectacle while, at the same time, taking on serious issues and creating ‘real’ multi-facete characters.
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