If you aren’t watching the Netflix show Black Mirror, you should be. For the uninitiated – and especially for any Trekkers out there – I recommend you start with first episode of the latest (fourth) season called “U.S.S Callister.” The plot is complicated (no spoilers here, I promise!) and involves a hyper realistic Virtual Reality game based on the adventures of a spaceship (the U.S.S. Callister) that bears more than a striking resemblance to the starship U.S.S. Enterprise.
The similarities include the set design, the uniforms, the color palette, the 1960’s hair styles, the “futuristic” technology (including transporters), the sound design, the over-the-top plot, the intentionally-primitive special effects, and even some of the dialog (e.g., the captain says “Engage!” to direct that the ship blast off). Not to mention that Jesse Plemons plays the role of the captain with a swagger and vocal intonation that only can be described as Shatneresque. Even if you haven’t seen the episode, you can get a sense of what I’m talking about by comparing the photos posted by Entertainment Weekly (to which this post links).
Even while the sci-fi aficionado in me was captivated by the episode, the copyright lawyer in me was thinking “What a great vehicle to examine copyright’s idea/expression dichotomy! And fair use!” (Yes, I’m afraid so. Occupational hazard.) I plan to add this to my copyright infringement presentations immediately!
My own POV is that there is no copyright infringement here, but I acknowledge that the producers get close to the line. Even if (arguably) the infringement line was crossed in certain respects, there are good fair use arguments given the episode’s ample commentary on the original Star Trek series. Indeed, the Black Mirror episode shows us, in numerous ways, that, however revolutionary Star Trek may have been for its time, it was, in so many ways, a creature of its time.
I can imagine a healthy debate about these issues with my fellow sci-fi and copyright lovers (over some Klingon bloodwine, perhaps).