I recall going to a small Star Trek convention in the early 1990s. I believe it was before Deep Space Nine had debuted, but The Next Generation was still going strong. I never saw a final tally of attendance, but I doubt it was much more than 1000 despite the appearance of Mark Lenard, who provided a great deal of continuity to the series by playing Sarek in TOS, TAS, two of the movies and TNG. Not surprisingly, a lot of merchants at the convention were selling anything they had the slightest relation to Star Trek — from the shows themselves to rubber Spock ears to autographed photos from various cast members to action figures… you name it, they had it.
But the one item that stands out was a video tape that one vendor had playing at his booth. He had brought a 12” television and a VCR (DVDs were still a couple years off) specifically to play the video as a way to promote it. In a convention in which the vast majority of attendees have likely already seen all the shows and movies — probably repeatedly — this might seem a bit odd. Theoretically, all you would need to do is say you’ve got copies of Season 6 for sale, and everyone would know exactly what you had. But this video that was playing was different.
At the time, it was something that wouldn’t have had wide distribution. The quality of the video tape clearly indicated that it was a multi-generational copy, probably edited together on a pair of VCRs using copies of various shows themselves taped from television broadcasts. It took a great deal of dedication to even find all the clips, never mind the time it took to use fairly primitive editing techniques to put together the half-hour “show.” This was, of course, well before YouTube and the only way it was distributed, given its almost-certain illegality, was through small vendors at conventions like this one where it would fly under the radar of Paramount’s legal team.
Though it was being sold as a commercial product, its original creation was almost certainly a labor of love. And though the original series also had some fans devote time to editing videos back in its day, they were much fewer in number. The technological hurdles were high enough that, even as late as the 1990s, relatively few people had any video editing capabilities to remix stories using clips from a broad array of sources like that.
Of course, that never prevented fans from imagining what they could do! The basic notion of fan fiction has been around for ages.
Virgil wrote The Aeneid between 29-19 BC. It tells the story of Aeneas, who’s a refugee of the Trojan War that travels back to Italy and goes on to found Rome. It’s been stylistically and thematically compared to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and essentially carries on the story of another character. An extended epilogue you might call it. Written by someone other than the original author. It’s essentially Iliad fan fiction.
I actually had that revelation pointed out to me only recently by a college literature professor. She also pointed out that Dante’s Divine Comedy from the early 1300s is even more blatant fan fiction, “where he makes himself a character and writes himself hanging out with Homer and Virgil and they’re like ‘OMG Dante you’re so cool.’” She calls Dante the original Gary Stu.
Fanfic often gets a bad rap because — let’s face it — a lot of it is crap. But, then again, so is a lot of professionally-written “literature.” Despite a perhaps more polished finish thanks to an editor, a cover designer and a marketing team, a lot of what’s in bookstores probably isn’t worth your time to read. Sturgeon’s Law isn’t iron clad, but it tends to hold pretty true in that 90% of everything is crap.
Now, those professional editors also act as gatekeepers, keeping the truly atrocious material from seeing publication (as well as some good pieces, too, I’m sure!) so there’s probably a little less percentage of crap than what often gets presented as fan fiction. But there are any number of great works of literature that are essentially fanfic. Everything from John Milton’s Paradise Lost to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon.
The point is that, while technology in recent years has pulled down a lot of the barriers that prevented a great many people from making and distributing lovingly crafted fan works, the ideas have been there for centuries. As technology has improved, it’s made it easier for more people to participate in the execution of more elaborate forms of fan fiction — the number of fan films based just on Star Wars alone is staggering. But that those older works exist is proof that people were at least thinking about forms of fan fiction long before Gene Roddenberry wrote Wagon Train fanfic set in outer space.