Desperadoes on the starboard side: Star Trek fans break the law to beam up Deep Space Nine from the US. William Gallagher reports

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
WHEN CIC Video releases Star Trek: Deep Space Nine here in June, hardcore Trekkies will probably ignore the new television series. Not because it's especially bad or breaks golden Trekkie rules, but because they've already got it.

Satellite television viewers in America, playing about with the position of their dishes, found that Paramount Pictures, the maker of Star Trek, beams Deep Space Nine (which began its 18 week run in January on the US networks) out to television stations at the start of each week. The stations copy the trailers out, air them continually for a few days, and show the programme on a Sunday night. By which time American fans have already post-mortemed them on computer bulletin boards and shipped tapes out to the United Kingdom.

In America, anyone armed with the right frequencies, times of transmission and a standard domestic dish (larger than those used in Britain) can pick up Paramount's signal; unlike encrypted UK movie channels, Star Trek is sent out unscrambled. For UK fans things are a little more complicated. The Paramount signal is sent in NTSC, the American television transmission standard, and tapes sent over have to be converted to PAL to be viewable on UK television sets. (Trek fans either do this themselves, making poor connections between multi-standard domestic videos, or take them to sympathetic conversion houses.) Tapes change hands for around pounds 2.25 per hour-long episode (usually taped in fours).

Deep Space Nine got its UK premiere in the bedroom of a Trek fan, Andrew, last month. That is not his name, but it's one of the ways he is known on Cix: one of the largest computer bulletin boards. In among highly technical discussions about PCs and Macintoshes, Cix has a fervent section called Cultmedia where people with exotic codenames violently disagree over the merits of Quantum Leap, The Avengers and, particularly, Star Trek.

Twenty Cultmedia people have gathered in Andrew's north Midlands home. The starship Enterprise, or at least its image in poster form, maintains standard orbit around them. The television is turned on. A testcard has appeared, with the words Paramount Pictures ST: DS9 'Emissary' Roll Tapes Now. There is a guilty laugh at the copyright notice, and then silence as the pilot episode begins.

It's set on an abandoned space station, the Deep Space Nine of the title. No one boldly goes anywhere as they did in Captain Kirk's command, and while some of the characters are recognisable from Paramount's Star Treck: The Next Generation, DS9 has a new cast and crew. Stardates, uniforms, bad guys and bad lines, however, will be recognised by Treck fans young and old.

The reverential silence is rudely broken. Colm Meany (formerly the transporter chief of The Next Generation, here promoted to the show's chief attraction) is required to move DS9 towards a wormhole. 'We have six thrusters, it's a two million kilometre journey, it'll take six months at least,' he announces. 'We must be there tomorrow,' comes the po-faced reply, to hoots of derision from the audience. However, it takes more than naff dialogue to lose a Trekkie. Even through the obligatory mystical experience in the middle, the Cultmedia Cixen remained absorbed.

The credits roll, a collective sigh is let out. 'Erm, shall we take a vote on it?' someone asks. No one does. But the feeling expressed later on the Cix network was that they enjoyed it. Certainly, in America DS9 has been considered successful enough to bring Star Tek: The Next Generation to a close earlier than expected next year. The plan had been to run the series concurrently, with crossover episodes in both directions to build up a following for DS9. Now that it already has that following, The Next Generation will wrap up its television version and begin shooting the next Star Trek film. The feeling around Cix is that this is okay; DS9 will keep television viewers happy.

There is a break for wine and lasagne as the audience prepares for the next session. Andrew confesses that he doesn't feel any guilt over his illicit showing. Paramount, he claims, must know it goes on ('They don't encourage it, but they don't discourage it either. Sixty per cent of the commercials in the programme are sold by Paramount so they include those in the satellite transmission'); CIC Video, he says, has turned a blind eye.

'I wouldn't say that at all,' Tim Gaskill, production co-ordinator of CIC, says. 'We obviously cannot stop people taping it in America but we don't condone it; if money is changing hands it is copyright infringement and if we have knowledge of it we will inform the federation against copyright theft.' And he doesn't mean the Star Federation.

An investigator for the Federation (Against Copyright Theft), who cannot be named for professional reasons, makes it clear that such activity is rather further up the criminal scale than taping from the radio. 'Under the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988 . . . if they copy, distribute or import the film then they can be committed for trial at Crown Court with a maximum of two years of imprisonment and / or an unlimited fine. And for anything that hasn't already been certificated in the UK, the penalty is pounds 20,000.' Trek tapers are right up there with hardcore in the eyes of the law.

'We do it because the British TV companies are so slow,' Andrew says. 'We're really keen to see these programmes and yet it takes months for them to come over. Star Trek is an immensely popular programme in the States, but here it's treated like a minority show.'

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine volume 1 is released by CIC Video on 17 June.