To some "Star Trek" fans, Tim Brazeal is an intergalactic hero, the burly, tattooed Tennessee systems administrator who has spent the past two months in a quixotic bid to save UPN's "Star Trek: Enterprise."
His website, www.trekunited.com, claims to have raised $3.1 million to fund a fifth season of the science fiction series, even if Paramount Network Television, which makes the series, can't or won't. Media outlets, including Associated Press and the New York Times, have followed his quest. His only motive, Brazeal said, was to save a franchise he loved: "I've been a 'Star Trek' fan since the early '70s," he said.
And then, like a malfunctioning phaser, it all went bad. Paramount declined the funding offer. Skeptics accused Brazeal of running a scam -- an allegation he vigorously denies -- and heaped ridicule on his closest associates, such as "the Lobster Guy," a part-time Maryland seafood vendor who works as TrekUnited's pro bono attorney. These days, on Internet message boards, Brazeal's supporters wage nonstop verbal war with his growing legions of critics. Some are comparing TrekUnited to a cult and saying it doesn't represent the majority of Trek fans.
Now Brazeal sounds like someone who wishes he'd kept his mouth shut. "I've been taking a bashing personally on all of this," he said in a recent phone interview.
How one fan's dream ended up in this mess is a story stranger than many "Trek" episodes. But there are some larger forces at work. Some say the fundraising dust-up shows how the online world can help divide as well as unite those with shared interests.
"The Internet has definitely helped in organizing fandom," said Bonnie Malmat, manager of the fan site www.trekbbs.com, who described herself as neutral in the battle over TrekUnited. But the proliferation of online forums and chats has also revealed, and sometimes aggravated, what were once passing squabbles among a few die-hards and fringe dwellers. "It's very clear there are quite a few different factions" among Trek fans, she said.
Equally important, the fate of "Enterprise" also shows how a world-famous entertainment brand can lose its cultural potency over nearly 40 years and five television series, 10 feature films that have grossed more than $1 billion and more than 650 books.
Some fans don't understand that the franchise has worn thin over time, said Brannon Braga, the executive producer of "Enterprise," who has worked on various "Trek" series for 15 years.
" 'Star Trek's' been on the air for 18 straight years, and they're disappointed to see it go," Braga said. But "it's just been around awhile, and all good things need a rest and wear out their welcome for a while."
Rallying the faithful
Brazeal's fundraising campaign started in early February, after UPN announced that it would cancel the program at the end of the season.
Brazeal, who led a similar Internet-based push last year that claimed credit in persuading the network to renew the show through this season, began assembling volunteers, many of whom he had met in online fan forums. The group's idea was to raise enough money to cover Paramount's cost of producing new episodes for a fifth season (TrekUnited estimates the studio spent about $1.6 million for each episode, although one source close to the production says the figure is closer to $2 million).
Fans opened their checkbooks. According to the group's website, more than 8,000 fans sent cash contributions totaling $144,173. TrekUnited also said it received $3 million in pledges from unidentified "investors in [the] space-flight industry."
Brazeal seemed on his way to becoming a grass-roots hero along the lines of Bjo Trimble -- a sci-fi enthusiast revered to this day for helping persuade NBC executives to give the original "Star Trek" more time to build an audience back in the late 1960s.
But then opposing fans began to attack TrekUnited, and especially Brazeal, for a number of perceived missteps.
One key complaint was that Brazeal initially failed to tell followers or the media about a March 15 fax from Paramount executive vice president John Wentworth, who wrote Brazeal that "the recent decision to conclude the show's run on UPN is final. We cannot and will not be able to accept funds from viewers to produce 'Star Trek: Enterprise' or any other series."
After Paramount posted the letter on its www.startrek.com website earlier this month, Brazeal tried to explain to his fans that he hadn't mentioned the Paramount letter earlier because he had made "personal promises" that he wouldn't reveal any information about the negotiations. Brazeal didn't elaborate further and Wentworth declined to comment beyond the letter.