If you’ve seen Star Trek: Discovery, you know all about the giant blue tardigrade — a majestic beast with the ability of instantaneous space travel. What you might not know is indie game developer, Anas Abdin, also created this creature for his point-and-click adventure game Tardigrades years before Discovery. Of course, it is possible for writers to come up with the same idea independently, but could one such idea really be a giant blue tardigrade capable of instantaneous space travel?
The use of the real-world tardigrades in science fiction is not anything new. Colloquially (and adorably) known as water bears or moss piglets, they are micro-animals that can only be viewed under a microscope. Thanks to their ability to survive in space, they have become a recurring image in science fiction. All sorts of variants of tardigrades have appeared in books and movies, from disagreeable alien merchants to infected monsters — but let’s talk about the type Anas Abdin is suing CBS over: the big blue space-hopping one.
In October 2017, Anas Abdin started to get messages from friends and fans asking if he had seen the latest Star Trek show. While at first he thought this was because it seemed like the type of space adventure he would enjoy, he soon found out there was concern about similarities between it and the game he had in development (which was greenlit by Steam in 2014). The next morning he woke up to dozens of emails from different Intellectual Property lawyers asking if he wanted to take legal action against the American media company, CBS.
A month later, he was interviewed by Rock Paper Shotgun. The piece started with the quote, ‘I felt my dream was ripped away from me in front of the world.’ Anas expressed the fear that people may question the authenticity of his work as his game was still in development and Discovery was already being aired. He mentioned the paranoia of a lawyer calling him and telling him to stop development on his game even though he was the injured party.
A few days after the interview was published, Anas received an email from the Vice President of CBS asking for a phone call. After many postponements from CBS’s side and with the help of lawyers, a Skype conference call was finally set up — a conversation which would be the first and last one outside a courtroom. CBS said they would no longer use the tardigrade in their show and furthermore, they would not sue Anas Abdin for plagiarism.
Nine months later, on the 21st of August 2018, Anas announced on his blog his decision to file a lawsuit against CBS. If taking on a TV network wasn’t difficult enough, add to that being on the receiving end of the ire of Star Trek fans who doubted his claims. While looking through the comments on his pinned tweet about the case, there were many who wanted to argue how silly it was to cry plagiarism or just told Anas to stop whining. There is however, a huge amount of support for Anas, even among Trekkies.
Contradictions in Court
The first move from CBS was, of course, to get the case dismissed. They tried this by claiming tardigrades as part of scènes à faire, ie things common to a particular genre. You might see a wizard in a fantasy movie, for example. No one can claim ownership of wizards. As I’ve mentioned above, tardigrades are a recurring image in science fiction, but to say Anas was claiming ownership of tardigrades in general would be false.
After this, things get a bit crazy according to Anas’ blog post where CBS admits to copying de minimis, as in the allowable amount. They said the tardigrade only shows up in Discovery for a few scenes while Season 1 itself is eleven hours long; implying it is not a crucial part of the show. Anyone who has seen the first season can tell you, without the tardigrade and its ability of instantaneous space travel, the story would be completely different. The war against the Klingons could not have been won without it. Even co-showrunner Aaron Harbets says this in an interview on After Trek about the tardigrade: ‘The creature is vital to our show. The creature is vital to Burnham’s journey.’
Anas and his team now have to prove CBS had access to copy the tardigrade. The judge granted them ‘discovery,’ meaning CBS needs to hand over information concerning some of their staff members’ Steam accounts as it is possible they could have been one of the people who voted to greenlight Tardigrades. According to Anas, CBS was stalling in giving these and missed a deadline.
To add some context to this case, I think it’s important to note the tardigrade character on Discovery was originally going to be a completely different entity to the one that showed up on screen. According to Harbets and fellow showrunner Gretchen J. Berg in another interview on After Trek, their first idea for a tardigrade character was an anthropomorphic one that talked and would have had a senior position on the bridge. He was called ‘Ephraim’ and had a sash as a uniform. Scripts were written to include him, but in the end the CGI costs would have been too high and the scripts needed to be changed.
With this idea being unfeasible, could it be that some copying ensued to meet deadlines and make up for wasted time?
Star Trek: Picard
There has also been recent news about CBS not giving a writer proper credit in the upcoming Star Trek: Picard. When Robert Meyer Burnett saw the latest trailer of Picard, he was struck by familiarity. He seemed to know the story that was being teased, or a version of it, based on the two minute clip. As he said in his youtube livestream, that was because his friend, Brian Fuller, had already told him about it.
Fuller worked for CBS when he was the original showrunner of Discovery before he was asked to step down because of creative differences. While he did work for CBS he pitched five possible Star Trek stories, one of which became Discovery. According to Burnett, he pitched a Data and Picard story which is similar to what was shown in the trailer. In an interview with Midnight’s Edge, Burnett said he called Fuller and when asked about it, Fuller said that the trailer brought him to tears (and not in a good way). It seemed to Fuller that this was a version of the story he had pitched.
It could be argued since Fuller worked for CBS when the idea was pitched, perhaps CBS did not specifically plagiarise his work — but morally, there should have been some form of credit given. Burnett also claims the plot for the second season of Discovery was taken from the Star Trek novel Section 31: Control by David Mack. Again, CBS may own the rights to this novel but David Mack is not credited anywhere.
It seems to me that CBS is looking very suspicious right now. Regarding the Tardigrades case: the last update from Anas was on March 2019, while CBS has been quiet on the matter. The case is ongoing.