ReelThoughts: June 28, 2010

"Fandamonium"

Commentary by James Berardinelli


The concept of "fandom" is not new, but the idea of attaching it to an aspect of pop culture is. The idea of being a "fan" of something entered the public awareness via sports, and stretches back a couple of centuries. The further back in human history one goes, the less likely one is to encounter something akin to fandom. After all, before the industrial revolution, the average individual worked long days to feed his family; entertainment was a rarity and not something to be obsessed over. (Obsessive behavior is, of course, a typical byproduct of die-hard fandom.) Fandom arose as entertainment became more prevalent, typically as people followed their favorite teams. Yankees fans have been around for a long time.

Today, there are still sports fans, but the fandom umbrella has widened to cover far more than athletic activities. There are still Yankees fans, but there are also Twilight fans, Harry Potter fans, Lost fans, and so forth. Let me state up front that I don't differentiate between "fanatic" and the "fan" diminutive - they apply equally. I also don't place a value judgment on being a fan. For some, it's healthy; for others, it's not. There are too many factors to be considered when evaluating whether fandom is "good" or "bad" on an individual basis.

Where did it start? Star Trek was probably the first television show to generate the kind of organized affection and loyalty we have come to associate with fandom. It could be argued that there were fans of the old movie serials and TV shows, but the difference is evident - those throngs were comprised mainly of kids. Howdy Doody had plenty of devoted followers, but you would be hard-pressed to find more than a handful over the age of 18 (and Chris Hansen might be interested in having a conversation with them). With Star Trek, it was a different phenomenon. The average Star Trek fan, at least in the early days, was college aged. This was true through the late '60s to the early '80s. When I entered the realm of Trek fandom in 1979 at 11 or 12 years old, I was well below the median age. Star Trek merchandise and paraphernalia, while not entirely excluding juveniles (there were some toys - phasers, communicators, and the like), was primarily aimed at people 10-15 years older than I was. Fan fiction, which include a lot of "slash" (Kirk/Spock) stories, was definitely not intended for the eyes of pre-teen boys or girls.

The first instance of a fan group flexing its collective muscles occurred in 1968. After two seasons on the air and approximately 55 episodes, NBC decided to cancel Star Trek. According to the Nielsen ratings, the Bible of TV show popularity at the time (and, in many ways, since), Star Trek was not watched by enough people. The fans disagreed and flooded NBC with letters. They poured in from every city and state, inundating the network's corporate headquarters. By some accounts, there were as many as a million of them. NBC got the message and Star Trek was given a third season. Fan celebration was short-lived, however. The third season fared even more poorly in the ratings than the second one (due, perhaps to an unenviable time slot - Friday nights at 10 pm) and was again canceled. This time, a letter-writing campaign proved unable to reverse the decision.

Over the years, many Star Trek fans have played a "what if" game regarding a possible fourth season, but my opinion is that the program's enduring popularity was in part a result of it dying an "early" death. A careful examination of the episodes shows that the best ones are to be found in Season #1. Season #2 was still generally of high quality, but there were some lapses, especially during the second half. Season #3 was very much a mixed bag, with some truly terrible stories existing alongside some pretty good ones. Barring a stoppage of this erosion of quality, Season #4 could have damaged Star Trek's long-term reputation - the reputation that led to its eventual resurrection.

Some have called the 1970s the "lean years" for Trek fandom, but I disagree. It was during these years, while the series was in syndication, that the fan base grew and the love of the show that began in the late '60s burgeoned into a full-blown obsession. There was even a Saturday morning cartoon. In the pre-Internet era, Star Trek fans gathered at conventions, exchanged addresses and became pen-pals, and contributed to fanzines. Star Trek became the #1 syndicated drama and, unlike most shows in packaged re-runs, its popularity expanded yearly. By the late 1970s, Star Trek was on five days a week in almost every major market in the United States. Locally for me, it was on late on weekday afternoons on a UHF channel. I could then rotate the rooftop antenna and pick it up on a New York station late at night. It was also on that station Saturday evenings so I could theoretically see Star Trek eleven times per week!

The devotion of Star Trek fans, coupled with the box office success of Star Wars, led to the Star Trek movie series, and those early films begot everything from Star Trek: The Next Generation to the J.J. Abrams' cinematic re-working of the concept. The old-guard fans from the '70s, many of whom were just out of college when they started attending those early conventions, are now in their fifties and sixties.

There is a misapprehension that Star Wars was directly responsible for the revival of Star Trek. This is not strictly true. Paramount had decided to restart Star Trek as a television series - most of the original actors (except Leonard Nimoy) were signed, scripts were written, and sets had been built - before Star Wars became a hit. The unexpected success of George Lucas' space opera, however, led to Paramount determine that "their" franchise might be better placed on the big screen. There would have been a Star Trek Mark II without Star Wars, but there probably wouldn't have been a motion picture series. If Star Trek Mark II had failed, that might have been it for the series, although with the way bits and pieces of television flotsam are being re-jiggered for motion picture adaptations these days, who knows?

Trek fans, whether known as "Trekkies" (the original nomenclature, which was eventually rejected when it came to have a pejorative connotation) or "Trekkers", provided the template for all fans to come after. In 1977,Star Wars fandom was born. Despite the seeming synergy between Star Wars and Star Trek and the debts each series owed to the other, there was a fair amount of friction between the two camps - something that intensified when the theme music for Star Wars was played at the unveiling of the Space Shuttle prototype Enterprise. Fans, fiercely protective of "their" franchise, attacked the other one as if it was some sort of danger. Having claimed to be both a Star Wars and Star Trek fan during the late '70s and early '80s, I could never understand these battles. To me, the superiority of one did not necessitate the denigration of the other.

Today, Star Trek fandom is a different, less passionate thing - far more mainstream and with strong corporate backing. It still possesses power but lacks the punch it had at the beginning. Something similar has happened with Star Wars. The prequels took a lot of steam out of the Star Wars engine, much as all the latter-day Star Trek television series sated Trekkers by providing oversaturation. Star Trek and Star Wars fandom, circa 2010, are in the same state - stable and comfortable but not robust; capable of feeding a corporate machine but not of accomplishing anything grass roots. Conventions, to the extent that there are conventions, are sanitized enterprises focused more on hawking wares than fan interaction - nothing like their '70s forebears.

So where can passionate fandom be found in 2010? Five years ago, a successful case could have been made for Harry Potter. However, following the release Book 7, some of the air has gone out of the balloon. Even though the movie series is going strong, the fans all know how it's going to end. Now, it's merely a matter of seeing it dramatized on screen. That's the problem with wrapping up a saga rather than leaving it open-ended - there's less room for fan creativity to continue the adventure. Also, many of the core members of the original Harry Potter fan group have outgrown the teen wizard. They regard him with some affection but the obsessive passion is gone.

In my estimation, the two current franchises currently with the most obsessive fans are Twilight and Sex and the City (although the lackluster nature of the second movie may have resulted in the latter group taking a hit). What's especially interesting about this is that both products have a primarily female fan base. Admittedly, there have been female fans for as long as there have been fans, but the ratio has always been predominantly male, with (for example) women Trekkies becoming extremely desirable mates by the males of the species because of their relative rarity. Now, suddenly, the tables have been turned. The passion and obsession that exist for Twilight and Sex and the City has shifted the dynamic and what it means to be a fan.

Fans, in the truest sense of the word, get things done. By that, I mean that their power, expressed in dollars and cents, results in products being made. Star Trek fans led to the existence of eleven movies (to date), four spin-off television series, countless books, and a wide variety of ancillary goods. Star Wars, in addition to being a merchandise king, added five more movies and a few TV shows. The persistence and consumer power of the Harry Potter and Twilight fans resulted in those book series being turned into movies. Sex and the City, like Star Trek, elevated the original cast from the small screen to the large screen. Can Sex and the City: The Next Generation and Sex and the City: Deep Space 69 be far behind? To one degree or another, the preponderance of sequels, remakes, and re-boots populating movie release dockets are the result of fan power. The existence of the Transformers movies defies common logic until you consider that it was made by a fan for the fans.

Why write about this? Because I am a once and future fan. For me, it was Star Wars and monster movies in the late '70s and early '80s. Star Trek and Doctor Who through the '80s. Baseball and movies today. Fandom is in my blood. I like how it feels to be part of a bizarre minority culture. Die-hard fandom isn't that different from a religion, but I'll leave a detailed discussion of the parallels for another time. Many fans are shy or socially awkward (at least, that's the stereotype) and embracing the fandom of a particular show, book series, or movie provides them with a sense of belonging. When there's something new on the horizon, there's a shared sense of excitement. I remember how it was in the run-up to the release of Star Trek IV; I can only imagine what it's like now, in the Internet era, when the sense of global connectedness is amplified beyond what it was in those days. Sure, some fans take it too far and blur the lines between fantasy and reality, and that isn't healthy. (Remember William Shatner's infamous "Get a Life" skit on Saturday Night Live?) But I'd like to think that most understand the concept of make-believe and don't go overboard. The vitriol found in forums and discussion boards is a byproduct of fandom as well. It's passion expressed in the most negative terms imaginable, the dark side of fandom.

When it comes to Twilight and Sex and the City, two of today's most rabid fan-magnets, I'm not an adherent. Yet when I go to screenings and see the enthusiasm of those around me (many of whom have dressed for the occasion), I remember how I felt awaiting the premiere of a new Star Trek or Star Wars movie or attending a Dungeons & Dragons convention. I respect what they're feeling and admire them a little. It's good to see such passion, even when it's not shared. For me, the upcoming Twilight: Eclipse is just a movie. But for someone else, it's a day circled on a calendar and a reason to be excited about doing a countdown. It adds spice to the week leading up to its June 30 release. And it provides an opportunity for a movie theater to briefly transform into something other than a place where tired, forgettable material is projected onto a screen. We often hear about the negatives associated with being a fan; let's not forget the good points.


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