In terms of contentious relationships with fans, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was the original instigator. Not only was he unconcerned with what his readers wanted, he also was inconsistent with the continuity of his own characters. The chronology of when Holmes and Watson lived together is muddled and Watson’s war injury moves from his leg to his arm seemingly willy-nilly.
But Doyle didn’t receive any serious backlash from his readers until he killed off the famous detective in “The Final Problem.” Fans wore black armbands in mourning and wrote anger letters. Doyle even received some death threats. And to think, they didn’t even have blogs back then.
From the books of George R.R. Martin to the films of George Lucas, fans have a tendency to take ownership of the fictional worlds created by others and to hold those creators accountable when things don’t work out they way they want. But where does this sense of entitlement come from? Do we have the right?
Last month, Laura Miller of The New Yorker, in writing about George R.R. Martin noted “The same blogging culture that allows a fantasy writer like Neil Gaiman to foster a sense of intimacy with his readers can also expose an author to relentless scrutiny when they become discontented.” The article primarily dealt with the impending completion of the next book in the Song of Ice & Fire series and the issues surrounding Martin’s demanding fans, which Miller characterizes “…as customers, not devotees and they expect prompt, consistent service.” Speculation about the future of our favorite fantastical world has always been a part of science fiction and fantasy culture. But it appears we are now demanding quotas of not only timeliness, but also prerequisite on a certain kind of product.
In 2009, I attended a screening of the final episode of Battlestar Galactica at a bar in New York City. There, I found a pretty serious gathering of fans who all sat in hushed silence as the episode aired and over its two hours brought to a close the critically acclaimed story of humans fleeing from the Cylon tyranny. Overall, there were whoops and cheers in the audience, and I left a little buzzed from the beers but mostly happy from the sense of euphoria I got from the finale. The only thought in my mind on the way home was “that was soooo good.” But when I turned to the blogosphere the next morning, it was clear that the consensus was that the BSG finale was in Internet speak an “EPIC FAIL.”
Now, it is very clear to me that seeing a TV show or movie in a room with a bunch of excited fans can lead to a false sense appreciation, and that critical distance sometimes takes days to set in. (Indeed, an article on Slate recently pointed out that the first stage of Star Wars fan grief is denial.) And though I eventually had my own problems with the BSG finale, I never fully identified with some of the vehemence of various Internet commenters, or fans I’ve met in “real life.” Hearing the phrase “fuck Ronald D. Moore” was not uncommon in the weeks after the BSG finale, and we’ve been hearing the same things about the creative team of LOST in recent months. (The feud between George R.R. Martin and Damon Lindelof is layered with irony as both are in essentially in the same boat in terms of fan scrutiny.) In any case, saying, “fuck Ronald D. Moore” or having a similar reaction to dissatisfaction after the BSG finale seems a little extreme. After all, I haven’t written a Peabody Award-winning television program. Nor were fans responsible for creating the show in the first place. Why do we turn so quickly and bite the proverbial hand that feeds us?
The obvious, and most possibly correct answer here is George Lucas. In the world of media criticism, condemnation of the Star Wars prequels is almost completely universal. Not only are most reviews and articles about these movies negative; mocking them also quickly became its own art form. From Simon Pegg’s character on Spaced being fired for refusing to peddle Jar-Jar Binks products, to Patton Oswalt's stand-up bit “At Midnight I Will Kill George Lucas With a Shovel,” going after George Lucas on a personal level is fairly uncontroversial. The creators of South Park depicted Lucas literally raping Indiana Jones after the release of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull; an image most certainly derived from the fan battle cry, “George Lucas raped my childhood!”
As I’ve written previously, I don’t actually think George Lucas did anything to my childhood, but that the critical attacks levied at the prequels and the subsequent Clone Wars cartoon, (when stripped of their hyperbolic and ad-hominem vehemence) are at the very least understandable. In short: the original Star Wars films were about relatable people fighting the establishment, and the new Star Wars films are about people we barely understand being manipulated to fight each other. If one liked the first set of movies, it’s easy to see why that same person would dislike the second set. However, other than delivering something that didn’t look like Star Wars, what did Lucas do to deserve the massive backlash that followed? First, he created Star Wars in the first place, which just like the dislike for its prequels, is fairly universally loved. Am I saying Lucas is a victim of his own success? Yes, partially. But it’s deeper than that.
The Lucas marketing machine rammed Star Wars down our throats from 1999 to 2005, and at first, much of the fan community accepted it, because we loved Star Wars! But, because it had permeated so much of the culture climate, only to be disappointing, the backlash almost equaled the promotional efforts. Basically, every time we saw a Jar-Jar doll after The Phantom Menace, many of us became angrier with each toy sighting.
But what of BSG or even Doctor Who? Are these things being overly promoted in the same way Star Wars was? Certainly not in actuality, but in our minds, we might be hyping up these things because we feel like we need to. The Star Wars prequels got us hooked on hype like a drug. And even though we came down hard from that hype, we still want to feel that euphoria of anticipation again. The people marketing genre films and television know this, and so we get set visits from The Hobbit before they even start filming, or casting news about movies that don’t even have directors. All of this build-up ultimately lays the foundation for backlash, in the same way all those Phantom Menace Pepsi cans did back in 1999.
And the hostile defensiveness from the creators of various genre properties directed at the fans seems to be growing. As The New Yorker piece points out, George R.R. Martin has a rocky relationship with his fans. Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat recently complained about fans who spoil the plotlines of episodes. This comment, along with others from Moffat, seems to indicate he feels a kind of affront towards fans who have certain expectations (demands?) of the show’s plotlines. Early on in his tenure as Doctor Who showrunner Moffat claimed that a show about “time travel can’t have continuity problems.” And in certain quarters, I’m sure this was interpreted as blasphemy. Even in the Tor.com office, we’ve had heated arguments on just what is or is not implied on Who.
What creates this sort backlash or animosity between fans and creators? To me, certain fans like to speculate on the things they don’t see in a book or a show or a movie, and the creators don’t care about that at all. For the creators, there is no “expanded universe.” What you see is what you get. They worked hard on it, isn’t it enough? On a DVD extra for the British version of The Office, Ricky Gervais summed it up best. After several of the actors speculated on what their characters did after the last episode Gervais pithily responded, “I’ll tell you what they did. Nothing. Because the show ended.” So perhaps Lucas has a right to tell us Anakin created C-3PO, Russell T. Davies can change the number of times a Time Lord can regenerate, or George R.R. Martin can switch a gender of a horse in-between books.
In marked contrast to this phenomenon, Brandon Sanderson's take over of the Wheel of Time series from the late Robert Jordan received little to no considerable backlash. This could have been due in part to Sanderson’s credibility with fans of the fantasy genre, coupled with his ability to communicate with his fans effectively. In short, readers were reassured beforehand and that reassurance was rewarded by transparency during the process and the timely delivery of a satisfying volume of story. In this instance, engaging with fans throughout the process resulted in a smooth transition.
With such access now available to fans, is it now necessary for showrunners and authors to change from an “If we engage fans...” mentality to one that asks how? For larger authors like Martin or Gaiman, as their popularity nullifies professional critics, this becomes a hefty question indeed. In speaking with his tendency to communicate directly with the fans Neil Gaiman told The New Yorker last year, “I have at this point a critic-proof career. The fans already know about the book.”
Does it then become a question of levels of engagement with fans? What would it take for guys like Gaiman and Sanderson to suddenly have problems of George Lucas proportions, where both the critics AND the fans are calling for blood? What would they have to do?
It’s possible the biggest crime of all would be no communication at all. Can we even conceive of movie or a novel being made in an established universe by an established author completely in secret? What would happen if Steven Moffat refused to give a single interview for the next season of Doctor Who?
I only know one thing for sure. If by the end of this season of Doctor Who, Steven Moffat pulls a Conan Doyle and kills the Doctor for all of time, this blogger will be doing a hell of a lot more than just wearing a black armband to work.
My investment in the show, the character, and the story feels far too personal to let someone else destroy it. And that's really the heart of the question here. How useful is such an emotional investment, ultimately? Is this something that needs to be dialed back? Or is it a sign of the changing ways in which we enjoy our favorite shows and books?
Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com.