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Fanboys and Fandumb – Or Why Cult Media Can’t Have Good Things…

I am a nerd. I openly acknowledge that. In fact, I revel in it. I like to think I enjoy a broad sampling of all artforms, enjoying a nice play, a well-illustrated comic book, a compelling television miniseries, a smartly put together Oscar-baiting drama and a nice book, among other things. I’m not a snob – I love ‘big dumb fun’. I also like niche and wacky nerdy stuff. And I can appreciate the occasional bad writing that creeps into these genres – because isn’t bad writing everywhere? (Anyone reading this blog would likely agree.) And I really enjoy the vast majority of fans – the people who have a genuine interest in the subject matter. I never got why if you were an expert in Lewis Carroll Stevenson you were a literary connoisseur, but if you embraced the world of JRR Tolkien you were a fan. I love that people embrace these works and discuss them and think about them. That’s something encouraging to see in any media – engagement. But there is one element about these niche artforms that does throw me for a whirl, and it’s a perception that makes my somewhat shy to acknowledge that I embrace these forms of art. Yes: it’s the dreaded fanboy.

Things David Tennant would rather listen to than fanboy complaints...

Things David Tennant would rather listen to than fanboy complaints...

I understand that the term ‘fanboy’ is seen as a less than positive term, and one that nerds and geeks such as myself dislike being referred to as. And I think there’s a clear distinction – it’s not quite like getting worked up over being called a Trekkie rather than a Trekker, for example. Fanboys are those individuals who feel the need to actively own and control the subject in their interest – and I don’t mean in the “it’ll always be my show…” sweet way, I mean “it should always be and remain the show that it is right now or was in the past because I demand it” sort of way. These viewpoints are not cool. Seriously not cool. And I make that observation as a seriously unhip individual.

What’s brought this thought into my head right now is the fiasco over James Moran’s blog and his work on the hit series Children of Earth which aired last week on the Beeb. Moran is a solid writer (well, from what I’ve seen of his work), and he runs (or ran) a blog and a twitter account to keep in touch with people interested in his work. His idea was to open up the creative process and offer a viewpoint into the workings of a writer. It all worked relatively well when he was writing the kind of stuff that the fanboys approve of. Then Children of Earth managed to do something completely unexpected and shocking, SPOILER! killing off one of the show’s three remaining leads with little-or-no-warning SPOILER!, which provoked an on-line backlash. As Moran had attempted to engage with those interested in his work via his blog, he was the one to take the brunt of the fanboy backlash, which can be viewed via his Twitter page. In fairness, he tried reasoned discussion, which only really provoked the armchair critics more, eventually leading Moran to announce he was taking a step back from his blog.

All the insecure complaints about the offending twist seem to ignore the fact that the show doesn’t belong exclusively to the fans, nor should it. Children of Earth was a massive critical success, with viewing figures of nearly 6m people a night and an Appreciation Index of around 90. This, coupled with rave reviews, make the show a success by any stretch. I can understand that various things about the miniseries may have upset fans, and this is by no means intended to pick solely on fans of the spinoff. Indeed, the vast majority of fans took it well and gracefully. There are fanboys in every aspect of cult culture – there are those who loudly decry the resurrected Doctor Who as not a scratch upon the original, or there are those who act as if the new Star Trek movie is an afront against mankind itself, or even those who wanted to tar and feather David Edelstein for daring to dislike The Dark Knight. These are opinions, and everyone holds their own, but it isn’t the opinions that upset me – it’s the sense of entitlement that come with it. There are numerous changes to various works over an extended period of time that I might not agree with or may even disagree with. But I accept it. If – like The X-Files, for example – I feel earlier shows are better, then I own those on DVD and can rewatch them. Good episodes will always be good episodes, no matter what comes next. I don’t own the concept of The X-Files or the show on television, but I do control my own experience of it. If I’m not getting anything out of it, I stop watching or rewatch earlier episodes.

In literature, if a writer ceases to produce works in the genre or style that those reading expect, then they simply stop reading. There’s no public declaration of betrayal or loud denouncements from an embittered minority spreading across the internet. Sure, there is criticism of the work (as there must be criticism of any work), but it’s conducted in a relatively fair and polite manner. In most circles, people will remember to be polite, even when criticising. It seems that cult popular culture is one of the few areas where that rule of netiquette isn’t observed. Personal attacks are – I’m sad to say – ridiculously common. I say that as someone who has trawled many a web forum looking for an answer to this question or that question and found the kind of language that would make a sailor blush.

Because what’s the job of a writer? Really? I honestly don’t know, but I doubt it’s simply to service maybe one hundred dedicated individuals. Maybe their job is to do something as generically magnificent and grandiose as to do service to their stories, or maybe it’s something so banal as to aim for good ratings. Either way, the beneficiaries should be the audience as a whole – in a good story told or a hocking twist being shocking – not the few dozen people who hold a vested interest in the show. Maybe the writers even owe a duty to themselves, but I’m bordering on being pretentious here, so I’ll stop.

I would observe that franchises that have been held hostage to the whims of their fans generally don’t live very long past that point. The key example of this, in an oddly fitting manner, is the original Doctor Who. The show had its fandom dominated by one particular larger-than-life character, who was even paid as a consultant by the show. And he sapped all the fun out of what was left of the fandom. Critics saw a lot of this individual in the monster Absorbaloff created for the relaunch by Russell T. Davies, a creature which literally manipulates and sustains itself off the small and cheerful fandom of the show. According to people who lived through the demise of the earlier incarnation of the show, it’s a fairly good analogy.

Of course, that was a different age. The web is a great tool for bringing people together, but it also seems to have had the unfortunate effect of allowing jackasses an even mor public platform than they had before. It’s this sort of angry, bitter, ranting in-fighting that defines the ‘fanboy’ at least in popular consciousness. And that perception of the fanboy defines these more ecclectic expressions of art, entertainment and culture, at least to public eye. I very strongly suspect that this internal strife was one of the factors that sunk Watchmen as it stood on the cusp of being embraced by the mainstream.

I realise the irony of ranting about the ranters, but this really grinds my gears. It’s something I see again and again and again. It is a minority off ans that do this, but their immature sense of entitlement casts a very large shadow. As I noted above, this kind of behavior is one of the reasons I always feel a bit nrvous about discussing my own tastes in popular media, lest I be labelled a ‘fanboy’. Call me a Trekkie or a Trekker if you must, but I do try to be a ‘fan man’.

It even rhymes.

3 Responses

  1. Great post! I’m sure, though, that most fanboys (or fangirls) would not recognise themselves in the description, or defend their words and actions somehow as being a legitimate form of ‘criticism’. Reaching fanboy level seems to mean that perspective and common sense are lost forever.

  2. […] the oddest reaction to this newfound popularity has come from geeks and nerds themselves – well, fanboys, to be particular. I should clarify that the vast, vast, vaaaaaast majority of fans are nice, polite and patient […]

  3. […] of the reviewers state that it’s okay to do this because fanboys do it all the time. Yes, they do. I’ve seen it. Call me crazy if I don’t hold actual journalists to a higher standard. […]

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