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“It’s not over, it’s just not yours any more”: Thoughts on Fandom and Growing Old Gracefully…

It is not a new observation to suggest that modern audiences live in a world dominated by existing intellectual property.

It has been argued frequently and convincingly that the era of the movie star has surrendered itself to the era of the brand, where the biggest draw for audiences it not which actor is on screen but which universe is being developed. Cinemas are flooded with long-delayed sequels and spin-offs to beloved favourites, films often separated from their predecessors by decades; consider the gap between The Incredibles and Incredibles II or between Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049, even between xXx 2 and xXx 3 or between Trainspotting and Trainspotting 2.

It is easy to exaggerate the scope of these issues. After all, there have always been films based around established intellectual property, whether early films or television series or even novels. Gone with the Wind was a book before it was a film. The Magnificent Seven was a remake of The Seven Samurai. Philip Marlowe was continuously reimagined on film from Time to Kill in 1942 to The Big Sleep in 1978. Star Trek: The Motion Picture transitioned a failed television series into a big budget science-fiction film franchise. This is to say nothing of perennial favourites like the story of Robin Hood or Jesus Christ.

At the same time, the indie market is thriving. Although making any movie is a tremendous accomplishment, there has arguably never been a better time for people making movies. Companies like Netflix and Amazon are buying up as much “content” from film festivals as they can, and in doing so are making filmmakers and production companies whole. Companies like Annapurna are adopting a model that consciously puts creativity ahead of commercial concerns. Even technology has advanced to the point where it is possible to make films on a phone. Cinema is not endangered or under threat. It is vibrant.

Still, it feels like things are different in the modern era of blockbuster entertainment. For one thing, there are fewer big budget blockbusters based around wholly original ideas. In the past decade, only the work of Christopher Nolan stands out; Inception, Interstellar, Dunkirk. There have obviously been other success stories, like J.J. Abrams’ Cloverfield and Super 8 or like Jordan Peele’s Get Out, but these are notable for being the exception rather than the rule. There is a sense that the mainstream is dominated by revivals of beloved properties, and not just in film. Hannibal, Star Trek: Discovery, Fargo, Watchmen.

One of the interesting tensions of this era has been in watching the way that fandoms react to these revivals, the manner in which they approach these new takes on established mythologies. By and large, it has not been especially flattering or engaging. There have been death threats, misogyny, cultural wars, heated arguments, simmering disagreements. Recent years have seen the growth of a strange cult of fannish entitlement within the cultural mainstream, perhaps reflecting the manner in which the mainstream has embraced fannish desire. There is something deeply frustrating and disheartening about this.

This is perhaps a more personal essay than most on the blog, give discussions that I’ve been having a lot in meatspace and online. So I’ve included a few personal notes about my own experience, indented and italicised to distinguish them from the argument that I’m making. I hope it provides a bit of context of my own experience of fandom, and why I find these current trends so unsettling and so disturbing in so personal a way, why I keep coming back to them in various articles that I’ve written.

I am a massive fan. There’s no hiding that. I’m not ashamed of that fact. I’ve written extensively on a variety of fan-related topics. I’ve written several million words about Star Trek and The X-Files, I’ve published books on The X-Files and Christopher Nolan. I read comic books and I’ve played video games. I’ve been a member of fan clubs and I grew up with the online fan community. I am very much a part of all of this, and am not an impartial observer. However, I act in good faith. I approach the material with care, consideration and respect. But I am undoubtedly a fan.

On some level, this was inevitable. At least some of this is down to the development of the internet as a major cultural force in its own right, allowing fans and creators to connect and engage with one another in an easily accessible and very dynamic way. Previously, interactions were more tightly regulated and controlled; mailing a physical letter to a person’s office is harder than firing a tweet at them, and attending a convention panel as an audience member is much less direct than jumping straight into a celebrity’s mentions. Even before Twitter and Facebook, message boards allowed for more direct interactions.

In the nineties, creators working on various fannish franchises would engage with fans on bulletin boards. Glen Morgan would frequent these online hubs when writing for The X-Files, and would even hire Kay Reindl and Erin Maher to work on Millennium after meeting them online. The writing staff on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine would frequently chip into conversations online; Robert Hewitt Wolfe was always eager to answer fan questions, while Ronald D. Moore ran a regular mailbag questions-and-answers session about the show for fans. This allowed fans to feel more involved and engaged in the process.

At the turn of the millennium, studios took note of fans who were eagerly engaging with these properties. Understandably, studios cynically saw these fans as a free advertising service; not so much a grassroots movement as an evangelical campaign. Bloggers and fans were elevated, frequently offered expensive trips in return for favourable coverage. In these early years, Hollywood was so enamoured with the idea of these rabid hungry fans that it even targetted movies specifically towards their tastes; films like Snakes on a Plane and Cowboys and Aliens were geared towards these sorts of enthusiastic commenters.

In a broader sense, outside of empowering those internet commenters, film studios began actively courting audience’s nostalgia in a much more direct manner than they had before. The reasons for this were simple. The box office was growing dramatically, and the studios were caught in a blockbuster arms race. Due to demand for greater spectacle in the era of computer-generated special effects and earth-shattering stakes, budgets were growing out of control. (Not to mention the oft-concealed marketing budgets.) Due to the crowding of the marketplace, the opening weekend became increasingly important.

Blockbuster season begins in March and extends well in August. Black Panther arguably kicked this year’s season off in February, and the season only began to wind down with Mission: Impossible – Fallout. There is no real breathing room left between the autumn and winter awards fare and the conventional summer blockbuster season. The summer brings a steady machine-gun release of big-budget releases, meaning that very few films having the breathing room to earn back their money over the medium- or long-term. No film can count on growing an audience. (The Greatest Showman is the exception that proves the rule.)

This summer was a conveyor belt of box office titans, each attempting to squeeze the others out a take the top spot for a week. Avengers: Infinity War, Deadpool 2, Solo: A Star Wars Story, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Ocean’s 8, Skyscraper, Ant Man and the WaspMamma Mia! Here We Go AgainThe Meg, The Equaliser 2. There are children’s films; Teen Titans Go! to the Movies, Hotel Transylvania 3: Monster Vacation, Incredibles II. This says nothing of the counter-programming: Tag, Hereditary, I Feel Pretty. Those are just the big films, all jockeying for space with one another.

Some of those films were able to hold on to the top of the box office for more than just one week; others were immediately classified as also-rans. However, this slate reflects the reality of modern big-budget film-making, that this sort of film production is a high-risk, high-stakes, high-reward gamble. As a result, studios don’t like to take risks with their properties, and need to be able to count on the largest audience turning out as early as possible. This limits the capacity for a film to grow its audience over time, via good reviews or word of mouth. Films need to attract audiences on opening weekend.

This may explain why studios have come to rely on the idea of existing intellectual property, counting on brand to attract audience members over critics or pundits or gossip. It’s not the worst strategy, all things considered. It promises audiences, “You enjoy that thing, so surely you will also enjoy this thing which is related to that thing that you liked.” This may explain the increasing prominence of “… from the producer of…” and “… from the studio that brought you…” credits on films like Truth or Dare or Darkest Minds, a way of evoking that connection and trust out of the gate.

As a result, films are increasingly aimed at audiences who already have an existing attachment to a given property, assuming that this attraction will draw viewers on opening weekends. Of course, there’s a recurring sense that this is not an exact science, and that studios don’t really understand what fans liked about given properties to begin with. Neutered remakes of Paul Verhoeven films like Total Recall or RoboCop were strange choices, stripping out anything that made the originals interesting or unique. In hindsight, it seemed absurd to give a blockbuster budget to the long-delayed sequel to cult hit Blade Runner.

This sense of nostalgia is even a driving force in modern children’s films; consider the live action remakes of classic Disney films like The Jungle Book or Beauty and the Beast, delayed sequels like Mary Poppins Returns or even modern reimaginings like Christopher Robin. The idea is to get parents to bring their children to entertainment that they liked as a child. Although there is a rare pleasure in sharing one’s favourite pieces of popular culture with a younger generation, it contributes to a market place that is over-saturated with resurrected concepts.

This is also true in television as well. The industry is arguably reaching a point of saturation, what has been described as “peak TV.” There are hundreds of scripted television shows, and more television is produced in a given year than any individual could watch. As with cinema, there is a need to hook audiences early; the saturation of the medium means that most broadcasters cannot allow shows to slowly grow their audiences as they once did. One of those hooks is brand association, with television shows also built around existing intellectual property.

To be clear, this is not inherently a bad thing. Indeed, a surprising amount of this output is quite good. Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises might be based on established intellectual property, but they are one of the greatest cinematic accomplishments of the twenty-first century. Rise of the Planet of the Apes sounded like a disaster waiting to happen, but it proved the foundation stone of one of the most powerful and engaging movie series in recent memory. Hannibal and Fargo rank among the best television series ever. Better Call Saul is a fantastic accomplishment.

At the same time, there is a sense that modern audiences are not necessarily adapting to this new environment in the healthiest of ways, and that catering to this nostalgia has had a detrimental effect on the way that people engage with popular art. After all, it should be noted that even Simon Pegg, who is a cast member in the rebooted Star Trek franchise and the Mission: Impossible franchises and wrote a book titled Nerd Do Well, has acknowledged his concerns about the “infantalisation” of popular culture.

This is perhaps most obvious in terms of what might be described as “fandom”, the true believers in a particular franchise with a strong emotional investment in these pieces of intellectual property. Fandom has always been a prickly beast, as anybody who worked on a popular television or film franchise will attest. The writers working on Star Trek: Enterprise, for example, would receive literal garbage in the mail from fans who felt like the series was not doing justice to the legacy of the franchise.

As a young fan, I remember witnessing the vitriol and the bitterness within Star Trek fandom during the Voyager and Enterprise years. I never enjoyed Voyager while it was on, and I gave on Enterprise during its soul-destroying second season. However, I never wished harm on the people producing it, and could never understand the people who would spread malicious gossip or paranoid ramblings about Rick Berman or Brannon Braga. Although both had very serious flaws as writers and producers, it seemed that a lot of commenters genuinely wished them harm. It was unsettling for me to read as a teenager who was looking for a place to discuss something that had genuinely interested me.

Understandably, as these franchises have moved closer to the mainstream, it seems like these attitudes have also come closer to the mainstream as well. These days, it seems impossible for franchises to attempt new things or to subvert audience expectations without upsetting a very strong and very vocal contingent of the online fandom. This is most obvious with attempts to bring franchises like Doctor Who or Star Wars into the cultural mainstream, which is often met with belligerence from long-term fans who feel like their vision of the franchise is not being catered towards.

Consider the recent JJ Abrams Star Trek movies. These films are the most financially successful movies in the series, in terms of both domestic and global box office. They are among the best reviewed films in the franchise, by just about any metric. They even made the Internet Movie Database‘s list of the Top 250 Movies of All-Time, a populist measure for success if ever there was one. However, fandom reacted to these films with nothing short of disdain, famously ranking Star Trek Into Darkness the worst movie in the franchise. Which seems strange, given Star Trek V: The Final Frontier and Star Trek: Nemesis exist.

By all accounts, this is a relatively mild fandom backlash, in that it does not involve any organised campaign or death threats. Certain segments of the fandom around the original Ghostbusters went into meltdown when it was announced that there would be a female-led reboot of the films. The spectacle was embarrassing and humiliating, with organised campaigns designed to attack the movie’s credibility and its box office. Naturally, there’s an uncomfortable stench of misogyny around this fan backlash, given similar campaigns were not launched against reboots like Baywatch or CHiPs.

This was not the worst of it. Star Wars fandom seemed to go into meltdown around Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi. The film was met with considerable critical praise, but fans responded with fury and outrage to the film. Again, it is worth noting that this was largely in response to a female-led movie, with a lot of criticism specifically directed at female characters like Rey and Holdo who behaved in a manner consistent with how the franchise had approached its male leads.

This is probably why this turn in popular fandom concerns me so, and why I find myself so often calling out these more extreme positions. One of the great ironies of this whole debacle is that I’m not a huge fan of The Last Jedi, but I inevitably end up pointing out the awkward subtext that fuels so much of its hatedom; the movie didn’t even make my top forty films of last year, let alone my top ten. However, having witness firsthand how toxic Star Trek fandom could be in the later nineties, and having watched Gamergate emerge in gaming fandom from these same impulses, I could not do anything but engage with it.

The reaction of Star Wars fandom to The Last Jedi was something to behold, as if the film had violated some sacred text. Some of these responses were amusing; some fans threatened to remake The Last Jedi from scratch, while others petitioned to have it struck from “the canon”, while others still published makeshift manifestos. Other expressions of this fannish entitlement were decidedly more unsettling. One fan offered an edit of the movie that “fixed” it by removing all female characters. Others hounded star Kelly Marie Tran off social media.

It should be noted that this is obviously not all fandom. It might not even be the majority of fandom. However, it is the most vocal set of fandom. This group has operated with relative impunity, and which the rest of fandom at least passively tolerates. After all, fans were able to edit the character page for Rose Tico on Wookipedia into a racist “joke” without any barriers and without immediate reaction. This is very much a reality of dealing with anything fandom-related at the moment, perhaps one of the reasons why creators seem to have moved away from a model of active engagement with online communities.

There are a lot of complicated reasons for this sense of entitlement and the anger at what fans perceive as sacrosanct. There is an obvious overlap with the Gamergate movement, which was a conscious reaction by the gaming establishment against the perceived intrusion of new groups into their space. These groups were obviously different in terms of demographics; Gamergate targeted female developers and writers, in the same way that Last Jedi criticism seems to be targeting female characters and actors. There are a variety of complex factors at play involving the broader political climate.

However, one of the most quietly striking aspects of all this is the weird sense in which these fandoms seem utterly unwilling to relinquish control of the franchises to which they have grown attached, an unwillingness to accept that anything other than their own idealised version of what that franchise should be. If what is being produced does not conform to their standards of what Star Trek or Star Wars or Doctor Who should be, then it is not Star Trek or Star Wars or Doctor Who. This is a disappointingly close-minded approach to fandom on a number of levels.

Most obviously, it discounts the reality that identities can change and evolve, particularly over time. To pick one example, Star Trek fandom has always been hostile to change and always reacted with knee-jerk cynicism to anything that challenged their idea of Star Trek. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan could not be Star Trek, because it was dark and Kirk was old and Spock was dead. Star Trek: The Next Generation could not be Star Trek because there was no Kirk and no Spock and minimal action. Deep Space Nine could not be Star Trek, because they didn’t boldly go anywhere; they didn’t even unboldly go anywhere.

Naturally, each of these things came to redefine what Star Trek could be. With enough time, they attracted new fans to franchise, bringing new perspectives and outlooks, and expanding the idea of what Star Trek could be. It is worth noting that the only Star Trek series that actually looked like a Star Trek series when it launched was Star Trek: Voyager, which became an unmitigated disaster. Indeed, any repudiation of the franchise’s liberal humanism is more likely to be found in Voyager than Discovery.

I’m not a big fan of Voyager. I have very serious issues with it, both as a piece of television entertainment and as a political statement. I personally think it’s the nadir of the franchise and that it is the largest nail in the coffin of the Berman era as a whole. Still, its existence doesn’t invalidate the Star Trek that I do enjoy. I will likely never watch of Voyager again after I finish my big rewatch, but I don’t begrudge anybody who enjoys it. Given the show’s popularity on Netflix and its placement in fan polls, that is quite a few people. I am glad that it brings them some happiness.

Even as a movie critic, I regularly hang out with other movie critics. Ignoring the paranoia over whether certain studios are “buying” good reviews or whether certain critics have a “bias” for or against certain types of films, I’ve always found conspiracy theories about film critics organising secretive cabals to praise or dismiss certain films ridiculous. From personal experience, and loving all the critics with whom I’ve worked, when you put two critics in a room you’ll end up with five conflicting opinions. If I couldn’t accept the validity of another person’s taste, then I wouldn’t have lasted as long as I have within this industry.

This ties into the bigger issue with how fandoms react to new ideas that challenge their understanding of an existing franchise. Quite frankly, a lot of this boils down to an unwillingness or a reluctance to share something that they love with a whole new generation. There is a strange idea that if the latest Star Wars movie or Ghostbusters movie is not for the existing and committed fandom, then it is very straightforwardly a bad thing and that it cannot possible be something designed to bring joy or happiness to anybody else.

The remake of Ghostbusters is quite consciously designed for young girls who might want to play as freelance do-it-yourself improvised ghosthunters, without young boys telling them that the only role for them is that of Janine the receptionist. Rey is designed to be to young girls what Luke was to an entire generation of young boys. This should be self-evident, not least because fandom is driven by an emotional rather than a rational attachment to a concept. In most fandoms, the object of that fandom has a deep emotional resonance or meaning for the individual fan. Why would they not want to share that?

This anxiety about surrendering a beloved franchise to a new generation of fans with different perspectives and values is also reflected in Doctor Who fandom. Recently, Doctor Who Magazine made the controversial decision to appoint a new “Time Team” of reviewers to analyse the classic series. This prompted a lot of preemptive anxiety from older fans, with many taking to social media with threats of a boycott. Naturally, things exploded when these young reviewers acknowledged the self-evident fact that beloved serial The Talons of Weng-Chiang was horrifically racist. Even the magazine’s editorial lambasted them.

There is something disappointing in all of this. One of the best things about fandom is the way that it is passed on like a baton from one generation to the next, and the way in which that generation are allowed to find their own own way. The archetypal memory for many Star Wars fans is going to see the original trilogy with their parents. Many modern Doctor Who fans might have relatives who remember the classic series. The James Bond film franchise also spans generations, and it’s entirely possible for two generations of any family to have grown up with different iterations, having their own preferences.

My own fandom is rooted in this experience. I inherited my love of Star Trek from my grandmother, who loved the original Star Trek and The Next Generation. However, she never appreciated Deep Space Nine. Indeed, my decisions to press ahead with Deep Space Nine on my own and to reach my own conclusions about it were a massive part of my fandom. Similarly, I inherited my love of horror from my grandfather, who showed me wonderfully inappropriate movies at a young age. He loved Wes Craven and John Carpenter, as did I. However, I had to branch out to The X-Files on my own.

I always considered this an important part of my fannish experiences, and I never begrudged my grandparents for holding slightly different tastes than I did. I’d have similar experiences with people that I introduced to my favourite things; their tastes would inevitably grow and develop in directions that reflected their own interests. They would branch beyond my taste and cultivate their own fandom that overlapped with mine by was also distinct in its contours. This never bothered me or unsettled me, and I never resented these people for that fact. I always saw it as an important part of sharing something; realising that it doesn’t belong entirely and completely to you.

There is a beautiful scene in Toy Story III which alludes to the way in which fandom can be passed from one generation to another. The trilogy follows Woody and Buzz, toys belonging to kid named Andy. Over the course of the series, Andy grows up. By the time that the third film rolls around, Andy is going to college. He is a grown man now. He has perhaps even outgrown his toys. In a touching scene towards the end of the film, he decides to give those toys to a young child who arguably needs them more; who will love them, cherish them, and play with them in their own way.

This might be the healthiest way to approach the idea of fandom, to acknowledge that writers and creators do not owe their fans anything more than they have already given. A given creator “is not your b!tch”, to quote Neil Gaiman. David Bowie mused that “it’s terribly dangerous for an artist to fulfill other people’s expectations.” To demand that something should only ever be what it was, and that it cannot evolve into something new is a dangerous philosophy. This approach would have prevented experiments like Tim Burton’s Batman films or the big twist in Brian dePalma’s Mission: Impossible.

After all, these new additions to existing franchises are not going to destroy the existing work in any meaningful sense. Those audience members unhappy with Discovery are not having their copies of Deep Space Nine destroyed; the ticket price to see The Last Jedi was not the purchaser’s physical copy of Star Wars. If these new iterations of the franchise do not work for certain fans, that is grand. For all the cheeky castration imagery in the rebooted Ghostbusters film, the original remains in heavy televisual and cultural rotation. Letting somebody else have their fandom certainly does not cost anything in any tangible manner.

Of course fans can criticise things that they don’t like about the latest iterations of a given franchise. There are certainly reasonable gripes to be had with The Last Jedi. Its pacing is a little off, it has a number of significant plot holes, it relies too heavily on plot babble. However, there is no harm in the audience treating this bad film in the way that they would any other bad film like The Children Act or China Salesman; simply move on, forget about, do not obsess about it. Fandom’s refusal to let go of things that upset it, and refusal to accept that these details might even appeal to others, is toxic and corrosive.

Again, a lot of this has been fed and enabled by larger trends in both politics and popular culture. Modern culture is dominated by strands of poisonous nostalgia that evoke an idealistic past that never actually existed, leading people to reject the flawed and complicated present. Certainly, this is also being encouraged by a cultural landscape that actively empowers this sense of nostalgia by constantly recycling intellectual property, cynically trying to strengthen this emotional attachment to help those increasingly important opening weekend numbers.

It is very common for films that are consciously aimed at adult audiences to evoke the wistful nostalgia of childhood. Tag is a film about a group of grown men who have been playing the same game of tag for thirty years. The film occasionally alludes to the challenges and barriers that this has created for the cast; how wary it has made them of physical contact, how much they measure their own worth by the game, and the trust issues that it has created. However, the film returns time and time again to the idea that this state of perpetual childhood is an ideal.

Similarly, Christopher Robin is a film about how our beloved childhood characters never go away. The eponymous character’s imaginary friends do not cease to exist when he reaches adulthood, they instead continue on without him. It is a depressing premise for the audience who grew up with various iterations of these characters, from The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh to The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. The unspoken charge is one of abandonment of these imaginary friends, a plea for reconciliation and reunion.

The closing scenes of Christopher Robin do focus on the title character introducing his wife and daughter to his long-abandoned imaginary friends. In theory, it might be seen to suggest something similar to the transition at the end of Toy Story III. However, this is not the point of the film at all. The primary plot of the movie is about Christopher reconnecting with his lost childhood, a fact playing in the promotional materials. The key message of Christopher Robin is not about surrendering one’s beloved childhood icons to the next generation, but never letting go of them.

This fear is baked into Fallen Kingdom, the fourth sequel (fifth film in the franchise) of Jurassic Park. The film is easily the most reflective and contemplative of the Jurassic Park films. The characters in Fallen Kingdom openly reflect on the wonder and awe that accompanied those first shots of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, and the impression that they would have made on an audience that would now be well into their thirties. “Do you remember the first time that you saw a dinosaur?” Claire asks Owen at one point, but the question is also directed at the audience.

Fallen Kingdom suggests that the majesty and the power of Jurassic Park have metastasised into sheer terror at the hands of unchecked capitalist forces. The film is obsessed with clones and copies, pale imitations of earlier triumphs. However, it also operates on the same nostalgic internal logic that defined Christopher Robin. Once again, the audience’s childhood imaginary friends are trapped and in need of reconnection. Winnie the Pooh was abandoned in the Hundred Acre Woods, but the dinosaurs in Fallen Kingdom are stuck on a volcanic island and need to be rescued.

There is something very manipulative in all of this, placing a strange moral onus on the audience, as if compelling them to rush back and chase their old childhood icons. The dinosaurs that were so majestic in Jurassic Park are once again an endangered species in Fallen Kingdom, in need of the heroes to come back and save them; never mind the impressive box office performance of the film. Watching Christopher Robin, there is a sense that he has failed his childhood imaginary friends as much as he is failing is family. Christopher’s first objective is to reunite all his old friends from the One Hundred Acre Wood, after all.

Perhaps a fear of mortality simmers in the background of this collective cultural anxiety. It seems highly unlikely that anybody alive today will live to see the release of the last Star Wars film, as Disney will undoubtedly continue to release them in perpetuity. Letting go of something like that is difficult, a concession to time and to age, to maturity and to mortality. Fandom’s entitlement and anxiety issues might be seen as a way of grappling with that, of raging against that fact that – no matter how hard they hold on – Star Wars or Star Trek will inevitably go on without them.

This is, I guess, the part of the essay where I admit to struggling to understand people. If something like The Last Jedi or Discovery does not bring a person joy, why fixate upon it so? I gave up on Enterprise during its second season, when it seemed clear that the show was never going to actually improve, and it was just a waste of my time to keep watching it. Of course, the irony was that the show dramatically improved in the tail end of the season and in its final two years, but that decision to stop watching – to stop investing – was the right idea at the time.

My understanding of fandom has always been that it exists to make people happy. Nobody is forced to watch any Star Trek or Star Wars or Doctor Who that they don’t want to. I know I’ll never rewatch large swathes of either franchise, and that I’ll never actively seek out most of the Roger Moore Bond films to rewatch. And I’ll mention my issues with them when they come up, or when they are part of a project that I have undertaken to do. It feels surreal to me that we are still talking and arguing about The Last Jedi eight months after its cinematic release. But I’ve always feared that I never completely understood how people behave and make decisions.

Star Wars and Star Trek do belong to their fans in a certain way, as much as any work of art belongs in the eye of the beholder. They exist in each individual fan’s interpretation of the work, their individual preferences and tastes. While an individual’s idea of the thing belongs to that individual audience member alone, the object itself does not. Ownership of a ticket stub or a physical disc or a digital copy does not translate to ownership of the franchise in perpetuity, nor to ownership of all the ideas of what that franchise might possibly be.

There’s a lot to be said for the ways in which fandoms celebrate their ownership of their interpretation of a beloved franchise. Creativity can flourish, as demonstrated by vibrant fan fiction continuities. Meaningful friendships can be forged over shared passion for something. Fandom can be something profound and moving, something beautiful and empowering. It can be broad and welcoming, inclusive and accessible. The bigger the tent, the bigger party. The more diverse opinions of what something can be, the more conversations that can be had.

This is what is so frustrating about arguments over franchise identity. In its own way the argument over whether a given thing is or is not “really Star Trek” or “really Star Wars” is quite simple; if it is produced by the official owner of the license, then it is. However, arguments about whether Discovery is “really” Star Trek and whether The Last Jedi should be struck from the canon are conscious efforts to narrow the tent and to limit fandom. The implication is that any audience member who does enjoy Discovery or who did like The Last Jedi cannot be “a true fan.”

This is gatekeeping, an extension of the old debate about “the canon” as it related to Star Trek and Star Wars, the idea that there were parts that counted and parts that did not count and that the “real” fans were the ones who understood those intricacies and those details. It was a way of restricting access to fandom and of centralising authority within fandom, to suggest that certain people in fandom had the capacity to declare with complete certainty what is or is not part of a given franchise.

This is, of course, nonsense. Every audience member inevitably has their own subjective canon for a long-running franchise; whether that’s drawn from what they’ve seen or what they themselves deem important to their understanding of a franchise. This is personal, not universal. Nobody’s personal canon trumps anybody else’s. It is up to each individual viewer how best to incorporate Spock’s assault on Valeris in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country into their understanding of his character.

However, fandom has long enjoyed setting up hierarchies and structures that grade canon. Star Wars famously had competing levels of validity, with some forms of media trumping other forms of media to form something resembling a cohesive whole. Star Trek had its own elevated fans who would argue about what did and didn’t count as part of the franchise, most notably Richard Arnold during the nineties. Arnold was responsible for gutting the tie-in publishing line, and also for insisting that Star Trek: The Animated Series couldn’t possibly fit within the canon.

Of course, this is all nonsense. In practical terms, the canon is whatever the writer of a given script needs it to be. The writers on Deep Space Nine repeatedly made references and allusions to The Animated Series to draw it back into continuity for them. In contrast, certain live-action episodes have been quietly written out; when Tom Paris boasts that he has never “navigated a transwarp conduit” in Day of Honour, it suggests that everybody involved has quietly forgotten Threshold. (The dialogue can technically be squared, but the implication from the character is quite clear.)

In some cases, this can be a literal acknowledgement of the fact that times change and that franchises need to evolve with them. The final episode of the original Star Trek was Turnabout Intruder, which famously insisted that women could not be Starfleet Captains. This was a horrifically sexist premise, even for 1969. As a result, the prequel series Enterprise opted to completely ignore it when it introduced Captain Erica Hernandes in Home. This was a good call, an example of the show updating itself for the time, treating the past as a foundation to revise and build upon.

Insisting that a person can act as an arbitrator of some abstract measure of an instalment’s fidelity to some hypothetical measure of identity is just another form of gatekeeping, and attempt to centralise authority within fandom and to suggest that only particular fans are in a position to state what is Star Trek or Star Wars and what isn’t. Inevitably, these arguments come down to a matter of personal taste. What the individual likes is inevitably what is determined to be Star Trek or Star Wars, making them the arbitrator of what is “true.”

Star Trek or Star Wars or Doctor Who don’t belong to their fandoms in perpetuity. This is not a sad thing. There are few things in life as meaningful as sharing a deep and meaningful love of something, of entrusting it to people who will develop it in their own way and with their own perspective. It might not be your Star Trek or Star Wars any longer, but it might be somebody else’s. And isn’t that worth celebrating?

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