Originally published in Strange Skins Digital #5
It’s easy to look at the endless stream of vitriol that spews onto the internet from certain areas of sci-fi fandom and to imagine that this is a new thing; a product of our broken, greedy, uncaring society.
Don’t take that as meaning that I am for one moment suggesting that our society is not broken, greedy and uncaring. It most certainly is; we live in a world where the President of the United States can be openly racist and misogynistic and people applaud him for it. What I’m saying is that the me-first attitude of sci-fi fandoms, although accentuated by this toxic culture, is by no means a product of it. It has been around for many many years and in this feature we’re going to look at it. So be sure to wash your hands after reading, because it’s a grubby, distressing quagmire of the very worst aspects of human nature.
Are your shots up to date? Then we’ll begin.
In 1987, Star Trek fans were up a height. They were all ready to burn the studio to the ground because it had systematically destroyed the memory of their beloved series with a poorly cast, ill-conceived cash-in that was destined to destroy the franchise. The cause of all this consternation? Star Trek: The Next Generation. It’s hard to imagine now, but certain quarters of Star Trek fandom loathed the very idea of The Next Generation and declared that it was the end of Star Trek as they knew it. They did not like the redesign of the Enterprise, they said that having a Klingon on the crew was against the core principles of Star Trek… hell, they even complained about having a bald captain of the Enterprise!
They hated the redesigned uniforms (even though the uniforms had already been redesigned twice in the movies) and they loathed the changes to the Klingons (which had also been firmly established in 5 movies to date). The complaints didn’t go away with the show’s broadcast either. A lot of fans didn’t like the fact that the new Enterprise had families on board and they positively detested poor old Wesley Crusher. Episodes like Where No One Has Gone Before and The Naked Now started accusations that the series was feeding off its past glories, but when they tried to introduce new elements like the Ferengi, those were pretty much hated too.
Meanwhile across the Atlantic, Doctor Who fans were conducting a hate campaign against producer John Nathan-Turner, over his increasing tendency to steer the show in the direction of light entertainment. The casting of Bonnie Langford – known in the UK at that time primarily as a dancer or as the lisping brat Violet Elizabeth Bott in the 1980s TV adaptation of Just William – was the last straw for many. A number of old school fans did their best to rally Doctor Who fandom into ‘taking action’ against the series; this involved petitions and letter writing campaigns – all of which were destined to have no impact whatsoever upon the BBC, who were secretly planning to scrap the series anyway.
Forefront on the campaign trail was DWB (Doctor Who Bulletin), the inflammatory Doctor Who fan magazine edited by Gary Levy. DWB’s hatred of the Doctor Who producer knew no bounds and, unauthorised by the BBC as it was, didn’t care what it printed. DWB was well known for its vitriolic banner headlines, screaming spite at the Who production office in general and JN-T in particular. This was the beginning of fans thinking – quite wrongly – that they owned the series; a trend that would only get worse as Doctor Who entered its wilderness years in the 1990s.
Of course, both the Doctor Who campaigns and the Star Trek: The Next Generation troubles originate from an era before the internet, when fans were essentially ‘shouting in empty rooms’. You had to either seek out a fanzine such as DWB or attend some kind of local group to hear these hateful opinions. Letters sent to the national press generally fell on deaf ears. Fleet Street didn’t care about the ravings of a bunch of geeks, which is very different from today when they scour the threads of Gallifrey Base for the one nutter who says he’ll blow up his house if the BBC casts a female Doctor, just because it makes for an outrageous headline.
At the same time, in a galaxy far, far away, Lucasfilm were selling the rights for Star Wars spin-offs at a bargain price. Although the film series had a massive fanbase, interest among the general public had been waning a little since no fourth movie was forthcoming after Return of the Jedi, so Lucasfilm poached the geek dollar by selling the rights for continued adventures in the form of comic books and a never-ending series of novels. Every character from Salacious Crumb to the little pig-nosed thing in the Mos Eisley cantina had a name, a planet of origin and a back story. Thus was born the ‘Expanded Universe’, an obsessively detailed catalogue of minutiae and galactic history that appealed very much to the type of anally-retentive fan who likes to make lists of everything and obsesses over canon.
The Expanded Universe was great while it lasted, but it was sealed tight as a nut, to the exclusion of all future cinematic explorations of the Star Wars universe. When George Lucas embarked on the prequel trilogy in 2002, he took on board some bits of the Expanded Universe and discarded others. George Lucas had a history of co-opting other writers’ additions to his universe having retained the Emperor’s name as Palpatine from Alan Dean Foster’s ghost-written ’77 novelisation of Star Wars, and you’d have thought that fans would applaud his decision to keep on board some of the Extended Universe additions. As usual, some of them did and some of them didn’t.
Instead, the professional naysayers focused in on the many elements that they didn’t like, such as young Annakin Skywalker and Jar Jar Binks. Looking back at The Phantom Menace, it’s a lot closer in tone to the original trilogy than the other two prequels, which are pretty much glorified CGI cartoons, but the whining fanboys chose not to see that.
George Lucas, bless him, in turn listened a bit too much to the complaints of said fans and adjusted his next film Attack of the Clones accordingly. There’s very little Binks and, latching onto Star Wars fandom’s almost fanatical obsession with Boba Fett, he elected – probably unwisely – to make the bounty hunter’s family an integral part of Star Wars history. Were fans happy with this? Were they bollocks! They just found other things to complain about. You just can’t please some people, can you?
Doctor Who in the 1990s was kept alive by the fans. Many applauded this as something new, but of course it wasn’t; Star Trek fans had done the same thing in the 1970s, weaving a similar web of canon and continuity. Doctor Who had Virgin books’ Doctor Who: The New Adventures, a continuation of the Seventh TV Doctor’s exploits in paperbacks ‘too broad and too deep for television’, aimed firmly at adults. In some cases, this meant complex and mind-bending storylines that were truly unique. In others, it was just tits and profanity.
The New Adventures started off with professional writers at the helm, but very quickly Virgin tried something new by commissioning an unpublished fan author called Paul Cornell. Cornell’s Timewyrm: Revelation was indeed a revelation and broke new ground for Doctor Who. Such was the success of the experiment that The New Adventures started using primarily fan authors with about 80% of its output being written by authors who had little or no previous writing experience outside Doctor Who. This was a double-edged sword. Some of the books were magnificent, others were dreadful and a large amount were just meh. Many of the authors tried to copy Cornell’s surreal style, with varying degrees of success; others seemed obsessed with turning Doctor Who into Aliens, prompting a stampede of crass shooty space marines. Eugh.
The upshot of all this was that fans thought that Doctor Who was now well and truly theirs. They’d swiped it from Television Centre and locked it in the Fitzroy Tavern. BBC Television had other ideas. They were in talks across the Atlantic to reboot the series with Universal Television, which eventually happened when the TV Movie emerged in 1996. The expected outrage over an American Doctor Who series was a lot more muted in the long run. A few different factors contributed to this: fans had been deprived of TV Doctor Who for so long that they were prepared to take pretty much anything, and also American science fiction was on a high in the 1990s, with shows like The X Files and Babylon 5 getting a lot of attention this side of the Atlantic.
The BBC’s decision not to renew Virgin’s publishing license caused a few ripples, but those quickly subsided when it was realised that most of the same authors would be writing for the BBC Books’ own new range of Eighth Doctor adventures. The TV Movie starring Paul McGann as the Doctor was received far better on British TV than in the United States and initial fan outrage at the Doctor kissing Grace Holloway quickly subsided when it was realised that the pilot film had not been commissioned for a full series. The Eighth Doctor’s adventures continued in the BBC books, much in a similar vein to the New Adventures, but now under the watchful eye of the BBC.
Audio company Big Finish emerged around this time too, providing fan-friendly stories in the mode of the classic series. Although they lacked the rough punk rock feel of the New Adventures, the direction of the EDAs and Big Finish led fans to believe that the series once again was under their control. But once again, behind the scenes, the BBC were making new plans to which no-one was privy.
Back in the 23rd Century, things had began to calm down. An awful fifth entry into the Star Trek movie series began to convince even the most hardened fans that Classic Trek had had its day and Star Trek: The Next Generation was broadly embraced by fandom by the time it peaked in its third series. The odd spiteful complaint about the race or gender of the commanding officers in Deep Space Nine and Voyager were ignored as being contrary to the core Star Trek principles of racial and sexual equality.
Star Trek: Voyager, however, is a very good example of why television producers shouldn’t pay too much attention to the fans. It started off with the revolutionary concept of a starship crew having to co-operate with the revolutionaries that they were sent to fight in order to survive. The depleted Starfleet personnel and the ‘terrorist’ Maquis had to learn to live with each other in order to survive when the Starship Voyager is blasted to the unexplored far side of the universe. It’s a strong concept and Star Trek: Voyager had a very strong start, but Paramount, worried About fluctuating ratings figures, started listening a bit too much to the fans and focus groups who whined that it was not as good as the Next Generation. How can we fix that? Let’s make it more like the Next Generation! So, very quickly, Voyager goes from being something new and different to being incredibly generic Star Trek. And that’s okay ‘cos it’s what the fans want, right?
Voyager fared reasonably well compared to Enterprise though. The last of the regular Star Trek series was struck by the curse of the prequels – it dared to not slavishly follow the existing history of Starfleet that fans had painstakingly concocted over the years. They did not like the way the Vulcans were represented as shifty and manipulative, they didn’t like the uniforms, they didn’t like the design of the Enterprise and they didn’t like the theme song. Boy, did they not like the theme song! Daring to be different, Enterprise opened with a Diane Warren power ballad sung by Russell Watson, rather than the traditional orchestral piece. Paramount went into panic mode about the falling ratings, reverting to more traditional plots and changing the name to Star Trek: Enterprise from series three. You can just imagine the emergency meeting: maybe folks don’t know it’s Star Trek, is that the problem? It wasn’t. Casual viewers were losing interest and the fans were becoming a pain in the ass. Enterprise was cancelled after four series.
Where the interaction of fans with Enterprise differed from its predecessors was that it was the first Star Trek series to both live and die in the era of social media. No longer did fans have to express their opinions in the pages of a fanzine or at some local gathering, they could type them up on a message board and – if they were into that kind of thing – get into huge arguments and flame wars over the tiniest details. And they did. It wasn’t just Star Trek, of course; the assembled masses of all imaginable sci-fi fandoms started to pitch in, forming into groups, getting into fights and generally behaving like animals. It was the end of fandom cordial and the true birth of the toxic fan. Towards the end of the twentieth century, it was leaked that the BBC was in development on something called ‘Doctor Who 2000’, a new version of the classic series to be written by a writer called Russell T. Davies. Fans didn’t pay too much heed to the rumours because there had been lots of stories about different reboots of the series since the TV Movie bit the bullet, with everyone from Verity Lambert to Gerry Davis supposedly putting forward a pitch. Besides, it didn’t seem very likely, did it? The writer of Queer as Folk in charge of Doctor Who? I mean, sure, he was a fan and had written the New Adventure Damaged Goods, but surely his vision of the series would be too controversial.
As much as fandom brushed aside Doctor Who 2000 as an urban myth, it was actually the beginning of what would eventually become Doctor Who’s triumphant return to television in 2005. The choice of Russell T. Davies was not so popular amongst some of the more unpleasant parts of fandom. If you thought some of the comments being levelled at Jodie Whittaker were unpleasant, they’re nothing in comparison with some of what was thrown toward RTD. Strange considering that Who has long been known as a show with a strong gay following. Nevertheless, he won over the fans and the general public with a blockbusting opening night when Rose first aired.
Christopher Eccleston was, and is, a controversial figure as the Ninth Doctor and his casting stirred up several nests worth of hornets. Fans were pitching for an older actor in the role and favoured Bill Nighy, but it wasn’t until long after that Nighy admitted he had passed on the role, leading Davies to cast his The Second Coming star Christopher Eccleston. Some fans weren’t exactly effusive in their appreciation of Eccleston, with many complaining about his regionality. The TV Movie, being produced by Americans, had opted for a traditionally upper class British approach to the Doctor, even if, to British ears, Paul McGann still had a distinctly Liverpudlian twang. But Eccleston didn’t even attempt to hide his Northern accent and a lot of old-school middle-class fans from the South of England objected to this working-class idea of the Doctor. They didn’t much care for his leather jacket fronted costume either, which was notoriously described as ‘single dad on the pull’.
Eccleston never really got the chance for all fans to warm to him either, because within his first week on television it was announced that he would only be spending one series in the role. This is where the spite really started to fly; they could live with his Northern accent and fashionable wardrobe, but quitting after just 12 episodes? How dare he have a career outside Doctor Who! Toxicity among Doctor Who fans suddenly went up a notch, as the Ninth Doctor became the target of a torrent of online abuse, including death threats! One fan (and I use that in the loosest possible sense) harked back to Eccleston’s role in the series Cracker by saying that the producers of Who should draft in Robert Carlisle to knife him to death. Welcome to the warm, friendly world of Doctor Who fandom, everyone!
Star Trek, meanwhile, was enjoying (should that be enduring?) its very own wilderness period, during which the original cast sadly lost both DeForest Kelley and James Doohan. The drought came to an end in 2008 though, when Paramount announced that they would be rebooting Star Trek on the big screen with the classic series crew recast with thrusting young Hollywood stars. Oh dear, you can see where this is going, can’t you? Fortunately, Paramount could also see where it was going and boxed clever by setting the retooled Trek in an alternate universe, with Classic Spock Leonard Nimoy even putting in an appearan-ce to placate the diehard Trekkies. Even then, a great many Star Trek fans staunchly refused to grok the new Spock or any of his crew-mates and the movie came in for a great deal of online vitriol. None of which, of course, did anything to lessen Star Trek’s success at the box office and its subsequent to follow-ups Into Darkness and Star Trek Beyond. Which brings us reasonably up to date and to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the point at which the s**t really hit the fan. Now, Star Wars The Force Awakens didn’t really do anything wrong. In fact, it did a lot of things very, very right. Hollywood troubleshooter JJ Abrams was quick to steer Star Wars away from the pond of CG in which the prequels were drowning and back into a more tangible, analogue world. He brought back most of the original team; Han, Chewie, Leia, C-3PO, R2-D2 and, at the very end of the movie, Luke Skywalker. He brought back the Millenium Falcon and Star Destroyers. He brought back John Williams to write an iconic score. Everything a Star Wars fan could have asked for was there – yet a lot of them were extremely vocal about how they hated it. Why?
Well, there were a number of reasons given although none of them make a lick of sense. Firstly, he dared to bring in new characters, with a view to them replacing the old guard. I’m sorry, but wasn’t that essential? The young-est of the original regulars, Carrie Fisher, was 57 at the time of The Force Awakens. Harrison Ford was 71! They could hardly do a whole lot of running around. Sure, Ford had not long since reprised Indiana Jones, but the cast of that introduced new, younger characters too. Speaking of Harrison Ford, the fans were less than happy that Han Solo was being killed off too. This was far from unexpected; Ford had asked to be killed off as far back as Return of the Jedi, but George Lucas thought it too dark an ending for his celebratory trilogy.
The main gripe of Star Wars fans though lay not with who was writing, directing or acting in The Force Awakens, but with who was putting up the money for it. In 2012, George Lucas sold Lucasfilm and all subsequent rights to The Walt Disney company for a staggering $4.05 BILLION and although Lucas initially had an advisory role on the sequels, he later parted company with the House of Mouse. The very fact that the new Star Wars films are being produced by Disney seems to stick in the craw of a great many fans. There’s a lot of prejudice against Disney from people who perceive the company as cynically commercial – like all other film producers aren’t! I mean, no-one could accuse multi-billionaire George Lucas of ever doing anything just for the money, now could they?
If The Force Awakens came in for a lot of stick, that was as nothing compared to the kicking that was awaiting its sequel The Last Jedi. The trolls who weighed in against the first film were back in force – and this time it was very, very personal. Something had changed; there was a societal shift that made it in some way acceptable to claim that the new Star Wars was pushing a liberal agenda, forcing upon its delicate fan the idea that our heroes could – or even should – be female, black or, heaven help us, gay. Never mind that society had changed considerably in the 40 years since Star Wars (I’m not gonna call it A New Hope – if you don’t like that, get help) and that most normal, decent people aren’t concerned over the race, gender or sexuality of their film stars.
The advent of Twitter has allowed ‘fans’ more direct access to film stars than ever before and with it, more avenues for hate. The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson received a disturbingly regular torrent of abuse over Twitter, and Rose Tico actress Kelly Marie Tran received hate-traffic that was so openly racist and offensively sexual that she was forced to leave Twitter altogether. Speaking personally, I’ve no idea what gives these people the idea that they have the right to do this sort of thing. Star Wars is a motion picture franchise that is designed to entertain and to make money. No-one asked you, or indeed expected you, to dedicate your life to it. And the fact that you’ve spent thousands of dollars on blu-rays and comic books and Lego toys that you’re too old for DOES NOT entitle you to have ANY SAY in how that franchise is governed. If you don’t like it – buy the franchise. What, you don’t have $4.05 billion? Well, kindly keep your mouth shut then.
Star Wars fans, however, have tried to over-come the inherent impotence of the fan by trying to scupper new product. As well as the numbered sequels, there are also the ‘A Star Wars Story’ films. The first of these, Rogue One initially garnered a lot of criticism for daring too contradict ‘Extended Universe’ lore about the events leading up to the original 1977 Star Wars. But Gareth Edwards’ gritty war story was such a good movie that it won a lot of people around and is widely regarded as the best of the new sequence of films.
Determined that this not happen again, the League of Uber-Trolls decided that they would start gunning for Solo: A Star Wars story before it was even made. Ignoring the fact that a story about the younger days of Han Solo was never going to work with 76-year old Harrison Ford and 81-year old Billy Dee Williams, they complained about the re-casting of Han and Lando. There was further cause for complaint when the original directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller were fired from the film and replaced by Ron Howard. WHAT?? How dare they sack the directors of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and replace them with the triple Academy Award winning Ron Howard?
Such was the consternation of certain Star Wars fans that it undoubtedly affected the box office of Solo and the film was considered a financial disappointment. Toxic fandom took this as an opportunity to be smug and to say ‘I told you so’, failing utterly to see the irony of the fact that this was a situation they were at least partially responsible for creating. This shows the absolute naivety and ineffectiveness of fan boycotts, because the media just doesn’t work like that. It is a business. It exists to make money. If Disney at any point starts to suspect that Star Wars isn’t bringing in the crowds at the box office and no longer cost-effective, they will not jump through hoops to repair the franchise – they will simply can it! Movies are very, very expensive and a studio has to have a pretty good idea that one is going to make a profit before even starting pre-production.
And so it’s back to Doctor Who, the fans of which I’ve always thought of as being quite moderate politically. The series has always had a strong gay following and breezed through the RTD era without controversy. No-one has ever seemed overly bothered about the prospect of non-white companions or even a non-white Doctor and yet the casting of Jodie Whittaker as the first female Doctor in 2017 had Doctor Who fandom in an uproar… or did it?
This is an odd one, because most fans were not that bothered by the casting of a female Doctor, but the British press these days will happily trawl through the murkiest corners of the internet to find the one misogynist twonk who has such a fragile grip on his masculinity that he is threatening to blow up the BBC if they don’t recast the Doctor with an actor of the male gender immediately! Alas, a trawl through the pages of Gallifrey Base or a similar open forum will always uncover a one of these quotable twats, whose out-of-context ramblings can be used to paint old-school Doctor Who fans as a bunch of sexist, racist wankers.
It’s odd, because it leads you to wonder how much of what I’ve talked about in this feature is exaggerated in the reporting. Were Star Trek fans really distraught at the very idea of Star Trek: The Next Generation? How many Star Wars fans actually read all the Extended Universe novels and suchlike that the new films supposedly contradicted? How many of them actually cared? I know for a fact that, although he’s been retroactively redeemed, most Doctor Who fans weren’t overawed by JN-T’s vision of Doctor Who in the later years of the Classic series – but how many of them actually bothered to write into the BBC or ring up for the ‘Day of Action’…?
Could it be that these particularly loud and obnoxious voices belong to far fewer personnel than we think? I’ve never genuinely met any-one who disliked any direction Doctor Who has taken enough to stop watching; nor any-one who was sufficiently disenfranchised by a Star Wars movie to not go and see the next one. Maybe my friends are all just particularly well-adjusted individuals, I don’t know, but these spiteful, hyper-critical know-it-alls most definitely swim in a darker, more remote pool to the one I’m used to.
I’ll tell you which Star Wars film I won’t be going to see though, and that’s the fan-made all-racist, all-sexist The Last Jedi remake… I mean, assuming it ever gets made, of which I am extremely doubtful. I mean, will somebody please tell me what the point of that is (seriou-sly, don’t tell me, because life’s too short to listen to it)? Do they actually think that anyone other than other toxic fans will take notice? Do they actually think that the high-ups in Holly-wood will look at it and say, “Oh, actually this is much better than the one made by Disney with professional writer, director, actors, music, lighting, cameraman, design, costumes and special effects on 1000 times the budget…?” C’mon, get real.
The worrying thing for old curmudgeons like me is that this is being perceived by a lot of people as a generational divide: the exciting, sexy, young millennials are excepting of change, whereas we auld bastards just complain about every-thing and refuse to accept racial and sexual equality because “it wasn’t like that in my day.” It’s simply not true, of course; we were the generations who pushed hard to get the idea of equality moving. We fought for what the milennials now consider a right. I’m not saying that we who grew up in the 50s, 60s and 70s are perfect – a lot of us are dreadful, but don’t paint us as the bad guys just because we’re an easy target, I’m sure I don’t need to point out the irony in what you’re doing there.
Toxic fans have always existed and unfortunately always will; they come from the dark-est corners of every generation. They are the lost, the disenfranchised, who’ve attached themselves to a fantasy and refuse to believe that even fantasies move with the times. In a truly enlightened society, we need to educate them, make them embrace change, but have we the time to do that before the damage they do is irreparable? It will be a long job, convincing people who don’t want to listen, but why not? We’ve done it before.