Posts tagged fandom
I was too young to watch/remember the original V miniseries/ongoing series, but I learned the basic premise growing up as a geek. I’ll be talking about stuff that constitutes as spoilers, but not really, as ABC is foregrounding the ‘Big Sekrit!’ of the V’s identity even in the previews. Most of what I’ll talk about is the not-hard-to-find Vs = Obama reading.
The leader of the Vs is played by Morena Baccarin, a Brazillian woman whose looks are easily pushed past beauty to the edge of the uncanny valley, her mixed-ethnicity background easily positioned as ‘exotic’ from a US-American gaze. All of the Vs who are seen in the public eye would count as attractive, and even in the pilot, the Vs are leveraging attractiveness into manipulation (one sub-plot features the FBI-Agent lead’s son being attracted to a female V played by Laura “Supergirl” Vandervoort).
The Pilot episode gets all the way to the ‘Vs are actually Lizards and trying to take over the world’ stage, with Elizabeth “LOST Juliette” Mitchell and Joel “4400″ Gretsch as FBI Agent and Pastor who are witness to a V attack on a word-of-mouth group spreading word of the Vs’ real agenda.
A note — unless you go in looking for the Obama = V reading, it may be rather easy to miss/not think of it. It’s not that the show pounds you over with it. The show’s pacing is strong (stronger than the original miniseries in the equivalent section that I watched), and goes quickly to the ‘The Vs are tricking people, time to fight back!’ stage of the story, where our two adult leads will develop a resistance, with assistance from another lead — how quickly he’ll connect with the group is hard to tell. Interpersonal conflict will come from the FBI Agent’s son getting deeper in bed (literally) with the Vs and refusing to accept mom’s warnings/explanations of the V’s villainy. This is exacerbated by the fact that until the resistance can get a V corpse to show the lizard under-parts, they don’t have a very strong case.
It was great to see Alan Tudyk in the show, though I don’t think he’s listed as a full series regular. He brought a great balance of seriousness and levity to the show, remind us how awesome an actor he is (as if we needed any more reminding after “Briar Rose/Alpha” in Dollhouse.
The new version of V seems to be written and executed in a way that invites an anti-Obama reading. The rhetoric of the pilot episode includes mentions of Hope! Change! Universal Health Care! and features a charismatic leader of mixed ethnicity. There’s an interesting degree to which this version of V is a dream come true for the Fox News Opinion Show crew. Many of the most outrageous fears about Obama are made manifest in the series — The Vs come with a message of hope and change, with people flocking to them, clamoring to be saved. The Vs insinuate themselves into people’s hearts, but are secretly not who they say they are and will take over and destroy the world.
Basically, the premise reads like an unused script from the Glenn Beck show with space-lizards instead of Chairman Mao. The show’s basic premise is much as it was in the 80s series (as far as I know/have read), but it just goes to show that as times change, a story can remain more or less the same but be read very differently. It seems that the new ABC version of V is specifically written to highlight the Vs as Obama reading (the rhetoric about hope and change and universal health care),
Overall, the Pilot isn’t magnificent, but it is a solid start and I’m interested to see how this version continues and develops like or unlike the original.
Now I leave review-land and go into ‘I’m a writer-land’ — I realize that I’d be as interested or possibly more interested in a series where the aliens really were trying to improve humanity’s lot, with conflict coming from paranoia and quibbling over cultural differences/expectations between the Vs and various US cultures. Basically, if it were a script from Keith Olbermann/Rachel Maddow instead of Glenn Beck. A story that highlights the tension between a well-meaning group with technological advantage and an ambivalent community that doesn’t want to bow to cultural demands but does want those technologies. This presents a different metaphor, more analogous to western humanitarian campaigns in the 3rd world/Global South — where cultural imperialism comes part-and-parcel (intentional or unintentional) with humanitarian aid.
Sadly, this would probably not work as a TV show — it would lend itself much less to explosions and gunfights and the like.
When I first heard about Defying Gravity, I was surprised to see another space show, following the dead-in-the-water Virtuality which went from pilot to TV-movie backdoor pilot to TV-movie that everyone knew wasn’t going to become a series.
Defying Gravity had a number of similarities to Virtuality – ensemble-sized crew on multi-year mission deep into space, their efforts being made into a reality show for people back on Earth, driving off of interpersonal conflict exacerbated by the enclosed space and mission stress.
However, Defying Gravity has a far milder version of the ‘reality show’ aspect, and lacks the virtual reality material featured in Virtuality. As a result, the show is much more focused — it’s serial SF with episodic interpersonal plot — originally pitched as “Grey’s Anatomy in space” — the show released on ABC over the late summer, but was only aired for episodes before it dropped off of the schedule — ABC has stated that they they are looking for the best time to air the remaining episodes — meanwhile, the episodes have been airing elsewhere, due to the show’s status as a multi-country, multi-network production.
I hope to see the remainder of the season on television, but I have doubts about the show getting picked up. It’s likely rather expensive given the sets and FX required, and the show’s ratings were lukewarm when aired — though that’s far from unexpected from a relatively un-advertised mid-summer show with a high concept. Depending on how its ratings fare elsewhere, it’s possible that even if ABC drops its support, it might continue on.
Here’s why Defying Gravity is cool, for me: It’s probably the best new straight-up SF show (recently) on television. The show addresses advanced speculative elements (deep-space missions, plus other SF-inal spoilery things that are very intriguing). It also sustains and develops strong interpersonal drama, throws in good doses of comedy, and includes the best use of flashbacks since LOST, using a parallel structure depicting the mission crew and other personnel in the years-long training that served as the characters’ introduction to one another and informs their relationship with one another in the ‘now’ segments.
Unlike LOST, the characters are deeply interconnected with one another throughut their flashbacks, meaning that instead of revealing a ‘small world’ setting where disparate characters were more connected than they suspected, the crew of Defying Gravity are shown working through years of interpersonal relationships — it’s two stories that are one and would theoretically come together by the end of the series, when the flashbacks lead up to the start of the ‘now’ part of the show and provide (10-11) years of contiguous storyline.
Back to the title of my post: Why this show needs to not get canceled — Defying Gravity depicts a future where space exploration brings us into a larger universe, valuing both science for science’s sake; also the love of exploration. It also introduces and explains SF-inal elements unseen in television, if well established in SF literature. The SF writing world talks about how film/TV is two decades behind prose. The ideas get investigated in prose, and go from brilliant innovation to discussed and debated trope, and once well known enough, if the materials that lead into the trope are established in the popular imagination, then it can reach a broad audience to be digested. Shows like LOST took several years to build up to and introduce SF elements, and Fringe is popularizing parallel/alternate universe theory. Dollhouse is a possibly-too-complex-for-tv meditation on the possibilities of interfacing with and modifying memories through technology.
It’s all well and good for the SF community to investigate ideas and develop discussion, but it’s a small world, and for those ideas to reach the majority of the populace, either you need a massively popular novel on the level of Stephen King or Dan Brown, or you probably need to make a movie/TV show. And if shows that further the collective understanding of the culture-shaping ideas that SF produces keep getting canceled, it serves as a barrier to that dissemination of ideas.
For these reasons and because I think it’s engaging on an interpersonal level with strong performances by a fairly-ethnically diverse cast, I would really like Defying Gravity to continue long enough to tell its story, to convey its speculation about a possible future.
Look, more arguing about SF television! This time, however, I’m talking about an essay by noted Science Fiction author Charles Stross. I was first exposed to his work through several of the short fiction pieces later collected in the volume Accelerando. Much of Stross’s work emerges deeply from the socio-political context of the setting, with notable worldbuilding put into the setting. I agree with much of what Stross has to say, but my ideas contrast enough to mention.
I’m hoping that you’ve already read the essay before coming back here.
Stross primarily takes objection to the story-making process. For Stross, space operas such as the Star Trek franchise after the original series or Babylon 5 follow this process (paraphrased here through my interpretation):
Start with the interpersonal drama that forms the narrative’s center, then build a world around those characters that fills out the setting and enables the primary conflict.
The process positioned as Stross’s favorite is as such:
“I start by trying to draw a cognitive map of a culture, and then establish a handful of characters who are products of (and producers of) that culture. The culture in question differs from our own: there will be knowledge or techniques or tools that we don’t have, and these have social effects and the social effects have second order effects [...] And then I have to work with characters who arise naturally from this culture and take this stuff for granted, and try and think myself inside their heads. Then I start looking for a source of conflict, and work out what cognitive or technological tools my protagonists will likely turn to to deal with it.”
So here’s the thing — I think both of these processes are valid. One creates a setting designed to highlight the way that cultural/technological difference creates different social systems and different people who then have conflicts that emerge from those social contexts. The other creates stories where technological/social context is designed to support the overall character conflict.
Part of why I’m fine with both of these processes is that it’s hard to say ‘interpersonal conflict isn’t important. All of the worldbuilding ever doesn’t matter if you don’t care about the characters.
Now since I’ve read Stross’ work I know that he’s competent and can follow the process he supports and succeed at telling compelling stories. But I’m also a notable fan of Babylon 5, the new Battlestar Galactica, and Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Coming back to the point: I agree with Stross that if you tell stories where the setting is interchangeable, the dramatic weight of the story can’t hang on that flimsy interchangeable setting. For me, the important part of Star Wars isn’t lightsabers and death stars, it’s a story about family, temptation, and power. And it’s hard to ignore universal themes.
However, the kind of SF that Stross is talking about as growing out of social situation, the sociological SF, is invaluable in its own right. There are many ways of telling stories — some are formulaic and exist only to support the status quo for all its complexity, mixing in ambition and misogyny, institutionalized racism but also love and family. Others challenge specific aspects of society, or imagine an entirely fabricated society to point out the implications of scientific/social change. I’d rather tell and support stories that encourage social justice and a curiosity about possibility, for sure, but it’s often hard to get those stories supported/published and to find a balance between getting people to listen to your point of view and preaching/provoking/condescending.
I agree with Stross on the generalities of the argument, but take objection to some of his examples. I agree with the the mention that the time-frame of television is so limited as to leave precious little room for world building and still be able to present the dramatic arcs. It’s one of the challenges of the form, but doesn’t discount that medium from being valid for sociological SF.
Now for the details. Let’s start with Battlestar Galactica — much of Battlestar Galactica emerges from its setting, which features a race of sentient beings who can love, hate, show remorse and every other emotion but happen to be synthetically created, grown, and moreover, grown in one of 12/11 models of identical bodies. Battlestar didn’t focus as much on those types of dramatic questions as some might have liked (myself included), didn’t spend all its time talking about Cylon/human relations or the dramatic play that comes from the survivors of an apocalypse shuffled into a couple dozen starships with all traditional kinship ripped to shreds. But those situations were present and did indicate the type of characters who emerged from that setting, and influenced the ways that the interpersonal drama unfolded. It certainly won’t stop me from wanting to do my ‘Anthropologists! In! Space!’ novel which is inspired greatly by BSG but wants to put that sociological focus in the forefront. Things that piss us off or we think are done sloppily/imperfectly can be just as much an inspiration as things done well (often more).
More examples. Babylon 5 is deeply interpersonal, but I disagree that it follows the ‘tech the tech so that the tech over-techs’ solutions that Ron Moore discussed at the NY television festival. For me, the dramatic thrust of Babylon 5 focused on bridging boundaries between cultures with contrasting ideologies, the challenges of being both a member of a species/culture and trying to act as a neutral host enabling diplomacy. I feel like very few of its stories were resolved with handwavium, and even if the interpersonal drama was foregrounded, those characters emerged out of their science fictional worlds — psychics taken away from their families, leaders driven to bend/break the rules of engagement to defend the people under their command (during a war with aliens that started as a result of a cultural misunderstanding), and more.
Star Trek: The Next Generation is certainly guilty of ‘Tech the tech-tech and reverse the other tech,’ as deus ex machina for many conflicts. But it also served as my introduction to sociological sf, cultural relativism, and many of the tropes of science fiction which have kept me a fan of the genre and made me appreciate all that it can do. When the crew crashes up against the Prime Directive, trying to find the balance between spreading their favored paradigm and dictating how other people should live their lives, that for me is part of what makes science fiction worthwhile.
I don’t think all science fiction needs to be intensely sociological. I appreciate my Star Wars and my LOST and the like. I can enjoy those shows and still appreciate The Demolished Man, Parable of the Sower, and other sociological SF stories. Maybe TV isn’t the ideal medium for sociological SF requiring intense worldbuilding, but it may be the medium for introducing people to science fictional elements like multiple dimensions or time travel or genetic modification, which then hopefully prepares viewers/readers for reading the more high-context novels/stories/films/etc.
To come back to agreement, I’m with Stross in noting that SF television has a big challenge in that it has to satisfy the executives who have a final call on whether shows air/continue. I’m not saying that I know more about what makes good tv than any given network executive — I haven’t been a network exec and I’m not likely to ever be one. But I would say this to those executives:
You want to make money — one of the ways you may be able to do that is to find auteurs/production companies who have a great deal of cultural/economic cache, and then let them make the shows that they want to make. Fans are likely to follow them, and the kind of fans that follow those prominent auteurs/teams are evangelical, and will spread their enthusiasm over into other groups. Groundbreaking, provocative television gets a lot of attention. Shows like Mad Men, the Sopranos, and more. Without taking big risks, you cut yourselves off from big rewards.
One of the major problems with the perspective of writers/audiences vs the perspective of executives is that the priorities are completely different. I want to eat, sure, but as a writer, I want the chance to make statements and incite conversations about possibility, society, and individuals. And it may be that the executives of NBC, FOX, CBS, ABC and everyone else just don’t care about changing the world, or changing people’s minds’ (other than changing their mind about which tv show to watch and which products from advertisers to buy). And that’s a systemic problem of the consumer storytelling industry, and deserving of its own blog posts. Lots of them.
Variety.com and i09.com are reporting that FOX has renewed Whedon’s Dollhouse for a second season (information points at another 13-episode season order, and staying on the Friday timeslot).
This means that Whedon’s declaration about swearing off television in exchange for doing internet-based work will probably wait for a little while longer, though Joss has been known to have more than a few projects at any one time.
Execs apparently enjoyed the last couple of episodes (as I did), and were convinced by strong DVR/TiVo numbers and the unaired “Epitaph One” as proof that the show could run on a smaller budget.
No word on Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, its Friday night mate. While Dollhouse can run on a smaller budget, Terminator requires CGI/elaborate makeup cyborgs, and may not fare as well, despite/because of its willingness to break format/formula and experiment with structure.
On March 31st, 10 years ago, a film called The Matrix hit movie theatres and took the film industry/pop culture world by storm. It lead to copy-cats in content, style, and in technology (The Matrix‘s ‘Bullet-cam’ became the ‘effect to do’ for the first several years of the 21st century in action movies)
It was lauded for its originality, but really, it was a combination of a plethora of influences and cultural properties which helped/help define a generation (Gen X, as the creators, Andy and Larry Wachowski). It was Hong Kong cinema made in the US, it was a live-action anime, it was pop-philosophy and comparative religion, it was cyberpunk and a blockbuster film all rolled up into one.
It also launched one of the more successful transmedia properties of the last decade, as indicated by its use as an example in Henry Jenkins’ Convergence Culture chapter “Searching for the Origami Unicorn: The Matrix and Transmedia Storytelling)” (Jenkins 2006).
The Matrix universe has grown from one cultural work to include three films, a collection of animated shorts (The Animatrix), several video games (Enter The Matrix, The Matrix: The Path of Neo), including a MMO (The Matrix Online), comic books (The Matrix Comics), and a variety of merchandising tie-ins.
As Jenkins says,
The Wachowski Bros. played the transmedia game very well, putting out the original film to stimulate interest, offering up a few Web comics to sustain the hard-core fan’s hunger for more information, launching the anime in anticipation of the second film, releasing the video game alongside it to surf the publicity, bringing the whole cycle to conclusion with The Matrix Revolutions, then turning the whole mythology over to the players of the massively multiplayer online game. Each step along the way built on what has come before, while offering new points of entry. (Jenkins, 2006).
In the hands of fans
An intrinsic part of successful transmedia storytelling is the creation of a setting that is generative of many stories. The premise of the Matrix allows for a nearly limitless number of stories to be told in a number of genres (A Detective Story is much more in line with the look and feel of Film Noir, whereas “Program” is steeped in samurai action (Chanbara). Since the Matrix itself is a programmed shared universe, it can be modified to fit different desires and perspectives. Why is it that Detective’s Ash world looked so different than Neo’s world? It’s not difficult to read in the possibility that there are/were a number of servers, with different settings (a noir world, a cyberpunk world, etc.) But even without having to fill in the gaps of the setting by making these readings, there are many different places for a number of stories. This allows for fan creativity to enter into the picture, another essential part of a vibrant transmedia property.
The Wachowskis/WB can lay out the official path of transmedia cultural flow between games and films and comics, but if transmedia storytelling universes are maps, there is space beside the roads and outside the buildings in addition to those official pathways and locations. There is always room for fan-fiction, other games, fan art, vidding, and much more.
I remember playing a home-brewed Matrix table-top roleplaying game the summer of 1999, a game designed by friends so that we could tap into the awesomeness of the Matrix setting, even drawn in as limited a fashion as it was when the only data point was the original film. The mythology/setting of the Matrix had proven compelling enough to lead us to make our own ways to interact with the Matrix universe on our own terms, when not provided with an official outlet. A smart transmedia author/creator will encourage this informal/unofficial play/interaction, as it inevitably leads fans/customers back to the official parts, the ones that convert into sales.
Benefits of the transmedia approach
Unofficial transmedia play is free advertising. It keeps fans thinking about the property and shows/develops their level of involvement and investment. The more you play in the world of the matrix, the more it can matter, and so the more you will continue to play, and the more you will reach out to others to join you.
The Matrix universe was far from the first transmedia storytelling venture. George Lucas’ Star Wars had become comics, video games, action figures, trivia games, board games, memorabilia and more decades before The Matrix. However, The Wachowskis & Co. did utilize new media technologies and digital cultural socialization to further its popularity with a strong online presence. The Matrix Comics were first shared online, and preview videos of the Animatrix were available exclusively on the web before the DVD release.
A transmedia approach also allows a cultural property to become a franchise, with film, television, comics, video games, and other media to be tied in, allowing a tv show to reach out to video gamers and to comics readers, building its fan base with every new node in the transmedia map.
Other properties since have followed the transmedia model, but we can remember The Matrix property as one of the most commercially successful examples in recent memory. While opinions on the 2nd and 3rd films vary wildly, it is hard to deny the economic success and cultural impact of the Matrix property, and much of that is due to a transmedia storytelling and marketing approach.
Once upon a time, there was a show called Firefly. It had fan-favorite Joss Whedon at the helm and a distinct view of the future, a western-flavored future that wasn’t about the people in the shiny organized space ships. Instead, it focused on the people on the edge, misfits and outcasts.
It was plagued from nearly the beginning by interference from executives, and was canceled in less than a season.
But the fans were not done with the world of Firefly, nor were those involved in its creation.
Done the Impossible is a documentary that tells the story of the Firefly/Serenity-verse, through the lens of fans of the ‘verse. The documentary is not for the unitiated, instead, it is itself a work of fandom, a gift from a team of Firefly fans (Browncoats) to the community. With narrations from fans, cast & crew, Done the Impossible talks about the show, the time between Firefly and Serenity, and then the arrival of the film.
In years past, I’d thought that a combined ethnographic/cultural studies analysis of Browncoats would make a good book-lenth project. I still do, as Done the Impossible has not already done that work. I’m not very involved with Firefly fandom myself — I watched the series the first time around and told my friends, then sent my DVD set to make its way throughout my friends groups. But I did not partake in much if any of the intense and highly active grassroots campaigning and guerilla marketing that is discussed in the film. In this case, I would have the positionality of being one of ‘the Browncoats’ without being as much of an insider as with other groups.
Firefly fandom is intriguing in that we can look at it and confidently say that it was the fans’ efforts which led to the creation of Serenity. Creator Joss Whedon repeated a line from the series at the first of the Serenity early screenings:
“We have done the impossible, and that makes us mighty.”
The line is the source of the documentary’s title, and has become a rallying cry for Browncoats, a reminder of the power of guerilla marketing and grassroots fan activity.
There have been ‘Save my favorite show’ campaigns before, but while the Browncoats’ efforts didn’t bring back the show on TV, since its cancellation, Firefly has had two comic series, a tabletop role-playing game line, a major motion picture, and continues to have a strong and active fan-base. Browncoats continue to host ‘shindigs’ and other events, sharing their passion of a show that like its namesake, shone brightly, went dim, and then shone again just as briefly.
Don’t look to Done the Impossible for an introduction to Firefly, or even as an ethnographic work explicating fandom in general. It is a specialized work done from within a fan community for that fan community. If you’re already one of the flock, then pull out your Browncoat, pour some Mudder’s Milk, and join in the geek-fest.
Another, post-review note, about positionality: There are many ways to be a fan within a community, different degrees of engagement. To use Firefly as an example — there are people who watched Firefly and liked it. There are people who consider themselves fans, but don’t necessarily identify with the Browncoat movement. Then there are any number of different levels and types of involvement within the Browncoats, from fan-fiction to convention organizing to costuming to fan art to role-playing games to podcasting to guerilla marketing and more. These people are all members of the fan community to different degrees. There are a lot of ways to be a fan, within one fandom and across many fandoms. This becomes readily evident at any general convention, where fans move between groups to share their passion for shows, games, films, comics, and more.
For a fan-scholar, you’re never going to be as into everything as the people you interview/work with. I may be able to speak most of the dialects of geek (video gamer, comics geek, anime otaku, role-player), but in any given situation, I can’t assume I know more about a fandom than anyone I’m talking to. They get to exercise mastery of knowledge as a result of their involvement, and in turn, I exercise my status as a scholar and serve to represent fans to members of another community, that of the scholars (who may or may not be fans). Scholarship in fan studies has always been in an interesting state, given that there are well-established and vibrant fan scholars who may not have the same academic credentials but do similar work.
Questions of power, authority, agency and positionality are never far from any ethnographic study, even moreso in fan studies and media studies. Scholars are accountable to the public and should always be aware of their cultural power — even though we are a part of the panopticon like everyone else.