science fiction

I’ve dished out a few kickings in my time (as well as fawning praise and boring even-handed reviews) and one trend that remains is that, if you have a go at a science fiction show, the response in the comments and emails is heated and personal. Slag off a comedy show and people tend to shrug a little more, without having a hissy fit. Why is this? What makes science fiction fans so obsessive?

When I’ve said negative things about other shows, the insults are quick and surgically clean or people are willing to leave the debate at ‘I love it! I think you’ve got this one wrong!‘ However, with sci-fi, the comments tend to me more akin to ‘…and I shan’t be coming here ever again’, ‘Worst. Writer. Ever.‘ or an exercise in pedantry. Science Fiction clearly matters a lot as you can strike a nerve with almost anything.

We all know that the stereotypical sci-fi fan spends countless hours on forums discussion the continuity errors in Star Trek: The Newer Ones With The Bald Guy In or endlessly debating which Doctor Who would win in a Whovian Royal Rumble. That’s not to say that all sci-fi nuts are like that. I’m sure the majority just like to be entertained by a show with spaceships, ray-guns and time-travel and the like. However, they’re not the loudest voice.

Like no other genre, sci-fi attracts the super fans. James Moran, one of the writers on Torchwood, has been getting needless abuse from fans of the show to the point where he’s been compelled to write a response.

In an open letter, he wrote: “Here’s my position: I’m not going get into any more discussions or debates about what happened in Torchwood this week (being vague, in case people come across this and haven’t seen it). Not now, not in the future,” before continuing:

“I’ve received over a thousand messages from viewers talking about the show. The vast majority have been extremely positive. Even though many of them are upset and shocked, they have managed to express that without making it personal. So to you, I’m extremely grateful…

“…but the rest of the messages? Unacceptable. Some have been spewing insults and passive aggressive nonsense. Accusing me of deliberately trying to mislead, lie, and hurt people. Telling me I hate the fans, that I’m laughing at them, that I used them, that I’m slapping people in the face, that I’ve “killed” the show, that I’m a homophobe, that I want to turn the fanbase away and court new, “cooler” viewers, even that I’m hurting depressed people with dark storylines. Asking me to pass on vitriolic, hateful messages to people I love and respect.”

Moran is telling anyone that’ll listen that it’s just a show. They wanted to make something brave and exciting and if that didn’t work, that’s fine… tear strips off it all you want. Effectively, criticisms of the show are one thing… going in with studs showing to those behind it is something entirely different.

It’s strange that a body of TV (and film and literature) fans should be immersed to the point of obsession… especially given that one of the most used phrases from that world is: “Reality is a crutch for people who can’t handle science fiction.” Sometimes, a little sprinkling of reality wouldn’t go amiss.

So where does this compulsive fandom come from? The shows deal with big topics like war, tragedy, death, science, ideologies and nightmarish visions of a universe gone rotten. Of course, it does no harm that there’s a load of really cool spaceships and explosions too.

However, that’s not enough. Pretty much all art deals with death, war, ideas and the like. Maybe it’s because science fiction gives fans a language of their own. ‘light speed’, ‘Clarke’s First Law’, ‘parsec’, ‘astrogate’ and ‘teleport’ are all words that invariably mean a lot more to science fiction fans than anyone else. It’s their own street slang, arriving in a pocket left by missing out on street-talk in their youth? Of course, it’s a bit churlish to imply that sci-fi fans weren’t in the cool crowd at school and spent all their time huddled in small groups ignoring the ‘popular kids’, chatting about Klingons and Blake’s 7… but maybe there’s a little truth in it?

One thing that is certainly true of science fiction is that it creates whole other worlds and histories. This is something that The Wire has been lauded for, despite the fact that Star Trek has been doing it for 40-odd years.

Sci-fi television shows don’t just give you ideas, but rather, create whole other parallel universes to get lost in. It gives hardcore fanatics a place to escape, while simultaneously anchoring them into the real world with things of the human condition. Star Trek fans are often happy to tell you that the technology involved in the show is based on the science we have in our time.

Yet still, I still can’t work out what brings the obsessive behaviour. Fans are incredibly prickly and defensive in the face of criticism. Failing that, they’re the harshest critics. They fill up hours and fire off emails damning the latest project of their favourite franchise. Many seem to think they know better than the writers. We’ve seen the conventions where people argue the toss over story lines. We’ve seen people who have devoted their entire lives to making ultra ‘realistic’ outfits and equipment. We’ve seen them hoovering up every bit of merchandise they can get their hands on. Even Jar Jar Binks stuff.

For all these reasons, I still can’t pin down why people get so obsessive. Many of the traits could also be attributed to other shows. Big Brother has super fans. I’m sure Eastenders and The Sweeney has similar fans too. However, science-fiction seems to have a far greater number of these people than any other genre in television and media.

What is it that makes them care so much?

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