By Michael W. Harris
It was around the time when Matt Smith was leaving the TARDIS in the epic three-part “The [blank] of the Doctor” episodes that I began to realize that it was sort of pointless to endlessly theorize. In those episodes, there were so many aspects and moving parts that Steven Moffat had to pay off, not to mention the longstanding issue of how many regenerations Time Lords had, plus the epic reveal of the “War Doctor,” that the creeping sensation of inevitable let down began to sink in. In the months in between “The Name…” and “The Day…” my friends and I had numerous conversations about what we thought was going on and where it was going to lead. For my own part, I injested classic episodes of Doctor Who in order to track down the sources of Whovian lore that Moffat was pulling on. And for all of the hints that he laid out in “The Name,” and for all of the awesome fan service found in “The Day,” the final installment, “The Time of the Doctor,” just sort of limped along and barely paid any of it off. A problem that was compounded by the Peter Capaldi era and its hints of some awesome meta story of how Capaldi had appeared in early parts of the Who franchise. And as I sat in the theatre watching Star Wars: The Last Jedi, it hit me: I need to relearn how to just enjoy my favorite media properties. This isn’t to say I will stop writing about and analyzing what has already come, not by a long shot. It means that I will try to stop speculating about what might come next.
For certain, this topic has been dissected nearly ad nauseam in the months since Last Jedi, but for many fans, Rian Johnson’s entry in the Star Wars cannon was confirmation of what many of us already had learned from Lost or Doctor Who: speculation is cheap, especially on the internet, and it might even be ruining our enjoyment. Such a conclusion is counterintuitive in an era of connected universes, though. Transmedia franchises invite such speculation, nay they demand it! They are built upon a foundation of uber-fans, otaku if you will allow me, and such fans eat up minutia and stray bits of canon lore like it was candy.
But if Moffat’s Doctor Who was the strain of such fandom starting to show, and J.J Abrams/Rian Johnson was the breaking point, then the intervening years were my long, protracted withdrawal from such speculation and fandoms—part of which I detailed in my FOMO post from January of this year. In many ways, the anxiety I detailed in that post was a by-product of my engagement with theorizing on media franchises. If I were to make a truly informed, cogent theory about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, then of course I would have to watch all of the associated TV shows. Just like if I was to be informed about Star Wars canon, then I would have to watch the TV shows along with reading all the books and comics.
In many ways, the reboot of the Star Wars canon was the first time I decided to let go of my obsessive need to consume aspects of a media franchise. I made the conscious choice early on to limit how many of the new books and comics I would read. And if anything has come out of Last Jedi it is a choice to simply let go of what little I did read.
But there is something deeper at work. When you become a “fan” of anything, be it sports or media, you do sort of feel an ownership of it. You are spending money and time on something and you feel like those in charge do owe you something, as irrational as that is once you step back. And it is even more irrational when you consider that the makers of this property obviously can’t make everyone happy.
As amazing as it would have been to have the “Darth Jar-Jar” fan theory confirmed and played out, let’s admit that that would have been monumentally stupid. We all wanted an R-rated cut of Snakes on a Plane and remember how well that film turned out?
What I am saying is that for many fans, myself included, our endless theorizing has led to something of a paradox. We love these franchises and stories, but our speculation of them has led to an anticipation that can never be realized and inevitably leads to disappointment. Two of my favorite YouTube creators, one of whose channel makes theorizing its bread and butter, have recently chimed in on this in the wake of the Last Jedi backlash.
But one of my favorite thought experiments on fandoms came from a recent article in Ars Technica about the recently completed first season of Star Trek Discovery. In it, he distinguishes between what he calls “realist” and “formalist” fandoms. He defines them as follows:
Formalists view all of Star Trek as arising out of one, originary text: Star Trek: The Original Series. A few of the movies might be allowed to serve as originary texts too, depending on how orthodox the fan is. All other Star Trek properties, from books and movies to TV series and games, are judged based on whether they adhere to the rules laid out in ST: TOS. Formalists want to see characters, ideas, and places from the originary text. They often appeal to an idea of “real Star Trek” in their analyses, by which they mean “any Trek narrative which stays true to the originary text of ST:TOS.
As opposed to:
Realist fans, on the other hand, like to reinvent and reinterpret the originary text. They want to apply the Trek rules to novel situations, with new kinds of characters and situations we’ve never seen before. Certainly a lot of TNG represents realist fandom, as do Deep Space Nine and Voyager. All three series took the show into the future, and reinvented a lot of the fundamental rules for the franchise. Replicators made the Federation a post-scarcity culture, and the Prime Directive became much more robust. We met radically different civilizations, our point-of-view characters became much more diverse. There were androids and shape-shifters, but also a black captain, a female captain, and a number of mixed-race or mixed-species characters.
Of course, the twist for me is that I am sort of both types of fans. I am a realist in that I enjoy TNG and DS9 immensely, but my complaint about Abrams-Trek is that it wasn’t enough like the Trek that is my personal originary text: The Next Generation. I grew up on TNG and DS9 and those are the texts against which I judge all Trek.
That being said, I think this realist vs. formalist type of fandom speaks to our debate over theorizing because, in many ways, it is the formalists who go back to the texts in order to intuit what comes next and compare the new media to in order to see how it conforms to the original and thus to their predictions. But much like Biblical literalists or Constitutional originialists, these texts are from earlier eras and cultures and are not easily adaptable, be they the product of divine inspiration, political revolution, or creative genius. And those creators are long gone and their creations are in the stead of a new generation who are also creative individuals and to force them to hew to a formalist view would be to restrain that which makes them so valuable to the property. (Feel free to replace “creative” and “property” with the proper terminology for biblical scholars and constitutional lawyers.)
What I am saying is that fans do need to take a realist view of things when it comes to speculation and theorizing. Sure, it can be fun to chat with friends on the internet or over a drink about what will happen in Episode IX or what the next season of Discovery or Doctor Who will bring, or who will die in Avengers: Infinity War, but it must be done in fun and not with a sense of one-upmanship or proving who was right or otherwise earn “nerd-cred.” It cannot become so much a part of our identity that it becomes threatened when we are inevitably wrong or let down. We must not allow ourselves to build an identity solely on knowing the intricacies of Star Wars canon or whatever your preferred property is.
As William Shatner once said in a classic 1986 SNL sketch, “It’s just a TV show.”
By all means, enjoy it, love it, have a poster of it on your wall. Continue to dress in cosplay and go to conventions. We should all have something we love and celebrate! But, do not let that love become all-encompassing and toxic. As with so many aspects of life, all things in moderation.
Which is why I have started to take a step back. I still enjoy Doctor Who and look forward to what new doctor Jodie Whittaker and showrunner Chris Chibnall have in store for us. Likewise, I am eager to see what the new Star Wars and MCU films will reveal of their universes. And I am really curious to see how Star Trek Discovery deals with the reveal of a pre-Kirk Enterprise. But, unlike previous years of speculating about the identity of Snoke, or, going back even earlier, about what we might intuit about the finales of Lost or Battlestar Galactica from the rest of the series, I am going to do my best to just sit back and enjoy.