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Fan Fiction Is a Bad Television Show’s Best Friend

6 July 2017

From io9:

Recently, I was engaging in one of my favorite pastimes: rewatching TV shows I loved when I was a kid. Thanks to the various streaming websites, it’s really, really easy to relive old passions without breaking the bank on DVD sets. (My god was it expensive to watch every episode of a show back when a season cost roughly the same amount as a car… provided that the show was even one of the special chosen ones to get a DVD release.)

In this case, I decided to rewatch Highlander: The Series, which I love basically more than the any of the movies, including the first one. (Yes, really.) The show is objectively less good than that first movie. And its movies are some of the absolute worst things I have ever seen. But it still has a larger place in my heart.

I was shocked to discover that the TV show I loved is so dated that it becomes physically painful to watch. Dear the ’90s, why did every show need to use the slow-motion jittery zoom to convey a big moment? And why has it aged so badly? And how, how, had I not noticed it before?

The answer, of course, is fanfic.

I’ve read a lot more fanfic set in that world since the show went off the air then I have actually watched the show. And when I have gone back to watch the show, it’s been very specific episodes, the ones I have the fondest memories of. Trying to watch the whole thing over… didn’t work as well.

Fanfic gets a bad rap and it drives me crazy, because there are a lot of things that owe their continued fandom to it. For every long hiatus or bad season, fanfic is there to save you.

. . . .

Some shows are pretty fluffy, and it takes fanfic to explore the layers that are only hinted at onscreen. That’s the kind of fic that benefitted the old blue sky USA Network shows. Some shows have premises that allow fans to let loose with creativity, like Doctor Who, where all of time and space is a possibility. And when you have a show with a hiatus as long as Doctor Who’s, it’s nice to have fanfic to keep telling stories in that universe. There’s also something about the written word—it ages a lot less than the effects or the camera shots of the original.

In these circumstances, the quality of the fic can outstrip the quality of the show. That is a good thing; it means that the show is inspiring, and that people care enough about the characters to want to tell stories.

Link to the rest at i09

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23 Comments to “Fan Fiction Is a Bad Television Show’s Best Friend”

  1. I totally agree with that article. One of the delightful things about fanfic is how it brings amazing new life to a show/book/series that wasn’t actually all that good but had kernels of greatness. I’ve learned, through reading and writing fanfic, that the better the source material is, the harder it is to write good fanfic and the less I personally feel inspired to write/read fanfic. For example, Tolkien fanfic is so much harder (and generally more pointless) than Twilight fanfic. There has to be something to love in that source material, but there has to be room for the fanfic author to spread out and improve the work, to make it their own. And usually the reason fanfic readers want to read is because there’s some desire they had that was left unfulfilled by the original work.

    Harry Potter is a prime example of this. Obviously there’s a lot to love about HP, and it’s a huge world with lots of characters to explore, and even different time periods (Harry’s, Harry’s parents’, and Harry’s kids’ especially). And yet there’s a huge amount of stuff to *not* love about HP, lots of places to expand and improve and “fix”. It’s pretty much the perfect environment for a lively fanfic community, so HP fanfic thrives.

    Highlander’s definitely a good one for fanfic though, yeah, especially since it crosses over so well with pretty much any other story. You can just go “X but so-and-so is an Immortal”. Funny thing about that: there’s this indie book I read recently which is so incredibly obviously a Highlander fanfic with basically just the names changed (not even all of them, just most of them) and a little bit of the lore cleaned up (Highlander lore doesn’t make the most sense) that I was honestly shocked she was even allowed to publish it and didn’t get some copyright infringement notice.

  2. And why has it aged so badly? And how, how, had I not noticed it before?

    I thought the same thing about the 80’s version of “Voltron.” I figured the answer was that I was a kid the first time around 🙂 I tried watching it again a few years ago, and I couldn’t go past the opening: The leaders of the good planets? Are you kidding me?

    I don’t normally read fanfic unless it’s licensed fanfic, like the Star Trek novels. I just don’t want to get invested if something isn’t canonical.

    But when the third non-existent prequal to Star Wars was coming out, some blogger did a fanfic of Darth Vader that was truly awesome. It had depth, which made me wistful, because the prequals did not match that depth or quality.

    So, that’s the other reason I avoid [unlicensed] fanfic: if it’s better than the source material, I would just hate the source material that much more. Instead I would just wish the fanfic writer would direct their awesomeness to something worthy of it, like their own material. Or, alternative, the fanfic writer ascends to become an official writer for their chosen universe. They get paid and the audience gets a treat.

    But there is something very cool about fans loving a story world or character so much that they don’t want the adventures to end. I suppose you could use that as a unit of measurement for how successful you are as a writer 😉

    • The problem with licensed fanfic (and it can certainly be enjoyable) is that the writers are under strict constraints as to what they can and can’t do, so much so that it really hampers creativity. Fanficcers DGAF, so the variety of stories is vast. Which does turn out a lot of crap and a lot of WTF-ery, but also turns out a respectable amount of really amazing, thought-provoking, engaging material.

      Sort of like indie publishing.

      • I agree about the licensed fanfic. I’ve read books based on one of my favorite television shows in the early 90s that just didn’t stack up to fanfiction from the same show. Fanfic can push the limits of characters in ways that the original material might not be able to–for example, a show airing on network television, especially prior to the last 5 years or so, had limits imposed by the networks. And they still have limits but I think they are bending them quite a bit to compete with Netflix, Hulu, etc.

        • Oh! I think you’re right about the limitations of licensed fanfic. But I just an epiphany, because it occurs to me that what you all are getting out of the fanfic is what I would get out of those blogs that recap the shows I’m watching.

          I enjoyed “Lost” mainly because of the show’s recaps on a site called Film Fodder. I liked how the recapper (if that’s a word) delved into mythology and what certain symbols meant. His commentators would develop scenarios for the implications of the symbols, and what they meant for the characters and the plot. Half the fun was seeing if “fan theories” were correct.

          Hmm. I may have to take a second look at fanfic. I did not see those possibilities in it before, and I think it’s because of the limitations of the licensed franchises, as you pointed out. I’ll just stick with the fanfic of the good shows 🙂

  3. What Shawna said, about fanfic actually improving on the canon, and building the fandom.

    Back when Stargate: Atlantis came out, I was visiting my mom. She was an SG1 fan, and wanted to watch the new series. I’d enjoyed the original Stargate movie, but had only seen a few episodes of the TV series. Okay, we watched the first couple of episodes of SGA together.


    We agreed that they were okay, not great. The characters were okay, but there was no one who really grabbed us. The situation had potential, but… [shrug] We wandered away and found other things to do, other shows to watch.

    Fast forward three or four years. Some people I knew online were writing SGA fanfic, or recommending and linking to SGA fanfic. I trusted some of these folks enough to give some of the stories a try.

    Wow! This was good stuff! This was what the TV show should’ve been! I dove into the fandom and, mostly following recommendation lists, or going through the backlists of writers I’d come to like, read reams of SGA fanfic.

    Then I went back and started watching the show over, getting the DVDs from Netflix, back when that was how you did it without spending a fortune. Seen through the lens of fanfic, of the character development, the analysis and expansion of the setting and the situations the fanfic writers did, now watching the series was fun. I had enough background in my head, enough details, enough subtleties that filled out the world and the characters, that SGA became one of my favorite shows for a while.

    I never would’ve watched Blackhawk Down if I hadn’t first read an awesome fanfic series based on it.

    I never would’ve started watching NCIS or Criminal Minds if I hadn’t read fanfic of them first.

    Writers or showrunners who sneer at fanfic are frankly idiots. Fanfic is some of a writer or producer’s best promo, and fanfic writers are some of their biggest, most enthusiastically proselytizing fans.


    • “Writers or showrunners who sneer at fanfic are frankly idiots. Fanfic is some of a writer or producer’s best promo, and fanfic writers are some of their biggest, most enthusiastically proselytizing fans.”

      Definitely. I feel the same way about famous authors who send take-down notices to anyone who dares write fanfic about their characters. It’s just idiotic. Among other things, they’re actively alienating *potential* fans.

      I really enjoyed SGA. I liked it from the start, but really about half-way through the series run, it started going downhill (IMO). I’ve still got 2 or 3 fanfic ideas I’d love to write some day, mostly exploring things that could have been done in the show but weren’t or taking the story a better direction than what they went with in that second half. Prime example: I loved the character of Michael. He started out so great. Then they changed him into just another cheesy villain who the good guys killed and got to feel all good about themselves for offing. Ugh. *Such* a waste.

    • I cut my writing teeth on fanfic when I was in my 30s and we got our first computer. I had never heard of it and low and behold, one of the first things I found was a FTP site with Quantum Leap fanfiction! I was on cloud 9! It wasn’t a huge archive, but it led me to X-Files fanfiction and that was huge at the time.

      My first bit of writing I ever let another person read was a really bad Early Edition/XF crossover, but it led to someone writing to me saying they enjoyed it and offering gentle critique and an offer to beta read my next story. Fortunately for me, she was/is an amazing writer and her help was invaluable. She ended up beta reading all of my fanfic.

      • That’s funny; I think my very first fanfic I ever wrote was an X-Files/Early Edition crossover. I was in high school, I believe. I think fanfic is excellent for learning how to write stories. You don’t have to come up with all the worlds/character/story yourself (though you can add as much new stuff as you want, or just work with what’s already there), and you get immediate feedback, and fanfic readers tend to be enthusiastic and supportive.

        • Yours must have been the other one! lol

          • Haha, a lot of my early fanfic was just “let’s take this show and mash it together with this show and see what happens”. I still love crossovers, but when I do them now, I try to come up with a little more of a good plot/hook/concept beforehand.

            That reminds me of this one author who wrote a Buffy/Highlander crossover and a Firefly/Highlander crossover–both very good, reasonably lengthy, and abandoned long before they actually concluded. Which is one of the real dangers with fanfic.

            • Yep. And I have come to realize I hate reading as one is posted chapter by chapter. I’m reading a good Friday Night Lights fanfic that gets one 2k chapter every couple of weeks. It’s been ongoing since last October, I think. I wish I hadn’t found it until it was complete.

              My Early Edition mentor posted new fanfiction in Archive of Our Own that I only discovered a few years ago. It was like Christmas morning the day I found her 140k masterpiece. 🙂 I read it straight through that whole day.

            • Ah, the crossover. Most of my early fanfic stories were crossovers. My husband would challenge me to some doozies. Forever Knight/Ahh! Real Monsters and my Vegeta/Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer fusion were my favorites. Good times.

              I did learn a lot about writing through fanfic. Because I couldn’t publish it for money, I found that I was open to experiment. Among my other discoveries was that I could write humor, which I had definitely thought I could NEVER write. I would not be the writer I am today without fanfic. I still write it too. I am finishing up a Supernatural story for this year’s Dean/Cas Big Bang.

    • Angie,

      I am a fan of Stargate (the movie), Stargate SG-1, Stargate Atlantis (solely for Torri Higginson), and Stargate Universe (’cause I wanted to see what Nicholas Rush (Robert Carlyle) was going to do next). I have studied these shows and can tell you (IMO) what they did right and where they went off the rails.

      SG-1 yields the best example. The first two seasons were strong because of (drum roll) Peter Williams as Apophis. Episodes without Apophis were weak (as measured by fan polls at GateWorld); for examples, Emancipation (s01e04), Brief Candle (s01e09), and Spirits (s02e13). Episodes that featured Apophis were stronger and better rated.

      After Apophis, the writers tried villain-by-tag-team, rotating a new one in each week. DID NOT WORK.

      Then the writers tried villain-without-a-face, Anubis. DID NOT WORK.

      Finally the writers went seriously stupid and tried villain-by-faceless-committee, the Ori. DID NOT WORK.

      And in Atlantis, the producers doubled down on stupid and gave us villain-by-committee again with the Wraith. STILL DID NOT WORK.

      I will not even go into Universe.

      So what did I learn from this study?

      1. The villain makes the show. Not the hero. The villain.
      2. The villain must be handsome and male. Women need not apply.
      3. The villain must be powerful.
      4. The villain must have motives that are comprehensible to the viewer (or reader).
      5. From the POV of the hero, the villain’s acts must be evil.
      6. The villain must have a weakness, such as vanity or hubris.
      7. The villain must have a human face. Not just humanoid. Human.

      Farscape showed that rehabilitating the villain DOES NOT WORK. Once a villain, always a villain.

      • Speaking only for myself as a viewer and fan of Stargate (in a general franchise sense), I totally disagree.

        Assuming the success of a show is 100% dependent on what kind of villain they have is really shallow thinking. I’m not saying the villain isn’t important. It is. It’s just not everything or even the most important thing. Not for a franchise that’s built around a team and their interactions and relationships with each other. (And really, the villain must be male? I hope you’re being sarcastic, because that’s just moronic.)

        SG-1 was good all the way through. SGA went off the rails the moment they killed Carson. You can’t kill your most likable character for a stupid, pointless reason and expect to come back from that. The fact that they just kept killing off more main characters and replacing them made it worse. SGU was never good because the whole teamwork and friendship aspect was gone. SGU was a show full of unlikable people who hated each other and wasn’t at all fun to watch. It also had no humor, one of the primary aspects that made SG-1 and early SGA so enjoyable.

        Stargate was fun. That’s what people liked about it. Killing off main characters and losing the humor is not fun, so people stopped watching (or if they still watched, like me, they did it more in the hopes that it would get back to its previous level of quality/funness, only to be constantly disappointed).

        THAT’s where Stargate went wrong.

        • Not specifically Stargate related because I only watched that show a few times, (and only after reading some fanfiction from it first) but I’ve never been one who cares about the villian. It’s always about the hero for me.

      • Suburbanbanshee

        Stargate’s first two seasons were rough. The next three or four were excellent. After that, things started going downhill.

        Never got into SGA, never watched more than 2 eps of SGU, which was indeed a show full of unlikeable, unprofessional creeps.

  4. Some of my earliest writing was fan fiction, first after the Monkees TV series ended, then Star Trek when I was involved in fandom. Somehow the Monkees stories survived along with a scrapbook I made at around age 13. They live among my papers in the New South Wales State Library. Discovered by a researcher, they will be part of a Monkees retrospective late next year. Like many people, I wrote the stories because I loved the craziness of the show and wanted to live in that world.

  5. I’ve been writing fan fiction since 1993, after I was introduced to Starsky & Hutch (aka S/H, in the vernacular), and Star Trek (aka K/S), and took to it like a duck to water.

    There’s a special skill and creative talent that is required in fan fiction that is different than in writing original fic, such as knowing the universe that somebody else created and working with characters that are very well known by a very large audience (so it’s important to get it right!) But while these skills are specialized, there is carryover to “regular” writing, in that as you have done in fan fiction, you need to be able to set up a plot and follow through with what you’ve committed to, and, also, finish the durn thing.

    Overall, the pleasure of fan fiction is had when you can ROLL AROUND in that universe, and just have fun with it. I’ve never seen more creative and experimental writing that works on so many levels it leaves me in awe. Fan Fiction is, I must say, typically miles ahead of “real” fiction – and beats most of the stuff published by the Big 5 by a mile and a half.

    P.S. My first fan fiction was written in 1976, way before I knew what fan fiction was. I wrote a story where I won a contest to be able to take a ride on the Enterprise; my boyfriend was Checkov, of course. And, even back then, I knew Kirk and Spock were in love, as the story contained the idea that the two of them were always going off alone together.

    • K/S? Never saw it. Was purely one of those deep male friendships, like Frodo and Sam, Aubrey and Maturin, random future person and other random future person. Spock and McCoy, however, old married couple.

      • Oh, I hear you. There are so many ways to interpret every single relationship on all the shows. But I kind of like thinking of my 12 year old self who could spot a slash relationship when she saw it. : D

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