February 2003

Living but not Prospering in the Age of a Fan Utopia.

It is an age of plenty in America, especially if you happen to be a fan of science fiction entertainment. Everything you could possibly want, everything you may want to collect, is available (for a price, naturally…) at the stroke of a few computer keys. It is a paradise that fans of the genre in the 1970s and early 1980s could not have imagined, and one that we all have much to be grateful for. But is there a downside to the entertainment glut of the twenty-first century? Looking at some of the message boards on the Internet, one has to wonder.

In the 1970s, there were no DVD players. Hell, there were no VHS players either. This meant that Star Trek, Space: 1999, and Battlestar Galactica fans suffered at the whim of local TV stations. I remember living in New Jersey in the late 1970s and praying to the Great Bird of the Galaxy and other deities that station WPIX (out of New York) would not pre-empt the Saturday night, 6:00 pm airing of Star Trek reruns for a baseball game. Perhaps more to the point, I prayed that the station would actually air one of the episodes they hadn't shown in a while. For some reason, WPIX seemed obsessed with broadcasting "That Which Survives," a not very good third season story that aired every three weeks. As for Space: 1999 reruns, they aired at 2:00 in the morning. When VCRs came around, fans could finally tape the series, but were nonetheless at the whim of a programmer, one that seemed to prefer second season shows at the expense of the superior first season entries. As late as 1994, the Sci Fi Channel was airing heavily edited episodes of Space: 1999. Sometimes with as much as 10 minutes cut. Lousy prints, hacked up for commercials, and at bad times. Even with VCRs, the average fan's problem had not been solved.

However, fans no longer suffer these indignities. The advent of the DVD has meant that season-by-season box sets of all recent genre hits, like The X-Files, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer are available, uncut, in order, and at relatively cheap prices. Even better, older, more obscure programming such as Space: 1999, Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's UFO and the TV version of Planet of the Apes (1974) are also out there to be purchased. Best of all, these episodes are uncut, in the correct "sequence," and beautifully restored for 21st century viewing. After years of settling for programmer's inexplicable choices, hacked up editions, and VHS "fuzz," these classic programs are finally ours to own.

And let's face it, science fiction fans are collectors too. We are always in search of those Kenner Star Wars figures from the 1970s, those Mego superheroes and Planet of the Apes figures, and that Mattel Eagle One spaceship we once owned as kids. And today, lo and behold e-bay is our gateway to nostalgia and a renewed childhood. Everything we seek is there and readily available, and with a little lucky bidding and a pocket full of cash, it can be ours. After years of hunting flea markets and paying absurd prices at collectors' stores, the cherished past is ours to own and cherish once more.

The Internet has also replaced the old-fashioned fanzine. Many Star Trek and Space: 1999 fanzines from the 1970s were true labors of love, newspaper- like periodicals with fan fiction stories, interviews, articles, news on conventions, theories about favorite programs, and so on. We still have all that in 2003, but as "web pages," accessible for free at any time, via computer. Remember the old Saturday morning series Space Academy? Or Jason of Star Command? You can bet somebody else does too, and that there's a web page devoted to it, just ready to be discovered. It's really quite amazing.

All these worlds are ours to conquer and yet, fans do not seem particularly happy or satisfied, even with Internet access, e-bay, DVDs and Amazon.com. On the contrary, as a whole, fans seem more disenchanted with genre entertainment than ever before. Witness the bile and hatred that clogs many series' web pages and message boards. Witness the maniacal, hateful reviews, or "rants" as they are known, often posted on Amazon.com when a new book or product for an old series or film franchise is released.

Instead of reveling in this remarkable new access to all forms of entertainment, or the 21st century "restoration" of favorite programs and films, all many fans desire is forum to bitch and complain. Star Trek: Nemesis received a flood of utterly hateful, terrible reviews from fans when it was released at Christmas. Back in the day, (the 1970s and 1980s) fans waited for baited breath for the next installment in the film series, never quite certain if it would arrive. Every Star Trek film in the 1980s felt like the last (Wrath of Khan and The Search for Spock, particularly), and had a distinct air of finality. When the movies came at two-to-three year intervals, even if they were imperfect, fans were somewhat forgiving. They could acknowledge the good even amidst the bad (as in the case of Star Trek: The Motion Picture). But today, fans attack these movies and the Star Wars prequels on the Internet, even before they have been released theatrically. They poison the waters, as it were.

Perhaps Star Trek: Nemesis was not the best film ever made, but nor did it deserve such scorn. Maybe Attack of the Clones wasn't as good as The Empire Strikes Back, but hey, shouldn't we be a little bit grateful that these films exist? That the "adventure continues?"

Now, some people may argue that there's no point continuing a saga (Star Trek or Star Wars) if new installments "suck." Generally, I agree, but the measure of "suckitude," to speak in the lingo of the fan boy, often cannot be measured when a film is released. The Exorcist, Star Wars, John Carpenter's The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China, and Sam Raimi's Evil Dead are just a few films that were dismissed by many critics when first released. Do any of us wish that those quite valuable films had not been made? I don't think so. Even Star Trek: The Motion Picture has some merit, and ten years ago, every fan would acknowledge that. But today, the Internet has become nothing less than "complaints central," and one must wonder if the easy availability of every entertainment and collectors' item we desire is a part of the problem, part of the backlash. We no longer have to wait for a network to air our favorite movie or an episode of a TV series we like. We no longer have to suck it up and deal with "edited for television" airings. On the contrary, we receive our once-cherished entertainment almost by osmosis. When a new movie is released on DVD that we might like, we are notified immediately by Amazon.com, or some other online site. We click on "purchase," and our item arrives in the mail. We don't even have to leave the house and drive to the store to get it. There is no effort expended to receive the entertainment, and so, ultimately, it feels utterly disposable. We can dismiss it without a thought, a care, or a re-evaluation.

Now, I'm not saying that we shouldn't maintain high standards. We should. But perhaps we shouldn't dismiss every new TV series and film right off the mark, without at least weighing a variety of factors. Maybe instantaneous e-mail and posting boards only make it easy to post scathing, nasty, ill-considered reviews.

And truthfully, haven't you always wondered whether that guy who posted a one-star review of the latest Star Wars or Star Trek movie happens to own every single installment of the series, not to mention a slew of collectibles, books and magazines from the franchise? On the one hand he disses; on the other he purchases and quietly enjoys, never obligated to reveal his double standard. Maybe those reviews on Amazon.com should be accompanied by a background check, so readers at least understand from whom they are taking advice. For instance: this reviewer also loved Battlefield Earth, but hated Solaris.

Anyway, it would be nice if we all considered the impact or our words and thoughts a little more carefully before we rushed to an electronic message board to declare, for the ages, "this movie sucks." If fans do not learn to practice some restraint, at least some appearance of equal-handedness, the great gift of the Internet, this age of plenty, is only, ultimately, fan irrelevancy.

Once, a very long time ago, intrepid, hard-working fans rescued Star Trek from cancellation by a massive letter-writing campaign. On another occasion, also long ago, fans launched a campaign to have the first U.S. space shuttle christened Enterprise, after their favorite starship. Today, there remain many such worthy and noble efforts, including campaigns to save Firefly, Farscape, Witchblade and to resurrect Battlestar Galactica in a faithful, respectful way. It would be a shame if the eggheads in Tinsel Town were unable to get the message because of Internet bitching. Studio executives may feel that they can never please "those crazy fans," and give up trying all together.

It would be a travesty if the legacy of this "age of plenty" is only a diminished voice, a valuable opinion unheard. I am not anti-free speech or anti-democracy, but we should all remember that our words, misspelled or not, angry or considered, are accessible by the world, thanks to the Internet. If we shouldn't scream "fire" in a crowded theater, we should also be careful not to yell "suck" too loudly in a crowded chat room. The generation with the greatest access to remarkable new technologies and a golden age of entertainment plenty should not be the generation to transform that communication wonder, the Internet, into a giant unending gripe session.

Because that would really "suck."