Fandom is a cult of suspension of disbelief. It is the adult term for what is, at its heart make-belief. Fandom often fixates on making belief, or more appropriately, reinforcing it, than it does to simply appreciate the story and the characters. The nature of discussions of online communities tend to fixate on continuity errors in a way that is not unlike religious apologists trying to reconcile inconsistencies in the Bible. It’s odd at times that fans can build an encyclopedic knowledge of the behind the scenes aspects of their favorite property and other times go on a tear about how it might be possible for Greedo to miss Han at point-blank range or that Khan could have recognized Checkov in Star Trek II even though the character hadn’t yet appeared in the show.
There’s a certain comfort that comes from being immersed in a consistent alternate reality. Just as Neo discovering that “there is no spoon”, there’s a friction that comes in fandom when the rough-edges of the fictional world comes into view. It could be a dodgy special effect, inconsistent terminology, or a sci-fi property becoming old and out-of-sync with the actual flow of history and technology. As the veil is pierced, fans resist, sometimes freakishly so.
Part of this urge to reinforce or bandage their suspension of disbelief comes in a host of ancillary material, some of it officially licensed, but much of it, especially these days, made by fans themselves.
The feature image for this article is a poster I bought at a Star Trek convention back in the early 80s. I eventually had it framed and it sat on my wall as a teenager and I still have it around today. I remember well analyzing all of the little nooks and crannies. The more I studied it, the more the Star Trek universe felt real.
If technical cutaways are crack for sci-fi fans, maps are for the fantasy fan. Back in the 80s I was also into Lord of the Rings and the definitive maps were created not by Tolkien but by Karen Wynn Fonstad in her Atlas of Middle Earth.
A big aspect of this ancillary material is the effort on the part of the authors to step back and make all the pieces fit together. Note that even Tolkien, despite his best efforts, could not avoid inconsistencies in his works. Films and TV shows fare much worse because they are the product of so many people, oftentimes with long-running properties, over many years or even decades. Showbiz professionals tend to have a clinical detachment about these flaws in immersion. After all, it’s a craft or trade as much as an art. Nobody knows more about the ever shifting nature of creative expression. Even an auteur can change his or her mind in mid-stream. Fans, on the other hand, are far less tolerant. No matter how aware they may be at an intellectual level to the vagaries of the entertainment industry and the randomness of the creative process, they struggle to simply accept them, as it detracts from the escapist thrill of their immersion.
For instance, Here’s an article on IO9 featuring various robot cutaways. It’s difficult to think of, for instance, C3P0’s insides without knowing that it’s Anthony Daniels inside, not a bunch of android hardware.
As adult fans we feel the same way about C3P0, Robocop, or Mechagodzilla as we once did about mall Santas and Easter Bunnies. We know the truth, and yet we don’t want to know. We’d rather play along with it.
As someone who is so in-tune with what happens behind the scenes, while I appreciate this need by fans to tie things in a bow, I do get a little frustrated at the lengths that fans often go through to make excuses for things that are, at its core, simply mistakes in the creative process. In some cases the creators attempt to shore things up themselves. This is known as retcon, standing for retroactive-continuity. Obi-Wan’s explanation that Vader killed Luke’s father was true “from a certain point of view” is the perfect example of that. But entire films have been devoted to undoing a prior film’s creative choice, but trying to present it as if the story was meant to go there all along. This is usually due to the need to keep the cash-cow producing. Star Trek III’s handling of Spock’s resurrection is a prime example.
So fandom is in large part about fans getting together and attempting to solve problems that really have no true solution. The creativity comes in attempting to rationalize them in various ways. It is in and of itself a creative act, although if you wanted to look at it in a darker way, it could be compared to the lengths that conspiracy theorists keep spinning deeper and deeper threads to prevent themselves from abandoning their belief-systems as more and more debunking evidence comes to light.
This is the clear distinction between make-believe and just belief. Make believe is where the making of the belief is the fun. Belief is when the awareness of having made it dissolves away.
Inbetween these two extremes is the gray area of super-fans and its dual-edged sword by virtue of how they never allow performers to ever escape these cherished worlds.
In the end, it’s healthy to step away and “kiss a girl”, as Shatner urged.