Monthly Archives: July 2011

Science Fiction Fandom: A Look at the “Why”

by Nick Barks

Every other Saturday night in a rural Missouri town, a diverse group of people gathers in the storefront of End of the Universe Comics. They assemble to watch movies and discuss their favorite stories, with texts that translate across several mediums: comic book, novel, film, and television, to name a few. Age, economic status, and education don’t matter here. Everyone is equal. What brings them together is the love of stories that stretch the fabric of our reality as thin as possible. They love science fiction. Science fiction and fantasy fans are not like any other type of genre fan; the love of this entertainment can quickly turn into a lifestyle molded by the genre, or even specific texts. The question can be asked, though, why does this audience develop such a rabid appetite and devotion? This can happen because science fiction fandom fulfills specific psychological needs. Firstly, devotion is cultivated from a young age as a result of exposure to the genre in childhood. By continuing to follow the genre as one grows older, a person continues those positive experiences into adulthood. Interest also perseveres due to a high level of identification with fan groups, satisfying social needs by developing a healthy social identity. Furthermore, giving oneself over to fantastical texts and imaginations can let us play with ‘realities’, which allows for a level of escapism not readily found within other genres.

Continuation of Childhood Experiences

As Sigmund Freud claims, the associations we make with things early in our childhood (including, but not limited to, our parental influences) affect us in our later years and throughout our lives (Weinert 196). Keeping this in mind, many children’s television shows are science fiction or fantasy oriented. A simple scan through the past and present offerings of major children’s television producers will show that there are an ample number of science fiction and fantasy programs available for kids to watch (List of Children’s Television Shows by Country).

To understand why we are motivated by our early experiences, one must be familiar with Sigmund Freud’s Psychoanalytic Theory. Psychoanalytic Theory refers to the attempt to understand the causes and reasoning behind human motivations and personality development. Freud initiated this realm of thought in the early 1900s with the release of a book entitled A General Introduction of Psychoanalysis.

Freud contends that our wants, actions, and personalities as our adult selves are born out of the experiences and relationships we have in our early lives, and much of the basis of Freud’s theory is built on parent-child relationships, and emphasizes (though some say over emphasizes) pre-pubescent sexual development as a major causative agent in the creation of an individual’s personality (NewSchool.edu 4).

Either way, there is quite a bit to be said on this topic, so let’s specialize. The important players here are the Id and the Ego. Freud believed that the Id, the most instinctual level of our mind, supremely governs our wants and actions, but has no organization and can be called “…a powerful, seething cauldron of desire” (Sommers-Flanagan 40). It operates on a drive known as the Pleasure Principle, basically a drive that demands anything and everything that brings one pleasure, or helps to avoid pain. We are unconscious of this force. The Ego, however, is a construct within the human mind that develops when the Id comes in contact with reality, and “the Ego has potent resources of its own. Specifically, ego functions include memory, problem-solving ability, and rational or logical thought processes” (Sommers-Flanagan 40). As the Ego is the part of the psyche that attempts to realistically satisfy the Id’s urge to avoid pain or bring pleasure, it could possibly be the force that is driving the viewer back to that ‘happy place’, translating the id’s urges into an action.

Sure, many children’s television shows may have these themes, but how does that impact future viewing choices? Did adults who enjoy science fiction really watch these types of shows as a kid? I took this question to the streets…or at least to a local group of science fiction and anime fans, with ages ranging from ten to fifty-five. The general consensus is that they all had contact with science fiction at a young age.

Robert McDonald, a forty-six year old cognitive therapist and pastor, was present at the End Of the Universe meet up and discussed his early connections to science fiction with the group:

“Star Wars holds a real special place for me, because it framed almost all of my adolescence. The first movie was released when I was in junior high. When I went from junior high into high school the second movie was released, and the last movie was released when I graduated from high school. It framed my seven through twelfth grade years perfectly” (McDonald).

Then, from out of a corner of the room, a ten-year-old girl named Riana piped up with the comment, “I still like Star Trek better!”

Though maybe not as big of a force in prior generations as it is now, television and media consumption is a factor to consider when studying or analyzing patterns in childhood development. Though I have many issues with the specifics in Freudian theory, I believe the general ideas behind his claims are valid.

Using Freud’s understanding of the Id and Ego relationship, it stands to reason that positive experiences with science fiction at a young age not only holds the potential to make someone more accepting of its sometimes-difficult subject matter, but it can also create an emotional connection that lasts into adulthood, allowing a young audience member to effectively make the jump from consuming children’s entertainment to more adult-oriented fare.

Fandom and Social Identity

Within the world of science fiction and fantasy consumption, fandom reigns supreme. The shared connection between people over this genre can create an even deeper, insatiable hunger for more content to connect around. Many people consciously identify with the fan groups they are members of. In 2002, a poll of science fiction conventioneers was conducted and published by the Journal of Community Psychology. The study shows respondents as connected to one another through many factors that created their Psychological Sense of Community (PSOC), and one of those items was called ‘Shared Emotional Connection’, or “…collective memories…in which the community shapes in common experiences that represent the community’s values and traditions” (Obst 90). This conscious identification helps to create a person’s adult identity.

The psychological importance of belonging to a social group is described in Henri Tajfel’s Social Identity Theory, introduced in 1959 as a part of the study Quantitative Judgment in Social Perception. This theory attempts to explain why we find it so important to identify with, and behave as part of social groups. First of all, the theory hypothesizes that we organize our social stimuli into categories,

and those categories are based on the similarities and differences we see between others and ourselves. In fact, Freud (yes, going back to Freud!) states in his book Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, “Identification is known to psycho-analysis as the earliest expression of an emotional tie with another person” (105).

On the same token, identification is also an expression of recognizing your distinct ‘otherness’ from the people around you, so that one’s identity as an individual is reliant on one’s identity in a social context. Basically, there is no ‘other’ without exposure to said ‘other’. Jan Stets and Peter Burke put it very plainly in Identity Theory and Social Identity Theory:

In identity theory, self-categorization is equally relevant to the formation of one’s identity, in which categorization depends upon a named and classified world…In Social Identity Theory, a social identity is a person’s knowledge that he or she belongs to a social category or group (225).

What this means is a group by its very nature has a level of exclusivity to it. That delineation of in-group vs. out-group is where we find our social identity, the in-group representing those who are similar to us, and the out-group representing those who are different from us. These similarities and differences can be based in many things, but a shared meaning of some sort must connect us (Davis 127). This brings us full circle to the discussion of PSOC and shared emotional connection.

For science fiction and fantasy fans, many of those shared meanings, memories, and emotional connections are based in the texts the fandom communities center around. To continue to create new memories, and thus connections, there must be more and more content. This content doesn’t necessarily need to be from the original content creators, though. There are thriving communities that expand, retool, and create within the mythos they ascribe to, whether by writing fan-fiction or creating other works of art. In her book, Enterprising Women, Camille Bacon-Smith analyzes a women’s ‘fanzine’ community; a group of people dedicated to publishing other’s fic-fiction works in an underground print format.

Thousands of women have written or created visual art about their favorite media characters. The movement has no head, no center, no focus at which to strike. It has an almost limitless supply of ingenuity and a capacity to maintain a secrecy that again can only be compared to the poetry movement in Russia (Bacon-Smith 5).

There is a thriving community around many popular texts, and without this constant stream of ‘newness’, any community would stagnate and eventually die.

But it is not dying! Fandom and fan activity is ever expanding in our current age. Part of this expansion is due to the newly discovered marketing utility of fans. It is important to note that many television and film studios work very hard to understand fan groups for monetary gain, and the content creator’s interaction with the audience can create an even more solidified Psychological Sense of Community and help ensure the continuation of the fan activity (Murray). As the Internet continues to break down age-old barriers of geographic location, and thus time, it is now almost expected for science fiction and fantasy content creators to be in regular contact with fan groups, as Joanne Morreale describes in her article Lost, The Prisoner, and the End of the Story. This industry input endorses fandom activity, and as a result can grow the community even more, which benefits the creators of the text and the group as a whole.

Escapist Entertainment

“[Science fiction fans are] made up of dreamers…We live in a world that is micro-examined and relatively stoic, and your life might be, ‘Do you want fries with that?’ but for a few hours each night you can live in whatever world you want to” (McDonald).

Science fiction and fantasy tales can take us beyond the stars, into times past, and times yet to come. A major component of this genre is the emphasis on a new and curious world, where a newcomer is usually thrown into an alienating and strange new place with a task at hand. As Robert McDonald so eloquently put it, our lives can be routine and boring…and some people may not be satisfied in their current reality, or they could be disturbed by it and just need to take a ‘vacation’ of sorts into a brave, new world.

‘In down times, escapism is more important and necessary than ever,’ says Diana Gill, executive editor of the Eos imprint at HarperCollins, ‘and genre sales reflect that. We saw this after 9/11, and it continues to be true now.’…Seale Ballenger, group publicity director for Eos, concurs: ‘We are seeing the trend toward escapism across the board in all areas of publishing right now due to the faltering economy people really want to focus on something other than the nonstop woes of the world.  The escapist nature of SF and fantasy gives readers a doorway into a world very different from their own’ (Publisher’s Weekly).

Even at it’s worst; science fiction transports us to other worlds, letting us experience situations we can never find ourselves in. “But at their best, these are stories that liberate the mind, which of course is what escapism is all about” (Jones).

Conclusion

So, what does this all mean? At the end of the day, these topics may never be fully understood. This discussion is simply speculation on based on theories, which, honestly, are speculations in themselves. Either way, it is hard to deny the impact that science fiction fandom has had all over the world. More than anything, it is important to understand that we are all searching or have searched for something to define ourselves by, and as content creators, our audiences have a deep capacity for loving our texts. Freudian theory may be highly controversial in its purest form, but it can certainly be used as a roadmap to find satisfying answers about why people make the choices they do. Social Identity Theory, in all its complexities, offers great insight into our need to connect socially. Science fiction and fantasy is just one more avenue for people to connect, and that is a great thing. So, turn on your favorite episode of Star Trek and join a community of millions who, just like all of us, simply want to enjoy, connect, and escape.

Works Cited

“A Brief Introduction to Psychoanalytic Theory: Freudian, Lacanian and Object Relations Theory.” NewSchool.edu. Web. 11 Mar. 2011. <homepage.newschool.edu/~quigleyt/vcs/psychoanalysis intro.pdf>.

Bacon-Smith, Camille. Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1992. Print.

Bailey, Ronald. “Escape from Recession: Sci-Fi Sales Up -Hit & Run.” Reason Magazine. 19 Apr. 2009. Web. 10 May 2011. <http://reason.com/blog/2009/04/15/escape-from-recession sci-fi-s>.

Davis, Diane. “Identification: Burke and Freud on Who You Are.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly38.2 (2008): 123-47. Print.

Freud, Sigmund. A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis. New York: Boni and Liveright, 1920. Print.

Freud, Sigmund. Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. New York: Norton, 1975. Print.

“Good Worlds and Bad.” Editorial. Publisher’s Weekly 13 Apr. 2009. Publisher’s Weekly. 13 Apr. 2009. Web. 10 May 2011.

Jonas, Gerald. “Science Fiction.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 13 Sept. 1992. Web. 10 May 2011.

“List of Children’s Television Series by Country.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 9 May 2011.

McDonald, Robert. Personal Interview. 26 March 2011.

Morreale, Joanne. “Lost, The Prisoner, and the End of the Story.” Journal of Popular Film and Television (2010): 17685. Print.

Murray, Simone. “Celebrating the Story the Way It Is: Cultural Studies, Corporate Media, and the Contested Utility of Fandom.” Journal of Media and Cultural Studies 18.1 (2004): 725. Web.

Obst, Patricia, Lucy Zinkiewicz, and Sandy G. Smith. “Sense of Community in Science Fiction Fandom, Part 1: Understanding Sense of Community in an International Community of Interest.” Journal of Community Psycology 30.1 (2002): 87103. Academic Search Premier. Web. 17 Feb. 2011.

Sommers-Flanagan, John, and Rita Sommers-Flanagan. Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories in Context and Practice: Skills, Strategies, and Techniques. Hoboken, NJ: J. Wiley & Sons, 2004. Print.

Stets, Jan E., and Peter J. Burke. “Identity Theory and Social Identity Theory.” Social Psychology Quarterly 63.3 (2000): 224-37. Print.

Weinert, Friedel. Copernicus, Darwin, & Freud: Revolutions in the History and Philosophy of Science. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009

Heroic Effort, Lost Cause: Why HEROES Failed While LOST Succeeded

Introduction

It could have been a contender.
This is likely what a lot of fans and critics of the NBC show Heroes said. For a while, it was one. When Heroes premiered on September 25, 2006, it was met with a lot of hype. The large ensemble, science fiction show, which promised to be full of mythology and rich character development, couldn’t helped but be compared to ABC’s Lost. Tim Kring, the creator of Heroes, took advantage of Lost’s declining ratings in its second season by promising a show that delivered answers instead of leaving its viewers guessing for seasons on end. It drew on a core fan base who not only liked science fiction shows like Lost, but also read comic books and could appreciate the comic book-like aesthetics of the show. With the first season finale around the corner, the hype grew. Then SPLAT! (try to picture this word in a graphic novel style speech balloon). The season 1 finale rolled in with lukewarm ratings. From there, it was all downhill. Season after season, Heroes failed to recapture the magic it had in its first season. Mistakes had been made that would eventually derail the show. Meanwhile, Lost overcame its season 2 blues and continued to pull in strong ratings.
Thesis
Despite the shows’ initial similarities, ABC’s Lost and NBC’s Heroes went about their narratives in different ways. In the end, while Lost would retain its critical and commercial success and complete its full run, Heroes began its fall in ratings soon after its first season, eventually being canceled in 2010 (Schneider variety.com). A look at how the two shows told their tales could shed clues on the reasons why, by looking at the difference in the two narratives.
Narrative Theory
Narrative theory is a study of the narrative, its form and structure and how that story is conveyed to us, the audience. The effectiveness in how a story is told and responded to can be influenced by its narrative. Victoria O’Donnell states, “structure and systematic organization are extremely important in television narrative…familiar structure enables viewers to stay with the stories” (69). With serialized shows such as Lost and Heroes, viewers expect to see a returning cast of main characters, a defined story arc (whether it be a season long arc or series long arc), and a narrative that follows Aristotle’s key point that, “plot is the unified arrangement of incidents, which must have a clear beginning, middle, and end” (74).
Beyond the basics Aristotle lists, narratives between shows can widely differ. The two shows make use of narrative complexity to tell their story. “Narrative complexity is a redefinition of episodic forms under the influence of serial narration—not necessarily a complete merger of episodic and serial forms but a shifting balance” (Mittell 32). It rejects “the need for plot closure within every episode that typifies conventional episodic form. Additionally, narrative complexity moves serial form outside of the generic assumptions tied to soap operas” (Mittell 32). Both Lost and Heroes tell their stories in serialized story arcs. Lost is well known for its series long arc, yet it still manages to include more episodic episodes that, while containing vital information to the overall mythology of the show, diverges from the main story arc (e.g., “Tricia Tanaka is Dead” and “S.O.S.”). Heroes, drawing its inspiration from comic books, presents story arcs in shorter “volumes” that may encompass only half a typical television season, “wrapping up story lines each season instead of sinking too deeply into a meandering mythology” (Kushner wired.com).
Lost’s narrative includes multiple flashbacks detailing the lives of the characters prior to their fateful flight, flash-forwards focusing on the lives of a select group of characters once they’ve left the island, and flash sideways, which, “posits what would have happened if Oceanic flight 815 didn’t crash on the island but instead landed in Los Angeles” (abc.com). Heroes features multiple characters such as Peter Petrelli and Hiro Nakamura who can travel back and forth in time, giving us a narrative that isn’t straightforward and linear. Using narrative theory to look at how the two shows handled various aspects such as characterization, romance, and death, could give a clear picture of what Lost did right and what Heroes did wrong.
Gone Shipping
How characters interact with each other plays a key role in a story’s narrative. Romance has been featured in several television shows, from sitcoms to standard dramas. Heroes’ and Lost’s complex, serialized narratives differ from that seen in the most common television serial, the soap opera. “Many (although certainly not all) complex programs tell stories serially while rejecting or downplaying the melodramatic style and primary focus on relationships over plots of soap operas” (Mittell 32). While science fiction shows such as Lost may typically draw in a male demographic (Newcomb 2027), such shows may feature a romantic subplot between characters that can draw in a larger female audience. These subplots don’t overwhelm the main story arcs of the show, but hopefully add another element to them. In fandom, there can be disagreements in how much focus such shows should place on relationships. With Fox’s The X-Files, a segment of the fans became “shippers”. Shippers, derived from the word “relationship”, “hypothesize and campaign for the series to acknowledge a romance between its protagonists”(Scodari & Felder 238). Another segment, dubbed the “noromos” wanted the show to focus on its science fiction elements and stay away from such soap opera dynamics. Despite the division in the fan base, the two elements, romance and mythology, can coexist and feature prominently in a show.
Lost managed to balance the need to develop its complicated mythology and develop the relationships between various characters. The love triangle between Jack, Kate, and Sawyer was a major plot point that extended for many seasons, dividing the fan base into “Skaters” (portmanteau of Kate and Sawyer) who wanted to see Kate and Sawyer together, and “Jaters” (portmanteau of Jake and Kate) those who wanted Kate to end up with the good doctor. From Kate’s first interaction with Jack in “Pilot” to Kate and Sawyer’s passionate night in the Hydra Station’s cage in “I Do”, we could see how this subplot was heightened throughout the series, culminating in Kate and Sawyer making their choices in Season 4 and 5 respectively. The love triangle played a pivotal role in the narrative by providing the manipulative Ben, leader of the Others, leverage over the three as they were held captive. Kate is sent to a cage bound Jack to beg him to do whatever Ben asks of him. When Jack yells, “What did they do to you? How did they get you to ask me?” Kate breaks down and cries, “they’re going to kill Sawyer!” (Lindelof & Cuse, Gates “I Do”). Jack, hurt and angry, refuses at first, but then relents in hopes that doing Ben this favor will get him off of the Island.
Another key relationship in Lost was the one between Desmond and Penny. The story of Desmond, a man of low character trying to win the approval of his love and her wealthy father, and Penny, desperately looking for Des and awaiting his return (not unlike Penelope from The Odyssey) was a hit with fans from the beginning. One of Lost’s most critically lauded episodes, “The Constant” featured a masterful blend of the show’s mythology and this relationship arc. In the episode, Desmond, his consciousness jumping back and forth through time, makes an effort to contact Penny, his “constant”, “an anchor, something familiar in both times…something that he really, really cares about” (Lindelof & Cuse, Bender “The Constant”). The “tear jerking and mind blowing episode” (Poniewozik time.com) ended with a tearful Christmas telephone call. While dramatic, the episode manages to avoid the sort of melodrama typical of soap operas by staying rooted in its mythology.
Heroes wasn’t able to mesh the two as deftly as Lost. After a couple of ill plotted relationship arcs in Season 2 involving teen cheerleader Claire and stuck-in-feudal-Japan Hiro, Kring admitted that, “I’ve seen more convincing romances on TV…In retrospect, I don’t think romance is a natural fit for us” (Jensen ew.com). The relationships didn’t add much to the overall narratives to the story, which resulted in both subplots being dropped by that volume’s end and never mentioned again. The show largely avoided entangling romantic plots with its main story arc. The major exception was Season 1’s relationship between Hiro and waitress Charlie in “7 Minutes to Midnight”. Hiro meets Charlie at a diner in Texas and becomes intrigued with her when he learns that her power is perfect eidetic memory. However, that same night Charlie is killed by Sylar, a super-powered villain who kills others with powers to steal their abilities. Hiro decides to travel back in time to stop Charlie’s death and ends up spending several months bonding with her, as seen in “Six Months Ago”. His attempt fails, however, when he learns that Charlie has a clot in her brain and is dying.
Their relationship, though it initially only spanned two episodes, proved to be as heart wrenching as the Desmond and Penny relationship on Lost. It was popular enough to be revisited in “Once Upon a Time in Texas” in which Hiro goes back in time again to save Charlie from Sylar, and “Brave New World” in which Hiro finds an older Charlie dying in a hospital after she had been kidnapped by the season’s villain, Samuel, and sent back in time to 1944. “Once Upon a Time in Texas” became a popular episode in a season that saw the show facing harsh criticism and low ratings (French digitalspy.com). The success of this relationship arc and those featured on Lost showed that viewers wanted to see romance mixed in with their science fiction, but only Lost was able to truly capitalize on this, creating a legion of shippers to boast its ratings.
Mostly Dead?
As prominent as romance is in television drama, death is featured just as much, in an effort “push the envelope and keep viewers off-guard, dramatic series have inflicted an unusual assortment of casualties” (Lowry “Death Becomes” variety.com). Character deaths aren’t uncommon in serialized shows, especially those with large ensemble casts like Lost and Heroes. A character’s death can greatly influence the narrative of a story. One of the first major deaths featured on Lost was Boone’s death in “Do No Harm”. He died after going off on a trek with Locke and sustaining fatal injuries when a small plane fell on him. The death of the popular character proved to be a major moment in the series as he was a character the audience “got to know…fairly well, and chances are you came to really like him” (Carabott et al, tv.ign.com). It occurred at the same time as the birth of Claire’s baby, Aaron, perfectly juxtaposing the themes of life and death prevalent in the series. His death also introduced the small Nigerian plane that would prove to have major connections between Charlie and Season 2‘s Mr. Eko. Locke’s statement that Boone’s death was a “sacrifice the Island demanded”(Lindelof & Cuse, Bender “Exodus: Part 2”) can also be construed as a death the story demanded.
Throughout the series, several major characters would die on Lost. The majority of these deaths, such as Libby’s and Ana Lucia’s deaths in “Two for the Road”, Charlie’s death in “Through the Looking Glass”, and Alex’s death in “The Shape of Things to Come” were jumping off points for major plot points: Michael’s betrayal and the release of the captive Ben, the identity of the people on the boat and the culmination of Desmond’s visions, and Ben’s ultimate breakdown, respectively. Without these deaths, the narrative of the show would have come to a halt, unable to continue without difficulty.
Heroes treats death in a different manner. Unlike Lost, which isn’t afraid to kill off fan favorites, Heroes generally shied away from it. In an interview with the A.V. Club, Kring states, “It becomes very hard to kill off certain characters. You get a big bump from the shock of that, but the fallout will be a lot harder to deal with. The network has a very strong say in this, because of actors who are under contract and do publicity for them. It’s not just up to the writers to decide” (Heisler avclub.com), and that, by Season 4, there was no plans to kill off any major characters as they were “down to a real core group right now” (Heisler avclub.com). This has had major implications for the narrative of the story. With such a blatant admission by the show’s creator, the life-and-death stakes was effectively neutered. In “Orientation”, Hiro learns that he is dying from a fatal illness, a fact that has little resonance on the viewers since, as a major character, it was unlikely Hiro would die, making that story arc void of tension (Heisler avclub.com).
While Heroes has many things in common with the comic books it derives its inspiration from, it also borrows an element from that genre that typically garners mixed results from viewers: the comic book death. A common trope in comic books and several daytime soap operas like The Bold and the Beautiful and Dallas, it’s described as “important characters will have a terrible tendency to die dramatically, but will not, under any circumstances, stay dead” (tvtropes.org). For example, in “Cautionary Tales”, Noah Bennett is shot dead, but he is revived after being given a transfusion of his daughter Claire’s blood. This “deus ex machina” of Claire’s blood (and, by extension, the blood of Adam Monroe who, like Claire, has the power of rapid cell regeneration) had the potential of making every death featured on the show trivial due to its power to reverse it. However, this point is conveniently dropped and never used again for the remainder of the series.
Then there is Nathan Petrelli, a character who seems to find himself at the verge of death at the end of every season. He is exposed to radiation at the end of “How to Stop an Exploding Man”, only to be healed by a transfusion of Adam Monroe’s blood in “Four Months Ago”. He is then shot and dies in “Powerless”, but is soon revived. Nathan is killed in “An Invisible Thread”, but his identity is assumed by Sylar, and his soul is trapped in Sylar’s body. It isn’t until “The Fifth Stage” that Nathan finally and permanently dies. This tip toeing around a major character’s fate can become tedious to the point of becoming a joke among Heroes fans (Wigler mtv.com).
Back from the Future
Heroes didn’t just borrow the idea of the temporary death from comic books; it also takes on time travel in a way that is highly reminiscent of graphic novels and comics. “Time travel in comics involves jumping or returning in time to change an event and therefore, altering history” (comicvine.com). In the show, Hiro Nakamura has the ability to travel through time and space. Throughout the series, he uses this power to travel as far back as feudal Japan and he is also able to travel into multiple futures where he often foresees some sort of apocalyptic event. Hiro is not the only one who can do this; Peter Petrelli’s empathic ability allows him to absorb the powers of other “specials” he touches and so he too can travel into the future.
While time travel can make for some interesting narratives, especially in a science fiction show like Heroes, it does pose some unique challenges. In Heroes’ case, due to the multiple, different futures seen on the show, we end up with multiple future versions of our main characters, which can be an issue for character development. The episode “Hiros” begins on a dark subway train as Peter is riding home. Everyone on the train stands still as time is frozen and we see a different version of Hiro Nakamura appear out of thin air. This “Future Hiro” has a soul patch, carries a katana sword, and speaks perfectly clear English. He is basically a more militant version of the goofy, bumbling, barely English speaking Hiro we know on the show.  Future Hiro traveled back in time to give Peter a message: “be the one we need. Save the cheerleader, save the world” (Green, Shapiro, “Hiros”). As the season progresses and we see Hiro obtain the same katana sword his future version had, we, the audience, begin to hope that our present Hiro will eventually morph into Future Hiro. However, this never comes to pass.
Throughout the series, we see various future versions of our main characters. In the episode “Five Years Gone”, we see an alternate future where people with powers are being rounded up and Claire is in hiding, working under an alias at a Texas diner. This Future Claire is tired of running and hiding. In the episode, “The Second Coming”, we see another future version of Claire, this one an angry vigilante agent who is hunting down Future Peter. In a different example, uber-villain Sylar is shown in an alternate future as a caring, waffle making dad to a young son, a complete 180 degree change from his murderous, sociopathic present day self.
As a writer for this show, having so many uniquely different future versions of these characters could make it difficult to decide how to proceed with character development. Do you develop Claire Bennet to her future, angry vigilante version, or her more fearful, persecuted version? Do you keep the highly popular Sylar a brain-eating murderer or do you develop traits in his character to push him towards his kindler, gentler future self? It’s unknown if the writers themselves knew what the future held for these characters. In his interview with the AV club, Tim Kring states that he “was primarily fascinated by the origin story. Once the original story is over, and the character has no more questions about what’s happening or existential drama, then the questions become just about plot, and then it becomes harder for me personally to connect to” (Heisler, avclub.com). From these words and the way the characters fail to develop throughout the series, it seems as if neither Kring nor his writers could see a future for their characters. In the end, we never see Hiro turn into Future Hiro and we surely never see Sylar pick up a waffle iron. The characters remain stuck in the same underdeveloped personas throughout the series.
The same can’t be said for Lost. The show uses another mechanism of time travel, one that doesn’t include multiple alternate futures. On Lost, which begins in media res with the aftermath of the crash of Oceanic 815, flashbacks are used to show us the characters’ lives before boarding the plane. For the first three seasons, these flashbacks help us understand the decisions that made these characters who they are in the present. Starting with the season three finale, we begin to get flash-forwards, in which we see the post-Island lives of the “Oceanic 6”, the six survivors who managed to get off of the Island. Season four toggles between showing us the survivors in the present day dealing with the arrival of a suspicious freighter boat, and showing us the flash-forwards of the Oceanic 6 several months after they are picked up off of a remote island. When the season three finale, “Through the Looking Glass”, shows us a drunken, drug addled Jack trying to commit suicide, we are dumbfounded by how the good doctor got to this point.
When the first episode of season four, “The Beginning of the End” opens up and we see a crazed looking Hurley leading the LAPD on a police chase before crashing and screaming out “Don’t you know who I am? I’m one of the Oceanic Six!” (Lindelof & Cuse, Bender “The Beginning of the End”), you can’t help but wonder what has led Hurley to this point. In the fourth episode of the season, “Eggtown”, we see Kate in the future, off of the Island and dealing with her murder trial. We also see her come home to a opulent looking house where she is greeted by a sleepy child who calls her “mommy” (Sarnoff & Nations, Williams “Eggtown”), hear her call the boy “Aaron”, and ask how and why Kate is caring for Claire’s son. We see Kate and Jack happily together in the tenth episode of he season, “Something Nice Back Home” and question what happened to the Kate-Sawyer relationship hundreds of fans looked forward to.
Thankfully, we aren’t left to wonder for long. As the season progresses, we see the pieces fitting in together that sets the course for these future developments. Unlike Heroes, we get to see these Lost characters develop into their future selves. We see Kate grow closer to Claire and baby Aaron; we see Hurley experiencing hallucinations and thinking he is once again going crazy; we see the Jack-Kate-Sawyer love triangle come to a climax that leads to the ultimate conclusion of Kate ending up with Jack. By not having to juggle multiple versions of these characters’ future selves, the writers of Lost were able to fully develop these characters along a set course. In a show that deals heavily in time travel, having such a concrete course of action can enhance the narrative of the story. Critics generally applauded Lost’s handling of time travel, stating that, “Lost appears to have thought this out more rigorously than Heroes” (Lowry 2).
In the end, for these reasons and possibly more, Heroes lost the season one momentum it had gained and continued to lose the love of both viewers and critics until its cancellation. Looking at Heroes and studying how a show that premiered with such critical acclaim could flounder so much is useful for those currently in the television business or wanting to go into it.. All shows have an off season; even Lost had its bad season. But while some shows can regroup and come back from the occasional bad ratings, other shows aren’t able to rescue themselves from that nose-dive, eventually crashing like, well, like a transpacific flight onto a deserted island. By studying the narrative styles of these two similar shows and how they portrayed different narrative aspects like relationships, death, and characterization, future writers and show runners can hope to not make the same mistakes that Heroes made.

Works Cited

“ABC.com – LOST – Flash Sideways.” ABC.com – Official Site of the ABC Network. Web. 11 May 2011. <http://abc.go.com/shows/lost/flash-sideways>.

Carabott, Chris, Eric Goldman, Dan Iverson, Colin Moriarty, and Brian
Zoromski. “IGN’s Top 10 Lost Deaths.” Tv.ign.com. 22 Sept. 2004. Web. 11 May 2011.    <http://tv.ign.com/articles/749/749696p2.html>.

“Death Is Cheap – Television Tropes & Idioms.” Home Page – Television Tropes & Idioms. Web. 11 May 2011. <http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/DeathIsCheap>.

“Eggtown.” Lost Season 4. Writ. Elizabeth Sarnoff & Greggory Nations. Dir. Stephen Williams. ABC. 21 February 2008. ABC, 2008. DVD.

“Exodus: Part 2” Lost Season 1. Writ. Carlton Cuse & Damon Lindelof. Dir. Jack Bender.  ABC. 25 May 2005. ABC, 2005. DVD.

French, Dan. “Jayma Mays Boosts ‘Heroes’ Ratings – Heroes News – TV – Digital Spy.” Digital Spy. 03 Nov. 2009. Web. 11 May 2011. <http://www.digitalspy.com/tv/s1/heroes/news/a185054/jayma-mays-boosts-heroes-ratings.html>.

Heisler, Steve. “Tim Kring | TV | Interview |.” The A.V. Club. 10 Feb. 2010. Web. 11 May 2011. <http://www.avclub.com/articles/tim-kring,37975/>.

“Hiros” Heroes Season 1. Writ. Michael Green. Dir. Paul Shapiro. NBC. 23 October 2006. NBC, 2006. DVD.

“I Do” Lost Season 3. Writ. Carlton Cuse & Damon Lindelof. Dir. Tucker Gates.  ABC. 8 November 2006. ABC, 2006. DVD.

Jensen, Jeff. “‘Heroes’ Creator Apologizes to Fans | TV | EW.com.” Entertainment Weekly’s EW.com | Entertainment News | TV News | TV Shows | Movie, Music and DVD Reviews. 07 Nov. 2007. Web. 11 May 2011. <http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20158840,00.html>.

Kushner, David. “Behind the Scenes With Heroes Creator Tim Kring and “Hiro,” Masi Oka.” Wired.com. 23 Apr. 2007. Web. 11 May 2011.
<http://www.wired.com/entertainment/hollywood/news/2007/04/magkring>.

Lowry, Brian. “TV’s Time Travel Is Wishful Thinking.” Editorial. Daily Variety Gotham 15 Jan. 2009: 2. Variety.com. Web. 2 May 2011.

Mittell, Jason. “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television.” The Velvet Light Trap 58.1 (2006): 29-40. Print.

Newcomb, Horace. Encyclopedia of Television. 2nd ed. New York: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2004. Print.

O’Donnell, Victoria. Television Criticism. Los Angeles: Sage Publications, 2007. Print.
Poniewozik, James. “Lost, “The Constant” – The Top 10 Everything of 2008 – TIME.” TIME.com. 03 Nov. 2008. Web. 11 May 2011.
<http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1855948_1863367,00.html >.

Schneider, Michael. “NBC Stops Holding out for “Heroes”” Blogs – Variety. Web. 14 May 2010. <http://weblogs.variety.com/on_the_air/2010/05/nbc-stops-holding-out-for-heroes.html>.

Scodari, Christine, and Jenna L. Felder. “Creating a Pocket Universe: Shippers, Fan Fiction, and The X-Files Online.” Communication Studies 51.3 (2000): 238. Print.

“The Beginning of the End” Lost Season 4. Writ. Carlton Cuse & Damon Lindelof. Dir.  Jack Bender. ABC. 31 January 2008. ABC, 208. DVD.

“The Constant” Lost Season 4. Writ. Carlton Cuse & Damon Lindelof. Dir. Jack Bender. ABC. 28 February 2008. ABC, 2008. DVD.

“Time Travel.” Comic Vine. Web. 11 May 2011.
<http://www.comicvine.com/time-travel/12-55712/>.

Wigler, Josh. “The Many Deaths Of Nathan Petrelli On ‘Heroes’.” Splash Page. 03 Nov. 2009. Web. 11 May 2011. <http://splashpage.mtv.com/2009/11/03/the-many-deaths-of-nathan-petrelli-on-heroes/>.

Cult Innovation

In 2011 some of the highest rated programs included reality shows like American Idol, Biggest Loser, Survivor and Dancing with the Stars. Other top rated shows include CSI, Law & Order and NCIS spinoffs. Finally, rounding out the top watched shows of the 2010-2011 television season are the sitcoms Two and Half Men and Mike and Molly, topped off with Hawaii Five-O, a remake of the popular 1970s franchise (Seidman).

Looking at some of these titles there appears to be nothing new and exciting. If it is not the same old procedural police drama or celebrities embarrassing themselves on television, then it appears as if the networks will not air it. It is nothing new or controversial to say reality TV has taken over the channels of mainstream television. The world of mainstream television is bland, boring, and, most offensively, predictable.
Does exciting, innovative original programming even exist? If so, what is quality television? It is oftentimes defined as cult television. Some of the best television ever created is cult television. Even though cult television shows lack the strength to hold out in the ratings race, cult television is quality television and is composed of textual thickness because it is innovative, smart, and deals with controversial subject matters. The basis of cult television rests in the hands of the fans who are now able to incorporate these cult texts into their lives through new technologies. Thus a band of dedicated and loyal fans are created worldwide.
To define cult television is a tricky path. It is not necessarily about defining a genre as much as what it provokes from its audience through intellectual narrative. “…a show’s ‘textual thickness’ and its ‘endlessly interpretable text’, attributes often seen as characteristic of quality” (McCabe 32). Cult television is not one specific genre and does not encompass a defining characteristic. It can be any numerous genre like comedy, science fiction, crime, drama, and horror. It can include any of the following ideals: being offbeat, being edgy, draws a niche audience, has a nostalgic appeal, or be considered symbolic of a particular subculture (Abbott 1 9 ).
In essence this is the definition of cult television:  There is no single quality that characterizes a cult text; rather, cult texts are defined through a process in which shows are positioned in opposition to the mainstream, a classification that is no more coherent as an object than the cult and is also a product of the same process of distinction that creates the opposed couplet mainstream/cult. (Abbott 8 )
In essence cult television attracts a cult. Cult television writer Jane Espenson sums up perfectly how to create a cult TV show. “Don’t stuff a cookie in their mouth. Make them walk across the room for it. Make them look under the rug for it. Them might even have to lift a floorboard. When they do that, they’re a cult” (45). Innovation, controversy, and fans are the perfect ingredients for making quality television or cult television. Since cult television spans over so many genres and definitions it is only appropriate to use multiple television shows to represent these three qualities. For the purpose of this text television shows such as Twin Peaks, My So-Called Life, and Doctor Who will be used to exhibit these qualities respectively.
Cult television in recent years is known for its high production quality. “… a sense of visual style created through careful, even innovative, camerawork and editing… aural style created through the judicious use of appropriate, even original music” (McCabe 50). A prime example of visual innovation in cult television is David Lynch’s small screen masterpiece, Twin Peaks. Lynch, a notable film director, co-created the series with Mark Frost. The story centers around the mystery of murdered high school girl, Laura Palmer. The show started with strong ratings, but soon declined and the program was canceled after the second season.
Twin Peaks was highly stylized visually. An example of this is seen in Agent Dale Cooper’s detective techniques in investigating a murder through the reflection in a videotape eye (Abbott 34). The show changed television in ways of visual storytelling and offered high-profile exposure to independent directors. “Once more, the visual elements of these series are particularly dense with meaning, and makers can build the potential for self-reference over the years…” (36).
Along with visual innovation, cult television also promises to be unconventional with storytelling techniques. Viewers of cult television want playfulness and cult television welcomes just that. “ [writers] have been able to provide attentive viewers with the pleasures of foreshadowing as well as long-term character growth…it has allowed richer development of both character and narrative” (37).
In narrative theory, the narrative structure has a tendency to fall into predictable patterns or formulas. Mainstream television craves formulas and conventions that viewers will recognize with the purpose that it will attract them each week and keep them watching (O’Donnell 70). “Formulas that were successful in previous shows are repeated in new shows…It is impossible to separate art from the business of television” (77). Mainstream television will continue to spew forth the same thing over and over again as long as it attracts viewers. In terms of cult television it will push the boundaries of “narrative elasticity” (Abbott 89 ).
In the case of Twin Peaks a new genre was created: soap noir (Abbott 29). One part mystery, detective thriller combined with elements similar to those seen in soap operas. “Their soap model prioritizes knowledge that isn’t neutrally produced by deductive reasoning, but that which is derived from emotional involvement and personal experience” (29). This detective series with hints of melodrama paved the way for shows like The X-Files and Northern Exposure in terms of strangeness and bold storytelling.
Secondly, mainstream television will always be afraid to take chances. Its goal is to create the least offensive programming to keep those viewers happy and returning to the series week after week. A cult audience is more willing to embrace challenging topics. Cult television allows for genre blending which is the perfect vehicle to launch into controversial topics. Shows including Soap, The X-Files, The Wire, Dexter, and even I Love Lucy all have dealt with controversial topics and have pushed the envelope on where its boundaries lie. In the case of I Love Lucy, it was the first show to feature an interracial couple, a pregnancy, and a dissatisfied housewife (McCabe 102).
One way to gain cult status is to debut as something that must or should be canceled because of risky content only to be picked up and loved unexpectedly by fans. A prime example of this is seen in the television drama My So-Called Life. A television show that rested solely on the narrative of a confused teenage girl. “…the overlap between cult and some ‘quality’ television, its audience may be more willing to embrace challenging representation as part of contemporary television drama” (105).
My So-Called Life dealt with numerous intense issues that made prime-time viewers in the mid 90s very uncomfortable. Issues dealt with on the show included homophobia, child abuse, adultery, divorce, drug use, teenage alcoholism, and school violence (Abbott 81). All of this was part of a continuing story line that attempted to depict the realism of teenage life through the theme of meaningless, which so many teenagers can relate to.
Before My So-Called Life broke boundaries for teen drama, shows depicted high school life as fun and full of jokes. Shows such as Saved By the Bell come to mind first (101). “My So-Called Life has an arguable cult status while existing in an ordinary (but very specific world- but one that occurs frequently)” (McCabe 105). The show was also the first of its kind to feature a main character who was homosexual and of mixed race. Rickie Vasquez, 15, becomes friends with Angela (the principle character) and the viewer gets to experience his emotional, controversial story line.
Ricky was raised by his uncle who abuses him. During the course of the first, and only, season Rickie is kicked out his uncle’s house. His English teacher, Richard Katimski, who is also gay fosters him. Mr. Katimski ends up becoming a mentor to Rickie (Abbott 85 ).
Finally, one of the biggest attributes of cult television is its ability to attract a strong, dedicated audience. Small the audience might be, at least small enough to not make the ratings cut, it is a mighty, determined group. Cult television strives more dedication from its audience than any other genre or category of television. “‘Cult’ suggests something that is outside of the mainstream, an organized group of abnormal rebels chafing against the norm, and invariably has a religious connotation, one that suggests a certain prescribed ritual, a degree of ceremony, and a process of initiation” (McCabe 12).
As the medium of television develops, its audience is also growing and changing along with it. Since the dawn of television, with each new decade we have seen television develop and invent. Generations before have seen the invention of color television, cable television, and the VCR. For this generation television has invented itself over the internet. This collision of two of the most used technologies around the world has fans everywhere becoming more involved with shows and interacting more with other fans.
One phenomenon taking shape on the internet through the cult television audience is fan fiction. “Fan fiction writing operates as a means of fan activity which allows the individual to explore his or her own interpretations…” (Hansen 333). Fan fiction allows the audience to manipulate the plot and characters of the text in ways that are pleasing to them. “Fan fiction is often a way we comment on the shows and films that they relate to express our dissent from particular directions that they took” (333). This postmodern form of fan interaction is just another way a television show can garner a cult audience.
Before we take a look at some of the examples of fan interactions through the hit BBC show Doctor Who, we must explore the theory of postmodernism and how it relates to television.
Postmodernism is a term that not only can be used to describe art, architecture, and fashion, but it can be used to describe television. Postmodernism suggests that culture has been changed due in part to developments in technology. It is a controversial term that has been debated for some time now. People argue whether if it is as important as so many writers suggest it is. Now in the 21st century we have seen rapid developments in our technology. Cell phones, cameras, television, computers, and the Internet have all changed dramatically in only the past few years. “These emerging systems of communication have created virtual communities, new identities and interactions, and new vocabulary…postmodern theorists believe that the inundation of new technologies has influenced a postmodern society” (O’Donnell 183). Take for example the weblog or simply blog. Everyone has one and they are basically a personal narrative that people share over the internet with other people they will probably never meet in real life.
One trait of postmodern television includes mixing genres. Hybrid genres such as docudrama and dramedy are the result of postmodernism. These genres have become common in television. Another trait is intertextuality. “…references to other texts, genres, discourses, themes, or other media…it is the interconnection of meanings across different media texts as well as connections between meanings” (O’Donnell 186). Words such as ephemeral, ambiguity, irony, and intertextuality have been used to describe postmodernism. These intertextual references allow the audience to play with their television. It gives the audience pleasure to recognize references in television shows. Some people when watch television take it for face value, while others will analyze characterization, narrative, and intertextuality to get more enjoyment from the program. “[Postmodernism] creates an opportunity for play between and among different texts. This has the potential to give the viewer pleasure…and allows the viewer to negotiate or construct various meanings” (187).
Basically, at the core of postmodernism is nonlinear, playfulness combined with several other forms. The way in which we watch television has changed according to the changes in technology. We use technology more frequently and communicate more with each other. “Not only is postmodernism in television programs, but is also manifests itself in the way viewers watch television…” (O’Donnell 195)
You cannot come across a television program more postmodern than Doctor Who. A major hit for the BBC in the United Kingdom, the program began in 1963 and continued on for twenty-six years until its cancelation in 1989 but was resurrected in 2005 (Hansen 239). The show garners the largest cult fan base that spans over the internet littering it with fan videos, blogs, fan fiction, fan magazines, and fan sites. The Internet has created a global forum for narrative exploration. Anyone can contribute, create, view, or comment on fan generated works. (249)
One of the largest and most active online communities for Doctor Who was www.gallifreyone.com. It attracted viewers from all across the United Kingdom, Canada, United States, and Australia. Members can range in age from teens to people in their fifties. However since 2009, the website has decided to cater information relatable to their yearly North American science fiction convention. This convention, which mainly concentrates on Doctor Who, attracts more than 2,000 attendees. Before the website changed direction it still had some mighty impressive statistics.
“When Doctor Who was relaunched in 2005, a large proportion of the members (82%) were posting frequently, regularly, or occasionally. This is high in comparison with other discussion sites across the Internet, but the proportion has fallen considerably (to 38% in 2008 when membership had more than doubled)” (Hansen 212).
In terms of Doctor Who fan fiction it provides a way for fans to express their creative freedoms using plot and character. A visit to the ever popular www.fanfiction.net allows you to experience how diehard the program’s fan truly are. On the website there exists 26, 525 works of Doctor Who fan fiction, quite a few of them expanding on twenty plus chapters (“Doctor Who Stories”). “…much fan fiction is execrably bad. Quite a lot is not, and the community of interest and dedication…that produces the best and the worst is one to which it is stimulating to belong “ (Abbott 247). Cult programming will continue to change as technology progresses and will continue to experiment with the changing technology.
The goal of television is escapism. People want to watch what content that takes them away from their day and makes them happy. For some viewers, they attain that through boring sitcoms and reality television. However, there are some television fans that do not. Television should not always be afraid to take chances and let a new concept sit with viewers first. It is understandable that television exists to create revenue, and that is the heart of it. Although, sometimes it does feel as if television would sell its integrity to make a quick buck.
Television is currently experiencing a renaissance of sorts and starting to show signs that it is not a vast wasteland. New and exciting programming has begun to garner attention through the Internet and mobile television. Television artists should always aim to create something that makes people think, and not dumb it down for the audience. People want to be challenged. People crave to think outside the box.
Works Cited
Abbott, Stacey, ed. The Cult TV Book: From Star Trek to Dexter, New Approaches to TV Outside the Box. New York: Soft Skull, 2010. Print.
“Doctor Who Stories.” Unleash Your Imagination – FanFiction.Net. Xing Li, 11 May 2011. Web. 11 May 2011. <http:// www.fanfiction.net/>.
Gwenllian-Jones, Sara, and Roberta E. Pearson, eds. Cult Television. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2004. Print.
Hansen, Christopher J., ed. Ruminations, Peregrinations, and Regenerations: A Critical Approach to Doctor Who. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2010. Print.
McCabe, Janet, and Kim Akass, eds. Quality TV: Contemporary American Television and Beyond. London: I.B. Tauris, 2007. Print.
O’Donnell, Victoria. Television Criticism. Los Angeles: Sage Publications, 2007. Print.
Seidman, Robert. “TV Ratings Broadcast Top 25: ‘American Idol,’ ‘The Voice,’ ‘Modern Family,’ ‘Dancing with the Stars,’ ‘NCIS’ Top Week 33 Viewing.” TV Ratings, TV Nielsen Ratings, Television Show Ratings | TVbytheNumbers.com. Tribune Company, 10 May 2011. Web. 11 May 2011.
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