Fandom, Star Trek: Discovery and its Dark Reflection

Talking about the second season of Star Trek: Discovery this year has been a difficult experience in places.

Not just because the recently concluded fourteen-episode run wasn’t a particularly good season of television—more on that here—but also thanks to the way some of the online Star Trek fandom have responded to criticism. It hasn’t been pretty for those who have suggested Season 2 might not be, at the very least, enjoyable. This I can say from experience. Before my wrap up piece, which itself has been greeted with some vitriol in certain Facebook quarters where it has been shared, I wrote the occasional episode review of Season 2 for my former website Set The Tape – specifically for the episodes Brother, An Obol for Charon and Project: Daedalus. All of these episodes I found problematic.

In sharing that opinion, I felt the full force of how troubling fandom can be.

This probably should come as less of a surprise to me. I have written before about the toxicity of Star Wars fandom, and the broader direction of fandom specifically after the release of The Last Jedi, yet I remain taken aback by just how aggressively some quarters of fandom refuse to entertain a contrary point of view.

Looking back at some of my thoughts following Discovery Season 1, I was perhaps hopelessly optimistic about what the cliffhanger of Season 1 finale Will You Take My Hand?, with the arrival of the original USS Enterprise, would bring. I suggested that perhaps the iconic Star Trek starship might well help Discovery forge its own sense of identity within the Original Series when, in truth, the opposite ended up happening across Season 2. As my previous sum up piece goes into, Discovery Season 2 gave die-hard Trek fans, who had complained during Season 1 that the series was not making enough of the Original Series setting, too much of what they wanted. You only have to see the outpouring on social media of support for Season 2, and the inclusion of TOS aspects that have long been debated over the last half-century, to see how well fans reacted to this season.

Now here’s the key point… that reaction is *great*. Anyone who begrudges a fan for enjoying a piece of media they don’t is seriously barking up the wrong tree. You can absolutely dislike something and be happy someone else—whether a friend or stranger—enjoys it. You really can. We all interpret media and art differently, it is by its very nature subjective, and coming from our different backgrounds and cultural touchstones, we are always going to approach a subject differently.

Just yesterday on Twitter I had a conversation with someone about how she ranks Captain America: The First Avenger as the worst Marvel Cinematic Universe movie, a ranking I most certainly do not agree with; it turned out as a big comic book fan, she was disappointed with how they treated Cap in a movie she had spent years waiting for. I, as someone who has never read a Marvel comic in his life, came at it from a totally different vantage point. Both points of view and interpretations are absolutely valid and we had an interesting discussion about the nuts and bolts of it.

What became apparent in some quarters of Star Trek fandom across Season 2 of Discovery is that they were not willing to have those kind of discussions. Any suggestion of even the remotest criticism would not be tolerated. One Facebook group in particular—which I won’t name—came at some of my reviews, and those of two fellow writers for Set The Tape whose work I shared and whose opinions largely were in step with each other, with not just a level of ignorance and vitriol, but also personal abuse. One of the principal suggestions was that I was a ‘hater’ and some could not understand why I would have shared a review with negative aspects in ‘positive’ Discovery groups. By positive, this meant an *enforced* positive opinion. If you dared to challenge the show, or critically point out flaws, you were a heathen.

The review that really set fire to the kindling was Project: Daedalus, which of course concluded with the death of Lieutenant Commander Airiam, a fairly background bridge crew member whose origin story was revealed amidst an episode tied up with the revelation of the Control AI enemy and Airiam’s internal corruption by this intelligence. My review was critically harsh, out of sheer frustration that Discovery would attempt to emotionally manipulate its audience into feeling the weight of a death for a character who had barely featured on the show up until this episode; her sudden death made Tasha Yar’s in The Next Generation‘s Skin of Evil look like Spock’s in The Wrath of Khan. It was not earned in the slightest.

Voicing this opinion led to some excoriating replies and a flood of bile that genuinely took me aback. I was called a troll, an alt-right stooge, propagating fake news, and far more besides. Crucially, the very nature of my primary critique—that Airiam’s death meant nothing because the show hadn’t put the work in beforehand—was brushed aside because it didn’t fit the narrative in play amongst fans who were, for some reason, determined only to praise Discovery. Similar accusations have been voiced on certain groups in response to my Season 2 wrap up article—my favourite being told to “go away Russian!”—including one I will quote verbatim because it seems to underscore the kind of extreme thinking that comes with fans who decide your opinion is invalid, and then work through cliches, judgments and proclamations in order to provide a barrier between them and the critic.

I stopped at the first sentence, “this is not star trek”, and was going to say something very glib, however – maybe there was a nugget in there that made sense. In summary my initial perception was correct – it’s another “pee in the punch” article by the swath of the “internet reviewers” (translation – another guy blogging from his mom’s basement). I’d say the one horrible aspect of social media is that it makes some people think their opinion matters. The blogger (who looks like it’s AJ Black starts with a nit pick/piss in the punch opinion and then stretches it out into a baseless stream of incoherent consciousness. Another entitled type who can’t grasp the concept that Star Trek is not real – it’s fiction, and not an immutable aspect of the universe. Actually that’s way to much credit – the entire “thing” (I can’t even really give it respect by calling it an article) is just some guy’s attempt to crowd source the people who have nothing good to say about anything and again “piss in the punch” of others who enjoy something. The fact that he wrote a negative blog – then tweets it in a slimy self-promoting way, topping it off by joining a “positive fan site” to try and get clicks is just scummy. really it’s scummy. I should’ve seen it a mile away with what looks like a fake name, and fake profile pic and clearly a fake FB account. Nothing more to say about it other than it’s an attempt to get clicks – I regret giving this thing one.

This is another accusation often levelled – that you’re propagating ‘clickbait’. It’s hard to believe how anyone could imagine a five thousand word essay is clickbait (only people who don’t write critically could possibly suggest that), but ultimately it is part of the same defence mechanism that leads to comments like the above. That’s over two hundred and fifty words that commenter could have channeled into engaging in discourse about what they didn’t agree with in the article, fighting Discovery’s corner, taking me to task on some of my criticisms. Instead, an attempt is made to completely invalidate the person writing the criticism, precisely because the actual criticism itself is harder to defend against. If you don’t like what someone has to say but can’t reasonably claim it makes no sense, you go after the writer.

Now admittedly, I use ‘AJ Black’ on social media primarily because I work in a school and I don’t really want my students trying to follow what I do in my personal life (this happens, hence why you’ll often find teachers or school staff certainly in the UK using just first and middle names – this is also why I don’t put pictures of my face online often, because I’ve previously had students find ways of sharing them), and I can also see why my surname might come across as some kind of pseudonym. These are not things I should need to explain, however, as a way of validating what I write about a given subject.

I’m of the mind that the best critics disappear into their work, that what they have to say matters more than their personal opinions do – it’s killing me in this piece to use the personal pronoun, even for an article which is based partly on my personal experience. It’s what separates distance from criticism and removes personal bias. I’m not talking about these TV shows and movies to try and change anyone’s opinion. I write because I’m interested in exploring the deeper social, political or production realities behind the storytelling and characterisation and, I hope, I can share some of those insights with any readers who give up their valuable time to read.

What fandom cannot do, increasingly, is separate the personal and the critical. Star Trek: Discovery fans have taken any critique of the show to, conversely, be about *them*, and I think this is a wider reason hardcore fandom has become a toxic part of our cultural fabric over the last few years in particular, and why there are also crossovers into the political arena. As I say, I was accused of being a ‘Russian’ in a comment about my recent article; now taking away the fact I’m British and many of these commenters associate me with American society, which is understandable because I write mostly about American media, it’s an absurd but telling rebuke – if I’m Russian, then I’m in line right now with an insidious force striking at American cultural institutions, presumably with some grand plan in mind. Toxic fandom has become analogous in some quarters with paranoid thinking, and tied up with the divisive and partisan political divisions which are causing so much harm to democracy right now, fuelled by social media interaction.

None of this is news, and this will be happening to thousands of people providing critical analysis across a hundred different fanbases, but when it happens to you it really starts to make you think about quite how the fanatical protectionism prevalent in fandom circles right now is interlinked with our broader societal and political problems with right-wing, nationalist, revisionist and retrograde thinking. The commenter above talked about how I couldn’t separate that Star Trek “wasn’t real”, suggesting that by providing some level of in-depth criticism about a fictional property, I am in some way a fantasist who should be focusing on other pursuits like, no doubt, watching and *enjoying* Star Trek because that’s what a supporter does. You don’t argue back. You don’t suggest it isn’t working or it’s flawed or it’s wrong. You absolutely accept, even in the face of something you know could be better, that the show is inviolate. It is the same thinking that applies to the hardcore Donald Trump base, or the hardline Brexiteers. They shall not be moved. And if you dare to challenge their orthodoxy, you shall be shouted down, personally attacked or invalidated. It is mindless, mass hysterical and blindly dangerous thinking on a huge scale, and the kind of thinking which prevents positive or progressive development.

Luckily, in discussing Discovery Season 2, I have found just as many people with intelligence and an open mind to disagree with my thoughts but at least read and consider them. Those people give me hope that fandom is not completely lost to the wilderness of regressive thinking. But make no mistake – fandom is a key reflection right now of where we are as a collective Western civilisation and the reflection isn’t pretty.

If we’re not careful, we may find we’ve been living in the Mirror Universe all along.

For more on this subject in greater and more erudite depth, check out some of the recent work by Darren Mooney and follow him on Twitter, because he’s doing some great work in unpicking and analysing the state of fandom today.

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