No, we’re not talking about that kind of fanservice. Sorry. Maybe next time.
Ever since I saw Star Trek: Into Darkness this idea has been rolling around in my head. I considered writing a full review of the movie, but honestly io9 covered my thoughts much better than I could articulate here. And my issue with the film is a much deeper one that extends beyond just the film itself.
So, naturally, spoiler alert.
There’s a common piece of advice that is often given to new writers: know your audience. It’s good advice: it’s important for an author to know who exactly their work is being seen by, and what is and isn’t appropriate or wanted by that audience. If I write for children, I’m not going to include gratuitous violence in the story, instead opting for some fluffy animals or something. If I become successful enough, I might add a reference or two to my fans so that they know I’m paying attention to them. Stuff like that.The thing is, one’s work should not be reliant completely on fanservice. The main thing I’ve seen Trekkies compliment the new film on is that it “felt like a Star Trek movie.” I don’t know how a Star Trek movie is supposed to feel, exactly, but if it felt like one it was because the entire film was a by-the-numbers appeal to the fans. Why is the villain Khan? Because that’s what fans were asking for, as Wrath of Khan was one of the most memorable and beloved entries in the franchise. Why was Carol Marcus in the movie? Because she was in Wrath of Khan. Why was there a scene in which Kirk sacrifices his life in order to save the crew while Spock watches him die of radiation poisoning through a glass door? Because it was in effing Wrath of Khan.
The film is driven entirely by fanservice.
It’s one thing to listen to fan complaints and address them if they make sense. For example, many people complained that Scotty didn’t have much screen time in the previous film, and his role was expanded to a full subplot in this one. And it mostly worked. I could list a bunch of examples in which fan complaints and suggestions actually improved a piece of fiction once implemented. But it’s one thing to address concerns and another to be dictated by them.
And this is, to a degree, a huge problem in modern fiction. So much of what is published and released now is done so mostly because that’s what the audiences expect. Why do we see so much of what Pyrotra calls Lang’s Syndrome? Because writers keep throwing in vampires and werewolves for no other reason than that it’s what people expect to find in stories of the paranormal.
Look at a show like Supernatural. The entire premise of the show is that supernatural urban legends and mythology are true (except Bigfoot; he’s obviously a hoax), and in the first season we find out that vampires are mainly thought to be extinct—Dean and Sam tell their dad that they’ve never even heard of real vampires before then. Given that they’ve been hunting monsters their entire lives, this is a big deal.
But guess what? Vampires keep showing up throughout the series, repeatedly. Besides demons, it seems to be one of the default monsters the show turns to when it needs something to be a threat. And it’s absurd, because this is a show that includes shapeshifters, witches, skinwalkers, wendigo, ghouls, djinn, daevas, tulpas, sirens, wraiths, and a crapload more that I’m not going to go through the effort of listing, the default creature is a vampire. Need a short clip of Dean killing something? Vampire. Need a lesson about hate crimes against non-humans? Vampire nest that only kills cattle. A character goes to the monster underworld and befriends a monster there? Naturally it’s got to be a vampire. I’m not saying that the show is irredeemable, or even awful, but I think the show would greatly benefit from branching out to different myths instead of sticking solely with the ones we’re comfortable with.
This is extended further when the fanservice permeates the narrative, rather than just the elements of it. For instance, almost everyone I’ve talked to on the subject seems to agree that the first Pirates of the Caribbean film was the best of the series. After seeing just how popular the character of Jack Sparrow—excuse me, Captain Jack Sparrow—was the rest of the films in the series focused quite a bit more on his antics, and suffered for it. It would have been fine to learn more of his backstory, but most of that is pushed aside so that we can watch Jack run from cannibals and have hallucinations. Why? Because fans liked wacky Jack scenes, so we get scenes of nothing but wacky Jack.
Or perhaps we could just examine Iron Man 2. The first film became popular in part because of witty dialogue and the bonus after-the-credits scene which showed that the film was part of a bigger world. The sequel forgot, though, that it was all tied together with a predictable-yet-lovable story, and made a movie which was about as unmemorable as a cereal breakfast.
Listening to the opinions of fans and appealing to them isn’t a bad thing, necessarily, either: the 2009 Star Trek held many nods to the original Star Trek and fans that worked in context. Was it necessary to see Kirk cheat on the Kobayashi Maru test? No, but it was a nice way to please fans while simultaneously furthering an original story and firmly establish his character.
Or, going back to Supernatural, the character of Crowley was quickly a fan favorite, and has been developed into his own unique villain who is still fun to watch on screen. Or Iron Man 3, which kept the witty dialogue but dialed back the Avengers content in order to keep the film on track. Or Pirates of the Caribbean …
…okay, I don’t really have anything on that.
My point being that fanservice isn’t always bad, but too much of it is. To be fair it can be difficult to create a balance that works. The telltale sign seems to be when the piece of fiction relies on the fanservice, rather than using it as a device to further a story that has its own original ideas. So yes, know your audience, but you can’t use them as a crutch to hold up your story. Then it’s just lazy.