Running the Asylum
How ‘Battlestar Galactica,’ ‘Game of Thrones,’ and FanFiction Conquered Pop Culture
Battlestar Galactica and A Song of Ice and Fire were never as cool as Star Trek and The Lord of the Rings, even for geeks. Then how the hell did they invade the mainstream?
I had an epiphany while watching Ron Moore’s Battlestar Galactica “re-imagining” in 2004, an epiphany that, in retrospect, revealed that this was the beginning of a new era in pop culture. I mean, there was plenty of hype at the time that said that Battlestar Galactica was the beginning of a new era in pop culture, but none of it quite put its finger on what made the BSG TV series unique. It wasn’t just that it was a big-budget version of what had once been kitschy sci-fi.
The cycle of genre fiction existing in the ghetto of plastic sets and B-list actors that inspires a big-budget “real” movie that then inspires more plastic-set TV knockoffs—that was old, as old as the cycle that led to Star Trek paving the way for Star Wars paving the way for the original 1978 Battlestar Galactica.
Claims that BSG was unique because it was “serious” science fiction with a “social conscience” were also spurious—trying to make social or political points with SF is as old as SF itself, and there were tons of classics of the genre that tried to address current events with hamfisted earnestness. If anything, Star Wars was a big deal when it released because of how little of a political message it had compared to its contemporaries like Soylent Green or Logan’s Run.
No, it was something else. Not any specific feature of the series, but a sort of overall gestalt.
There was something about the way the show used sex, for instance; not just that there was a lot of sex and nudity, but something about the way BSG kind of dwelled on sex, and on relationships—something about the soap opera-style way it kept us guessing about how it seemed pretty much any character could hook up with any other character at any time.
Something about the “mythological” way the show was written—the way nearly every single thing, whether it really came from the original series or not, had all this hinted-at backstory with Big Portentous Capitalized Concepts, from the prehistory of the home planet Kobol to all that nonsense with the Twelve Cylon Models and the Final Five to all the battles of the First Cylon War. The way the creators made a conscious comparison between their resurrecting an old franchise and filling their script with references to that old franchise and the tone of a show heavily freighted with imaginary history.
Something about the emotional tone of the show, the way it would raise the stakes ridiculously high and set a pitch-black tone—the opening miniseries shows Number Six strangling a baby, for God’s sake, just before all of civilization is destroyed in a nuclear holocaust—and weirdly juxtapose that pitch-black tone with snarky humor and contrived fanservice. (An episode where everyone gathers in the ring and starts boxing each other? Really?)
“Fanservice,” that’s the word. I suddenly realized at some point what it was that bugged me about Battlestar Galactica—it was fanfic! For the first time I was watching a big-budget show on actual TV that nonetheless had all the earmarks of fan-created fiction. Ron Moore was getting paid to do to the original Battlestar Galactica what my weird antisocial friends and I had done in high school to Harry Potter and Star Trek and X-Men.
What makes something read “like fanfiction” is hard to describe for the uninitiated, but there’s a certain kind of childlike glee that runs as an undercurrent through all of it. A sense of intoxicating freedom at finally getting your hands on something you’ve watched from outside since childhood and now, finally, get to control—of being able to finally make real all the things you wanted to see on the show but that you knew the people running the show would never do.
Which means a big part of it is the sex stuff. Let’s admit it, a ton of the thrill of writing fanfic is getting to take something G- or PG-rated and turn it into a hard R or, sometimes, an NC-17. And the more transgressive the sex, the better.
The first “fanfiction” to go by that term was the pre-Internet print fanzines of the 1970s created by mostly female original Star Trek fans who nursed an unseemly obsession with getting Kirk and Spock to get it on. As soon as Harry Potter started the recent trend of grownups patronizing the Young Adult aisles the Internet has been flooded with people treating Harry and his underage pals as though they’re the stars of a schlocky Aaron Spelling high school soap. And don’t get me started on bronies.
In retrospect the biggest hint that BSG was fanfic was at the very beginning, with the shocking opening scene in the original miniseries—so long ago that now it’s hard to remember it as shocking—where a human diplomat is awaiting a meeting with a Cylon diplomat, and where he’s reading a blueprint of an “old” Cylon Centurion model (i.e. one of the Cylon robot bad guys from the original series) only for the “new” Cylon who appears to be…well, Tricia Helfer as Number Six. She proceeds to say portentous and threatening things, make out with the dude and give him a lap dance for no obvious reason, and then everything explodes.
Every single thing about this is classic fanfic, but especially the Big Reveal of turning something neuter or male into a sexy female version of itself, and taking a non-sexual conflict—humans fighting robots—and turning it via “metaphor” into a sex scene. On the Internet we call the inevitability of this trope “Rule 63.”
It’s not just sexiness, of course, it’s the whole sense of “adult”-ing up the whole franchise. Sometimes “adult”-ing it up means snarky self-awareness, sometimes it means amping up the violence and sex and horror, but mainly it’s this sense of taking a bizarre, fantastic setting and taking it very seriously, doing our best to pretend that it’s “real” in every sense, indulging our desire to see what life would “really be like” in such a world from every angle.
Let me stress that this is not a bad thing. The fact that the original Battlestar Galactica was kind of a goofy show despite the fact that it was about a tiny remnant of mankind surviving a massive nuclear holocaust was always kind of weird. The fact that new Battlestar Galactica put a grimdark cast on a situation that was inherently grim and dark was to its credit.
But this is everywhere now. Sometimes it’s deadly serious, like Christopher Nolan winning awards for turning the Batman franchise into a serious exploration of politics, crime, and the excesses of the French Revolution. Sometimes it’s winking and satirical, like Avenue Q playing the game of imagining Sesame Street taking place in a real low-rent New York City neighborhood with all the attendant grime and perversion and neurosis. But there’s hardly a franchise around that hasn’t gotten this kind of “reboot” treatment.
We are now a nation of fans. Fans in the “fandom” sense of the term, not just people who like stuff but people who get unhealthily attached to stuff from our childhood, take those childhood obsessions into our adulthood and then make it our mission to turn those childhood obsessions into serious, adult entertainment, complete with sex, violence, and pointed social commentary.
This, too, is not really a new phenomenon. The fanfic mindset is as old as literature itself—the Aeneid is quite arguably fanfic of the Iliad—and we have modern instances of rabid fandom going back to Sherlock Holmes and the Baker Street Irregulars, arguably the first modern fan club organized around creating fanfiction. But it’s hard not to argue that the fanfic mindset hasn’t, in the past generation, exploded within popular culture. It’s popular enough that there’s a YouTube channel about the phenomenon, “Gritty Reboots.”
And people like to blame “reboot culture” on Hollywood being cringingly risk-averse or being stupid and lacking imagination, but I submit that it’s neither of these; Hollywood is giving people what they want.
My friends rarely, if ever, get nearly as excited about some new film or franchise that’s coming out as they do some remake/reboot/re-imagining of some beloved childhood property. You can instantly generate thousands of page views and tremendous buzz just by making vague statements about “bringing back” nearly anything that was on TV in the ’80s or ’90s.
I distinctly remember hearing about the upcoming remake of BSG in 2003 and wondering “What’s the point of bringing back that campy old Star Trek knockoff?” The most recent Battlestar Galactica reference I could remember was Family Guy cruelly mocking fans stuck in the ’70s with a cable-access “Battlestar Galactica Forum” show and a guy wearing a Cylon helmet.
Fast-forward six years and, in 2009, my mouth is hanging agape when I read that the United Nations—the actual United Nations, the global peacekeeping body—is doing a Battlestar Galactica retrospective because of the show’s influence on human rights issues.
What the hell happened?
Back in the early 2000s, George R. R. Martin and A Song of Ice and Fire were kind of a punchline. The books were greatly beloved by fantasy fans, of course, but fantasy fans were still, at least at my high school, a breed apart, likely to get shoved into lockers and stand awkwardly dateless by the punch bowl at prom. People were still reeling at what a surprise smash hit the Lord of the Rings films were, after a long, long period when the best fantasy genre films could hope for was the status of “cult classic” a la Willow or Legend.
But A Song of Ice and Fire? That was a franchise inhabited by the most fannish of fans—the story goes everywhere that Lord of the Rings doesn’t, diving merrily into the “gritty realism” whirlpool of incest, rape, torture, and mutilation, and playing complex soap-opera games with an interlocking web of romantic relationships (“shipping,” as we call it in fandom) that Tolkien primly avoided when drawing his own crazy imaginary world. It’s a series that seems to do everything possible to alienate outsiders, from the grisly subject matter to the tangled multi-generational incestuous family trees. Lord of the Rings fans, like me, went around saying “At least we’re not A Song of Ice and Fire fans,” just like Star Trek fans used to say “At least we’re not Battlestar Galactica fans.”
And now A Game of Thrones is HBO’s top-rated TV series and my generally normal, mainstream co-workers are, apparently, obsessed with it. Elio M. García Jr., the man behind Westeros.org, a place where people argue about Westeros politics and pretend to be nobles and soldiers and yell at George R. R. Martin to finish the next Westeros book already, gets called in regularly by HBO for advice about ASoIaF/GoT continuity.
TVtropes.org, a site whose own cultural prominence reflects the Tlön-like way fandom is conquering the real world, has a term for this phenomenon, “Running the Asylum.” And there’s no doubt that Hollywood is now a facility where the inmates are now in charge.
Why is this? There’s been a lot of pontificating on the Revenge of the Nerds, the mainstreamification of genre fiction, the rise of geek chic.
One thought: We are definitely, in fact, living in the future, that technological change has accelerated to the point where nerdy and obsessive and living inside your own personal fantasy world you seek to realize is not only no longer the liability it once was, it’s practically a requirement for the new economy. Try getting a job at a “disruptive” Web 2.0 start-up and saying that your favorite entertainment is reassuring sitcoms about ordinary domestic life. The creepy kid who was once ostracized for drawing weird futuristic cityscapes populated by cyborgs all day is now your boss, and his utopian/dystopian vision for the future just got him a million-dollar round of investor capital.
Or maybe it’s that our generation was, as is frequently pointed out, the first generation entirely raised by TV, that we’ve been steadily approaching total media saturation since I was a toddler and that we are a generation for whom TV series and movies produced as commercial, mass-media schlock has the same “mythological” status as actual mythology and religion. I’ve dealt with people my age or younger where the easiest way to explain terms like “apollonian” and “dionysian” is to say “Batman vs. the Joker.”
But the single biggest reason I can see that fan culture has taken over the world is how much the world has shrunk. Being a true fan in a convention center, a stadium, an auditorium—that takes dedication, time and money. But we all turn into true fans in the intimacy and privacy of our own living rooms.
And the Internet makes the whole world one intimate living room. The impulse underlying all fannishness is the ability to look at some cultural artifact and go “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?” Wouldn’t it be cool if Dirk Benedict’s Starbuck character were basically the same but he was a girl? Wouldn’t it be cool if Lord of the Rings had all the rape, misogyny, and political backstabbing as the real Middle Ages? Wouldn’t it be cool if the ponies in My Little Pony had jobs and families and a social hierarchy and snarked at each other all the time like the friends on Friends?
It’s only really fun to do this if you’re around other, equally obsessive people who can share in your obsession and help it grow, and in the good old days, the amount of crazy fandom was directly and sharply limited by the supply of fellow fans to be crazy with. Back in the 1930s Sherlock Holmes fans who wanted an outlet had to subscribe to an actual printed quarterly newsletter from the Baker Street Irregulars and be able to attend a physical banquet in New York City every year. By the 1970s cheap mimeographing technology meant that original Star Trek fans bereft of their beloved show could exchange thoughts and musings far more quickly and cheaply—and those musings could go off-the-rails into bizarre pornography far more readily and rapidly.
In the 1990s, fandom gained a strong foothold on the geekier side of the Internet in the form of Usenet newsgroups and mailing lists. In the 2000s, the invention of social media (in the form of LiveJournal) and early Web 2.0 (in the form of wikis) enabled nearly everyone on the Internet to become a fan, and Harry Potter fanfic became the first genre of fanfic to reach such critical mass that mainstream media became fully aware of it and begins to report on it with bemusement and growing horror.
Now it’s the 2010s and everyone has a smartphone and everyone and their grandma has a Facebook wall on which everyone and their grandma is posting GIFs and memes and quizzes about the Red Wedding. Long after your significant other has tired of playing “Guess the Cylon” with you, a million fellow viewers on Facebook are willing to play with you long into the night. Think everyone else is TOTALLY WRONG about the nature of the Smoke Monster on Lost, but none of your co-workers want to hear it? Several wiki pages await, virginal and white, for you to encode your pet theory into “fanon,” after, of course, you win a weeklong edit war with those who disagree. Thrown into a foaming red rage by the ending of The Sopranos or Lost or BSG or Mass Effect? There once was a time when you’d have to let go of your anger and move on with your life for sheer lack of anyone to be angry at, but now there are comment threads to hijack, GIFs to plaster your Facebook wall with, online petitions to unironically submit to change.org, publicly leaked studio email addresses to send angry screeds to.
For better or for worse, the people making the media are listening to our voices more than ever before. The endless retreading of old properties seen in this light is the most natural of fan impulses—rather than abandon a beloved property for something else the true fan wants to see it done right.
The creators of the Mass Effect franchise spent countless developer-hours “fixing” the ending to Mass Effect 3 in direct response to fan outcry. The salient points of The Amazing Spider-Man reboot look like they were cribbed directly from complaints by Marvel fans about Sam Raimi’s adaptation. (“Spider-Man needs to be snarkier! His first girlfriend needs to be Gwen Stacy, not Mary Jane Watson! NO ORGANIC WEBSHOOTERS!”)
And now Glen A. Larson, creator of the original Battlestar Galactica, has the feature film rights back and seeks to undo the fanfic-ification of his work by removing the sexy hot chick Cylons and the soap opera drama and restore Battlestar Galactica to its pristine, pre-fandom state.
It’s a fool’s errand, though. Not just because Ron Moore’s Battlestar Galactica has indelibly left its mark on history enough to have the frakking U.N. do a retrospective on it. But because even if his film gets made, it’s just another fanfic, an attempt to take an existing franchise and make a new, improved version of it—what we in TVTropes land call a Fix Fic.
But, you might protest, that’s unfair to Larson. He’s not just any fan trying to impose his random vision on the series; he’s the original creator, and surely his vision for the series takes precedence over yours, mine, or even Ron Moore’s.
Nope. The Death of the Author folks finally won, and without really trying. LiveJournal, Facebook, Twitter, and the Web won their battle for them. Cheesy porno fanfic now outsells the original property it was based on. The hottest film franchise in the world is one giant, sprawling work of fanfiction run by King Fan Joss Whedon. The line between author and audience has been smeared beyond all recognition.
Welcome to the future. We’re all just fans here.