'Star Trek' showrunner Alex Kurtzman talks about toxic fandom
The legendary Jean-Luc Picard is back on our screens and that's a good thing. In fact, that's a great thing, but having such an enormous, impassioned audience — every single one of them with an opinion — is a tough crowd to cater for.
From the moment it was first announced that CBS was going to bring "Star Trek" back to our screens in November 2015, fans had reason to be excited once again. After all, it had been over 10 years since we last saw a new episode on our televisions, and even then, that was the soul-crushingly disappointing series finale of the underrated "Enterprise" in May 2005.
During that time, Disney bought Lucasfilm and breathed life back into "Star Wars," plus fans of that franchise at least had a couple of animated series to keep them going until December 2015, when "The Force Awakens" arrived on cinema screens. And "Star Wars" fans are a demanding bunch too, as was seen when the polarizing final sequel "The Rise of Skywalker" was released at the end of last year.
The reaction resulted in the widespread adoption of a new term, "toxic fandom." It can be generally summarized as a state of possessiveness and entitlement that leads to a feeling of superiority among a fan community. Even though the concept had existed for a long time prior, this was the first time it had been seen on such a scale.
Toxic fandom can take two forms: Fans may rant that any change is bad and nothing will ever be as good as the original, or they may refuse to acknowledge criticism even though it's supported by reasonable argument.
It's sometimes easy to overlook weak dialogue, poor writing, excessive exposition, too much technobabble, uneven story flow or a plot that strains belief, simply because we're overwhelmed to see our favorite characters back on our screens. It's important to maintain standards for writing, storytelling and production… — now more than ever, because we have to pay for the streaming service to watch our favorite shows. These shows are big business, each episode costs upwards of $8 million, and we're paying for it.
Space.com spoke with "Star Trek: Picard" executive producers Heather Kadin and Alex Kurtzman about this at the series premiere in Hollywood on Jan. 13.
"We always read feedback. I think it's invaluable," said Kadin. "I think to read feedback and obviously, if one person has a specific reaction to one thing, yes, that's that one person's opinion and is a point taken. But I think there's a lot of value in seeing that a group of fans react to a decision we've made in a positive or negative way, because I think ultimately there are people who have been fans of this show for 50 years … and who feel an ownership of this show beyond what we're doing with it.
"So I think to not listen to those reactions and listen to those criticisms, positive and negative, would be to do our own selves a disservice," she said.
"The fans have kept 'Star Trek' alive for over 50 years. Their voice has actually been the most pervasive of all, and I think it truly belongs to them," Kurtzman added.
"That's not just lip service. We really do pay attention to what they say and we end up either tacking in certain directions based on that input. But I think hearing [criticism] is part of the conversation. If you're a fan, there's always going to be debate about 'Star Trek.' I think generally 'Star Trek' fans are a really good bunch," he said.
"I don't perceive them as toxic, actually. I think there's a difference between debate and toxicity. Debate is essential. My feeling is that if you're at a 50/50 split, you're probably doing well. It's when you're at 90/10 that you're in trouble. So generally, my feeling is that we listen, we try and incorporate what they have to say — and we're writing as fans ourselves, so it would be foolish of us not to do that."
Unnecessary foul language and hateful remarks with no justification are exactly the sort of thing that prompted Wilson Cruz (Dr. Hugh Culber in "Discovery") to recently announce that he would no longer post production updates about Season 3 of "Discovery" on Twitter.
Social media certainly hasn't helped. Imagine how much worse the outcry would have been when news got out that the character of Starbuck was being regendered in Ron Moore's "Battlestar Galactica." And looked how that turned out: only the best sci-fi ever written for television.
One old article that pops up every now and again claims that fans were outraged over the announcement of casting on "The Next Generation," and while there was some outrage, some quotes from within the article are claimed to have been taken out of context. The article comes from the June 9, 1987 edition of the weekly tabloid magazine "Globe," so yes, it's entirely possible that they were indeed taken out of context, especially when you realize the individual being quoted was none other than Shirley Maiewski, a woman who is often called the "Grandma of Trek" and has been one of the show's biggest supporters since Day One.
That's not to say it doesn't exist; a great example is near the beginning of the truly amazing documentary, "What We Left Behind: Star Trek DS9" the cast read out some quite unkind comments and reviews that were written about "Deep Space Nine."
Ultimately, it is still all about opinions and we should all respect that, even if we don't agree.
As someone who has quite strong opinions on science fiction film and television, nothing makes my eyes light up more than when in a queue at a Comic-Con for example, someone offers an interesting and unusual opinion — that's different to mine — and we have the chance to talk about it. Live long, prosper and debate sci-fi responsibly.
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