Is This The World We Created?

The news that Yahoo groups is shutting down has hit me, and hit me hard, as you can probably tell by the fact that this is my second rambling post in a matter of hours on that particular subject, even if I usually try to update only twice a week. The thing is that knowing that I would soon lose access to this particular resource has sent me rummaging through my fic collection, and that has caused me to rediscover some stories I had all but forgotten. It has also made me realize just how much the world has changed because stories that were deemed to be way ahead of the curve when it came to gay rights less than twenty years ago would now cause their authors to be burned at the stake by the queer community’s speech police (a point that was driven home by the realization that some classics, such as Diana Williams’s Misconceptions, have had what seem to me to be some rather ridiculous trigger warnings added to their descriptions to address modern sensitivities). Fanfiction may have been a small component of that shift, but it was most definitely a part of it, and I would really like to see the old stories being recognized for what they did, not pilloried for what we now think they should be.

They are a testament to the way things were, and a reminder of how far we have come.

Back in the 1970’s it was the early authors of Star Trek fanfiction that adopted the use of a slash to symbolize a pairing… more specifically a male/male pairing (in that particular context that usually translated into Kirk/Spock), and as fanfiction expanded, especially with the advent of the internet in the 1990’s, the term slash came to be applied to all stories dealing with two characters of the same gender involved in a sexual relationship that were not depicted as such in the show’s official canon. Yes, today the symbol is used as a shorthand to represent all pairings, as opposed to the ampersand that denotes friendship (think Kirk/Spock as opposed to Kirk & Spock), but the connotations of the term remain (though there is some debate when it comes to something that wasn’t even a factor back in the early days: whether or not the term applies to same sex pairings that are part of a franchise’s canon). Anyway, even though I have never written a slash story, I have read my fair share of them, especially because slash was so prevalent in the fandoms towards which I gravitated. Those fandoms would be mostly Highlander, The Sentinel, and Stargate SG-1. Later I became interested in Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, and on the reboot of Battlestar Galactica. It is an interesting collection of fandoms in this particular context because they do serve to illustrate some fascinating changes in popular culture rather nicely.

The first two (and some would expand that to the first three) of the lot were fandoms that had a natural tendency towards slash due to the lack of anything remotely resembling interesting female characters, a problem that goes back all the way to Star Trek (Uhura may have been an absolutely revolutionary character back in the day, but unless you start pairing the guys off with each other, she would have found herself a little too busy, not to mention that back in those days biracial couples were… about as popular as same sex ones), but that was before my time, so let me get back to those fandoms I am more intimately familiar with. There were no major, and few minor, female characters in The Sentinel (in fact that one featured two guys living together, so slash felt almost like a natural extension of the things that were actually depicted on screen). In Highlander there were two that did play a major role, but one was killed off at the end of season one (Tessa), and the other one was a recurring, but not regular, character that served mostly as comic relief (Amanda). The rest of the characters were not just male, but most were also so old that they were unlikely to be too worried about something as passing as current prejudices. Stargate SG-1 had one interesting major female character for the better part of its run (that would be Sam), but she was still outnumbered three to one, and the show went out of its way to emphasize the fact that while there might be some sexual tension, there was absolutely no hanky-panky going on behind the scenes. That brings us to the last two shows on my list: Buffy, and BSG, shows in which slash is not as dominant as it is in the other three. In Buffy we finally find an interesting female leading character, and not just that, we also have the first officially recognized same sex couple of primetime TV (Willow/Tara). As for BSG, that show not only had a sensible balance of male to female characters, but also the relationships were better defined. That made slash into a more awkward fit. To write a Jim/Blair story in The Sentinel, or a Duncan/Methos one in Highlander, the only thing you had to do was widen the lenses a little. In Buffy and BSG you actually had to break something to get to that point, with Stargate SG-1 falling somewhere between those extremes.

Anyway, another thing those five shows have in common is that they are old, especially the first two. In fact those two date back to the dawn of the internet, or before, which is why they found a home in Yahoo groups, as opposed to a more newfangled community. The Sentinel also has something few modern (minor) shows seem to have: a committed fan base that has literally stuck around for decades, where even though few fics are beings written, the community remains tight knit… which is basically what triggered this whole rant. But back to our story. Highlander ran from 1992 to 1998, The Sentinel ran from 1996 to 1999, Stargate SG-1 ran from 1997 to 2007 (though I admit I stopped watching after season five, when some fundamental changes I was not too keen on were introduced). Buffy ran from 1997 to 2003, and BSG ran somewhat intermittently from 2003 to 2009 (it began with a mini series, was then picked up as a regular show, but there is one year in which no real season was produced, and the DVD sets were a mess due to some marketing gimmicks, meaning that even though the above mentioned dates are separated by six years, the canon for that one comprises only four full seasons, plus two made for TV movies). That means that they do provide a fascinating insight into the ways in which TV as a medium evolved in what was a truly transformative period.

The first two shows date back to a time when there were no DVD releases at all. Back in those days, while there was a basic premise, and the characters did evolve a bit throughout a show’s life time, the episodes were conceived mostly as stand-alone stories, and there wasn’t usually a grand narrative tying them together. What you had were, at most, major inflection points –with maybe the occasional cliffhanger– at the end of any given season. That was in part out of necessity, as the last thing the producers wanted was to lose their audience through a process of attrition, as missing a single episode would have caused you to get lost in a more complex narrative, with no reliable alternatives to catch up. Even though it is a bit more recent, the first few seasons of Stargate follow the same pattern, which was well established within the industry. It is only halfway through Buffy’s run that that begins to change, while BSG was one of the first shows that were conceived with a DVD audience, and the associated possibility of binge watching, firmly in mind, meaning that for the first time the creators could tell a coherent story spanning the entirety of the series with full confidence that they were not erecting an insurmountable barrier that would keep those who hadn’t been following the show from day one from joining in the fun.
It’s been an interesting transformation, and I admit that I like the possibilities the ability to binge watch has unleashed. I also love the higher production values, and the far more sophisticated story lines, but at the same time a part of me longs for the old days, when it was up to us fanfic writers to fill in the blanks.
Yes, fanfiction is still being written, but our attention spans seem to have shrunk… or maybe it is that modern shows tend to have a well defined end point that makes it harder for their fans to keep them going, but the thing is that the newer fandoms seem to die a lot sooner. The Sentinel and Highlander were still active fandoms ten years after the show’s demise, BSG, which is only ten years old (and that’s without taking a couple of spin-offs into account), is long gone, and even more recent shows, such as Sherlock, seem to be following a similar path.

So yes, I mourn the days of the old shows, of Yahoo groups, and of truly tight knit communities, and a time when fandom, in its own small way, was years ahead of the curve, doing its share to reshape the world.

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