Fan Service: Learning When to Let Go

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Fan Service is a semi-regular column I'll be writing about fandom in mainstream media — anything from Gaga‘s Little Monsters and Disney starlet worshippers on Twitter to older, established communities operating on Tumblr and LiveJournal.

The past 24 hours have seen an unprecedented backlash in the Firefly fan community, as Browncoats became split over the Help Nathan Buy Firefly movement. It's strange how we got here, actually: A few weeks ago, EW announced that The Science Channel would air re-runs of Joss Whedon‘s sci-fi western, which had a brief, 14-episode run on Fox in 2002 before it was cancelled. Then former star Nathan Fillion made an offhand comment that if he won the California Lottery he'd buy the show's rights from Fox, fans took him at his word and set up Help Nathan Buy Firefly. Fillion quickly retracted his statement, but the ball had already started rolling.

Yesterday, the organizers unveiled “The Big Damn Plan,” an endeavor to buy the rights not for Fillion, but for themselves. The long message was enthusiastic… and very embarrassing. Cringeworthy to read, because I knew that they hadn't lied about the hours of debate that had gone into this business plan, the commitments made, for something that was never going to hold water. The rhetoric was, honestly, difficult to read:

Now you’re probably saying to yourself “that’s crazy talk! Nathan said don’t do it!”  We say: Nathan specifically told fans not to buy the rights for him, but he didn’t say anything about fans buying the rights for themselves. Our team has discussed this at length, and though we’re really cautious, we just plain feel its worth a shot – crowdfunding could be the way of the future for film.

…We’ve reached the tipping point.  We have to know if the the fans out there are in the foxhole with us.  We could come up with all the best laid plans in the world, but without the support of the people, they would all be for naught. This will take time, determination and patience from us all. But that time and energy could create an extremely powerful force, unlike anything before seen in Hollywood or around the world.

These fans seemed to be pushing forward blindly, unaware of the scope of what they were aiming for. And it was embarrassing because there were those of us — including proud Browncoats who gently argued in the extensive comment thread — who were able to get our heads above water and see that this wasn't useful.

Ultimately, all it took was a tweet from Maurissa Tancharoen, Whedon's sister-in-law, to stop the plan in its tracks: Guys, no one in the Whedonverse is in support of [HNBF]. Please save your money! Similar pleas came from others close to the fold:

Fillion's original attempt to fix the situation: It's beautiful to dream of more Firefly, but PLEASE DON'T SEND ANY MONEY. Just keep being great Browncoats, which you are!

Jane Espenson, who wrote for Buffy, Angel, and Firefly: I made a whimsical comment about #Firefly – if Joss revived the show, I'd help. But it's not practical. Save your $ for #Avengers tix… [When asked why HNBF wasn't practical] Joss not avail. Few writers or cast members avail. Rights not for sale. Little interest from studios/networks. Other than that…

Last night, HNBF posted this message to its Facebook page: So, that's a wrap. We'll keep the site open as a memory for a bit and if any Whedons need to reach us, hit the button. It's humiliating to see them concede defeat, even as I'm incredibly relieved that this short-lived craziness is over.

I can't blame them; with the Internet bringing fan communities together, the '00s saw many beloved series reinvigorated, creating actual precedent for these eager viewers, artists, and writers. When teen alien show Roswell was on the bubble in 2000, fans sent tiny Tabasco bottles — the characters' condiment of choice — to WB exceutives and managed to get the show moved to a new timeslot, where it flourished for another two years. Jericho fans did the same with peanuts and CBS. Even Firefly got another chance, as the feature film Serenity. But it didn't make enough money to warrant another film, and that was that.

These successes can make fans feel pretty heady, that they have power and their beloved series is invincible. However, a downside (and often negative portrayal) of fandom is of people who get so wrapped up in their show that they dispense with all common sense. Successes like the ones I mentioned must be taken with a huge grain of salt, and fans need to be able to differentiate between legitimate campaign and fever dream. Often, in lieu of the show itself returning, these online communities, with fanfiction and intense discussions and cosplay, have to be enough.