The fight for creative ownership in franchise fiction

Cailean Alexander McBride

University of Glasgow, Glasgow, Scotland, United Kingdom

[0.1] Abstract—So-called franchise fiction, such as texts set in the Doctor Who, Star Trek, and Star Wars universes, as well as newer iterations based on video games, has an obvious and enduring appeal, most notably from a commercial perspective, with public recognition and built-in audiences. Creative practitioners, who are often fans themselves, embrace the opportunity to deepen the lore and possibilities of the property, as well as to make an original contribution to something they are invested in. However, there are some downsides, particularly issues surrounding the maintenance and expansion of an established canon and the management of fans who feel a protective and curatorial sense of ownership.

[0.2] Keywords—Doctor Who; Fanagement; Fandom; Steven Moffat

McBride, Cailean Alexander. 2020. "The Fight for Creative Ownership in Franchise Fiction." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 34.

1. "Always read the comments": Fans and creators of franchise fictions

[1.1] In "The Doctor Falls," the 2017 penultimate episode that Steven Moffat wrote during his tenure as showrunner of BBC TV show Doctor Who (1963–1989, 2005–present), he has the central character of the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) proclaim: "Always read the comments because one day there'll be an army of them." This is more than merely a smart and snappy line, although it certainly is that. Moffat is reaching out to acknowledge the audience itself, perhaps even engage in dialogue with them. It is an acknowledgment that a relationship exists between creator and fan—a dependent one, at that. (We could also perhaps read it on an even more metatextual level as a word of advice, perhaps even warning, from an outgoing showrunner to his incoming replacement, Chris Chibnall.) In this essay, I seek to explore the precise nature of that dialogue and its inherent tensions and apparent benefits, as well as discuss how it can complicate and enhance the modern writing process. In doing so, I hope to expose a phenomenon that lies at the heart of modern franchise fictions—an ever-present—and intensifying—tussle for proprietary ownership and custodianship of these creative properties.

2. Defining franchise fictions

[2.1] Put in its simplest form, franchise fictions are creative properties, almost exclusively in the SF/fantasy genres, that have seen various iterations of the core concept over the years as production teams tinker with and alter the core creative premise of the property, offering fresh (and sometimes conflicting) interpretations of the source material. The franchise part of the description undoubtedly comes from the Star Trek franchise, which has seen several distinct but connected creative iterations over the years, each with its own production team and creative ethos while still operating under the overarching banner of the core property. The analogy has since spread to other creative properties that operate in a similar fashion.

[2.2] However, there is a secondary but significant distinction to be made in the sense that many of the most high-profile franchises have suffered "wilderness periods," where the property was no longer in active production and any ongoing sense of the property's narrative fell to the fans, in the form of fan fiction, fan art, fanzines, and even full-blown fan productions. These wilderness periods can often add to the richness and diversity of the core property and demonstrate its resilience to networks and studios on the lookout for robust and successful creative content. But it can also cause potential problems for both creators and fans once professional production recommences.

3. Wilderness periods and disputed consecration

[3.1] The division between the creators of franchise fictions and those who consume them had once been highly demarcated and distinct but had become increasingly porous and permeable by the time the Doctor Who franchise's wilderness period came to an end in 2005. By way of an example, we can look at the revived show's first two showrunners, Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat, who possessed convincing credentials as both fans and professional content producers. Both had parallel careers as successful television creatives outside of fandom and it was their reputations and expertise in those roles that positioned them to revive and continue the show.

[3.2] The fan credentials of Davies and Moffat were not unimportant, however, and these credentials were certainly significant in how these showrunners were positioned in terms of engagement with legacy fandoms. Matt Hills points out that for genre shows (such as Doctor Who), an assertion of auteurism can lend the property legitimacy (2002, 133). Thanks to wilderness years and active fan participation, these are constituencies that it is no longer wise to ignore or ridicule in the way that they might once have been. As Hills observes, "fan consumers are no longer viewed as eccentric irritants, but rather as loyal consumers to be created, where possible, or otherwise to be courted" (2002, 36).

[3.3] The writer or showrunner (categories that often but do not necessarily overlap) must engage in something of a balancing act, trying to ensure that she does not alienate the casual viewer who is no more invested in this show than any other while maintaining and ideally deepening fan interest in the program. Jim Collins identifies the emergence of "coalition audiences" coming from a number of different backgrounds, and with different needs and outlooks, to be serviced by amalgamated "marketing strategy parallels" (1992, 342). Serving these overlapping but distinct audiences is a significant and emerging challenge for creators and coordinators of franchise fictions and one that we might understand by way of two concepts raised by sociologist Pierre Bourdieu.

[3.4] The first concept is consecration. Bourdieusian consecration is the processes by which a cultural product is accorded legitimation within the cultural field itself (Bourdieu 1996, 224). However, the cultural shifts identified by Hills above mean that the nature of artistic consecration, in this sense, has undergone alteration. Whereas Gene Roddenberry (Star Trek) or any of the many producers of Doctor Who properties could gain their legitimacy from the networks who employed them as well as recognized cultural authorities such as newspaper reviewers and interviewers, the content producers who succeeded them in these properties would also have to derive their artistic consecration at least partly from the fans themselves.

[3.5] The second concept is hysteresis. Doctor Who's wilderness period, essentially from 1989 to 2005 with the brief blip of a made-for-TV movie in 1996, also coincided with a period of burgeoning hysteresis, which is described (by Cheryl Hardy after Bourdieu) as technology outstripping traditional creative and economic practices, within the cultural field of broadcasting itself (2014). It was one that allowed the property to survive the termination of official production, but it also dramatically and irrevocably altered the terms in which both fans and creators could engage with it. This is, of course, an ongoing and continuing process, particularly with the advent of digital and streaming technologies, and it would mark the beginning of an ongoing tension between creators and fans.

4. (Re)making history: Managing the canon

[4.1] One of the fundamental creative challenges associated with the writing of franchise fictions is the sheer volume of backstory or canon that they can accrue, particularly in the case of long-lived franchise properties. Any ongoing narrative of any length will accrete backstory or in-world history that will ultimately become unwieldy and often contradictory. Canonical details can either be forgotten or ignored by creative teams who find them inconvenient or creatively constricting.

[4.2] This is an area where the writer could find herself coming directly into conflict with a fandom that considers itself the custodian of such archival material and will take a dim view of it being ignored or contradicted. How the lead writer/showrunner in any particularly long-lived property deals with this issue can be one of the primary flashpoints for creator/fan conflict. What these debates amount to is an increasing complexity in juggling a master narrative that has become unwieldy. Davies's successor as showrunner, Steven Moffat, took the opportunity on the eve of the show's fiftieth anniversary, in the episode "Night of the Doctor," to streamline the show's canon and render the sheer critical mass of the show's accrued canonicity into a manageable and coherent narrative. His "impossible girl" story arc culminated in having the character of Clara (played by Jenna Coleman) leap into the Doctor's timeline, subtly rewriting the show's entire fifty-year history—keeping it intact but with an inbuilt ambiguity that would free writers from the constraints of an absolute adherence to past continuity while still rendering it available to be called upon in the future. Paul Booth observes that Clara becomes "a connective tissue that both highlights and liberates the show's own history" (2014, 207). And Hills notes that the move essentially means that the "expertise accumulated by sectors of fandom is opened to a radical destabilization, even while the long-established fan wishes for coherent continuity are catered for" (2015, 367). He also notes in another essay that Moffat took the opportunity to indulge in some transmedia "fanagement" to coordinate the various, and perhaps conflicting, audience expectations around the anniversary milestone (2014, 110) by offering the webisodes "Night of the Doctor" and the more humorous "The Six-ish Doctors."

[4.3] These are quite complex transactions. In "Night of the Doctor," Moffat namechecks the events and characters from the Big Finish audio adventures, essentially canonizing narratives that had previously remained in the realm of fan fiction, integrating them into the main narrative, while simultaneously rendering that entire narrative ambiguous, as described above. This could be seen purely as fan service, a little gift to fandom on the occasion of the anniversary, but it is possible to also view it as a concession or even a distraction from a more aggressive act of reclaiming the show's canon for the creators and wresting its ownership away from the curator/fans who had maintained and preserved it during the wilderness years of nonproduction.

5. Fantagonisms: A growing disconnect between creators and fans?

[5.1] Seen in this light, it's possible to argue that there is an inbuilt tension between fans and creators, with, on the one hand, a fan resentment about the creators' privileged position in furthering the official narrative and, on the other, an ambivalence from creators toward the fans who, as we've seen, are now an integral part of their coalition audience. In his book The Writer's Tale Davies highlights the ongoing division between fan and creator in a discussion of online criticism: "Creating something is not a democracy. The people have no say. The artist does. It doesn't matter what people witter on about; they and their response comes after. They're not there for the creation" (Davies and Cook 2010, 104).

[5.2] That online fan criticism can spill over into personal attack and adversely affect the morale and confidence of creatives is something, Davies says, that makes him furious. It's a sentiment echoed by Moffat in a YouTube interview: "I have to say to all of the writers and directors who come onto the show, you do not go on social media, you will not go there because I don't want you upset." However, it's worth noting that in the same interview, Moffat expresses regret at this state of affairs. "We're supposed to be out among our audience," he laments. "Talking to our audience but if you have that poison [online fan invective], then you can't with a good conscience suggest that people do that" (2018).

[5.3] And so, we see a secondary, although no less pressing, challenge facing writers of franchise and wilderness fictions beyond the mere ongoing production of complex and ever-unfolding texts, to borrow Tulloch and Alvarado's memorable term (1983). As well as not inconsiderable creative responsibilities, showrunners and executives must also balance a personal identity of being fans that gives them the legitimacy of their position while maintaining a nominal distance from fandom in order to protect their creatives from online attack. However, the importance of coalition audiences and the necessity of the fan consecration of authorial legitimacy means that creatives cannot just ignore the fan community as they could perhaps in the past. It's now necessary to keep as positive a relationship as possible.

[5.4] And so we have a situation where the traditional fan role as curators of canon is undermined as that canon is either rewritten or rendered so ambiguous that its centrality to an appreciation of the property is called into question while studios simultaneously place stringent restrictions on the manner in which fans can appreciate and engage with the movies/shows that they love. A recent example is the case of the copyright holders of Star Trek seeking judicial intervention to restrict the activities of the producers of fan production Axanar (Burt 2017).

6. Conclusion: A shared creative space?

[6.1] Many of the most beloved franchise fictions—Doctor Who, Star Trek, Star Wars—have their origins in the predigital age of media production. But production, public consumption, and fan activity have changed profoundly in that time. No longer do fans have to resort to mimeo-copied fanzines or letter campaigns; they can now interact directly with production teams via social media or parody them in fan-made videos. The internecine debates that used to take place between fans and creators are fully visible to the public at large now—and can negatively influence the success and social perception of the property. This has led creators to withdraw from direct fan engagement and resort instead to the kind of fanagement discussed above. This naturally adds a further layer of complication to the matter of writing and running franchise fictions and it will undoubtedly be incumbent upon future creators to develop strategies to cope with this ongoing challenge. It seems increasingly likely as creative technologies evolve that these tensions are only going to increase and that these strategies will require the utilization of a shared creative space where practitioners and fans can negotiate mutually beneficial and productive participatory relationships.

7. References

Booth, Paul. 2014. "Periodising Doctor Who." Science Fiction Film and Television 7 (2): 195–215.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1996. The Rules of Art. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Burt, Kaity. 2017 "Judge Rules in Star Trek Axanar Fan Film Lawsuit." Den of Geek, January 17, 2017.

Collins, Jim. 1992. "Television and Postmodernism." In Channels of Discourse, Reassambled: Television and Contemporary Criticism, edited by Robert C. Allen, 321–53. London: Metheun.

Davies, Russell T., and Benjamin Cook. 2010. Doctor Who: The Writer's Tale—The Final Chapter. London: BBC Books.

Hardy, Cheryl. 2014. "Hysteresis." In Pierre Bourdieu: Key Concepts, edited by Michael Grenfell, 126–45. London: Routledge.

Hills, Matt. 2002. Fan Cultures. London: Routledge, 2002.

Hills, Matt. 2014. "When Doctor Who Enters Its Own Timeline: The Database Aesthetics and Hyperdiegesis of Multi-Doctor Stories." Critical Studies in Television 9 (1): 95–113.

Hills, Matt. 2015. "The Expertise of Digital Fandom as a 'Community of Practice': Exploring the Narrative Universe of Doctor Who." Convergence 21 (3): 360–74.

Moffat, Steven. 2018. "Steven Moffat On Matt Smith's Era, Writing The 50th Anniversary & MORE!." Doctor Who: The Fan Show. Video, 24:40.

Tulloch, John, and Manuel Alvarado. 1983. Doctor Who: The Unfolding Text. London: Macmillan.