Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes. Photo: BBC/Robert Viglasky
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Laurie Penny on Sherlock: The Adventure of the Overzealous Fanbase

Whose wankfest is this anyway? The BBC's Sherlock doesn’t just engage with fan fiction - it is fan fiction.

When I was nineteen, I briefly shared a flat with a young lesbian couple who liked to go to parties dressed as Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson. They accessorised with moustaches and dapper little hats and their own interpretation of what went on at Baker Street after Mrs Hudson had retired to bed. I had read and loved Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories as a kid. It was these girls, though, who taught me what fannishness could really mean - loving a story so hard, so shamelessly, that you let it change you, and maybe you change it in turn.

Some years later, I lived just off Baker Street, and walked to work past the Sherlock Holmes Hotel (complete with Watson Burger for American pilgrims) and a tube station plastered with tile profiles of a familiar figure with a deerstalker and pipe. The line between fan fiction and actual fiction has always been fuzzier than people wanted to admit - and the many worlds of Sherlock Holmes bear that out, none more so than the recent BBC "re-imagining", now in its third series. It is possible that no showrunners have ever been more gleefully fannish than Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat.

You can almost hear the wrinkle-nosed whine in Guardian critic Mark Lawson’s voice when he describes the latest episodes of Sherlock as “blog-aware”. Lawson notes that “a running gag in the script [referenced] the wild and sometimes lurid online speculation in the real world about the circumstances in which the detective had apparently been able to fake his death in a rooftop fall at the end of the second series in 2012. Two lengthy sequences proved to be fan fantasies dreamed up by characters within the drama who were as obsessed with the fate of Sherlock as are viewers on the outside.” Lawson thinks this is a bad thing. Lawson, along with a great many other critics, would prefer that storytelling remained appropriately hierarchial - with writers and showrunners from the right backgrounds at the top, and everybody else watching along quietly and not making a fuss. I beg to differ, and here’s why.

Fan-ficcers are used to being treated as the pondscum of the nerd world, a few slimy feet below the table-top roleplayers and historical re-enacters. They don’t care, because they know - alright, alright, because we know - that fanfic is brilliant. I’ve spent many years hanging out in fanfic communities, mostly as a reader rather than a writer (my cringeworthy teenage Buffy slash was mostly done on paper). Fan fiction is where modern storytelling enters the realm of myth and folktale, where characters take on a life beyond the control of their authors, where they are let loose in communities with their own ideas about how to tell a story. More and more writers are coming out of those communities - not just E L James with her steamy Twilight rip-off, but fanficcers who break out into publishing their own original books, sometimes to great critical acclaim. 

Excuse me, by the way, from taking a break from serious social justice writing to totally nerd out. It’s just that I’m desperately interested in stories, and who gets to tell them, and who has to listen.

Fan fiction is nothing new, and nor is the statement “fan fiction is nothing new”. Most discussions of the practice speak of Star Trek fanstories dating back to the sixties, and point to the influence of fan speculation on Joss Whedon when he was running Buffy. But actually, fan fiction is far older than that. It wasn’t until the Romantic period that originality was considered an essential skill for a storyteller to have. Before then, a truly great writer would be distinguished by his ability - and it usually was his ability - to provide a new reading of a classic tale or legend, to bring a familiar character or archetype viscerally to life. 

Chaucer and Shakespeare lifted plots from everywhere. Poets in 17th century Britain got attention for their experimental poems by translating or rehashing great Greek and Latin works. Retelling old myths and creation legends, from fairytales to the Nordic folktales, is still a storytelling staple, especially given that Hermes and Odysseus are definitely characters in the public domain and there’s no risk of an bearded, betogaed ancient author hobbling into your office with a writ demanding a share of royalties.

Sherlock Holmes is now in the public domain, too. Just weeks ago, a Chicago judge ruled that any writer may use the characters of Holmes and Dr John Watson in whatever way they see fit. The ruling makes it clear that Sherlock Holmes has entered the territory of myth. The stories belong to everyone and noone. The same is tacitly true of Doctor Who, even though that story isn’t over yet: it’s a legend that extends across multiple platforms and spans decades, a saga that has gone on long enough that the people telling it today grew up with it as children, including the incoming lead actor, Peter Capaldi, whose adorable pubescent Fourth Doctor fan-art can be found online.

Martin Freeman as Dr Watson with Sherlock. Photo: BBC/Robert Viglasky

Stories like Harry Potter, Twilight and The Hunger Games occupy the same territory in the collective imagination, even though there is far less legal confusion over who owns the characters and how cross they would be if anyone were to plonk them into a new book or series for profit. For this reason, fan fiction is usually done for free. Even slash writers with a creative grasp of grammar learn to plaster disclaimers on their work. 

Anyone can be involved in the story like this, though it might not always be a comfortable experience for the individual author.  Last week, I had tea with a young fantasy novelist who confessed to me that, whilst she was pleased that her book was getting attention on Tumblr, reading fanfic about characters she had created unnerved her - not just because of the sense that someone was stealing them, but because she was worried it might overinfluence the books she has still to write. 

Sherlock, however, doesn’t just engage with fan fiction - it is fan fiction. The writers most involved in Doctor Who and Sherlock are lifelong fans of both stories. Steven Moffat, who is showrunner on both series, would be the luckiest fanboy in the world if it wasn't for Mark Gatiss, who is co-creator and gets to play a plum lead role on Sherlock, as Mycroft Holmes, despite bearing absolutely no resemblance to Benedict Cumberbatch, whose brother he is supposed to be. It is as joyfully indulgent as any piece of fanfic I have ever encountered. That doesn’t make it critically redundant. Actually, it’s by far my favourite aspect of the show. 

I’ve got a lot of problems with Steven Moffat’s narrative choices - starting with his ability to reduce even the most interesting female characters to bland archetypes - but fanservice isn’t one of them. Why shouldn’t a show engage with its fanbase? Especially this one, which is part of a suspicious explosion of recent Sherlockian homage - including Elementary, the camptastic Robert Downey Junior films and the new books that kicked off the Chicago lawsuit. The Holmes stories are now folklore, and that changes the implications of who’s in control.

The Great Detective has always had uppity fans. When Arthur Conan Doyle sent Holmes tumbling over the Reichenbach Falls in The Final Problem (1893), he was never intending to bring him back. Ten years later, he caved into public pressure and reanimated Holmes. Conan Doyle clearly envisioned Holmes as essentially fallible, a mortal man like any other; his reading public thought different, insisting that the detective could and should find a way to cheat death. 

What Doctor Who and Sherlock offer us right now is a chance to see what modern fan fiction would look like if it was written by well-paid, well-respected middle-aged men with a big fat budget. That sort of fanfiction is usually referred to simply as fiction. Moffatt recently declared that Sherlock Holmes stories are fundamentally about “celebrating a clever man. Are they? I thought they were about the triumph of reason over superstition, the power of friendship, and derring-do. I have no more right to an opinion on this than Moffatt does - but no less, and nor does anyone else who loves the Sherlock stories, including whoever came up with the Watson Burger.

And that’s where the problem is. Moffat and Gatiss may write with one eye on their fanbase, but their ideal fanbase still looks a lot like them, which is what people of their demographic usually mean when they talk about writing for a mainstream audience. They write the sort of stories that would interest smart teenage boys who grew up in the 1970s and 1960s; stories about clever men in which women are dispensable love objects, figures of derision, or both. The pining, put-upon character of Molly Hooper in Sherlock, one of the few characters with no easy equivalent in the original stories, is painful to watch as she mopes around after Holmes like a lovesick puppy. A lot of fanfic sets out to put that right, ensuring that Molly gets the boy, her own adventure, revenge, or all three.

The idea persists that one person’s wankfest is worthier than another. During a preview panel event at the British Film Institute some weeks ago,  writer and Times critic Caitlin Moran got Sherlock actors Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman to read out some steamy fanfic she had found on the internet for the amusement of the crowd*. The author of the piece was upset, accusing Moran of “humiliating me, taking my writing out of context without permission, belittling it and using it to embarrass actors who I deeply admire”. But what was read out can hardly have been sillier than the endless nudge-nudge implications about Sherlock and Watson by Moffatt’s modern-day Mrs Hudson. This series has devoted serious time, including all of last week’s episode, to the question that has fascinated fans from the start: how much, and in what way, are the doctor and the detective really involved?

The dream-scenario in which Sherlock and Moriarty are actually lovers playing a trick on Watson and end up in a crafty rooftop clinch was so much fun that the people sitting either side of me as it aired had to hold me down lest I levitate off the sofa. The scene then cuts to a grumpy teenage member of a conspiracy club - a lovely cameo by Sharon Rooney - explaining that the Sherlock elopes with his nemesis story is hardly less fanciful than anything anyone else has come up with. She’s dead right. Later in the series two men are stabbed with skewers but we’re supposed to believe they can’t feel it because their uniforms are too tight, and a train full of explosives at an abandoned underground station right under parliament somehow remains undetected until zero hour. All of these things are significantly less plausible than gay sex. I’m just saying.

What is significant about unofficial, extra-canonical fan fiction is that it often spins the kind of stories that showrunners wouldn’t think to tell, because fanficcers often come from a different demographic. The discomfort seems to be not that the shows are being reinterpreted by fans, but that they are being reinterpreted by the wrong sorts of fans - women, people of colour, queer kids, horny teenagers, people who are not professional writers, people who actually care about continuity (sorry). The proper way for cultural mythmaking to progress, it is implied, is for privileged men to recreate the works of privileged men from previous generations whilst everyone else listens quietly. That’s how it’s always been done. That’s how it should be done in the future, whatever Tumblr  says.

But time can be rewritten. Myths can bend and change. Something new and exciting is happening in the world of storytelling, and fans are an important part of it. All kinds of fans, from obsessive cupboard-dwellers to the shouty social justice crowd to livejournal perverts who just want to know what Sherlock would have to say about the chemical composition of personal lubricant. 

On this and other matters, it doesn’t do showrunners any harm to pay attention to their fans. We are living in a world of stories where thousands of new voices from diverse communities are speaking up, sharing ideas and creating new worlds out of the shadows of the ones we knew as children - but so far, a handful of professional chaps still get to make the decisions. Now, where have we heard that one before?

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*I understand the writer’s distress, but I don’t believe Moran intended to mock the posture of fannishness. A lot of her own job involves squealing in an entertaining, relatable fashion about shows and books she loves. Exhibit A: her entire public response to the potential casting of Ben Whishaw as The Doctor was “NOT ENOUGH WANKING IN THE WORLD.”

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Photo: NRK
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Skam, interrupted: why is the phenomenally popular teen drama ending before its peak?

The show has been building towards high school graduation – but now it’s ending before its lead characters finish school.

“Have you heard they started their bus already?”
“No!”
“One month into high school – and they started their bus.”

This Skype conversation between Eva and Isak comes early in the first episode of Skam. The phenomenally internationally successful series follows teenagers at a high school in Oslo. The “bus” they're discussing is a key plot point and concern of the students' lives. That’s because, in Norway, graduating high school students participate in “russefeiring” – it’s a rite of passage into adulthood, a celebration of completing high school, and a farewell to friends departing for university or jobs around the country.

Students gather into groups, give their gang a name, wear matching coloured overalls, rent a big car or a van, and spend late April to mid May (17 May – Norwegian Constitution Day) continuously partying. They call it the “three week binge”. It’s a big fucking deal. 

Skam, with its focus on teens in high school, has therefore spent a lot of time thinking about “russ”. The show, which is set at the exact same time it airs, has followed its four main characters Eva, Noora, Isak and Sana (who each have a season of the show written from their perspective, a la Skins), as well as all their friends, from their first few weeks at school in September 2015. In other words, preparations take years, and we’ve heard a lot about the plans for their russ bus.

In season one, Eva has fallen out with her best friend, and is hurt when she hears she is moving on and has formed a new bus, with new friends, called Pepsi Max.

We meet one of the show’s most prominent characters, Vilde, when we see her trying to get a bus of girls together. The show’s five main girl characters, Eva, Noora, Vilde, Chris and Sana, become friends because of her efforts: they bond during their “bus meetings” and fundraising attempts. They flirt with a group of boys on a bus calling themselves “The Penetrators”.

The latest season follows Sana’s struggles to ensure the bus doesn’t fall apart, and an attempt to join buses with rivals Pepsi Max. The joyful climax of season four comes when they finally buy their own bus and stop social-climbing, naming themselves “Los Losers”. Bus drama is the glue that keeps the show together.

But now, in June 2017, a whole year before the characters graduate, Skam is ending. The architect of the girls’ bus, Vilde, has never had her own season, unlike most of her friends. Many assumed that Vilde would have had her own season during her final year at school. Fans insist the show’s creator Julie Andem planned nine seasons in total, yet Skam is ending after just four.

The news that Skam would stop after season four came during the announcement that Sana, a Muslim member of the “girl squad”, would be the next main character. The show’s intense fandom were delighted by the character choice, but devastated at the news that there would only be one more season. “I can’t accept that this is the last season,” one wrote on Reddit.

“I'm so shocked and sad. It’s honestly just...weird. It doesn’t make sense, and it’s not fair. It’s not fair that we’re not getting a Vilde season. Most importantly, it’s not fair that we’ll never get to see them on their russ, see them graduating, nothing. It seems like such an abrupt decision. It doesn’t serve the storyline at all.”

No one has given a concrete reason about why the show ended prematurely. Ina, who plays Chris, said in an interview that “we all need a break”.

Some fans went into denial, starting petitions to encourage Andem to continue with the show, while rumours abound suggesting it will return. 

Many speculated that the show simply became too popular to continue. “I think that the show would have had six seasons and a Vilde season if the show didn’t become popular outside of Scandinavia,” one wrote. “I think the pressure and the large amount of cringy fans (not saying that some Scandinavian fans aren’t cringy) has made making the show less enjoyable for the actors and creators.”

Andem has stayed mostly quiet on her reasons for ending the show, except for a statement made via her Instagram. She recalls how very early on, during a season one shoot, someone first asked her how long the show would last:

“We were standing in the schoolyard at Nissen High School, a small, low-budget production crew, one photographer, the sound engineer and me. ‘Who knows, but I think we should aim for world domination,’ I said. We all laughed, ‘cause I was obviously joking. None of us understood then how big Skam would turn out to be. This experience has been completely unreal, and a joy to be a part of.”

Skam has been a 24/7 job,” she continues. “We recently decided that we won’t be making a new season this fall. I know many of you out there will be upset and disappointed to hear this, but I’m confident this is the right decision.”

Many fans feel that season four has struggled under the burden of ending the show – and divisions and cracks have appeared in the fandom as a result.

Some feel that Sana’s season has been overshadowed by other characters and plotlines, something that is particularly frustrating for those who were keen to see greater Muslim representation in the show. Of a moment in season four involving Noora, the main character from season two, one fan account wrote, “I LOVE season tw- I mean four. That’s Noora’s season right? No wait, is it Willhell’s season??? What’s a Sana.”

Others feel that the subject of Islam hasn’t been tackled well in this season. Some viewers felt one scene, which sees Sana and her white, non-Muslim friend, Isak, discuss Islamophobia, was whitesplainy. 

One popular translation account, that provides a version of the show with English subtitles, wrote of the scene: “A lot of you guys have been disappointed by the latest clip and you’re not the only ones. We do want to finish this project for the fans but we are disappointed with how this season has gone.” They announced they would be translating less as a result.

The final week of the show has been light on Sana. Instead, each character who never received a full season has had a few minutes devoted to their perspective. These are the other girls from the girl squad, Vilde and Chris, and the boyfriends of each main character: Eva’s ex Jonas, Isak’s boyfriend Even, Eva’s current fling “Penetrator Chris” and Noora’s on-off boyfriend William.

It’s understandable to want to cover key perspectives in the show’s final week, but it can feel teasing – we get a short glimpse into characters' home lives, like Vilde struggling to care for her depressed mother, but the scene ends before we can really get into it. And, of course, it takes precious time away from Sana in the show’s final minutes.

Some were frustrated by the characters focused on. “Penetrator Chris” is a particularly minor character – one fan account wrote of his scene: “This is absolutely irrelevant. 1) It sidelines Sana 2) It asks more questions 3) It doesn’t answer shit. This isn’t even Sana’s season anymore and that’s absolutely disgusting. She didn’t even get closure or ten episodes or anything.

“Sana has been disrespected and disregarded and erased and sidelined and that is fucking gross. She deserved better. Yet here we are watching a Penetrator Chris clip. How ironic that it’s not even called just “Christopher” because that’s all he is. “Penetrator Chris”.

It’s been a dramatic close for a usually warm and tight-knit fan community. Of course, many fans are delighted with the final season: their only sadness is there won’t be more. One of the largest fan accounts tried to keep things positive. “I know people have mixed feelings about Skam and who deserves what in terms of screentime this season (etc),” they wrote, “which I totally understand.

"However, everything has already been filmed, so there is nothing we can do about it. I think this last week of Skam will be much more enjoyable for everyone if we focus on the positives in the clips ahead. Skam isn’t perfect. People are allowed to disagree. But let’s go into this week being grateful for everything Skam has given us.”

Some fans choose to look to what the future holds for the show – an American remake. It will keep the same characters and plotlines as the original, and Andem may be involved.

Few think it will be a patch on the current show, but some are excited to have the chance to watch it teasingly as a group regardless. It seems unlikely that the US remake will compare in terms of quality – not least because the original was so heavily researched and tied to Norwegian culture. But for fans struggling to let go of Skam, it can’t come soon enough.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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