In the wake of an act of domestic terrorism, the crew of the Earth starship Enterprise launches an investigation and discovers that the xenophobic terrorists may have received aid from alien agents on Earth. Who were the aliens and what were they after? So begins the two-part premiere of Star Trek: Enterprise‘s fifth season, “Damage Control.”
But wait, wasn’t Enterprise cancelled after four seasons?
Welcome to the world of the virtual season, where fan fiction writers get together to create a textual season of episodes for a television show. Enterprise isn’t the first Trek show to get this treatment. Fans put together a season 8 and 9 for Voyager. There’s also a virtual season 6 of Stargate: SG-1 that was written by the rabid fans of Daniel Jackson, the character who was missing from the actual season 6 because Michael Shanks wanted some time off (he returned to the show in season 7). Enterprise‘s virtual season 5 project was started in early March of 2005 after the cancellation of the show was announced, and also as spoilers for the finale began to leak and enrage the fan community. The impulse to keep a show going after cancellation isn’t new, but the Enterprise virtual season faced a number of challenges unique to the show and its particular part of fandom, as well as the eternal problem of organizing a large group of people spread out over great distances to accomplish something on a deadline. The virtual season of Enterprise was composed of 15 original episodes and ran from October of 2005 to March of 2006, ending with part three of the finale, “From Alpha Centauri, With Love.” The episodes are archived at the Warp Five Fiction Archive.
Why do people do this?
Whenever the mainstream press writes about fan fiction, the stories almost always pose the question “Why do people write fanfic?” I always get the feeling that they are presenting fanfic as a deviant activity. “Why would people do this?” they seem to be saying. “Who are these people who would take television or a book or something that’s recreational so seriously?” The underlying questions seem to be, What’s wrong with these people? A lot of the resulting articles (not to mention the “Trekkies” films) tend to highlight the extremes of fan activity to reinforce the stereotypes instead of dealing with the majority of fans for whom fandom is a fun diversion from the grinds of daily life. The pathologizing of media fans is everywhere in our society, because media is supposed to be either entertainment or information and not a defining part of your lifestyle, despite the fact that our lives are surrounded and immersed in media nearly every minute of every day. Why that is the case, but the season ticket holder for the Packers who spends 10 hours out in the cold in the middle of winter every Sunday, stripped to the waist and covered in green and gold body paint with an enormous plastic hunk of cheese on his head, gets a pass as merely an “eccentric” is something I have yet to figure out.
My suggestion for anyone who asks the “Why do people write fanfic?” question is, ask 100 different people and you’ll probably get about 100 different answers. Why do some people become fans of a single sports team? Why do some people collect spoons? It’s a hobby. Why does fanfic need a justification when other hobbies don’t?
One of the most commonly cited reasons (though by no means the universal one) as to why people write fanfic centers around the world of the TV show or the books or the movies. Whether it’s the United Federation of Planets or Hogwarts or Sunnydale, the world of the original source material is so interesting that people want to play in it, or play with the characters who they find compelling.
What’s my reason? I remember being a little kid and pretending I was a Jedi Knight traveling the galaxy fighting and having adventures. A generation before me, kids played cowboys and Indians and wanted to be Roy Rogers or played space explorers and wanted to be Buck Rodgers. I think fanfic is part of something much older than just Harry Potter or Star Trek. The impulse to get in and play with the worlds that fascinate us or characters we are attached to stretches back for as far as people have been telling stories. I don’t think this is a new phenomenon related only to the arrival of the mass media in the 20th century. People have been making up stories in their own heads about their favorite characters since time out of mind. I won’t go so far as to say that Homer was a fanfic author, but when you think about it, taking an archetypal story and putting familiar characters into new situations to suit your own interests sounds quite a bit like what fanfic writers do.
Star Trek: Enterprise started off with some promise back in 2001. The show was set, in the Star Trek ‘verse, before the creation of the Federation, meaning it was earlier in the history than the original series from the 1960s. Since it was set before there was some kind of system of galactic order, there was supposed to be a sort of frontier/Wild West sense to the show. It didn’t entirely work out that way, but the first two seasons of the show sustained an active fanfic community online. While the attractions of the worlds or the characters might be a reason people write fanfic, another question is why do some shows spawn loads of fic and some don’t. My personal theory is that it is easier to write fic about shows that aren’t too tightly written. For me, my interest in fanfic starts with the interstitial moments the show passes over for the sake of the plot; the conversations that we know would happen between characters but don’t contribute to the story and so aren’t filmed. Most of those moments are character-centric, and that seems to be, at least for me, the point of entry for writing fanfic; fleshing out those characters, exploring them without the pressure of completing a plot in 42 minutes. It’s a lot easier to do that with a television show that leaves gaps, either because the writing is weak or the show is just constrained by the necessity of action-adventure plots and has to leave some things out. I think this is why Enterprise was an active fanfic community for a while, and why Stargate: Atlantis has become popular in the last year or so. Expanding the characters is how fanfic often starts. Then it becomes exploring all the other things the show will never do on screen, including long epic stories that go one for thousands or words, or even fic that reads as if it were an episode.
When Enterprise was cancelled after four seasons, it was the chance for a group of people to step in and take the world, the show and the characters and create our own stories. Ironically, a virtual season would mean focusing more on the plot-oriented stories and having to pay more attention to plot than to those interstitial moments that draw some of us into fanfic in the first place. The virtual season was driven by love of the characters and the world of Star Trek, but also by a deep amount of rage over the show’s finale, which killed off the most popular character, supposedly on Rick Berman’s orders. Berman and Brannon Braga, who ran Enterprise for most of its run, are arguably the most hated men in science fiction, at least after George Lucas. The Enterprise finale dragged Marina Sirtis and Jonathan Frakes from Star Trek: The Next Generation out of retirement and made them the focus of the episode, instead of the actual cast of the actual show that was ending. The only saving grace of the finale was that the events of that episode were set six years into the future (thanks to the lobbying of Manny Coto, who had been the head writer of Enterprise‘s last and best season), leaving some breathing room for fanfic writers. Combined with one of the most pathetic deaths in the history of Star Trek (outside of Red Shirt Deaths), fury was bubbling among the fandom when the virtual season discussion began in March of 2005.
Building a virtual season.
The virtual season group reached a consensus early on that the stories would all be gen (meaning there would be no romantic relationships, at least between the regular characters) and that the building of Trek’s famous “Federation of Planets” should be a main theme, along with the lead up to the Romulan war. This had been a big point of anticipation when Enterprise was launched, that if the series survived seven full seasons it would include the start of the Romulan Wars. The original goal of the virtual season was to produce 13 episodes, about half of what a television show would produce per season. The small number of active fanfic writers who were participating suggested that a full 22 episodes would be beyond the group’s capacity.
Virtual Season 5 ended up with 15 separate episodes, though that number includes two two-part stories and one three-part story. Two of the original writers dropped out, one for writer’s block and one because she had a baby, one of the graphic designers who was working on the web site had a serious car accident not long before the first episode was due to be posted, and the season’s editor was suffering from serious computer problems that left her MIA for much of the year. The stories suffered from the usual problems endemic to all fanfic, such as grammar, spelling and formatting issues, which were compounded by the writers having to figure out things such as what is the plural of “Betazed” and trying to keep track of the genders of the secondary characters being added into the story by earlier writers. Despite all these set-backs, eight writers produced the 15 episodes. As with any television show, some episodes are stronger than others, but the season came together remarkably well, sustaining the building tension with the Romulans all the way through the genuinely shocking finale.
The coherence of the season is probably partly due to the creation of a separate administrative list for the writers, beta-readers, artists and canon experts who were contributing to the season. Each story was posted to the admin list as soon as it was completed, so the other writers would be able to see how the existing episodes were developing and adapt. Getting the episodes completed still felt like herding cats. Anyone who has participated or run a ficathon or challenge or even a round robin with other fanfic writers will know too well the frustrations of writers disappearing or not completing their work on time. The revised schedule from the start of Virtual Season 5, back in October, slated the final episode of the season for the beginning of March. Despite all the setbacks, the finale was only delayed by one month. While a number of other groups had been talking a year ago about producing virtual seasons of their own, the EntSTCommunity group is the only one that has produced a complete slate of episodes.
Whether there will be a virtual season 6 of Enterprise remains to be seen. The finale left the characters in quite the state, with war about to break out and a number of lives in total upheaval. Unfortunately, most of the eight writers from season 5 are suffering from burn out from producing so much, and the response in terms of feedback has been disappointing. Partly that can be attributed to the decimation of the Enterprise online fandom after about season 3, which was only accelerated by the terrible series finale. Whatever the cause, it’s hard to attract writers to something that is a lot of work, a lot of stress and won’t get much of a response. While most writers can spin a line about writing for the sake of enjoying the creative outlet, few people can genuinely claim they post fic to the Internet and don’t want or even crave the response from readers. One of those mythical reasons why people write fic that comes up over and over is the sense of community and connection and the immediate response of the reader, something that writers in traditional media don’t experience in anywhere near the same way. Feedback can be used as a weapon (“My story got way more FB than yours, so there!”) or a criterion for judgment. It can simply feed the ego, or bruise it, but sometimes discussions in responses can generate more fic by encouraging discussion of ideas and stories. The virtual season writers did read and respond to each others work, but even among the writers the feedback was limited.
The answers to the season 5 cliffhanger might end up, as they do with broadcast television shows, being left for the individual writers to fill in on their own.