The Best Television I’ve Seen All Year: A Defence of Fanfiction

I watch a lot of television, or at least, I do when I get the chance. I really enjoy the format, much more than films, and I love how accessible it is, at least in theory. Yet I could not possibly watch all of the television out there, even if I wanted to, so I demand at least some measures of quality from those programs I do turn my attention toward. Now it’s very hard to know what’s quality just by channel surfing, especially since shows that are currently being broadcast can easily jump the shark the minute you decide to settle in for the long haul. Usually this means several people with known good taste have to nag me to watch any given show, although lately I’m willing to give anything a go, as long as it has John Simm in it, because hey, John Simm.

Which leads me to my first point. If you were to ask me what I think the best television show I have seen all year is (not including miniseries, though how you can tell the difference between a 6 part miniseries and a regular British season I’ve no idea), you would not get the answer you’re probably expecting. Because the answer is Life on Mars.

Whut? But that’s not got aliens or cute little robot dogs or even David Tennant!

These are obviously all sticking points for me, especially that last one. But it’s not like I’m saying Doctor Who is a bad show. It’s definitely not, no matter how hard Mr. Davies seems to want it to be sometimes (says the girl still bitter about Journey’s End and them never shutting up about Rose.). It’s a family show, it’s a lot of fun, it’s silly and heart-warming and occasionally terrifying (thank you, Moff), nowadays it boasts a frankly gorgeous cast, and it excites the imagination. In short, it does exactly what it says on the tin.

I consider myself sensibly minded enough, however, to be able to separate “tv-show-I-constantly-get-giddy-about” from “best-thing-since-sliced-Joss” or whatever the hip expression for really excellent telly is. So, Life on Mars.

There’s only one very minor part of Life on Mars I would change if I were the television deity, and all it would involve is fading to black at the end just a tiny bit sooner to make it properly ambiguous. Oh yeah, and never giving the green light to Ashes to Ashes. The scripts are occasionally a little bit melodramatic, but frankly if you’re stuck in 1973 or a coma possibly, a little melodrama is to be expected. A lesser show would have overblown Sam’s culture-shock and general moopiness to the nth degree.

Despite being a crime-drama, there isn’t an emphasis on gore and unrealistic serial killer stories either; in fact, there are only two actual serial killers in the entire series, and although they’re both obviously more than a little nutty, they aren’t the same unrealistic kind of crazy you’d find on CSI. A lot of the time the motive is gang or drugs related, or political (ie. IRA). Most of the cases don’t even involve bloodshed, although it’s threatened frequently. Once in a while, there hasn’t even been a crime. This is so unusual in crime drama that it’s almost the first thing anyone talks about when they discuss the show, and in an age when shows like CSI, Wire in the Blood, and Criminal Minds are making us think there are killers everywhere, it’s a refreshing take on police work that is significantly closer to reality. And guess what? Reality isn’t that easy to make interesting, so the fact that team LoM does so every time is pretty indicative of the quality of the show.

In the interest of saving space, I don’t want to go on about Life on Mars forever, just for a little bit longer, just in order to say that the cast is fantastic, the music is really exceptionally fantastic, Annie Cartwright is one of my favourite female characters ever, and I’m almost 100% happy with the way everything came together in the end (except for that one little thing I mentioned). Okay, preaching to what is possibly the choir complete.

Now, I read a truly embarrassing amount of fanfiction. Seriously, you should see my bookmarks folder. There’s a multi-level system of organization.

Life on Mars fanfiction takes up approximately 0.01% of that space. Given how much fangirling of the show I have just done, you might be surprised. Why is it that I have, I’m a little ashamed to admit, over 200 subfolders in my Whoniverse fanfiction folder, but I don’t even need a multi-folder system for what I have just defended as being the best thing I’ve seen all year?

Well, that’s simple. Skip back two paragraphs and re-read the last virtue of LoM I described: I’m almost 100% happy with how everything ended in the show. I’m certainly happy with all of the character arcs. Ignoring Ashes to Ashes as so many people do, I’m pleased with the ambiguous ending and I feel no need to resolve it in my head to something more straightforward.

This is very much not the case in Doctor Who, or any of it’s offshoots. After almost fifty years of television, novels, audio stories, comics, and awkward movies, there are almost more contradictions in the Whoniverse than there are facts. Trying to fit the title character into a neat little personality is like trying to herd an atheist meet up of Catkind, and even if you manage it, that personality is very clearly “complete and utter loony.” There are storylines that don’t make sense with other storylines, there is technobabble that doesn’t make sense with other technobabble, and there are character reactions (“I wouldn’t care if the Master died”) that don’t make sense with other character reactions (REGENERATE!!!), at least not without serious massaging. Even small niggly details, when examined more closely, are capable of pulling apart the whole tapestry. Trying to piece anything together into a coherent alternate reality is quite an undertaking. It’s a bit like religion, only prettier. And nobody makes laws based on it.

Although many people would disagree, this, for me, is the best part of fanfiction. I’m the kind of person that likes things to make sense and fit together, and I’m the kind of person who likes detailed character studies, more so if the character is superficially self-contradicting. And that’s what (good) fanfiction does; it takes a part of the show that doesn’t make sense and provides an explanation for it. Older fanfiction memes are replaced by newer ones as the canon expands, creating an evermore coherent picture of an ever less coherent universe. Really good fanfiction can even have predictive power.

It’s like science. Sexy science.

I don’t feel compelled to read Life on Mars fanfiction because Life on Mars, being brilliant, did all the canonical science for me. Doctor Who, bless its big cotton scarf, does not. And I like having the science done. I like having all the facts in order, even, yes, for a pretend universe from a kid’s show. Sure, I could fit all those facts together for myself – but I’d spend the rest of my life doing it and get nowhere, or give up, and if I gave up I’d just get more and more annoyed at plot holes, instead of actually enjoying the show and seeing plot holes as giant signs saying “INSERT FIC HERE.” So in the end, having fanfiction accessible makes me enjoy the show more.

Besides, one scientist working alone can’t invent the universe.


[EDIT: The above post doesn’t take into account the last 15 minutes of the Waters of Mars, which is proper character science, or a few other bits and pieces along the way. I’m talking generally, basically.]


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