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Hank Stuever Essay: The Trouble With Quibbles and Niche Fandom

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J.J. Abrams attempts to reboot the "Star Trek" franchise with this story about the early years of Capt. James T. Kirk (played by Chris Pine).Video by Paramount Pictures

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By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 11, 2009

We live in the age of extreme niche fandom. Even more extreme is the quibbling.

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I was commanded by Paramount's publicists -- the Legion of Women With Clipboards -- to come alone to an advance, clandestine screening of "Star Trek" a couple of weeks ago. I expected the theater to be sadly semi-private, with just a few entertainment writers and all those empty chairs. But when I got there, it was packed with serious Trekkers who had all been there for hours and hours (of course they had), summoned by some magic e-mail. Really, they have been there for 43 years -- waiting, watching, assessing, obsessing. The night was at once joyful and as serious as a heart attack.

The lights went down. I always love this moment. It's the last chance for a fan to wonder if it's all going to be okay, if they did it right, if this is going to work out. The excitement, the concern, the communal investment: no turning back now. It reminds me of Dave Bowman drifting toward the monolith at the end of Arthur C. Clarke's "2001: A Space Odyssey." He says one last thing to Mission Control: Oh my God -- it's full of stars! And then he disappears into it.

"Star Trek" is full of stars. For a few seconds I turned away from the screen simply to watch its light reflected in the faces of the core believers. Half of them were literally nibbling at their fingernails.

After came the quibbling. Even when fans are pleased beyond ecstasy, there is a quibble. Amid the afterglow, in the line for the men's room, little notes were woven into the frantic conversation: This part could have been better, and what about that, or if only they'd done this. Mostly, though, the men relieved themselves and let out satisfied sighs: J.J. Abrams has not ruined "Star Trek."

* * *

We won't leave behind much in the way of original scholarship or art, but future anthropologists will (kindly, one hopes) take note of how slavishly we tended to a garden of sequels, prequels, adaptations, remakes and reboots. It was all we talked about.

Someone in the future will draw a timeline of four of five decades in length to crack some code of emotion/nostalgia/reverence, which will finally explain why we remade "Bewitched" and "The Dukes of Hazzard."(We did it because we felt . . . stuck? We did it because we were millennially inert, afraid to make something new? We deflected social upheaval by meticulously retelling already-told stories?)

The future will ask why there had to be so many Harry Potter books and why each film version had to faithfully replicate a certain number of pages; why teenage girls all but held knives to the throats of the creators of a "Twilight" movie, daring them to make one false move in casting choices or tone. Someday, someone will make some sense of why the Iron Man movie worked and the Hulk movies (either of them!) did not (for different reasons!). The future will decide, objectively at last, if "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" was any good or not, compared with other "X-Men" movies and compared to the original comic books. (We are incapable of knowing; we are capable only of arguing the arcane merits and letdowns.)

Trailers, which are mere suggestions of the finished product, now have the power to set off weeks of angst-ridden speculation or rapturous typing frenzies -- pre-quibbles! -- such as when grown-ups first encountered, earlier this year, the trailer to Spike Jonze's forthcoming adaptation of the beloved children's book "Where the Wild Things Are." (People reacted with relief; it looks right. It bears watching.)

We criticize films even as they play before us, tweeting our observations from the theater. Many people watch "Lost" each week at a keyboard, hitting send at each commercial break.


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