Star Trek, Kirk and Spock
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Why sci-fi TV show fandom endures long after a series finale

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Apr 28, 2018, 12:09 PM EDT

I have a confession to make: I can’t stop watching Futurama.

There’s really no excuse for this. It’s not like I’ve never seen the show — I’ve watched every episode a jillion times, say my favorite lines along with the characters, laugh at the same jokes (Fry and Bender playing hide and go seek to the tune of “Mmmbop,” pretty much everything in “Roswell That Ends Well”). It’s not like there’s a new season to prep for, but still — I watch every episode when SYFY runs a marathon. And when Comedy Central airs a few eps back to back on Tuesdays. And there’s Hulu, which has the entire series on digital tap.

I’d say there’s something wrong with me, but I’m pretty sure Browncoats, Buffy fans, and Trekkies can relate. Firefly barely made it to its 14th episode, but the fandom that surrounds it is fiercer than River over 15 years later. Buffy passed the 21st anniversary of its pilot debut in early March, and it still inspired a wave of think pieces surrounding its history, legacy, and even new takes on character romances in the wake of #MeToo. And Trekkies? Those original 79 episodes still ignite passionate discourse around the world (incidentally, Futurama’s “Where No Fan Has Gone Before” covers this obsession perfectly). And then there’s Fringe fans, who have orchestrated mass re-watchings of the series through online forums. True Blood fans who are still writing steamy slash fic. Losties who haven’t finished debating That Ending.

Is there something wrong with us? Why can’t we stop watching, and re-watching, and obsessively binge-watching our favorite sci-fi shows?

“Part of the reason why we keep coming back to these shows is nostalgia,” explains Dr. John Schinnerer, a San Francisco-area psychologist who specializes in emotion. “There’s historical nostalgia because we pine for the past, and there’s autobiographical nostalgia, which has to do with our own past. Entertainment is a part of that. Sometimes we watch old shows to reclaim how things used to be when we first watched them, and sometimes there’s just comfort in what’s known to us. It’s controllable – we know what to expect, so there’s no disappointment or surprises, and we can regulate our emotions accordingly.”

Okay, sure — I can buy that in this topsy-turvy world, my desire to watch Fry repeatedly slay intestinal worms offers a form of familiarity and comfort I don’t get when I turn on CNN. But you could say the same thing about people who still watch Friends. Or Seinfeld. You don’t see those fandoms duking it out in corners of Reddit or cosplaying their favorite characters at meet-ups around the nation decades after their show airs a series finale. It seems like there’s something deeper about the connections sci-fi fans make to their respective shows — and Schinnerer doesn’t disagree.

“Those of us who are attracted to sci-fi tend to be off the beaten path,” he explains. “We’re more introverted, connected to fantasy and imagination, and those are more intellectual pursuits. And as introverts, we feel things more deeply and build emotional connections to the characters because we identify with them differently.

“I know a lot of extroverted people who don’t write or read. They would never sit down and write about Firefly. It takes a certain profile to be connected and attracted to a certain pop culture property and then write fan fiction about it or spend hours analyzing its associated relationships,” Schinnerer concludes.

Schinnerer knows of what he speaks – he has some decent geek cred. He was an avid comic book collector as a kid, counting Spider-Man, The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Daredevil as his favorites. He grew up watching the original Battlestar Galactica. He thinks Neil Gaiman’s Sandman is “advanced” and “magnificent.” He’s into Game of Thrones and eagerly awaiting the second season of Legion. (Plus, he consulted with Pixar on the creation of Anger for the movie Inside Out.)

But on top of this, Schinnerer had a front-row seat to that passionate sci-fi TV show fandom — his grandfather was a huge Trekkie.

“He watched all the time,” Schinnerer recalls. “He lived in the mountains on a 40-acre property, so he was isolated and very much in his head — but he also enjoyed that. So he’d watch Star Trek and get on his ham radio and connect with other people that he could talk about Star Trek with. It was a way for him to find his tribe.”

Schinnerer says that bonding with someone over a show offers a connection point and shared language — in addition to fostering hope, aspirations, goals, and ideals by discussing and examining that show. I totally relate to this. Buffy used to be my go-to binge when I was feeling low or less than – and I was part of a group of women who routinely watched and dissected the show ad nauseam. “I think there’s a relationship that happens between the viewer and what’s happening on the screen,” Schinnerer adds. “And depending on what’s going on in your life, you want to revisit that relationship with those characters. Like, ‘I miss Buffy. Let’s watch her show again and see what she’s doing.’”

True, Buffy fed me a healthy dose of powerful women when I didn’t have any power of my own — and I notice as I’ve grown, my obsession with bingeing Seasons 2, 3, and 6 has waned. It’s also true that I just went through some of the most hellish months of my life, and maybe once that stress dissipates, I won’t feel as compelled to idealize Kif and Amy’s relationship over repeat viewings. But until that day comes, should I — and others like me — be worried that this is unhealthy behavior?

“Everything can become addictive and destructive,” Schinnerer counsels. “It’s one thing if you’re passionate about a TV show and using it as creative stimulus and a form of connecting with people. But when it damages relationships in real life, or you’re jonesing for it when you can’t have it, it might be time to look at if you’ve gone too far.”

Fair enough — then I shall continue bingeing Futurama until it no longer serves a constructive purpose. And if you don’t like it, you can bite my shiny metal ass.