Today I’m writing about fan service, and by that, I mean the “fan service” that has become meme-ified on the internet. These aren’t intertextual references that continue or resolve plot lines. I’m also not talking about the titilating sexual reveals that dominate anime. What I mean by fan service is the “material in a work of fiction or in a fictional series which is intentionally added to please the audience,” as defined by Valérie Inés de La Ville and Laurent Durup in their study, “Achieving a Global Reach on Children’s Cultural Markets: Managing the Stakes of Inter-Textuality in Digital Cultures.” In other words, these are the shout-outs, references, and callbacks to the previous work that created a fan base to begin with.
These are memetic boomerangs of a kind: quips, moments, and imagery. They return some bit of the narrative to the story world and remind fans of what got them excited in the first place. In the best case scenario, that is.
Solo, opening this Friday, will assuredly have a lot of this kind of fan service and, just like Rogue One, there are going to be a lot of arguments for and against what will appear. Some fans will feel that their emotions are being exploited for the sake of a momentary chuckle or knowing nod. Other fans will relish a reconnection to their youth. That is up to the individual who witnesses the film, and I won’t be making commentary on what happens in that movie.
Why would I want to wade into those waters, after all? Fan service has gotten a bad rap in recent years, as seen by the vaguely (and not-so-vaguely) negative connotation with which it is spoken during online fights. Call some bit of video game DLC “fan service” and you show that you’re thumbing your nose at the creators. You know what is real content from that franchise, which lets others in on the secret that you know better than the people who actually made the stuff. You’re also signalling that you’ll take on all challengers who feel that the “fan service” in question isn’t quality work but derivative. Go look on TV Tropes for examples of this content and mark ye the snark with which each is delineated.
The underlying antagonism is rooted in the obsequiousness with which it is presented, which supposedly belies the patronizing attitude. In English, creators give fans what they want, expecting them to lap it up. When it’s good, it’s usually with a slight smirk. When it’s bad, the implication to some fans is that creators have little respect for their intellect. And when they voice displeasure, the creator will assuredly say something along the lines of “Shut up and enjoy what we give you!”
Another, more subconscious effect comes from the nostalgia that is inherently present to fan service. It is a reminder to the past, without paying attention to what’s happening in the present. It can highlight the emotional resonance of previous content, which–due to a fan’s rose-colored glasses–ignores the faults that came with said stories. South Park highlighted how this kind of fan service can also have a sinister undertone when used outside of the realms of media content.
But do not despair! Anyone can create well crafted fan service. The best kinds of this stuff go unnoticed, because they are interwoven so well into the content that they feel like they’re a natural outgrowth of a scene or piece of media. You just have to follow a few simple rules, or as I’m dubbing them, commandments, because I’m a click-bait whore.
The 1st – Thou Shalt Be Unobtrusive
No one likes a braggart, and everybody loathes a spotlight stealer. If you’re creating a bit of fan service, make sure it’s as unobtrusive as possible. Give something for the fans to talk about and for non-fans to miss. In other words, craft something that will get both groups to come together and talk about it. This builds buzz, maintains a story world, and helps foster fan relations: all the good stuff that Hollywood marketing departments try (read: fail) to get right.
It’s hard to resist the call to attention, but I’m telling you, it works. I’ve already written about how the Predator and Aliens universes were united by a few moments near the tail end of Predator 2, but it bears repeating here. The Predator’s trophy room is a part of the story world. It creates a history for the franchise. It opens a door to more. AND THEN IT KEEPS MOVING! The camera barely rests on the xenomorph skull before cutting back to the issue at hand. Thank God! The movie is almost over! We want to know how it will resolve!
But if you’re going to linger, please remember the next commandment…
The 2nd – Thou Shalt Not Be Gratuitous
In the scene at the beginning of this essay (from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), Dr. Henry Jones Jr. and Dr. Elsa Schneider descend into the (imaginary) catacombs of Venice in search of a clue that will lead them to the Holy Grail. They traverse from early pagan graves to those that they need: the Christian ones, as demarcated by the imagery painted on the walls and, oh look! It’s the Ark of the Covenant. It is a moment of fan service (“Member Raiders?!”) but it also has a purpose to the scene. Our two characters are nearing sight of their goal. More than that, it maintains a sense of story world. There’s a real history here, both in terms of Indy’s experience and the beliefs of the past, a major theme for the entire series.
On the other hand, gratuitous shout-outs–particularly of the sexual kind–are designed to do little more than titilate an audience. It makes your story seem less serious. It transforms your fans from denizens of your world and into consumers of it. It feels wrong because, at it’s core, such moments demolish the fourth wall with what might as well be a sledge hammer. The franchise universe crumbles when it should be building, souring fans who would have been better served if you’d just focused on the task (and characters) at hand.
The 3rd – Thou Shalt Showcase Character
Indiana’s direct knowledge of the Ark showcases his experience, particularly against Dr. Schneider’s, not only foreshadowing things to come, but revealing characterization. This is important to all quality narrative, let alone fan service. If you’re just highlighting something from the past, you’re not engaging with the story or characters of the present. Instead, you’re allowing the narrative to grind to a halt so that fans can slap each other on the back and point.
Good moments of fan service, instead, reveal character. When Obi-Wan complains to Anakin Skywalker that he has a feeling that his padawan will be the death of him, it’s true and speaks to the frustration that Kenobi feels in the moment. When Moneypenny (kinda) locks lips James Bond in Die Another Day, it concludes any discussion about her real feelings for 007. These bits give crucial context for further examination of the pieces, even when they feel a little silly, because when it happens, the characters make them feel right.
The 4th – Thou Shalt Not Wallow in Nostalgia
Fan service, by nature, harkens back to the past, but it should never be at the expense of the future. We’ve already discussed how bad fan service can stop a narrative in its tracks; worse yet, it can also highlight just how far things have fallen. “Why are the creators reminding us of what they did before when we paid for a good experience NOW!”
Take a page out of Gene Roddenberry’s handbook. When he crafted Star Trek, he focused on creating quality science fiction television that also spoke to his belief in humanity’s innate goodness. Pleasing fans and telling a great story worked hand-in-hand. So, too, should good fan service. The best kind of fan service in the Trek universe does this, as well, reminding us of the good times without forgetting about the here-and-now. As for the bad fan service… well…
The 5th – Thou Shalt Validate the Fanbase
All that being said, if you don’t give the fans what they want, then you’re doing them a disservice. Mass Effect 3‘s DLC episode “Citadel” has widely been described as pure, unadulterated, industrial-grade fan service… and people love it for that! It ties up storylines, gives one more rodeo with a cast that fans have come to love, and it feels complete. Does it have a bit of goofiness to it? 100%. But it works because dozens of choices that the player has made are highlighted in the adventure, validating whoever is holding a controller for sticking through a multi-year engagement that (probably) cost them upwards of $300, including all the extra downloads and day-one purchases.
This is the ultimate lesson of fan service. Regardless of whether you indulge yourself or your audience in these moments, you must always embrace the “fun” of your story world. If your story world, like that of Mass Effect, is about making choices that affect an entire universe, then give your fans the ability to make choices that affect an entire universe. If it’s about hyper-intelligent apes that fight for control of Earth, then give them hyper-intelligent apes, If it’s about robots turning into cars and trucks, have robots turn into cars and trucks!
In short, fan service is a culmination of everything that transforms a story into a story world. A practiced hand will have no problem engaging an audience with it, so get to it. Remember these commandments and, as a final recommendation, don’t get too serious about it. These are stories, not struggles over life and death.