Doctor Who writers Paul Cornell and Gary Russell, and Stargate novelists Sally Malcolm and Geonn Cannon, on the curious journey from fandom to canon.
Blame it on Star Trek. Many do. The first iterations of what is known as fanfiction appeared in the fanzine Spockanalia, which began publication in 1967 (with the encouragement of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry) and featured fictional stories riffing on the Trek universe, which soon spawned emulators. As Laura Miller chronicles for Vulture: “Although human beings have been stealing and reworking each other’s stories for millennia, fanfiction as we now know it began back in the days of Star Trek fanzines, on whose mimeographed pages female Trekkers wrote of Mr. Spock swooning in the arms of an ardent Captain Kirk.”
That original spore was Diane Marchant’s 1974 ‘A Fragment Out of Time,’ which depicted a fictive coupling between Kirk (William Shatner) and Spock (Leonard Nimoy), “the first explicitly sexual fanfiction piece featuring two men to be published in a fanzine, although they were not mentioned by name. In the next edition of that fanzine, Marchant confirmed that the two men were Kirk and Spock, and wrote an essay defending the pairing.”
This inspired the kind of panic-ridden reaction described by Constance Grady in Vox (June 2016), who freaks out that “people crying over a TV show is weird; women writing stories where Kirk and Spock are more than just friends is not only weird but disgusting and dangerous too.” Indeed, fanfiction has been widely derided as the province of losers and fangirls. As Dr. Kenya Mitchell puts it in Public Seminar (April 2018): “For those who are savvy in the realm of alternative digital realities, the term fanfiction may call to mind a particular kind of sun-deprived nerd who, while cloistered in a bedroom with a laptop, creates the most unreadable tripe imaginable.”
This kind of thinking was distilled by irate author R.S. Benedict, who kicked over a hornet’s nest when she tweeted that “It’s incredibly bleak how many contemporary aspiring young writers cut their teeth on fanfiction, a form that actively teaches you to write worse.” Au contraire, says Cecilia Aragon, director of the Human Centered Data Science Lab at the University of Washington in the MIT Technology Review (Jan 2020):
“Fanfiction is a private universe that has become a welcoming community, particularly for those from marginalized groups. In it, young people are mentoring each other to become skillful writers and thoughtful readers—and they are doing it entirely on their own time and their own terms.”Cecilia Aragon, in MIT Technology Review (Jan 2020):
Expands author Henry Jenkins in a 2006 blog: “Fans write stories because they want to share insights they have into the characters, their relationships, and their worlds; they write stories because they want to entertain alternative interpretations or examine new possibilities which would otherwise not get expressed through the canonical material … I often argue that fans can be seen to appreciate a favorite show in two senses: they like it and they add to its value through their various creative and emotional investments.”
We pay tribute to the late Nichelle Nichols and the legacy of Nyota Uhura from Star Trek: The Original Series and The Animated Series, to NASA and beyond.
The Fanfiction Pipeline in Stargate and Doctor Who
The same could be said of the four protagonists of our story. All began in the realm of fanfiction, two in Doctor Who and two in Stargate SG-1. They’re far from the only ones who have ‘gone legit.’ There are some in the vast corpus of Star Trek literature, although we were unable to obtain any cooperation from Simon & Schuster. One authorized Star Wars author who began in fanfiction is Marjorie M. Liu. Author of the official novel Han Solo (2018), Liu told the Internet Writing Journal: “I had been writing original fiction and poetry since I was tiny, but with fan-fiction, I could post it on the internet and no one knew who I was. It was purely anonymous. I wasn’t being judged, or graded, or hemmed in—and wow, what a freeing experience. It helped my skills as a storyteller because I was able to experiment with different styles and ways of writing, without fear of retribution.”
Fans like Liu and published author Meg Cabot (who cut her teeth on Star Wars fanfiction) make the case that fans are the most observant potential writers. As Cabot has penned on her blog: “Writing fanfiction is a good way for new writers to learn to tell a story. The good thing about writing fanfiction is that the characters and basic plot are already set up, so new writers can concentrate on dialogue or further plot development. Basically, the author has already created a world for the new writer to play around in, and that is a great way for new writers to learn the skills they will need in order to create their OWN universe” (emphasis in the original).
That would resonate with Fandemonium Ltd editor and author Sally Malcolm, who recruited most of her Stargate writing stable from the fanfiction community. As she explains from her London home, early one evening: “After that, other writers came to us to ask if they could write books but I still prefer to use people who are fans because I find that they have a much deeper appreciation of the show, the characters, and the canon.
“I just think that our readers can appreciate and recognize a fellow fan when it’s being written by a genuine fan of the show rather than someone who is writing for hire.”Sally Malcolm
Malcolm, unlike the vast majority of fanfiction writers, actually mainstreamed herself. Noticing the proliferation of Star Trek novels, she scoured the Internet for authorized Stargate literature and came up empty. Along with her then-husband, she decided to take the reins, if at all possible. They faxed a proposal to MGM and received an encouraging response within a day. Soon thereafter, the Malcolms obtained the go-ahead to publish Stargate-themed novels in the United Kingdom, with worldwide rights rolling out gradually thereafter. “I approached the fanfiction writers that I knew and asked them if they wanted to and that’s how some of the first books got written,” Malcolm says.
Doctor Who novelist Paul Cornell came to the attention of publishers after winning a 1990 literary contest with a piece that caught the eye of the BBC. That, in turn, led to a professional Doctor Who novel for the Virgin New Adventures series, titled Timewyrm: Revelation (1991), which was a reworking of some of his fanfic writings. His fanfiction fixation has an interesting, if somewhat sad, ‘origins story.’
As Cornell tells it: “I’d started writing fiction, in the form of school essays, to deal with extreme bullying at my school. When I first encountered Doctor Who fanzines, as the result of seeing a mention of the postal address of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society in Starburst Magazine, I saw there was an audience and so started writing fiction for it and got, in the form of letters six months later, my first proper audience reaction. My need for that audience, to prove myself to an audience, was powerful and connected to my need to write fiction about my experiences.”
“The two things together were the fuel for all that followed. Neither feeling has ever gone away.”Paul Cornell
For Cornell, he did not choose Doctor Who so much as it chose him. “Before the Doctor Who Appreciation Society made themselves known I’d wanted to join a fan club because I wanted so desperately to belong to something,” he continues. “I chose the X-Men Fan Club, despite not knowing much about the X-Men, because the postal address had been printed, again, in a UK Marvel comic. But really I loved Doctor Who since I’d overcome my enormous fear of it and gained catharsis with the surprisingly happy ending of ‘The Brain of Morbius.’ So when I saw the chance to join a group of people who loved that, the X-Men rather took a back seat.”
Another Doctor Who writer, Gary Russell is a stalwart of the fanzIne circuit who edited the Celestial Toyroom (the magazine of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society) and then the Doctor Who Magazine, where he regularly went talent-spotting in the world of fanfiction. Like Cornell, he contributed to the Virgin New Adventures and was deeply involved in Big Finish Productions, which produced licensed audio dramas, and its spiritual predecessor, the firmly unlicensed Audio Visuals.
“Out of the blue, from my point of view, I was asked to write a nonfiction book when Russell T. Davies’ version of Doctor Who came about. The first year had been done and they wanted Doctor Who: The Inside Story. It was while I was doing that—and I’d known Russell just under 10 years at point, socially—he was the last person I interviewed for this book. I’d been at Big Finish for eight years at that point and Russell’s a Big Finish fan. He said, ‘What do you want to do with your life?’ I said, ‘I’ve always wanted to be a script editor in television.’ The next thing I knew I was being offered a job to leave London, move to Cardiff, and restart my life up here. Which I did very gratefully,” as one of the story editors on Doctor Who proper and later on The Sarah Jane Adventures.
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Challenges of Canon and Continuity
One writer who beavered away long and hard in the forest of Stargate fanfiction before being discovered by Malcolm was Geonn Cannon. “They were looking for someone who knew the show and was willing to write in the later seasons; the SG-classic group is very popular with authors, obviously. I had to provide a writing sample. I don’t remember if I wrote something new or if I just wrote the first few pages of Two Roads to confirm I knew the characters, the world, their voices, etc. After that, the ball was rolling.”
So far, Cannon has teamed Samantha Carter and the controversial Vala Mal Doran in his adventures, explaining “honestly, Vala is just a blast. She’s possibly my favorite Stargate character to write. She’s chaotic, brilliant, and fun, and you really don’t have to worry about rules when she’s around. Pretty much anything goes with her and that’s very fun to explore.” Since the restriction to late-period Stargate put Cannon’s beloved Dr. Janet Fraiser out of court, he was pleasantly surprised to be able to write her origin story for the Points of Origin anthology.
“We were invited to participate and got to choose a character—first come, first served. I couldn’t believe Janet wasn’t taken. But that was such a thrill, to write a somewhat official version of her arrival at the SGC.”Geonn Cannon
Ah yes, canon. Fanfiction writers can—and usually do—flout it with impunity. But for the official novelist, it is quite a different story, depending on the fandom. In Doctor Who, which has almost 60 years’ run on TV and is going onto its fourteenth Doctor, a particularly thorny thicket presents itself. Russell freely admits his continuity mania is self-imposed. “I have a reputation which I suspect is totally justified, particularly in my early books, of being a complete continuity hound. If I could shove continuity Easter eggs in everywhere, I did. I sort of learned to stop doing that after a while. The upper functions of my brain are completely and utterly overrun with Doctor Who trivia. I can’t do math and I’m completely incompetent at geography and history but I can answer almost anything on classic Doctor Who like that,” he says, snapping his fingers.
“I have a little demon imp on one shoulder who’s always saying, ‘Put in a continuity reference. It’ll be great.’ And I have another little angel in this corner saying ‘You don’t need it. Write your own stuff.’ It’s a very tricky show to know and understand and to get your head around. There have been very few Doctor Who novels that were written by people who aren’t actually diehard fans.
“The reason for that is the same reason that Star Trek doesn’t really employ people anymore that don’t know the show backward: You have to instinctively speak that language for two reasons. One, because it’s a big, complicated universe and you’re playing with it, and two, you want to make sure you’re not doing something that someone else has done.”Gary Russell
Malcolm ran into the issue in her relationship with MGM. “Sometimes we had a couple of books where they felt that maybe some of their characters are not behaving in a way they would onscreen. That it’s gone a little bit too dark or something like that. So they’ll pull us up on that. They’re just looking to protect their property and make sure the books aren’t going anywhere that the TV show wouldn’t.”
Permanent changes are completely out of the question, although Malcolm “got away” with one in her Atlantis Legacy series (a literary version of what the never-filmed Stargate Atlantis Season 6 might have been). Dr. Rodney McKay got turned into a Wraith. “He doesn’t realize that he’s Rodney McKay for a significant amount of time. Then he gets rescued by the Atlantis team and restored, but the legacy of that time as a Wraith lingers on throughout the rest of the book: His hair is thicker and he’s got the memories of that time.”
Cornell admits to some ambivalence about his respective relationship with editors. Asked whether he’s ever bumped up against their editorial guidelines, he admits “Errr, well, that depends what I’m doing. Virgin Books had quite a lot of rope at their disposal, though the last producer of Doctor Who did try to stop my first novel from being published. It’s usually down to the individual editor, working to guidelines.”
Unlike Russell, who feels subsumed with Doctor Who canon, Cornell views it as almost nonexistent. “There isn’t a canon for Who, so it’s more about working within, or kicking against, an established feeling for a character or a feature of the universe. There’s never been a set of rules or a list of what ‘happened’ in the Who universe, and that’s actually the central strength of the property. It can still just about do anything, while Star Wars, for instance, has to get into huge contortions to try to have any new fun.
“Doctor Who is a conversation, not a canon.”Paul Cornell
Cannon has taken small liberties with Stargate canon and gotten away with it. As he recalls, “Tanis, who appeared in SG-1 Season 6, was a one-shot character. I revealed that she escaped from prison (where we last saw her) and joined up with Vala to do crime for a while after ‘Prometheus Unbound’ (S8, Ep12). They let me do that because it’s highly doubtful the franchise will ever bring her back… I was worried about making Tanis gay, but they had no problem with that at all.
“The only issue I butted up against was when I wanted to name-drop Colonel Telford in Female of the Species. That wasn’t allowed because they didn’t have the rights to use Stargate Universe characters even if they didn’t actually appear in the book.”Geonn Cannon
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Dealing with the Studios
Russell encountered an interesting problem when he ran a potential audio drama past The Beeb: “I’d wanted to a Queen Victoria story and this was before Season 1 had even gone out. And Queen Victoria didn’t turn up until David Tennant’s first season, so it shows you have far in advance Russell was thinking. But he just went, ‘No, could you actually not do it?’ I said, ‘Yeah, of course.’ Because you’re not going to argue with Russell.
“The supreme irony of all of this, is that when I came to Cardiff to work on the show, instead of being the person sending stuff off and getting it approved, I was now the person talking to Big Finish and the books people and the comic books people, and saying ‘Yes, you can do this’ or ‘No, you can’t do that.’ Which would have been a delight to abuse that power and suddenly have been a perfect mean bastard to every single person that I wanted to be. But I was a pussycat and I very, very rarely said no to anything.”Gary Russell
When writing his Doctor Who novels, Russell is loath to infuse any of his own sensibility into the work. “That would be egotistical,” he says bluntly. “There are things that I don’t notice that other people have picked up on. This is going to sound terrible. I’m not painting myself in a very good light here. Back in the early 2000s, when I’d written five or six Doctor Who novels, someone [said], ‘There are always children in your novels and they always die horribly.’ I thought, ‘Yeah, that probably picks up something deep in my psyche, my opinion on very annoying children.’
“But generally I don’t inject myself into it. I try to inject Doctor Who into it.”Gary Russell
By contrast, Cornell says “plugging human drama into Doctor Who is something that would have happened at some point before the new show came along, but as to whether or not I did that first, that’s for others to judge. Certainly, across all the media, those of us working on Who between the old show and the new came up with literally hundreds of new ideas, an enormous number of which came to be considered as established parts of what the feeling of Doctor Who is like.”
Taking a Russell-like reluctance to Mary Sue herself into Stargate stories, Malcolm does allow that she was particularly inspired by the Stargate SG-1 episode ‘Abyss’ (S6, Ep6) to pen a series in which Jack O’Neill comes to terms with having been repeatedly tortured by Ba’al. “I got to spend a couple of books exploring the fallout of that and in that way, without being too self-indulgent, I got to explore bits of the show, character relationships, and what interest you about them. I do make a big effort to put myself in the head of the characters and try to write the characters as they are, and as I hope other fans would recognize them. I try not to put too much much of myself in. Obviously, I’m going to be writing about what I find interesting about the character.”
Making Malcolm’s and Cannon’s jobs simpler is that there has been only one SG-1 team and a single Atlantis expedition, making tone of voice easier to capture. In their novels, Russell and Cornell have to deal with differentiating thirteen Doctors (and counting). “If you’re writing a Tom Baker story or David Tennant story or William Hartnell story, you’ve got to make the character feel like that original character, and they’ve all got their individual quirks and idiosyncrasies and their little vocal refrains,” Russell says, to which Cornell adds, “That’s the basic skill, what the character sounds like. Character voices are enormously important to me.”
Here too, canon rears its head. “What I think is a lot harder,” Russell enlarges, “and should be striven for—and I’m in a minority, people really don’t mind—if I was writing a William Hartnell story, I wouldn’t be writing a story that was talking about Time Lords or it wouldn’t be talking about a monster that we didn’t meet until halfway through Matt Smith’s year. If I was writing a William Hartnell story, my brain would be saying, ‘It would fit between this story and this story, and I don’t want to play with the Doctor’s future.’”
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Just What the Doctor Ordered
Russell is loath to name a favorite among his multifarious novels. “I did a David Tennant novel called Beautiful Chaos, which is all about Alzheimer’s. I’m very, very proud of that. That’s probably my peak. I did a book called Business Unusual, which is a Sixth Doctor, Colin Baker book. I’ve always been quite fond of that one but I can’t say if it’s good because that’s for other people to say.”
Cornell has few such doubts. He exclaims, “I think Love and War is pretty much the best book, Circular Time my best audio and the Third Doctor comic from Titan the best of those, but those will change by the time you read this!”
As for Malcolm, “I really like the Apocalypse trilogy that I wrote with Laura Harper, which takes the show in a sort of alternate direction. That was fun because we got to tease the reader about what was going on, with a big reveal right at the end, a big cliffhanger that we weren’t too popular for,” she laughs.
“I also like the novella Permafrost I wrote, which is set in the Arctic. It involves a buried Asgard. It was inspired a bit by the movie The Thing. That was a fun one to write.”Sally Malcolm
While Malcolm’s fandom was born from being a “hopeless romantic” and a Carter/O’Neill shipper, Doctor Who fanatics tend to attach themselves to a preferred Time Lord. So who were Cornell and Russell’s favorites? “Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor spoke to me enormously, and is still rather my favorite,” confesses Cornell, “though there are many other contenders. His arrival was like the return of real Doctor Who after a long period in the wilderness. What was done with his Doctor, by so many of us, in the years after the original series ended, still seems to me like the most exciting time to have been a fan, the time when the most creativity was at play when all the possibilities were open.”
Russell’s preferences are more catholic. “My favorite Doctor is Jon Pertwee. He’s the one I grew up with, he’s The Man, he’s the man who made me a fan of the show. He’s my comfort food now if I want to flop down in front of the TV. If I’m going to watch Doctor Who the chances are I’m going to stick a Jon Pertwee on. I also have a big fondness for Peter Davison’s Doctor Who and a big fondness for David Tennant’s Doctor. They’re my three tops. There’s no such thing as bad Doctor Who for me but Pertwee is The Man because during my formative years he was who I tuned into every Saturday.”
With Amazon’s purchase of MGM hanging fire, the possibilities of more Stargate seem diminished. Thus it is up to the Malcolms and Cannons of the world to keep that universe alive and moving forward. But with Ncuti Gatwa about to make his debut as the newest Doctor and no end to the rejuvenated series in sight, Russell and Cornell should not be out of work for a long time to come.
And for all you fanfic writers out there, keep your dreams alive. Noting Annie Proulx’s backlash against Brokeback Mountain fan narratives, Laura Miller writes, “fans these days aren’t satisfied to just sit back and consume. They want to participate. They want to create. And they don’t want to wait for anyone else’s permission to do it.”
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David McKee works as a business reporter and editor by day in order to feed his science-fiction habit on nights and weekends. He caught the bug way back when Space: 1999 was airing. He lives in Augusta, Georgia, with his wife and their cat.