Fans of Fear and Wonder: How Geek Syndicate Saved The BBC From Itself

 

The BBC have a deservedly lousy reputation when it comes to engaging with the SF fan community. A good chunk of that is the PTSD the generation who saw the 7th Doctor and Ace walk off into the sunset still suffer from. The rest is the unlovable combination of misunderstanding and contempt that has defined a lot of the BBC’s attempts to engage with genre fiction. The responses are so predictable I’m sure there’s a bingo card for it somewhere. ‘Stock Doctor Who footage’, ‘Comedy music’, ‘Time lapse photography’ and, of course, ‘When in doubt, mash the Star Wars theme button until the casing breaks.’

As of last week, that bingo card is irrelevant. Because David Monteith and Barry Nugent have arrived and, in two shows, saved BBC fan coverage from itself.

Monts and Nuge run Geek Syndicate, one of the three best geek discussion podcasts. Their shows are usually stripped down, rambling conversations that cover movies, books, comics and everything geek related that’s caught their attention that week. It’s one of those format that’s so simple its future proof and the fact they’ve got several hundred episodes to their credit at this point only bears that out.

But the real secret to their success is clear from the moment they’re on screen. They’re smart, articulate, funny guys with none of the pedantry or passive aggression that some discussion shows are plagued by. You see it the moment they start talking; these are two guys whose lives have been shaped, and immensely positively so, by genre fiction. There’s no one upmanship, no sense of an enforced hierarchy and no punching down. Monts and Nuge aren’t just figureheads for the community, they’re figureheads for the community at its best.

That’s particularly clear in ‘Invasion of the Fans’, the first of the two shows they present. Producer John Das is the other hero of the hour, running headlong at the one thing the BBC have always been staggeringly bad at and changing the tone and nature of the conversation. Instead of pointing at laughing at fandom and its excesses, the film shows the massively positive force that the love of genre fiction can be in. Every story in this show is wonderful, but there are three that particularly stand out. Peter Weston’s childhood memories of discovering literary science fiction, and how it was viewed with near total disapproval are as sweet as they are educational. Science fiction and horror in particular have always been slightly under the table genres and it’s interesting to look at Peter’s experiences and see how far it’s come. In his childhood, SF was something you didn’t talk about. And here he is, on iplayer, talking about it. The future may not be now but it’s certainly closer than it was.

It’s a future that genre fiction helped Daniel Jones reach, and, again, his story is presented with absolute respect. Daniel has high functioning autism and got through school by watching a Star Wars movie every morning and throwing himself into that universe. That desire, to take shelter in a fictional world, is one that lies at the heart of all escapist fiction and it’s a survival tactic close to my heart. When you need it, it’s there and that idea of a refuge from the stresses of the world is one the show returns to again and again. Crucially, not a single interviewee is judged or mocked either and Monts, Nuge and Das all deserve colossal praise for that.

Jenny and Chris Smirthwaite’s story closes the circuit that the other two open. Jenny discovered fanfiction when she was up all night with chemotherapy-induced insomnia and the couple decided to use attending their first convention as the ‘bottle of champagne’ to celebrate her going into remission. They’re an imposing pair, both cosplaying as military officers, both retired and both still ringing with the combination of total joy and exhaustion that comes when a relative’s cancer is treated. Like Daniel and Peter, they used SF to survive and, like them, have flourished.

That’s what the first film really embodies; the idea of genre fiction not as a walled city you hide in but a fortress you retreat to. Whether it’s the moral framework of good and evil, the experiences of fictional characters resonating with your own or simply two hours in a dark room where you can shut the horror out, it doesn’t matter. What does is that these people are endlessly cheerful, enthusiastic and happy. Genre fiction hasn’t swallowed them, it’s held them up when they’ve needed it and that’s an incredibly positive message to send.

The second film, ‘Days of Fear and Wonder’, builds on that in a very interesting way. Superficially it’s the slighter of the two, focusing on the BFI’s colossal season of sci fi movies at unusual locations. They see Silent Running at the Eden Project, 2001 at Joddrell Bank and Flash Gordon at the British Museum and discuss them with celebrities like Brian Blessed and Mark Kermode.

This could have been little more than a puff piece but in their hands, it’s as positive and uplifting as the first movie. Both men (After an immensely endearing and gloriously OTT singalong to ‘FLASH! AAAAAHHH!’) talk about how worried they are that the movie may not hold up. It’s a perfect expression of the thing that perennially stalks popular culture; is what you love as good as you remember? The issue of defining pieces of culture not aging like you do is a thorny one and Flash Gordon, in all its magnificently awful glory, is the perfect movie to test this out on.

And it passes. It’s dreadful and OTT and magnificent and they love it for all those reasons. The lesson here is a little encoded but no less powerful; you’re allowed to like what you like and the fact it might be imperfect doesn’t change that.

Their visit to the 2001 screening provides the second half of this lesson as Nuge sees the movie for the first time. Again, the message is subtle but powerful; it’s never too late to try something new and the more you’re open to new experiences the happier you’ll be. That’s wrapped around a further reinforcement of the positive side of fan culture too and closes the two films out on a really positive note.

In fact, positive is the best way to sum up both Geek Syndicate and their contribution to this season of films. Monts and Nuge are two of the best possible ambassadors genre fiction could hope; smart, funny, articulate men whose love for what they do shines through in everything they say. These two films run less than an hour combined but are more inspiring and welcoming than a production twice their length. Well done, chaps.

 

Invasion of the Fans and Days of Fear and Wonder are available on iplayer for the next 15 days. Go watch them, they’re great.

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