Nathan Fillion, Castle, and geek fandom

Feature Laura Akers 12 Jun 2013 - 07:00

Laura takes a closer look at what Castle episode The Final Frontier says about changing attitudes towards geek actors and fans...

Castle, as a result of its male lead—Firefly’s Nathan Fillion—has an established history of geek referencing. Usually, these references are winks at itself: Richard Castle dressing up as Malcolm Reynolds for Halloween (although he identifies as a “space cowboy” rather than as Mal), Kate Beckett referring to a party as “shiny,” Martha asking Castle (with great incredulity) “You haven’t heard of the Serenity?” and appearances by Fillion’s old shipmates Adam Baldwin and Gina Torres.

But it goes a bit deeper than this. Fillion, himself a mammoth geek, has made Richard Castle into one as well. The mystery writer collects toys, is an avid gamer, and has a full-size Boba Fett in his bathroom. In an industry where actors try hard to be taken seriously - and geek shows are rarely seen as serious acting - Fillion has stood out as an unapologetic advocate for geeks everywhere.

And he’s not alone. Time was when actors who starred in geek cult shows (because those two things used to be synonymous - all geek narratives were cult) were embarrassed by their work on those shows and actively ran away or made fun of them. In 1986, William Shatner went on Saturday Night Live and told assembled fans to “Get a life.” Before that, the title of Leonard Nimoy’s I Am Not Spock was seen as a similar attack on fans (and their supposed inability to tell fantasy from reality). And it’s not even a thing of the past now. My husband shook Brent Spiner’s hand at a con last year and Spiner joked afterward, feigning injury to his hand. When Chris responded in the same joking manner, “Hey, I can’t hurt you; you’re Data,” Spiner dropped the humorous tone and responded with disgust, “I am not Data!”.

But somewhere along the line, things changed. Maybe it’s because geek has been making its way into the mainstream. Maybe it’s the fact that people who grew up watching the original Star Trek or Doctor Who are now making the new versions. But many of the actors on these shows have a very different attitude towards those narratives and the fans. Rather than bitterly (and often silently) sitting at autograph tables at cons, begrudging every person paying money for their signature their time because they never did anything after Space 1999, we have James Marsters calling his fans “the beautiful freaks” and going out of his way to connect with them, Wil Wheaton refusing to charge for autographs at all and living his own life as the consummate fan, and of course, gamer, Twitter-addict, and evidently fan scavenger-hunt-arranger Nathan Fillion.

I recently got to ask Fillion if he really is having as much fun as he seems to be at fan-events and in his geek-savant life. His answer: “Absolutely!” with a grin that puts Castle’s most manic one to shame.

Last year, Fillion got to take his already established geekiness to new heights when Castle’s Rick and Beckett were called upon to solve a murder at fictional sci-fi con (Supernovacon) in the new king of geek meta-narratives, The Final Frontier.

A lot of geek outlets took great pleasure in detailing the many references to Firefly and other sci-fi shows in the Castle episode, so I won’t waste time covering that ground. What did catch my attention about the episode was the way it sketched out the relationship between geeks, the mainstream, and the actors that help create the stories we love.

Because we already know that Castle is a geek (a highly successful one in the realms of money, prestige, and romance), it’s hardly surprising that, for the most part, the episode portrays them as fairly regular folk out having a good time, albeit in some unconventional ways. But largely, they are not being made fun of but being fun in and of themselves. Where twenty years ago, the guy in the alien costume refusing to speak in anything other than the corresponding alien language would have been depicted as dysfunctional, in The Final Frontier he is only committed, and serves as a great foil for Detective Ryan, who is trying (really unsuccessfully) to question him about the murder.

In fact, what the episode basically ends up postulating about the mainstream in relation to geek culture is that they are no longer discrete things. Everyone, it appears, is a geek. Martha, of course, is a theatre geek.  Esposito is a fan of Blade Runner while his partner Ryan prefers “swords and sorcery.” Alexis is at the con with friends cosplaying Havacura (some sort of female assassins). Even Beckett, that no-nonsense stalwart of maturity, is a fan of a schlocky sci-fi series called Nebula 9 (a not-even-thinly disguised combination of Firefly and Star Trek). If everyone is a geek (as the show appears to be arguing), what does “mainstream” even mean anymore?

This is not to say that no one in this geekverse is pathologised.

Ironically, it is the actors, those who have traditionally profited from but sometimes cruelly patronized geek fans, who are portrayed as dysfunctional (and morally ugly).

Take Captain Max Rennard, an actor who, when he is not bedding multiple female fans simultaneously, lovingly strokes bits of the prop ship where he plays the same scene over and over with fans for a $500 paycheck. The man (played by Ed Quinn of geek series Eureka) feels trapped in his character but is unwilling to walk away, and has, as a result, started to lose the line between himself and the character.

This is at least better than the route his former co-star Stephanie Frye (played by True Blood’s Christina Moore) takes. Refusing to be similarly trapped in her role, she eschews the show and the fans (while showing up at Supernovacon to pitch her new work - no hypocrisy there!). And when it looks like she might be forced to see herself in the form of “Lt. Chloe bobbleheads” again, she loses it and kills in order to stop it. Clearly, while there’s nothing wrong with geeks themselves, geek actors are in need of professional help.

Not that this is a new idea. Certainly, this concept is largely the basis of the 1999 hit Galaxy Quest, which follows a Star Trek-like show’s cast to cons (where geeks are still seen as less-than and unable to separate reality from fiction—the last fifteen years has made quite a difference) and eventually to the stars themselves when they are kidnapped by an alien race who thinks their series was the equivalent of newsreels rather than entertainment. But the cast’s loathing for their fans (who actually save the day) takes a back seat to their insecurities and loathing for themselves.

So what Castle is doing is not novel but it is particularly pointed. Because Castle is regularly represented at San Diego Comic-Con, those around Fillion on the show (like the writers) get to regularly see not only fans, but actors like him whose careers are largely built on the love of geeks. And they see them not only in public, when they are on their best behavior, but in the backstage areas where they feel a little more free with their opinions about fans. So what they know is that Spiner is not an anomaly. There are a lot of people who have and continue to make money from fans they feel are the great unwashed.

What Castle gets that these actors do not is that geeks are no longer a marginal group who can be used and then mocked or dismissed. While Fillion is a bonafide geek, he and those like him are simply smart. They recognize that we are now legion—there are enough of us to build a substantial career on. And so they cultivate us, through Twitter, in interviews, in taking the time to shake our hands and take us seriously (or as seriously as cut-up Fillion takes anything).

What The Final Frontier says, in the end, is that geek actors and geek fans are in a symbiotic relationship with each other. So actors can recognize this and have fun with it at fan events and beyond, or they can have their careers stall and end up back among us at an autograph table somewhere, taking cash in exchange for their fifteen minutes of fame.

Are Fillion, Marsters, Wheaton or their like going to win Oscars for their work on geek shows? Chances are, they will not. But they will continue to work. And frankly, that’s something that most actors can only dream of.

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