Once upon a time, most fans of genre television series were blissfully unaware of who was working on those shows from behind the scenes. But nowadays, fans are hyper-conscious of who produces their favorite shows, and quick to blame newcomers for any missteps. What changed? Here's the history of fan backlashes against new showrunners.
Top image: Tom Baker at the start of a new era of Doctor Who, under producer John Nathan-Turner.
Back in the 1960s, John Wiles was a somewhat disastrous replacement for Verity Lambert as producer of Doctor Who in the 1960s, but fans never knew. Still, at some point, that changed. Even before the rise of the internet, fans started to pay way more attention to creative changes behind the scenes, and to draw conclusions about the negative impact of new creative staffs. Whether through the convention circuit, or the rise of mimeographed zines, or fan clubs, people started sharing their opinions of these newly-arrived producers.
And now we've reached a point where incoming showrunners and producers on popular shows regularly inspire online rage, including Sera Gamble on Supernatural and Steven Moffat on Doctor Who among others.
So here's a potted history of how we got to this point, by way of a few notable case studies.
You can't talk about the phenomenon of controversial changes in creative staff without talking about Fred Freiberger — the man who took charge of Star Trek's controversial third season and also "Americanized" Space: 1999 for its second and final season.
It's easy to find lots of negative anecdotes about Freiberger. Screenwriter Margaret Armen quoted Freiberger as saying Star Trek was just "tits in space." On the other hand, actor Nichelle Nichols and producer Robert Justman have both come to Freiberger's defense.
Whatever the truth, Freiberger is arguably the first example of a TV producer getting personally blamed by the fans for a show's decline. I can't find any record of fans calling for Freiberger's ouster while Trek was still on the air, but the hate clearly started soon after the show ended.
A 1976 fanzine talks about intentionally silly fan-made Star Trek trading cards and remarks, "Not even Freddy Freiberger in his heyday could have made up such wonderfully *awful* stories." And a 1984 Trek zine says "[m]any of us despair of Fred Freiberger's third season." Bjo Trimble, who spearheaded the letter-writing campaign that saved Trek, told a newspaper reporter in 1994, "Actually, we only saved it long enough for Fred Freiberger and his bunch to mess it up."
So whether it's fair to blame Freiberger for the mess of Star Trek's final season, his faults became part of fan lore pretty quickly. Having two shows take a disastrous turn on his watch probably sealed his fate — I wouldn't be surprised if the Freiberger-hate crescendoed after Space: 1999's second season aired in 1976-1977.
I asked Marc Cushman, author of the terrific These Are The Voyages books about the making of Star Trek, whether he thought fans blamed Freiberger unfairly.
Fred Freiberger was given nothing but grief over the reduction of quality in that last year, and about 90% of that grief was unwarranted. Truth is, there was little he could do, and that the quality stayed as high as it did is nothing short of a miracle and a tribute to him. Granted, Season Three was not as good as Seasons One and Two, but Freiberger was the least to blame of those in charge.
Paramount took over producing the show from Desilu, and slashed the budget drastically, and NBC only grudgingly renewed the show due to a write-in campaign and then moved it to the Friday "death slot." The FCC was on a campaign to remove all violence from television, making it hard to make an action/adventure show. And Gene Roddenberry had moved off the lot, and was impossible to reach.
Cushman tells io9:
Many at the network wouldn't even return Freiberger's calls. They wanted nothing to do with Star Trek or anyone who had been hired by Roddenberry. Morale was low for all these reasons and more. With the budget cut, they couldn't go on location as much, and had to downsize the productions in all ways.... Freiberger and his script editor, Arthur Singer, had to rewrite all the third year scripts without any help, working 12 hour days, and weekends, and constantly battling the network censors and the studio bean counters. Plus NBC would wait until the last moment to give Star Trek its mid-season pickup (as they did in Season Two, which you'll be reading about soon). So, by mid-season, Freiberger and Singer were rewriting scripts they didn't even know would go before the camera. It was an exhausting job. And a demoralizing one.
It's true, adds Cushman, that Freiberger was not as good at rewriting Star Trek scripts as Roddenberry, Gene Coon or Dorothy Fontana had been — but they'd all left the show by then, "with the two Genes feeling exhausted and burnt out." If you read the original drafts of those scripts before Freiberger rewrote them, he actually did improve them quite a bit, adds Cushman. And meanwhile, Freiberger would take the blame for things that were actually studio decisions, because he believed the buck should stop with him — and this made him a very unpopular figure.
As for Space: 1999, that was a very different situation, says Cushman: "The series had been canceled after Season One and only got a second chance because Freiberger was available to come onboard and had some ideas for changes that the studio liked."
The irony, adds Cushman, is that original Star Trek took a nosedive when Roddenberry left, whereas Star Trek: The Next Generation actually improved after Roddenberry's departure. "It's hard to replace the visionary of a series — its creator," says Cushman. "But creators get tired and sometimes need to step away."
Graham Williams and John Nathan-Turner
I'm lumping these two together, since Nathan-Turner succeeded Williams and they faced similar complaints. In a nutshell, Graham Williams took over as producer of Doctor Who after the incredibly violent, horror-oriented Philip Hinchcliffe era, and Williams faced a mandate to tone down the show's nastiness — which he did by making it sillier, with the help of Douglas Adams, among others. Fans were not thrilled, especially with Tom Baker's somewhat insane performances.
And then Williams left, to be replaced by Nathan-Turner, who at first steered the show in a more serious, science-fiction-oriented direction. It was only after a few years, when Nathan-Turner started hosting holiday pantomimes featuring the show's cast, that Doctor Who itself took on more of a pantomime flavor, with actual pantomime star Bonnie Langford eventually joining the cast.
The fan backlash against Williams was fairly mild, as far as I can tell. It's easy enough to find websites blaming him for a drop in Doctor Who's quality in the late 1970s, but he went to conventions while he was running the show and apparently it was all good. In 1982, the fanzine Eye of Horus interviewed former star Tom Baker and the interviewer mentioned that "Many fans believe that Graham Williams took the series to an all-time low and that John Nathan-Turner reversed the trend."
Thomas Cookson sums up the case against Williams here:
Hinchcliffe was replaced with an inexperienced producer in Graham Williams who had to juggle a slashed budget, an uncontrollable Tom Baker, whilst BBC higher-ups kept a tight reign on how frightening the series was allowed to get. As the show looked cheaper and more ramshackle, and as the horror was replaced with broad send-up, the BBC became increasingly sniffy towards the show.
But there's also been a trend towards reappraising Williams and appreciating the sophistication of some of the humor during his era. In particular, current Who writer Gareth Roberts is a huge fan of the Williams era and has written some novels set there, as well as novelizing the "lost" story "Shada."
Meanwhile, it's entirely possible that Nathan-Turner is the first television producer to face a fan backlash while actually still in the job. (If you can find an earlier example, please let me know!)
Nathan-Turner was active in courting the show's fans, attending tons of conventions and doing lots of interviews with fan publications — and this greater accessibility made him a more high-profile figure when the fans grew dissatisfied during the Colin Baker era.
Doctor Who Bulletin (an independent magazine that later changed its name to Dreamwatch) was one of the most regular and stringent critics of Nathan-Turner, especially once the show was placed on hiatus in 1985. And famously, the Doctor Who Appreciation Society actually went on a BBC reader-response show to voice their dislike of Sylvester McCoy's first year as the Doctor, and blamed Nathan-Turner specifically. (See the "Delta and the Bannermen" DVD for some clips.) By the time the show went off the air in 1989, Nathan-Turner had gone from courting the fans to having a somewhat combative, tense relationship with them.
As with Williams, there's been a lot of debate about Nathan-Turner since then — at this page, Greg Cook sums up the case against "JNT" as consisting of three things: 1) The show sacrificed substance for style. 2) Doctor Who became overly obsessed with its own history. 3) The show became both too violent and too silly.
But at the same time, there's a counter-argument that Nathan-Turner saved Doctor Who, and then became unable to leave the show after he'd run out of ideas. As Darthbibble puts it here: "JNT was simply forced to stay longer than he wanted. He orginally wanted to go after the 5 Doctors, but was told he had to do the following season - he agreed. However was forced to stay longer and longer as the bigwigs at the BBC tried to kill the programme off. If he'd left after 3 or 4 seasons like he wanted he would have been far better remembered. Also the programme being under fire from above didn't help him one iota."
But Nathan-Turner's reputation took a serious blow with the publication of a savage tell-all book, which includes some accusations that are beyond the scope of this article.
Jumping way ahead here — if you can think of a notable example of a TV producer facing a backlash in the 1990s, feel free to share it below. Marti Noxon was one of the most prolific (and respected) writers of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and then she took over more showrunner duties when creator Joss Whedon was busy with Angel, Firefly and other stuff.
You could argue that after killing off Buffy in the previous season, the show had to explore the fall-out from bringing her back. And that seems to be a creative decision that came from Whedon himself — the show's greater focus on edgy, upsetting storytelling does seem to fit with Whedon's tendency to push the darkness as far as it will go. (Especially in the wake of his later role in creating Dollhouse.)
And yet, it remains the case that Noxon visibly took the reins of the show right around the time it took a controversial turn, creatively.
And the fans went after her pretty intensely — if you were reading Buffy fan boards around the time that season six was airing, you would have seen a huge outpouring of hate for Noxon. It got to the point where Whedon himself went on the Bronze messageboard and wrote:
Dis not th' Nox. Say not that I'm not into it, Marti's not getting it done, anything of that sort... Fact is, I'm in this show up to my neck always. Same With Angel and yup, Firefly too. And I've read that I've blown off one for the other — He's over Buffy, Firefly is just a contractual obligation, he didn't even CREATE the Rockford Files, why's he taking credit for it... I've heard it all. And it ain't necessarily so. Marti (She of the great brain and great beauty) and I shaped this year very carefully, and while we made mistakes (as we do every year), we made our show. We explored what we wanted to, said what we meant. You don't have to like it, but don't think it comes from neglect. That would give me hurty feelings.
Noxon herself has maintained a sense of humor on the subject — her Twitter bio, to this day, reads "I ruined Buffy and I will RUIN YOU TOO."
There's a pretty great run-down of Noxon's influence on Buffy and the fan backlash she faced in Slayage. On the one hand, Noxon has a clear penchant for melodrama and relationship drama in particular — but on the other, her vision was clearly a key ingredient of Buffy, from season two onwards. They conclude:
Marti Noxon provides a great deal of the show's "emotional heart." Though Joss Whedon is its soul and its emotional center since the series is his vision, Noxon is concerned with its heart and all that implies. She is at her best when working with the aspects of life that break your heart. So why has she drawn so much ire? The answer will likely always elude us, but one thing is for sure Buffy the Vampire Slayer would not have been the same without her.
And here's a piece at Feministe that makes a strong argument that a lot of the anti-Marti Noxon backlash was specifically gender-based, and if Whedon had named a man as the new showrunner, fans wouldn't have been so quick to pin the blame for creative decisions on that person instead of Whedon.
So what's changed from the Fred Freiberger era to the Marti Noxon era (and on, into our current era of fan backlashes?) The response seems to be much quicker than in the past, — where once fans would blame particular creators after a show had already gone off the air, by the late 1980s, the fans were responding to creative changes almost in real-time. Even before the Web came along, fans were becoming more organized and more highly attuned to behind-the-scenes shifts. Which means this isn't just an internet phenomenon, and it's deeply ingrained in fan culture at this point. But also, creators are much more responsive than they've ever been — witness Whedon himself going on fan message boards to defend Noxon.