There have been some major surprise announcements in the world of science fiction these past few weeks regarding the future of Star Wars, Star Trek, and Battlestar Galactica. Together, these stories highlight the adaptability of all fans.
The granddaddy of them all was the October 30th revelation that Disney purchased Lucasfilm and was already developing Star Wars Episode VII for a 2015 release (watch George Lucas explain why he sold Lucasfilm in the video below). No one saw this coming. In the 70s and 80s, George Lucas teased fans with the idea of a 12 part Star Wars movie series – one prequel trilogy and two sequel trilogies. However, for the past 15 years Lucas has maintained that the prequel trilogy completed the story he envisioned and there will be no more Star Wars films. With and without the prospect of new films, the Star Wars fan community has thrived. Just look at the number of fan films and gatherings that have occurred in the last decade.
Similarly, Trekkies have flourished in the face of a declining franchise. In 2005, after years of disappointing television ratings for Star Trek: Enterprise and Star Trek: Nemesis’s dismal box office performance, production on new Star Trek was suspended (the first time in 18 years). While fans were disappointed, many continued to flock to conventions and websites were full of activity. Now, with Star Trek into Darkness (a sequel to J.J. Abrams’s highly successful 2009 rebooted film) on the horizon, Trekkies are devouring any information they can get from the notoriously secretive director (e.g. scrutinizing a three-frame clip of the movie shown on Conan, see below). When it was announced last week that a 9 minute preview of the new movie will be shown before The Hobbit IMAX 3D, presale tickets for Hobbit skyrocketed (this was the only reason I purchased my tickets). Regardless of the franchise’s strength, Trekkies are an intensely active community.
Fans of the acclaimed Battlestar Galactica franchise also have reason to celebrate - after years in limbo, the 2nd prequel to Battlestar Galactica, Blood and Chrome, suddenly premiered on November 9th (see the trailer below). Many fans worried they would never see the webseries after the universally panned spinoff movie, The Plan, and the cancellation of Caprica (Battlestar's first prequel series). Like Star Wars and Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica fans have remained active on and offline despite uncertainty in their franchise.
Just what is happening? How are science fiction fans able to accept the "end" of their beloved franchises and why do they later embrace their return?
The answer starts with a core psychological process – sensory adaptation. This is the process by which
we adjust to our environments. Our nervous system is wired to lookout for
changes around us (e.g. a new noise outside the window). New information is literally exciting for our neurons. But once changes
remain constant (e.g. the noise does not go away), our senses get used to the stimuli and neurons stop firing.
Adaptation also occurs with emotions. With time, we get used to our feelings
and habituate back to how we feel most of the time (our baseline). Given enough time, the excitement of being on
vacation wears off, the sadness of moving from a warm to cold climate
fades away, and your new smartphone fails to bring you joy. Not only does adaptation shape the way we see the world, it might be the reason we evolved the way we did.
Adaptation has also influenced the psychology of happiness (positive psychology). Researchers have discovered that life circumstances (i.e. the things that happen to you) have little influence on our overall happiness. Why? Because we get used to the circumstances we find ourselves in. How we respond to circumstances is far more important than what happens to us (for a great overview of this, check out Sonja Lyubomirsky’s The How of Happiness). While
changes in our circumstances do impact our short-term happiness, over the long-term we adjust and return to a stable level of happiness. This is called the
hedonic treadmill. Think of your happiness like a thermostat – while the temperature (your feelings) might fluctuate here and
there, overall it tends to stay around 70 degrees (your average level of
happiness). Everyone's average is different, and we can change our behavior to live in the upper range of our average, but we will always bounce back to our baseline. Some people won't bounce back and develop depression, anxiety, or other emotional problems, but I'll save that story for another day.
My favorite example of hedonic adaptation comes from the classic 1978 study on lottery winners and paralyzed individuals. You would expect that lottery winners would be much happier after winning up to $1,000,000. You might also predict declines in happiness for recently paralyzed individuals. In this study, while there was an initial bump in happiness for lottery winners and a decline in the paralyzed groups, overall in the long-term everyone returned to how they felt before winning the lottery or becoming paralyzed. Like a thermostat, these participants bounced back to how they felt prior to their life-changing circumstances.
Adaptation also helps us understand the relationship between income and happiness. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Chick-Sent-Me-Hi) described in If We Are So Rich, Why Aren’t We Happy that after overcoming poverty, increased income only minimally affects our happiness. Once you can comfortably pay your bills, being able to purchase more stuff doesn't make you feel that much better (it does result in better healthcare, education, and opportunities to spend time with friends and family though). Our cultural belief that the road to happiness is financial wealth, combined with the empirical finding that we are very bad at predicting how we will feel in the future, results in many Americans pursuing a goal they have no chance attaining (just like the protagonist in 1999's Fight Club, see below).
This line of research has major implications for fans. We were sad when the original Star Wars trilogy ended and Star Trek The Original Series was canceled, but we bounced back (hedonic treadmill). When both franchises returned, we celebrated (our nervous system is wired to see change) and we eventually got used to Jar Jar Binks and Wesley Crusher. Fans will accept Disney control of Star Wars, much as they came to terms with J. J. Abrams’s lens flares. Battlestar Galactica’s Blood and Chrome may not be perfect, but we will get used to it’s video game like effects because we love the universe so much. Even with “dead” franchises (e.g. Firefly, Harry Potter), fans find a way to stay engaged.
We see the same type of adaptation outside science fiction with sports fans following their teams despite their performance and political zealots supporting their candidates despite success or failure at the polls. The decline of a franchise might prevent a new generation from becoming fans (which is why Lucas decided to bring back Star Wars via Disney and J. J. Abrams rebooted Star Trek), but it doesn’t prevent current fans from continuing to find a way to enjoy the characters and stories they love so much.