Universal internet and the massive avenues of access to information helped make fan theory what it has become. Blogs, podcasts, and video streaming allow everyday Joes the ability to garner an audience. Today, multiple movies in a series are more often made one after another, and many TV shows are ten episodes long. This allows for longer times between new information which naturally encourages a lot more speculation from fans. But what makes a fan theory great? What elements go into a fan theory and how is a fan theory different from fan speculation?
The Evolution of Fan Theories
In the beginning (the late 1900s), people enjoyed film and television. Paying money for a movie ticket or catching their favorite show on network television was part of the culture. To enhance their passion, fans would meet at work, school, or other public locations to discuss their favorite characters or react to plot points. An occasional theory might be tossed around, but normally the conversation centered on what happened, not what it meant.
Flash forward to 2017 and the public forum existing around modern media bears little resemblance to its 20th-century counterpart. Every new episode is a chance for critique, prognostication, and speculation, and fan theorists will often use canonical texts, cast and writer interviews, previous films, or even an actor’s haircut to back up their theory. Discussion need not take place at a public location anymore – a keyboard and chat room or social media platform do just fine. As a result, fan theories have grown so big that they range from two sentence ideas to 30-minute YouTube videos that go into explicit detail.
For a fan theory to really have legs, it has to be based on accurate information. It must also be presented clearly and effectively and be relevant to a certain show or film. Lastly, it needs to be significant enough to promote discussion.
You have the right to your own opinions but not your own facts. In the current political climate, this may not be true. However, in fan theory, this is an absolute. Good fan theories scale the highest peaks and scrape the darkest depths. If those great journeys are not based in fact, they are fools’ errands.
For example, if a Star Trek theory speculates on Spock’s origin, they must have the identity of his parents correct. Ignoring canon or refusing to accept the facts of the story leads to rumor and innuendo as opposed to theory. The statement that Luke Skywalker is a Jedi holds up in Star Wars films and books. A fan theory that claims Luke Skywalker is not a Jedi ignores the facts. However, a theory that states Luke Skywalker is not The Last Jedi works as it identifies a fact and works from there.
Presented Clearly and Effectively
A good fan theory, much like good scientific theory, must present as well-done and thought-out. Tweeting a Westworld theory that “Dr. Ford is actually a robot” may promote conversation but exists as mere speculation. But, an article or video outlying the movements he makes, the actions he takes, or the way he communicates being indicative of a host helps promote the theory.
There is a major difference between getting a rise out of someone and promoting a theory. A clearly presented theory contains persuasion, allowing the facts and opinion to sway the audience. More often than not, fan theory presents elements directly from the source material. Like putting together the pieces of a puzzle, the audience is walked through the elements of the theory. Compelling evidence is presented and, like a jury deliberating a court case, the author attempts to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt.
Fan theories evolve when new material appears. The more information, the more in-depth a good fan theory becomes. The top theories making the rounds on the internet are relevant to a current product and will likely be proved or debunked as future movies or episodes come out.
A fan theory on Casablanca could be interesting. However, the fact that it deals with a 75-year old film with no sequel in production is simply hypothesis. The fun of a relevant fan theory lies in the anticipation of learning the verdict. The famous R+L=J theory from Game of Thrones deals with Jon Snow‘s heritage. With more seasons of Game of Thrones and another book on the horizon, fans wait with baited breath for the big reveal. If the saga were complete, there would be no opportunity for a payoff.
Many fans are concerned with minuscule facts and mundane details. Smaller items have their place, but the truly elite fan theories cover big ticket items. Revelations as to heritage, lineage, and identity dominate most popular theories. A larger portion of the population debate the merits of theories that have significant consequences to the overall story.
Again, Game of Thrones fan theories following season five dealt mainly with whether or not Jon Snow was dead. This discussion was already white-hot from readers who finished A Dance With Dragons. This discussion took off as the verdict and had macro implications towards George R.R. Martin‘s entire universe. Is Jon Snow dead or alive? That is significant. Theories about what he ate for breakfast, fun as they may be, have less shelf-life and don’t generate much in the way of discussion.
With newer technology and greater access, fans have been able to propose fantastic theories on the most popular attractions of the day. Let’s face it, with sites like Wookieepedia and Star Trek’s Memory Alpha cited as reference; fans have become the experts.
These theories benefit fans as well as the production studios. They generate buzz that is invaluable in the media world. The free advertising helps to drive fans to re-watch and re-examine mainline texts. Consequently, it also drives sales for supplementary material as consumers attempt to seek information not available in the central product.
Fan Theories are Good Business
With this in mind, it seems as though showrunners and screenwriters might even cater to potential fan theories when creating their product. Even a fan theory bringing negative attention creates interest in a product. Publicity is good for a product regardless.
Most episodes of Westworld‘s first season ended with a fork in the road, encouraging viewers to speculate. Speculation drives conversation, conversation promotes interest, interest leads to consumption, consumption leads to dollars.
One of my favorite topics that has spurred a lot of fan theories is the heritage of Rey from Star Wars: The Force Awakens. In the year since the film came out, the internet opinion has been swayed by smart fans making great presentations of their theories. In fact, Fandom has laid out many of these theories in depth. The presentation below also seems to be one of the top ideas on the internet today and it fits the criteria for a good fan theory.
We exist in the Golden Age of the fan theory. Thousands of these well-done fan productions make their rounds on the internet daily. Are they correct? Do they jump to the correct conclusions? We will have to tune in to find out.