Last Friday, Fringe fans were treated to an instant-classic installment of the Fox sci-fi series, one that significantly advanced the season’s defining storyline: Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson) — marooned in a new rendering of history in which he has not existed since he was a child – trying to return home to his own timeline. Yet for one particular, peculiar subset of loyal Fringe viewers, “Welcome to Westfield” was nothing short of an early Valentine’s Day gift. They’re the fans for whom the dream sequence spectacle of Peter and Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) making love was a dream come true. They’re the fans that got goosebumps when Olivia planted a kiss on Peter, as if this “reboot” version of his ladylove had suddenly reverted back to the original iteration of her. They’re fans known as ‘shippers, and if you’re a Web-chatty TV watcher or pop culture aficionado who tends to fixate on romantic relationships in your favorite fiction or fantasize about the mere possibility of amorous activity between your favorite make-believe people, then you’re probably one of them.
In the current issue of Entertainment Weekly, we explore how the shipper phenomenon — which began with The X-Files and until recently has been more associated with sci-fi and fantasy fandom — has gone mainstream and how shippers themselves can impact the creative process. An added bonus for Fringe fans: Exec producers Jeff Pinkner and J.H. Wyman tell EW that an episode scheduled to air next month, entitled “A Short Story About Love,” will be a shipper milestone. “We’ve always said that no great love story is worth telling unless it’s a twisty, long road,” says Wyman of a season that has left some Peter/Olivia shippers frustrated because the story has essentially kept the pair — or at least, the versions of the characters who love each other — heartbreakingly apart. Adds Pinkner: “You have to have a setback before you have a victory, otherwise the storytelling becomes flat and boring.” Wyman adds that “A Short Story About Love” should be “the be-all and end-all in terms of people’s expectations of the Peter/Olivia relationship.”
Who are shippers? They’re people like Gillian Bromfield, a Fringe fan from the United Kingdom who’s been invested in the growing rapport between Olivia (her favorite character) and Peter since the pilot. She expresses her affection by producing music videos and posting shippy clips about the couple on her Fringe-dedicated YouTube channel. “The episode that took me headfirst into shipper territory was ‘The Cure.’ [The sixth episode from season 1.] The scene at the end when Olivia speaks to Peter outside the hotel just had me squealing with delight,” writes Bromfield in an e-mail interview. “What do I like about them as a couple? Well, I see them as two damaged people that come to respect and love each other, and the deeper the mythology of the show goes, the more it appears they were always destined to be together.”
Shipper Nation is a varied, dynamic, sometimes combative community whose members desire romance from — or project romance onto — almost any kind of pop culture pairing, from Stefan and Elena (or Damon and Elena) on The Vampire Diaries, to Liz and Jack on 30 Rock, to Simon and Paula on The X-Factor, to even Harry Potter and Little Red Riding Hood on Once Upon a Time. (Okay, we made that last one up, although “crossover” shipping — coupling characters from different fictions — is very common.)
There’s a contingent of Supernatural fandom known as “Wincesters” that write fan fiction imagining a more intimate dimension to the already tight bond between the show’s heroes, brothers Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean (Jensen Ackles) Winchester. “It’s kind of weird,” says Crystal B., a 40-year-old Supernatural fan from Virginia. “But there’s such good writing that you get drawn in, and after awhile, it starts to make sense.” In 2007, she started writing her own bromantic “slash” fanfic (slash — shippers interested in same-sex unions like Sam/Dean), with stories that imagined what might have happened if Sam and Dean were raised separately and met as adults or what would happen if Sam went evil. “Slash” shipping — an older form of the whole shipping phenomenon, dating back to lady Trekkers who wrote fan fiction imagining a Kirk/Spock hookup — has historically skewed female. “There are all sorts of theories out there for why women like to write and read slash, and I’m not sure exactly what it is,” says Crystal B. “But I think that two men being vulnerable together — women find that appealing.” (Our EW story on shipping will introduce you to some academics who’ve actually studied shipping and offer some additional insights about the psychology of it all.)
The explosion in shipping has been driven by a new crop of female-targeted shows where romance is the whole point of the series, not just coy subtext or the wishful thinking of fans, a là Mulder and Scully of The X-Files. Fox’s Bones and ABC’s Castle boast two of the most energetic shipper fanbases in all of pop culture. The creators of both series tell EW that they’re grateful for shipper passion and the buzzy cultural energy that shippers can create… most of the time. “For me it’s a double-edged sword,” says Bones exec producer Hart Hanson, who finally got Booth (David Boreanaz) and Brennan (Emily Deschanel) together last year following will they/won’t they/whenwilltheyalready, dammit! dance that lasted six seasons. Like many showrunners, Hanson goes online to check out reaction to his work, and he says that feedback can be valuable… unless it’s coming from more virulent shippers that he calls “the dim nasties” who routinely blasted him for keeping Brennan and Booth apart — or, put another way, for doing his job as a storyteller and sustaining the very chemistry that hooks shippers and keeps them riveted. “I have been subjected to huge amounts of abuse from shippers since season 2. They just hollered at me. It was like I was messing with their own romances or something. … You do everything you to get people to care that much. David and Emily in particular worked hard with their performances. Yet you also have to deal with the ramifications of that, which is this overwhelming amount of passion — some of it not wanted.”
(Additional reporting by Shaunna Murphy)
For more on the wonderfully weird world of shipperdom — including what’s coming up next for one of TV’s hottest romantic dramas, The Vampire Diaries — pick up the new issue of Entertainment Weekly, currently on newsstands. (Or click here to buy one or all of our three collectible covers.) Also, make sure to follow @EW on Twitter. And check out our Vampire Diaries photo gallery, featuring bonus portraits and behind-the-scenes peeks from our shoot.