Over our summer break, I was reading a book whose protagonists traveled to alternate universes which, frankly, I didn’t like very much. But it did get me thinking about the idea of alternate universes in fiction. Not the scientific concept of alternate (parallel) universes—though that’s often the subject of many sci-fi stories—I’m talking about the alternate universes that result from one thing changing in a fictional story. What if Charles Xavier died before he could found the X-Men? What if Captain America was a Nazi? Undoubtedly, a lot of things would be bad. And unfortunately, this is the kind of alternate universe that we often see in today’s fictional media. However, the idea that one different thing could change everything is so broad that I don’t understand why this kind of grimdark change is the most common. Fanfiction also often deals in alternate universes which diverge from canon, but the changes of fanfiction, on the whole, all tend to be more positive and more emotionally satisfying. Though many mainstream movies and TV shows disdain this sort of happy story, an alternate universe which changes originally negative canon material into positive new story fodder can bring with it a wide range of different emotions than the usual grimdark reboot is capable of.
The term “alternate universe” has often been interchangeably used with other terms such as “alternate reality,” “alternate timeline,” and “alternate dimension,” depending on what story you’re reading/watching. In fanfiction in particular, the term “alternate universe” can mean anything from “one thing changes in canon” to a contextual change like “everyone is in a coffee shop now,” something Lady Geek Girl ably points out in this earlier post of hers. In this post, I’m using the term “alternate universe” to describe a What If? scenario that then turns into an Alternate Universe. This kind of story only happens when there’s some kind of already-established story to diverge from, which is why many reboots and fanfics alike often deal in alternate universes.
The 2009 Star Trek reboot film kicks off with one big What If? scenario: what if Nero went back in time and killed George Kirk? The resulting movie escalated with a Jim recklessly trying to live up to his dead father’s potential, Nero blowing up the planet Vulcan, and Jim, Spock, and all their friends eventually achieving the same positions they had in the prime universe, albeit by following a much more explosive path. Many other recent reboots, like X-Men: Days of Future Past and X-Men: Apocalypse, are similarly grimdark. Many mainstream creators seem to have the idea that in order to make things new or more unique, they have to make negative, pessimistic changes.
Even when creators set out to make positive changes, they often go out of their way to show that there’s something “wrong” with the positive world. The show Supernatural hasn’t yet had a reboot (thank god), but it’s set out in several episodes to create alternate universes for itself. In “What Is and What Should Never Be,” protagonist Dean Winchester is captured by a djinn and, under its influence, dreams up a fantasy world where his mother was never killed by a demon. This results in Dean and his brother Sam now living happy lives with jobs and significant others, but Dean can’t let go of the feeling that something’s still wrong. He quickly finds out that all of the people he’d saved from monsters by Living a Manpain-Filled Life on the Lam are dying, because he isn’t there to save them. Using this knowledge, he breaks the djinn’s spell on his body and escapes. The show paints this as a good thing for Dean as well—he’s recognized a trap and refuses to live in a dream world, even though he and his family are happy in it. However, it also inadvertently says that that positive world just isn’t interesting. Without Dean and Sam fighting monsters and being sad, there would be no show.
In fanfiction, we see a much different regard for positive AU changes. The fandom classic Stealing Harry, by copperbadge, creates a Harry Potter AU which asks “What if Sirius and Remus had been allowed to raise Harry?”, leading to a delightful AU in which Harry is allowed to grow up with a support system. Harry’s basic personality doesn’t change, but he’s no longer raised in an abusive environment and he’s allowed to grow up fairly unharmed. Though it’s a creative work produced for free, as is all fanfic, it’s no less a reboot of Harry Potter than the 2009 Star Trek is of the original Star Trek series. But this is a reboot that doesn’t focus on the suffering of its protagonist. Harry doesn’t have to lose his mentors—Sirius, Dumbledore, Remus—over and over, and by fixing the external dramatic factors in the original Harry’s story, the author can instead focus on the internal life of its protagonist and explore ideas like werewolf discrimination, magical protections, and inter-House unity, all of which the original canon left by the wayside.
Another fandom classic, Team 8, by S’TarKan, is a Naruto AU where Naruto is placed on Team 8 instead of the canonical Team 7. Naruto’s been ostracized all his life by the village, and in canon, he deals with this by acting out because any attention is better than no attention. In Team 8, he has a team who supports him and a mentor who truly educates him, and as a result, he learns better ways to gain respect and better ways to battle. He doesn’t have to be stuck with angry, jealous teammates and a teacher who favors his teammates over him, and similarly to Stealing Harry, the story is thus free to focus on intra-village politics, fulfilling romantic relationships which make sense for all characters involved, and clan dynamics.
Both of these stories are “positive” situations, but their emotional fulfillment in no way makes them less intriguing. Harry still has to fight Voldemort, Naruto still has to deal with the Uchiha and a burgeoning Hyuuga insurrection. These canon-divergent fanfics don’t introduce more suffering into their protagonists’ lives (though of course there are fanfics which choose to do so), but lessening the angst doesn’t make the story boring. In fact, it leaves room to introduce more complicated emotions than just “we’re in danger, we have to save the world!” and adds subtleties to character interactions that “bigger” reboots can’t achieve.
Many of the alternate universes introduced by mainstream media reboots seem to think that only death and other such activities are capable of being engaging story revivals. But as we get more and more reboots under Hollywood’s uncreative eye, I don’t think that making an alternate universe more angsty than its original is the only way to make it more interesting. If we get another X-Men movie next year, why not let it be one in which Jean Grey doesn’t get possessed by a cosmic entity and instead struggles with and learns to deal with the ethical dilemmas of her ability? If we have to have another take on Cap, why not have one where he’s the white liberal ally always at protests and rallies? It could be an entirely new way to explore a canon material and include emotions which aren’t just painful.