Written by Vanessa Armstrong
In early April, the cast and crew of “Ships of the Northern Fleet” reminisced at a virtual convention.
Catie Osborn, who played fan favorite Annie, recalled the time when one of the show’s guest stars, Dame Judi Dench, was nearly knocked out by a laser beam arrow.
“I remember she was just sitting there, and she was watching her script, and we just heard that pew,” Osborn said. She didn’t even look up from her script – just caught the arrow in the air and went back to reading her ‘King Lear’. ”
Osborn’s fellow cast members nodded as she spoke, adding their own memories of the moment.
You may remember it too, but chances are you don’t. That’s because “Ships of the Northern Fleet” isn’t real. It’s made up. Fake. A non-existent TV series.
However, the fan base is very good. “Fleeters,” as they are known, gather on Discord and TikTok to discuss their favorite “memories” of the adventures of the Four Fleets’ ship crews. Popular discussion topics include the Cog Hogs, tiny clockwork hedgehogs that are cuter than the Porgs of “Star Wars” fame, and the majestic Sky Whales, gigantic beasts that flew in the sky alongside the pirates’ soaring airships.
Fans debate the merits of the ships’ various captains, including Captain Neil Barnabus (the leader of the True Winds fleet, named after the fantasy writer Neil Gaiman) and Captain George Hellman (who is “played” by Nathan Fillion, a regular value of the sci-fi genre; he wrote in an email that while he’d never heard of the show, he’s “all for it”).
So, how exactly did “Ships of the Northern Fleet” come to semi-existence? It started, like so many other dramatic arcs online, with a throwaway message on social media.
A show is born
In early February, video game writer Tyler James Nicol encouraged viewers in a video on TikTok to “participate in a mind-blowing experience” by sharing their favorite memories and moments from a show “that will and never did,” which, according to the proposed imaginary construction, had been canceled before its time.
The fake “steampunk sky pirate show” would be called “Ships of the Northern Fleet” after the name of a novel Nicol, 36, once planned to write.
He never got around to the manuscript, but he did have the title, a TikTok account, and an idea to crowdsource the plot and fictional knowledge.
It started quickly. Nicol, Osborn and four others — Patrick Loller, Erik Tait, Gary Hampton, and Logan South — connected on TikTok and began streaming together on Twitch, where they improvised in character, riffing on questions fans asked them over chat about “working ” to show.
Enthusiasts joined forces to create a subreddit, a Discord server, and a wiki with over 300 submissions. They have also produced fan art, songs and a ‘Ships’ tablet game. There is also fake merch, although fans can buy ‘real’ merch from Nicol; he donates all of his earnings from those sales to the Trevor Project.
Timing seems to have been key to the emergence of ‘ships’. “I feel like the pandemic has definitely given people more time with their phones in their hands just looking for content,” said South, who played the vampire Necronaut Captain Vlad on the show. To him, the whole project was the result of people “really wanting something to fill that time, fill that void, make them feel good.”
The “Ships” fandom also created a haven for people who felt betrayed by the creators of other franchises they loved; fans of “Harry Potter” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” have qualified their admiration for “Ships” in light of recent revelations about the creators of those fictional worlds.
It’s a problem that an imaginary show with an endless number of authors couldn’t chase. “You could rest assured that if you said there was a character that represented you perfectly, you wouldn’t have to worry about discovering a year later that the person writing about it didn’t actually recognize you as a person,” said Nicol, referring obliquely to JK Rowling’s views on transgender people.
Drea Letamendi, a clinical psychologist at UCLA and host of a pop culture podcast called “The Arkham Sessions,” agreed that the growth of the “Ships” fandom could be a response to unrest within fan communities. “We’ve been hurt by people who create stories for us, apparently stories that are inclusive, that we grew up with, that helped us shape our own identities,” Letamendi said.
“Ships” is included by default; almost any fan can take credit for being a part of the creative project, and the group has ensured that the ship’s captains reflect different identities within the fandom.
“It was initially cultivated as an LGBTQ-friendly space and comfortable for people of color,” said Oleander Kiewel, a “Ships” fan who helped build the wiki and created the character Captain Drusilla Spadeworthe, who is pansexual. “It’s really all-encompassing, and nobody dictates the way things go, and I think that’s really nice for a community. This is the least toxic fandom I’ve ever been in.”
Scratching an interesting itch
There’s a matter of people “remembering” details from the show differently. For the most part, these memory discrepancies are embraced. “Time is such a flexible idea,” Nicol wrote as one of the rules of the Discord group. “I remember watching the season finale as a young boy. I was also excited about last night’s latest episode. Both were correct.”
Within the fandom, some have referred to this phenomenon as “the Varience”, using “a combination of multiverse harmonic string theory and Möbius time loop” to explain fans’ completely different memories, as the wiki explains.
Letamendi thinks the fact that anyone can create facts within the “Ships” universe is a big part of its appeal. “They no longer feel overshadowed by being marginalized or diminished in their experience, and they can actually contribute to what’s important,” she said. “I think that has an individual benefit psychologically, but it also has a collective benefit for the culture surrounding this phenomenon.”
Justin Mousseau, 30, a devoted “Ships” fan, agreed. “The appeal of a lot of fandom is that sense of community, of coming together and talking about the things we love,” he said. “And I think ‘Ships of the Northern Fleet’ is scratching a really interesting itch in that direction, not just making fan art for a community or TV show or book, but the direction and the way the show is.”
This distributed creation also makes it unique. “This is how it’s actually different from a real fandom,” Letamendi said. “The fans are interpreting and inserting themselves, creating the story with the people in power. And that part of it could be incredibly liberating, that part of it could actualize fans’ wishes to be part of the story. They have more control, they are empowered, they feel like they can see themselves in the story.”
“It doesn’t matter if you’re a canon cast member, whatever that means, or an official member of the production crew,” said Tait, a professional magician who is part of the constructed story as a special effects supervisor. “There is no real wrong way to participate in this. It’s nice to read things and it’s nice to see these things happen, but even asking a question is participating, and participating makes this more fun for everyone.”
The community practices what Letamendi called “pro-social gatekeepers,” where “Ships” fans refer those who “remember” problematic aspects of the show.
“A few times Tyler had to come in and say, ‘Hey guys, we remember a TV show. Maybe we remember the best parts!’ said Loller, a cast member who “played” the tentacle character Glurp, whose signature catchphrase – “Swiggity swaggity, let’s blow gravity!” — is printed on official franchise T-shirts.
“Some, in the early days of the fandom, really wanted to treat it like ‘Game of Thrones,'” Loller said. “At first they were like, ‘We love it!’ And then they started taking it in this weird direction, where they said, ‘Actually, it was a really problematic show, and it was racist.’ And you don’t have to! That’s the beauty of it.”
Where is it from here?
What can come out of a fandom about a show that doesn’t exist? The answer, like everything else about “Ships of the Northern Fleet,” lies with the fans. However, one of the other few guidelines Nicol set out in the Discord was that the ‘Ships’ story could never be complete: ‘There are always gaps. Always something unfinished,” he wrote. “As if when it comes to writing it down, there’s room for someone else to add to it, so no ONE story is ever mine.”
The core cast — most of whom didn’t know each other before “Ships” brought them together, and none of whom live in the same area — do have some shared dreams for the show. “Ideally, if people can travel again, if we can read a personal Q and A table at a real event, that’s the highest goal for me,” said Hampton, a musician and assistant director for Netflix who starred young. Meadow on the show.
The rest of the cast reiterated Hampton’s desire to meet in person. And while most of them agreed that no one should make a real live-action flying pirate ship series called “Ships of the Northern Fleet,” they also admitted that a show in a different format was intriguing. “I have a fever dream of filming a mockumentary while we’re traveling and while we’re in the same room,” Hampton said.
“My ardent goal is to go to a convention in the future and see someone cosplay or wear one of these shirts,” Nicol said, pointing to his “Ships” shirt. In this vision, he walked up to the fan and leaning against “this weird nerd-meta subtext” said, “‘Ships of the Northern Fleet’! Great show! Love the show!”