The Columbus connection to ‘Ships of the Northern Fleet,’ the best show that never existed
Magician Erik Tait on his role as special effects coordinator and the draw of the ever-expanding universe surrounding the TV series that never was
When the coronavirus pandemic hit in March 2020, the change was immediate and drastic for magician and comedian Erik Tait, whose entire performance slate for the year was wiped clean virtually overnight. Fortunately, Tait was able to hold on to his day jobs with Penguin Magic and P3 Magic Theater, which allowed him to navigate the shutdowns better than most in his field.
“I think I did two [virtual shows] at the request of very good clients,” said Tait, who based his decision to not fully pivot to online performance both on the steady stream of income provided by his 9-to-5 (“I didn’t want to compete with people who needed that audience and needed that money a lot more than I did”) and on the fact that performing via Zoom is really it’s own, new type of magic. “It’s like being a close-up magician your whole life and then going to do stage magic. … It’s a different venue, and so it has different rules.”
Still, Tait said he missed the performance aspect of being onstage, which he said could be therapeutic, at times. Absent this usual outlet, the magician started to experiment with Twitch, a live streaming platform embraced by gamers, but one that offered storytelling wrinkles the magician was keen on exploring. So while there were times Tait would stream himself playing either video games or his weekly Dungeons & Dragons quest, other times he would incorporate unexpected wrinkles, including a camera Tait developed focused on his dog, who frequently slept in the same room from which he streamed.
“There are various ways the chat can activate this camera for limited periods of time,” Tait said. “It was something of a technical challenge, but also sort of having that performance element, where people are watching me and I’m engaging with them. … I don’t think I fully realized how important performing is for me, maybe in that sense of my own identity.”
In addition to these Twitch streams, Tait has been able to scratch this deeper performance itch by playing… himself.
You see, within the world of "Ships of the Northern Fleet," Erik Tait is a special effects wiz, celebrated for designing and rigging the sequences that helped bring the TV series to life. Or at least that would have been the case had the show ever existed, which it absolutely did not.
“It’s essentially collaborative storytelling, or longform improv that everyone in the world is engaging in,” said Tait, who helped incorporate Twitch into the expanding "Northern Fleet" universe, conducting live interviews with former cast and crew members, beginning with friend Catie Osborn, who played fan favorite Annie, a bisexual character, on the series. “I said, ‘Catie, what do you think of coming on my Twitch channel, and me interviewing you, talking about our experiences when we worked together on the show?'"
The seed for "Northern Fleet" was first planted by video game writer Tyler James Nicol, who recorded a February TikTok video in which he encouraged viewers to “participate in a hallucinatory experience” by sharing their memories from a steampunk sky pirate show “that will and has never existed.”
In the months since, the idea has snowballed, with Fleeters, as the show’s fans are known, congregating on TikTok and Discord to share favorite episodes, characters and lines of dialogue from the program, which, as legend goes, was canceled before its time.
The "Fleet" universe has since expanded to include a subreddit and a wiki with more than 300 entries, in addition to a line of merchandise, proceeds from which are donated to the Trevor Project, a California-based nonprofit that provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services. Meanwhile, cast reunion interview specials draw routinely thousands of viewers, and there are talks of future appearances at comic book conventions.
The Columbus-based Tait described himself as one of the six creators now viewed as “canon” within the world of Fleeters, joining Nicol, Osborn, Patrick Loller, Logan South and Gary Hampton, a group that has never once been in the same room, at least not to this point.
While Tait believes the idea could have taken off with the public regardless of the pandemic (“The concept of ‘Let’s all remember something that didn’t exist’ is a fun thing to play with,” he said), he does think the spread was greatly abetted by the technologies that have served as connective tissue throughout the last year-plus.
“Being more connected virtually, and with more people becoming internet and tech savvy, it definitely lit a fire under it,” said Tait, who had never edited a Wikipedia entry prior to "Northern Fleet" but now has a clear grasp of the technology.
Rather than COVID, Tait attributed the popularity of the concept to a range of factors, including the wedges driven into other fandoms by the sometimes-problematic actions and words of their creators and stars, which he said will never be an issue within the wildly decentralized world of the "Northern Fleet."
“We had two years of horrible things happening adjacent to the media properties and fandoms and universes we loved,” said Tait, pointing to instances such as J.K. Rowling’s repeated transphobic statements and the myriad controversies surrounding filmmaker Joss Whedon as just two examples. “And that can’t happen with 'Ships of the Northern Fleet.' It’s so decentralized, with thousands of people contributing to the lore. … But also, you’re creating something for yourself, and the way you want to be seen, and the stories you want to tell and the adventures you want to be a part of in real life. And so that lore reflects the people who are making it, where you have BIPOC characters and LQBTQ-plus characters and trans characters. … So it’s very inclusive, and it’s very interesting to see all of these people reaffirm and see themselves within this franchise, within this collaborative storytelling experience. It’s very, very positive, and I can’t foresee a future where it’s not.”
More than that, though, Tait said he and others have been drawn in by the limitless creativity on display, which has included fan art, music and myriad unexpected story threads, such as a recent Reddit post in which one user wrote about how they were first introduced to the series by its Yugoslavian knock-off, which lacked the craft of the original American series, weighed down by a heavy-handed political subtext informed by the war that was taking place within the country at that time.
“It was only two paragraphs, but it was one of the most creative things I’ve ever seen, where I was able to see this whole other version of the show,” Tait said, and laughed. “So could it have happened without the pandemic? Absolutely. It’s just too much fun engaging with this.”