A good documentary uncovers information in an engaging way. Years can be condensed into minutes, and we can become armchair detectives, or just geek out about our favorite fandom. Truth is important to me, and there’s nothing better than watching truth unfold onscreen in a great documentary. I had fun putting this list together because while some of the fandoms were ones I relate to (like Doctor Who and Galaxy Quest), others were completely foreign to me (like indie gaming and bronies). If knowledge is power and life is about balance, then I encourage you to do what I did and watch documentaries on both subjects you love and also on subjects you’re unfamiliar with.
However, with the rise of biased media, professional editing software readily available to anyone, and tons of distribution avenues, we have to be mindful about the facts that are presented. Before you watch any of the films or series below, check out the YouTube video “How Documentaries Lie To You” about verifying documentaries and their narratives.
There are so many great fandom documentaries available that there will be a part II in the future!
I’m not a gamer—I’m a TV/film guy. So, if you’re a gamer and you love a gaming documentary that I missed, please tell me in the comments—maybe I’ll include it in Part II!
1. High Score
(2020, TV-14) [Netflix] Selected history of Gaming: 2020 perspective. Just read IMDb’s user reviews of this limited series and you’ll see some pretty strong reactions. Some critics say it’s full of political agendas and console representation is lacking. That may be true, but I still found the series interesting. There is a certain charm to it, with 8-bit style animations and famous personalities doing silly video game actions. But to me, the people are what’s fascinating. Sure, tech is the instrument, but it’s all about the people who built the industry and those who played. Each episode features key designers who were influential in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, including both well-known stories (example: Howard Scott Warshaw) and unknown tales (Jerry Lawson). And almost every episode has a current interview with a gamer who won an early tournament.
The next documentary on my list, A Gamer’s Life, was made in the long-ago era of 2016 when everyone wanted to know if eSports would become big. High Score, episode 5 “Fight!” answers that question (but be warned, there is pretty severe violence and gore).
2. A Gamer’s Life
(2016, NR) [Prime, Tubi] Everyday and competitive gaming. Since High Score’s objective is showing how and why competitive gaming appeals to the masses, A Gamer’s Life is the unpolished proof of that pudding. “Unpolished” not meaning “bad,” just different. From the start, this doc tells us it’s not standard. The pro to that is that we see real gamers giving insight; the con is the lower production value of the documentary itself. Major themes that the film covers include: amateur/gaming for fun vs. professional/paid players, how to set up a team and group dynamics, and a healthy discussion of stimulants.
Note: There is profanity: if this was rated, it would be R purely on F-word usage.
3. GameLoading: Rise of the Indies
(2015, NR) [Free on Red Bull] Game Development: Indies. This film follows individuals and teams as they develop indie games, go to conventions, and discuss their struggles and joys. As with any well-done documentary, the story pulls us in; we feel like we know the subjects, and we root for their success. The beautiful part of this adventure is that success isn’t always measured in sales, but in the ability to create new experiences, make more games, and help hurting people deal with reality.
Bonus: Indie Game: the Movie (2012, NR) [Prime] has lots of profanity, but is recommended as “one of the best you could watch on game development.”
4. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
(2007, PG-13) [Prime] Straight up Gaming fun! Not being a gamer myself, I don’t generally care for movies about video games, so it was a big deal for me to walk into Hollywood Video in 2007 and demand a copy of this film! With an allusion to spaghetti westerns, nineteen award nominations, and half as many wins, how could it not be a great movie?! The story centers around competitive arcade gaming (specifically Donkey Kong), but it comes down to a real-life hero and villain. And yes, they’re exactly what you hoped for! Smug Billy reminds me of a cross between Alan Rickman’s Sheriff in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Aladdin’s Jafar, but if they were painfully dorky with an outdated ego. And Steve is a dork but a hardworking dad with unquestionable motives. The film itself is a teenager both in age and personality: a little awkward and dramatic, but loveable underneath it all.
5. Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines
(2012, NR) [Hoopla, Tubi] Winner of SXSW Film Fest’s prestigious “Audience Award: Best Documentary,” this film examines the lack of strong female representation in entertainment media. The documentary portrays the kind of feminism that takes the high ground by acknowledging past under-representation, some of the strong leaders who advanced women’s rights, and what pivotal character Wonder Woman, and comics in general, have played in the struggle.
Double Bonus: 1) Watch the Doctor Who documentary listed below to learn more about trailblazing producer Verity Lambert, and 2) The He-Man documentary Power of Grayskull listed below addresses misogyny with female artists and directors, interviewing Gwen Wetzler, one of the female artists and directors to break molds through He-Man.
6. The Image Revolution
(2014, TV-14) [Tubi] – In December 1991, seven top comic book creators departed Marvel and DC to start Image Comics. It was like David versus Goliath, and it made news. Not just comics news—every major network and cable news outlook covered Image’s publications. Comics editor Filip Sablik summarized the opportunity well, stating that kids started noticing there were creators behind the comics. That meant fans would follow creators instead of just sticking with a title or publisher. This is the story of what happened when those geniuses became rock stars!
Note: Be warned: although it’s rated TV-14, there are at least four F-words along with other profanity.
7. Back in Time
(2015, TV-14) [YouTube, Tubi] – This is in my top five documentaries of all time because it covers the past (80s) and the present (of 2015) of Back to the Future so well. The past is covered with every filmmaker (yes, even Spielberg – “heavy”!), cast and crew member telling how the story developed and what the shoot was like. But the “now” has the full aforementioned crew, and also celebrity fans like Adam F. Goldberg and Dan Harman. Fortunately, it’s not just a love letter to Back to the Future—it also criticizes the weird parts where we’re like, “Hello? Anybody home? Huh? Think, McFly!”
Double Bonus: 1) check out the Framing John DeLorean (2019, NR) biodoc with Alec Baldwin in the title role (available on Hulu) and 2) Josh Gad’s Reunited Apart, episode 2: “It’s Time to go BACK TO THE FUTURE!”
Note: Mild profanity, violence, etc. If your child has seen Back to the Future, then this will be fine for them.
8. Never Surrender: A Galaxy Quest Documentary
(2019, NR [13+ according to Prime]) [Prime] – One of the reasons I put Galaxy Quest on my “12 Family-Friendly Films to Broaden Your Horizon” list was because I was excited to watch this documentary. And it did not disappoint! This is legit with every star, producer, writer, director, editor, effects supervisors, etc. interviewed, as well as fans like Wil Wheaton, Damon Lindelof, Paul Scheer and Greg Berlanti. This may have earned a spot in my top ten docs of all time. Thoughts? Leave a comment!
Bonus: If you crave more Tony Shalhoub alien fun, watch BrainDead.
9. The Story of Doctor Who – Documentary 40th Anniversary
(2003, NR) [YouTube] A documentary celebrating the 40th anniversary in 2003. This is more for the Whovian, or at least casual Doctor Who fan, as opposed to someone who wants an overview. If you want a summary, check this out: “Doctor Who Explained.”
Keep in mind that this 60-minute documentary was made prior to 2005, so there’s no New Who, but if you’re not a fan of classic Who you should still watch this as it includes interviews with every living Doctor up to that point (excluding McGann) as well as creator perspectives on the Daleks, Cybermen, Zygons, and a few more. Not to mention really interesting oral production history and one of my favorite producers: Verity Lambert. Don’t forget your popcorn and Jelly Babies.
Note: The only versions available online are augmented to avoid copyright infringement (as is the link above)—a superimposed image covers most of the screen when episode clips play in the background. If you know of a better source for this documentary, let us know!
Category: 1980s TOYS THAT BECAME TV SHOWS THAT TRANSCENDED TIME AND HAVE A RABID FOLLOWING STILL IN 2020
10. Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of My Little Pony
(2014, TV-14) [Google Play; iTunes] I’ve been to my share of cons, and my daughter watched My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. So I knew what bronies were—I just wasn’t sure why they were. This documentary does a good job not just of explaining why high school and college age guys like the show, but also why parents and other adults would be put off by young men liking a show marketed to little girls. I think my biggest takeaway is that young men know how bad the world can be, so when they see lessons on being good, they gravitate toward it. It was interesting to hear interviewees talk about being taught basic human interaction and how to be courteous, kind, and generous. I’m not saying MLP is the character formation machine for everyone, but maybe in a broken and angry world, the spiritual and emotional need of making friends, dealing with bullies, and being creative shouldn’t be looked down on.
11. Power of Grayskull: The Definitive History of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe
(2017, TV-14) [Netflix] This documentary taps the creators behind He-Man, starting with the context of the toy industry in the late 70s and early 80s, then moving into the inception of the toys, TV shows, and live-action film. Although sometimes a bit unorganized, the documentary gives a level of care to the human psyche unexpected in a toy doc. There are some really interesting conversations on the psychology of using “I have the power!” and around good and evil.
I can relate to the clarity of good and evil since, at four years old, I flushed my Skeletor action figure down the toilet. Having never even seen the show, it was obvious to me that evil Skeletor must be vanquished—and I did just that, resulting in a hefty plumbers bill. Start Power of Grayskull for nostalgia, but stay for an oddly fun lesson on the monetization of childhood.
Bonus: Check out The Toys That Made Us, S1, E3 “He-Man” which has a truncated version of the story, although it presents the creators as a bit weirder and has more profanity.
CATEGORY: 1890s DETECTIVES
12. The Real Sherlock Holmes
(2012, PG) [Tubi] – If you’re excited about the new entry into the Sherlock Holmes universe, Enola Holmes (Netflix), based on the YA books and graphic novels, you may want to dig into a little Holmesian history. This 2012 documentary is a product of the successful 2010 BBC show, but it doesn’t obsess and beat us over the head with that. It’s a fascinating investigation into how the fictional hero created not just nerd culture, but popular culture as we know it. What do cosplay, crime labs, NASA, buddy movies, and spies, have in common? …I mean… yeah … it’s Sherlock. But this documentary tells you how!
Bonus: Tubi has tons of free Sherlock Holmes media from the last century.
Featured image “kilyan-sockalingum-nW1n9eNHOsc-unsplash (1)” by Kilyan Sockalingum (Unsplash license, cropped).