The Perils of Prequels: Rewriting Fictional History

Star Trek: TOS — a great show that bears the mark of its time (1967, not 2267).

As a longtime Star Trek fan, I was excited to hear that a new chapter would debut on television later this year. My excitement dimmed, however, when I realized that “new” is a somewhat subjective term. Though originally shrouded in mystery, it seems that the new show, Star Trek: Discovery, will be set ten years before the start of Star Trek: The Original Series (or StarTrek: TOS, to its fans).




Hollywood’s problem used to be that it cranked out too many sequels, though to be fair, this phenomenon was probably responsible for a large segment of the population having at least a minimal familiarity with Roman numerals. Prequels, though they’ve been around for a long time, never seemed quite as ubiquitous until one of science fiction’s biggest franchises cashed in by filling gaps in its fictional history.

I refer, of course, to Star Wars, which did much to kill the artistic credibility of prequels with Episodes 1, 2, and 3. But critical opinions aside, those films made money — a lot of it. More recently, Disney had a big hit with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which will serve as unnecessary encouragement for Disney’s plan to issue Star Wars prequels on a biannual basis. A Han Solo film is due in 2018, with Yoda and Boba Fett rumored to be getting the treatment for later films. So, we’ll see the talented Donald Glover doing his best Billy Dee Williams as young Lando Calrissian, the same way Ewan McGregor mimicked Alec Guinness in the first three Star Wars prequels. Yes, the fanboy in me wants to see that, and yes, those films will probably all make lots of money. But they will be inferior, in a fundamental way.

Prequels put the audience in the role of historians; instead of learning what happens next, we get answers to all of the less important, less interesting questions: who, how, why. Good writers can earn a knowing nod from their target audience by cleverly tying together loose ends and fragments that perhaps were never intended to be tied together, but the end result is like the fleeting, curious fascination of finding an old Polaroid camera or early progenitor of the personal computer, as opposed to the more visceral thrill of playing with a new iPhone.

Then there’s the awkwardness of real-life changing social norms, fashions, and the like, as well as different styles of video storytelling from one period to another. The events of the television prequel series Star Trek: Enterprise take place 100 years before those of Star Trek: TOS, but because Enterprise first aired in 2001 — thirty-five years after Star Trek: TOS — Enterprise seems more modern and  is notably darker in both tone of content and color palette. It just doesn’t look older than Star Trek: TOS.

Star Trek: Discovery will feature an openly gay character and a female captain, both representative of today’s society. But it will be hard to suspend disbelief and accept that the events of that show pre-date Star Trek: TOS, when virtually any episode of the original series betrays a less progressive view of women, and the idea of same-sex relationships isn’t even explored through the speculative lens of an alien civilization.

Of course, many science fiction fans are so enthralled by their favored fictional universes that they’ll take any kind of fix they can get. But here lies another problem with prequels: a lot of it has been done before, and done well. In the cases of Star Wars and Star Trek, there are many financially and critically successful novels, radio dramas, and comic books that have already aspired to fill the gaps in the histories created by television shows and films. But when a new TV or film venture beckons, all bets are off.

Dozens of stories and several fan-favorite characters have been the unfortunate victims of “retconning” (short for “retroactive continuity”) — a term that means “to revise an aspect of a fictional work retrospectively, typically by introducing a piece of new information that imposes a different interpretation on previously described events.” In other words, conveniently wiping out the previous history because there’s a new one to sell.

Hand in hand with the term “retcon” (emphasis on the “con”) is the word “canon”; like religious leaders choosing which holy books to accept, the bigwigs get to decide, retroactively, which stories make the cut and which don’t. Those that don’t (and there are many) are all but consigned to the scrapheap, their contents now of interest to only the hardiest of die-hard fans. This rewriting of fictional history alienates many loyal fans, and it also seems rather incestuous.

The future is supposed to be limitless — if we can’t look forward in science fiction, then where can we? A genre that became known for daring leaps of imagination is instead increasingly known for extracting every last dollar out of its properties, while becoming significantly less ambitious.

But who’s really to blame? We, the fans, like the familiar; we sound out against anything that strays too far from the beaten path. So read Brian Herbert’s Dune prequels, if you so choose. Admire the shoehorned references and computer-resurrected actors in Rogue One. And then — please — find something to read, or watch, that’s not a prequel.


Featured image via IMBb

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Peter Dabbene

Peter Dabbene has written the graphic novels ARK and Robin Hood, the story collections Prime Movements and Glossolalia, and a novel, Mister Dreyfus' Demons. His poetry has been published in many literary journals, and collected in the photo book Optimism. His latest books are Spamming the Spammers, More Spamming the Spammers, and The End of Spamming the Spammers. He writes a monthly column for the Hamilton Post newspaper, in addition to a graphic novel blog for Foreword Reviews. You can find him at his website as well as on Facebook.

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