07 October 2016

The Problem with Prequels

In his history of science fiction, Trillion Year Spree, Brian Aldiss discusses how the pleasure of sequels is innately different from the pleasure of original works. We can only ever go to Arrakis for the first time once. No subsequent Dune novel cannot capture that feeling. It's not that sequels are necessarily inferior, but just that they do something different than original works. If you want the pleasure of discovering the new, you cannot get it from a sequel, only the pleasure of recognition. (I'm going from memory here because my copy of Aldiss is on campus and I am not.)

That said, I would add that rarely is a sequel good if is precisely apes the original work. The best sequels are often repetition with variation, enough alike the original work to deliver the pleasure of recognition, but different enough to deliver the pleasure of discovery as well, even if less so than the original work.

As far as I remember, Aldiss has nothing to say about prequels, but there are obviously some related issues there. Recently, I watched a video recorded a couple years ago, where Rick Berman and Brannon Braga, creators and executive producers of Enterprise (later known as Star Trek: Enterprise) discuss the series some ten years or so on:

They talk about their reasons for doing a prequel for the fifth Star Trek series, which was feeling that the future of the future was not going to be distinctive enough from the future. I don't think this had to be true, but Rick Berman had worked on Star Trek since season one of The Next Generation in 1987, and been co-executive producer or executive producer of every season of Star Trek since 1988.

By the time Enterprise came around in 2001, Berman had executive-produced twenty seasons of Star Trek in thirteen years.  Brannon Braga came to Star Trek as an intern on Next Generation in 1990. After taking various writer and producer titles on both Next Generation and Voyager, Braga became a co-executive producer on Voyager in 1997, and an executive producer in 1998. Someone else might have been able to envision a new twist on the Star Trek formula by going forward, but they could not.

So they went back. When you go backwards, you get the same thing, only different. And, maybe even better, you get to see how something different becomes the same thing. Ideally, the pleasure of discovery is the discovery of recognition in this case.

I even have a t-shirt with this slogan on it.
Now, it's a long video, and I'm not here to nitpick my way through it or anything, but they spend much of it defending Enterprise, but not always in a compelling way-- the problem of the show is not in its fundamental premise, but in how they went about it. (And in that it probably has the dullest main cast of any Star Trek series.) They talk about how the whole point of Enterprise was to show everything we were accustomed to from the earlier shows as new: phasers are new, warp drive is (kinda) new, beaming is new. But, they say, once these things are shown as new... they kind of stop being new.

It's like, Captain Archer goes, "I've never phasered someone before," he then phasers someone for the first time, and now there's no reason for him to treat a phaser differently than any other weapon. Same for transporters: "Oh no one's ever beamed a human before. Well that worked fine. Let's beam all the time."

In the video, Berman and Braga seem to use this as the reason Enterprise turned out to not be very distinct from the previous Star Trek shows, in a way that indicates they find the answer acceptable. After all, they seem to be saying, how many times could Archer say, "Wow phasers"? But when I watched the video, I found this part really frustrating, because it shouldn't be a shrug, oh well, what could we do? moment. The problem with Enterprise is that too much of it is just like what came later. It's a problem that Enterprise's "phase pistols" were the complete same as the ones on the original show, that they could always rely on the transporter when it mattered, that their "slow" warp drive still moved at the speed of plot. They took the setting of the prequel, and then told a lot of the same dumb Star Trek stories.

But they should have been rethinking and reexamining these core concepts of Star Trek. Their phasers should have been different-- or they shouldn't have had phasers at all, and whatever weapons they used should have actually been different in a way that would affect the storytelling. Like, the ship on Enterprise didn't have shields, but it could "polarize" its hull plating, and they treated this exactly like shields on The Next Generation and the later shows, down to the fact that characters would say nonsensical things like, "hull plating at 34%." Like, what could that even mean, because I can see in the exterior shots that 66% of the hull plating is not missing. Substituting new words into the same old stories is not actually making a prequel.

Enterprise should have been as different from the original Star Trek as The Next Generation was from it. Later in its run, it moved in this direction, with mixed results, but its first two seasons mostly failed to deliver on its premise. Like I said above, Berman had been behind twenty seasons of Star Trek already, and Braga had worked on eleven. They were clearly out of ways to tell Star Trek stories that were the same but different, that combined the pleasures of discovery and of recognition, but moving backwards instead of forward didn't somehow magically give this to them.

Plus the characters were mostly dull, and the actual episodes often misjudged, but that's a whole different blog post.

TIL it's impossible to find a picture of Captain Archer where he doesn't look like a doofus. Sorry, Scott Bakula, you really were excellent in Quantum Leap.

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