The Prequel Boom

In other words, though the term is recent, the narrative technique of the prequel is not as new as it may appear. What is new, it seems, in modern prequels is their much lower ideological stakes. People were willing to kill and die over the legitimacy of Julius Caesar’s consolidation of imperial power in Rome, and despite the heated rhetoric of online debate, it is difficult to imagine anyone working up as much real-world fervor over George Lucas’s decision to posit a racial-biological basis for susceptibility to the Force in The Phantom Menace. Yet as the debates over diversity in casting and the portrayal of female leadership in the recent Star Wars films shows, story-telling decisions do carry a political-ideological charge, which is presumably not unrelated to their ability to provide the foundation for community and identity among particularly enthusiastic fans.

Why do studios keep doing prequels if fans hate them? And why do fans hate them so much in the first place?

Still from The Phantom Menace, 1999.

We are living in an age of proliferating prequels. The name of this odd subgenre, in which a subsequent work (hence a sequel) purports to provide the back-story to its predecessor (hence the pre-), was coined as early as 1958 in an article by Anthony Boucher in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Since then, it has primarily been associated with those genres, where fans immerse themselves in fictional universes and prize narrative continuity and intricately constructed worlds. It should be no surprise that the first attempts to bring large-scale prequels to mainstream audiences should have occurred in the realms of Star Wars or Star Trek, where particularly obsessed fans had long written their own unofficial fictions and read licensed spin-off novels purporting to fill in the history of their beloved universes. The two greatest science fiction universes embarked almost simultaneously on a journey into their own past, and both met with similar results: the Star Wars prequels (1999–2005) and the Star Trek prequel series Enterprise (2001–2005) proved controversial among their respective audiences and did little to attract new fans.

What is surprising is that despite these setbacks, both franchises continued to churn out more prequel material, including the Star Trek reboot films (2009–), the new prequel series Star Trek: Discovery (2017–), Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), and the forthcoming Solo: A Star Wars Story. Meanwhile, more and more genres outside of science fiction have been getting the prequel treatment. Most often, they occur in franchises that are known for richly imagined narrative worlds, such as superhero comics or contemporary serialized television drama. Viewers curious about what was going on in Gotham City while Bruce Wayne was growing up can tune in to the Batman prequel series Gotham (2014–), and those looking for more information about Walter White’s crooked lawyer need look no further than the Breaking Bad prequel Better Call Saul (2015–). Fans of The Sopranos may also be glad to learn that David Chase is said to be at work on a prequel film, featuring the youthful exploits of Tony’s parents and Uncle Junior.

On one level, the prequel boom is a symptom of a wider trend in commercial entertainment, where producers increasingly favor rebooting or otherwise resurrecting established “properties” to the near-exclusion of new characters and narrative worlds. This compulsion to repeat is most pronounced in mainstream commercial film, where the only new properties that get picked up are things like Harry Potter, Hunger Games, or Twilight, which have already proven themselves to be blockbusters in another genre. Even forgotten dreck like Jumanji (1995, 2017) or Tomb Raider (2001–2003, 2018) is apparently regarded as a safer bet than something totally unknown and untested.

For some prequels, this business rationale makes sense. It is unlikely that a meandering character study like Better Call Saul would have been as successful without the Breaking Bad “hook” to draw viewers in, for example. But broadly speaking, if the goal is to give the people what they want, then prequels are exactly the wrong way to go, because fans tend to hate prequels. This is perhaps clearest in the realm of Star Trek, where fans have been hard at work developing elaborate theories that effectively write Enterprise out of the official universe (or worse, into the alternate timeline where the hated J.J. Abrams reboot films take place) almost since the day it first aired. More recently, Discovery has proven bitterly controversial due to the producers’ choice to set the show during the Original Series era while significantly changing the visual aesthetic.

At this point, two questions arise. Why do studios keep doing prequels if fans hate them? And why do fans hate them so much in the first place? The second is easier to answer, as fans have not been shy about voicing their concerns. In the case of both Enterprise and Discovery, the objection is that the prequel is “changing” too many things in the fictional history of the Star Trek universe. This is a strange claim, not only in the context of the Star Trek franchise—where the back-story of the centuries between our present day and their future has never been fully consistent—but on a conceptual level. By definition, a prequel cannot make any changes to the story we already know, or else it would fail to be a prequel. Every prequel has a predestined ending, determined by future events, and so any change it introduces must either be undone or be too trivial to matter. This is clearest in Rogue One, where literally all of its heroes die in the course of their mission to steal the plans for the Death Star.

The producers justified this decision by observing that none of the characters had ever been mentioned in the later films, perhaps forestalling fan objections on the grounds of continuity. Yet even this most thorough-going attempt to save continuity only highlights a more fundamental discontinuity. Rogue One portrays the rebels as traumatized religious fanatics who must rely on subversion from within the Empire to achieve their mission and redeem their past sins—a far cry from the easy moral dualism of the original trilogy. The same might be said of Enterprise, which introduced a terrorist threat that certainly fit with post-September 11 America but felt out of place in the supposedly more innocent time period the series set out to explore. Both of these moves are justified attempts to make their respective fictional worlds relevant to a contemporary audience, but at the cost of retrospectively changing the implications of later events. Were the rebels always basically jihadis in space? Was seeking out new life and new civilizations always a dangerous, and therefore deeply questionable, undertaking?

At this point, we might begin to sympathize with fans who feel that these prequels are somehow “ruining” the stories they treasure. Yet why are prequels singled out here? In principle, every addition to a fictional universe “changes” things. A straightforward sequel can just as easily change the implications of the events that came before. The Star Trek spin-off Deep Space Nine ran concurrently with Next Generation and continued on after the latter show ended, but it changed a great deal. Where Next Generation portrayed the Star Trek universe as a progressive utopia, building on the original series’ portrayal of the Federation as a kind of “United Nations in Space,” Deep Space Nine showed us a world full of shady merchants, ruthless spies, and genocidal conquerors.

Perhaps most subversively of all, in Deep Space Nine, the discovery of a stable wormhole allowing near-instant travel to a very distant corner of the galaxy, which in Next Generation would have been a virtual Holy Grail, proves to be the greatest imaginable danger, as it triggers an interstellar war with a previously unknown power. From the perspective of Deep Space Nine, the optimism and confidence of Next Generation could retrospectively appear as naivety and arrogance. Surely it is no coincidence that the series, which was the first to be launched after the death of creator Gene Roddenberry, prompted significant controversy among the fan base early on. Yet after that rocky initial reception, Deep Space Nine has emerged as the most beloved Star Trek series among hardcore fans.

We are forced to conclude that, from a fan’s perspective, changes set prior to the beloved narrative are apparently somehow more objectionable than those set after. Critics of Star Trek: Discovery have even claimed that the show could have avoided all controversy by telling basically the same story but shedding all the Original Series references and placing the events later in the fictional timeline. This example is telling because it shows that we are not dealing with an objection on the basis that prequels are necessarily more derivative, more limited in scope, or otherwise bound to be of lower quality. They are saying that if Discovery were identical, shot-for-shot, with the exception of any lines of dialogue establishing it as a prequel, they would prefer it. In other words, the objection is not to any specific plot points or production decisions, but the very gesture of claiming that the show is a prequel.

What accounts for this singular ire? It may be helpful here to think of the function of back-story. Generally speaking, movies and TV shows show back-story only when it is essential to the story at hand, for instance, when it is necessary to clarify motives or lend greater emotional depth. By presenting itself as back-story to an existing narrative, a prequel therefore implicitly claims that it is essential to understanding what is at stake in that story—and worse, that the existing story was somehow incomplete before the prequel came around to fill in the gaps. Enterprise is exemplary here, as it features a time-travel element where a messenger from the distant future (named Daniels, perhaps after the biblical prophet) is constantly telling the previously unmentioned Captain Archer that he is absolutely essential to the future of the galaxy. The first season finale literalizes this as Daniels rescues Archer from a dangerous situation by plucking him out of the timeline—with the result that the entire Star Trek future is reduced to rubble. Similarly, Discovery implies that we could never understand central parts of Trek lore (like the conflict between the Federation and the Klingons or the back-story of Mr. Spock) without it.

By placing itself in a position of temporal priority, the prequel is also claiming a kind of logical priority, above all when it claims to show the origin of important features of the narrative world—and every claim to stand at the origin is also a claim of ownership. By creating a prequel, the producers are asserting their proprietary rights over the franchise in question. Fans object because, after devoting so many hours of their life to the franchise, they feel they own it. (And after this cycle has repeated so many times, one begins to suspect that fan complaints are a positive benefit in the intellectual property owners’ eyes, increasing publicity and buzz—and perhaps even drawing in viewers who were turned off by previous installments in the franchise and might take the supposed “betrayal” as a sign that the newest iteration is worth checking out.)

Fans claim their ownership in different ways: by discussing theories about how to reconcile various contradictions and fill in plot holes, for example, or by writing and reading spin-off literature in the form of novels and comic books. Such spin-off literature is usually regarded as less “canonical” than films or TV episodes, and hence if they gain wide acceptance as “true” portrayals of their respective universes, it is solely because fans find the stories and concepts compelling. In fact, the novels are most often written by hardcore fans and in explicit dialogue with popular fan theories. Although officially licensed literature must receive the imprimatur of the intellectual property holder, the real engine of the enterprise is not the warp drive or the Force but the unruly creative energies that build up a sense of community.

From this perspective, we can understand why George Lucas’s decision to create the prequel trilogy and “overwrite” much of the spin-off literature raised such an outcry. It’s not simply that the prequels were of poor quality, though they were, or that they contradicted plot points established in the spin-offs, though they did. The problem is that, in the thirteen years between the conclusion of the original trilogy and the release of the first prequel film, Star Wars had become part of our common cultural inheritance, and it felt like it belonged in particular to the most fervent fans who kept the fictional universe alive by continuing to imagine new stories within it. George Lucas’s assertion of his property rights pulled back the curtain on this fiction, and the fact that he ran roughshod over so many fan assumptions—most notably by portraying the Jedi as incompetent fools rather than tragic heroes—was just salt in the wound.

In other words, Lucas’s prequel trilogy felt like the illegitimate enclosure of what had effectively become part of the cultural commons. By contrast, the new sequel series that began with The Force Awakens seemed to respect that element of common property in spirit—while obviously profiting hugely off their property rights in practice. It is in this context that we should also understand the broader trend toward reboots of every classic entertainment property. What they are ultimately rebooting is their profit stream, reimagining a beloved character or fictional world less as a cultural icon and more as a source of massive international ticket revenue (or the beginnings of a lucrative new streaming venture in the case of Star Trek: Discovery, available in the US only through a subscription to CBS All-Access). This means that we are dealing less with creative stagnation than with cost-efficiency. Drawing on a ready-made pool of characters and stories with preexisting familiarity and devoted fan bases just makes more financial sense than wasting time and effort developing new concepts. And nothing establishes that claim of ownership more than the right to rewrite the history of fictional worlds.

Once, in a playful spirit, I posted a Facebook status asking whether Virgil’s Aeneid was considered “canon”—a term for works that are considered “official” and therefore binding for future storytelling in a particular fictional world—within the Homeric “universe.” Amid many humorous responses, I received a serious one: the question is irrelevant outside of capitalism. Homer was “canon” for Virgil because he chose to write his epic as a continuation of Homer’s, and his decision placed no obligation on later epic poets who wanted to expand upon Homer’s stories. If many of them did nevertheless attempt to square their epics with Virgil’s, that was because they found his work authoritative and compelling—or else because they agreed with the political agenda his epic was promoting. Written under the patronage of Augustus, the Aeneid weaves its narrative into the gaps in the Iliad and the Odyssey as a way of tracing the lineage of Julius Caesar back to the culturally foundational myths of the Trojan War. This historical “retcon” served to assert that Caesar’s rise to imperial power was not an illegitimate aberration from Republican traditions (a widely held view that led to Julius Caesar’s assassination), but the pre-established destiny of Rome from the most ancient times.

Though the Aeneid was not literally a prequel within its own narrative world, it did serve as a kind of prequel to Roman history, rewriting past events in ways that had direct implications in the present. In this, Virgil was also following Greek precedent, as many Athenian authors had done much the same thing. Most notably, Aeschylus’s Oresteia tells a story about the aftermath of the Trojan War that culminates in the establishment of the Athenian judicial system by Athena herself—a plotline that serves to justify Athens’s status as the leading political and cultural center in the Greek world of that time.

These attempts to rework the mythological heritage for contemporary ends did sometimes take the form of literal prequels. Sophocles’s Oedipus at Colonus, composed after Oedipus Rex and Antigone, relates the back-story of the events that occur between the two plays. Given what we know about the civic function of Athenian theater, Sophocles may have been building up the prestige of Athens by claiming that the mythical Oedipus chose it as his place of burial, but along the way, he attempts to explain the intense bond that leads Antigone to sacrifice everything for the sake of getting her brother Polynices a proper burial. (I suspect that he included the bits about Athens to make his slow-paced reflection on death and family loyalties more palatable to his audience—a kind of ancient fan service.)

The practice was not limited to the Greek mythical tradition: in the Hebrew Bible, the Book of Ruth represents a prequel to the stories of King David, which establishes that an ancestor of the greatest Israelite king came from a hated foreign nation. From an “in-universe” perspective, this story could help account for the fact that King David’s royal court is remarkably cosmopolitan. Yet surely the goal here is not simply to fill in “more information” about David, but to make a claim about what counts as authentic Israelite identity and whether foreigners can become full members of the community, with the divine favor that implies. And in their appropriation of the Hebrew Bible, Christians were much more aggressive in rewriting the past. Indeed, the Gospel of John could be read as one of the most influential prequels of all time, claiming that Jesus Christ (as the divine Word) was always already present with God even before the creation of the world.

In other words, though the term is recent, the narrative technique of the prequel is not as new as it may appear. What is new, it seems, in modern prequels is their much lower ideological stakes. People were willing to kill and die over the legitimacy of Julius Caesar’s consolidation of imperial power in Rome, and despite the heated rhetoric of online debate, it is difficult to imagine anyone working up as much real-world fervor over George Lucas’s decision to posit a racial-biological basis for susceptibility to the Force in The Phantom Menace. Yet as the debates over diversity in casting and the portrayal of female leadership in the recent Star Wars films shows, story-telling decisions do carry a political-ideological charge, which is presumably not unrelated to their ability to provide the foundation for community and identity among particularly enthusiastic fans.

When people react vociferously to the latest “change” in a treasured fictional universe, we are tempted to respond that it is “just a show” or “just a movie”—but stories that have endured for more than a generation, continually inspiring new narratives and whole traditions of interpretation, are no longer “just stories.” There is no reason that our modern myths could not play as generative a role for future culture and politics as the stories of the Greek gods or Hebrew patriarchs did for past generations, and the history of those older traditions shows that there is no reason that prequels should not be part of that cultural reckoning. The problem with the current glut of prequels is not that they have chosen a flawed or illegitimate genre, but that they are so often telling the same old story at bottom: a story about how our cultural heritage belongs exclusively to the owners of capital and our modern myths exist only to increase shareholder value.

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