By Tom Anderson
In the last three articles I’ve discussed the concept of the franchise reboot (itself somewhat hard to define) and the minefield of problems and criticisms that such reboots often encounter. With that in mind, the obvious question is to ask what alternatives there are to rebooting a fictional franchise. This is just a cursory look at some examples of thought in that direction which have piqued my interest, and is certainly not intended to be a comprehensive catalogue of such writing techniques!
Let’s first remind ourselves of the primary motivations for a reboot. Sometimes, writers have written themselves into a corner, created a too-unwieldy monstrosity of dense backstory continuity which repels new readers. Perhaps they have killed off characters they wished they could still use, or more broadly, rendered certain conceits obsolete. Say, your characters visited a mysterious island or planet where the laws of physics work differently. You intended this to be a self-contained story, and blew up the location at the end to neatly close off the story. But now your fans really liked that story, and your colleagues are suggesting all sorts of interesting storytelling ideas using that setting which you hadn’t thought of. How do you bring it back? A reboot is one option – not usually for one such instance, but for many that have grown up over the years. This is particularly true of franchises which are long-lasting and have had multiple generations of writers; those who grew up with particular characters or concepts will want to bring them back and write about them, as they perhaps fantasised about doing as kids.
There is also the related, but distinct, desire simply to appeal to a wider fanbase to increase profit, which can often lead to some of the more cold-blooded and inauthentic-feeling simplifications seen in reboots or, indeed, screen adaptations of books or comics that tell the story from the start. Either way, the desire is to avoid complicated loose ends that would take too long to explain, bringing back something mentioned only in passing as a later significant plot twist, because you may well have edited out that passing mention at the time. (The Harry Potter film franchise, having started filming well before the book series was finished, is notorious for this; the later films make very little sense because the earlier ones missed out seemingly minor things that turned out to be plot-important in the later books).
So with this in mind, what other options do we have if we want to avoid a reboot? As a reminder, the chief objection to a reboot is that it is perceived as replacing the existing continuity, not merely being a different interpretation of it, as a screen adaptation of a book is. (Though the perception can be similar if the screen adaptation becomes more popularly recognised than the original book). Therefore, the most obvious alternative is simply to continue the existing continuity of the franchise, but using subtler tricks to avoid being bound up in the dense backstory.
A time skip is a good start; implicitly, we are not wondering ‘but what happened to X’ and most of us may accept it was resolved off-screen without needing further detail. There are three main types of time skips I would define; large ones where one explicitly has a new cast and characters in the same shared universe (such as Star Trek: The Next Generation); medium-sized ones where we keep the same cast, visibly aged and perhaps with younger newcomers to possibly pass the torch to (as in the Star Trek TOS movies or Auf Wiedersehen, Pet); and shorter ones (often with a long time-gap in real life, on the other hand) where we have a new cast playing the familiar characters (such as the 2016 Dad’s Army film).
Such a time-skip model is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, we are not being told that all the old stories we loved were pointless and are going to be wiped away to attract a new audience. On the other hand, having accepted that we are continuing those stories, we now have some level of visceral proximity between them and the new material. If we don’t like the new material, it then seems to contaminate what we previously enjoyed by association—whereas with a true reboot, at least we can simply dismiss the new material and go back to what we enjoyed. Implicitly, a time-skip continuation always runs the risk of undermining what came before. If you’ve read the rest of my articles, you’ll probably know I’m about to bring up The Rise of Skywalker’s absurdly indefensible decision to bring back Emperor Palpatine as a villain for no reason whatsoever, not only wasting our time in the cinema but making all the sacrifices of the original Star Wars films ring hollow. I used to think people were silly for going on about their ‘headcanon’ and dismissing installments in a franchise they didn’t like, but now I fully intend to spend the rest of my life ignoring the existence of this film, as to do otherwise is to devalue my emotional investment in its predecessors.
There are, of course, also plenty of cases where (just as with reboots), a time-skip continuation may not poison its prototype, but merely fail to live up to it. Paradoxically, this is particularly common in cases (perhaps including the Dad’s Army example) where writers and producers are very respectful of the original source material. This leads them to write overly cautiously in order to avoid the cry of ‘Ruined Forever’, and ultimately end up making a piece of fiction that doesn’t justify its own existence. Conversely, we can have the ‘square peg in round hole’ problem, such as Star Trek: Discovery (technically a prequel but the same logic applies) where the creators clearly want to do something totally different to the source material their work is meant to coexist with, leading to strain on suspension of disbelief and viewer buy-in.
An issue with the second type of time-skip continuations is the availability of actors, who may have either passed on or be unwilling to work with the new production. To go back to my previous examples, Auf Wiedersehen, Pet’s 2002 revival managed to bring back essentially all the original cast except Gary Holton (Wayne Norris), who passed away during the run of the original series; he was replaced by his in-universe son Wyman. This revival illustrated the value of a time-skip continuation, as its tone and style was very different to the original series, but still proved popular and could appeal to those who had not seen the original 1980s series, such as myself.
The Star Trek TOS films, on the other hand, reunited the entire cast but always had to cope with Leonard Nimoy’s indecision over whether to participate, as he disliked the fact that his iconic role as half-Vulcan Mr Spock had led to him being typecast. Star Trek: The Motion Picture was adapted from the pilot episode for the cancelled revival series Star Trek Phase II, which would have replaced Spock with a full-blooded Vulcan named Xon. It would also have featured new younger characters mixed with the classic crew, perhaps with the eventual intention of passing the torch: first officer Will Decker, who clashes with Kirk due to believing the Captain should stay on the ship and he should lead away missions, and his estranged telepathic former lover Ilia. In fact all of these character concepts (like the theme music!) would be recycled into Star Trek: The Next Generation as the characters of Data, Will Riker and Deanna Troi respectively. However, when Leonard Nimoy decided to return at the last minute for the film, some stand-in characters rather unceremoniously die in a horrific transporter accident and Decker and Ilia end up leaving the ship at the dénouement. As a result, what was originally intended as a new direction ended up recreating the original crew and implying they would have more adventures along the same lines – which turned out not to be the case. The plots of the next two films were again driven by Nimoy’s decision to quit, again, and then come back, again. It is truly remarkable that what we got as a result were some of the most beloved science fiction films of all time, and shows what is capable with good writers. However, for those not so fortunate, the uncertainty of reassembling the original cast leaves a time-skip revival fraught with concern.
Speaking of bringing back the original cast, I should mention the habit practised perhaps most consistently by adaptations of the Superman franchise, and other DC comics to a lesser extent. Almost every adaptation of Superman is a reboot (or a fresh adaptation, depends on how one chooses to define it), yet preserves a subtle linking thread for fans of previous adaptations via cast cameos. The 1978 Christopher Reeve film, hugely influential on future superhero films and blockbusters in general, featured cameos from the 1940s and 50s Superman and Lois Lane actors Kirk Alyn and Noel Neill as Lois Lane’s parents (though this scene only appeared in home releases). The recent Supergirl series brings back Dean Cain, who played Superman on the 1990s New Adventures of Superman, as Kara’s adoptive father – and Helen Slater, who played Supergirl in the 1984 film of that name, as her mother. The related The Flash series brings back John Wesley Shipp, who played the title character in the earlier 1990 The Flash series, as Barry Allen’s father – we also get to see an alternate universe in which he is the Flash and faces off against a Trickster played by Mark Hamill, as in the original series. What makes these cameos, especially in the more recent DC TV series, is that they are not merely brief winks (as, for example, the cast of The A-Team complained they were reduced to in the 2010 film reboot). Often they are substantial and recurring guest roles, and may not even be that thematically connected, such as Supergirl casting Lynda Carter, Wonder Woman of the 1970s, as the President of the United States. This helps build a link between earlier and newer adaptations in the minds of longtime fans, without making the in-universe continuity ties that complicate storytelling so much. It also suggests that if you want job security in later life as an actor, sign up to be in a DC Comics adaptation now!
DC also made a fairly brave attempt at a reboot alternative in the form of the 2006 film Superman Returns. Rather than being a reboot as one might expect (as in the case of the recent and successful Batman Begins) this film was pitched as a continuation of the 1978 Christopher Reeve series – but, oddly, continuing from the second film and ignoring the campier and more divisive third and fourth. The only other time I have seen this done is with the novelisations of Red Dwarf, and that was because Rob Grant and Doug Naylor fell out (both Naylor’s Last Human and Grant’s Backwards are alternative continuations for the story began in Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers and Better Than Life). Superman Returns was a bold idea, but—though it gave us some memorable mid-2000s internet memes such as Lex Luthor’s “WRONG!”—failed to set the world alight. It is clear that there remains a market for a continuation of explicitly the Christopher Reeve version of Superman, as just this year (2021) DC have become releasing a comic adaptation set in that universe. But back in 2006, this move failed, and DC instead resorted for a conventional (and, in my opinion, rather disappointing) reboot with Man of Steel in 2013.
Success or failure aside, I think creators should be recognised for refusing to opt for a lazy reboot in favour of coming up with a more nuanced way to reinvent their fiction. The problem is that when someone comes up with a really good way to do this, it then becomes so iconic that it is associated with the original product and cannot be copied. An excellent example is Doctor Who’s regeneration. This in-universe way of justifying a new actor playing the Doctor meant that the series naturally breaks up into time periods associated with each incarnation, allowing cast, concepts and setting to be gradually changed without it feeling unnatural. We can bring back very old concepts to please longtime fans, while also gaily ignoring previously-established things by mumbling about time travel. If one has grown up with Doctor Who then it is easy to forget just how convenient this combination of factors serves to make the show long-lasting and reinventable. Everyone has ‘their’ Doctor and can always dismiss the current version as lacklustre, without it necessarily having the visceral connection that would make it feel as though their old memories are being attacked.
Another British icon, James Bond, has much the same thing going for him (his film incarnation also debuted only a year apart from the Doctor – coincidence?) While cheerfully never explaining this in-universe, James Bond can have a career extending from the 1960s to present day whilst his face, boss, technical wizard and the world around him all change willy-nilly. The latest Bond film takes this to the extreme (compare the final events of the film with the words at the end of the credits) but I won’t give more details as it’s still recent at time of writing.
Finally, I cannot help but praise the boldness of Into the Spider-verse, which I’ve previously mentioned. Sony was criticised for the very cold-blooded and profit-driven 2012 live-action Spider-Man film reboot, coming barely a decade after Sam Raimi’s acclaimed trilogy began, and resetting to the start so we had to sit through the origin story again. Into the Spider-verse, a modified adaptation of an existing comic book crossover, was both a brilliant tongue-in-cheek response to this (such as the running joke of each Spider-Man incarnation running through his or her origin story as though the audience already knows it) and a very clever alternative to a reboot. The concept of the multiverse in superhero comics has historically been seen as too complex to put on the big screen, yet here that is defied.
We begin the film in a version of New York with a Peter Parker similar to the Sam Raimi/Tobey Maguire version (complete with iconic upside-down kiss) and otherwise taking cues from the Ultimate Marvel Universe, as in the original comic book. Early in the film, he sacrifices his life to stop an evil plot, and by coincidence a kid named Miles Morales ends up with the same powers. This plot is essentially taken from the Ultimate comics, a parallel simplified comic continuity Marvel runs as an alternative to DC’s reboots. These have always been a two-edged sword in themselves, due to a tug-of-war between writers who want to bring in certain characters and others who want to keep it simple (thus leading to absurdity such as the ‘Ultimatum’ storyline in which zillions of characters are killed off on every page). In the Ultimate comics, after following Peter Parker for a while he was killed off and replaced with the aforementioned Miles Morales, a kid of mixed African-American and Hispanic background. In isolation, it would be easy to see this as, at best, a clumsy attempt to increase diversity, and at worst an insult to fans attached to Peter Parker’s character. In the comics, it helped that 1) the Ultimate series runs in parallel to the original comics, so it was not seen as a replacement, and 2) Marvel’s inability to let Peter Parker grow up in those original comics suggested they wouldn’t have been able to do anything with him in the Ultimate ones, either. However, in this film, that question never arises regardless, because in a brilliant twist, the evil plot Peter Parker gave his life to foil involves travel to other universes, and Morales meets an older alternate universe version of Peter Parker. This version is largely based on the original Marvel comics’ version of Spider-Man, complete with a marriage that’s fallen apart because they can’t let him grow up (though at least in the film it doesn’t involve a literal deal with the devil). Now Morales has someone who can train him as a mentor.
It doesn’t end there, with other Spider-Man analogues appearing, such as one where Parker’s onetime girlfriend Gwen Stacey got the powers instead (which proved so popular in the comic crossover that it spawned its own series), one from a cartoon physics universe, one from a Japanese manga-style setting, one from a 1930s noir setting, etc. They join forces to stop the villains’ plan before it destroys all their worlds. What makes this film especially strong is that it is not just a crossover for a sake of a crossover; indeed, our filmgoing audience is not going to be familiar with most of this and go ‘hey, it’s that guy!’ It’s a good and exciting superhero story that just happens to involve a crossover, not putting continuity issues ahead of storytelling. Morales manages to have a good coming-of-age arc that doesn’t shut out everything else. It is different to every other Spider-Man adaptation because, rather than feeling alone to the point of angst (this only appears when the others feel he’s not yet ready) he is one of a group who all understand what it’s like to be Spider-Man. This idea had previously been used in a crossover episode of the 1990s Spider-Man cartoon series, and at the time as a kid I thought it was a clever idea for Peter Parker to have an epiphany about his own life when he meets his alternative counterparts.
Also, of course, for us alternate history writers, Into the Spider-verse helped put the concept of AH on the big screen. Not only in terms of the superheroes, but we see flashes of alternate New Yorks, cars that say NYPD in one world but PDNY in another, different products on the advertising, etc. Even the studio logos at the start of the film use the same trick to show alternative versions from different timelines. It’s great, all of it is the kind of boldness in using (in this case) the multiverse for storytelling that we’d normally expect executives to shoot down, and yet it was made under the Sony banner of all things.
So those are a few alternatives to the concept of a reboot. Reboots can still work, of course – I’ve previously mentioned the fact that the Post-Crisis 1980s DC comics were much more accessible to me as a kid than the contemporaneous Marvel ones with their vast dense backstory. But let’s not forget that other storytelling options exist. If you want to sweep away complicated backstory, or make your cast more diverse, or make any other change – there may be better options out there.
More fiction-based articles on the way!
Tom Anderson is the author of many SLP books including the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions, Cometh the Hour, To Dream Again), The Twilight's Last Gleaming, Not An English Word, The Curse of Maggie, The Unreformed Kingdom, The Surly Bonds of Earth and Well met by Starlight.