By Tom Anderson
“It sucks” is one of America’s best contributions to the English language, isn’t it? I remember when I was young I didn’t even know what it meant when someone used the phrase writing into Sonic the Comic about a story they didn’t like, back when Fleetway came up with their own Sonic stories and before Sega pushed the Japanese version of Sonic continuity on everyone. And now, in an entirely unrelated and not at all meaningful segue, let’s talk about replacing great existing continuity with a rubbish new one.
I feel as though reboots turning out badly is such an unspoken assumption now that people are already starting to associate the word ‘reboot’ with bad news, and probably before too long film studios and so on will stop using the term themselves out of negative association. With that in mind, I think it’s important to remember that reboots do, in fact, sometimes turn out well. They will always offend some existing fans by their very nature, as they are effectively saying ‘you know all that detailed stuff you got invested in, well, we’re going to set fire to all of it to avoid alienating new fans’. That sense of fan investment is the same kind of impulse that drives people to gatekeep a franchise against newcomers.
But I’m not talking about a reboot being universally endorsed by a franchise’s fans, as that’s obviously impossible – at best they might wearily accept it as a necessity. Rather, I’m talking about a reboot actually working out as its creators want: to create a new, simplified version of an existing setting, getting away from irreversible too-complex lore or having killed off characters you still want to tell stories about, which really does (1) draw in new fans to make money, (2) establish a launchpad for future stories that will continue to make money, and (3) be critically regarded years later just like the original was. Number (3), the one which doesn’t involve the bottom line, is unsurprisingly the hardest one to pull off – though, of course, one can only say for certain years later, and the jury is still out in many cases.
In my previous article, I mentioned DC Comics’ “Crisis on Infinite Earths” as one of the most systematic continuity reboots ever achieved. While this undoubtedly started the wearisome trend of DC caring more about ‘fixing’ its continuity than actually telling stories, in the short term this was undoubtedly a great success. Not only did it simplify the continuity and get rid of the bewildering ever-multiplying alternate Earths that had begun to bog down the setting, but it also allowed the writers to reconnect with a new audience. For example, the 1970s and 80s had seen the Christopher Reeve Superman films revive public interest in the character, but those films depicted an only slightly modernised version of him, whereas the comics had tried to update things by changing Clark Kent from a newspaper reporter to a TV newscaster. The Crisis reboot allowed DC to ditch this plan and revert Kent to his origins in line with the films that the casual reader recognised. Also reflecting some changes made for the films, Superman’s arch-nemesis Lex Luthor was reimagined as a 1980s corrupt mega-corp businessman rather than a mad scientist. This was so successful that now few people even remember him as anything else, which is surely the ultimate mark of success in any reboot.
Most importantly from my perspective (and unlike DC’s later navel-gazing tendencies) the Crisis reboot also allowed characters’ origins to be retold, and characters to go back to having smaller and more self-contained stories that didn’t always have to cross over with others all the time (what went wrong). I’ve previously mentioned that my first exposure to the post-Crisis DC comics was in the 1987 ‘Cartoon Aid’ compilation, which included part of a retold Superman origin story plus a Batman story (“The Scarecrow’s Trail of Fear”), in a style evocative of the Tim Burton return to gothic Batman (despite predating it). The latter is a great self-contained tale which gives the reader the Scarecrow’s origin story via Batman explaining it to the police, has an interesting mystery with a twist, and ends with Batman overcoming the Scarecrow’s fear-causing technology and making him fear him in turn with no technological tricks needed. It doesn’t need a crossover with every other DC hero or complicated references to past events, and it was accessible to me as a kid.
I contrast this with the numerous Marvel stories also included in the same compilation, such as the Incredible Hulk story “The Harvester From Beyond”, the Spider-Man story “And Men Shall Call Him…Octopus!” and even the story “The Sentinel of Liberty” from the rather obscure Captain America. (There wasn’t any Iron Man because he was even more obscure in the 80s; I am quite sure that nobody who grew up in the 2000s will ever believe this). I enjoyed all of these stories as well (well, the Captain America one came across as a bit silly – he goes into a burning building to rescue the American flag, for goodness’ sake) but all of them suffered from relying on invocation of past continuity. This was especially true of the Spider-Man story, which refers to an ongoing domestic plot with Peter Parker and refers back to past encounters with the villain Dr Octopus. I was very confused as a kid, and even naively assumed that the fact Octopus ‘dies’ at the end of the story meant that he was really, actually dead. Did I mention this was my first exposure to American superhero comics?
This should illustrate that not all reboots are badly conceived or executed, even though today that has frequently become our unspoken assumption. When judging a reboot, I feel there is often too much emphasis placed on exactly what decisions have been made in the reboot itself, rather than the stories which the creators then choose to tell with them. I saw this with Star Trek: Discovery, which is not a reboot but took some comparable decisions with its execution (see my previous article on ‘Star Trek and the Sixties Aesthetic’). Fans argue about these decisions as well as the depiction of morality, and that is certainly a valid subject for discussion, but few people seem to actually talk about what stories they choose to tell with this rebooted scenario. There seemed to be way more discussion about whether it’s sensible or not to feature Harry Mudd in a series set chronologically before his first appearance in the original Star Trek (for example) than over whether the episode he’s in was a worthwhile story worth telling, or just another reheated Voyager/TNG timey-wimey anomaly script, for instance. I feel the latter point is greatly important, because a reboot (or comparable act of setting revision) is fundamentally pitched as a bargain – if you let us make these changes, then we’ll tell good stories and make this franchise more popular. That was true of DC after the Crisis reboot, but this case makes it more questionable.
To stay on Star Trek, I can’t help but mention the actual reboot enacted with the JJ Abrams Star Trek films (“Star Trek, Open Brackets, 2009, Close Brackets”). I will devote a full Prequel Problems article (or more than one) to these at some point, but to cut a long story short, this is a textbook example of there being more focus on the reboot itself than in what you do with it. Much of the first film is devoted to an actually really clever time-travel plot that justifies the reboot and lets the creators pick and choose whichever bits of the original Star Trek setting they want. You can agree or disagree with this, but I feel it is genuinely and objectively a very well-thought-out solution along the same lines as DC’s Crisis. The problem, however, is that they then took this nice cleaned-up continuity, and decided the best use of this canvas was to splatter Star Trek: Into Darkness on it, which I’ve described as a Seltzer & Friedburg parody of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan without the jokes. Or, in other words, a Seltzer & Friedburg parody. Though at least I’m not sure if they ever decided it would be sensible to whitewash casting as well.
Anyway, I’m not going to discuss this further at this point: the point for this discussion is that if you rip up past continuity, you’d better have a good story to tell in its place. “What If Your Reboot Sucks?” is the question that should always be at the back of one’s mind. If you stick to past continuity and tell dull, predictable stories, then you’ll at least always get a portion of an existing loyal fanbase, as happened with Star Trek: Voyager’s excessive caution. There will always be people who just want to see the latest episode of a setting they’re comfortable in; otherwise soap operas wouldn’t be a thing. But if you burn down the house and then tell dull predictable stories, who knows who’ll bother to tune in after the first week? To keep the soap analogy, if you move Neighbours to Malaysia and recast everyone and then tell the exact same storyline you did five years ago, but with darker rooms and more CGI, who’s going to watch it? Maybe a few people too young to remember anything else, but will there be enough heart in it to capture their attention long-term and give them fond memories?
I began this article by alluding to my never-far-away rant about Sonic the Hedgehog continuity. When the games originally came out in the 1990s, there was very little on-screen ‘story’ content in the 16-bit world, so each region could come up with their own story behind the games (or more than one, even). A ‘bible’ of the setting was drawn up for the US marketing, and from this different interpretations were derived both there and in the UK/Europe. That ‘bible’ established certain things, such as the action being set on the distant planet Mobius inhabited by anthropomorphic animals; Sonic was an ordinary anthropomorphic hedgehog until an experiment with his visiting kindly human scientist friend Dr Kintobor resulted in him breaking the sound barrier and turning blue; Kintobor had built the ‘Retro-Orbital Chaos Compressor’ device out of special gold rings to remove all the evil from Mobius and store it in the six Chaos Emeralds, eventually hoping to neutralise it with the missing Grey Emerald; and another accident caused the ROCC to explode, scattering rings and emeralds across Mobius, filling Kintobor with evil energy and turning him into the sinister Dr Robotnik. Robotnik then went on a rampage across Mobius, building robot factories, kidnapping animals and using them as ‘organic batteries’ inside his evil robot ‘badniks’, and plotting world domination. Sonic, meanwhile, seeks to free the animals and ultimately try to rebuild the ROCC and revert Robotnik to his original good state.
Now, the way I’ve described this, it probably sounds quite ‘kiddie’ and not worth getting invested in. But, as we’ve seen with many other kids’ properties of the 80s and 90s, it provides a good starting point for writers to develop a setting further. In different regions, it was taken in different directions. The ‘Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog’ cartoon took a wacky, off-the-wall, self-contained approach which still nonetheless frequently referenced this backstory. The ‘Satam’ cartoon, which would then become the Archie-published US Sonic comics, portrayed a tense life-or-death struggle in which Sonic’s freedom fighters battle a Robotnik who has already conquered Mobius. Here in the UK, we first had the four novels by Martin Adams (actually a pseudonym for three authors) and then ‘Sonic the Comic’ from Fleetway, which similarly (but differently) developed the idea of a group of freedom fighters and all kinds of complex stories involving dimension and time travel, side characters, crossovers and tie-ins. They developed the idea of a Jekyll and Hyde scenario for Sonic’s powered-up form, Super Sonic, to explain why he doesn’t just use it all the time – when he does he’s as likely to kill his own friends – found ways to tie in all the then-current games in clever ways, invented their own Zones and scenarios too, the works. Those were a profound influence on my own storytelling or worldbuilding in later life and could get as ‘adult’ in concepts as the DC and Marvel superhero comics.
Unfortunately, it turned out that all of this was built on a house of cards. It turns out that the Mobius idea was thought up almost entirely by the Americans, possibly (allegedly) purely after misunderstanding a reference to a ‘Mobius strip’ from one of the developers. Problems arose when Sonic entered the Dreamcast era, and suddenly it was possible to have actual in-game dialogue and storytelling, rather than a blank canvas that could be interpreted differently in different regions. Fans were suddenly confronted with the original Japanese ‘continuity’, if you can call it that. Instead of the mysterious Mobius, which we’re constantly reminded is different to Earth (and there were a fair few stories about Sonic travelling here and noting how different it is), suddenly we’re told Sonic and his friends all live on our own Earth. Somehow. Except it also has anthropomorphic animals. Robotnik doesn’t have a cool origin story involving him being flipped from good to evil and a plan to take over the world with an empire of robots, he’s just some random Teddy Roosevelt- or Yosemite Sam-esque big game hunter who wants to build a theme park or something. He’s not even Robotnik anymore, but the comical-sounding ‘Dr Eggman’ (which the first Sonic Adventure game did, at least, try to cover over by claiming it was Sonic’s insulting nickname for him). The character Amy Rose, whom both the Archie and Fleetway comics tried their hardest to reinvent into a positive role model for girls (and who genuinely kicks arse without coming across as unlikeably rude about it, which is pretty rare) was reduced to some generic delicate flower damsel in distress. I could go on.
The problem, you see, is not just that the continuity got ‘rebooted’ (from a Western point of view) but that what it was replaced with was so boringly generic and childish in tone that it repelled an entire generation of fans. The other issue was that Japanese game creators will (I am generalising here) tend to ignore continuity and setting development in favour of retelling the same basic story over and over again. This doesn’t necessarily hurt a Western fanbase (see the continuing, and to my mind inexplicable, hardcore Pokémon fandom of people who will happily buy the exact same game over and over again every two or three years) but it doesn’t help. Not when you’re comparing it to previously having experienced these characters through genuinely interesting storytelling written by people who care about telling stories. We can joke about Shortfuse the Cybernik mentioning his origin story every time he appears in case the readers have forgotten, but I’ll take it if the alternative is game creators forgetting whether Blaze the Cat is from a different dimension or the far future in games released one year apart, or just deciding not to care.
Or consider the Daniel Craig Bond films. Casino Royale represents a sort of soft, indecisive reboot, in which apparently this is a new in-universe Bond (or the first Bond in a new setting? But M is still played by Judi Dench, sooo…) starting off a new Bond film series, ditching some long-running ideas in favour of iconoclasm. Your mileage may vary on this, but I’d argue the Craig films suffer from the same problem of not having good enough stories to tell to justify their daring teardown and reinvention of the series. Even Skyfall, which I did enjoy as a series anniversary celebration, suffers from its plot not making any sense on a second viewing, like many similar adrenaline-fuelled works of the 2010s. Fundamentally, though, a bigger problem is the same have-your-cake-and-eat-it issue I alluded to with Star Trek: Into Darkness. You can’t say ‘sod the past, we’re doing something new and modern and exciting’ and then turn around and say ‘this villain is actually… (DRAMATIC PAUSE) …Khan/Blofeld!” You know, one of those villains you actually care about from one of those films a long time ago we said we didn’t like, because we couldn’t come up with any new villains you would take seriously. If you are trading on ‘point awkwardly at reference to old continuity’, it was a mistake for you to reboot in the first place.
With that in mind, why would you ever reboot? Well, I’ve mentioned above some examples of where it did work out and achieve its goal. There are also good examples of softer or more limited reboots or ‘reimaginings’ done right. In many ways, the way people viewed Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1987 was not dissimilar to how many view Star Trek: Discovery now; it seemed like a slap in the face to the original series. But over time, new characters and new writing showed examples of new stories that couldn’t have been told in the original series, and then the fans began to accept it. We will see if the same is true of Discovery; there have arguably been at least isolated examples of it in my opinion. Or what about Stargate SG-1? Though supposedly in continuity with the original Stargate film, it adjusted quite a few things beyond just obviously recasting characters and adding new ones: changing the distance travelled, what the Goa’uld are (energy beings vs snakelike parasites) how the Stargate looks and (sort of) works, and so on. Yet crucially, it didn’t change anything a fan of the original movie would care about, and it changed things that opened up new storytelling possibilities. Or rather, not just opened them up but then actually took them – witness Voyager by contrast. The point is, don’t be boldly iconoclastic about past continuity in the streets and then meekly point at a past reference in the sheets. Have a plan and stick to it. That is the bare minimum if your reboot is actually going to stand on its own two feet, and that is the bare minimum for it not to – well – suck.
In the next article in this series, I’ll talk about another common problem with even good reboots and remakes, which goes to the heart of point (2) of my original list. Stay tuned for ‘When Reboots End With The Beginning’.
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.