I am a little overwhelmed at how much of today’s pop culture is built on reboots, remixes, and legacy. Particularly when so much of it is based on things that really, no one originally had ever considered to be ‘timeless.’ Popular fiction, especially things like paperback originals, monthly comics, and series television, were originally designed to be ephemeral. Their life cycle was finite– initial premiere, maybe a reprint or syndicated rerun here or there, then pfft! Gone, remembered only as a trivia question or a whatever-happened-to magazine feature.
No more. The list of TV properties that have been revived or remade in the last two decades is way too long to list here, but I can tell you a few of the ones that genuinely shocked me– not that they were good or bad, but that they actually happened at ALL: Battlestar Galactica. The Prisoner. Charlie’s Angels (twice!) Ironside. The Equalizer. MacGyver. Nikita. Beauty and the Beast (not the fairy tale, the television series with Vincent and D.A. Catherine Chandler.) I was staggered that the CW launched Arrow in the fall of the same year that Smallville wrapped, and it wasn’t a spinoff but instead a completely rebooted version of Oliver Queen. And that reboot’s been a huge success, about to enter its sixth year and with two spin-off shows of its own. (Three if you count Supergirl.)
It’s not just television. It’s everywhere. For example, in publishing, unless you look carefully at the copyright information on the newer novels you’d never know Robert Ludlum died sixteen YEARS ago.
Not to mention Tom Clancy, Robert B. Parker, Don Pendleton, a host of others. There’s no question that a lot of these continuations are at best misguided, and at worst verge on grave-robbing. (The vast majority of Robert Ludlum novels are espionage stories about an innocent man accidentally trapped by a vast conspiracy, they all have basically the same plot as Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. None of those plots really can sustain a series. Granted, even Ludlum couldn’t resist revisiting Jason Bourne a couple of times, but to have Bourne continually sucked accidentally into life-threatening danger just makes him look stupid after the fourth or fifth time. Nevertheless, as of this year Eric Van Lustbader has written thirteen Jason Bourne books, with more on the way…. over four times as many Bournes as Ludlum originally did. Worse, now the Bourne movies are falling into this trap too.)
All that being said, this is not a rant about how people should create their own, brand-new things, though that case is certainly there to be made.
But the fact is… I LIKE a lot of these efforts.
I don’t think anyone would argue that Ron Moore’s re-imagined Battlestar Galactica isn’t a vast improvement on the original. Adam Garcia has been doing amazing work in his series of novels reviving the obscure old pulp and comics character the Green Lama. And the television series versions of, say, Friday Night Lights or M*A*S*H achieved heights that no one involved with the original works probably thought possible. Hell, I doubt most people even know those started as books.
No, instead, I thought I’d list a few of the efforts where I thought the revival equaled or even surpassed the original in one way or another. I’ve mentioned how much I like the new series of Max Allan Collins Mike Hammer books in this space a number of times but it’s worth mentioning them one more time, just so no one will think I forgot.
Another remarkable feat is Robert Goldsborough’s letter-perfect channeling of Rex Stout in his new Nero Wolfe mysteries.
Now, this is something I attempted myself with moderate success in the 1990s for the Wolfe Pack’s Gazette, and I can tell you it’s damn hard to do. So much of the charm of the Wolfe books depend on the authorial voice of Wolfe’s assistant Archie, who narrates. It’s the same burden that you face writing Sherlock Holmes pastiches; you have to get Watson’s voice right if you’re trying for the real thing (which is to say, not an ‘updating’ or a ‘re-imagining.’) But Archie’s voice is a lot harder to get right than Watson’s, because of the complex relationship Archie has with Wolfe, the tone of exasperated affection he uses, and his character’s irreverence toward Wolfe and his eccentricities has to be layered over a strict sense of justice and respect for Wolfe’s genius. It’s a hard target to hit and Goldsborough nails it.
Lots of writers have taken a swing at the literary James Bond, but hardly any of them have managed to achieve that odd mix of adolescent wish-fantasy and visceral pulpy realism (“Sex, sadism, and snobbery” is how one critic described them at the time) that made up Ian Fleming’s original novels. (We’ll leave the movies out of it– frankly, it’s trying to incorporate the movie version of Bond that has hurt the various print revival efforts more than anything. Looking at you, John Gardner.) However, there are two that have managed to really capture the feel of Fleming’s originals, particularly the tense, headlong forward momentum conveyed by using the same third-person recounting of Bond’s inner monologue as the primary narrative voice. Those two are Kingsley Amis, with Colonel Sun back in the late sixties, and Anthony Horowitz with Trigger Mortis from just a couple of years ago.
It’s worth noting that both writers came to their respective Bond projects as admirers of not just 007 but Ian Fleming’s writing as well (Amis had even written a scholarly study of the novels, The James Bond Dossier, beforehand) and both were bestselling writers on their own before taking them on.
Likewise, Lord knows lots of folks have taken a swing at writing Conan the Barbarian with varying degrees of success; some, like Lin Carter and L. Sprague De Camp, seemed to be doing it with almost a sense of contempt for the Robert E. Howard originals, given the way they edited and amended what Howard actually wrote.
I have a certain fondness for those paperbacks, but the fact is, those editorial additions did not serve the stories. The new stuff wasn’t nearly as powerful as the Howard originals… DeCamp’s “The Thing in the Crypt” just looks embarrassing next to a Howard classic like “The Tower of the Elephant.”
No, this is one case where I think it’s clear that it’s not prose, but comics, where the continuation transcended the original text. Specifically, the version of Conan from writer Roy Thomas, with magnificent art from John Buscema.
There have been a number of well-done Conan pastiches since the days of the DeCamp and Carter paperback misfires, but I think Thomas and Buscema’s seventies version still stands as the one to beat. Thomas wrote the series in a way that respected the world Howard built and yet subtly added to it– in particular, he took the pirate queen Belit, a paper-thin character that was largely a plot device for a one-off Conan story of Howard’s, and made her real and individual with a great backstory; not just a damsel to be distressed but a warrior in her own right, clearly a worthy companion for Conan.
Then Thomas took the time Conan spent sailing with Belit on the Black Coast, maybe a paragraph’s worth of interstitial padding in the plot of Howard’s original “Queen of the Black Coast,” and made it the engine that drove several years’ worth of great stories in the Marvel Comics version. It was all great fun and much more layered and thoughtful than the formulaic filler stories DeCamp and Carter were doing for the Conan paperbacks during the same time.
It was a career high point for both Thomas and Buscema, in my opinion. Other comics versions of Conan have been pretty good — Kurt Busiek and Tim Truman did some great stuff at Dark Horse Comics– but I think they themselves would probably tell you that it was Roy Thomas and John Buscema that showed them the way.
I mentioned the Charlie’s Angels reboots above. I am kind of sad that the second one, on ABC, never really took off.
Set in Miami, this version really was the sophisticated and classy detective/caper show the original aspired to be and rarely actually was. Alfred Gough and Miles Millar from Smallville put some actual thought into it, and one of the writers on it was Javier Grillo-Marxuach from The Middleman. Although critics hated it and it tanked hard in the ratings (ABC pulled the plug after seven episodes) I thought it was a much worthier successor to the original than the two incoherent Drew Barrymore movies. The seven episodes are available on DVD… bit spendy, but worth a look.
Finally, I wanted to mention a favorite legacy series of mine — two different continuations of a series that relatively few people even know exists. Everyone knows about The Wizard of Oz, but hardly anyone outside of fans, collectors and librarians know about the fact that Frank Baum wrote thirteen more books about the land of Oz.
In the early part of the last century, they were hugely successful books, and when Baum died after completing Glinda of Oz, the publisher recruited Ruth Plumly Thompson to keep the series going.
It was a very smooth transition, because a great deal of the series appeal was in the lavish illustrations from John R. Neill; so the books looked right. And for the most part, Thompson’s Oz books are better than Baum’s. That opinion’s considered blasphemy by many Oz aficionados, but I’ll stand by it. Thompson’s Oz books have more humor, they’re better-plotted, there are fewer tangents and more adventure, and Thompson wasn’t afraid of romance. I’m especially fond of her Gnome King of Oz and Kabumpo in Oz.
My pick for the other great Oz continuation series, I bet several of you have guessed– it’s Eric Shanower’s series of graphic novels.
Shanower does something in these comics that’s doubly difficult– He manages to capture not just the flavor of the stories but also the style of the original illustrator, John R. Neill… and without being imitative.
I could go on. Nicholas Meyer and Sherlock Holmes, Will Murray and Doc Savage, Ron Goulart and the Avenger… all pastiches that equaled or bettered the originals.
But I’ll content myself with mentioning just one more. Today we get the latest episode from Star Trek Continues.
With guest star John deLancie! These fan films are, almost without exception, far superior to the official Trek films and TV we’ve been getting the last few years. This is the ninth of eleven episodes– sadly, the Axanar mess prevented them from doing the rest, but they at least are going to be able to film their two-part finale.
With that, I’ll wrap it up. This is getting a little long, and anyway I suspect several of you are itching to list your own examples down in the comments– or take issue with mine. So I’ll leave it there.
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Back next week with something cool.