Sometimes a storyteller makes a HUGE mistake.
Series fiction is especially prone to this. The trouble with doing any kind of continuing-character serial storytelling is that after a certain amount of stories told about the same set of characters, there’s a kind of attrition that sets in. A formula is established. This can be a terrible trap. You don’t want to repeat yourself, but you don’t want to deprive the audience of the thing they showed up for… and in such a narrow range, once you pass a number of stories, maybe ten, maybe thirty, maybe three hundred, but sooner or later, you’ll hit it — you find yourself out of ideas.
There’s also the possibility that you just have gotten sick of doing this particular thing and you want to move on. The urge to burn it all down become irresistible. For example, the only way they got Charlton Heston to come back to do Beneath the Planet of the Apes was to guarantee him that it would be the last one. And it sure looked like that was the case — not only did they kill off his character Taylor in the film, but everyone else died too when the world-ending doomsday bomb went off. The Planet of the Apes, ITSELF, literally was destroyed. That would seem pretty final.
Except it wasn’t. There were three more movies, a television series, a cartoon, and a bunch of comic book stories set in that same universe (we will skip the newer, reboot versions, since they aren’t relevant to this particular discussion.) In other words, Heston might have been done, but the studio sure wasn’t.
This was long before the age where ‘reboot the franchise’ had become a standard Hollywood tactic. Film franchises, with the notable exception of James Bond, were not really a thing back in 1971. Even remakes were not done all that often. Nevertheless, the studio wanted more Apes, and ideally without having to spend a lot of money. So somehow the filmmakers had to walk back… uh… the end of the world.
The solution was time travel, as explicated in Escape from the Planet of the Apes. The apes Cornelius, Zira, and Milo, alerted that the gorilla army in Beneath is going to cause huge destruction, use Taylor’s spaceship to come back to the present day… a plot point that incidentally saved on sets, makeup, and pretty much everything else.
There are huge plot problems with the idea (How did they find out that the gorillas were going to get the world blown up? How did they get the ship up from the bottom of the lake where it sank in the first movie without salvage cranes and scuba gear? How did even a scientist as brilliant as Dr. Milo figure out how to not just pilot this miraculously-repaired wrecked space ship, but use it to warp space and time with only the tools available in what was clearly a pre-industrial culture with no concept of powered flight? And so on.) But those are just nitpicks. The important part is that it was a clever, fun movie that saved the series.
Last week’s column about legacy, and also Pol’s recent column about DC Comics and their constant rebooting, got me thinking about that, along with a bunch of other times creators have had to somehow walk back some hideous misstep prompted by the frustration engendered by boredom with a series formula and the need to “shake things up.”
One of the earliest and most famous examples of this, of course, is the death of Sherlock Holmes at the hands of the diabolical Professor Moriarty.
The reason Doyle did it was simple– he was sick of writing Holmes stories and felt that his historical fiction was his true calling. “Holmes takes me from better things,” was what he told people. He held out for a few years, but he needed the money Sherlock brought in. After the success of The Hound of the Baskervilles, which he desperately tried to sell as a one-off– “A reminiscence, not a resurrection” — nevertheless, Doyle eventually caved and wrote The Adventure of the Empty House, in which it is revealed that Holmes didn’t really die, but just went into hiding for a few years until he could bring in Moriarty’s right-hand man, the dastardly Colonel Moran. The story ends with Holmes and Watson restored to their old quarters in Baker Street, and all is well.
I think that was the first time a series creator was forced to hit the reset button, but there have been lots of them since then. Edgar Rice Burroughs killed off Tarzan’s wife Jane in Tarzan the Untamed, but brought her back in the very next book, Tarzan the Terrible. Michael Crichton gave Ian Malcolm a moving death scene in his novel Jurassic Park and then resurrected him with hardly any explanation at all to star in the sequel The Lost World.
This happens fairly often in television. Alias rebooted itself a couple of times in an effort to get back to the setup they had in the earlier seasons. The revival of X-Files largely dispensed with the additions to the later seasons of the original nine-season run. And of course there is the infamous “It was all a dream” resurrection of Bobby Ewing that happened midway through the production of Dallas.
That last one was forced on the show because Patrick Duffy, who played Bobby, wanted out. This happens fairly often with successful TV shows, particularly when it’s time for a star to renew the contract. But what’s rare is for the actor to leave and then come back in a story specifically constructed for the character to make a return.
But it does happen, especially if the change isn’t because of a temperamental thespian but instead the result of some ill-advised retooling to a series premise. Because the network felt that his character was not youth-oriented enough, Conrad Janis was unceremoniously fired as Mindy’s father from Mork and Mindy in its second season, but when fans complained he returned in the third and stayed for the remainder of the series.
Another example was in Spenser: For Hire, where the producers were stymied by what to do with Spenser’s girlfriend Susan Silverman.
The character of Susan is a fixture in the Robert Parker novels the show was adapting, but her function there is to be Spenser’s emotional anchor. In the series, she mostly was there to sit and look concerned while the stories moved around her. So for the second season, showrunner Juanita Bartlett ruled that Susan would go away and a new love interest for Spenser would be introduced, on the theory that viewers would rather see the relationship grow in front of them, with all its bumps and obstacles, than just be presented with the relatively static couple of Spenser and Susan.
So we got Rita Fiori, the tough D.A. whose work often throws her into direct conflict with Spenser. (I suspect that any resemblance to tough D.A. Joyce Davenport of Hill Street Blues was purely intentional.)
From a story editor’s standpoint this seemed like sound reasoning, and Carolyn McCormick certainly did a nice job with the material, but it just didn’t work. The audience didn’t buy it; the love between Spenser and Susan as depicted in the books and the first season of the series was too powerful. Viewers knew that Susan Silverman was Spenser’s true love, period the end, and they certainly didn’t want to see Robert Urich cheating on her with this Rita hussy. So in the premiere episode of the third season, Susan returned (in “Homecoming,” a heartfelt episode written by Spenser’s creator Robert Parker) after Robert Urich himself appealed personally to Barbara Stock to reprise her role, along with offering her an embarrassed apology for her firing. It didn’t save the show– the third season was the last– but nevertheless, it was the right call. Though the role was recast with a new actress, the character of Susan was front and center in the four revival movies Urich did a few years later, as well.
Apart from Holmes and Moriarty, I think probably the most famous in-story walk-back of all time in an ongoing series has to be from Star Trek.
Really there have been a bunch of them over the course of all the different TV shows and comics and books over the last fifty years, but I am thinking specifically of Mr. Spock and the movies.
It began in 1978, when Leonard Nimoy didn’t want to return to play Spock for the TV series Star Trek Phase II. So a new Vulcan was created, the character of Xon. Then Star Wars happened and it was decided that instead of a TV revival, Star Trek would be a big-budget motion picture instead. This was enough to get Nimoy on board, so Xon was out and Spock was in. In 1979 we got Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
It was met with mixed reviews at best– I don’t hate it as much as some fans do, but it was disappointing. But there was no question who hated it more than anyone, and that’s all the people that worked on it, especially the cast. Nobody wanted a repeat of that experience.
So basically the second Trek movie, Wrath of Khan, served as a do-over. That in itself was something of a walk-back. It utterly ignores the first movie in every way, even down to the uniform design.
Of course, with Star Trek, everything gets filled in sooner or later. It quickly became accepted canon that the story starring the Motion Picture‘s gray-and-beige incarnation of the Enterprise crew was the beginning of a second five-year mission that took place before Wrath of Khan. There are even a few original novels and comics that tell stories taking place during that time.
But Nimoy was still hugely reluctant to play Mr. Spock again, until Harve Bennett lured him back with the promise of giving Spock a terrific death scene. Go ahead and leave but make a big exit.
Nimoy went for it. Spock came back… to die.
Except, apparently, filming Khan was the polar opposite of the experience everyone had on ST:TMP. Nimoy realized he didn’t want to quit after all, because he was having too much fun. When he owned up to this to the producers, well, you all know what happened. Star Trek III: The Search For Spock is an entire movie that is more or less a giant walk-back of all the changes we got in Star Trek II. It ends with — SPOILER!!– Mr. Spock alive and well and reunited with his crewmates.
I got to thinking about all this reboot/walkback stuff when, on a whim, I thought I’d check in with the current Superman comics. (Stumbled across a bunch of Rebirth Superman trades for about three dollars each.) I’ve always been primarily a Batman guy when it comes to DC, and so far I’m not feeling it on the Rebirth stuff in the Batbooks; but I have to admit I’m kind of amazed and horrified at what a giant wad of stupid that writers Dan Jurgens and Peter Tomasi were tasked with cleaning up, and lost in admiration at the determination they’re bringing to the challenge.
See, apparently in the New 52 DCU someone systematically dismantled everything familiar about Superman. (Geoff Johns? Gene Yang? I don’t know who’s responsible; I haven’t kept up, I admit.) The Daily Planet’s out of the picture, he’s been unmasked as Clark Kent, he’s in love with Wonder Woman instead of Lois Lane, he’s running around sporting a buzzcut and dressed in a T-shirt and jeans. And so on. He’s not really Superman any more at that point. (Even the famous spit-curl had to go? Really?)
So now someone else wants Tomasi and Jurgens to put it all back. And by golly, they are doing it.
I gather the idea is to integrate the new and the old. I hope it sticks. I’d kind of like to be able to enjoy Superman comics again, and I certainly prefer old-school Superman to the edgy buzzcut New 52 version. But honestly, reading this stuff, I can hardly even react to the stories as stories, because it’s so painfully obvious what the endgame has to be.
All I can think is, what a thankless job, cleaning up another writer’s mess. I hope DC learns their lesson this time.
And what is that lesson?
The same lesson any writer should keep in mind when approaching a beloved, long-running series: Don’t break the toys.
Bend the rules once in a while, sure, but when you go too far, you lose the audience. Either they’re horrified at what you’ve done to an old favorite, or else they’re sneering cynically that there’s no way it’s going to last. Either way, you are failing in your primary obligation, which is to engage and entertain your audience.
Be edgy with your own, original characters. Because when you screw up someone else’s, sooner or later it gets walked back… and then you’re just the guy that belly-flopped on a beloved series.
Back next week with something cool.