Walking It Back

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.

31 Comments

  1. Jeff Nettleton

    Another franchise that had to do a bit of juggling and reversal was Babylon 5. Joe Straczynski constructed it as a complete novel, with a definite end in mind. However, he also knew about the vagaries of tv production. So, characters had trap doors to remove them from the story and slot in another to fill their story role. It came into play quickly. After the pilot, they ended up replacing 3 major characters/actors. Instead of just recasting, they introduced new characters and referred to the others as having been reassigned. This included the second-in-command Laurel Takashima (Tamlyn Tomita, who didn’t want to commit to a series and miss movie opportunities), Dr Ben Kyle (Johnny Sekka), and telepath Lyta Alexander (Patricia Tallman, who also didn’t want to go into series). They were replaced by Susan Ivanova, Dr Stephen Franklin and Talia Winters (respectively). Originally, Laurel was supposed to be part of a plot to assassinate the Earth president and shoots security chief Garibaldi in the back. That role was partially shifted to one of Garibaldi’s security officers, while another plot point for Laurel was shifted, later, to Talia. Ivanova was supposed to be promoted into the job when Laurel was exposed. Instead, JMS moved her up early. Ivanova didn’t pick up the traitor role, but did get the second-in-command role. Franklin flat out replaced Kyle. Kyle was name dropped a couple of times, but that was it.

    Talia was the big change. In the pilot, Lyta touches the mind of the Vorlon ambassador, Kosh, which affects her in a big way. Over time, she was to be drawn to the Vorlons and her powers enhanced. When Tallman didn’t sign on, a new telepath came on the show, Talia. In a first season episode, Talia has her powers boosted by an old friend, who had gained significant power after Psi Corps experiments. Talia was also tested and watched by Kosh. Then, in season 2, Andrea Thompson decided she wanted out, as she wasn’t being used much and was missing other offers. Talia was exposed as a Psi Corps sleeper agent, with a new personality grafted on the old. This was part of Laurel’s original arc. She is exposed by the returning Lyta (with Tallman returning to the role).. Tallman goes off to Vorlon space, but returns in season 3, for sporadic episodes, then a regular role until the end of the show. She picked back up her arc, as her powers were enhanced by the Vorlons. By season 5, she is immensely powerful, with telekinetic abilities.

    So, JMS wrote a character out of the show, because of the actor, brought them back to write out the replacement character, then they picked back up where their character left off. They also had to replace Michael O’Hare, the series lead, after season one, due to severe mental illness (which was kept secret, until after his death). Bruce Boxleitner was brought in to fulfill the heroic lead. O’Hare’s character, Sinclair, was not supposed to be in it all 5 seasons, as his character was fated to leave. When O’Hare was well enough, he came back for a two-part episode that ended his character arc. Sheridan remained the hero until the end of the show. One character, Na’Toth, was recast; but, the new actress did such a 180 from the previous that producers removed the character from the show, after only 2 or 3 appearances. The original actress later returned for one appearance (apart from playing a human character, in another guest spot).

    The big difference here is that the story was planned with a finite ending and alternatives to handle the realities of production, vs being produced as an on-going and reacting to sudden changes.

        1. frasersherman

          The flip side of “Don’t Break the Toys” is all the creators who insist the toys are broken even when they’re not. So we wind up with Barry back, Babs as Oracle, Hal in the green suit, all to fix things that didn’t need fixing.

          1. Le Messor

            Also true, though I like Babs as Oracle (from a distance, I don’t read Bat comics at the moment). And that leads to a constant reset button, which means people say the fans don’t like change when it’s the creators resetting even if the fans don’t mind the new status quo.

            … of course, nobody’s ever explained to my satisfaction what’s wrong with not liking change.

          2. Babs as Oracle was a masterful example of kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with gold so that the final product is more valuable and beautiful than it was before it got broken. Kim Yale and John Ostrander (and later Chuck Dixon and Gail Simone) took Alan Moore’s collateral damage and made something spectacular from it.

            Reverting her to Batgirl is a case of breaking something and putting it back together badly. There were a half-dozen other possible Batgirls, but only one Oracle.

        2. Jeff Nettleton

          2013, at the Phoenix Comic Con 20th Babylon 5 Anniversary Reunion. O’Hare suffered from what was once known as paranoid schizophrenia. At first he tried to work through it; but, producers noticed it and sat down with him. It became worse when he was worn down. JMS was willing to shut the show down and O’Hare pleaded for them not to. At the end of the first season, O’Hare left to seek more enhanced treatment. They filmed a message from Sinclair to Garibaldi, to plant in the second season. Once they were able to moderate his condition with medication, he came back to film the two-part “War Without End.” While filming that, he and JMS made a pact to reveal it after O’Hare passed away, so people could understand what happened, what his illness was and that it was treatable. The footage of JMS discussing it, at a panel, is on Youtube. He also talks about a last dinner with Andreas Katsulas and about Rick Biggs, who played Dr. Franklin. The show lost a lot of the cast and guest stars, over the years; several way too young.

          1. Le Messor

            “While filming that, he and JMS made a pact to reveal it after O’Hare passed away, so people could understand what happened, what his illness was and that it was treatable.”

            And it’s sad they had to wait until after his death. But that’s why they made the announcement, isn’t it – because they *did* have to wait.

  2. frasersherman

    Another oddity about Escape: after two movies where “humans once ruled the Earth” is the deepest secret of ape-kind, Cornelius and Zira discuss it as if everyone back in their time knew (both the TV series reverted back to making it a deep secret).
    Most of the changes to Superman were Gene Yuang’s run, but I assumed it would all get put back eventually.

      1. Le Messor

        It isn’t exactly retconning I want to do, but make sure I haven’t made mistakes. It’s also so I can put things in book 1 that will pay off in book 12 (which I’m not saying I’ve taken full advantage of).
        Also, so I don’t pull a Robert Jordan and die ten books in.

        It’s been very useful, I’ve found; but:
        If you’re also a writer, you should be warned – I know quite a few writers, and I’m the only one who’s doing it this way.

        1. frasersherman

          I’m the opposite. I’d never write a novel/short story series until I saw how the first one did. So I’ll just have to roll the dice and hope I haven’t painted myself into a corner when I start V.2.

          1. Le Messor

            I’m kind of the opposite – I’ve mostly given up short stories to concentrate on my magnum opus.

            Also out of curiosity, what are your unusual habits?

          2. toothpaste

            I tend to write longer projects beginning, end, then middle, which has its downsides but hopefully strengthens the ending. The aforementioned novel ended with me losing interest, and I figure the middle is the best place to lose interest if one has to. That’s the one I’m talking about, but I also take notes in a ‘talking to myself’ format that I don’t think is common.

          3. Le Messor

            Honestly, I don’t think either of those things is incredibly unusual. One piece of advice I keep hearing is ‘Keep writing’; and people have specifically said that means even if you end up writing beginning-end-middle; and for the exact reason you listed.

            Taking notes happens in any format available. I’ve considered buying a recorder so I can talk through story ideas if they happen while I’m riding my bike home from work. (Or to work, but that’s often with a friend.)

  3. M-Wolverine

    Wow, DON’T BREAK THE TOYS. So obvious, but it should be over every editorial and writer’s meeting room at every publisher. Or any collaborative endeavor. Problem is there is a strong business undercurrent in all sorts of businesses that really believes “if things aren’t broke, break them.” I’ve heard it.

    To me the biggest nod to Holmes has to have been James Bond. Who was basically dead and left for dead in the books. At the end of the great From Russia With Love SPOILERS Bond is killed by Klebb’s poison shoe dagger. It ends with it going black. But he was at the height of his creativity, and it was super popular, so he comes back in the next book, having spent tons of time in the hospital, and getting chewed out by M. Then he’s basically left with amnesia adrift at sea before the end of the last full Fleming book, only to be brought back brainwashed by the KGB for one more run in a book Fleming probably didn’t finish himself.

    They didn’t completely ignore the Motion Picture…Kirk is still an Admiral. So, wait…the did a bunch of side stuff where Kirk is doing a 5 year mission as an admiral? Or does he go from Captain to Admiral to Captain to Admiral to Captain?

    And I think Nimoy gave the hint he was open to coming back, because didn’t they add the scene of the funeral pod nestled in the new Genesis landscape after everything else had been filmed, to give us a hope he might be brought back? Or is that just in the Director’s cut? I think what really sweetened the deal was them offering him the Director’s chair for 3. Then he was completely sold.

    And Superman. Poor, damn Superman. How could anyone be in any position of power and think any of that was a good idea? Sometimes people are in charge of things just because they’re in charge of things.

    1. Le Messor

      “Wow, DON’T BREAK THE TOYS. So obvious, but it should be over every editorial and writer’s meeting room at every publisher.”
      YES! So very yes!

      “Or does (Kirk) go from Captain to Admiral to Captain to Admiral to Captain?”
      That wouldn’t surprise me. 🙂

      “didn’t they add the scene of the funeral pod nestled in the new Genesis landscape after everything else had been filmed, to give us a hope he might be brought back? Or is that just in the Director’s cut?”
      Pretty sure it was in the original.

      1. Alaric

        “And I think Nimoy gave the hint he was open to coming back, because didn’t they add the scene of the funeral pod nestled in the new Genesis landscape after everything else had been filmed, to give us a hope he might be brought back? Or is that just in the Director’s cut? ”

        That was definitely in the original. I remember thinking it was an obvious setup for a resurrection, even before the name of the following movie was announced. And I never saw the Director’s cut.

        1. The stuff with Spock’s tube on the Genesis Planet was added to TWOK last minute and over the objections of director Nicholas Meyer, although it was in the initially released cut of the movie. Over time, Meyer has softened on his stance about Spock’s death being irrevocable, and allowed that footage to stay in his director’s cut.

          1. M-Wolverine

            That more clearly states what I was getting at. That they added it at the last minute as an out. And I thought it was in the original cut, but my memory was hazy because I may have first seen it on TV with the director’s cut, so I wasn’t 100% sure. But if John is confirming Star Trek stuff, it must be right.

  4. toothpaste

    Yep. I think too often writers fall into the trap of feeling like they have to do something huge and world-shattering to a franchise in order to be entertaining. Or that they have to ‘leave their mark’ on a franchise by breaking a toy or something, when as you say sticking with the status quo and telling a good story is what fans want.

    There have been times where a major change has been made and it’s worked – Barbara Gordon as Oracle comes to mind, which was the status quo for what, 20+ years? But having to retcon the work of an overzealous writer isn’t fun for anyone.

    I do think that alternate universe stories like Elseworlds or Injustice, as long as they don’t cross over, can be pretty cool. Injustice starts with the deaths of Lois Lane and the Joker, and there’s no way those and all the other deaths are going to be undone. It breaks the toys all the time, but because it’s self-contained I think it works.

    1. Le Messor

      “I think too often writers fall into the trap of feeling like they have to do something huge and world-shattering to a franchise in order to be entertaining.”

      If you listen to audio commentaries a lot, you’ll hear filmmakers saying ‘the sequel has to be bigger’. That’s the trap.

  5. I’m curious about the reference to killing off Jane in Tarzan the Untamed. You’re far more of an expert in Tarzan lore than I, but I read that book fairly recently, and it’s pretty clear that Tarzan just thinks Jane has been killed. Certainly toward the end of the book even he finds out he may have been mistaken and that Jane may still be alive. Unless the book as currently published is somehow not the original version, that doesn’t seem like a walk-back so much as a fake-out.

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