Last week, Lost in Translation asked the question, “Can a franchise be rebooted?” and came up with a rousing, “Maybe.” “It depends,” also came up. This week, a few thought experiments to see what can be done using a few well-known franchises.
Let’s start with the big one, Star Wars. The franchise has grown greatly, despite a period where it lay fallow for about eight years with little done. The release of Timothy Zahn’s began the renewed interest in licensing Star Wars outside toys, followed by the Expanded Universe of novels and comics leading up to the release of The Phantom Menace in 1999. Even with Disney hitting the reset button on the Expanded Universe, the licensing of other media hasn’t slowed down. There is a hierarchy of canon, though; the films are on top, followed by TV series, then tie-ins like novels and video games.
There might be execs at Disney looking at remaking the original Star Wars movie, but the audience backlash would be at superweapon levels. The risk is not worth the reward. However, creating more stories set in the Galaxy Far, Far Away has been a winner for Disney so far, with The Mandalorian being the reason for many fans to subscribe to Disney+. The Galaxy Far Far Away is big enough to have a number of stories, epic and personal. Remaking the original is out of the question. Exploring other parts of the setting, especially if the quality can be maintained, works better and has been successful for the franchise.
Star Trek provides a contrast. Between the end of the original series in 1969 to the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979, there wasn’t much beyond the animated series, a few novels from Bantam, and some licensed games. Compared to after TMP, where the novel tie-ins had a more regular release date, and films every few years. In 1987, Star Trek essentially rebooted with Star Trek: The Next Generation. The original series and movies with the original cast were historical, but the new series forged its own characters and continuity. However, there were and are still fans of the original series who get more adventures via the tie-in novels.
The original series had a second reboot with the JJ Abrams Star Trek film in 2009. The Abrams film, though, split into a new continuity, separate from the establish canon. This could allow for a new exploration of the setting, but Into Darkness, released 2013, went over old ground with Khan Noonian Singh. For the most part, the Abrams continuity films have been popular.
Both of the above examples are based on properties that began in a visual medium, film and television respectively. Time for a more literary example – Bond. James Bond. The 007 franchise began with Casino Royale in 1953 and has been active since then, first with Ian Fleming’s novels, then film adaptations, most notably the Eon Productions series, but expanding out to comics, first in 1962, video games, and a spin-off series of novels for a younger audience. The novels were continued after Fleming’s death, first with Colonel Sun by Kingsley Amis under the pen name Robert Markham, then by John Gardner from 1981-1906, Raymond Benson from 1996-2002, and a number of authors since then.
Bond represents a problem Star Wars and Star Trek didn’t have – he is a contemporary character. However, things have changed since 1953 in terms of politics, culture, and technology. Bond is a product of the Cold War, where the US and NATO had a covert battle with the USSR and the Warsaw Pact. Nations were starting to settled into a post-World War II status quo. As the Eon films progressed, Bond became more and more, “a relic of the Cold War,” to quote Judi Dench’s M from Goldeneye. The progression of time can be seen in The Living Daylights, where 007 worked in Afghanistan with the Mujaheddin against the a rogue Soviet general; some of the Mujaheddin became the Taliban, who wouldn’t be considered an ally for heroes in movies made today.
There was a chance to reboot the movie franchise with 2006’s Casino Royale, starting from the beginning of the novels. However, Eon placed the film into its existing continuity. Eon also used the Daniel Craig Bond to re-introduce some elements lost from the films, such as SMERSH. Some legal issues ended, allowing SPECTRE to return in 2015. The 007 films have pulled back from some of the excess during the late Sean Connery and late Roger Moore era, getting back to basics without the gadgets. One possibility for Eon is to do a separate film continuity, keeping Bond in the Cold War era. It’s been sixty-eight years since Casino Royale was first published; placing Bond into his historical element may bring new insight to the character.
To wrap things up, let’s see if it’s possible to reboot a video game franchise, using Nintendo’s Mario. Technically, every Mario release can be seen as a reboot. The goal of the Mario franchise isn’t to provide a single storyline, but a separate game each time. The characters are treated as actors taking on roles in every game. Need Mario to become a detective or a racer? Not a problem. Likewise, Pokémon has been releasing new games based on the same idea – hunting Pokémon to use to fight others who would become a Pokémon Master. Sure, there are other games in the franchise, like Detective Pikachu, but the core of Pokémon is the collecting of Pokémon. The popularity of Pokémon GO is built on letting the players become Pokémon Masters without needing a game avatar on screen.
With other video games, though, a franchise reboot won’t be so easy. The medium is still relatively young, especially when it comes to games with a storyline. Rebooting Pac-Man just relies on updating game play for modern technology. Rebooting Mass Effect, for example, may need to wait a generation, much like film remakes do. Commander Shepard is popular enough for a remaster of the original trilogy, but a remaster isn’t a reboot. Will we see a remake of Mass Effect in 2037? Time will tell.
So, that definitely “maybe”? There’s just too many factors to give a definitive answer. Some franchises have tried a reboot. The main problem is that the original work will still be available, and comparisons will happen. For larger franchises, the risk is not worth the potential reward. But when done, fans appear to be accepting of the product, even if they will also stay with the original.
In entertainment, if something is made, it is inevitably remade in one form or another. However, franchises seem immune. Sure, Batman’s origins will get filmed over and over, but the movies aren’t the source. Even in the comics, there have been retellings of how Bruce Wayne became Batman, but they all follow the same beats and Bruce Wayne always becomes Batman in each version. Can a franchise be rebooted and rebooted successfully?
Definition time – a franchise is a work that spans multiple media, be it literature, film, television, comics/graphic novels, video games, even radio. A series of novels doesn’t count, nor does a TV series. Once licensing gets involved, the franchise is starting to form. The wider the licensing, the bigger the franchise. Star Wars as a franchise is huge, starting with a movie, then expanding into toys, games, comics, tie-in novels, animated series, live action series, spin-off movies, serialization on the radio, and video games, and I’m probably missing other parts of the franchise in that list, with more coming out every year. Even smaller franchises cover a portion of what Star Wars has.
Back to the question, can a franchise be rebooted? If the original, core work of the franchise is a movie, can it be remade and, if so, does it break anything? Likewise with a TV series, can it be remade? Literature creates a new issue; few people are going to buy a rewrite of an original work, especially if the redone work isn’t by the original author. But if the audience’s perception of what the original work is switches to another medium, then can the franchise reboot?
Note that rebooting is not the same as a creating a new series. Star Trek: The Next Generation isn’t a reboot of Star Trek, but a continuation set much later in the settings time line. However, JJ Abrams’ 2009 Trek film is a reboot of the original series. The concept isn’t clear cut.
Some franchises don’t need to reboot, thanks to the setting. Star Wars has an epic scale that allows for exploration of different styles. Space Western with Samurai influences? Done – The Mandalorian. Want to add a mystic element? The Jedi. Heist movie in space? There’s enough of a underworld described in the movies and TV series that someone robbing jewels from Cloud City should be easy to write. Not all franchises have this range of flexibility. However, sometimes, just advancing the timeline is enough to shed some baggage by placing into the past, as Star Trek has done.
Some franchises have tried to reboot. DC Comics tried to reset using Year One to update character origins. Marvel tried something similar with the Ultimates line of comics. Both companies have decades of prior stories that make it difficult for new readers to just jump in. Introducing new characters to take up the mantle of a superheroic ID is hit or miss. Miles Morales as Spider-Man worked, but DC killing Superman to have four characters take over the role didn’t take, with Superman returning.
Let’s break it down by original source. Literary sources aren’t going to reboot right away; writing takes work and authors aren’t going to be willing to go back to rewrite a book that’s been published. All the rewrites were done before the book reached shelves. Film remakes are a known entity, but early franchise entries seem almost immune; the potential to break the audience could doom the remake at the box office and studios are risk adverse. No killing the golden goose for them. Comics could, but as noted above, it’s been tried and the results are hit-or-miss. Video games can; new technology and new releases mean that a larger audience could play the latest version. Most video games are stand-alone, though there are exceptions like Mass Effect. Traditional games, mist likely can’t; if the game is popular, it’s too beloved to change too much. However, tabletop RPGs could; new editions come out to correct mechanical problems and settings will get adjusted for the game.
Could a franchise be rebooted? The answer is a big maybe. There are a number of factors in play, including popularity and the risk of losing an audience if the change is too great.
Next week, a look at some examples.