Can Franchises Go Too Long?

Saru and Burnham on the bridge of the Shenzhou

Discovery and the new Star Wars films are some of the most divisive offerings among fans of both franchises. And Trek’s woes began with 2011’s Star Trek Into Darkness, which has supplanted Star Trek V as the most hated film in the franchise. (For me, personally, Nemesis will always be the festering wound on that franchise. My God, that’s two hours of my life I’ll never get back.) The Last Jedi caused such controversy among fans that I’ve come to openly dread going to the final Skywalker installment. Not because I think it’s going to be awful – I actually liked the last one. I just don’t want to deal with fans whose outrage is hardly justified. At the end of the day, it’s FICTION!

But it begs the question. Have these franchises gone on too long?

The Cage

Let’s look at the big three of science fiction franchises: Trek, Star Wars, and Doctor Who. First, there’s Star Trek. Over the years, those tasked with building on a failed 1960s show (that still managed to last long enough to be viable in syndication) have bent over backwards to build out the shared universe. Yet there are complaints from fans, who are much more reasonable than their Star Wars brethren, about the look and feel of Discovery. It’s the wrong kind of story-telling. It violates canon. It’s behind a pay wall. Of these, the pay wall issue is something CBS is doing a horrible job at addressing. Yes, CBS has the NFL – awesome for those of us who have cut the cable and can’t stand our antenna feeds pixelating whenever someone gets up to get pretzels – a Twilight Zone revival eerily done by the talented Jordan Peele, and a streaming-only spin-off of The Good Wife. Hey, that’s great, CBS, but you’ve got series about Picard, Section 31, and Khan on deck, not to mention it looks like you’re backdooring a Pike series this season on Discovery. That’s on CBS, and you can blame Les Moonves and the increasingly senile Sumner Redstone for the mishandling of this franchise. As for the storytelling, it’s an HBO/Netflix world, kids. 26 episodes of the monster of the week ain’t ever coming back than a black-and-white Bogartesque version of Star Trek II is in the offing. As for canon, let’s be honest here. It does fit canon. It just doesn’t fit pet theories. (“How can Spock have a foster sister? It wasn’t mentioned before!” Recall Spock never told Kirk and McCoy he was married until midway through Season 2 or about Sybok. He has a history of not mentioning important stuff. Yes, I paid attention.)

It’s look-and-feel. Criticisms of JJ Abrams aside, the Paramount movies did try to update and incorporate a lot of the original Trek’s visual tropes. Much of it was updated for the 2010s, which is why the bridge looks like an Apple Store and Engineering like a brewery. The uniforms are updates, and things like communicators resemble the originals. This is where CBS, under Moonves, fell down. Everyone hates the uniforms. Many people hate the new-look Klingons (which forced a retrofit for Season 2.) And the ship looks too damn modern. Captain Pike is there not so much to flesh out a character we only saw in two episodes and two movies. He’s there to nudge the series back into the rest of the franchise.

But maybe the franchise has gone on too long. When Voyager was a thing and Enterprise had just begun, you could already see a mythology groaning under its own weight. There was just too much Trek to appeal to all but the most hardcore fans. Leaving the field to lay fallow should have been done years earlier, with the end of Deep Space Nine. But they did not do that, and now that it’s a different world Discovery airs in, fans are, legitimately, complaining that it’s just not the same. Well, kids, it never will be. If Trek is around in fifteen years in a new form, it will not be the same as Discovery/Picard/Star Trek: Gillgan’s Island Meets Lost.

The Last JediWhich leads us to Star Wars. I’ll be honest, after The Phantom Menace, I would have been good with Lucas laughing and saying, “Well, that didn’t work” and leaving the franchise at three movies, a couple of TV series, and the Expanded Universe novels/audiobooks/comics. But the prequels weren’t for us. They were for Lucas, and we all came (grumbling) along for the ride. So when Disney bought Lucasfilm and decided to make that oft-rumored final trilogy, along with some decent standalone films, fans got excited. Until they saw The Force Awakens. The venom directed at the franchise and its current guardians is irrational and stupid, but the root cause is not. It’s just not the same. Disney might have seen another Marvel universe in Star Wars, but frankly, I think the ship had already sailed. Plus casting off the Expanded Universe alienated a lot of fans. You can’t do a partial reboot. You can do soft reboots (like James Bond has done time and again) and hard reboots that change the rules up front, but partial reboots? Oh, no. You have to go all the way or go home. That said, I’ll watch the last one, loved Solo, and will likely watch the Obi-wan movie if it’s ever made. But even with the look and feel preserved, it’s not the same. It never will be.

Jodie Whittaker as The Doctor

Finally, we have Doctor Who. The Doctor is now a woman, played deftly by former David Tennant costar Jodie Whittaker. This franchise has change and longevity built right into it. In fact, continuity, the bane of Trek and Star Wars writers, is almost something to be avoided over the long term. The Doctor is a time traveler who changes appearance and even gender periodically. His past changes. (Her past? Still need to sort this out, but that’s why Jodie’s stepped into Peter Capaldi’s shoes.) Doctor Who is most definitely not like it was before. And no one would tune in if it was. In fact, the biggest complaint since Matt Smith turned in the keys to the Tardis has been the writing. Capaldi was great as an old, crotchety Doctor, and there’s even been an appearance by Game of Thrones‘s David Bradley (who also played the original actor, William Hartnell). Whittaker’s performance is lauded. Chris Chibnall’s writing team?

Not so much. That can be fixed by hiring new writers.

I would love to see a Trek that feels like the 90s, but the 90s are over. And while the standalone Star Wars films give us some sense of what it’s like to have seen the original in 1977, the 70s and 80s are over, too.

The Orville cast
THE ORVILLE: L-R: Penny Johnson Jerald, Mark Jackson, Seth MacFarlane, Peter Macon, Scott Grimes, Adrianne Palicki, J. Lee and Halston Sage in THE ORVILLE premiering this fall on FOX. ©2017 Fox Broadcasting Co. Cr: Noah Schutz/FOX

Maybe it’s time Hollywood move onto something original. Any ideas?