The Demise of Sci-Fi Dynasties:
Signs that a Science Fiction series has become lame
All television shows and movie series, even the great ones, eventually go bad (check out Jumping the Shark ). For science fiction series, there are three common elements that signal the demise of a dynasty: (1) when characters get lame, (2) when we get long expositions on how fictional technologies work, and (3) when it tries to become a consistent universe. Of course for a series to fade, it must start out being good and then must sit in the back of the 'fridge long enough to go sour. Star Trek and Star Wars are perfect examples, both in terms of their (at one time) greatness and in terms of their staying power.
Note: Star Trek and Star Wars both ended their runs on Friday, May 13th, 2005.
Good characters are important to any story, not just science fiction. Good, or at the least beloved, characters can suffer and survive bad writing and lame episodes. Kirk, Spock, Han Solo, Darth Vader, Warf, Picard and Data are characters we love. Even when Spock’s brain is removed, the series goes on. The shows are nothing without their characters. Does anyone have much fondness for the characters on Deep Space 9? It had good writers and more consistently good acting than The Next Generation, but we couldn’t help comparing the new characters with our beloved favorites.
Star Wars is another case in point. The best character in the Star Wars universe is Han Solo. As one of the major centers of Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back, he holds these movies together. Luke is enjoyable as the wide-eyed kid at first, but we dislike him more and more as the character tries to become a wise old Jedi and instead becomes a snotty know-it-all. In the most recent movies, not only have we seen embarrassingly bad peripheral characters, but the main characters are also crushingly boooooring. Is it the acting? Is it the writing or the dialog? To some extent, yes, but to a greater extent (with the exception of Anakin and Yoda) the characters are really lame. Who knew butt-kicking, lightsaber-swinging, Force-wielding Jedi could be such a tedious lot of Holier-Than-Thou ne’er-do-wells?
How Technology Works
Technology is a staple of good science fiction and sometimes technical accuracy is important. One of the really spectacular aspects of 2001: A Space Odyssey is the attention to detail in the space scenes. Much of the impact of this movie comes from the juxtaposition of a highly believable near future with a wondrous and bizarre mystery. Star Trek and Star Wars, on the other hand, are immune from needing to be believable since they are considerably more displaced in time and space from our 21st century.
Fans, however, love to speculate on the nature of the science found in these series. Books have been written on the topic. This is what fans do: they talk about, criticize and defend their favorite shows. There is nothing wrong with this at all and it is an immensely fun aspect of fandom. The problem is that as a series ages, the creators and writers have a tendency to try to explain the technology in the show and make it more realistic. This is a mistake. Star Trek suffers much more from this than Star Wars does, I suspect because the show's fans have grown up to become the show's creators and writers. Did any of us not enjoy Star Wars because the TIE Fighters roared through space or because the X-Wings follow aerodynamic trajectories in complete vacuums? As fans, we can argue about Faster Than Light travel and the nature of lightsabers, but it doesn’t get in the way of the story, at least at first. (Star Wars: The Phantom Menace did try to explain the Force with something called midi-chlorians, but this lame explanation was (more or less) thankfully dropped in the sequel to that movie.)
Star Trek, however, is now full of endless technical explanations. Do not misunderstand me: the psuedo-scientific banter between the captain and his science officer and engineer has become one of the most fun recurring inside jokes on the show. ("Captain, I'm giving the phase buffers on the Heisenberg compensators all I've got, but the dilithium matrix can't take much more!") Did we really care that in the original series everyone spoke English? Did we care how the shields worked? What about the transporter? As time went on, especially through later series, these explanations have attempted to become more and more realistic and are a distinct sign that Star Trek is finished: the fantasy is gone. The latest incarnation, Enterprise, is particularly guilty of this sin. The explanations become more unbelievable and invite even more problems and contradictions everyday. Perhaps trekkers are concerned with the physics of warp drives, but true fans (i.e. trekkies) want to suspend their disbelief and have some fun.
JRR Tolkien fastidiously created an entire universe in his mind and his notebooks before he wrote The Lord of the Rings . This is a major reason why we find his world so compelling and detailed. And consistent. As fans, we all love back-story, so there is nothing inherently wrong with going back in time to look through a history for clues about the origins of what we've already seen. In both comics and sci-fi movies, the setting becomes a universe unto itself, and writers, whether professional or fan fiction hacks, need to script episodes that make sense within that universe. When fantasy writers describe elves, people with super-human strength and aliens with psychic powers, we are ready to suspend our disbelief. In universes that originate as a few hours of material (instead of an exhaustively complete world such as Tolkien's) there are inevitably going to be continuity problems. As time goes on, these problems become more and more apparent and we can chart a franchise's demise by looking for bad back-story.
Once again, Star Trek, due to the length of time it has been around and the sheer amount of material created, has been most egregious with poor development of an unbelievable background universe. Who cares that most aliens are humanoid? The explanation tries to be profound, but ends up being extremely lame. We all know the pragmatic reason why most aliens are humanoid and we don't need an explanation. The writers and creators have admirably resisted explaining why the Klingons look different on the old show (although the fans have not), but the excessive caution required to create a consistent universe has hamstrung the current show. Can you imagine an episode of Enterprise where the crew discovers a planet filled with 1920s gangsters or one with Nazis or perhaps ancient Romans? Yet those are all real plots from some terribly fun episodes on the old series.
Star Wars is currently becoming ponderous and boring as Lucas tries to explain the political climate in his universe. Did the whole trade embargo thing in The Phantom Menace make any sense at all? What about the complex political machinations in Attack of the Clones? And, no, you (fanboy) shouldn't try to explain it to me: if it wasn't in the movie and you have to explain it to me, it means the movie had serious problems. Sure, diehard fans enjoy this kind of stuff, but Lucas claims to be making simple tales of good and evil that are accessible to children. Remember when Darth Vader was evil? Did we care why? He's evil and that what bad guys do! Now it turns out that this archetypical bad guy who genocidally killed billions (yes, billions) of people is really just a misunderstood soul who is eventually redeemed. (I'm sorry, but redeeming Darth Vader in the third movie is akin to Hitler realizing his mistake and apologizing to the world just before shooting himself in his bunker.) Vader was a baddy, should have remained a baddy and we should have cheered when he was vanquished. The back-story of Anakin is interesting in a we-know-what-happens-next sort of way, but I'm afraid it just isn't believable.
Go Gracefully and R.I.P. (May 13, 2005)
Of course money is the lifeblood of any business and the entertainment industry is no exception. As long as these two series continue to make money, Hollywood will continue to pump out sequels. Good writing and acting will not save Enterprise from holodeck technology (as we've already seen early in the first season). The next Star Wars movie is doomed by what came before it, both from within the movie cycle and in the narrative history (which movie goers should not be required to study before they can understand the plot). The action and special effects will still dazzle, and the plot twists and turns will occasionally surprise, but we bring too much baggage into these shows to enjoy them anymore.
Why Star Wars Sucks - Details on the Dynasty's Demise