Monday, December 19, 2011
Hitting the Reset Button on Continuity, part I
One of the main reasons I get into pop culture mythologies such as Star Trek, Batman, Spider-Man, and Harry Potter, is that I'm interested in how these things are written. It's a joy, in serialized fiction of virtually any media, to see consequences arise from actions taken in the past, as it shows that the heroes' and villains' choices are important and affect more than just the original moment at hand. But one of the major potential pitfalls in these mythologies comes down to a word that has made writers, editors, and fans alike recoil in disgust, shock, and/or fear.
Quickly and loosely defined, continuity is the consistency of events, characters, plots, places, and objects encountered by the characters in a fictitious universe.
Take Klingons, for example. They're a staple of Star Trek lore, having been around since the original series. They're a huge part of Star Trek continuity for that reason alone. You couldn't really write a story in the Star Trek universe and assume that Klingons don't exist in that universe. You can leave them out of the story; you can choose not to mention them; but by and large, you have tacitly agreed to acknowledge that Klingons exist simply by writing a story based in the Star Trek universe. That is keeping with Star Trek's continuity.
Now, Klingons have changed throughout their tenure on Star Trek. A lot. Originally, they looked like humans with extra heavy makeup. Now they have ridged foreheads. Why is this? This is disruption of continuity, since it alters how we perceived and are now supposed to perceive Klingons, who once looked a certain way but now look another. Sure, there are real-world explanations for these changes; better prosthetics then what was available in the 60s, for example. But what's the in-universe, or in-story explanation? The issue becomes further complicated when you consider that several Klingon characters from the original series (and their actors!) appeared in the later shows with altered appearances from their past portrayals. How the heck do you explain that NOW?!
It's questions like these that cause wild amounts of fan speculation, headaches for show producers and editors, and present either brick walls or unique opportunities for writers.
It's also the reason for many of the caretakers of some mythologies to simply decide to start from scratch. Everything gets rebooted, conceptually, and the writers, editors, directors, producers, etc. don't have to worry about what occurred when in this character's life, or how it affects others or the universe in general. For example, Klingons have always been, as Scotty would say, "horny-headed heathens" in a newly-rebooted Star Trek universe (whether or not this actually happens has not been definitively determined by the movies, to my knowledge). The ground is swept clean of all but the basic structure of the mythology, and people are free to make more of their own new sandcastles, so to speak. For this reason, I refer to this as hitting the reset button.
By and large, I'm not a fan of hitting the reset button. I think it is lazy, sloppy, and cowardly in terms of the creative direction. However, when used very sparingly, and only when it's done well AND justified, the reset button can be a wonderful way to breathe new life into an existing mythology, franchise, or whatever you choose to call it.
In my next post, I'll write about what I consider a good instance of hitting the reset button, with the 2009 movie Star Trek as an example. After that, I'll talk about the "One More Day" storyline on Amazing Spider-Man from a few years ago, which I considered (and still consider) a bad instance of hitting the reset button. While I'm sure many others will have differing opinions, you'll hopefully have no doubt as to why the writing and plot structures of mythologies fascinate me by the time we're done.