Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Hitting the Reset Button on Continuity, part II: When It's Done Right

I said in my last post on this topic that, by and large, I'm against the idea of hitting the reset button on the established continuity of a mythology, franchise or property.  This was mostly on the grounds that I considered it lazy writing, if not more than a bit cowardly.

As a fanboy and as a writer, I consider this a very large-scale violation of the mythology's verisimilitude--the appearance of reality within the framework of the mythology--that should be used only occasionally, if ever.  Otherwise, you're basically throwing it in the fans'/readers'/viewers' faces that, "HA! This isn't reality! We can do whatever we want, whenever we want!"  I know most of us are aware that this is all fiction, but to take that kind of action and stance runs the very real risk of alienating your audience, since you may be stripping out parts of continuity that are meaningful to them, on an apparent whim.

But that doesn't mean the reset button is never necessary, or that it can't be done well.  It apparently just doesn't happen very often.

One shining example of timely, justified, and well-done use of the reset button is the 2009 reboot movie Star Trek, in which audiences are sent to an alternate reality of the established Star Trek timeline.  The original seven characters are there, but with distinctly different looks, pasts, and interpretations.  Vulcan, one of the founding members of the United Federation of Planets, is attacked and destroyed by the film's villain.  Kirk and Spock, famous friends in the original series, are hostile rivals for the bulk of the plot.  So many fundamentals from the old continuity have been changed that there was no way it could not be noticed.

And yet, it all worked.  The movie received rave reviews by fans and critics alike, made a ton of money at the box office, and maintains the highest score of all the Star Trek films on movie review site Rotten Tomatoes.  Why did it do so well?

I have several opinions about why this use of the reset button worked:
  • The Reset Happened Organically.  Well, as organically as you can possibly get in a sci-fi franchise utilizing a time travel subplot.  The point is, the reset didn't happen just for the sake of happening; it was a vital element of the story told in the movie.  I think this paid off handsomely for the producers, as it felt natural to mass audiences, critics, and fans alike.  There's nothing worse than feeling like you've been taken for a lame ride on a movie you just paid full price to see, and if audiences had felt that way, it would have been reflected in the sharp drop off of ticket sales after the film's premiere weekend.  
  • The Reset Was Acknowledged and Explained.   This reset, caused by Spock and Nero being pulled into the past by a rift designed to counteract a supernova, was as much of a plot device as it was a reset.  It deserved explanation, and audiences got it.  From Commander Spock's speech to the crew on the bridge about the timeline altering their destinies, to Ambassador Spock's explanation to Kirk about his encounter with Nero, we were given a clear account of how this happened, and why.  That's treating your audience respectfully, something fans especially appreciate.
  • Nods Were Given to the Original Continuity.  From Chekhov's problem distinguishing between v's and w's to Sulu's fascination with swordplay, anyone familiar with the old Star Trek saw something of their old crew in this new bunch.  That did a lot to help bridge the gap and keep fans happy
  • The Reset Did Not Destroy the Original Continuity!  Now, that's a Christmas present!  Anyone who doesn't like this new interpretation of Star Trek doesn't have to stick around or acknowledge it!  The old timeline has actually been maintained!  This is just the reality that the original Spock has caused, and is now living in and observing.  There's no indication that the realities of TOS, TNG, DS9, or VOY have been messed with!  Though I wouldn't have been sad if they could've erased VOY or ENT.  But that's just me...
There are other reasons, but these are the four that immediately come to mind.  They helped make for a good justification of the reset button, which in turn made for a tremendously enjoyable movie, one that remains one of my favorite Star Treks, as well as one of my very favorites overall.

The reset button is not intrinsically a bad thing, but it needs to be handled appropriately by a skilled creator.  When things go bad, fans can feel hurt, insulted, and alienated by the creators.  I'll be discussing an instance of a reset that made me feel this way in my next post, involving one of my favorite mythologies, that of Spider-Man.  Until then, feel free to share your thoughts!

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