Prequels take one of the most engaging and imaginative aspects of fandom—obsessing over the inconsequential details that give a fictional world its character and texture—and move it off of message boards and onto Hollywood back lots, turning it into something poisonous to the art of storytelling. Plot points become pedantic info dumps, drama is diminished by the audience's awareness of stories taking place in the future, and writers and filmmakers end up rehashing the flashiest superficial elements of their source material while draining of it of mystery and metaphor. Whether it's Prometheus, the Star Wars prequel trilogy, or DC Comics' thoroughly unnecessary line of miniseries filling in the back story of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's pointedly self-contained Watchmen graphic novel, the projects have the visual hallmarks but cast aside the tensions, themes, and tone that made the classic works resonate.
Prequels like Prometheus make the mistake of assuming that knowing could ever be as exciting and psychologically powerful as not knowing. The xenomorph in particular is resonant because it is so very alien—we don't know exactly what it is or where it comes from, and its life cycle and physical form upends our expectation of safe, easily understood gender binaries. Its very existence calls into question the significance of mankind, which is at least part of the point of the first Alien film, which presented a lonely, melancholy vision of vulnerable humans traveling through a cold, indifferent universe. Even if the apparent engineers of humanity in Prometheus turn out to despise their creation, the film insists that humans are special after all.
Given that 33 years have passed since the release of Alien, it is understandable that Ridley Scott may want to say something very different in Prometheus. It's possible that his view of man's place in the universe has become slightly more optimistic. This is giving him the benefit of the doubt, though. In recent interviews, Scott speaks of his fascination with the space jockey, and his urge to unpack that idea seems more rooted in fannish enthusiasm than in the urge to express an idea. This is pretty much always the case in stories focused on expanding on throwaway bits of plot—whether it's a writer, a filmmaker, or a fanboy, the compulsion to explicate is entirely disconnected from an understanding of the poetic aspects of storytelling. It's all science, and no fiction. It's not hard to grasp why fans and creators alike would want to return to familiar fictional worlds—it's just fun, really—but this practice suggests that many geeks have absolutely no insight into the power of the fiction they love and would rather watch the film equivalent of an elaborate Wikipedia entry.
It seems that franchises get rebooted and that's the norm, not the problem. The problem isn't the reboots themselves, it's what they may signal. James Bond needed that reboot. So did Batman. Spiderman didn't. Transformers won't get a reboot even if it may need it or it may have just gotten a soft reboot.
Star Trek got rebooted and it may well have needed it. But the larger theme seems to be that Americans want their pop culture franchises like they may want their religion, with an open-ended canon that's never closed and is open to contemporary glosses and drastic reinterpretations, what comics fans would call retroactive continuity.
Given the history of the United States retroactive continuity was clearly necessary to correct the degrees to which the presumption of race-based slavery was built into the Constitution.
Last year I wrote about Noah Berlatsky's complaint that American sci-fi is not coming up with anything new.
Then I cross-referenced some of his other writing about trends in dystopian genre lit and suggested that the franchises Americans keep coming back to and rebooting were characteristically franchises that took hold of popular imagination during, broadly speaking, the Camelot and Reagan phases of American history, i.e. moments of peak self-satisfaction for Americans about the nature and scope of the American empire.
We keep coming back to those franchises, perhaps, not because we don't have any new ideas but because we don't want the empire/franchise moment to end. It doesn't even have to be Star Trek or Star Wars. Why do Buffy and Firefly keep going? Because there's an actual artistic "need" being met? No, because the fans don't want the franchises to end.
Some franchises can withstand the generational reboots. It's worked out for Bond and it worked out for Batman in the mid-aughts. Whether you loved or hated Nolan's Batman films, though, he gave the story an end point that explicitly repudiated the possibility of a continuation or a reboot. In the age of superhero films we have now, with the dozens of Marvel films on the front and back burners, Nolan choosing a concrete end that precludes franchise spin-offs may prove to be a real anomaly.
Now if there's a coherent, unified story line going somewhere rebooting or continuing a franchise in a new direction can be great. Observe the shift from Batman: the animated series through Superman: the animated series to Justice League and Justice League Unlimited. But then there's The Last Airbender series and the travesty of ret-con storytelling that was Legend of Korra (which I now refer to as Legend of Entitlement). If the guys who created those shows were as smart and daring as they seem to think they are they'd be Dwayne McDuffie. But they're not. I'll get back to the problems with Korra later. For now this is just playing with the idea that our franchise reboot obsession could be a sign that we don't want the sun to set on the American empire while in other lands other pop culture franchises could be said to have more directly engaged the reality of imperial decline.
But Doctor Who as an emblem of that probably deserves its own post.