Friday, May 24, 2019

The Franchise Immortality Conundrum

"Let the past die. Kill it if you have to."

In the early 1970s, a young George Lucas started to develop a vague idea he had for a swashbuckling space-opera movie inspired by the Flash Gordon film serials from his childhood. One of the first things he did was try to purchase the rights to make a straight-up Flash Gordon movie. He failed, but later concluded it was for the best:

"I realized that Flash Gordon is like anything you do that's established," Lucas said. "That is, you start out being faithful to the original material, but eventually it gets in the way of the creativity . . . I decided at that point to do something more original." That "something more original", of course, was Star Wars, which went on to become the prototypical modern-day entertainment franchise.

All of this was on my mind the other day when I thought about Seth MacFarlane's The Orville, which recently got renewed for a third season. That show, of course, was inspired by Star Trek: The Next Generation, a lot like Star Wars was inspired by Flash Gordon. And here's a factoid that'll shock you: Star Trek: The Next Generation's first season is about as far in our past as those old Flash Gordon serials were for George Lucas in the early '70s. But The Orville inhabits a much more uncomfortable space, because the thing it's inspired by (Star Trek) never went away. There have been four TV spinoffs and nine movies since The Next Generation premiered. And four more TV spinoffs are in various stages of production as I write this.

For fans like me this is great. I love Star Trek, so I should be over the moon at the news that CBS is cranking up the Star Trek TV factory that's lain dormant since Rick Berman's reign over the franchise sputtered to an end in 2005. And I kind of am. I'm definitely excited about the Picard show that premieres later this year. But more and more I wonder if the the refusal of our comfortable old entertainment franchises to die naturally is choking out the creation of exciting new things.

The Flash Gordon serials of George Lucas's childhood inspired him to create something new. The science fiction writings of Heinlein, Asimov, and Bradbury that Gene Roddenberry consumed as a kid were a factor in his creation of Star Trek. But what about a creative person today who was inspired by Star Wars or Star Trek or Marvel comics or Transformers during their childhood 25 to 30 years ago? The best-case scenario for them is to go to work in the massive corporate entertainment factories that churn out newly-repackaged versions of those things, because studios won't buy anything new. Because it doesn't sell. Because all people seem to want is the comfortable stuff they've seen before served up to them over and over and over again like identical McDonald's hamburgers.

I realize that complaining that the entertainment industry functions like a business is about as silly as acting surprised that my city's sewers contain lots of excrement and no Ninja Turtles. I suppose our only hope is that sometime before the inevitable collapse of our increasingly-unsustainable civilization, a lot of entertainment franchises will collapse under their own weight and create fertile soil for something new.

Anyway, Happy Friday.