Commentary

Four Problems With Multimedia Continuity

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Old Book and DVD by NTNU University Library

There’s a lot of words in that title, so let’s parse some of this down. ‘Multimedia’ here refers to stories that are large enough to exist across multiple platforms, such as film, television, books, comics, video games, and so on. Star Wars, Mass Effect, and Lord of the Rings are all examples. ‘Continuity’ means only that these stories are all supposed to take place in the same universe. This is often referred to as ‘canon.’ The original three Star Wars films clearly have continuity with each other. You are expected to have watched The Empire Strikes Back before you watch Return of the Jedi. You are not expected to watch my Jawa/Tusken Raider romance fan film.

Once fiction franchises reach a certain size, they almost invariably branch out into other media because there’s money to be made. Often, this happens sooner rather than later. The first Star Trek short stories were published in 1967, two years before the TV series ended. Believe it not, and I certainly didn’t, Star Wars was actually released as a novel before the film first came out. Of course, for a long time these extras were considered to be just that, extras. They had no real bearing on the film, TV series, or whatever work had first spawned them, in the same way that True Blood is only vaguely related to the Southern Vampire Mysteries.

Recently, that has started to change. Arguments over what is ‘canon’ rage across the Internet, and we nerds practically come to blows over the life or death status of Boba Fett. There’s a lot of talk now about how all these different works should be connected into a greater whole of epic storytelling. That’s a terrible idea, and I’ll tell you why.

1. Everyone Has to Do Homework

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Storytellers, whatever medium they work in, have always struggled with the question of how much previous work they can assume their readers have experienced. If you’ve ever wondered why Picard and company hardly ever talk about any of the other planets they’ve been to, it’s because the writers couldn’t be sure you’d seen any of the previous episodes where those planets appeared. Filmmakers are constantly trying to strike a balance between continuing the story of the previous movie and also making sure that new viewers don’t get too confused. Even novelists struggle with this to a certain degree.

With the rise of home video and the Internet, telling serial stories across TV and film has gotten easier, but it can still be problematic. Try watching Battlestar Galactica and missing even a single episode. It will not go well. There’s key information you won’t have. The same thing will happen if you try to skip directly from Mass Effect to Mass Effect 3.

Now, imagine that important information is in a completely different form than the rest of the story you’re trying to enjoy, like a comic book you’re expected to read before you see a film. That can be a huge problem for multimedia franchises, and it isn’t hypothetical. For the 2009 Star Trek film, one of the major complaints was that Nero, the villain, had an incomplete motivation. The movie told us that he was upset at Future Spock because the wrinkly old Vulcan had failed to save Nero’s planet in the future. What it didn’t tell us was how that anger extended into a desire to destroy the planet Vulcan, much less Earth, which are Nero’s main goals throughout the film.

Anyone who wanted to know why Nero was doing what he was doing had to read the Countdown comics, published by IDW before the film was released. They explain that, in the future, Romulus was destroyed because Vulcan and Earth intentionally held back the super secret ‘red matter’ needed to save it. Well, that explains a lot! Too bad the filmmakers didn’t think it was important enough to actually put in the movie.

Something similar happened in the game Mass Effect 3, when a new villain by the name of Kai Leng was introduced. You could tell he was super cool because he used a sword and wore sunglasses regardless of the time of day. Also, because the other characters in the game would not shut up about him, like he was someone I was already supposed to recognize and be properly awed by, even though he doesn’t really do all that much as far as I could tell.

As you may have guessed, Kai Leng was introduced in the Mass Effect tie-in novels. Perhaps if I had read them, I would have understood why everyone else seemed ready to drop their weapons and beg for mercy. As it was, I was just really annoyed that the game acted like I was supposed to know who this man was.

While it is reasonable to assume that your audience has experienced the previous iteration of a series, be that a movie, TV series, or novel, it’s silly to expect that they’ll run out and buy a completely different type of media just to know what’s happening. Very often, they won’t even know the required bit of reading exists, or perhaps they just aren’t interested in it. I boot up Mass Effect because I want to play a video game. If I wanted to read a novel, I’d go do that.

2. Tie-Ins Mean Nothing

Shadows_of_the_empire_bookcoverLet’s say you’re really into a franchise to the point where you do want to go out and experience all the tie-in fiction. This hypothetical you is also a huge Star Trek fan, and has read all the comic books published between Star Trek (2009) and Star Trek: Into Darkness (referred to hereafter as STID), so you are completely on top of what has been going on in JJ Abrams’ rebooted universe. Or maybe it’s an alternate timeline universe, we’re not sure.

The problem is that when you actually go to see STID, nothing you read is referenced or even relevant to what happens in the film beyond perhaps a throwaway line. This is effectively what happened with the Countdown To Darkness comics. Perhaps having learned from the first film’s problems, STID’s creative team made sure there was no vital information contained in the comic this time. Unfortunately, that made some people who read it to feel like they’d just wasted their time.

A similar feeling might be experienced by someone who had just read Shadows of the Empire, and then went to watch Return of the Jedi. They might wonder why none of the characters seem sad where their comrade in arms, Dash Rendar, had only recently been killed in a fiery explosion. The answer of course is that Shadows of the Empire was released thirteen years after Return of the Jedi, and even if it had been concurrent, the films had to be independent of any secondary fiction the audience might not have experienced. That would be assigning the viewers homework, and not a smart move for someone trying to make money on a film.

One piece of tie-in Star Wars fiction that was released at the same time as its related films was the novel Rogue Planet, meant to take place between Episodes I and II. It tells the story of how a young Anakin falls in love with a living ship, which is then tragically destroyed. There are actually a number of books set in that time period, but that’s the one I made the mistake of reading as a child. While the book isn’t terribly well written, it’s still pretty poignant when the ship uses its last reserves of power to get Anakin and Obi-Wan to safety, then dies. Watching Attack of the Clones, I could only wonder, “wait, after all that, he’s still pining after Padme? Did any of that stuff even happen?” Of course, the film is hardly a quality work in its own right, but the point stands.

This is a real damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation. Making tie-in fiction that’s too important to the primary work annoys the part of the audience that hasn’t experienced said tie-in fiction, and making it not important at all diminishes the experience of those who have.

3. Consistency is Impossible

kirkspockContinuity is a difficult thing to maintain across a long series, and eventually inconsistencies are going to crop up. Artists are only human, after all. Unfortunately, keeping a story that spans several different media platforms consistent is an all but impossible job.

During an early scene in STID, Kirk argues with Admiral Pike. The young captain insists that he’s never lost a crew member since taking command of the Enterprise. Anyone who read the comics that Robert Orci said were canon had to raise an eyebrow, because men and women under Kirk’s command die in almost all of them. Quite a goof.

Frankly, it was unrealistic to expect that the movies would be consistent with the myriad of tie-in materials. Film makers are busy people, and they likely don’t have time to go through every book, comic, and video game to make sure the film matches up with all of them. It’s hard enough to keep films consistent with each other. There’s also the fact that even if someone did raise the concern that Kirk’s line was going to contradict a comic, they would have probably kept it in anyway, because the film’s quality is more important than consistency.

That’s the undeniable truth at the heart of this idea, and it’s part of why declaring tie-in material ‘canon’ as Orci did is just kind of silly. We all know on some level that the primary material will come first. It has to. Since the idea of ‘canon’ essentially boils down to whether a work is part of the greater continuity or not, it’s also implicit that tie-in fiction is almost by its very nature ‘non-canon.’ That doesn’t mean it’s bad by any means, just that it isn’t binding to the rest of the franchise.

4. It Limits What Stories Can Be Told

HeirToTheEmpirePeople often hold up the Thrawn Trilogy as being the best stories from the Star Wars Expanded Universe (EU), and with good reason. The books have a beautifully nuanced villain – something of a rarity in the black and white universe of Star Wars – which helps set them apart. They are also truly epic in scale, involving warfare spread out across an entire galaxy.

The only reason that story could be told was because it was set after Return of the Jedi, and there were no upcoming films to get in the way. Author Timothy Zhan had a free hand to do practically whatever he liked with the Star Wars universe. The Thrawn Trilogy could not have been done if the higher-ups had been planning a post Jedi film, because it would have changed the universe too much.

This is the case with a lot of novels in the Star Wars EU. The Yuuzhan Vong, love them or hate them, fall into this category especially. Because the Star Wars books have essentially gone off on their own, they’ve been able to tell stories that would be very difficult to do in a film because of the massive cost involved. The Star Trek novels are very similar. The political intrigue of recent publications leave the world created by Gene Roddenberry in a state unrecognizable to many Trekkies. These are stories that not even the most ambitious TV series would attempt.

The bottom line is that different mediums lend themselves better to different kinds of storytelling. Novels are able to handle much larger stories because they can cover vasts amounts of material and aren’t dependent on budget for their special effects. Films use visuals to engage an audience, and video games offer the player the unique ability to actually be part of the story.

When a franchise is obsessed with continuity, it forces all of the secondary fiction to tiptoe around, being very careful not to accidentally tell a story that might conflict with the primary work. It’s a shame to see that happen for the sake of ‘canon.’

Just recently, Disney announced that it was putting together a panel to decide once and for all what was ‘canon’ within the Star Wars universe and what wasn’t. Their goal is to create a single, unified whole from which all stories will flow. A lot of fans have been celebrating this news, but they should be worried instead. Not only not only does this mean we might never have another story like the Thrawn books, but there isn’t anything to be gained, other than the possibility of scrapping the prequel movies. It’s already fairly well understood that the EU takes a back seat to the films, and claiming that won’t be the case anymore once the committee has finished its deliberations is only raising false hopes.

Any work that this committee picks will not suddenly become any more ‘canon’ than it was before. The new Star Wars films are still going to be made with the assumption that the audience isn’t aware of the EU, assuming JJ Abrams has learned his lesson from his Star Trek experiences. In the end, if anything changes, it’ll be the EU – for the worse.

Want pointers on your story? We’re available for hire.

 

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