1. Fenring Is a Failed Chosen One: Dune
One of Dune’s major difficulties is finding a villain capable of challenging the chosen one white savior golden boy that is Paul Atriedies. That’s not a huge surprise, since Paul is the result of a centuries-long program to produce a superpowered magical boy. Early in the book, author Frank Herbert manages Paul’s power level by making him a young teenager, but by the end, he’s all grown up and nothing can stand in his way. Both the evil Harkonnens and the emperor’s elite Sardaukar soldiers are at most a minor inconvenience, and Herbert doesn’t have anyone else to throw at Paul.
Except that he does: the mysterious Count Fenring. Fenring is a mild-mannered noble from a minor house, and at first glance, he doesn’t seem like a threat to anyone. He’s self-deprecating, makes a big show of hemming and hawing over even minor questions, and generally acts like an unimportant courtier. But there’s clearly more to him than that. First, we learn that Fenring is a personal agent of the emperor, trusted with the most critical assignments. Then we see that even the dreaded Harkonnens are afraid of him, convinced he could kill them in an instant, though he never acts violent in any way.
This contrast on its own is enough to build up Fenring’s threat level. Not only do others think he’s a badass, but he has no need to brag or show any bravado over it. This also creates anticipation in the reader: What will it look like when Fenring finally cuts loose? Then we get the big reveal: Fenring is a product of the same program that produced Paul. Fenring doesn’t have quite the right combination of traits to be the chosen one, but he still has many of the associated powers.
This perfectly positions Fenring as the final boss for Paul. Not only is he the only character with the skills necessary to threaten Paul in combat, but his status as a failed chosen one would give their battle extra thematic weight. It would be the final proof that Paul is indeed the chosen one, destined to… do something kinda vague. Herbert is really unclear about what Paul is chosen for, exactly. But that’s an entirely different problem; today we’re talking about Paul facing down Fenring in an ultimate climactic showdown.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen. Instead, Fenring refuses to fight Paul, and that’s the last we hear of him. From what I can tell, he doesn’t return until much later in the Dune series, long after Frank Herbert had passed.* I’m honestly not clear on what the point of this sequence is. Maybe it’s supposed to be Fenring recognizing Paul as the true chosen one, but that would have been so much better if they’d had an actual confrontation first. And it’s not like Herbert didn’t want to use a fight as his climax. In the actual book, we end with Paul beating the daylights out of a Harkonnen heir who’s no match for him.
2. Starfleet and the Romulans Ally Against the Borg: The Next Generation
The Next Generation’s first season is bad, and its finale episode is bad too. You might remember this as the one where our heroes find some cryopods from 1980s America, thaw out the people inside, then spend the episode mocking them for not understanding how a post-scarcity techno utopia works. The only saving grace there is that Star Trek’s worldbuilding is so shoddy that when our heroes try to make the newly thawed time travelers look silly, it often backfires.*
Much more interesting is the episode’s B-plot:* Federation outposts along the Romulan border have been disappearing. When the Enterprise crew investigates, they discover that entire colonies have been scooped out of the ground, leaving only massive craters behind. Naturally, everyone suspects the Romulans but is surprised that the Romulans would have the technology to do something like this.
Near the episode’s end, our heroes finally meet the Romulans. But instead of fighting, the two sides exchange information.* It turns out that Romulan outposts have also vanished in exactly the same manner. How mysterious! Both sides agree to share information, and the Romulans fly off. This is the first time we see the Romulans in TNG, and though the episode isn’t good, it does introduce a really interesting idea. Maybe in this show, the Romulans will be uneasy allies instead of total enemies like they were in the original series.
In season two, we find out what happened to those outposts: they were destroyed by the Borg, TNG’s new big bad.* Sadly, the Romulans are nowhere to be found, not even when the Borg launch a nearly unstoppable assault on Earth. This seems like a natural point for the Romulans to intervene, since they’ll likely be next if the Federation falls, but I guess they aren’t interested. Maybe they were too busy drinking that Romulan ale that Star Trek characters are always talking about.
From what I can gather, this plotline was dropped due to a shakeup in TNG’s writing and management departments. The Borg would stick around, but they were softly retconned to an enemy that lived really far away and took years to reach, rather than being right next door as was originally implied. The new writers probably figured that the Borg plots had enough going on already, and they didn’t need the added complication of bringing Romulans into it.
That’s understandable, but it’s still a lost opportunity. Unlike its predecessor, TNG actually took steps toward building a coherent and connected world, something that would have been strengthened by other species taking an interest in the Borg. It’s always felt strange that a powerful, all-consuming enemy would come to the Alpha Quadrant and only be interested in the Federation. Plus, an uneasy alliance against the Borg would have made for interesting contrast with the episodes that feature Romulans as more traditional villains.
3. Dooku Turns on Sidious: Attack of the Clones
Speaking of things that are bad, I bring you Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. This film is a mess of barely related subplots, plus a political conflict where the Separatists want to leave the Republic for unclear reasons, and our heroes want to stop them, also for unclear reasons. The subplot we’re interested in is Obi-Wan chasing after Jango Fett, which eventually leads to Obi-Wan’s capture on Geonosis by forces loyal to this movie’s big bad, Count Dooku.
Even watching the film for the first time, it’s pretty obvious that Count Dooku is evil. For one thing, his title is “count,” the most evil of aristocratic ranks. Also, he just talks like a villain, insisting to Obi-Wan that he knows nothing about Jango Fett even though he’s clearly lying. But then, he tells Obi-Wan a secret: a powerful Sith lord named Darth Sidious is in control of the Republic, which is why Dooku is leading a movement of planets that want to secede.
For anyone who’s seen the previous Star Wars film, it’s pretty obvious that Darth Sidious and Chancellor Palpatine are the same person. Until now, the Jedi had no clue that there was a Sith in their midst, so this is really useful information. It’s also the first time that the prequels’ space politics are actually interesting. Sure, this Dooku guy is sinister, but if he’s opposing Palpatine, he can’t be all bad.
Then it turns out that Dooku is actually working directly with Palpatine, and no one mentions this scene again. In retrospect, it becomes one of the many nonsensical elements of Palpatine’s plan. The last thing he would want at that stage is for the Jedi to become suspicious that they might have an enemy in the senate. It’s honestly not clear if this is meant to be some five-dimensional chess move on Palpatine’s part, or if Lucas just got some of his plots mixed up. You never know – it could be both.
What makes this scene stand out against the prequel films’ general silliness is the untapped potential. If Dooku had actually been working against Sidious and legitimately trying to warn Obi-Wan, that would have been so much more interesting than what we actually got. Instead of another disposable Sith baddie, Dooku could have been a complex figure who started a terrible war because he thought it was the only way to prevent an even worse outcome. Granted, this would raise questions of why he couldn’t denounce Palpatine openly, but there are ways to solve that. Dooku might not have proof, and thus be unwilling to tip his hand. Even better, Palpatine might have other agents within the Jedi Order, explaining why Dooku never brought his suspicions there.
But now we’re getting into prequel rewrites territory, and that would take an entire post. Probably more than one post, if I’m honest. Instead, let’s spare a thought for the Dooku that could have been, rather than the Dooku we got.
4. Lizbeth Has Sisterly Drama: The Borden Dispatches
Cherie Priest’s 2014 novel Maplecroft is all about Lizbeth and Emma Borden. Specifically, it’s about their fight against the cosmic horrors that crawl out of the sea to infiltrate their town. The sisters have a strong bond at the start of the book, made stronger by how they support each other in their fight against the occult. Lizbeth and her axe provide the muscle, while Emma’s keen mind provides the brains.* The teamwork and shared hardship make their relationship easy to care about.
Naturally, Priest strains that relationship until it snaps. This starts with relatively mundane problems. Emma doesn’t like Lizbeth’s girlfriend, and Lizbeth doesn’t trust the doctor that Emma wants to recruit into their anti-Cthulhu operations. After that, Priest adds the stress of nearly being killed by unspeakable entities from the abyssal depths, which widens the sisters’ existing disagreements. Things come to a head when Lizbeth’s girlfriend is infected by occult forces. Lizbeth will do anything to help her, naturally, while Emma is worried about the infection spreading even further.
The novel’s ending is bittersweet. The cosmic horror is defeated, at least for now, but Emma decides she can’t live with Lizbeth anymore and moves out. This is a real blow after how close the sisters were at the beginning, and Lizbeth is left wondering if victory was worth the cost. On the bright side, it’s a strong hook for the next book. How will Emma and Lizbeth repair their relationship? What hardships will they face next?
There’s no answer because the next book takes place several decades later, long after Emma’s death. Apparently, the sisters never reconciled, something that doesn’t seem to bother Lizbeth as she spends her days looking after the town’s stray cats. But wait, it gets weirder. Not only does this second book not follow up on the major hook from last time, but it’s also barely about the Bordens at all. Most of the story takes place far south of Lizbeth’s home in New England, and she only connects with the actual plot toward the end.
This is a major problem for the sequel. Lizbeth is still around, so it seems like she should be important to the story, but she isn’t. It feels like a contractually obligated inclusion, rather than what Priest thought would be best for the story. The easiest way to fix this would be to cut Lizbeth from the story entirely, but another option would be to follow the hook from the end of book one. Instead of jumping thirty years into the future, the sequel could have picked up when Emma was still alive, giving us some closure on the sisters’ relationship. It would have taken some work to square this with the historical events that these stories are based on, but I suspect Priest would have been up to the task.
5. Cordelia Ascends to a Higher Plane: Angel
The spin-off of Buffy The Vampire Slayer focuses on two unlikely characters: the titular Angel and Cordelia Chase. These two barely interact in the original show, but that doesn’t stop them from moving to L.A. and running a private detective agency together. Then, due to the sudden exit of another character from the show, Cordelia winds up with magical visions from the Powers That Be, a mysterious group of at least partially benevolent beings. This works out well for Cordelia, since otherwise she probably wouldn’t have had the skills to contribute much to the group’s supernatural investigations.
Cut to the end of season three, and Cordelia starts to gain other abilities from the Powers That Be. This is still the Buffyverse, so what exactly she can do is pretty vague, but she’s at least powerful enough to cleanse demonic corruption from others, which certainly sounds useful. This is all a setup for Cordelia’s big moment: ascending to a higher plane and becoming one of the Powers That Be.
Sounds pretty cool, right? I guess the writers didn’t think so, because barely an episode later, Cordelia apparently decides that she’s done with this whole higher-being thing and wants to return to Earth. This leads to a truly bizarre storyline where Cordelia first gets amnesia, then gets possessed, then dies via a mystical pregnancy. It’s gross, and it’s also arguable how much of it is the character we recognize as Cordelia at all.
All of that happened because the show didn’t commit to its own storyline. To be fair, it’s possible that the writers were never interested in Cordelia becoming a higher power in the first place. There’s still a lot of speculation about what exactly was happening behind the scenes during that time. But that’s the story they chose, and doubling back on it was simply the wrong decision. It made Cordelia seem shallow for abandoning her new role so quickly, but more importantly, it robbed a season finale of satisfaction. If this storyline really was designed to account for the actress’s limited availability, as is often suggested, then it should have been about Cordelia going away to do magical research or something else that wouldn’t raise the expectations of a continuing story.
Actually committing to Cordelia as a higher power would have been challenging, but it also could have been a cool new direction for the show. We could have seen Cordelia grappling with the limits of her new role instead of just deciding she was bored, and it would have been a great excuse to explore more of those demonic realms the characters always talked about. I, for one, would have loved an arc where Cordelia teleports her friends across the dimensional boundaries to fight an evil god on its home turf. If that kind of story wasn’t in the budget, then that’s a great reason to have never started this storyline in the first place.
Starting a storyline is a commitment. You are making an implicit promise to your audience that this plot will go somewhere and have a satisfactory ending. There’s no legal penalty for breaking this contract, but it’s rude. Break too many promises, and your audience may move on to someone who hasn’t given them trust issues. So if you’re formulating a new storyline, take a second to consider whether you actually have room to follow through on it. If not, put it aside for later.
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