Prequels have a well-deserved reputation for being bad, to the point that even devoted fans will often groan when they hear that their favorite story is getting a prequel installment. More often than not, prequels answer questions no one was asking, completely muck up the timeline, or are just boring. Even when a prequel is good, there are usually little things that feel off. Sure, it’s not technically a retcon that Leia went on a thrilling adventure with Obi-Wan when she was ten. Nothing in the original trilogy outright says they didn’t do that! But we all know that wasn’t the implication.
This pattern isn’t random chance. Prequels are an especially challenging type of story to write, and many authors simply aren’t prepared for the extra difficulties. On the bright side, the reasons for this are easily condensed into a single list, so at least we know what we’re dealing with.
1. Fates Are Predetermined
Any time you use a recognizable person, place, or thing* in a prequel, your options are immediately restricted. This is most obvious with characters. We know nothing too bad can happen to Moiraine or Lan in the Wheel of Time prequel novel New Spring, because they need to be alive and in possession of all their limbs when Eye of the World starts.
The same dynamic applies to important factions, items, towns – almost anything. Anakin’s lightsaber can’t be lost in the prequel trilogy; Luke needs to get it in A New Hope.* We know Earth won’t be destroyed by the Xindi in Enterprise’s third season, because then the TNG characters would have nowhere to get sage advice from Boothby the plain-talking gardener!
If something happens that does appear to break the established timeline, that both confuses the audience and raises the specter of a contrived plot device to cover everything up. The later Star Trek shows can’t have Discovery‘s spore drive hanging around. It would ruin the entire plot of Voyager, since they could just use it to jump home. Likewise, it goes beyond any suspension of disbelief that Spock has had a super-famous sister this whole time and she was never mentioned.
To explain all that, Discovery’s writers send half the cast to the future at the end of season two, then gather everyone else in a room and make them pinky swear not to mention anything that contradicts the timeline. Suuuuuure.
This obviously reduces tension. If we know things are going to turn out okay, we won’t have any reason to worry about the outcome. The ending is unavoidably spoiled as a function of being a prequel. Less obviously, this also reduces satisfaction. Audiences like to be surprised at a story’s end, and there’s only so much surprise a prequel can deliver.
2. Character Arcs Are Redundant
Some of the most compelling characters are those who go through major changes by the story’s end. They gain wisdom, confidence, or a better moral compass, and we love them for it. Such arcs are often what makes a character compelling enough to tempt authors into writing a prequel about them in the first place.
That’s when the trap is sprung: audiences almost always love the version of a character that exists after the arc’s development, not before.* Any prequel will be about a version of the character that people don’t like as much. Depending on the character, they may not even make a good protagonist.
This is a core problem with the film Solo. In A New Hope, Han goes from a selfish jerk to someone who actually cares about his friends and the rebellion. Solo takes place before that arc, so the writers had three options, none of them good.
- Han could have just been a selfish jerk the whole movie, which would make him pretty hard to cheer for.
- His arc could have been about becoming a selfish jerk, so by the end, he’s ready for his New Hope arc. That might work, but it would be a real downer by Star Wars standards.
- He could just be the nicer Han already. This is the one they actually chose. By the end of Solo, Han is giving away his valuable cargo to the rebels, so I guess he won’t have anything to learn when he meets up with Luke and the droids.
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds (SNW) has the same problem with Spock. While it’s not always consistent, Spock’s character arcs have pretty much always been focused around his emotions, but SNW supposedly takes place before all that. Logically, this version of Spock should be even colder and less personable than his Original Series counterpart.* Instead, SNW’s Spock has even more emotional development than other versions we’ve seen, including a full-fledged love life.
It’s obvious why the writers made that choice: a completely emotionless Spock would be incredibly boring! That’s the contradiction of prequels that focus on younger versions of existing characters.
3. Setting Elements Are Missing
For many stories, cool worldbuilding elements like advanced tech or powerful magic are a big part of the appeal. Special elemental techniques like metalbending and bloodbending are big crowd-pleasers for fans of Avatar: The Last Airbender, and what Star Wars story would be complete without Force ghosts? Fans will definitely want to see those in any prequel story.
Except that can’t happen, as all of those things are quite recent inventions. Toph figures out metalbending at the end of season two, and the characters don’t even encounter bloodbending until season three. Meanwhile, Revenge of the Sith establishes that a deceased Qui-Gon Jinn has just figured out how to project his image from the great beyond.* Any story taking place before those time periods either can’t have the setting elements in question or needs some kind of explanation for why no one will know about them later. Any such explanation is likely to be contrived.
When storytellers act like this problem doesn’t exist, it invariably creates dissonance. One of Star Trek’s setting conceits is that all the Federation’s technology has advanced over the decades, and if you go back much further than Star Trek: The Original Series, you lose stuff like viewscreens, shields, phasers, and transporters.
Naturally, when it was time to make Enterprise, the writers weren’t interested in losing those important Star Trek staples, so Archer and his crew still have all of them. Mostly. Instead of raising shields, they “polarize the hull plating,” which is so identical that I’m fairly sure they just ran a find-and-replace on the script. They even talk about the hull plating being “offline,” which isn’t usually how one talks about armor, but what do I know?
At this point, it’s hard to see what the benefit was to making Enterprise a prequel at all, since barely anything is different. It’s the choice between a rock and a hard place, with bad results either way. The first option risks cutting out exactly what people like most about a setting, while the second makes the world feel static and unchanging.
4. Plots Are Constrained by Backstory
As a story goes on, writers usually add twists and turns to keep things interesting, often changing their plans over time. This can create some inconsistencies in the backstory, but it isn’t normally a huge problem. The audience’s attention is on the present, and they often won’t notice the mistakes as long as nothing draws attention to them.
You know what draws attention to backstory inconsistencies like nothing else? A prequel story! This is one of the reasons that fixing the Star Wars prequels is so difficult: No matter what you do, they have to end with everyone in their starting positions for New Hope. That’s really difficult to explain, especially after Vader’s “I am your father” reveal. If they were trying to hide Luke, why would they leave him with his only living relatives, without even changing his name? Surely the Empire would have checked there at some point, even if they weren’t specifically looking for Luke. For that matter, why is Yoda camped out on Dagobah instead of helping the rebellion? And if the Jedi are so powerful, how did just two Sith defeat a whole organization of them?
Star Wars is hardly the only franchise with this problem. Star Trek makes a big deal about how before the episode Balance of Terror, no one in the Federation knew what a Romulan looked like despite fighting a brutal war with them. This is so we can have the big reveal that Romulans look like Vulcans, and it works okay in the moment, but falls apart under scrutiny. How could the Federation* have waged an entire war without ever learning what Romulans looked like? Did they never search the wreckage of enemy ships or ask neutral species for information?
Despite those issues, both Enterprise and Strange New Worlds have felt obligated to adhere to the established backstory. SNW’s writers handwave it, which is probably the best course open to them, but it still feels unlikely. Enterprise goes the other way, concocting a complex plot involving a drone ship piloted by a captured Andorian telepath.* This does technically explain why Starfleet wouldn’t have found any Romulan bodies, but not why they couldn’t have gotten the same information by starting a group chat with nearby species. It’s also extremely contrived, like the Romulans are basing their tactics on what will best line up with the canon rather than what will make them win.
This is assuming there’s even enough dramatic potential to support a satisfying plot. We were probably lucky that Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance got canceled when it did, because the only ending that could have matched the preexisting canon would be all the Gelfling getting wiped out, which is a much sadder ending than the show wanted. Sometimes, the backstory just doesn’t make good story material because that isn’t what it was designed to do! If that’s where the most interesting story was, the writers would have started there in the first place.
5. Canon Is a Major Draw
The flippant solution to the first four problems is to just not care about any inconsistencies and forge ahead regardless. Fiction is all made up, and there aren’t any canon police coming to arrest us, so who cares? Just change anything you want, and damn the plot holes!
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Consistency between different installments is a big part of what draws people to continuous stories in the first place. This is why the Marvel Cinematic Universe is generally better regarded than the Star Wars sequel trilogy. The MCU certainly has inconsistencies, but nothing like the world-shattering dissonance that runs between JJ Abrams’s and Rian Johnson’s Star Wars films.
Intentionally changing canon is always a cost-benefit analysis. Sometimes, the benefit is obviously worth the cost. Just about every Star Trek show and movie made after 1969 has chosen to ignore the Original Series dialogue about how women aren’t allowed to be captains, and rightly so. This retcon might cause a little confusion, but that’s a small price to pay for a setting that isn’t overtly hostile to women.
In other cases, the benefit is obviously not worth its cost. Retconning Obi-Wan’s teacher from Yoda to Qui-Gon Jinn netted The Phantom Menace exactly zero benefit, as you could cut Qui-Gon from the film and barely have to change anything else. But most of the time, the results won’t be so obvious, and retcons have to be decided on a case-by-case basis.
The problem with prequels is that they have to make this choice at nearly every turn. The only way to avoid it is to set the prequel in an unexplored section of the backstory so the author has more freedom, which is what Amazon appears to be doing with its Lord of the Rings TV show. But that means there are fewer elements with existing attachment to draw audiences in, which is half the point of writing a prequel in the first place!
Likewise, audiences can get annoyed when it feels like a prequel is trying to have things both ways: counting on everyone to already be familiar with established canon while also changing it on a whim.* Strange New Worlds really hopes you know who Sybok is; otherwise, one of its big name drops won’t mean anything. It also has Spock and T’Pring in a loving relationship, despite that clearly not being the case in the Original Series. Is this an intentional retcon, or is there going to be some contorted reasoning for why they have to pretend to barely know each other later? It’s impossible to know for sure, but it’s irritating either way.
It is, of course, still possible for a prequel to be good despite all the issues I’ve outlined. Obi-Wan Kenobi and Strange New Worlds are both excellent shows, some of the best content their respective franchises have seen in years. But prequels will always be an uphill battle compared to writing a sequel or a brand-new story, and it’s important for writers to understand what they’re signing up for. Maybe that way, we’ll have fewer stories that obsess over younger versions of beloved characters when no one is really interested.
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