The Thing about Sequels

Mary Elizabeth Winstead in The Thing (2011) (c) Universal PicturesThis afternoon I saw The Thing, the confusingly-titled prequel to the 1982 sci-fi/horror classic The Thing. It’s a prequel, but it’s also sort-of a remake, in that the credits proclaim it to be based on the same short story (John W. Campbell’s ‘Who Goes There?’) and its plot goes through the same motions with a different set of characters.  It’s not exactly a bad film, but it adds nothing to the original.

Also in the news recently, a prequel comic to Watchmen is apparently in development, and there are rumours of a Doctor Who movie. I’ve seen some fans outraged about these things on social media. A Doctor Who movie would spoil the TV series! Watchmen doesn’t need a prequel!

My thoughts: it’s true that Watchmen doesn’t need a prequel, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that a prequel would be bad. Alien didn’t need a sequel, but most people regard Aliens as very good. Similarly the Doctor Who TV series doesn’t need a spin-off movie, but the movie might turn out to be great.

Of course it’s possible that the Watchmen prequel and the Who movie will be awful. (Very likely in the case of the Watchmen prequel, but I’m hesitantly optimistic about the Who movie). But so what? There are lots of awful comics and movies: why should people get outraged about these ones?

Because these spin-offs spoil the original work. And that’s where I can’t get my head around the outrage: because however awful the Watchmen prequel turns out to be, my copy of Watchmen will still be there on my bookshelf. Perhaps I approach things differently as a writer, but I don’t feel obliged to read a work in the light of spin-offs made later by different writers or production teams.

The author’s intentions at the time of writing aren’t the way to evaluate a work, of course. But neither is the idea that there is a fixed canon, one true history of a fictional world, and all sequels or spin-offs of the same work are windows into that world. To go back to the Alien universe, I don’t have to watch the end of Aliens with the start of Alien3 in the back of my mind. I can watch Star Trek: The Next Generation without caring that the events of the series would somehow be ‘undone’ by the 2009 movie. I can watch the first two seasons of Battlestar Galactica and pretend that it’s leading up to an ending that made some kind of sense. The writers didn’t have these later instalments in mind when they wrote the original works, so why should I think about them when watching them?

This isn’t about ignoring bits of canon that you don’t like: it’s about taking each work as a thing in itself, respecting it more rather than less because it’s not real, because it was created at a particular time by a particular person or set of people who had a partricular idea in their mind.

So, the prequel to The Thing added nothing to the original work, but it also took nothing away.

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2 Responses to The Thing about Sequels

  1. Kaitlin says:

    You’ve got a good point, although to some extent it can spoil the original work in that people believe the sequel or the spin off to be representative of the work as a whole when it most certainly is not.

    Or it could pull a starwars and ‘revise’ the original *rolls eyes*

    • John Ayliff says:

      Yeah, it can certainly have an effect on new viewers’ perceptions of a series. You just have to hope that if a work deserves to be famous, that fame will survive the attacks of poor sequels.

      And, yeah, Star Wars. That’s a case where I like to ignore the prequels even though they were by the same creator. I think it’s a much more harmful thing when someone puts out a revised version of a work that’s meant to replace the original. You can ignore a sequel if you want to, but if it’s hard to get hold of the original version of something, that’s a bigger problem.

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