“… something, something, complete!”

Viewers of various pop culture franchises seem to be getting more and more pissed off these days.

Some are pissed off at films or shows not telling their stories satisfactorily; some are annoyed at casting choices; some are irked by how characters are written, or how much screen time is devoted to particular characters; some find their suspension of disbelief ruined by breaks in continuity; and others are frustrated by all these fans who won’t just sit back, get swept up and enjoy what they’re presented with, whatever its quality.

I just don’t have the energy to get worked up about things the way others do. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.

Sometimes I can sit back and enjoy a spectacle and not think too much about all the dumb shit that’s in it (whilst filming Star Wars, Mark Hamill worried that his hair suddenly became dry from one scene in a watery room to another immediately outside; Harrison Ford told him not to worry because “it ain’t that kind of movie” – and if audiences really were put off by the detail of his hair, then the film had much bigger problems). Having said that, if the plot relies too much on coincidences and contrivances or leaps of logic, and the show doesn’t have any redeeming features that allow me to overlook them, I’m going to write it off. I have little time for ponderous, pretentious, artsy bollocks; if you demand my attention it must be worth it.

If a film or show is part of a series, then I will expect a certain continuity or consistency; and anything relying on nostalgia must not trash the past to establish something new. An adaptation from pre-existing material can deviate as much as it wants from the source material as long as it entertains me. At time of writing Amazon’s Rings Of Power series has yet to be shown, but online fans of JRR Tolkein’s works have let it be known that they are very angry about almost every aspect of it they have gleaned from the trailer (especially casting, and depictions of established characters). I’m not as invested in that universe (I enjoyed the book The Hobbit but not its film trilogy, and I enjoyed the Lord Of The Rings film trilogy but not the books), so I’m just curious to see what they make of it. However, the Apple TV adaption of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation stories hasn’t told the stories I was hoping to see; I like the cast they’ve chosen and the production values are excellent, but I’m less keen on the loss of focus and perspective on the people of the titular ‘Foundation’, nor the relentlessly serious tone (Asimov’s characters relied on their wits and were more playful) and am ambivalent about watching any subsequent series.

I have to admit, I’m not sure I apply any of these principles of mine consistently. I like what Iike, and I can usually even give you reasons why (or why not). Sometimes, I’ll bore the living shit out of you with them, given half a chance.

If I’m not enjoying something I stop – in books, it was hard to unlearn the habit of finishing what I was reading, but after attempting things I thought I ‘should’ read a few times before finally admitting I wasn’t enjoying them (Le Morte D’Arthur; or Don Quixote), I finally accepted that it was okay to abandon a book. Maybe I’d try again another time, maybe I wouldn’t.

Same thing applies to films and TV shows.

You don’t get a gold star sticker, or brownie points, or any kind of reward for choosing to read or watch or listen to things you don’t like, when you don’t have to.

As a result, I find it harder and harder to understand reviewers and pop culture pundits on Youtube or Twitter who apparently torture themselves with things they don’t enjoy. Ultimately, they seem only to expend vast amounts of their personal time confirming their critical prejudices. Some declare that film and TV studios disrespect fans of various franchises, and their creations should be rejected (yet they still watch, and give their feedback); others will take part in epic, hours-long group chats (or solo series) deconstructing every single flaw with a film or TV show. Some of these can be very well thought-out and stand out as decent video essays or critical discussions on what makes good storytelling; some can be quite witty and entertaining.

But they still leave me wondering: do they enjoy hating the things they watch? I can understand it to a point: watching something that’s crap or offensive to my sensibilities energises me and I feel an odd compulsion to write about it. Maybe it gets it out of my system? But after that, I’m done. I rarely give something a second chance, and I try not to re-watch or continue things that displease me for whatever reason.

A recent exception I made was rewatching the entire James Bond film franchise, including the 1967 Casino Royale (my second ever viewing) and 1983’s Never Say Never Again. Some I watched for only the second time, such as Licence To Kill (1989), and the Daniel Craig films Casino Royale (2005), Quantum Of Solace (2007) and Spectre (2015), and for the first time ever, No Time To Die (2021). It was fun watching the series in order, seeing how it evolved with the times and went through its creative crises, but ultimately – as expected – the re-watch simply confirmed my existing opinions. I like the films I like, and there’s a damn good reason why I’d never seen some of them more than once until now.

Why did I do it? Partly boredom, partly curiosity, and partly a desire to complete my viewing of the franchise.

I suspect this might be behind the drive a lot of ‘hate-watchers’ have to keep going with things they don’t actually like.

Marvel

At the start of 2021 during the UK’s then-current Covid pandemic restrictions, I’d heard positive things about the Marvel TV show Wandavision. I had long known that all the films and shows were interconnected, and knowledge of some was required to understand the backstory of others, but I had no idea which of these were necessary to understand the new show. Despite not being much of a Marvel fan, I thought what the hell, maybe I could watch the whole lot to get up to speed in order to understand what the show was about.

I found the effort of watching all of this did not match the ‘reward’ of understanding the backstory to the show (read my single-sentence summaries here if you must).

The Marvel Cinematic Universe series is deliberately designed for completionists; each one ties into subsequent releases, as demonstrated by their end-credits scenes, mid-credits scenes, and post-credits scenes all advertising the next characters or installments to look forward to. I’ve noted before the reasoning of it, the logical commercial bludgeon that demands audiences watch everything that went before (more ticket sales) to understand what happens next.

And by flooding the market with a couple-dozen films (and shows) in less than a decade, Marvel successfully dominated social media conversations, taking advantage of people’s ‘fear of missing out‘ (which worked on me with Wandavision as a large proportion of my friends and others I follow kept going on about it in a way I couldn’t ignore).

I felt like I’d been suckered in. I should have known better: Marvel is not my thing. It never was. I should look out for the few bits I enjoy (maybe Thor 4, and Guardians Of The Galaxy 3) ignore all the rest (which I do!)

What about those pop culture franchises which are “my thing”?

Star Wars

The Star Wars franchise has had a fair share of forgettable content since the 1970s. The first film in 1977 was followed by the notoriously awful TV Christmas Special in 1978; and I would advise anyone curious to see how bad it is to let your curiosity remain where it is. You can’t even enjoy it on a “so bad it’s good” level; it’s simply relentlessly, grindingly boring and amateurish, like a cringeworthy school pantomime put on by the teachers.

After The Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi in the early 80s came the Droids and Ewoks cartoons on TV, along with two TV movies featuring the Ewok characters from Return Of The Jedi: the first, Caravan of Courage, was released theatrically in Europe (and boy what a disappointment it was when I was 7 years old), and the second, The Battle For Endor, trashed the events of the first film and had the little creatures now speaking English.

Safe to say that the franchise was pretty much moribund by the time the 1990s rolled around: a trilogy of films, two cartoons, and three abysmal TV specials. Fans who were still interested could read spin-off books and comics, feeding off their childhood nostalgia.

The prequel films weren’t perfect, but didn’t deserve the hysterical, tantrummy backlash they received from older fans (some of the more noxious comments originated in forums of website Ain’t It Cool News); yet they still kept coming back to finish watching the saga. They could just as easily have ignored the prequels and stuck with the original trilogy (which already told a complete and mostly coherent tale) if they wanted to preserve their nostalgic affection, but I can understand the need to keep going – maybe the next one would prove satisfying and redeem the trilogy in their eyes?

For completionists, whether fans or detractors, there were a number of niggles – contradictory details and inconsistencies – that may not have derailed the film saga, but still irked, or caused confusion (starting with the revelation that Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia were twins). The extent to which these got in the way of the audience’s viewing pleasure was very much dependent on the viewer.

Afterwards, the Clone Wars animated show (a successor to a 2D cartoon series released before the release of Revenge Of The Sith) provided a good variety of content that fleshed out the prequel story and provided well-written and satisfying character moments the films didn’t always provide; it was a far cry from the abysmal offerings of the 1980s.

Those who got into it enjoyed it; yet those who ignored it weren’t necessarily missing anything. The same could be said for the now vast collection of franchise books, games, and comics (the ‘expanded universe’). Completionists could be satisfied with their extensive knowledge of the stories and how they all linked together (or not); the rest of us could pick and choose what we wanted to see if it made us happy.

When Disney bought the franchise it declared the ‘expanded universe’ irrelevant to the ‘canon’ films and the Clone Wars TV show, which angered the completionists; I wasn’t so bothered, as that was how I’d regarded it anyway. I’d been picking and choosing my preferred Star Wars content since the 80s.

I regard the Disney trilogy as irrelevant to the original six-film saga; it is so chaotic and internally inconsistent regarding major story elements and characterisation that I’m not sure it even qualifies as a trilogy. I am happy to ignore it and never watch any of it ever again (nor the associated cartoons Resistance and Forces of Destiny).

As each film was released, I went along to see it hoping the next one would redeem the trilogy (if anything, it simply got worse). So I can sympathise to a certain degree with those fans who disliked the prequels but watched them anyway, even if I enjoyed them and they did not.

Where Disney has gone right is in the content that ‘fits’ with the original saga instead of trying to subvert it: Rogue One, the uninspired Solo, the Rebels and Bad Batch animations, and The Mandalorian. Where it has been more experimental – as in the Visions series of animations inspired by Star Wars’ style but otherwise utterly unconnected to the franchise generally – it has been able to escape the limitations of continuity and do something genuinely novel.

In more recent offerings, The Book Of Boba Fett felt misconceived and amounted to squandered potential (the team behind it are capable of much better); I am unlikely to rewatch it, other than a couple of episodes. Obi-Wan Kenobi is dividing audiences between those happy to go along with the story and characters, and those hate-watching it to confirm their critical prejudices (not all of which are unreasonable) and their suspicions about Disney’s intentions (not all of which are reasonable).

For me, Obi-Wan Kenobi is just yet another story which weakens the character: in Attack Of The Clones he lets a bounty hunter escape and is captured by the antagonist before being wounded in a duel; in Revenge Of The Sith he needs to be helped by Anakin in the opening space battle (and in neither film do we get to see a proper friendship between the two); in the Clone Wars show, he is often outwitted, or captured, or needing help from others, or beaten, or losing something or someone (such as his former love). His only two victories are defeating the villain Maul (twice), and defeating Anakin as the newly-anointed Darth Vader.

I’d preferred to have seen him surviving in exile by using his wits, but the story opens with him as an unpractised and befuddled hermit working on a production line and not socialising with anyone. At the halfway point in the series, I’m interested to see where they take him from here – it’s not the story I was expecting or hoping for, but I’m finding a lot to enjoy (despite certain niggles or moments of stupidity).

As far as the Star Wars franchise goes, I’m quite relaxed about being able to pick and choose what I see; its offerings have varied wildly in quality for over 45 years already, and it’s not the end of the world when Disney/Lucasfilm presents us with something that simply isn’t all that good (and gives one a greater appreciation for the stuff that genuinely is worth one’s time). If fans – the new completionists, perhaps – thoroughly enjoy every single one of them without question, then that doesn’t affect me in the slightest. The critics don’t affect me either, but I do wonder why they haven’t cottoned on to the fact that the franchise has never been perfect, except perhaps for a few months in the summer of 1977.

Star Trek

“Canon is only important to certain people because they have to cling to their knowledge of the minutiae. Open your mind! Be a ‘Star Trek’ fan and open your mind and say, ‘Where does Star Trek want to take me now’.”

Leonard Nimoy, Reuters, 5 May 2009

Star Trek is another franchise with a fractious and divided fandom. What makes ‘good’ Star Trek? And how should fans account for anything that doesn’t fit?

In its original run from 1966 to 2005, its episodic nature led to a number of inconsistencies and contrivances that had to be ignored. A random scattering of examples include:

  • ‘James R Kirk’ became ‘James T Kirk’;
  • the behind-the-scenes construction of a shuttlecraft came after an episode whose plot hinged on a transporter malfunction (fans reasonably asked why the crew couldn’t be rescued with shuttles even offscreen; after all the USS Enterprise filming model had a shuttle bay built into it);
  • the first feature film explained the new-look starship, but not the new-look Klingons (the difference was acknowledged in Deep Space Nine and explained in Enterprise);
  • The Next Generation crew found a cure for ageing that was never mentioned again;
  • an alien threat that was introduced in The Next Generation‘s first season and then completely forgotten;
  • and the Borg Collective had no interest in individuals, only civilisations – only to change in order to kidnap the captain (which can be excused on the grounds of making for good drama), and change again to introduce a ‘Borg Queen’ antagonist, an individual who can be outwitted (I’ve never been convinced of the merits of this idea).

The shows and films (and cartoon series) vary wildly in quality, sometimes contradicting the established background (how many Starfleet admirals turn out to be evil or antagonistic, despite the utopian setting?), but common threads and themes run throughout the franchise in its original form: it is idealistic and humanistic; it focuses on teamwork and problem-solving; when it’s about something (rather than monsters of the week or other science fiction tropes), it uses the science fiction setting to explore issues in society and culture (race, religion, prejudice, realising that enemies may not be evil, and examining whether one may be in the wrong).

The crew of each series is mixed and multinational and broke ground in different ways: it made a statement when the original pilot episode (completed in January 1965) had a female second-in-command; it made another statement by introducing Lieutenant Uhura, a black woman as a prominent bridge officer at a time of racial unrest in 1966; Geordi LaForge as a blind character; Commander Sisko as the first black lead, Jadzia Daz as a trans character, and Doctor Bashir as a character with middle-eastern origins; Captain Janeway as the first female lead.

Sometimes the series got a bit self-referential; some episodes were about the Star Trek universe rather than anything grander (the Klingon civil war in The Next Generation being the first example of this sort of serialisation). However, it also provided opportunities to provide a sense of cohesion by referring back to previous series: when original series character Scotty was brought back in The Next Generation they recreated part of the old 1960s-designed bridge; Deep Space Nine had its crew travel back to Captain Kirk’s time and incorporated the new cast (wearing 1960s-designed uniforms) into footage from the 1960s TV series; Voyager revisited Captain Sulu in the original series films era; and Enterprise used modern (2005) construction and effects to recreate an entire 1960s-designed starship and uniforms. These gave a strong sense of continuity throughout the franchise, and using modern technology to replicate the vintage look was well received.

Sadly, it was cancelled by a Star-Trek-hating executive, amid corporate legal and financial shenanigans. All the sets, props, models and costumes from the 1970s onwards were auctioned off and that was the end of that.

The rebooted film series in 2009 was set in an alternate reality (a very familiar trope in the franchise), which allowed the makers to take great liberties with what they did with stories, characters, and designs. The first was dumb fun, the second was offensively stupid, and the third merely forgettable. It’s hard to see a fourth ever being made. So much for the rebooted film series.

The rebooted films were set in an alternate reality that had split away from the ‘Prime’ timeline. According to studio publicity, this ‘Prime’ timeline was supposedly the one established by the 1966-2005 shows and films.

A new streaming show, Discovery, would be set in the ‘Prime’ timeline, a few years prior to Captain Kirk’s 1960s series. Unlike the shows up to 2005, nothing about Discovery‘s recreation of this setting resembled the 1960s in look, feel, design, tone, or characters. It was a grim, dark serial about a warmongering mutineer. Certain ‘minutiae’ (as Leonard Nimoy put it) made it extremely difficult, if not outright impossible, to equate the ‘Prime’ timeline with the pre-2005 franchise, which has gone on to include Picard (about a robotic version of the sad, elderly, retired hero of The Next Generation), Lower Decks (a frenetic, goofball comedy cartoon in the style of Rick and Morty), Prodigy (a children’s animation featuring Captain Janeway which I haven’t seen), and Strange New Worlds (a reboot based on the original pilot from 1965 which I haven’t seen but could be tempted by).

Ignoring the quality (or otherwise) of these shows, some franchise fans – the completionists of Star Trek – insist that the Prime timeline is exactly the same as the pre-2005 franchise, and you just need to use your imagination to overlook the innumerable differences, and rely on the same blind eye that needs to be used to overlook the inconsistencies that were around since the 1960s.

I cannot agree with this. You’d need to be blind in both eyes to overlook the differences between the two, not just surface impressions, but in the quality of the storytelling and the intent of the shows. ‘Prime’ has the stench of marketing bollocks all over it.

I would instead compare the differences between the ‘Prime’ and ‘pre-2005’ versions of the franchise with the differences between various versions of Sherlock Holmes, as portrayed by Basil Rathbone in the 1930s and 40s; Jeremy Brett in the 1980s and 90s; Robert Downey Jr in the 2009 and 2011 films; and Benedict Cumberbatch in the modern-day setting. These are clearly all different and distinct versions based on the same source material, but nobody would insist that it was exactly the same character throughout all these films and shows. I’m not much of a fan, but I enjoyed the Robert Downey Jr films. (Holmes incidentally, also featured in The Next Generation.)

Likewise, there is no need to insist the ‘Prime’ is the same as the older Star Trek franchise, any more than Never Say Never Again is connected to the other 007 films (despite -in both cases – sharing actors and behind-the-scenes folk). I don’t understand why completionists need to insist that it’s all the same, and all connected – not when alternate realities have been a feature of the franchise since its earliest days. If they enjoy it, good for them! But I have no need or desire to watch any of the ‘Prime’ shows, any more than I’d want to rewatch Voyager, or the 1970s animated series (for example).

I simply don’t trust the creators to make anything I would enjoy, let alone consider fitting of the brand (because that’s what pop culture has been reduced to in the 21st century: brand identities producing content for consumers, rather than something fresh, original, inspiring and challenging).

As for the fans and critics who keep throwing themselves at these new shows, hate-watching everything to tear it apart afterwards: this is a choice they’ve made. It’s not one I’d make.

Personally, I prefer to pick and choose what Star Trek I want to see from the 700 hours or so that came out in that 40-year window starting in the 1960s.

Sometimes, you just need to recognise when to back away from things. The likes of Doctor Who, or Harry Potter are not for me. I’m happy to let them pass me by. In the past, I learnt to abandon shows that stopped entertaining me: first the X-Files in the 1990s, then Lost, Game Of Thrones, and Outlander, and now the new iteration of Star Trek.

You don’t gain anything watching stuff you don’t like; but you don’t lose time by avoiding it.

The curse of feeling the need for completion

I suspect a lot of people have some deep need to see things through to completion, or to get to some final state that links and explains everything. News junkies want to know everything that’s going on in the world, but their desire will never be sated because there’s always something new happening, and so they pour their lives into newspapers and current affairs magazines, and 24-hour news channels, and leech the opinions of pundits in the hopes of being able to understand and explain it all. (They never will.)

In literature, we have to accept that sometimes our favourite authors will be unable to finish a book series we like (in my case, I must content myself with the existing Flashman novels by George Macdonald Fraser, and I suspect CS Forester intended to continue his Hornblower novels beyond the point where Rear-Admiral Hornblower and his wife navigate a storm in a creaky ship). As a case in point, GRR Martin is baffled at the online hate directed towards him for not finishing his Game Of Thrones series of books yet.

In some areas, like science, this desire to keep on finding things out and refine our knowledge of the world and how it works is actually a good thing – continual progress in this area is good in itself, and often produces side benefits too.

And then there’s life itself: our need to know what happens next could, on a personal level, explain the desire among many people to pretend our minds somehow survive after death and that we can keep watching friends, loved ones, and events on Earth forevermore.

But no. We’ve got limited time to exist, and life’s too short to spend your freedom on things that make you unhappy. What these things are vary according to taste; and as the old Latin maxim puts it:

In matters of taste, there can be no disputes.

(“De gustibus non est disputandum“)

(The title of this blog post comes from Family Guy‘s line about the Emperor in Star Wars nailing cool dialogue by saying “…something, something dark side, something, something complete!”
Funnily enough, anger, hate and suffering are all part of ‘the dark side’, so I figured there might be a link between being being a ‘franchise completionist’ and experiencing each of those things….)

3 responses to ““… something, something, complete!”

  1. Lots to chew there!
    Mostly agree. I think sometimes we watch things because others are raving about them, so if/when you don’t like it it’s more like you continue to see if it’s you that’s wrong, if that makes sense?
    Also, just the utter disappointment when you watch in disbelief as a favourite show is trashed – GoT, looking at you!

    • I’ve been mentally pre-writing this for a few months, and it seemed like a couple of blog post ideas were better presented as one!
      I think there’s a whole bunch of influences compelling us to watch things we simply aren’t keen on; I figured these would cover some of the major ones. 🙂

  2. Pingback: Space ships & laser beams & big ideas | Observaterry·

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