Prequels: should we let the past die? A Star Wars and Star Trek case study

by Chris Casselman

Chris Casselman as a lightsaber wielding sith
Photo by Derek Cutting, FireMate

In Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Kylo Ren/Ben Solo said, “Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to.” It’s a pretty extreme take (Kylo Ren is a pretty extreme guy), but I’m sure there are some classic Star Wars fans who would be happy if Lucas had never made Episodes IIII in the first place and would “kill” them if they could. As a Star Wars fan myself, I do consider the prequel trilogy to be “not great”… There’s a lot to unpack about why that is, and I won’t get into all those reasons here; the internet is full of essays and videos condemning (and some exonerating) that series.

What I do want to examine is how being a prequel can affect a film or TV show, and the Star Wars prequel trilogy is a good jumping off point.

Anakin Skywalker, General Kenobi, Jedi Knights, the Clone Wars. Before the spring of 1999 these names were shrouded in mystery and sparked the imaginations of every Star Wars fan. For more than 15 years, fans had to fill in most of the blanks about the characters and events only hinted at in the original Star Wars trilogy. Episodes IVVI thrust us into the middle of a galaxy far, far away that felt lived in, felt like it had history; but, when the prequels were released… well, I’m not sure they were able to live up to what a lot of us had been imagining for over a decade. In my own mind, there is an alternate history where the nature of the Clone Wars is vastly different; and – in my own, biased opinion – it’s a better version (perhaps it’ll appear in a fanfic forum one day, perhaps not). The point is, there is a direct expectation of what we think we’re going to see in a prequel; and, when it fails to live up to our imagination (a tall order, to be sure), it can be a knock against it, no matter how good it may be otherwise.

Solo, the latest Star Wars offering (which is bombing in theaters as I write this), tells the tale of a young Han – and is another Star Wars prequel. There are several reasons why Solo isn’t raking in the credits like Lando on a hot streak at the Sabacc table, and being a prequel might not even be among them. For myself however, despite Han being one of my favourite Star Wars characters, I was completely apathetic to his “origin story”. I still saw the film on opening night because I’m a fan, but I knew there was no real jeopardy for three of the four lead characters since they appear in later films and I just didn’t see anything new. The film is less than a month old at time of writing, so I won’t spoil anything except to say I enjoyed it well enough, although I didn’t feel it told a story that was “necessary” to the Star Wars universe nor interesting enough on its own to really justify its existence. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I suspect some folks haven’t rushed out to the theatre because they just don’t care about what Han Solo did 10 years before the original trilogy (and 44 years before Force Awakens, the first film of the sequel trilogy). I’d have been much more interested in the further adventures of a main (or even side) character, rather than a checklist of how they got all their stuff. Sorry, Solo.

Before I move on from Star Wars, I’ll give a nod to Rogue One – one of my more favoured Star Wars films. While the MacGuffin of Rogue One (stealing the plans for Death Star) is a direct lead-in to Episode IV (spoiler: they steal the plans), the rest of the film is arguably not a prequel – it tells a separate story about a whole new cast of characters. “Known” characters from future episodes only really play cameo roles and what happens to the main cast is up in the air as their fates are not already laid out in other, existing stories. This frees the writers to tell a story not beholden to some other timeline and the writers exercise this liberty to the fullest, creating one of the more emotional tales in the Star Wars pantheon.

From Star Wars to Star Trek

Okay, now that I’ve discussed Star Wars, it’s time to address the Horta in the room… Star Trek. The latest two Star Trek TV series have been prequels, Enterprise and Discovery. Now I have to admit I haven’t watched Enterprise, although I’m sure I’ll get around to it one day. It’s been criticized for a number of reasons; but, when it was airing, I remember not watching because I just wasn’t interested, not because of anything I’d heard. I didn’t care about it. I didn’t want to “go back”; it wasn’t answering questions I’d ever asked. After years invested in TNG, DS:9 and Voyager I wanted to see what was next. There was a rich continuity in the Star Trek universe that had been constructed by close to 15 years of continuous television. Going back in time really didn’t make sense to me, especially in a show about boldly going. Looking at it now, of course there are stories in that time period worth telling, but they weren’t stories I cared to hear. I wasn’t sold and I didn’t watch.

In 2009, J.J. Abrams rebooted the Star Trek series for his films. Although these films look like prequels on the surface, they aren’t. The ‘Prime’ timeline was effectively erased after a little Romulan Temporal Incursion that reset everything we know would have come after Kirk’s birth. This raised the stakes for these Trek films as the young characters’ fates were unknown and the writers were free to tell new tales (although presumably still protected by plot armour).

Enter Star Trek Discovery – yet another prequel. Arguably it’s a sequel to Enterprise, but let’s be honest and call it what it is: a prequel to ToS. I must say after the initial disappointment of hearing where Discovery fits in the timeline and the shock of how it looks, I loved the first season. I had to make peace with the fact that everything looks shiny and new (the Star Wars prequels got away with this by saying everything looked run-down in the classic trilogy because the formation Empire had created a galactic economic recession and the prequels took place in an era of prosperity – I’ll buy that). Discovery has a lot of explaining to do, especially considering the final scene of the last episode (I won’t say more in case you’ve yet to catch up). The Discovery writers have gone on record several times stating that it will all make sense… I’ll be honest; my desire for good Star Trek is almost enough to make me not care if it makes sense or not! But I digress. Why Discovery, a prequel, succeeded for me was because it’s telling a fresh and compelling story that hasn’t hitched its wagon to existing plotlines that we already know the outcome of. I think the show has found a nice balance of referencing what we already know, providing some cameos and a fair amount of fan service, while still delivering a setting and characters that are telling their own stories.

I’m not sure what’s in store for season 2, but I can’t help but feel like with a few tweaks season 1 could still have succeeded in a post-Voyager timeline, with its super-modern look and feel fitting right in. Either way I’m excited to see what comes next and I hope Discovery doesn’t fall into a prequel-trap like Star Wars Episodes I-III, staying fresh and interesting like Rogue One. Only time will tell if the past is worth bringing to life, or if like Kylo Ren intones, it should be left to die.

What about the present and future in the Star Wars and Star Trek universes?

When it comes to Star Wars, Disney has every time period covered, but what about the post-Voyager Star Trek universe? We’ve already seen that, in Star Trek, multiple timelines can co-exist alongside each other, so is it possible another series could still pick up where Voyager left off? Maybe, but there are no plans in the works right now. For the foreseeable future, the only way to see what happens after Voyager is to play Star Trek: Online, a role-playing game which takes place 30 years after Voyager and boasts the voices of almost 25 Star Trek cast members from across all of Star Trek… but that’s a whole other kind of time-investment.

From Star Wars to Star Trek, prequels to sequels, every fandom lover craves new (great) stories set in their favourite universes. The Dandies combine those great stories with humour in our fandom improv. Come check out our monthly Star Trek show, Holodeck Follies or any of our other fandom improv offerings at your favourite conventions! In the meantime, fill your Star Trek comedy craving with this essay on humans created by Holodeck Follies’ favourite captain – Rehoho Xerc!