So you may have noticed that I haven’t been posting in a while. That’s because I was watching Battlestar Galactica. The ending of that show pissed me off so much that it made me want to revisit an argument that first occurred to me during my Portal 2 play about brands and narrative and their vulnerability. The things is that sequels and late content ruining originals is sadly a regular occurrence in narrative nowadays. To explain this, I offer a new metric for the interweb’s evaluation: The MCRS, or Midi-Chlorian Ruination Scale. And using it, I hope to explain why I’m skeptical of sequels and say a little something about how brands and narratives co-exist in a unique way in our culture. Details within – a lot actually, but skip to the end for the chart if you’re pressed for time.
So, playing Portal 2 got me thinking about brands and narrative and their vulnerability. If you read my early posts about Portal 2, you will remember that I was not enthusiastic about the game. I thought it would ruin Portal 1. It didn’t — it wasn’t anywhere near as good, but my 3-foot tall companion cube is still proudly on display in my office. (That’s not a joke by the way — there is in fact a 3 foot tall companion cube in my office.) But it raised an interesting question for me: Why did I think Portal 2 would make me turn on Portal? This is a fascinating question for me because I LOVED Portal. How could the sequel change my perspective on a near-perfect game?
The answer became clear to me when I watched the TV show Battlestar Galactica all the way through. I had never seen any of it before this viewing. I found Seasons 1 and 2 to be the best sci-fi television series I’ve ever watched. But Season 3 starts an up-and-down roller coaster of quality that crashes in the Season 3 ender. Season 4 begins with several of the worst episodes of the show. It then rises just high enough to make the final episode truly horrendous. It is the stupidest ending on television. I don’t want to spoil, but honestly, if you saw the final episode, you’ll know what I’m referring to. Were I reviewing it on this blog, I can’t count how many “FUCK YOU, SHOW” outbursts would have appeared.But what interested me was that the final episode didn’t just piss me off as a betrayal of my dedication to the show; it made me a little EMBARRASSED that I liked the earlier episodes. I got over it, but after you learn the stuff you learn (or don’t in some cases – FUCK YOU SHOW) in the final episode, you can’t look at the prior material the same way. The things that are revealed in the final episode make the first couple of seasons worse, because the truth of what was going on was in some cases very stupid, and knowing what I know now, it’s just not as cool. In other words, what the final episode added to the series CHANGED THE CORE STORY, and as a result, the earlier shows simply weren’t as good.
This is, sadly, a quite common thing in sequels, particularly in sci-fi and mystery. The brand establishes itself with a set of premises that the audience attaches to and enjoys. The audience gets an image of the narrative universe, and they like it. As the series continues, the audience looks for that vision to be reinforced, because that’s what makes the story awesome. And, after all, the narrative can’t be entirely told in the first entrants. There have to be some secrets and unresolved plots established in early episodes that aren’t immediately explained and are only revealed later. So a bad later instantiation of the universe (either in a sequel, a spin-off, or a late episode) can be a lot worse than a hiccup in the series. If there’s a misstep in the definition of an idea or the revelation of a secret, that ruins a part of the NARRATIVE UNIVERSE, and that means that all the instantiations of the universe, even the earlier ones, are ruined as well. If the answer to a mystery is dumb, that mystery is dumb, and that stupidity stretches back to every appearance in the past. So it’s possible for one bad call to poison the entire story line.
Maybe the best example of this are the later Star Wars movies. (I’m going to spoil here, but come on – everyone knows this, right?) Just think about how it changes the early movies to know that Darth Vader made C-3PO. How stupid are all the scenes that they are in a room together now? I could spend all day pointing out idiocies, but the single worst thing are the midi-chlorians. I’m sorry, the Force comes from bacteria?!? That’s just stupid. And not only is it stupid, it makes Jedi, some of the coolest warriors in all of science fiction, completely lame. Can you even WATCH the first three movies anymore? All I see when I look at Luke is a guy with a really rampant infection, and that’s not heroic or cool. It’s just embarrassing, and I would argue that thanks to midi-chlorians, so is admitting to liking Star Wars, anything of Star Wars, now that the later movies exist.
So explain this phenomenon, I offer a new scale of value: the Midi-Chlorian Ruination Scale, or the MCRS. The MCRS is a measure of how much a sequel or late episode has ruined a brand. It’s a function of three parameters: how bad the revelation in the later instantiation is, how central that bad revelation is to the narrative universe, and how much the series was loved. I like scales from 0 to 6, so I’m going to go with that, where 0 means that a sequel did no damage to the series and -6 means that the ruination was complete.
What follows are some proposed levels of MCRS. I’m using my judgment here, so comment away and I’ll add to and edit the list as we all decide. Let’s look at some scores:
A sequel has no effect on the perception of the original. It’s on largely the same quality or at least it doesn’t reveal anything terrible.
Examples: There are lots of examples of harmless later material. One sample is Star Trek. Episodes may not all shine, but nothing happens in any episode that negatively affects another, primarily due to lack of continuity.
Not a -1 Because: The series wasn’t really damaged at all.
The sequel contains something dumb, but it’s trivial enough that it doesn’t effect your view of the series as a whole. You can still wholeheartedly like the originals and continue to like the brand. Alternately, the mistake is par for the course for a mediocre series and is accepted as typical stupidity of that narrative.
Examples: Back to the Future and the whole McFly-can’t-pass-on-a-challenge thing. It wasn’t in the first movie, and it made no sense, but you could accept that it was dumb and keep going. I would argue that Mass Effect has a little of this in the beginning of the second installment. (Spoiler in white) The whole Shepard dying and being reborn thing at the start of Mass Effect 2 was pretty stupid, but it didn’t hurt how OSSIM the story was before and after that.
Not a 0 because: Something stupid actually happened in the narrative.
Not a -2 because: Your opinion of the series is unchanged. You can still think of the whole narrative universe in a positive way. The mistake is a hiccup.
The sequel contains something stupid that’s kind of important, but it isn’t so bad that the majority of the original series is tainted. Alternately, it’s quite bad, but the series is generally bad enough that it doesn’t really matter. It’s a recognized misstep, but you can keep watching the series after that.
Examples: Silent Hill. Silent Hill 2 is a masterwork of games, but there are BAD games in that series. The series as a whole can’t be called good, but nothing diminishes the brilliance of the best bits. Almost any long term superhero comic falls in this category.
Not a -1 because: You can’t ignore the fact that there are bad elements to the series when thinking of the series.
Not a -3 because: You still trust the creators to do good work in the future and stick with the series.
A later entry breaks the flow of the universe. The brand is effectively dead from that point on. Once the changes have been established, you can’t go any further, because it’s all become too lame. But this doesn’t ruin earlier instances — they can remain cool in isolation from later work. This can only be true of narratives of a modicum of quality.
Examples: Alien Resurrection, which killed the Aliensin series with its dumb quirkiness and terrible eroticism, but didn’t make Aliens any less cool. Twin Peaks hit this point in the episode after the revelation of the killer of Laura Palmer. The first steps to start a new plot were just too stupid to hold the audience.
Not a -2 because: You don’t trust the creators to do right in this series again. Nothing good is coming from this in the future.
Not a -4 because: You still like the earlier episode. The brand got bad because of later stuff, but the early stuff can still be great.
Later episodes of the narrative do something that runs so counter to the expectations of the audience that it offends and alienates them. This taints the core of the series, but the universe isn’t irrevocably broken. The audience can ignore the bad material by just focusing on the series before the bad material is introduced, but some of the love is gone forever. Since the series is damaged here, the extent of the damage has to be worse the less the series is loved. This is the worst score a truly bad brand can get.
Examples: Neon Genesis Evagelion, in which the awfulness of the final episode is a pure fuck you to the audience. If you just forget about the ending, the show remains cool, but the ending does break everything. Prince of Persia also falls into this category for me, as Warrior Within‘s terrible move into Heavy Metal style bad-assery ruined the beautiful spirit of Sands of Time, and the series never recovered.
Not a -3 because: The whole series is tainted. Even the early stuff looks slightly worse.
Not a -5 because: The brand isn’t ruined. You aren’t embarrassed about it. You just have a bad taste in your mouth.
The narrative is ruined in a later narrative such that the original is no longer cool. It is possible to respect the original property, but only by utterly ignoring the bad material and treating it like it doesn’t exist in a willful violation of the truth of the imaginary entertainment environment. Anger at the creators of the universe is very high. This is the worst score a mediocre brand can get.
Examples: Battlestar Galactica. The final episode just establishes such stupid things about the characters you care about that you can only like the earlier episodes if you pretend that the things you learn later about major characters (Spoilers in white: Starbuck is a ghost/angel thing, Earth was founded by the fleet, the fleet ends up in the sun, and the secrets of the universe are tied to Along the Watchtower) simply aren’t true. The Matrix also falls into this category for me, because once you see the human dance party, you have to work really hard to find the first movie cool.
Not a -4 because: You can’t ignore the damage. The brand has been genuinely poisoned.
Not a -6 because: The brand wasn’t awesome enough to start or wasn’t totally obliterated.
The worst ruination possible. The later content destroys the narrative such that the early work, which was widely loved, is no longer even passable in quality. The brand is completely and irreversibly destroyed. The whole universe, once adored by fans, is now stupid and/or lame. This score is reserved for only broadly loved brands or total destruction.
Examples: I can only think of two things that hit this high bar of utter failure. The first is the aforementioned Star Wars, where the second trilogy made maybe the most beloved modern mythology totally uncool. The other is Highlander. The original movie had quite a bit of love, but learning that Highlander are aliens from the planet Zeist makes the whole idea of highlanders embarrassing and completely obliterated the brand.
Not a -5 because: Well, it is a -5, but it’s the most EPIC -5.
It’s also possible for a work to have a positive MCRS score, which means that a sequel made the entire universe cooler. A lot of people have told me that Babylon Five works this way, but I haven’t seen it.
The moral here is that when you are dealing with a consistent narrative universe, everything you introduce to the narrative affects the WHOLE narrative. So it’s essential you respect the story every step of the way. Every instance in a continuous narrative is connected to every other, so one bad step can sink the whole ship. You can’t really treat episodes as individual instances — if you want to make a good story, you need to respect the UNIVERSE with every new element you introduce.
This is an idea. Critique, amend, and elaborate in the comments as you wish. I welcome your criticisms and your insights.