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Stochastic Thoughts: The Midi-Chlorian Ruination Scale

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.

Posted in Rant.

31 Responses

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  1. Paul Wrider says

    When they started sing/talking to All Along the Watchtower, I was worried, and yeah – it was a lame ending.

    Thoughts on Lost? I was overall quite happy with it, though I know it caused a lot of Nerd Rage. I thought the difference was the Lost crew had an end in mind (though the middle was hazy), but BSG was made up as it went along.

    Oh, and may you burn in a thousand Hells for making me sit through anything in Evagelion that wasn’t Giant Robot Fight.

  2. Myles says

    When I talk about BSG, I tell people that, if I had to do it over again, knowing what I know now, I would have stopped watching halfway through the final season and just let somebody tell me what happens. When I think back to, for instance, the Pegasus story line and the building of the Black Bird and then think of Captain Starbuck on her pointless trash ship expedition– well, I feel just like you do.

    Sophia Coppola in the 3rd Godfather film makes that series a -3.

    This is a useful metric. By the way, have you played the BSG board game? It is all about the 1st season and it is wonderful. Can’t wait to play with you.

  3. Brian A. Bernhard says

    Great post Nick,
    I remembered watching the original episodes of BSG when I was a kid on broadcast television, however I never saw them in sequence and I don’t really remember anything. I recently discovered that they were all on Netflix streaming, The 70’s series the 80’s series and the 2000’s series (The latter is the one I am assuming you mention in the post). Last night I decided that I was going to explore all 3 series, so I began the first episode of the first series from the 70’s. I will continue watching all of them until I get to the much hated finale. In regards to the BSG issue, I will get back to you after the fact. However, I love your ratings system, its quite fun and may possible become a meme. I will also add that I rather enjoyed the first Transformers movie, and the sequel destroyed it for me, and killed off any desire for me to watch the 3rd one. On the flip side, Xmen 2 was so good that it made me like the first movie better, but then Xmen 3 came out and crucified both of them into a burning pile of puke.

    That is all, thanks for the fun read as always.

  4. Adrian Hon says

    I hear you 🙂 I was less upset about BSG because it became depressingly clear towards the end of the show that it was never going to regain its peaks of awesome that it attained during S1, S2 and the start of S3.

    I do have a possible candidate for a -5 though: The ‘Ender’s Shadow’ series of books. We all know about Ender’s Game, right? It had a couple of good sequels and then they tailed off in quality. Fine. But then Orson Scott Card decides to cash in on creating a new, parallel set of books that take place *during* Ender’s Game, but from the perspective of different characters. Also fine.

    And in fact, the story in Ender’s Shadow is entertaining enough. Except… that the book manages to retcon the entire universe such that the events and characters *original* book now seem foolish and frustrating. I won’t go into detail, but I was pretty unhappy when I finished the book. I’m surprised that more people weren’t upset, but I guess people were just happy to have another passable Ender book again.

    I’m also told that the two sequels to Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion (Endymion and The Rise of Endymion) are equally bad, such that they travel back in time and ruin the memory of the original two books, so I’ve stayed well away.

  5. Beth says

    Not sure if this really applies to your scale but reading your blog made me think of the ruination of the entire story line of Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series when made into a TV series. While I understand the need for adaptation to fit a single book into 22 or so episodes; the flagrant changes to important pieces of the story line made me wonder how Goodkind could even stand to have his name associated with the TV series. The first episodes of the first season were good (hell I saw 2 episodes then went out and bought the 12 book series); but toward the end of S1 & all of S2 I was seriously disappointed. I can’t even understand the people that are upset that the show was cancelled (unless they never read the books I guess). Thankfully the TV series did not ruin the books for me.

  6. Robert Riedl says

    In defense of the sequelers/series continuators, you’re often compelled to do something ‘different’ to avoid the critique of being formulaic or uninventive. God forbid you bore your audience.

    Yes, you gotta stay within the narrative universe but sometimes it makes total sense for the sequelers/series continuators to make the leather-clad hood waterski over a fishy threat…

  7. Osvaldo says

    Also posted this on your FB: I think it is overstating the matter to say that a sequel (or later content) can actually _ruin_ what came before it. As viewers/consumers I think we have a lot more agency in deciding how to collect various bits of serialized narrative (long-term superhero comics are a great example) in ways that provide us with satisfying closure. If you allow only the creators to control what something means by how it is developed over time (when they might not have had a clear idea of what that is from the beginning, or that idea has changed, as it often does, in the process of creating) then you are bound to be disappointed. I still love the Empire Strikes Back. Sure I know there is a story about Darth Vader as a kid that would rob the pathos of Luke’s search to become a Jedi, but that’s just one story out of many stories.

  8. admin says

    @osvaldo I’m not sure that you’re BOUND to be disappointed. Good writers manage to keep series going with great content. I mean, Breaking Bad is still great in Season 4. You don’t have to suck if you plan. And I have NO patience for writers who don’t plan. It’s 2011 — there have been enough of these narratives that people should be thinking about sequels and extensions when they start.

    I also think you’re too generous about ignoring later content, but that’s your right. For me, narratives that claim to be consistent are one singular story. Phantom Menace isn’t one story of many in Star Wars — it’s canon. And as canon, you can’t ignore it. A New Hope is different because of the things coming out of movies #1-3, and I would say (safely, because I can’t think of anyone who disagrees) is much worse. I think your tolerance for the crappy consistency editing of mainstream comics is blinding you to what larger narrative universes can be. See above as to why I don’t think that the fact that writers didn’t plan is an excuse.

  9. admin says

    @ riedl I hear you. They do have to do something different, but that doesn’t excuse the aforementioned shark-jumping.

  10. admin says

    @beth I think it’s a valid application. You’re not more than -2 here, because the books remain strong, but there have certainly be movie adaptions that have DESTROYED good content in translation. See the article mentioned Silent Hill and its terrible movie.

  11. admin says

    @adrian Sounds like a horribly perfect -5 to me.

  12. Demetri says

    Lost has to be either a -5 or a -6. Lots of cash out there that cannot be unspent on Dharma Initiative merchandise and multi-season box sets.

  13. Heath says

    I gave this a lot of thought… when it is a TV series I agree with the later parts having a direct effect on the earlier. But I can’t say this is true of all series based things (movies, games, etc). I can still sit back and enjoy the Matrix or the original Star Wars trilogy and ignore the sequels/prequels. I still thing Master of Orion 2 was an amazing game even though MOO3 was a piece of shit. Later episodes of Buffy (after Dawn) were worse than earlier episodes but it was still a good series. Jumping the shark does not necessarily ruin earlier product. I can take each piece on it’s own merit. The original Highlander (as mentioned above) was a good movie as a stand alone movie. The rest of the series is crap. Sometimes I prefer to let my imagination be better than the provided reasoning and I’m fine with that.

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘0 which is not a hashcash value.

  14. admin says

    @Paul and @Demetri, never saw Lost. I’ll take your words for it.

  15. beth rosenberg says

    Hi NIck.
    This is Beth Rosenberg—friend of Eric Zimmerman and former Dir of Ed at Eyebeam.
    I teach a class at NYU-Poly and I’m wondering if I can get you for a guest lecture.
    Please email me –I can send you a formal invite and tell you more.

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘0 which is not a hashcash value.

  16. Clayton Grey says

    I would argue, having just watched it, that Twin Peaks is actually -1, or at worst -2. Once the plot involving Laura’s murder is mostly tied up, the series does indeed flounder for a bit, but it does get back to being awesome. I still think the entire series is awesome save a few bits of silly sub-plot. The last episode is pretty intense and does a good job at boosting the series in the way a bad ending can ruin it. It’s a cliff-hanger, as the series ended, but it still moved in the way the series did best.

    The scale seems solid to me. Dig it.

  17. Jhey Eff says

    The last episodes of Evangelion are way, way more interesting than any conventional resolution would have been. I have a pet theory that the show wouldn’t loom so large over anime culture if it resolved itself in a straightforward, narratively “satisfying” way. The narrative’s disintegration ripples back into the early parts of the series and makes them way sadder and otherwise more emotionally complicated than they seem on first viewing. If the last episodes are a fuck you, they’re one of the most formally adventurous fuck yous on record, and they’re a fuck you to the self-imposed autism of certain strains of otaku, which is not a bad thing to say fuck you to, even if Hideaki Anno is a bit mean about it and clearly is partially addressing the fuck you at himself, as well. Even if one can’t get into them, there’s the somewhat more conventionally climactic End, which might make things even more confusing but does so with such visionary, imaginative force–which I haven’t encountered a correlative to outside of the last section of 2001: A Space Odyssey, some of David Lynch’s work, and Alan Parker’s adaptation of The Wall, which latter movie I’d say End of Evangelion is superior to–that asking for it all to make immediate sense almost seems a bit greedy to me.

  18. admin says

    @Heath, I think you might just be much more generous than me, but your scores fit on my scale from -1 to -3. MoO is a great -3. MoO2 is and remains awesome, but MoO3 ruined the brand and I would never even look at another MoO game after that.

    I think the Matrix is embarrassing now; all I can think about is a rave of dirty techno-hippies when I see anything in the ship. The first movie is good, but it’s tainted, and for me that’s a serious taint. And if you have to imagine away parts of the series to like it, well, it’s worse than a -3. You’re just very kind to the series.

  19. admin says

    @ Jhey I don’t want Evangelion to make perfect sense. I want it to be GOOD, and I want it to treat with a modicum of respect characters I’ve come to love. The series is terrific, but it goes off a deep end that may be formally adventurous, but it’s not in the language of the rest of the series (which I LOVED by the way) and it does deliberately hurt characters for what I can see as no reason. J.R.R. Martin does this a lot too, which is why I don’t read Game of Thrones anymore.

    I might be a little too harsh to Evangelion. It’s maybe a -3, but man did that ending burn.

  20. admin says

    @Clayton I might be persuaded by your arguments. I think I was scoring Twin Peaks on the general response. I agree that the end of the series had turned a corner and was improving for me. So personally, I’ll say a -2.

  21. Tim O'Neil says

    I grew up with the original STAR WARS trilogy and love them all as much as any of us can, but I love the prequels just as much. They added a lot to the story for me and actually fixed what I thought were some pretty glaring problems of the original series.

    I’m pretty much alone in this opinion.

  22. Margaret M. says

    I want to propose a new kind of -6. Over the weekend I talked to a friend who was so disgusted with Buffy Season 6 that she decided never to get fan-invested in any television series ever again. That was 2001, so she’s at ten years and counting. I don’t know if the vow applies to other kinds of properties (movies, manga, etc.) or just TV, but it’s pretty epic regardless.

    You could certainly argue that this is part of some universal maturation process (i.e. would have happened anyway with some series at some point), rather than being caused specifically by Buffy, but I thought it was worth considering for the MCRS.

  23. admin says

    @margaretm That is an interesting -6. I think it qualifies, but it is highly personal. I think Season 6 of Buffy is a clear -3; earlier Buffy is great, but wow is that brand dead.

    But yes, a universal maturation process definitely qualifies. A entire season can be an episode in terms of its ruination effects. And if something affects your opinion of the whole genre, that’s as EPIC FAIL as you get.

  24. admin says

    @margaretm You know, on further reflection, I’m amending Buffy to a -4. The earlier seasons aren’t as bright. I’m not embarrassed by them, however, so it’s spared the -5.

  25. GodotIsWaiting4U says

    “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?”

    You mean all zero of them? Well, okay, SORT OF in Empire, but 3PO is in pieces and on Chewbacca’s back at the time, and more than a little pre-occupied.

  26. admin says

    That’s the main one I was thinking of. I don’t know — if you spent your whole childhood building a robot, wouldn’t you recognize it and think something about it? And Chewbacca is in custody, right? I would think that who Vader had as his prisoners would be brought to his attention.

    Or what about when 3P0 is on the Death Star? Vader can force sense his mentor; he can’t force sense his creation? I was under the mistaken impression that the guy was a Force master who had eyes to see with.

    Whoops, there I go, looking for consistency in that series again. There’s a reason why I gave this a -6. And yes, I know you can make up reasons for all this to make sense, but that’s the point of the scale. You shouldn’t have to. It should make sense internally without me having to ignore things or explain them away in tortured ways.

  27. Zachiel says

    What about the DragonBall “Goku is an alien” thing? It was pretty -6 for me but I’m not this objective.

  28. admin says

    I never got through the maze that is DragonBall Z. I wouldn’t have even believed there was a consistent narrative in that cartoon if you didn’t just tell me.

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  3. The Midi-Chlorian Ruination Scale and the summer movie season | HaLaPic linked to this post on August 24, 2011

    […] impact of sequels on their franchises and our opinions of them, Nick Fortugno created the clever Midi-Chlorian Ruination Scale. It’s an effective way to pinpoint the degree to which one film reflects positively or […]

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