May 11, 2016

Giving a series the (re)boot

I've been sitting here the last couple of weeks wondering what I was going to write for today. Well, not literally - it isn't as if I've done nothing for fourteen days but sit here witlessly, waiting for my fingers to come up with some miraculous combination of letters forming words you'd be interested in reading. There's going to the bathroom, for one thing. But you know what I mean.

It's not that I don't have topics on my to-do list. There's a perfectly good post on the early '60s series The Rebel and how, both on- and off-camera, it epitomizes the existential quandary of America, and when I finally do finish it I'm sure it will be to my satisfaction, but it's become so rambling and disjointed that, rather than tighten it up and finish it, I just keep pushing it out from Wednesday to Wednesday. It must be scheduled for sometime in October by now; on the other hand, you could be reading it next week. That's just how it goes sometimes. If you're a fellow blogger, then you understand.

Anyway, I was making my own rounds of sites I read, looking for equal parts inspiration and amusement, when I came across this quote from Lileks, discussing how he's rewatching the last rebooted Star Trek movie in preparation for the new one when it comes out. He has no problems with the new set of movies, which means he's a better man than I - I never really got into the Star Trek sequels beyond the first couple of years of ST: TNG, when the show's overt liberalism finally got the best of me, and I never bothered with the rest, including the latest series of films. I don't mock those who have watched them and either loved or hated them; this is just my opinion. But I digress: to Lileks:

This is why I hate "Mission Impossible" movies on general principle: the first one broke faith with the story in a way that poisoned everything else. It's like learning that Bond was always working for an offshoot of SMERSH. There are some things you shouldn't do just for the sake of "revitalizing" a "franchise," and while the second New Star Trek movie did not give us a convincing Khan - he lacked that musky scent of rich Corinthian leather - it carried me along as it happened. 

He is, of course, talking about the first Mission: Impossible movie from 1996, in which it was discovered at the end of the movie that Jim Phelps, that stalwart all-American spy so ably played on TV by Peter Graves, was in actuality a traitor who'd sold out his country. As far as shock value goes it was effective, and because an entire generation of television viewers had lived with Phelps as the hero, there perhaps wasn't the level of suspicion that would have normally surrounded the Man Above Suspicion in a run-of-the-mill spy thriller.

But for all that, there was something extremely distasteful about it all. Lileks is right; there are just some things you don't do, because they don't make sense. Why reboot Mission: Impossible, using the Jim Phelps character, if you don't intend to include some continuity from the series? And if that's what you want, than you don't make that rebooted character do something so completely at odds with the existing character that it stretches credulity beyond the breaking point. It would have been more plausible to have Tom Cruise's character flap his arms and fly under his own power than to have Jim Phelps sell out his country. Why not just have Phelps hand things over to a new boss, who turns out to be a traitor? But then, Brian DePalma makes millions of dollars thinking up that kind of thing, while I provide you with sage television insight four times a week for free.*

*Mission: Impossible, of course, rebooted itself as a TV series in 1988, complete with Peter Graves as Jim Phelps and Greg Morris' son, Phil, succeeding his father. It suffered from many of the weaknesses of shows from that era, but it is certainly acceptable as a continuation of the original.

It got me thinking about reboots, though, which was a good thing since the new Bates Motel had an apparently earth-shattering moment on Monday night; I won't reveal it if you're watching the series and haven't seen this episode yet, but let's just say it's brought the series (a prequel to the movie Psycho set in current times) full circle to the movie. I've never seen Bates Motel, but I've read enough of the weekly reviews at the AV Club to get the gist of it, and if the new series has changed some of the canonical detail, it's gotten enough of it right that it seems to have pleased most Psycho fans. One of the things the creators did which was absolutely spot-on was to update the series to modern day; by doing this, viewers were tipped off right away that they were not to expect a seamless transition between the series and the movie, that there were things that would, by definition, be different between the two. It's a neat way of disarming would-be critics from the get-go, and from everything I've read, it's proven to be quite effective.

Not all reboots can boast such success, though. Again, this is just my opinion, but the new Hawaii Five-0 has little in common with its illustrious predecessor. Whereas Jack Lord's Five-O men solved their cases through hard work and a bit of good fortune, the new series is pretty much indistinguishable from other procedurals/action shoot 'em ups that grace CBS' schedule these days. In particular, an episode that involved the new McGarrett journeying to North Korea (!) to exact revenge for the death of a former colleague reeked of the kind of "lone cowboy" adventure that the classic McGarrett would never have countenanced, either from himself or any members of the team. Aside from cashing in on the good name of Hawaii's best-known and most-loved police drama, I can't really see any reason for its resurrection.

One of the trademarks of a reboot seems to be the introduction of "depth" to characters that previously might have been seen as one-dimensional by today's standards. I've made this point many times in the past, but dramatic programs of the '50s and '60s (and early '70s) were often free from the soap opera elements that their heavily serialized offspring seem to love. On the face of it this can make sense; the cops from those classic shows, for example, seldom seem to show any residual effect from killing so many bad guys, and unless you're Mike Hammer, this kind of sounds doubtful. However, when you mix it in with the "sensitive, introspective" characterizations that themselves have become stereotypical today, you start to lose track of the fact that the characters exist in the first place to serve the investigative element of the show. I'd contend it's like the difference between Ben Casey and General Hospital. They're both set in hospitals, both feature doctors, and that's about where the similarity ends.

A show that for the most part has balanced the old and the new effectively is the BBC's revival of Doctor Who. Note that I use the word "revival" rather than "reboot," because the new series is in fact a continuation, rather than a reimagination, of the classic version. The entire history of the old show has been incorporated into the new, up to and including flashbacks to old episodes and the appearance of old and familiar characters, played by the original actors. Unlike Hawaii Five-0, it's not just borrowed the name of the series and characters; unlike Mission: Impossible, it hasn't violated the integrity of the existing characters; unlike Bates Motel it hasn't made a timeshift or otherwise altered things. No, it's tried to do the most difficult thing of all: it expects you to be able to watch the entire series, from the debut in 1963, through the TV movie of 1996 and to the new series starting in 2005, and see it all as part of the same creation, with one storyline that has run interrupted for more than 50 years. While the new Who has dramatically upgraded its special effects and has given The Doctor some of those very elements that I've just criticized, it's managed to do it all within the spirit of the original series. There are some things about it that I don't like, and I'll always prefer the original, but some of the new episodes have been outstanding, many more have been riveting, and I'm much happier having the new stories than having had the series end way back in 1988. I think I can speak for most Whovians in that regard.

This kind of thing isn't easy, though; for every movie like Harrison Ford's big screen version of The Fugitive that succeeds spectacularly in bringing the original TV series to life in a new and bold way, there must be a hundred small-screen to big-screen adaptations that stink. (Remember Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman in The Avengers?) Attempts to resurrect successful series of the past in a present day format are just as problematic, as reboots of Perry MasonSea Hunt and Route 66 will testify. The rebirth of The Prisoner as a limited series was a disappointing attempt to explain the unexplainable to most viewers; fans didn't think it measured up to the original, and newcomers probably wouldn't have been attracted to it in the first place.* The new Untouchables was really more a TV version of the Kevin Costner movie** than it was a reboot of the Robert Stack classic. Even the movie versions of Perry Mason starring Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale were far from an unqualified success; many Mason fans don't consider them part of the series canon despite having two of the original stars, and I'm inclined to agree.

*Although Sir Ian McKellen did make a dandy Number Two, I thought.

**And there's that name again, Brian DePalma. But the movie version of The Untouchables really didn't try to link itself with the TV series, except for the title and the lead cop and criminals. It succeeds very well on its own merits, apart from the original series.

Of all the TV series that sought to be resurrected, the Star Trek sequels are probably the most successful; my dislike of them shouldn't be construed as anything other than personal preference. Reboots of anthology series from The Twilight Zone to The Outer Limits are hit-and-miss themselves, with good episodes and bad; at least the new version of Alfred Hitchcock Presents had the advantage of the original Hitchcock introductions, colorized though they might have been. For shows like these, you're simply going to have to argue out whether or not the writing and acting of the past is superior or inferior to that of the present, and if you can have Zone without Rod Serling.

But most of the time it seems to me that a reboot of a classic show is really one of two things: 1) an attempt to cash in on a venerable, proven name; or 2) a sign of laziness on the part of those who are paid to come up with new ideas. And in such cases, I think it's probably best to paraphrase that old cliche about sleeping dogs: let old TV classics lie, or at least leave them to be reborn on DVD, rather than remaking them altogether. For that you will have my eternal gratitude.

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