Remember the time that backstory was just that? Backstory.
Many of the most successful TV shows and movies are specifically built on a sense of their own mythology and world building. Game of Thrones has a series of vast novels to draw on which detail an incredibly complicated social and political eco-system, for example. Backstory, the details of the universes of these tales and the histories of many characters within the stories, provide the unseen depth and ballast to the tale we are being told, the tale we are invested in.
In recent years, however, the trend of this has begun to shift. Our biggest stories within popular culture are now becoming obsessed with backstory not just being developed to enable the narrative, they are instead *becoming* the narrative. Storytellers are actively attempting to try and ‘plug gaps’, for want of a better term, in continuity and canon, believing it seems that audiences are as obsessed with these minor details as the writers of these properties appear to be. We are losing the element of ambiguity, surprise and mystery.
We are losing backstory by exploring too much of it.
I’ve written a lot about Star Trek: Discovery’s disappointing second season lately, and it’s a drum I’m determined not to keep banging too loudly as to not become grating, but the Alex Kurtzman-ran prequel series is one of the most egregious examples lately of how storytelling is beginning to change – not just as a means of fan service but seemingly as part of a concerted effort to ensure audiences are given as complete a picture about a universe as possible.
Discovery was created for this express purpose. Season 1 focused initially on exploring the Klingon-Federation War around ten years before the Original Series, based on a line from TOS’ Errand of Mercy—which first introduced the Klingons—which cemented in canon a war that subsequently over the course of the series we never got to see. The Klingons of course went on to be iconic Star Trek adversaries for Captain Kirk and beyond (and eventually awkward allies), but Bryan Fuller & Alex Kurtzman’s initial conception was for Discovery to be an anthology series within the Trek universe, telling one season stories with different casts at alternate points in the franchise’s extensive continuity.
While on the one hand this would have been an exciting—and particularly bold—direction for a Star Trek series, it could have resulted in Discovery becoming a show designed not to evolve the Star Trek concept for a new generation and audience, but play on past glories as part of a concerted effort to appease a fan base who wanted to see aspects of the franchise’s backstory on screen. The Klingon-Federation War thankfully allowed the writing staff enough leeway to turn the antagonists into an extremist sect, a Klingon ISIS essentially, giving them the opportunity to explore fundamentalism in a timely manner (even if it was all wrapped up a bit too quickly).
Season 2 proved, however, just how dangerous a concept built around a focus on backstory and continuity can be. It was a season almost expressly designed to flesh out a blind spot in Trek canon – the time period after Original Series pilot The Cage and the beginning of TOS Season 1, which had by then only retained the Spock character for a retooled USS Enterprise Captain and crew. While later two-parter The Menagerie did explore what happened to initial Enterprise Captain Christopher Pike, there remained a long period of an initial five-year mission Spock was on *before* the Kirk-era five year mission that no TV show or movie had ever explored. It was chiefly the domain of spin-off book material, of which there is an enormous and detailed amount of non-canonical novels designed precisely to do what Discovery Season 2 made its raison d’etre – fill in those back story gaps. Burning Dreams by Margaret Wander Bonanno, for instance, covers Pike’s childhood and career in Starfleet, while the comic Star Trek: Early Voyages from 1997-1998 does precisely what Season 2 suggests we might get as a TV series – depict Pike’s five year mission on the Enterprise.
The issue comes back, however, to one of canon and established continuity.
Across many of the more detailed universes which span different kinds of media, non-canonical tie-in works have added detail and context to questions the main series or movies may not have had time to cover. Before the revival of The X-Files, series creator Chris Carter teamed with IDW Publishing and writer Joe Harris to develop a comic-based ‘Season 10’ which for a time was considered a canonical continuation after the second movie I Want to Believe, but was immediately invalidated and retroactively stated to be an alternate universe when Fox revived the show for two more seasons. Subsequent comics while the series was on air have covered Mulder & Scully’s childhoods in novels such as Agent of Chaos or Devil’s Advocate, or comics such as X-Files Origins, both of which take fairly spurious license with continuity in order to try and interlink the backstories of Mulder & Scully, despite the fact they only met for the first time in the Pilot of the series. Because these works are not considered directly canonical, it doesn’t really matter what they do in service of an entertaining story.
The same has become the case for the Star Wars universe, which for decades has, much like Star Trek, produced reams of tie-in material that fans long considered canonical after Return of the Jedi in 1983 – both sketching in the history of the franchise while providing a continuation story. These two were invalidated first by the Prequel Trilogy, in which George Lucas unloaded three huge movies worth of backstory to dubious effect, and the Sequel Trilogy which led to new franchise owners Disney explicitly stating that all of the previously canonical tie-in media was now ‘alternate universe’, no longer part of canon, and not recognised as the official story of the Star Wars universe. The sequel films have taken a very different tack to many of the books set after Return of the Jedi (such as Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn series) and now any tie-in material, book or comics wise, directly connects to the canonical universe in a way that does not contradict what we see on screen. Books such as Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath are plugging gaps, but they are official and licensed gaps that will not contradict anything set before or after.
The irony of tie-in media for years is that, in many respects, it didn’t tie-in at all. Or at least not officially. Star Trek is my personal passion franchise when it comes to exploring the stories beyond the screen and if you read plenty of those novels or comics, you realise just how often they might play with continuity or show real invention in tethering together otherwise distaff plot points or characters you didn’t imagine had connections or knew each other, and indeed their continuation saga in book form is one of the best; the ‘post-Nemesis’ novels—aka anything set after The Next Generation’s final movie Star Trek: Nemesis which is technically the furthest on screen in a main series the franchise has depicted—are incredibly detailed and bold, written with the confidence of writers who were fairly sure that period of Star Trek history was probably never going to reappear on screen. The upcoming Jean-Luc Picard-fronted series puts paid to this, being reputedly set twenty years after Nemesis, which will likely mean the post-Nemesis books will officially be stated as non-canonical going forward (which they always technically were, but many fans have taken them to heart as the official future of the Prime Universe of Star Trek). This is likely why the Nemesis sequel books have, with one or two exceptions, ground to a halt in recent years.
What we are now finding with Star Trek, much like Star Wars, is that tie-in media is working to plug very controlled, decisive gaps which connect and play off what we see on screen.
There has been a focus in the Star Trek book world over the last year or two on Discovery novels which detail the backstory of various main crew characters – Michael Burnham in Desperate Hours, or Sylvia Tilly in The Way of the Stars. In the IDW comic license, Mike Johnson has for years been developing work that connects to the Kelvin Universe movies – such as the Ongoing series between Into Darkness and Beyond, and the Boldly Go series which sees Kirk and the Enterprise crew commanding the USS Excelsior in a gap between the Enterprise being rebuilt after the events of Beyond, and the final montage sequence of that movie – a gap, much like with Pike assuming command of Discovery for Season 2, we had no idea needed to be filled. We have also seen extra detail added to the Mirror Universe with Succession, providing a prequel backstory to events in Season 1, as has The Light of Kahless to the fundamentalist Klingons who triggered the war. Johnson’s next Discovery tie in (with series co-writer Kirsten Beyer), Aftermath, will follow the characters left behind after Discovery’s sojourn into the distant future at the end of Season 2 – in other words, a Discovery comic without any Discovery characters in it.
Tie-in properties have long dabbled in this kind of storytelling, in many ways it is the stock in trade for books and comics within an established universe; they give fans the opportunity to delve deeper into characters and corners of those universes on their own terms and even if the stories are not always canonical or official, canon can be relative. As fans, you can establish your own ‘head-canon’, as many do. That’s all fantastic. But when exactly did this kind of gap filling and canon-baiting start filtering into television and these movies, and within these franchises, at the expense of pushing forward and exploring new frontiers?
In fairness to Discovery, it happened in Star Trek long before Season 2 of that show. Enterprise, the prequel series set before the formation of the Federation and revolving around the crew of the first Enterprise starship, for its first two seasons danced around canonical events set in place across the Original Series and beyond; Season 2’s Regeneration plays off the Next Generation movie First Contact and provides a pre-destination paradox loop for the Borg which will pay off in the Next Generation episode Q-Who, a connection that could as easily have not existed, but it provides an enjoyable slice of pulp which doesn’t quite tamper with the all-important canon.
By Season 4, under new showrunner Manny Coto, Enterprise becomes entirely about providing deeper context and detail to components of the Star Trek universe we had previously seen – Augmented humans linking to The Wrath of Khan, to the Data character, to Dr Bashir on Deep Space Nine; the invention of the transporter; the history between the Vulcans and their Romulan cousins and on and on, indeed had the series not then been cancelled, it likely would have depicted on screen the Earth-Romulan War, a conflict that directly helps provide the formation of the United Federation of Planets we see briefly in the (otherwise deeply flawed) series finale These Are the Voyages… Enterprise, in other words, was front-loading backstory to appease continuity long before Discovery pulled the same trick.
The same year that Enterprise was cancelled, George Lucas debuted Revenge of the Sith, the final Star Wars prequel film which depicted the transformation of Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader, the birth of Luke and Leia, and plenty more besides – details left mysterious and even semi-mythical during the original Star Wars movies. Now we knew what the Clone Wars were, what happened to the Jedi, how the Emperor became the Emperor etc… and the answers all just seemed far more banal when laid out for all to see. Lucas even went as far as to eschew the Buddhist symbolism of the Force in the original films for an unconvincing, scientific piece of mumbo jumbo which tries to *explain* something purely meant to be metaphysical. The prequels added nothing to the Star Wars saga beyond satisfying a few canonical curiosities.
Since then, prequels have become du jour across so many different properties, or call backs to narratives past – even the James Bond franchise in reviving SPECTRE and Ernst Stavro Blofeld, partially retconning the continuity of the Daniel Craig era in doing so, is tapping nostalgia in order to get bums on seats. Vince Gilligan responded to the end of the instantly iconic Breaking Bad by developing a prequel series, Better Call Saul, set around crooked lawyer Saul Goodman – which also brings in several other classic Breaking Bad characters beloved by audiences. Even as Game of Thrones is approaching a barnstorming conclusion, in development is the first of several prequel series set to depict key mythological events in the history of Westeros; seeing the Long Night of antiquity in action might well be cool, but isn’t it cooler to imagine what it could have been instead?
You can understand why creatives take the route of plugging gaps in canon and playing with characters and scenarios like Pike’s Enterprise and Spock’s earliest days in Starfleet. These are well established, often beloved characters and settings in franchises with deep, built in fanbases who have spent *years* imagining, writing about or talking about these unknown parts of the series’ history. Seeing Pike and the Enterprise was undoubtedly exciting in Discovery, of that there is no question, but when our newest media is entirely based on a nostalgic kick for exploring cracks in the fabric of backstory and classic stories of yore, when and how are we ever going to move forward and see the next The Best of Both Worlds or The Empire Strikes Back or Anasazi – episodes and movies which pushed the boundaries of television, of storytelling, and are still being talked about in ten, twenty, thirty, forty years from now? Is anyone really going to be fondly discussing Such Sweet Sorrow, Discovery’s throw everything even the kitchen sink Season 2 finale in three decades? I doubt it.
Backstory is great. Backstory is thrilling. Backstory and mythology is weaved into every great TV show. Backstory should not, however, be *what* the story is. We’re in danger of losing sight of that.