Krypton, Gotham and the glut of TV prequels

Krypton, Gotham, Better Call Saul, The Walking Dead spin-off. Is there no end to TV's thirst for commissioning prequels?

With rumours arriving that The Walking Dead spin-off may be a prequel, hot on the heels of the news that Syfy is pursuing a series about Superman’s grandfather, titled Krypton, there are officially no more jokes. Anything you might say about making a comic book series set some ridiculous amount of time before the real story starts happening, can and will be seriously considered as a pitch by some network, somewhere.

A Newsroom-style series about The Daily Planet before Clark Kent started working there? A psychological procedural featuring Dr. Harleen Quinzel but no Joker? A jungle-set adventure series about Gorilla Grodd’s granddad? We could keep going until the phone rings and someone makes us an offer for a pilot, but that would be an unnecessary amount of pre-amble before getting to the point, which in its own way, is exactly what’s wrong with TV prequels.

As television continually steps up to play cinema at its own game, perhaps it’s unsurprising that the vogue for prequels is spreading from current blockbuster trends too. In recent years, we’ve seen Ridley Scott write a new Alien pre-mythology with his Prometheus movies, (the sequel’s due in 2016) we’ve seen the rise of Caesar in new Planet Of The Apes prequels, and in case you haven’t noticed, Peter Jackson is just about to wrap up the second most divisive prequel trilogy ever made.

Of course, there are any number of less recent precedents in TV, particularly looking back on the younger days of established heroes. There was The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, Young Hercules and the animated Muppet Babies, to name but a few. Even here in the UK, classic sitcoms got prequels such as First Of The Summer Wine and Rock & Chips. In more ways than one, prequel series are nothing new.

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But the current vogue for prequels seems to come from finding wiggle room in a property whose story has either already ended, or is tied up in some other medium. One example of the former would be The Carrie Diaries, the Sex & The City prequel that had its series finale earlier this year, while the latter is currently being largely played out in adaptations of comics and movies.

Especially in that case, we’re seeing the popularity of screen adaptations of comics bleed over into other mediums, but then that’s not even revolutionary. This may be the one regard in which Smallville, which ran for ten seasons of Tom Welling as young Clark Kent, can be seen to have been ahead of the curve.

In formula, Smallville started out a little like another CW show, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, with early “monster of the week” episodes giving way to longer arcs and Big Bads in later seasons as it built up its own version of Superman’s mythology. It’s more fondly remembered by its fans than the similar but shorter-lived Superboy series that scraped its way to the magic 100 episode syndication mark by the time of its series finale in 1992.

Krypton would be another prequel series in the Superman mythology, but it seems almost like they’ve decided to make a series off of the positive reaction to the opening 10 minutes of last year’s Man Of Steel, which had Russell Crowe and flying dragon creatures and all sorts of other things you probably won’t see on a TV budget. With its potential to follow the house of El, Superman’s ancestors, and other families on the doomed Krypton, David S. Goyer’s pitch was probably along the lines of “Game Of Thrones in space.”

We’re not so jaded as to rush to judgement about a show for which we so far only have the logline, (even if we’re perfectly willing to make a couple of jokes about it) but let’s look at how well that worked out for another TV prequel. From a ratings point of view, Batman prequel series Gotham has been a huge success for Fox. Like Smallville, it’s a conceptual introduction to Batman with an original take, rather than a prequel to any specific version of the character, but does it have the earlier series’ legs?

The show was initially announced as a series about the Gotham City Police Department, and the adventures of young Jim Gordon as a lowly beat detective, but by the time it got to air, the first season also took on the killing of the Waynes as a season arc. By showing us Bruce Wayne as a child, alongside adult versions of the Penguin, the Riddler and Harvey Dent, they’re showing us a version of Gotham City where many of his iconic baddies will be in their 60s before the Dark Knight suits up and beats their arses.

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In between the announcement and the release of further information, some remarked suspiciously, Bat-fan Kevin Smith and Batman: The Animated Series writer Paul Dini made waves with an episode of Smith’s Fat Man On Batman podcast where they pitched a young Bruce Wayne series called Bludhaven Academy. Their version would have focused on Bruce deliberately choosing to go to Gotham’s run-down boarding school after the death of his parents, to stay close to home and learn how to fight back, making sure that no other kid ever has to go through the same trauma as him.

Gotham has its high and low points, (Robin Lord Taylor’s creepy performance as Oswald Cobblepot and Jada Pinkett Smith’s sub-1966 series turn as Fish Mooney, respectively) but as it stands, young Bruce is largely ancillary, hiding out in the Wayne manor library. Eight episodes in, Bruce asks Alfred to teach him to fight after an encounter with some bullies, but he’s still many years away from even being close to the beginning of his career as Batman.

The show takes a holistic approach to showing Gotham City before Batman, focusing largely on the mob culture and the growing tension between the Falcone and Maroni families, allowed to continue by the mortifying corruption in the upper echelons of the city government and law enforcement.

It’s a new version of the continuity, but it still relies on familiarity with the mythos for its many foreshadowing gags. As long as the show keeps being successful with audiences, we’re sure it’ll continue along those lines, but it’s so far from the start of the story, it would have to get to at least ten seasons before reaching that Smallville grace note of having Clark suit up.

It’s not the most unlikely success story in prequel series at the moment- there’s plenty of ground to cover there, but it’s still surprising that Bates Motel exists. Starring Freddie Highmore as Norman Bates and Vera Farmiga as his mother, the series is a prelude to Psycho, almost aiming to justify the adult Norman’s pathology and burgeoning split-personality disorder. In 2015, that show will reach its third season.

Not all prequel series enjoy that kind of success and goodwill to continue on until the end of their natural life. Star Trek: Enterprise, which focused on Scott Bakula’s Captain Jonathan Archer and his crew’s voyages on the first warp-capable starship, was ignominiously cancelled by UPN in 2004. Although the writers were given enough notice to write a series finale, “These Are The Voyages…,” the ending was poorly received by critics and audiences alike, at a time when the series’ ratings had cast a question mark over the future of the franchise as a whole.

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Another largely liked show that was cut off even sooner was Caprica, the prequel to the Battlestar Galactica reboot, telling the story of the robotic Cylons’ origin. It was cancelled with five episodes of its first season still unaired, but was followed in 2012 by a prequel web series/movie titled Blood & Chrome, bridging Caprica and the original series.

But prequels haven’t become the exclusive domain of genre shows just yet. Sons Of Anarchy recently came to a much anticipated conclusion, but creator Kurt Sutter has already confirmed that a prequel mini-series The First 9 is in development, taking the form of either one ten-episode season or two eight-episode seasons, showing the original nine Sons returning home from the Vietnam war.

One of the biggest US TV events of next year will be the Breaking Bad spin-off, Better Call Saul, starring Bob Odenkirk as the man who would be Walter White’s literal criminal lawyer, Saul Goodman. AMC has already confirmed that we’ll also see what Jonathan Banks’ Mike Ehrmantraut was getting up to in the days before he was fixing for Saul and drugs kingpin Gus Fring.

We’re sure showrunner Peter Gould (who created Saul in an episode of Breaking Bad‘s second season) will make it a good one, but it does illustrate the problem with prequel series. However good Better Call Saul turns out, we have to doubt that it will have the same propulsive unpredictability as the parent series, purely because we know that Saul makes it at least as far as meeting Walt and Jesse Pinkman in the original series.

The unpredictability wasn’t the only selling point of that series though- certainly, the finale is as satisfying as any ending in television history despite foreshadowing allowing many fans to correctly guess the final sequence of events. Better Call Saul will surely be character-led, whereas we already know that Bruce Wayne becomes Batman, Norman Bates will walk in on people in the shower and almost everyone on Krypton will die with their planet.

Prequel series are purely about back-story, often to the detriment of suspense, which could explain why some series lose viewers after a while. Unlike reboots, they appeal to existing fans rather than new fans, so the pool of viewers is smaller to begin with than series like Hannibal or The Flash, which adapt existing material for new viewers.

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It reminds us of a stand-up rant by the great Patton Oswalt, on the subject of the Star Wars prequels. Imagining a confrontation with George Lucas circa 1998, largely discussing how the next three films will show cool characters like Darth Vader and Boba Fett as sad children, he bellows “I don’t care where the things I love come from, I just love the things I love!”

It’s not as if back-story doesn’t have currency in TV storytelling – Lost worked flashbacks into its storytelling to great effect, developing characters by revealing information from their past that would affect their present, and the second series of Channel 4’s late lamented Utopia opened with a very disturbing flashback episode that showed how the older generation characters were set on the path that followed throughout the series.

But in both of those cases, there was some aspect of looking backwards that drove the story forwards, rather than simply filling in gaps in a story that had already been told. In many cases, the end point has already been written and some series limp rather than race towards that inverted starting mark.

That’s really what this all comes down to- there’s suspension of disbelief when you’re watching a series, and then there’s suspension of common sense. It’s the latter kind that could well have led to Krypton being green-lit. If you’ll excuse us, we’re off to pitch NormalCop, the Alex Murphy prequel series.