One of the biggest struggles between translating an existing media franchise into a new incarnation is balancing what the existing audience wants and what the creator hopes for. As you’ve probably guessed, I think of this tension as a spectrum of “expectation vs. vision” and sorting it out is pretty important. In fact, avoiding it is one of the reasons I frequently express my desire not to write in Hollywood or for comics companies when people ask me if it’s something I want to do. This week we’re going to dive into what this tension is and what happens when you go too far to one end or the other.
Simply put, expectations are what audiences want when they sit down to another episode with Dr. House, the CSI investigators or the officers of Star Fleet. Vision is where the creators want to go when they set out to write a story. When a franchise is new, say no more than two or three years old, all the cards are in the creator’s hands. The audience doesn’t have too many solid ideas about what’s going on in their story and tends to be forgiving of major changes to the format, direction of the story or role of characters. Star Trek: The Next Generation has a lot of shake-ups in the cast in the first couple of seasons, with Geordi and Worf moving up in the command structure, Tasha Yar departing and the ship’s doctor changing and then changing back. No one really minded those decisions. Similarly, although Monk having to transition from the title character’s assistant going from the saucy Sharona to the prim Natalie due to difficulties with Sharona’s actress, the show survived and thrived.
But once a franchise is older it can be harder to survive these changes. MASH did it a couple of times and many people even found the show better after the changes. But each time a change takes place it can be harder and harder to please fans – the incessant bickering over each change in The Doctor when Doctor Who brings in a new lead is testament to that. The fanbase has clearer and clearer expectations of what the direction and tone of the story should be, and are going to react worse and worse if they’re disappointed.
Creators naturally feel that, as the ones putting in all the money and effort to produce entertainment and as the ones with the large scale picture of what’s happening in the franchise, they should be free to go wherever they want with their media. There’s a lot of truth in that – they do have their hands on all the buttons, they’re taking all the risks, they’re free to go wherever they want. But the audience is free to go wherever they want as well and leaving what the audience wants is a dangerous proposition because if they don’t choose to go with you then as a creator you’re sunk.
I’ve already written extensively on how Star Trek managed this in its latest incarnation but it may not be the best example of what I’m talking about as Discovery had a lot of what its audience wanted replaced with other things they typically like as opposed to things they aren’t interested in. The darker, grittier scifi that Discovery sells is a kind of scifi many Trekkies will watch. They just don’t want it wearing the skin of their favorite franchise.
A better example is the way Marvel Comics transformed it’s entire line of comics over the last three or four years or so. Since about 2014 – editorially much earlier – Marvel began replacing its existing line-up of characters with all new characters bearing the same hero names as the old. At the same time the focus of Marvel stories shifted drastically from wild action-adventure stories with clearly defined heroes and villains to murky social commentaries where heroes fought heroes and villains watched on the sidelines snarking about how silly it is.
Now there’s a place for those kinds of stories and they serve a real purpose in our cultural landscape. But the catch is that the audience for the old Marvel Method and then All New Marvel have very small overlaps. Worse, the parts of the audience that don’t overlap tend to actively dislike each other. The result for Marvel has been long time fans abandoning Marvel’s offerings in droves while few new readers have materialized, that potential audience viewing Marvel comics as a poor fit for their tastes. The result has been Marvel sales plummeting and their long term rivals, DC Comics, dominating the Top Ten in sales week after week, with Marvel usually taking one or two places thanks to perennial fan favorite Spiderman.
In contrast DC, who started a new style of storytelling with their New 52 some six or seven years ago and abandoned it with their DC Rebirth event last year, has pretty much solved the storytelling problem. Superman and Batman are their old familiar selves and their flagship titles, Action and Detective Comics, are pushing up to their 1000th issue. But new takes on old characters are also strutting their stuff and winning over audiences. There will be a discussion of great stories like Super Sons and the truly staggering work that is Mr. Miracle at some point in the future but suffice it to say DC has managed to expand the kinds of stories it tells and the way it tells them while still appealing to their core audience.
There are two real problems with writing a franchise. One is believing the franchise can tell any kind of story and keep its audience. Franchises come with things about them baked into the crust. They were originally the vision of a handful of creators and that vision caught on with thousands or millions of people who loved the vision of those creators enough come back to it again and again. If you try and use that original vision as a way to draw attention to your own, different and unique, vision then you show that you don’t have confidence in your own vision and have to slip it into something with more cultural weight in order to have it succeed. This is going to be most obvious to the core fans who resonated most strongly with the original creator’s vision. Now you can build on existing visions to expand them but if you try and supplant them with whatever you find most appealing then don’t be surprised if the old audience turns on you and no one else is interested in the ideas you couldn’t make stand on their own.
The other is letting the franchise get stale. You can’t always be topping yourself. Either your franchise will go over the top and jump the shark or get stuck in a loop with any new story you tell stuck in the shadow of older, better loved stories that were much the same.
There’s no solid solution to this paradox. But it’s easy to tell when you’ve gone too far one way or the other. If your franchise hasn’t picked up a new landmark story in five years you’re not innovating enough. If huge parts of your fanbase rebel you’ve innovated too much. Learning to keep your finger on the pulse is part of learning to be a franchise writer.
Fans are important for a franchise, but can make it tricky because stories need to change to be interesting. If you change too much, you get out crying. If you change too little, it’s boring.
The best franchises figure out the essence of the series and provide a rich world and feeling – it becomes more than the characters. It becomes about the feeling of the piece, which is what I think Doctor Who has done successfully.