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Sunday, 10 June 2018

The Trouble with Continuation: ...may sicken and so die.

If music be the food of love, play on. Give me excess of it that in sickening, the appetite my sicken and so die. - Twelfth Night, Act 1, Scene 1.

Much - if not all - of media entertainment today is focused at least partially around business. Books need to sell, people need to go see movies, television series need viewers, video games need buyers and often help sell dedicated hardware on which to run. Most times a successful series grows out of a standalone beginning; a movie or TV series that works on its own, a book about a single event or series of events, a game that was designed to stand on its own within a particular genre. But not every cinematic universe takes off, not every game becomes a series or franchise, not every book creates a profitable fictional universe.

In this post, I'm looking at a few examples from various media of fictional worlds that ended before we wanted them to. They could have been created with the supposition that they would be successful and thus continue; but they didn't, leaving us poor people who enjoyed their stories unsatisfied at best and annoyed at worst. They could also have been cut short by something else, from the death of a key creative figure to disputes behind the scenes. These examples ended before the entire intended story was told, with the worst examples ending on unresolved cliffhangers.

Books are strange things. They can be utterly engrossing, completely capture everyone's attention, then plummet into the void of the forgotten and the purgatory of bargain bins and charity shop shelves. The vast majority of books you hear about are either standalone ones that developed into a series (with or without the author's intent) or were always planned as series and succeeded (Harry Potter is such a case, and perhaps its biggest success story). An interesting example is an authorised continuation of Roger Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber. The project was a pentalogy centreing on the father of the first pentalogy's main character Conrad. Four out of the five planned books were written and published to dismal reviews and low sales, and the company managing the project went bankrupt before the fifth book was completed. There is also supposedly the aborted "The Fire Chronicles" from Jonathan Stroud of Bartimaeus fame, but I can find no quotes or source for this information, so take it with a pillar of salt.

Movies and television are more prone to this than books are. They have a lot riding on both popular and critical success, and many movies today seem to be focused more on making money than making anything original. This trend can be seen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a now-gigantic cross-media canon spanning ten-plus movies and related media projects where just dipping into the middle is not an option; you'll be hopelessly confused. But others have tried at this approach, and failed spectacularly. The Amazing Spider Man and its sequel were intended as the opening chapters of a Spider Man-focused universe involving recurring villains like Green Goblin and anti-heroes such as Venom. But the sequel saw disappointing box office takings and wasn't well liked. The backlash resulted in the entire planned cinematic universe being cancelled, leaving many intended story threads unfinished. Universal's intended Monster-themed cinematic universe fared even worse. Its intended debut, The Mummy, sowed the seeds for several future titles, but met with critical and commercial failure, forcing Universal to cancel its cinematic universe plans in favour of self-contained remakes. This means those story threads from The Mummy, however poorly told, will never be resolved.

Two contrasting examples from television are Firefly and Primeval. Firefly was a blend of Western and sci-fi from the mind of Joss Whedon, but -- like a few of his other projects -- this didn't find success. Firefly is now considered a classic, but the responsible network didn't have as much confidence and due to a combination of mismanagement and consequent low viewing figures, the series was cancelled with just eleven of thirteen completed episodes aired. Whedon had planned to continue for at least two further seasons, but its cancellation killed those plans. It's a miracle that he got the funding and support to create Serenity, a movie which rounded off the series narrative using material planned for the cancelled series. Primeval is slightly different. A science fiction series involving time portals allowing prehistoric and futuristic animals into the present, its initial success saw three series air before it was abruptly cancelled by ITV amid falling ratings. The third series ended on a cliffhanger, leaving those invested in the story (including myself, I admit) a little sore. Two further series were funded for broadcast on Watch and later on ITV, but these too ended on a cliffhanger, and the Canada-set spin-off series -- yet another cliffhanger -- was cancelled after one season. Its somewhat nonsensical plot shall apparently never be resolved.

Video games are the worst in this regard, as the industry is not only highly capricious, but driven by corporate interests that make Hollywood studios seem mild. Several recent projects come to mind. Advent Rising and Too Human were both created to be strong franchises, but a combination of negative backlash and legal troubles caused both to stop at a single game. Mass Effect Andromeda was designed as the next trilogy in EA's Mass Effect franchise; its focus was Alex Ryder, the "Pathfinder" for the Andromeda Initiative, a multi-species push to colonise Andromeda. But it was pushed out before it was ready and subsequently saw a mixed reaction, culminating in its team being disbanded and the entire franchise put on hold; almost all of its remaining story was left untold. Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness was meant to be the first step of a grand evolution of its lead character Lara Croft, but a chaotic development cycle and push to release caused around half the planned content to be cut, and the subsequent critical failure caused the rest of the project to be cancelled, leaving many of the narrative points unresolved.

All of those I've mentioned caught my attention because of what they were; attempts at something grand that were never finished, for whatever reason. Have you any of your own to offer up?

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