The Prequel and the Anti-Pay-Off

As an aspiring writer, I’ve become very interested in how stories work – see, for example, my examination of how closely the plot of Aliens follows the Hollywood Formula. Naturally, I’m just as interested in how stories don’t work, so I can avoid their mistakes (in the hope that the all new ones I make will at least be original and / or memorable).

One thing I’ve been looking at lately is the idea of the pay-off: An emotional fulfillment caused when the plot resolves one of its elements. Basically, the idea that when the writer reveals or resolves something, the reader’s emotional response to it is positive – at least, in the sense that it makes the reader want to keep reading. And as a writer who’s contemplating a series, I’m particularly interested in how individual works pay off moments in previous ones – or even turn moments in existing works into pay-offs for new elements in new works.

Right at the moment, though, what’s really got my curiosity is how a prequel work – a story that the writer creates and publishes after an existing, published work, but that’s set before the existing work in the chronology of the fiction – can damage the integrity of its sequel’s story. A word of warning: I’m going to be discussing plot elements of some movies, so if you’ve not seen any of the Star Wars movies or Halo: Legends, you may wish to stop reading now.

This all started a few days ago, when I read an article about a proposed “midichlorian scale” for how subsequent works in a franchise can damage those that came before. The writer was referring, of course, to the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy, a topic that few geeks don’t have an opinion on. The author made specific mention of the introduction of two plot points. The first was the “midichlorians” (a microscopic intermediary between every living being and the Force, the mystical energy that the Original Trilogy introduced); the second was the inclusion of the Original Trilogy’s famous robots, R2-D2 and C-3PO, in the Prequel Trilogy, by linking them directly to Luke Skywalker’s father, Anakin, the boy who would grow up to become the dreaded Darth Vader.

One such geek had responded to that piece, professing to not understand what the big deal about those two points was. I weighed in with a response, one that I think highlights the perils of extending an existing fiction, even if you wrote it in the first place. While this is technically a re-posting of that response, I’ve done a lot of editing. In particular, I’ve cut out the bit on midi-chlorians; while it’s interesting and ties into the broader spirit of a fictional world, I’m more interested in the two robots, as they tie directly into this idea of the pay-off.

If you were a Star Wars nerd you probably knew the two droids were going to shop up in Episode I: The Phantom Menace months before the movie premiered, but do you remember that moment when Anakin introduces Padme to the droid he’s been building and we go, “Holy shit! That’s C-3PO!”? It was a Big Deal. Anakin Skywalker built (or maybe re-built out of parts) one of our favourite characters from the Original Trilogy.

And then R2-D2 gets into a fighter with Anakin and the two of them go and shoot down a Trade Federation battleship! Even if you did find that whole sequence annoying, the fact that Luke Skywalker’s Goose was also Anakin’s is just as Big a Deal.

Why were these Big Deals? We were being told more about the history of the two droids who had effectively Just Shown Up at the beginning of the first ever Star Wars movie and blundered their way through the action of the whole Original Trilogy and into our hearts. Whether we knew it or not, we watchers of The Phantom Menace had formed an expectation. What could all that history mean for our beloved characters? Where could that go?

The problem is, we’d already seen the Original Trilogy. We already knew the answers.

Nothing. Nowhere.

The facts that Anakin Skywalker built C-3PO and that R2-D2 crewed Anakin’s fighters makes not one whit of difference to the plot of the first three films. In a way, it makes them even more frustrating, because those two bumbling characters now have this new, huge weight of history behind them – all the things they’d seen and done – and the plots of the Original Trilogy never even refer to it. They can’t, because it didn’t even exist back then.

When the Prequels directly referenced the Original Trilogy in such a way, they should have satisfied us – let us look back / ahead to the Original Trilogy and go “Ohhhh, I see. That’s good.” Our memory of that trilogy (or its first viewing for those who came on board with the Prequels) should have paid that emotion off. Instead, we’re frustrated, disappointed. We got an anti-pay-off.

And even the reason why the droids never address that weight of history is given short shrift. I figured from The Phantom Menace that the droids were going to get their memories wiped. Most fans probably did too; Uncle Owen mentions that droids can have their memories erased within the first half an hour of A New Hope. But I was waiting for a great moment of pathos. We get to see the droids plugged into a machine, watch as their memories of the things they did and all the people they met and knew are taken from them – as the people those droids have become over the last three movies, in a way, die – and then they come out and start re-introducing themselves to each other as though they’d never met or adventured together before. Their basic personalities may have been intact but all those memories and experiences of adventure, drama, friendship, courage and loss are gone.

But, no. Bail Organa tells Captain (I presume) Antilles to wipe C-3PO’s memory, to which R2-D2 makes a “sucks to be you” electronic snicker. So R2-D2 gets to roll around with all these secrets for the next three movies, and again, it doesn’t matter. Heck, it even makes R2-D2 into a bit of an arsehole. He could have told Luke about his dad, his mother, his grandmother. He didn’t.

There’s another instance of this: Chewbacca. Much as there was with Anthony Daniels providing his voice for Epsiode I, promotional hoopla was made about Peter Mayhew returning to wear the big hair suit in Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. Yet what happens is almost worse than the treatment the droids get, because they at least got to do some adventuring (especially in Attack of the Clones). Chewie basically stands around, then carries Yoda to his one-man shuttle. Yoda tells Chewie he’s going to miss him. That’s it. Next thing we know, the Wookiee who was a part of Yoda’s command team during the Battle of Kashyyyk, who watched as the Republic turned on the Jedi, who as far as I can see was a close personal friend of Yoda turns up as Han Solo’s first mate in A New Hope without a whit of explanation as to how he got from there to here.

Once again, the writers of Star Wars load a character up with a ton of intriguing history that means nothing and goes nowhere. At the end of Episode III, I didn’t feel gladdened that I got to see Chewie again, I felt disappointed – yet more interesting stuff that I knew was never going to get its proper pay-off. Chewie never tells Luke how awesome the Jedi were, never name-drops Yoda. Yoda never mentions the Wookiee he says he’ll miss.

And I’m still not quite done. There’s one moment in the Original Trilogy which was almost begging to be a pay-off for something in the Prequels. It’s a little over halfway through Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, just after the Rebels have enlisted the Ewoks’ aid in their mission to take down Death Star II’s shield generator. Luke heads out on his own, and Leia follows. She asks him what’s up.

“Leia, do you remember your mother? Your real mother?”

Note that: Luke is acknowledging that he knows that Leia was adopted. She also doesn’t react like it’s a big deal.

“Just a little bit. She died when I was very young.”

“What do you remember?”

“Just images, really. Feelings.”

“Tell me.”

“She was… very beautiful. Kind, but – sad… Why are you asking me this?”

“I have no memory of my mother. I never knew her.”

It would seem that when the Skywalker twins were separated at birth, their mother went with Leia, perhaps to Alderaan, and was present for long enough for the young Leia to have formed an impression of her character, presumably a couple of years. This is intriguing. We the audience can safely assume she was sad because she knew that the father of her children had turned to the Dark Side, but what happened that their mother could take Leia but not Luke? Why did she die a while later?

Yet Episode III ends with the twins’ mother, Padme, dying within seconds of childbirth. Within the internal consistency of the Original Trilogy, it makes some sense, yet it actually wrecks what’s otherwise a very quiet, very important character moment in Return of the Jedi because it directly contradicts what one of the main characters of the Original Trilogy tells us about her personal history. Leia is wrong, right when she shouldn’t be, right when we need to trust what she’s telling Luke. It engenders a confusion about the plot of the movie in a series of movies with straightforward plots. If that confusion was ever resolved it wouldn’t be so bad; at least it served the plot’s action. But once again, we know it isn’t. No one and nothing in the Original Trilogy contradicts the history of the Skywalkers as told by Leia. It’s another anti-pay-off.

Look, George Lucas had an uphill task when he took the Prequel Trilogy on; he needed to tell a story that enriched the Original Trilogy. Was such a thing even possible? I don’t know. Unfortunately, his attempt to tell the history of the Original Trilogy only weighed it down – and, to a certain extent, broke it.

Just in case you think I’m unfairly directing all my attention on Star Wars, I’ll also take a quick look at another science fiction franchise that got busy filling in the gaps of its history even before the second episode of its own core trilogy was complete. Naturally, I mean Halo.

I’ve already dedicated enough words to my low opinion of the novels written by Eric Nylund; I think the people who enjoy his work are getting a bit sick of it. Instead, I’m going to take a quick look at another work that came out after the release of Halo 3, an animated project called Halo: Legends. Specifically, I’m talking about the animated short called, “The Package.”

This particular short, one of the eight or so on the Legends DVD, tells the story of a group of SPARTAN-II super-soliders, led by the franchise’s hero, the Master Chief, as they assault a Covenant vessel and attempt to extract something on board. Given that there’s more than one Spartan here, we can presume that “The Package” is set some time before the events of the first game, Halo: Combat Evolved (where the Master Chief is presented as the last known Spartan alive), yet all the Spartans present seem to be wearing Mark VI MJOLNIR powered armour, which doesn’t make its appearance until Halo 2 (Nylund presents the Mark V suit in The Fall of Reach as reasonably new). But that could easily be worked around (the various wikis dedicated to Halo identify the suits as Mark IV); besides, “The Package” isn’t more than an extended combat scene that leans on Halo fans’ “Awesome!” buttons from start to finish.

But the element that bothers me occurs when the Chief finds the package: A cryo-tube bearing Dr. Catherine Halsey, the woman who created the SPARTAN-II programme and the mother figure for the super soldiers. He opens the tube, releases Halsey and asks,

“Sleep okay?”

To which she replies,

“No thanks to their driving, yes.”

If you’ve played Halo: Combat Evolved, you’ll know this is a direct call-out to the moment when the Master Chief and the AI Cortana first address each other in the game:

“Sleep okay?”

“No thanks to your driving, yes.”

“So you did miss me!”

On its own, that moment in Combat Evolved has integrity. It tells us that the Master Chief has a quick wit and that he and Cortana are familiar and friendly with each other.

But when taken as part of the broader continuity including “The Package,” that moment is cheapened. The Chief isn’t being spontaneous any more, he’s aping something he heard his mother say previously. It makes me like the guy whose boots I’m supposed to be jumping into a little less, makes him seem more… dull. And as we find out that Cortana herself is based on Dr. Halsey’s mind, we wonder just whom the Chief is missing. It’s another anti-pay-off.

Maybe I’m taking this stuff to seriously. No one’s perfect, after all. Yet this is the sort of thing that I want to avoid while writing, the sense that the very characters whom I like enough to tell you about aren’t internally consistent, that you the reader aren’t being put off by things that I introduce and then don’t address, especially as they relate to character.

In essence, if I as a reader / watcher get pissed off when stories shove anti-pay-offs at me, then I have no right to expect my readers / watchers to be any less pissed off if I foist one off on them due to accident or laziness.

So what do I need to do to avoid pulling a Lucas (sorry, George, that was a cheap shot and you’ve done an amount of hard work by my age that I haven’t come anywhere close to matching, but still) and creating anti-pay-offs?

  • Ensure that my characters have integrity on the page, that any inconsistencies that I present don’t break the story enough to make a reader stop reading and get tied off at some point.
  • Accept that no matter what I might have thought about or written down about my characters’ histories, the readers will always come up with their own; any prequel I write is going to tread on someone’s creation of what I write on the page.
  • Accept that no matter how hard I try, I’m going to leave some loose ends.

Which anti-pay-offs bother you?

  • I’ve heard that the new Battlestar Galactica and Lost both managed to make fans go “?!” at the end – what did you make of them?
  • Which other prequels stepped on the toes of the works that they were telling the history of?

Images from the Star Wars films copyright Lucasfilm, Ltd. Movie poster sourced from starwars.wikia.com.

Halo: Legends still sourced from halo.wikia.com, copyright Microsoft / 343 Industries.

Follow GM Radio Rob!