By Ashley R. Lierman
Is there any trend in pop culture right now as ubiquitous, or as divisive, as the remake? Resurrecting classic properties for another grab at their revenue streams is an event so frequent it seems almost compulsive, and nerd culture seems to get hit with it particularly hard. Some people are definitely glad to see old favorites come back, which is great – and as you might imagine, I’m not complaining about Paul Feig’s all-female Ghostbusters reboot, for one thing. But the whole business can get to feel a little cynical after a while, and it’s easy to grow weary of having your nostalgia taken out behind the barn and milked for cash every couple months. And it doesn’t help matters that, as with so many things, the quality of these rehashes varies wildly.
So what makes a reboot a success, and what makes a failure? That’s a big question I doubt I can answer at all, let alone within the scope of this column. I can identify one relevant thing, though, that makes a reboot fail for me: when it’s too focused on doing something old to think about how it could do something new.
I talked about this before with regard to Constantine, the TV adaptation of the long-running comics series Hellblazer: it bothered me that the series was obsessively loyal to many of its original fictional elements, but treated the main character’s bisexuality as a disposable detail, never minding what representation of that “detail” might mean to actual, real people. And I continue to think that reboots fail us not just when they’re lazy and bad – when they rely on the nostalgia value of a property and are lax with the quality of the product they’re making here and now – but also when they fail to recognize that the world the reboot enters is not the same one the original left. Progress takes work and it’s never guaranteed, of course, but more often than not we come back to a favorite piece of media twenty, ten, even five years later and find ourselves cringing at its ignorance of some ideas and groups of people, from the standpoint of where the conversation in society stands now. Which is bad enough – but what about when something gets rebooted and it still makes you cringe? Making a boring remake is disappointing; making one that’s regressive and stagnant in its social attitudes is, in my opinion, a much more serious crime.
So, okay, when I heard that The X-Files was coming back to TV, I was braced for the possibility that it might not be very good. Much as I loved the original, it definitely had its low points, and whether a 20-year gap would improve or worsen those seemed like a coin toss. What I wasn’t prepared for, though, was that it would traffic in transphobic and Islamophobic stereotypes that wouldn’t have been great even by the standards of the mid-1990s. After, and despite, the lackluster and grotesquely homophobic I Want To Believe, my wildest dreams for the X-Files back on TV would have been a breath of new life: for the show to take this second chance to bring in new blood, look at new ideas and new directions, and embrace the possibilities of the broader world it now lives in. I can tell you with no spoilers, though, that my wildest dreams definitely did not come true. The new series has largely just recapitulated the most tiresome of its old habits and monster-of-the-week episodes, and the most it’s done to embrace change in society is have Mulder fumble with his smartphone and somebody mention 9/11 at least 2-3 times per episode. (Yeah, very topical.) And none of that, of course, comes close to being as bad as bringing in trans and Muslim side characters, even in satirical episodes, whose presentations read like checklists of every possible stereotype of those groups imaginable. If you’re a straight white cis guy who just wants new so-so episodes of the same old X-Files, you might be in luck here; but it sure seems like if you’re anybody else, the show’s not here for you, and it has not chosen in the intervening years to give any thought to you at all.
Then what’s the other option? What do you do with an old thing if not, well, the same old thing? Fortunately, we have a pretty current example of that, too: Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
When I wrote my queer history of Star Wars in December in preparation for the film’s release, I have to admit I painted a pretty grim picture of the Star Wars universe on diversity in general. And I don’t feel like that was unfair, prior to TFA. Star Wars had always been overwhelmingly white, pretty heavily male, and extremely straight (the occasional gay planet notwithstanding. No, I’m never going to let that go). And then came a return to the franchise that went in a completely different direction: closely tied to the original story and with plenty of nostalgic callbacks, but focused on a new storyline and a new central group of characters, and with a set of heroes of whom white men number exactly 0. The diversity of TFA in terms of race and gender has been much discussed – and produced a fair amount of backlash from white male fans with racist and sexist complaints about the new heroes. In my personal opinion, that’s a point in the movie’s favor, but more generally it also signifies something else interesting: that TFA is diverging from the “fundamentalist” impulse that I complained about regarding Constantine.
I don’t think it’s unfair to say that fans can be resistant to change, especially those who have been best-served by a piece of media in the past – which is, basically always, straight white cis guys again. When a lot of them get angry about a remake or reboot, that’s a good sign that the revived property is not treating its predecessor in a fundamentalist way, and is genuinely trying to break ground and do something new. And doing something new, I would argue, is almost inevitably a good thing. You may run the risk of disappointing those who just wanted more of the same, but to be fair, the odds are strong that you were going to disappoint them anyway: it’s all but impossible to exactly recapture the magic of a piece of media that many people love in a way that will satisfy all of them, and fans are also notoriously picky. In fact, by aiming to exactly recreate the original experience, it seems to me you’re always more likely to produce something that feels hollow and forced, just repeating a formula without any of its original spirit. When you break away and try to build something related but unique, however, you have all kinds of opportunities to create an experience that a lot more people beyond the fundamentalists will enjoy. You have the chance to capture the imaginations of another generation of people just encountering this story for the first time; and you have the chance to represent, and invite, the people who in the past haven’t had the chance to see themselves in that story. If you can let go of the past, then it’s possible to move toward a future that’s better for everyone, not just the die-hard obsessives. And not just within the confines of fiction, either. Representation matters, and its impact is felt by real people even after they leave the movie theater.
So what do we take away from all of this? You don’t necessarily have to burn everything behind you to make a good remake or reboot, that’s not what I’m saying, and you don’t have to turn every old cringe-worthy story into a crusade for social justice, for that matter. But the past is gone, and the evidence seems to suggest that embracing change and moving forward instead of just looking back is something that helps everyone, and helps to create a better and more compelling product. And if that isn’t worth striving for in your work… what is?