I loved the Twilight Zone. Pretty much in any of its iterations, I have loved a show that can tell you a different and unconnected story every week. And later still, I loved The Outer Limits, Amazing Stories, Tales from the Darkside, Tales from the Crypt, Monsters... well, you get the idea.
I call them ‘Anthology Series’. A bit like those great big books full of sci-fi, fantasy and horror short stories, only on TV, yes?
So... My proposal here. Consider shows/movies you’ve liked that have turned into franchises that have stood the test of time. Stuff that’s still hanging around in the zeitgeist. And consider their expanded universes. Trek and Wars would be the first two examples that come to mind for me since they’ve got, at first glance, the most developed expanded plotlines and backstories. Are you considering them? Are you sitting comfortably?
Okay. Now let’s make shows from those instead. Anthology series. In the case of Star Wars, I’ve been pretty much pounding this pulpit for years. And so have the comic books. And rather an active and increasingly talented fanfilm community. Enough of the Skywalker Saga already, okay? It’s a wide and interesting galaxy. Full of dangers, intrigues, wars, crime and mystical powers. What if we had an anthology series that, and here’s a wild idea, DIDN’T focus on the Skywalker Dynasty, and all their friends for a change?
This isn’t to say that we couldn’t use the characters we’ve all grown to know and love. But how about the untold (or told) stories in Wars that we’d love to see on screen? How did Grand Admiral Thrawn reach his exalted rank in a human-centric empire? How’d you like to see all the Tag & Bink comics done by the fellow who wrote them for a 3 or 4 episode arc? How about the occasional Boba Fett story, or any one of the Bounty Hunters throughout the EU’s galaxy? Or maybe one of the myriad invasions of Zeltros by forces that have no idea who they’re invading? Or stories from THE OLD REPUBLIC. Or the Golden Age of the Sith. Or the Kyle Kataarn Dark Forces Games? Or Mara Jade? Or Rogue Squadron? Or R5-D4?
The same goes for Star Trek. I can appreciate the need to focus on whatever ‘Magnificent Seven’ du-jour you’ve got going in your series. It is through them that we experience and flesh out the strangeness and wonder of the Milky Way and all its sectors. Well, we’ve been fleshing it out for very nearly fifty years now. Our galaxy is so full of established races, weird artifacts and human colonies out amongst the weirdness that it’s a crying shame some of those stories haven’t been told. The only time we see any glimpse of these people are when the Enterprise du-jour picks up a distress beacon from one.
How about stories from the life and mixed up times of one Harcourt Fenton Mudd? Or maybe the story of how the gynoids got here from the Andromeda Galaxy to Galor 4? Or who made the exact duplicate of the planet earth we had in Miri? Or stories from Peter David’s USS Excalibur and Captain Calhoun? Or from the novelizations of the Starfleet Corps of Engineers? Or stories from Starfleet Academy? Or individual stories of characters long gone by? The Prime Universe’s Kirk taking his Kobayashi Maru Test. Or Carol Marcus? Stories of Robert April on the original Enterprise? Or perhaps Piper and Sarda from the Battlestations! novels by Diane Carey? Or any number of people so extraordinary in Starfleet that they got on board the Enterprise? Or the trials and tribulations of the Half-Romulan Saavik? Or crime stories from Orion Space? Or firefly-esque stories about traders and freighters just trying to make their way in all the strange? Real dramas about people who may not be in the replicator laden utopia of sector 001?
I could mention the idea of a modern Doctor Who anthology series too. Only this one could really go into the individual adventures of his companions, or recast original Doctors to tell classic stories that went by the wayside. In all fairness, this is kind of happening already to Doctor Who. The people at Big Finish productions have an industry built around the production of stories in franchises that make great use of their expanded universes. These folks arguably have gone whole hog and gotten themselves the original actors for their shows. There are whole series based on the life and times of Leela, Andred and President Romana on Gallifrey. Series based around the companions and their adventures, including a Sarah Jane Smith series that predated the late great Liz Sladen’s TV series. There’s stories of UNIT. Stories of wars in the Dalek Empire and the Fall of Mondas.
And that’s just the beginning of what you could do on the screen. You’ve already got a recast Hartnell nowadays in Mr. Filch. How about the stories of how he left Gallifrey in a stolen Type 40? Or how he picked up Susan? Where they went before they ended up in Totter’s Yard? Embellishing those with ideas from The Cartmel Masterplan and Lungbarrow? Or here’s a wild idea. Televised adventures of McGann’s 8th Doctor and any number of his novelized or audio companions? Or how about the heir apparent, Sean Pertwee stepping into his dad’s shoes as the 3rd Doctor?
Or perhaps rise and fall of Harriet Jones, who should have been prime-minister of Great Britain until the doctor derailed that timeline with his rrogance. Stories of Earth in the aftermath of any number of world-changing events that you’d pretty much be unable to chalk up to weather balloons and swamp gas. Or since she’s too expensive for the show now, how about the continuing stories of Sally Sparrow with a recast actress? or perhaps Melody Pond? Or her arguably superior predecessor, Dr. Bernice Summerfield? Or Drax? Or any number of OTHER Renegade Timelords including The Master!?
That’s the big three for me that I’d love to see expanded and expressed through an Anthology series. Hell, we’ve got that a little bit in Agents of SHIELD, in that we’re getting stories in Marvel’s world of all the ordinary people who have to live with the strange all around them. We got it in the past with Star Wars actually if you count the Droids cartoon and the Clone Wars to some degree. The series that came after Kirk and Picard to some degree started telling stories of other crews and places with DS9 and Voyager. But we can go further afield than shows anchored on an ongoing cast. and here’s where the opportunities get really rich.
If you’re not limited by a central cast, then you get the opportunity that Twilight Zone type anthology shows had to go nuts with their casting and get people for one off, or the occasional recurring character between the actors’ other projects. Who would you cast as Mara Jade or her pun-loving employer, Talon Kaarde? Who would you cast as Grand Admiral Thrawn? Or Cyrano Jones? Or Tom Baker’s Doctor? Or Corran Horn? Or Revan? You might have your pick of any given actor nowadays who might want to guest star in this week’s episode of wars/trek and be remembered down the conventions until the end of time.
Who would you get to direct some of these shows? Guest directors who don’t want to get into a huge hairy deal like Abrams is now into with the new Wars movies might jump at the chance to tell a story in a Wars series they could come into and then just go again. Or we might finally get to see what J.M. Straczynski might finally do if given the reins to an honest to goodness set of Star Trek shows. (Note: He has rather a history with Anthology shows. See: 1980's TWILIGHT ZONE) And we already know Peter Jackson would do Doctor Who if you give him a Dalek. Imagine your favorite genre director in the chair for your favorite franchise... How’s this grab ya now?
Writers have a long and illustrious past with shows like these as well. The Zone, Darkside and Outer Limits have a proud tradition of recruiting major sci fi writers to write for them, or let them adapt one of their short stories. We’ve seen the works of Stephen King, Clive Barker, Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch, Isaac Asimov, worked into episodes of Anthology series. Other series have gone a little further and gotten writers to do episodes of their ongoing series. Stephen King and William Gibson guest-helming as writers for The X-Files. Neil Gaiman guest-writing for Babylon 5 and Doctor Who. Did you know the K’zinti from Larry Niven’s novels are in the Trek universe? Cos they let him write them into the animated series episode he helmed. What might JK Rowling do with a story about younger Jedi in Star Wars? What awesome might come out of Straczynski doing Trek? Or any of your favorite writers in a series’ expanded universe?
Ya get the picture? The creative freedom afforded by an anthology series in any one of the three above examples could yield glorious results for their series. Couple that with the freedom to cast who you want, written by and directed by who you can get? Imagine the breakout characters that might emerge and expand these universes even further? What shows or series might you want to see expanded? Who would you like to see cast as someone in an EU? What stories would you want to see done from an EU? Who would you have writing and directing them? What characters might you create, or dig up from existing material? And in what period in those EU’s histories would you set them?
Done with this. Have at me.
Since this article originally ran, the Disney people have since re-introduced Grand Admiral Thrawn into the Star Wars: Rebels series. They’ve also started their ‘A Star Wars Story’ anthology movies focusing on the origins of Rogue Squadron, with upcoming movies about Han Solo’s youth and a possible Boba Fett movie. Fan film competitions within tolerable guidelines still continue apace, but there’s still lots of fan productions being released outside of those guidelines that are also tolerated by Disney/Lucasfilm in the wake of Star Wars VII. Mike Giacchino has been brought in to score Rogue One, being the first Star Wars film to release without John Williams at the helm, musically. This said, Giacchino has already done a more than credible approximation of Williams’ style in Jurassic World recently.
In the Doctor Who arena, Big Finish Audio has been granted the rights to do stories set in the current 2005 and onward universe. They’re doing stories with Tom Baker’s 4th Doctor, stories with the 3rd Doctor with a recast in the role, and 10th Doctor stories with David Tennant. They’ve also started any number of side series where the potential for storytelling is hot. The BBC have started a series called ‘Class’ which focuses on stories on earth when the Doctor isn’t there, based in the Coal Hill school that has featured repeatedly in the show. There are also several fan video and audio series here too.
Marvel Comics is starting to see the emergence of a fanfilm community, but continues to generate new series in the form of Agents of SHIELD, Daredevil, The Punisher, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, Iron Fist and the eventual, The Defenders. They’re turning out Marvel Cinematic Universe properties with such speed, that the fan community can barely keep up. They literally have to wait a minute and Disney/Marvel does it. Like Stan used to say, ‘Because you demanded it, True-Believers!’
Star Trek has gone in the other direction, focusing on the JJ Abrams movies, as well as (presumably) a pay-per-view ongoing series done by the creator of Hannibal and Dead Like Me. Otherwise, they are suing and threatening their fanbase, along with people making Trek fanfilms. They’ve even gone as far as pirating the concept of the more infamous of their fan homages for the series they eventually coughed up for the 50th anniversary, which will not be on time as they have presently gone back to concept after being called on it. And while audioseries are not currently being sued under the draconian fan film guidelines issued by CBS and Paramount, there’s no telling when the IP owners may reverse course on that when they next see a series concept they’d like to rip off like they did with Deep Space 9 and Axanar.