Geek Punditry #17: Fiction’s Fiction

If there’s one thing you can say about fandom, it’s that all fans of every stripe want the same thing: more. If we love a TV series, we want movie spin-offs. If we love a comic book, we want that hero to appear in multiple titles. If we love football, we feign interest in the XFL or USFL until August, because at least it’s something. Whatever it is fans want, the unifying element is that everybody wants more of it. 

The problem is that stuff takes time. The average TV season lasts for 13 episodes these days (sometimes 22, if you’re lucky), leaving well over two thirds of a year with no new content. Movie sequels can take from years to decades, and sometimes never happen at all no matter how badly you want them. Waiting for new books is a crapshoot – if you’re a Stephen King fan you’ll have three new novels to read by the time you get home from Burger King, whereas George R.R. Martin readers will have to inherit the fandom from their grandparents before they get any new content. Even comic books, which usually have a pretty standard schedule of once or twice a month, take you ten minutes to read and then you’re stuck sitting around waiting for the next installment.

Efficiency is the only reason the man on the left has a higher body count.

So in order to satiate the thirst of fans for “more,” something marvelous has happened. “Extended” Universes. Novels based on movies, comic books based on novels, TV shows based on comics, movies based on TV shows. There’s a weird, incestuous spiderweb of media that springs up around any sufficiently popular franchise, and it’s been happening for ages. Back in 1942 George F. Lowther wrote The Adventures of Superman, a novel based on the world’s most popular comic book character who, at the time, was only four years old. In 1910, Thomas Edison produced a short film based (very loosely) on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Hell, way back in 1615, Miguel de Cervantes published the second volume of Don Quixote largely to spite an anonymous writer who, using the pseudonym “Alonso Fernandez de Avellaneda,” released his own unauthorized sequel to the first book, something that would have brought down a legion of Disney-owned lawyers were anyone to try that today. The point is, fans have been greedy for a long, long time.

Pictured: More.

The great thing is, if you love Star Trek and can’t wait for June 15 and the season premiere of Strange New Worlds, there are literally hundreds of novels, comic books, and video games you can consume to get your fix. And some of them are really good. And some of them have very devoted fans, and some of them have wonderfully complex and entertaining lore and mythologies all their own.

And this is where the problem comes in. When extended universes are really popular, a sort of strange conflict begins to arise when the time comes to figure out what is and what is not canon. What’s “official” to the main universe that you’re enjoying? What “counts” and what doesn’t?

It used to be relatively simple: the medium that birthed the franchise was king, and everything else could be a fun diversion, but was not considered relevant to the creation of a new “official” installment. It didn’t count, it wasn’t real, it was “Fiction’s fiction.” Because of this, at the time, these expanded works didn’t usually do anything that would have permanent repercussions to the main story. Sure, there were Star Wars comics while the original trilogy was being produced, but there was never any real danger of Han Solo dying because Lucasfilm needed him for the next movie. This did produce some “funny in hindsight” moments when early writers teased a Luke/Leia relationship because they didn’t know yet that the two of them were brother and sister. Of course, neither did George Lucas, so who can blame them?

It was Star Wars, I think, that started to change things for these extended worlds. In the early 90s, it had been years since Return of the Jedi and there did not seem to be any intent to make more movies, so a plan was hatched to continue the universe via novels and comic books. The first Timothy Zahn trilogy of novels introduced the new big bad, the fandom-beloved Grand Admiral Thrawn, while Dark Horse Comics’ Dark Empire series brought Emperor Palpatine back from the dead by revealing he had the ability to transmit his mind into cloned bodies he had ready for just such an occasion. With the success of these stories, the Star Wars universe grew exponentially, with hundreds of interwoven stories introducing new characters, heroes, villains, planets, and alien species that were as thoroughly entertaining as anything the fans had come to love in the original trilogy. Even once movies were being made again, films that sometimes contradicted elements of the extended universe, the creators did their best to pivot, explain away inconsistencies, and incorporate “official” elements into their own world. And for the most part, it worked.

Geeks in the 90s were required by law to read these books 74 times.

Then Disney bought Lucasfilm and designated everything except the six existing movies and Clone Wars TV series to be non-canon. Actually, they used the term “Star Wars Legends,” because that way they could keep reprinting and profiting off the work while usually failing to pay the creators any royalties, which is a different rant I’m not going to get into right now. There would still be an extended universe, of course, but now they were going to produce it themselves, with books, comics, and video games tied to the new “official” canon, and ostensibly, those works would be considered canon as well. So far it seems to have worked out, but that doesn’t mean I doubt for a second that Kathleen Kennedy would make a movie that  contradicted Marvel Comics’s War of the Bounty Hunters series if she so felt the urge. 

My favorite “Star,” Trek, has had its own issues with extended universes, particularly in the 80s when DC Comics held the license. Following Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, DC began publishing new stories assuming a status quo as it was at the end of that movie: Admiral Kirk commanding the Enterprise after the death of Spock. Then came Star Trek III: The Search For Spock, in which Spock…y’know…un-dies. Despite the fact that the movies clearly take place right after each other, chronologically, the comic writers wrote a story that dovetailed their few years of adventures into that movie best they could, then began a new status quo. The Enterprise was destroyed, so Kirk took over command of the Excelsior for reasons, while Spock became captain of a science vessel and had his own adventures. Then Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home further complicated things with a story that clearly happened immediately after the events of the previous film and did not fit the comic book canon in any conceivable way. The comic book writers flailed for a while until DC got the rights to do an ongoing series of the then-new Star Trek: The Next Generation series, at which point they rebooted the comic starring the original crew so it could start with a new first issue the same month that TNG #1 came out, and then they just pretended those other stories they told never happened.

Trek got better in the late 90s and aughts, taking a cue from Star Wars and moving into stories based on franchise installments that seemed truly “over” and therefore safe to expand upon. There was a series of novels following the Deep Space Nine characters after the conclusion of their show, another with the adventures of Captain William Riker on the Titan following the final TNG movie, and even some series featuring mostly-new casts like Peter David’s New Frontier or the Starfleet Engineering Corps books. When the J.J. Abrams films brought Trek back to the screen, it was no problem for the extended universe, since they explicitly took place in an alternate timeline. In fact, it just gave writers a whole new universe to play around in. Modern Trek does have a few clashes, though: IDW Comics (who currently holds the license) recently began an initiative to create a more tightly woven universe through a relaunched Trek series and its Defiant spin-off, both of which are good comics, but which feature versions of Data and Beverly Crusher that seem to flat-out contradict the canon of Star Trek: Picard, which seems like a bizarre choice.

One of these things is not like the others…

The “official” continuation game has been played with more and more franchises in recent years. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly continued their respective universes in comic books, while Smallville – a TV show based on a comic – had a fairly lengthy “Season 11” series that followed that show: a comic book based on a TV show based on a comic book. Then there was the film adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower, a desperate effort to squash the material of seven books into 95 minutes (that’s seven Stephen King novels, most of which are large enough to qualify for their own zip code). While most fans were disappointed in the result, the sting is mitigated slightly if people try to view the film not as an adaptation of the books, but as a sequel to them. That probably doesn’t make any sense if you haven’t read the books, but just take my word for it.

That brings us to the issue when printed media are translated to the screen. Books were first, gloriously first, but if we’re being honest here, the general public often accepts film or TV adaptations as more official. Just talk to any devotee of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and its subsequent sequels about how much you love the Ruby Slippers and watch them die a little inside. James Bond was created as a hero for novels and short stories, but the films are obviously what most people are familiar with, and those are highly contradictory. Some of the movies are based on Ian Fleming’s stories, some of them use the titles of stories but very little else, and others are cut from whole cloth, but there’s just no way to pretend they share a canon. Most Bond fans don’t care, of course, and modern fans tend to see the movies as the “real” James Bond more than the novels that gave him birth. (He’s a more likable character in the movies, to be fair, so this is not necessarily a bad thing.)

As for comic books, there have been comic book movies for a very long time, but those have historically been ignored by the comics themselves. The first Batman serial from the 40s, for example, portrayed him as a government agent beating up spies, something that doesn’t sync with any canon comic book I can think of. Even really popular films, like the Christopher Reeve Superman or Tobey Maguire Spider-Man, had a negligible effect on the comic books. Then came the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and boy, things changed. With the gargantuan success of the MCU, there are now effectively two “official” Marvel Universes, and the cinematic one is by far the one that’s more recognizable to the general public. The MCU was the first time anyone had ever tried to create so intricate a universe of interwoven films and TV shows, something that made it feel more “real” than that scene in Batman Forever where Bruce Wayne casually mentions Dick Grayson’s circus is “halfway to Metropolis” but otherwise gave no indication of anything beyond the boundaries of the film. The Marvel Studios movies and shows all linked to each other and all mattered to each other, just like the comics, and the “cinematic universe” model is something everyone has been trying to replicate ever since.

And of course, occasionally elements in these extended universes become popular enough that they can cross over into the “real” worlds. Harley Quinn was created in Batman: The Animated Series and was such a hit that she joined the official comic book universe, then spread out into live action. Superman’s pal Jimmy Olsen, almost as integral a character to the mythos as Lois Lane or the Kents, made his first appearance on Superman’s radio show. The aforementioned Batman serial, which is goofy and doesn’t feel like the same character at all, is responsible for the creation of the Batcave. And even though the Star Wars Legends stuff is no longer canon, Disney is starting to allow elements of that world to leak into the “official” world, such as bringing in Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn character and allowing the resurrection of Emperor Palpatine – although to avoid being accused of copying the Dark Empire comic book, they cleverly neglected to give any comprehensible reason for his return whatsoever. 

“I’m canon now, bitches!” –Thrawn, probably

The original question was that of what is “real” in these different universes. The newfound ubiquity of the multiverse concept in storytelling makes that easier. (It’s an old concept, I know, but in recent years it’s really experienced a boom in popular culture.) Marvel officially recognizes just about every version of its characters as “real” in one corner of the multiverse or another, with stories like Spider-Verse (the comic book) and Into the Spider-Verse (the movie) bringing them all into play together. DC has a similar policy and has officially declared that the Christopher Reeve Superman movies and Michael Keaton Batman movies are set in the same universe, although whether that will be contradicted by the upcoming Flash movie remains to be seen. The truth is that the people writing any version of these IPs in any medium will pick and choose those elements that they need to make their story work, and as that can be confusing if a fan is trying to reconcile everything, this is probably a good reason not to try that. What’s “real”? What “matters”? Whatever you need for the story you’re trying to enjoy right now.

The rest of it?

Just find that corner of the multiverse where a guy named Joel told us to repeat to ourselves “It’s just a show, I should really just relax.” 

Yep. Those guys got a comic book, too.

Blake M. Petit is a writer, teacher, and dad from Ama, Louisiana. His current writing project is the superhero adventure series Other People’s Heroes: Little Stars, a new episode of which is available every Wednesday on Amazon’s Kindle Vella platform. One of his favorite Star Trek novels is Federation, by Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens. Don’t try to read it and then watch First Contact. It doesn’t work. 


Geek Punditry #16: The Case For Star Trek: Legacy

You know, I had a column planned this week. Took some notes. Had it mapped out in my brain. And then I went and watched the finale of Star Trek: Picard, the magnificent, joyous finale that was honestly everything I wanted it to be, and suddenly what I was going to write about has gone completely out of my head. Instead, this week, I’m going to look ahead to the future of Star Trek – specifically about Picard showrunner Terry Matalas’s proposed Star Trek: Legacy series, and why it needs to happen. So here’s your warning, friends: after this point there WILL be spoilers for Picard, all the way to the final credits. If you haven’t watched it yet, continue reading at your own risk.


After two seasons of Picard that were disjointed and felt forced, the third and final season gave fans what we wanted all along: a suitable ending for the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The last time we saw these characters together in canon was in the film Star Trek: Nemesis, which left us on a bittersweet note that was never resolved. Data was destroyed, Will Riker and Deanna Troi went off to the Titan, and the heroes we’d come to love were scattered to the cosmic winds. In this final season of Picard, Terry Matalas brought back Data and reunited the seven core cast members of The Next Generation (well…EIGHT core members, actually, since he even resurrected the Enterprise-D) so that their story could end the way they deserved. Now, rather than leaving behind our friends in a state of mourning, we say farewell to them as they are together, happy, and in the wake of their greatest triumph. This is something that cannot be said for the characters in any other Star Trek series, and if this is in fact the last time we see these heroes (and I suspect it is at least the last time we see them all together), it is a fitting goodbye.

But Matalas did not JUST reunite the TNG crew. He also built a new crew, combining a few of the characters from the first two seasons of Picard with others created for this season, and we leave them on the bridge of the Titan, newly rechristened as the USS Enterprise-G. It is at this point that Matalas is staring Paramount executives in the eye and challenging them to greenlight a series about this new crew, a series he has been calling Star Trek: Legacy to anybody who’ll listen, even though it hasn’t actually been approved by Paramount.


Let’s talk about the reasons that a Terry Matalas-led Star Trek: Legacy is not only possible, but exactly what long term Trek fans are hungry for.


“Look at us! Here we are! Right where we belong…”

After Nemesis, every Trek series or movie for nearly two decades went backwards in time. Star Trek: Enterprise was about the ship that led to the creation of the Federation, the J.J. Abrams movies showed us the crew of the original series in an alternate timeline, and Discovery started its first season about a decade or so before the original series. Without debating the relative quality of any of these projects, none of them moved forward in the time period that fans had come to love through three series and four movies. That didn’t happen until Picard. And with that series finished, we are once again left without a continuation of that period in live action. Strange New Worlds and the upcoming Starfleet Academy series are in different points in the timeline, and while the animated Prodigy series seems to be in that time period (it’s honestly a little nebulous exactly where it falls), I think most fans probably join me in wanting a flagship series set in the 25th century. 

This is the most well-developed era in the Trek timeline, with elements from TNG, Deep Space Nine and Voyager all in play, and so far the only show that’s playing with all these toys is the animated comedy Lower Decks. And while it’s true that eras that have not been explored as much have room for development, that doesn’t quench the thirst for exploration of the storylines, cultures, alien races, and characters we already know. A show set in this time period would allow us to check in with those elements and see where they go in the future – something that would be inevitable with Voyager alumni Seven of Nine as captain of the Enterprise-G and two members of the bridge crew whose parents are members of the TNG crew. (Not to mention the fact that Riker and Troi have a daughter who is currently enrolled in Starfleet Academy, and could easily join the show later if we really wanted to ramp up the fan service). 

It would also allow the show to address the one glaring absence from Picard: the characters from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. For the first eight episodes of the season the major threat were the Changelings, the main antagonists from DS9, but except for Worf nobody from DS9 ever made an appearance. I suspect we probably would have seen them if not for the passing of Rene Auberjonois, who played the Changeling Odo on that series – but alas, it was not to be. Regardless of why we didn’t see them, DS9 remains my favorite Trek series, and a Legacy show could (and should) check in on the station, what’s been going on with Bajor since the Dominion War…maybe even finally provide some resolution to the final fate of Captain Benjamin Sisko.


There are a lot of letters left in the alphabet.

When the original Star Trek series debuted in 1966, there wasn’t necessarily a conceit that there was anything special about the ship among the other ships in the fleet except that it was the one we were following. Throughout the show and the original movies, though, we got the impression that the Enterprise crew stood out, and by the time TNG launched in 1987, it was declared that the Enterprise was the name given to the flagship of Starfleet. This was codified with the Star Trek: Enterprise series, which retroactively applied that name to the first ship capable of Warp 5, and the adventures of that particular crew led to the birth of the United Federation of Planets. The point is, while the Star Trek universe is vast and diverse with room for many, many stories, the Enterprise is the core of that universe.

True, we have Strange New Worlds, which is set on the Enterprise NCC-1701 in the pre-Kirk years, but that’s kind of the problem. Don’t get me wrong, I love SNW, but the inherent difficulty with any prequel series is that certain elements are closed off as storytelling avenues. At no point in SNW are you ever going to fear that the ship will be destroyed or that any of the characters who show up in the original series, such as Spock or Dr. M’Benga, are in mortal danger. There can be great adventures told with Pike’s Enterprise, but it will inevitably be trapped in the “past” of Star Trek. The 25th century, for many fans, is the “present,” and we haven’t had canonical, ongoing stories of an Enterprise in that time period since TNG went off the air in 1994. The look of the ship can change, the crew can change, the letter at the end of the registry number can change, but the fact of the matter is that without an Enterprise, Star Trek simply isn’t complete. As Jack Crusher observed when the Enterprise-G was unveiled, “Names mean almost everything.”


“Um, you got something on your…on your face…oh, dear God…”

In addition to bringing back the TNG crew one last time, Picard also gave a definitive, final conclusion to the story of that era’s greatest threat: the Borg. When this malevolent race was introduced in TNG it was a terrifying idea: an artificial intelligence that propagated by taking the technology of conquered worlds and transforming the biological inhabitants of the destroyed civilizations into mindless drones, kind of like when Disney buys a new IP. But like many popular villains, the Borg got a little overused over the years (even as recently as season two of Picard). What the finale gave us was one last face-off between the Borg Queen and Jean-Luc Picard, one that was eminently satisfying, but also done in a way that should take the Borg off the table for good.

(I say “should” here because I’m realistic. With any long-running franchise, eventually new hands will take over, and when that happens they often will bring back the elements they loved from the past. Someday somebody WILL sit down in a Paramount boardroom and say, “Okay, here’s how we’re gonna bring the Borg back.” It’s inevitable. But I don’t think it will happen soon and I don’t think that person will be Terry Matalas.)

With the Borg gone, it’s time to bring in new threats, new enemies, new villains. This is a chance to have a fresh start in a familiar setting, which from a creative standpoint can be a hell of a lot of fun.


“Okay, now that I’m captain, when is it my turn to kill Tuvix?”

Like I said, the way Matalas stacked the crew of the Enterprise-G was a straight-up challenge to Paramount, loading the bridge with characters that matter to us. We already knew Seven of Nine from Voyager of course, but the crew also includes Picard’s former aide Rafi, who after two years finally spent this season blossoming into a compelling character through her partnership and friendship with Worf. We have Jack Crusher, son of Beverly Crusher and Jean-Luc Picard, who seems to have embraced his parents’ philosophy after struggling with it for some time. We have Sidney “Crash” LaForge at the helm, piloting the ship and determined to get out of the shadow of her legendary father. Over the course of this season we grew to care about these characters. Beyond the previous relationship between Seven and Rafi, we also saw Seven and Jack build a rapport which paid off when she named him a special counselor to the Captain. There was also a clear chemistry between Jack and Sidney, and the idea of Geordi LaForge showing up periodically to bristle at his daughter flirting with Jean-Luc Picard’s son is absolutely delicious. 

Matalas crafted these characters in such a way that the potential is obvious, and showcased them to make us want more. And just in case that wasn’t enough, he closed the series with a mid-credit stinger in which Jack Crusher meets his dad’s best frenemy, Q, who tells Jack that his own trials are just beginning. Translating this scene into Klingon and back again reveals that what he REALLY means is, “Come on, Paramount+, I double dog dare you to greenlight this spinoff.”

And then there’s the elephant in the room.


The most beloved dipshit ever to come out of Chicago.

Liam Shaw, played by Todd Stashwick, was introduced in the first episode of this season as captain of the Titan, and he initially came across as an antagonist. He didn’t like Seven of Nine, even though she was his first officer. He had no respect for Picard and Riker when they came on to his ship and tried to divert his mission. He even insulted Picard’s wine, setting up what would turn out to be one of the season’s best running gags. But by the end of the first episode you knew who Liam Shaw was: an asshole that you couldn’t stand and couldn’t wait to see get what was coming to him.

Then something magic happened.

We realized that nothing Shaw was doing was out of line. These two relics, neither of whom had any official standing with Starfleet at the moment, showed up on his ship and tried to send him off on a very spurious mission with no orders and a half-assed explanation, almost destroying the ship and killing everybody in the process. We, the audience, trust Picard and Riker because we’ve known them since jelly bracelets were in fashion, but Shaw has no such luxury. As for his relationship with Seven, as it turns out he was a survivor of Wolf 359, the most infamous Borg attack of all time (before this one), which happened to be led by Picard himself during the time he was assimilated. The man probably had to deal with PTSD every time he looked at Seven. 

Shaw’s abrasive qualities became part of his charm, especially as he continued to show himself to be highly qualified and competent, not only as Captain, but also as an engineer later on in the season. His voluminous ego doesn’t go away, but it also doesn’t stop him from doing the right thing, as we see when he gets injured a few episodes later and immediately transfers command of the Titan to Riker, a man he clearly doesn’t like, because he knows it’s the best chance for survival. Over nine episodes Shaw goes from an unlikable asshole to a tremendously likable asshole.

And then he dies.

Not a pointless, meaningless death, not a Tasha Yar death. Liam Shaw dies to buy Picard and the others time to escape the Borg as they’re taking over the Titan, and with his last breath passes his ship over to Seven of Nine (using her chosen name for the first time). Then, just to rub a little salt in the wound, we later found out that he had already recommended Seven’s promotion to captain even before the events of the season had begun.

But he’s dead, right? So why does it even matter?

Come on, guys. Since when has being dead ever stopped a great character? The entire season was filmed before it premiered, so there was no way of knowing just how much the fans would grow to embrace Liam Shaw when the decision was made to kill him off, but Matalas says he has an idea for how to bring him back if and when the opportunity presents itself. As for the question of what to do with him afterwards…honestly, I’m not sure. They won’t (and shouldn’t) take Seven out of the Captain’s chair to make room for him, and I certainly don’t want to see another series with a painfully dubious chain of command such as has plagued Discovery since the end of season one, but I want more stories with Liam Shaw. And I know I’m not alone.

Hell, maybe he’d be happy to step out of the command chair and become chief engineer.

Let’s take one last look at the most beautiful bird in the galaxy.

There’s an adage in the entertainment business that giving the audience what they want isn’t necessarily the best way to tell a story. But sometimes you go so far in the opposite direction that you wind up with a stupid, chaotic, and utterly insulting mess that seems more like they actively hate the audience that made them successful in the first place, and here I am specifically thinking of what Marvel Comics insists on doing with The Amazing Spider-Man. Season three of Picard has proven there’s nothing wrong with giving people what they want, you just need to find a good story in which to do it. Terry Matalas did that this season, and he knocked it out of the park. He’s earned the right to do it again.

Star Trek: Legacy, Paramount.

Make it so.

Blake M. Petit is a writer, teacher, and dad from Ama, Louisiana. His current writing project is the superhero adventure series Other People’s Heroes: Little Stars, a new episode of which is available every Wednesday on Amazon’s Kindle Vella platform. He also wants to push his idea for a Star Trek: Fleet Museum animated anthology series, where in each episode a holographic tour guide based on Geordi LaForge tells a story about one of the legendary ships in his museum to a pack of tourists. He’s not kidding about this. Call him, Paramount, you all should talk. 

Geek Punditry #15: How Lucy Gave Us the Arc

A few weeks ago I wrote about how, for a lot of people, familiar TV shows, books, and movies, act as a kind of pop culture comfort food, something that calms, soothes, and entertains you almost as much as a visit with an old friend. We rewatch these shows because the familiarity does us good and makes us happy, and that’s what makes Pluto TV the best app around, in my opinion. Pluto TV gives you (free) access to hundreds of channels that provide you with this sort of entertainment. There are channels dedicated to old sitcoms, channels dedicated to old gameshows, an entire channel that shows reruns of The Carol Burnett Show, another that gives you a steady stream of Mystery Science Theater 3000, one that’s all RiffTrax, and two separate channels dedicated to repeats of the various Star Trek series. My son specifically asks to watch “Nick Jr. on Pluto TV” as opposed to asking for a particular show, and as that has weaned him away from YouTube I’m not complaining in the slightest. There are also channels for news, sports, music, movies, cartoons, and (for my wife) true crime shows and documentaries. It’s honestly an app that has something for everyone. 

I swear they’re not paying me to say this. I just really like it.

But most pertinently to this week’s Geek Punditry, there’s a channel that only shows episodes of I Love Lucy, the timeless sitcom about the love between Lucy and Ricky Ricardo and the barely-disguised loathing of their best friends, Fred and Ethel Mertz. To my surprise, once we added the Lucy channel to our regular Pluto TV rotation, I learned that my wife had not watched this show growing up, so for her, it’s all new. It’s given me a good excuse to voraciously rewatch the show and, since Pluto shows the entire series in order, it’s also allowed me to notice something that hadn’t occurred to me before.  I don’t need to remind anyone what a groundbreaking, legendary series this was, about how it literally invented the rerun, how it pioneered the three-camera setup used by many sitcoms ever since, or about how Lucille Ball was simply one of the funniest human beings ever to walk the Earth. But what I didn’t realize until recently is that Lucy and Desi also apparently invented – or at least codified – one of the primary elements of television that exists today: the story arc.

“Luuuuuucy…are you breaking new ground in televised entertainment AGAIN?”

These days, of course, arcs are commonplace, and no longer the purview of only soap operas. Babylon 5 is largely responsible for bringing the technique to science fiction, blazing a trail that shows like Star Trek: Deep Space Nine began to follow a few years later. Then Lost premiered in 2004, probably the first mega-hit to run with an ongoing storyline, and since then almost any drama that isn’t a police procedural (and many that are) has followed suit. 

Comedies were a different breed, though. A “sitcom” is literally a “situation comedy,” and changing up the situation was a big no-no. In the past TV comedies existed in a state of permanent status quo, where anything that changed in the story had to be changed back by the end of the episode. If it was a show about a nuclear family, that family stayed nuclear. If it was a show about a workplace, the people employed at that workplace stayed constant. Nobody ever moved away without moving right home again, nobody in the main cast ever got married or divorced, and if somebody lost their job, they had to regain it in 30 minutes or less. There’s a single episode of The Honeymooners where Ralph is laid off but they forgot to put him back behind the wheel of the bus before the episode ended. They simply ignored it the next week and moved on as if nothing had happened, but it was so shocking that it became a punchline in an episode of Family Guy decades later.

“When I catch the guy who forgot to gimme my job back, BANG! ZOOM!”

Now I could be wrong. I’m not a TV historian, and I know that things like radio dramas and soap operas had arc-based stories for some time, but when it comes to primetime shows, especially comedies, I feel like this is another area where Lucy broke new ground. Over the six seasons of the show, I count no less than six storylines that can legitimately be described as “arcs” (which, for ease of discussion, I will hereby define as a story thread or change to the status quo that carries through multiple episodes before resolution). The first was a matter of necessity: when Lucille Ball was pregnant during the second season of the show, they decided to incorporate it into the story rather than disguise it like so many shows have done before and since. (It was not, however, the first TV show to depict a pregnancy, as is often erroneously reported. A mostly-forgotten show called Mary Kay and Johnny actually beat them to the punch by a full four years, and they did it for the same reason that Lucy did.) Lucy’s pregnancy was announced in season 2, episode 10 and the baby was born in episode 16, with the five episodes in-between pretty much all dealing with the pregnancy as that episode’s major plot point.

Before and, for a time, after the birth of Little Ricky, I Love Lucy was mostly content with the one-off stories that were sitcom staples. In season 4, however, things changed with an absolutely massive arc in which the cast uprooted and went to Hollywood. It started in season 4, episode 6, when Ricky had a screen test with a movie producer. The next couple of episodes dealt with him waiting to hear back about the test, getting an offer to do a movie, planning a trip to Hollywood with the Mertzes for some reason, and several episodes of buying a car, fixing up the car, and driving from New York to California before finally arriving in Hollywood in episode 17. The cast stayed in California for the remainder of the 30-episode season, not returning home to New York until episode 6 of season 5. The arc was in many ways an excuse to bring in a bunch of celebrity guest stars like John Wayne and Harpo Marx, but it was still an unprecedented change to a series of this nature.

“Do you really think they’ll watch five episodes of us driving?”
“Of course they will, Nintendo hasn’t been invented yet.”

They didn’t stay home very long, though. In episode 10 of season 5, Ricky’s band is given an opportunity to tour Europe, and after a few episodes of getting a passport and (again) planning a trip with the Mertzes, they set off on a cruise ship in episode 13 and then continued traveling the continent for the remainder of the season’s 26 episodes. 

Season 6, the final season of the show in its original form, brought with it two more arcs. The first one, once again, was based on travel, with episodes 6-9 centered around a vacation to Miami and to Cuba to meet Ricky’s relatives (with the Mertzes). The final arc is a little harder to define, but it’s there. In episode 15, Lucy decides she’s tired of city life and wants to move to the country. Cue several episodes about buying a house, moving, and settling down in their new home, along with the Mertzes, proving that Bert and Ernie’s was not television’s first codependent relationship. Episode 20 is about the Ricardos and Mertzes trying (hilariously) to start up an egg farm, and that’s where I declare the “arc” over, as the remainder of the season’s (and series’) 27 episodes didn’t really deal with the move anymore, but the fact that they were new in town did still turn up as a plot point more than once.

No other show at the time had ever done so many extended storylines, especially nothing as long as the Hollywood arc, and it was a long time before such things were handled the same way. While changes in the status quo began to be allowed, they still often took the form of a single episode where a change was made and a new status quo took over: the move of the Laverne and Shirley characters to California, Richie joining the Army and leaving Happy Days, and of course, the infamous introduction of Cousin Oliver on The Brady Bunch are good examples of this. Changes were happening, but they were done so quickly that it was almost like a whole new show took over after an episode rather than the sort of slow burn that Lucy and Desi pulled off.

No matter how mad you are about what happened on your favorite show, remember, it could be worse.

Comedies now embrace arcs as well. The Office, for example, started off with the unrequited love between Jim and Pam, which was the sort of thing that sitcoms had always done, but then they did something shocking in season three and (gasp) REQUITED it. So they needed new arcs. They had the “Michael Scott Paper Company” storyline, the Sabre arc, the Dwight/Angela/Andy love triangle, and assorted other storylines of varying length and quality. Most other successful sitcoms these days bring in arcs after a while, if not built in to the DNA of the series from the very beginning. But as I sit there with Pluto TV showing me Lucy spending two episodes ruining and then trying to fix John Wayne’s footprints in wet cement in the middle of their year-long brush with Hollywood, I am in awe of the people who blazed the trail for everyone else.

Blake M. Petit is a writer, teacher, and dad from Ama, Louisiana. His current writing project is the superhero adventure series Other People’s Heroes: Little Stars, a new episode of which is available every Wednesday on Amazon’s Kindle Vella platform. He didn’t even touch on the Pluto channels for Doctor Who, Top Gear, or The Price is Right, because how much awesome can you realistically handle in one column? 

Geek Punditry #14: Filling In the Gaps

I’ve been reading comic books pretty much since I learned to read. The hook caught me when I was still in elementary school and my dad brought home a box of Archie Comics from a co-worker, and it was set even more firmly when my uncle gave me some old issues of Green Lantern and Legion of Super-Heroes he had. And much like watching your favorite TV show over and over, rereading old comic books is a form of comfort entertainment for folks like me. Oh sure, I still read new stuff, but revisiting the classics is like a shot of dopamine straight to the ol’ cerebral cortex (or wherever dopamine goes). The digital revolution in media has made that easier. You can find old stories you lost years ago, voraciously read precious comics without the fear of damaging those pristine back issues in your collection, or FINALLY read that missing issue of Power Pack you could never find as a kid that explained why the hell all of the kids had suddenly traded super powers and how the Snarkwars ended. This was serious business, friends.

Imagine waiting 35 years for apps to be invented so you could finally read this.

Of course, not everything is available digitally, not yet anyway. With nearly a century of comic books to digitize before they can be made available (and rights issues tying up a lot of them in various ways), the dream of a single device from which you can read every comic book ever made is probably going to remain a dream. But with Marvel Comics boasting over 30,000 comics on its app and DC hosting a library of over 24,000, it could practically take a lifetime to go through the stuff that’s already out there. Psyched for the new Guardians of the Galaxy movie? You can read every issue of their series right now. Pumped for the Blue Beetle film? The history of Jaime Reyes awaits you! Want to go back to the beginning? Check out every appearance of Superm–

Oh, wait.

Actually, not every issue of the assorted Superman comics from the past 85 years is among the 24K titles DC Universe Infinite has waiting for you. As every American learns in first grade, Superman first appeared in Action Comics #1 in 1938 and appeared in nearly every one of the title’s 904 issues before DC’s line-wide relaunch in 2011. But of those 904 issues, only 463 of them are on DCUI as of this writing. There are similar gaps in the other long-running Superman titles such as Superman and Adventures of Superman. Clark’s buddy Bruce Wayne has a similar problem: of the 811 pre-reboot issues of his flagship Detective Comics, DCUI has 696 as of now, again, with similar gaps in his other titles. Not as bad as the voids in Superman’s history, but still frustrating.

You’re telling me THIS isn’t worth digitizing?

My favorite characters and stories, as you may have noticed, tend to lean more towards DC than Marvel, but I also believe in credit where credit is due, and when it comes to making their library available, Marvel is considerably ahead of DC. You can read almost the entire run of the main series of their flagship properties like Fantastic Four, Avengers, and X-Men, and any gaps that exist are far smaller than those of their rivals. They’re also filling in the gaps much faster, with an almost weekly addition of big chunks of missing books (the last couple of weeks have given us dozens of issues of Dazzler, for instance), whereas DC rarely puts more than five or six older issues up a week, and usually from five or six different series, making it take much longer to complete a run if it gets completed at all.

I know it’s not as simple as pushing a button, of course. For comics that were produced before computer technology became a standard part of the production process (which means practically every comic produced before the 90s and a lot of them after that), digitizing them is a process. You need to find quality prints, scan each page by hand, and remaster them to make for a solid digital reading experience. For many comics, that means completely recoloring them based on the original guides. This takes time and money, so I don’t mind the wait. What bothers me, and a lot of other fans, is the kind of haphazard nature of what gets added. For example, this week’s slate of older books being added to the app includes Creature Commandos #1 from 2000, the first issue of the 1991 update to Who’s Who in the DC Universe, the first issue of the Eclipso: The Darkness Within crossover from 1992, Superman: Day of Doom #1 (a four-issue miniseries from 2002 produced for the 10th anniversary of Superman’s “Death”), and Stormwatch #46 from 1997. They’ve been (slowly) adding Stormwatch for some time now, so that makes sense, and Creature Commandos was part of James Gunn’s big DC announcement from a few weeks ago, so I get that too. The rest of them…baffling. Not that I’m complaining about anything being added, I have no objection to any of these titles. I just can’t figure why they’re going to those books when they haven’t yet added, for example, issues #216-274 of The Flash.

Less important than Creature Commandos #1.

Some things will probably never get digitized, I know that. For example, I’ve got no idea who currently owns the rights to the Adventures of Bob Hope, Adventures of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, or Jackie Gleason and the Honeymooners series launched in the 50s, and I doubt anybody except me actually cares. There are issues of the old Showcase anthology series that featured licensed characters DC has no rights to, such as G.I. Joe and James Bond, and which will almost certainly never be seen on the app. Then there’s Sovereign Seven, a series by legendary X-Men writer Chris Claremont, set in the DC Universe and often guest-starring DC characters, but for which the copyright was held by Claremont and artist Dwayne Turner. It would probably take some sort of monetary agreement between all the parties involved to add that series, and with so many other books still waiting for their shot, it seems unlikely that DC will make the effort to do so any time soon.

Look me in the eye and tell me you don’t want to know what happens next.

Then there are long runs of Green Lantern and Justice League Europe from the 90s that now present serious problems because the writer, Gerard Jones, plead guilty to possession of child pornography in 2018. Here’s a case where it’s perfectly understandable that DC doesn’t want to do anything that looks like they’re promoting his work or having to pay him royalties, and I don’t blame them for that. But it sucks for the other writers and artists who worked on those comics and who, through no fault of their own, find their back catalogs throttled. It also leaves us a case where some pretty big storylines are missing or incomplete, both for DC and Marvel. (Most notably for Marvel, Jones wrote what is to date the only ongoing Wonder Man series. With that character slated to get a Disney+ MCU series, normally you would expect his comics to be fast tracked for inclusion on the app, but as of now the only issues available are a few that are chapters in the Avengers crossover series, Operation: Galactic Storm.) 

The reason I’m thinking about this right now is because DC recently held their first “Backlist Breakout” poll for users of the DCUI app. Users were presented with a slate of eight titles not currently available and were asked to vote on which ones we wanted to move to the front of the queue, with the top three promised to be added to the app beginning in June. My vote was for one of the eventual winners, DC Challenge, a miniseries from the 80s where an all-star group of writers and artists participated in a sort of “exquisite corpse” experiment: the first team produced an issue of a DC crossover and then handed it off to the next team to continue the story with no instructions or input, figuring it out as they went along. This kind of storytelling has been done in books and other forms of entertainment, and the result was a delightfully insane comic that went totally off the rails, leaving the creators of the last issue the unenviable task of trying to make sense of a plot that had ballooned to include time travel, Nazis, the planet Earth itself being moved to another galaxy, and Groucho Marx. I cannot wait to read it again.

The most important vote you’ll cast this year.

The other two winners in this round are books I’ve never read: the five issues of the 1967 Blue Beetle series (featuring Ted Kord, not Jaime, and published by Charleton Comics, but which DC owns the rights to) and the first 12 issues of the seminal fantasy series Warlord. The support for Warlord on the DC boards made its victory seem almost a foregone conclusion, and I look forward to it, since I’ve never read those issues. But it does open up another problem. Only the first 12 issues of Warlord have been promised. That’s 12 out of a series that ran for 133 issues plus six annuals. If fans want to see issues #13-24, Warlord is going to have come out triumphant again in the NEXT round of “Backlist Breakout” this summer. And then keep winning, every twelve issues, again and again, to finally make the whole series available. If it fails to win in even one round fans will be left dangling, their series put on a shelf with other unfinished titles like Adventure Comics, Doom Patrol, and Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane.

“Is this a joke to you?”

Again, I don’t mind waiting for everything to be digitized. And I even like the idea of “Backlist Breakout” making a game out of deciding what the next goodie added to DCUI will be. But there are some gaps that are so conspicuous that I just can’t figure out why DC isn’t doing anything to fix them right now.

Blake M. Petit is a writer, teacher, and dad from Ama, Louisiana. His current writing project is the superhero adventure series Other People’s Heroes: Little Stars, a new episode of which is available every Wednesday on Amazon’s Kindle Vella platform. He is admittedly thrilled that DC finally finished adding Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew to the app a while back, but he’s quite put out that they haven’t gotten around to the three-issue Oz/Wonderland War miniseries that wrapped up the original Zoo Crew’s story yet.