At Ace, the failure of putting Space Swashbucklers in a Military Bureaucracy:
Space travel in fiction has two major tropes in its depiction. I’m calling these the Institutional Phase, and the Commercial Phase.
The beginning of space travel — and this is the same for any previous mode of difficult transportation — is the Institutional Phase. This is the period in which only rich governments or the sci-fi standby of the Large Evil Corporation Which Has Some Governmental-Like Powers and Attributes can build and launch a spacecraft.
The Commercial Phase comes later in science fiction, as it has in the past, and as it would actually unfold in the future. The Commercial Phase comes when the technology has matured enough to make it practical for small private owners. In the Commercial Phase, space travel is relatively common, almost mundane. It might be a bit expensive, but you can still cross a good part of the galaxy in exchange for a down payment equal to the cost of an old, beat-up Landspeeder. It’s not cheap, but you generally expect that if you have a few thousand credits you can hire yourself a flight to almost anywhere.
The Institutional Phase is Star Trek; the Commercial Phase is Star Wars.
Apparently Prometheus makes (among others) the mistake of putting Commercial-Phase Rogues on board an Institutional-Phase Spaceship. I didn’t see it, because the whole experience of the Star Wars Prequels soured me on prequels altogether (yes, officially Prometheus isn’t an alien prequel, but it was clearly written as one), and I didn’t hear enough positive word-of-mouth to counteract this. The word I did get was mixed at best.
Prequels — the attempt to tell a story’s backstory — are rarely worth telling, because they aren’t stories. A story has protagonists and conflicts. Backstories don’t; they’re the things that happen before the real conflict occurs. Dracula sleeping in his coffin for four hundred years before Johnathan Harker comes to see him isn’t part of the story of Dracula, because there’s no protagonist, nor even any real conflict. One of the few things that I liked about Bram Stoker’s Dracula was the way they showed us Dracula’s Fall From Grace. But then they cut to the actual beginning of the story, because Dracula is not the protagonist. Harker is, and there is no story without him.
So when you make a prequel, you have to invent a story in another story’s backstory. And since the themes and the conflicts are likely to be similar, this has the effect of undercutting the story that happens later. Because if Dracula has been defeated before, it’s not as big a deal to defeat him later. Do it often enough, and Dracula becomes as much of a surprise, and as much of a problem, as a silverfish infestation or clogged toilet: It’s happened before, and you know what to do about it.
Now, in the case of the Star Wars Prequels, they did have a story all their own: Anakin Skywalker’s Fall and the Clone Wars. So we’re just going to have to chalk that up to George Lucas’ consummate failures as a director and writer. But anyone familiar with the Alien movies could guess as to what would happen in Prometheus:
- The Ship Lands on the Planet To Investigate the Mysterious Something
- The People Poke Around Until they Unleash Evil
Final Gratuitous Shot at George Lucas: From the Ace Piece:
Star Wars is commercial phase, and also comical. They’re funny movies. They have a comedic spirit. (The originals, I mean.)