Lethal Weapon is now a television show. Did you know? So is Training Day. Star Trek has three new movies. There’s even a new MacGuyver (Sacrilege!), and with the upcoming relaunch of 24, I’m personally ready to throw in the towel (no, I don’t think it’s a reboot, but 24 can’t be 24 without Jack Bauer). The list of reboots and retellings keeps getting longer and longer, and personally my interest is declining in direct relation.
That’s not to say that all reboots are overdone. Some stories lend themselves to continuous reinvention, but even so, that doesn’t negate the importance of character and story.
A good example? Sherlock.
Back in 2010, when Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss introduced the world to their little hobby project, I’m not sure anyone expected it to take the world by storm. I certainly know that nobody expected we’d be here seven years later with the two lead actors (Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman) as household names in the United States.
I can certainly tell you that as a fan, I’d hoped we’d have more than 13 episodes total. But that’s neither here nor there.
What’s remarkable about Sherlock is that even though it’s a modern re-imagining, it has remained true to the original source material in character and story. Even though Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson were born in the Victorian Era, Moffat and Gatiss’s recreation of them and their historic friendship looks and feels exactly the same, even though it’s set in modern day London.
But that brings up the core question of reboots: Where is the line between retelling a classic and inventing something new altogether?
So many of the movies and shows from the 80s have been rebooted, and most of them fell flat. The Muppets have tried to reboot multiple times, and they’ve always fallen through.
What about successful reboots? The Fugitive. True Grit. James Bond. Flight of the Phoenix. The Mask of Zorro. You’ve Got Mail. Sabrina. The Italian Job. Why did those work?
I’m sure the reasons are complex, and I can’t claim to be an authority on this sort of thing. But for me, one issue stands above the rest: Character.
Character is king, after all. You can have the most incredibly plotted story on the planet, but if your characters are boring or unlikeable, nobody will want to spend time getting to know them.
For all the successful reboots, writers and directors and actors collaborated to create a movie or TV show that respected and acknowledged the original characters and the original story, yet somehow they managed to do it in a way that connected with a modern audience.
Would Star Trek have worked if Captain Kirk was the logical, rational one and Spock was the impulsive, overly emotional womanizer?
For the shows that didn’t make it, they did the opposite. They changed the characters too much. Or they altered the storyline too much. Or they took what made a character or story iconic and eliminated it.
Going back to the earlier example of BBC’s Sherlock, Holmes and Watson were never represented as a romantic couple. Best friends. Partners. Brothers. But Sir Arthur Conan Doyle didn’t write them as some kind of lovers. If Moffat and Gatiss had chosen to go that direction with the characters, I’m not sure it would have done as well.
Another example along those same lines is Elementary, another Sherlock retelling that keeps Sherlock as a surly Englishman but recreates Watson as an Asian American woman. Elementary has been successful as well because it keeps the relationship between the two of them similar to what was in the source material. Not romantic.
Take that into consideration with the fandom uproar with the new Sherlock season four. Some segments of the Sherlock fandom demanded that Sherlock and Watson’s alleged sub-textual romance become canon.
Without weighing in on whether or not such a thing even exists, I salute Moffat and Gatiss for remaining true to the original story and the original characters. That’s not how Doyle created them. So why on earth would you change that? When you take an original character and turn it into something that its author never intended, it’s no longer that character. It’s something else.
And while artists have that creative freedom (and it’s wonderful!), you can’t call it the same character or story or show. It’s a different character. You can’t even call it a reboot.
I think that’s my issue with the latest TV show reboots. Lethal Weapon, Training Day, MacGuyver—they aren’t as much like the original characters. Sure there are similarities, but I think they’d do better if they just used an original name instead of trying to shoehorn existing characters into the storylines.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m a huge proponent of fanfiction. That’s what I started writing. I wrote fanfiction before fanfiction was a thing—frankly, before the internet was a thing. I wove intricate crossovers of My Little Pony and Star Trek and GI Joe and Transformers. Even now, I have an epic fanfiction account. But I’m always very careful to write the characters as the original author intended.
Sure, AU (alternate universe) is a thing, and it can be fun, as long as the characters are the same. If they aren’t, what’s the point?
By all means, artists, create. Stretch those creative muscles and write, draw, paint, sing, compose, dance, do whatever it is you do. And make use of existing art to inspire you. But please respect the work you’re using, and don’t turn it into something its creator never intended to be.