Why prequels always suck (and the golden rule to make sure they don't)

Commentary: From "Star Wars" to "The Hobbit", CNET pop culture addict Richard Trenholm investigates whether prequels are just fundamentally rubbish.

Judge Dredd story "Origins", published in British comic 2000AD, is a prequel done right. Rebellion/Carlos Ezquerra

" Star Wars: The Force Awakens" hits theatres this Christmas, and with it we're promised a slew of new "Star Wars" movies. Yay! More adventures in a galaxy far, far away! The new movies will explore the earlier lives of beloved characters Han Solo and Boba Fett. Three cheers for...wait, hang on. They're prequels? I'm out. Because prequels are always rubbish -- unless they follow one golden rule. A prequel has to tell us something we don't already know.

A prequel is a story that delves back into an earlier point in the backstory of a fictional series. The term was apparently first used in 1958 by sci-fi author Anthony Boucher, although creators have stepped back in time to explore the history of their characters since "The Cypria" filled in events before "The Iliad", or Bill Shakespeare finishedeth off "Richard III" and turnedeth back to "Richard II". But the event that brought the term "prequel" into the forefront of the modern storytelling industry was "The Phantom Menace".

In the late 1990s, I wasn't alone in getting excited about the "Star Wars" prequels. George Lucas telling new "Star Wars" stories? Yes please! A bunch of cool stars? Sign me up! The pitch-perfect casting of indie darling Ewan MacGregor as a young Obi-Wan Kenobi? A thousand times yes! And the Force was strong with the "Phantom Menace" trailer, which marked a significant moment in the early history of the nascent Internet.

The excitement didn't last. I'm not going to rehash all the criticisms of the "Star Wars" prequels -- I think we've covered it -- and I'm not here to single out George Lucas, who after all did give us the original trilogy. I refer to the infamous "Star Wars" films because they're the first modern prequels, and in some ways they're the apotheosis of the problem with the concept of prequel stories -- and why they're inherently bad.

Ewan McGregor (centre) and Samuel L. Jackson (right) as Jedi? Yes please! So who's that other guy...? Keith Hamshere/Lucasfilm

The pleasure of a prequel -- or a "reboot" or remake, while we're on the subject -- is obvious. Any opportunity to spend more time with a beloved character is welcome. And if, as with "Star Wars" or "Breaking Bad", the story has come to a natural end, a natural way to dip into that world again is to go back to an earlier point in the story, to see the start of the Empire or the origin of Saul Goodman in "Better Call Saul". And it's always fun to re-create a beloved story on new terms -- basically, playing "Who would you cast in a remake of...?", the fun game my mates and I used to play at university because we didn't have girlfriends.

So sure, I nerd out with the best of 'em at the sheer perfection of casting choices like Simon Pegg as young Scotty in JJ Abrams' "Star Trek", or Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal Lector in TV's "Hannibal". But fun casting is just that: fun. It's the sizzle, not the steak. As much as Zachary Quinto might embody Spock in the new "Trek", Robin Lord Taylor might inhabit the young Penguin in "Gotham", or Marc Pickering is uncannily perfect as a young Steve Buscemi in "Boardwalk Empire", such choices are just surface gloss if they're not supported by a great story that hits us with something we didn't already know.

"X-Men: First Class" is perhaps the exemplar of this. It's fun to see James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender play younger versions of Patrick Stewart and Ian Mckellen, but there's a Marvel no-prize to anyone who can tell me what actually happens in that movie.

It's fun to see James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender play younger versions of Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in the "X-Men" series, but we know where their stories are headed. Dave J Hogan/Getty Images

These casting games may be fun on paper, but that doesn't mean they have to expand beyond pub chat or a Twitter conversation and actually become a full-blown movie. I wish Sigourney Weaver and Michael Biehn got the "Aliens" sequel they deserved, but I'm not thrilled about the movie Neill Blomkamp is developing to do just that. The moment's gone. It's a backward step.

Look at "The Hobbit" movies, a prequel trilogy to the "Lord of the Rings" series. OK, I know plenty of people love those movies and relish the return to Middle-earth. I just feel like I could have watched the first . And director Peter Jackson could have spent the last few years doing something new and original instead.

At least "The Hobbit" doesn't actively damage the beloved original films, another potential danger of a prequel. When a prequel messes with the continuity and canon of a series, it runs the risk of rendering the original nonsensical. Take "Prometheus" -- seriously, what the heck has happened to Ridley Scott in recent years? TV prequel "Star Trek: Enterprise" found itself stuck in such a dead-end in the early days of the "Trek" universe that it had to resort to time travel silliness, the same problem that hamstrung the big-screen JJ Abrams reboot. And once again, we can go back to "Star Wars": the meeting of various characters in the prequels actually contradicts the original films.

But when it all comes down to it, the fundamental flaw with prequels is that all too often, all they tell us is what we already know. Ultimately, nine hours of prequel movies explaining Anakin Skywalker's family history don't have the emotional impact of the single line "No... I am your father."

It seems that even now that "Star Wars" is out of George Lucas' hands and part of Disney's magic kingdom, the folks with the keys to the series may not have learned the lesson of the prequels. As well as the Han Solo and Boba Fett movies, spinoff "Rogue One" is reported to be another prequel, this time set between "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Return of the Jedi" and telling the story of the people who stole the plans for the Death Star. You know, the plans for the Death Star that turn up in "Jedi" as a plot point existing solely to set up the spectacular ending of the movie. We don't need to know the story of the people who stole the plans for the Death Star because we're told in a single, beautifully succinct line of dialogue:

"Many Bothans died to bring us this information." Succinct, yet wonderfully evocative, this one line sums up the fatal import of the attack, the sacrifice of others across the galaxy, the heavy responsibility that weighs upon Luke Skywalker and his plucky pals. It's a great line. What is there to add?

It's not just "Star Wars" that suffers from this problem. Sure, it's fun to see Marvel superhero Wolverine fighting in every major war of the 20th century in "Wolverine: Origins", but we didn't need the whole movie telling us about his transformation into a super-soldier because it's already been dealt with in far more compelling fashion in the main "X-Men" series. We didn't need the whole of 2011's "The Thing" prequel, because that film's entire story has already been told in the first few minutes of the 1982 original.

If a prequel reveals something new, it does something even more powerful: it changes the way we view the original story.

You know how when you get to the end of "Memento" or "The Usual Suspects" or any movie with a twist, you can go back and watch the whole thing and it's totally different to the first viewing? That's what a good prequel should do.

Compare the prequel "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" with the mini-prequel flashback sequence at the start of "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade". "Temple of Doom" isn't very satisfying. But the origin story in "Last Crusade" not only shows us how Indy picks up the tools of his trade, it also reveals his relationship with his father. So not only do we get the fan-pleasing fun stuff of seeing a young Indy played by a younger actor, we also learn something that drives the rest of the film forward: his craving for his father's approval. That adds an extra dimension to the previous movies too as we realise what Indy has really been searching for throughout the series.

So are there any really good prequels? Of course. I'm sure you're already heading for the comments to list your favourites, but for an example of a prequel done gloriously right that means a lot to me personally, let me turn to The Galaxy's Greatest Comic.

A law unto himself

In 1977, the newly minted British sci-fi comic 2000AD published the first episode of Judge Dredd, created by writer John Wagner and artist Carlos Ezquerra. A 22nd-century cop, Dredd is judge, jury and executioner in a totalitarian future America. He never had an "origin story", exploding into action fully-formed, his backstory filled in by stages as his satirical antihero adventures unfolded.

On the 30th anniversary of both Dredd and 2000AD, Wagner and Ezquerra returned to that backstory in the 23-issue "Judge Dredd: Origins". Like "The Godfather Part II" and "Infernal Affairs II", "Origins" perfectly interweaves prequel and sequel into one story that changes both the past and the future of the character and the world in which it is set.

"Judge Dredd: Origins" explores the dramatic backstory of the long-running comic book character. Rebellion/Carlos Ezquerra

In "Origins", recently collected in a gorgeous "Judge Dredd: The Mega Collection" hardback, we learn how the Judge system came to be. We see Dredd cloned from the first Judge, the incorruptible Fargo. We see Dredd learn his trade. We see young Dredd in action. All that fun surface gloss fans want from a prequel, but all stuff we already know.

But the story then tells us something so huge, it rips the rug out from under both the character and us, the readers, as we discover that everything Dredd believes is a lie.

Dredd is a man of unbending dedication to the strictest application of the authoritarian system that created him. He's has done terrible things over the years -- killing and imprisoning his own citizens on a daily basis, even wiping out a rival city of millions in a nuclear war -- but he's always justified these atrocities with his unshakeable faith in the system that created him. And then in "Origins" he discovers he's built his life on a lie. It's a gut-punch 30 years in the making and a stunning revelation that casts everything that follows in a new light. It casts a chilling shadow over everything that has gone before and everything that follows after.

And that's our golden rule.

Just don't talk to me about midi-chlorians.

What prequels do you rate? Which movies, TV shows, comics or other stories do you think deserve a prequel to fill in the gaps? Tell us in the comments, on Twitter @crave or on Facebook.