TV Revivals and Reboots: Lack of ideas or a return to the golden age of television?

Prison Break season five, 24: Legacy, Twin Peaks season three, Gilmore Girls season eight and a brand new fifth incarnation of Star Trek (sixth if you count the animated series). That is a lot of new ‘old television’ coming our way and that isn’t counting all the revivals we’ve already had this year. Even UK TV is getting on in the act with Cold Feet making a return last week after a thirteen-year absence. On top of that we have the many televised reboots of classic TV shows and films, from the recently cancelled Rush Hour to MacGyver. We’re living in an age where TV revivals and reboots are the next big thing. A beloved show cancelled years ago can make a TV comeback but the question we’re all asking is if this a result of networks having a lack of new ideas or being savvy enough to bring TV shows that will get the viewing figures they are so desperately looking for.

Take the recent six-episode revival of The X Files. The show ended thirteen and a half years ago, cancelled after a lacklustre finale and a show that had been missing one of its two main leads for the better part of two years. The 2008 second movie The X Files: I Want To Believe was viewed as a disappointment and yet fan interest was high, proven by high ratings on Fox over in the US and giving Channel 5 the biggest viewing figures in the channel’s history. It’s not surprising that – regardless of some negative comments – there is talk of when rather than if we’ll get an eleventh season.

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Of course high viewing figures aren’t proof that TV revivals are a good thing. It’s the content that really matters, the proof that says bringing back an old TV show was actually worth it. The latest season of The X Files largely proved that; the comedic episode Mulder & Scully Meet the Were-Monster perfectly captured the zany episodes of the show’s original run while Home Again was a memorable return to the gruesome horror of the old series. And arguably the chemistry between David Duchvony’s Mulder and Gillian Anderson’s Scully was still there after all these years. But it wasn’t a revival without issues. Babylon tried to bring The X Files into the modern era with its take on the war on terror and failed miserably. In fact, it looked a little dated in its approach, which considering the show was the forerunner to everything from Supernatural to Criminal Minds was rather disappointing. While the mythology opening and closing episodes proved to be the worst of the bunch; rushed, confusing and in some cases a rehash of the show’s earlier story arcs. It brought back the best of The X Files but it also brought with it some of the bad baggage that people came to associate with show.

One show that really didn’t warrant a revival was Heroes Reborn. If The X Files was the cultural zeitgeist of the 90s, Heroes was a show that had one great season and three that never matched the brilliance of the original. Heroes came about where superhero TV was a rarity. Smallville was the closest to modern DC superhero television and Marvel was largely relegated to the animated arena. Heroes took the comic-book formula, built up great characters and concepts and then proceeded to squander them over the remaining three years. No one really cared when it was cancelled and no one really got excited – certainly not The X Files revival excited - when Heroes Reborn was announced.

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This was the chance for Tim Kring to prove that he could replicate the success of season one. Instead we got a show laden with the same; characters and plot lines that dragged, twisted in odd directions and never really got going. The Digital Fix reviewer Stephan Burn found the majority of episodes an arduous chore and while June 13th Part 2 was the best of the bunch, filled with a pathos and deftness of script previously devoid from the show, it was immediately followed by the worst episode of the season Sundae Bloody Sundae that really was as bad as the punning title implied, filled with amateurish choices, outdated pop culture references and blowing the emotional engagement so hard won in the previous episode. The X Files revival embraced modern ideas and the ideas that Mulder and Scully could be considered dinosaurs. Heroes Reborn was filled with references from years ago. Not only was it out of its time, in the modern superhero TV age of Arrow, The Flash, Daredevil and Agent Carter, it was no longer relevant and that itself made the revival completely unnecessary. There will likely be more episodes of The X Files but Heroes Reborn is dead in the water, and for good reason.

One of the most successful TV revivals of recent years was 24: Live Another Day, coming four years after its cancellation. There were still some of the familiar tropes (the mole working within the CIA in this instance) but it also felt fresh. The 12-hour format (which next year’s Kiefer Sutherland-less 24: Legacy will adopt), the relocation to London, a mix of great original and fresh new characters and a pacey plot that wasn’t bogged down with random, dull side plots (cougars, dying family members) and it made 24 feel fresh and exciting again. Perhaps it was just because we needed a break – perhaps it was because the writers needed a break – but it was a shot in the arm 24 needed.

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Twin Peaks is the next big revival I am excited for and there is a good reason; there is still more story left to tell. It had a shocking cliff-hanger and its story – complete with the 25 year later dream – actually justifies a return. More importantly David Lynch is directing and the 217-strong cast is phenomenal. Yes, it could all go horribly wrong, but I suspect it will end up another The X Files rather than a Heroes Reborn. (I’m secretly hoping for option C – it’s all brilliant but as a writer and fan I need to try and stay open to the possibility it might not. After all, rose-tinted glasses are not always a good thing).

Quite why they need to have a fifth Prison Break is beyond me; is there really more to mine from the story? But hey, if the fans are happy than who am I to argue? And I must admit I was a little bit intrigued by Cold Feet just to see where those characters have ended up thirteen years later. Judging by the first episode, I think it worked. Revivals are a big thing in US television; UK seems more concerned with reboots like Poldark and Upstairs Downstairs. Though of course, Doctor Who had the option to reboot entirely back in 2005 and it didn’t.

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Doctor Who, more than any other show I have mentioned, is the most successful TV revival of them all. In ten short years it went from a British institution to a global phenomenon. One of the ways it worked so well was because it wasn’t a slave to what had come before, just respectful to the classic era. It had a modern 45-minute episode format, it felt fresh and it was just what Saturday night family TV had been calling out for. Gradually it peppered in references in to the classic show without alienating new viewers (Gallifrey wasn’t even mentioned until season three). The Steven Moffat era has taken this further, particularly in the 50th anniversary year but then he had five years of great work to build on.

And perhaps that is the key success to any revival. Start afresh and gradually phase in what had come before. It won’t work for everything (in fact it would be odd if Twin Peaks or Cold Feet weren’t lavishly referential to their past) but it is a trick that perhaps The X Files could have taken. Then again, Heroes Reborn was largely a brand new cast and storyline and that turned out badly, so perhaps it goes back to whether there is more story to tell as much as how you tell it. Twin Peaks and The X Files had plenty of unanswered questions. Doctor Who had an established format that would welcome new storytelling. Cold Feet is an interesting and seemingly successful experiment, though if Birds Of A Feather can do it (three series of the revival in and another to come) then perhaps that wave of nostalgia will see it through to success and this series six will be the first of many more.

Reboots are another TV phenomenon, one that has certainly been around longer than the recent surge of revivals. The aforementioned British reboots are actually a long standing tradition, with Poldark being must watch television (likely in no small part down to a shirtless Aidan Turner). But whereas revivals have a certain wave of nostalgia to keep them going, reboots are a reimagining of a classic show. Film to TV adaptations are very common, though not always successful. Rush Hour has failed to make the impact, leaving future projects like Lethal Weapon to a questionable fate. Limitless is another casualty and one I am personally gutted about. It took the NZT premise and ran in an exciting and very fun new direction with Bradley Cooper actually reprising his character on occasion. Perhaps because it was a TV reboot of a film audiences failed to keep coming back and low ratings saw the axe drop.

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It takes something special to keep a show alive, particularly when it features characters we have all seen before – and done well. Hannibal was a critical masterpiece and the first two seasons remain some of my favourite television of all time. But it also had terrible ratings, something that couldn’t save it after a third season. And yet because the performances, the storytelling and cinematography were so magnificent, there continues to be a talk of a revival years down the line. A revival of a reboot? That’s an intriguing concept.

Buffy The Vampire Slayer was essentially a magnificent reboot of a failed movie, though you could argue this was Joss Whedon fixing the mistakes of the past by reimagining them. Even then there is the suggestion that the film is canon, with certain references tying the film to the show and making it a revival of sorts too; albeit with a new and much better leading lady.

But it is in space that perhaps the best reboots lie. Battlestar Galactica was a dark, gritty and gripping reboot of the camp 1970s TV show, bringing Cylons into the modern age, changing characters’ gender and motivation and giving us some immensely exciting television, particularly in the first two and a bit years. It’s ending may be as controversial as Lost but there is no denying that it was one of the greatest TV shows of the last decade and proof that reboots can be massively successful.

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Star Trek is the master of the reboot and the revival. For a cult show cancelled after three seasons (and a rather lacklustre finale year at that), its ability to reboot on the big and small screen is miraculous. Kirk and his crew made a triumphant return on film, with Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan, still viewed as one of the best, while Star Trek: The Next Generation showed that Star Trek had a place on our TV screens again. A rocky start aside (though most of the spin-offs faced this problem), it ensured the franchise dominated television throughout the 1990s before continuing into four films of its own. The ‘black sheep’ Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is now viewed as one of the best sci-fi shows ever done with its gripping arcs and immensely powerful characters. It’s certainly my favourite, though Star Trek: The Next Generation is arguably the better example of what Star Trek as a concept is all about. And now, it’s the new Bryan Fuller-produced TV series Star Trek: Discovery coming in 2017 that has the most buzz, not the recently released Star Trek Beyond which sadly was the only thing celebrating Star Trek’s 50th anniversary. (Again, like Doctor Who, this franchise managed to last five decades through its ability to continually reinvent itself).

So are television revivals and reboots an easy way to attract audiences through nostalgia? Does this phenomenon smack of writers running out of ideas? Or is this return to some of the finest moments from television history a good thing? Like anything, it’s a bit of both. I wonder if Gilmore Girls and Arrested Development would have been brought back if Netflix hadn’t been there to pick up the rights. Online streaming is probably a big component in the discussion. Twin Peaks did massively well when Netflix bought the rights and without that continued interest a quarter of a decade after the show ended, Showtime probably wouldn’t be picking up the cost of a third season now. And it is interesting that both Netflix and Amazon were in talks after Hannibal was cancelled, suggesting that these online streaming platforms are a credible source for continuing on TV shows where they might otherwise have ended.

In the end though, it’s that question I raised earlier. Is there a story still to be told? If it’s bringing the show back for nostalgia’s sake, then probably not. After all, we all talk about wanting more Friends but what would a revival be about? It’s a question the ‘British Friends - Cold Feet - is certainly asking itself and seemingly a mix of nostalgia and a fresh story is the answer. Twin Peaks had a cliff-hanger ending; we all want to know what happened to Cooper. That amazing cast aside, if the show had resolved Laura Palmer’s murder and ended in a satisfactorily manner, would we be as eager to see more?

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It has to be fresh and engaging, something different to what came before, otherwise it becomes a carbon copy. Battlestar Galactica worked because it was a very different reimagining of what was essentially the same plot – the last remnants of humanity fleeing the Cylon threat. Heroes Reborn was more of what had come before and in the years since Heroes ended, TV had moved on, making it irrelevant in 2016. Even Star Trek occasionally failed in this respect; both Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Enterprise failed to be different (despite both have the best premises in the franchise). The latter finally found its footing in the third and fourth seasons, but by then Star Trek fatigue had set in and it was the first show since the original 1960’s Star Trek to be cancelled.

If the show is good, audiences would watch, if not the fans will switch off. The X Files is probably the best, most recent example of being both; it certainly needs to learn from the mistakes of Chris Carter’s mythology episodes (and Babylon) when an eleventh season is made. Not everyone is going to engage; Hannibal is proof of that. For many Anthony Hopkins was still the definitive Hannibal Lecter and Mads Mikkelsen was never going to change that viewpoint.

Audiences are fickle and viewing figures are still the strongest measure of the success of a show. And that is probably the best reason revivals are now very much a thing. You’ve got an in-built audience ready to come back on a wave of nostalgia. As long as it’s good, I’ll come back and I imagine many of you will too…