Sequels and remakes have ruled Hollywood for ages, but for the past decade, film and television have been dominated by long-running franchises with uninterrupted continuity. This has given rise to the “legacyquel” or “requel,” works that revive dormant properties using a mixture of new and familiar characters. New characters, usually played by much younger (and less expensive) actors, serve as an on-ramp for new viewers as well as a potential off-ramp for the “legacy” characters, who are present to attract nostalgic fans and reassure them that their version of the franchise hasn’t been discarded. It’s an opportunity for the leads or even creators of a popular intellectual property to pass the torch to a new generation and ensure its longevity. Or, less charitably, it’s the tip of the spear in studios’ efforts to minimize the importance of movie stars in the marketability of films in favor of making brands themselves — things they own — the real selling point.
More than that, however, the proliferation of the legacyquel has given birth to another Hollywood trend: We are seeing a lot of movies and TV shows about the children of famous characters.
This isn’t automatically a bad idea, and many of the better examples find ways to twist or subvert the basic formula of “the same story, but with the next generation.” Creed (still the best legacyquel) is an inverted Rocky, the saga of a born somebody who wants to make it as a nobody. Star Wars: The Force Awakens casts the child of two iconic characters as its villain, while Cobra Kai and 2022’s Scream have protagonists who are descended from the villains of their source works. In the realm of superheroes, it’s more of a mixed bag. Alongside new faces like Shang-Chi, Ms. Marvel, and Moon Knight, Marvel’s Multiverse Saga has introduced us to a slew of familial heirs to vacant Avengers titles. (Ant-Man’s daughter has a shrinky-suit now, Hulk’s got a big green cousin and a big green son, Thor has an adopted daughter portrayed by Chris Hemsworth’s real-life daughter, etc.) In what might be the most uncomfortable example in a modern franchise, the eerie CGI ghost of deceased actor Harold Ramis was trod out to endorse his character’s grandchildren in Ghostbusters: Afterlife, a film directed by the son of original director Ivan Reitman.
“So what?” you might be asking. After all, movie and TV characters having kids is just a consequence of their open-ended stories documenting the next phase in their lives. Should superheroes and spacemen be prohibited from growing up and procreating? Of course not. I’m not Joe Quesada. In fact, it’s terrific that long-form live-action media forces storytellers and audiences alike to acknowledge the passage of time. My concern is that this crop of on-screen offspring is being created in order to create and sustain fictional dynasties. During an era in which the growing chasm between haves and have-nots has further crowded our screens with actors, models, and musicians whose family connections have given them a huge advantage over other aspiring artists, the narratives currently offered by corporate media reinforce the idea that today’s most important people are the children of yesterday’s most important people.
I don’t mean to suggest that this is some sort of massive conspiracy by rich media elites to manufacture our consent for the coming techno-feudalist hellscape. (Though it probably won’t hurt.) It’s a consequence of the same lazy, cautious approach upon which Hollywood has repeatedly doubled down over the past three decades. When deciding which projects to invest tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in, the safest bet will always be a known quantity. And, since today’s most vocal audiences are the sorts who demand to be rewarded for the time they’ve invested in these fictional universes, simply repurposing the title or premise of a popular product from years past will no longer cut it. Everything must count. Even recasting a beloved role is often sacrilege.
But, since Harrison Ford isn’t getting any younger, studios need to establish new characters who can sustain the value of these intellectual properties after the original star has moved on either professionally or mortally. Having your protagonists’ offspring inherit the franchise is the avenue that requires the least thought or explanation, and therefore has become the most common. It’s the narrative equivalent of hiring someone’s nephew because it’s easier than interviewing a bunch of new job candidates. It’s not an outright evil practice, but it is how wealth and power perpetuate themselves.
One storied franchise, however, has managed to prosper for half a century without ever resorting to this particular trick: Star Trek. When Star Trek: The Next Generation began in 1987, it featured a new cast of characters with no direct connection to the famous crew led by Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. In fact, the show’s writers’ bible expressly forbade pitches featuring the descendants of established characters from The Original Series, in order to ensure that the audience’s attention was on the new crew rather than in the rearview mirror. Even after another 30 years’ worth of spinoffs, each series has almost exclusively introduced new characters without family ties or familiar last names, with the only exceptions being Discovery’s Michael Burnham (Spock’s foster sister), Picard’s Soji Asha (Data’s daughter, sort of), and La’an Noonien-Singh of Strange New Worlds (descended from the infamous Khan). It’s not that family legacy isn’t a thing in the world of Star Trek, or that its post-capitalist utopia has completely negated the advantages of inherited status. (We’re looking at you, Jonathan Archer.) Rather, it reinforces that, at least since 1987, Star Trek is not the story of a particular group of people but of the future in which they live. The heroes of Starfleet come from anywhere and everywhere, and in the eyes of the audience, they’re all starting from zero.
That is, until the latest episode of Picard officially confirmed the implication of last week’s cliffhanger: New character Jack Crusher (Ed Speleers) is the estranged son of Admiral Jean-Luc Picard, and for the first time since the death of Kirk’s son David in Star Trek III, there is a patrilineal successor to the throne of Star Trek.
This, in itself, is not a bad thing, and Speleers’ performance as the roguish son of Picard and Dr. Beverly Crusher calls to mind Chris Pine’s take on James T. Kirk more than Gates McFadden or Sir Patrick Stewart — save for that accent, because Paramount wouldn’t dream of casting a non-Brit as Picard Jr. even if it doesn’t make sense for the character’s backstory. (The incongruity is at least hand-waved in dialogue.) The storyline is actually quite engaging, following Picard’s struggle to connect with an adult son he never knew, one with a different set of values and a criminal record. I may find the discovery of a long-lost Picard son to be a hackneyed device in theory (particularly given this dynamic was rehearsed almost to a note in the middling TNG episode “Bloodlines”), the execution is smooth enough to justify Jack’s presence on the show.
Jack passes the most important test of a character with inherited clout: “Would I be interested in him if he were not Beverly and Jean-Luc’s kid?” He is, mercifully, a puzzle for our main character to solve, rather than a mere sequel to two beloved heroes. Like his parents, Jack is an adventurer with a desire to help others and to do good, but unlike Jean-Luc, who is Mr. Civility, Jack couldn’t care less about the rule of law. If his goal is to get medicine to civilians in a warzone and the only way to deliver it is to bribe both sides of the conflict with weapons, then that’s what he’s going to do. It’s an ethos that, understandably, mirrors that of the mother who raised him, a doctor who’s unconcerned with the political ramifications of healing the sick. She’s a doctor, and doctors heal; let the politicians do the politics.
This conflict has played out between Starfleet captains and doctors since Kirk and McCoy, only Jack doesn’t actually answer to anyone. Add to that a chip on his shoulder from growing up without a father and operating outside the warmth and comfort of the Federation, and you’ve got the makings of an interesting protagonist, with or without a famous parentage.
What frustrates me is the seeming inevitability of a Jack Crusher spinoff, and the suspicion that this, more than anything, is the impetus behind his creation. In the season premiere, Jean-Luc tells us that “[he is] not a man who needs a legacy,” a sentiment that is consistent with his development over the course of the past 35 years. Though upcoming episodes of the season make a point of interrogating that assertion and the effect it might have on his relationship with his son, I cannot escape the feeling that Picard now has a legacy because giving him one might extend the life of Star Trek as an intellectual property. When I see Jack Crusher meet the USS Titan’s Ensign Sidney La Forge, daughter of TNG’s famous Geordi La Forge, I can only imagine a Paramount executive standing just off screen like a royal vizier arranging a politically expedient marriage. “This will keep us afloat for another 30 years,” he says to himself, hands tented. “Bring on the Next Next Next Generation.”
While I’m sure Jack and Sidney’s babies will be brilliant and beautiful, Star Trek has never required such contrivances to sustain itself. There are no Star Trek dynasties, on screen or behind the scenes. And, given how much our immediate future seems to belong to the same people who own the present, this adds an additional layer of hopeful fantasy to the Star Trek universe. In the 25th century, our immediate investment in a celebrity couple’s kid will not be assumed. If only the same were true in 2023.