Rise of the 'bleakquel': your favourite heroes are back – and more miserable than ever

The last time we saw Jean-Luc Picard, Patrick Stewart’s venerable Starfleet captain, he was aboard a box-fresh Enterprise at the end of 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis, ready to continue boldly going where no man has gone before. Goody-two-shoes android Data was dead. William Riker, Picard’s ever-reliable No 1, had flown the roost to command a ship of his own. It was a bittersweet send-off for Picard: never mind that Nemesis wasn’t a great film, really only notable for a young Tom Hardy’s up-to-11 mugging as an evil Picard clone, its denouement succeeded in tying a graceful bow around the arc of Stewart’s character. In the imaginations of fans he lived out his days in happiness, whizzing amiably around the galaxy, or pottering about his vineyard getting gently sozzled. Fifteen years after it arrived on TV, Star Trek’s Next Generation had reached a satisfying end.

Or not, as it turns out. Picard is back in a new big-budget Trek series called, well, Picard, and it transpires Jean-Luc’s dotage wasn’t quite as relaxing as we hoped. “I was haunted by my past,” Stewart intones solemnly in a trailer, “but now I have a mission.” The Federation of Planets, whose values of honour and equality Picard has spent a lifetime upholding, has apparently taken an alarming turn for the Brexit, and our erstwhile captain is wrenched from well-earned retirement into a gritty, sweary, violent new Trek universe. It all looks to be a rather serious affair. And while it’s goose-pimplingly lovely seeing Sir Pat back in the Starfleet-issue spandex that made him Forbidden Planet royalty, it’s a joy tempered with betrayal, because it means Nemesis’s ending – the one the character and audience both deserved – has been effectively nullified. There are no conclusive happily-ever-afters for our beloved heroes of sci-fi and fantasy. Welcome to the era of the “bleakquel”.

Jean-Luc who it is... Patrick Stewart in Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Jean-Luc who it is... Patrick Stewart in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Photograph: George Rose/Getty

Take the recent Star Wars trilogy, whose entire existence is predicated on the revelation that Han, Leia and Luke all had a miserable old time of it after the events of Return of the Jedi. Before, any fan with R2-D2 on their jim-jams could envisage the three of them growing old together, with a grey-muzzled Chewbacca snoozing contentedly by a crackling hearth. The new films suddenly forced them to confront a new reality in which Han and Leia are estranged because their son became a mass-murderer, and a PTSD-ravaged Luke lives a life of solitude on a remote skerry somewhere uncannily reminiscent of Ireland. And what happens next? Oh, they all die. Miserably. Great. Thanks.

It’s an amazingly bleak way of elongating a franchise, and it’s happening everywhere. Spoilers follow, so beware. Terminator: Dark Fate killed off a young John Connor in its opening minutes, condemning John’s bereaved mother Sarah to a lifetime of guilt and revenge. Independence Day: Resurgence nobbled the original’s hero, Will Smith’s Steven Hiller, leaving behind a grieving son who then had to watch Roland Emmerich drop a million tonnes of masonry on his mum. The resuscitated X-Files in 2016 caught up with a Mulder and Scully at low ebbs. Serenity offered fans of the prematurely cancelled Joss Whedon series Firefly closure, but did so by murdering – yes, murdering – two of its most popular characters. Even the outstanding Logan, the final piece in the original X-Men saga, had to put a knackered Wolverine and Professor X through a gruelling wringer, culminating in them both being morally redeemed, yet no less dead for their efforts.

For all its missteps, 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull at least gifted archaeology’s sexiest whip enthusiast a serviceable farewell: Jones was content, married, and father to Shia LaBeouf’s Mutt. When we left him he was as close to happiness as it’s possible to be. Next year, another Jones film is due. Do we really want Indy to be dragged out of a cosy life of kitchen islands and garden-centre cafes, wounded by some debilitating personal tragedy, before torturing himself in an obsessive search for an ancient MacGuffin almost as old as he is? Isn’t it better to simply let him rest?

As cockle-warming as it is to imagine characters we know and love seeing out their days quaffing sangria and playing Articulate!, it obviously wouldn’t make for a very good film. If studios and audiences want sequels – and, like a child who swears they definitely won’t be sick if they have that sixth Wham bar, they’re certain that they do – they’re going to have to witness favourite characters being punished, because more plot means more tragedy for them to overcome. The price of reliving your childhood is watching part of it suffer. Sometimes, for the sake of another entry in a franchise, it isn’t worth it.

A Willow follow-up is in production. Bill and Ted are due back in August. Top Gun’s Maverick returns this summer. In the age of the bleakquel, imagine the pathetic lives they will all have lived in the interim, and the sheer magnitude of personal tragedy they’ll be forced to endure in the films themselves. All for the entertainment of popcorn-gobbling masochists. God help them.

Star Trek: Picard begins on Amazon Prime Video on Thursday