Doing a series is very common advice given to authors who ant to sell more. So, many authors do a trilogy, maybe even a series of four or five. But when we look at the world of traditional media, we often see series that are far longer. How do these series manage not to run out of steam?
There are many perils to having a long series. The conflict the series is based on might get resolved, the conflict might become pointless through character and world development, or reader preferences change away from the initial focus of a series. So how do some of the longest-running series attract reader interest for decades?
Let’s look at some of them.
Perry RhodanIt may be a series virtually unknown to most English-speaking audiences, but a feature like this has to start with Perry Rhodan. Running for 56 years, reaching over 4,000 books (including spin-offs), not counting comic books, short stories, and the like, this is the most successful science fiction series in the world sales-wise. In fact, it is the most successful book series ever written at about 2 billion copies combined.
This brings with it serious challenges. The first issue has titular character Major Perry Rhodan become the first person to set foot on the moon in 1971, meeting some stranded aliens in the process. Basically, everything is completely outdated. The publisher can’t expect anybody to start the series at book 1 — it’s hard to come by, completely outdated in almost every way from the writing to the science, and the sheer number of books in the series is intimidating.
To keep the series accessible to new readers, the series is separated into series much like seasons. A series may be anywhere from 25 to 100 issues long (half a year up to two years). Everything outside this specific piece of the overall series is largely irrelevant to the current story and becomes part of the worldbuilding. E.g. while it is vital information to know Terrania is the capital of Earth and its various space empires, you don’t need the story of its foundation and how it ended up being located in Mongolia due to the Cold War.
In addition to this, every now and then, the series will skip some time between seasons to further separate their interdependence. Or some centuries (the main characters do not age). Whatever option works best for the changes to the setting introduced for the next story arc.
Star Trek works in a similar way. Each series of the franchise focuses on the crew of one ship (or space station in the case of Deep Space Nine). It was only after several series failing to click with viewers the franchise entered a reboot. And a weird one at that. We’ll get to that in the section on comic books.
Let’s switch to the second-longest running science fiction series of all time. Doctor Who has ben running for 54 years. Even when it got canceled in 1989 and restarted in 2005, books and audio drama continued the title.
With its restart finally managing to capture American audiences, the franchise has become one of the largets in the world.
As a tv series, it has the problem of actors aging and eventually ending their careers, be it from death or just retirement (followed by death, eventually). So they invented regeneration, a process by which characters that have the rank of a timelord (a noble title among the Gallifreyan species, later changed to the name of the species itself) gain a new life upon death (with or without previous retirement plans). This creates an in-universe explanation why the actor suddenly changes.
But this is also a viable refreshing method for authors: Along with the face, the character’s personality undergoes some major changes and in the end, a completely different person might go out, traveling through all of space and time.
The similarly long-lived movie series James Bond tip-toes around a non-science-fiction variation on this, with Ian Fleming stating the name is not 007′s real name, but an alias that comes with the job. Some of the movies contradict this — e.g. Daniel Craig’s character in Casino Royal is clearly named Bond even before he becomes 007. Still, it’s an example of a more down-to-earth version of the same idea.
Anthology series are nothing new, with both Tales from the Crypt and Twilight Zone being major brands of stories that are mostly disconnected from each other, giving them a lot of creative freedom. But German tv crime fiction series Tatort (translates to crime scene) is a beast very much its own.
What Tatort does is being composed of several series running intertwined. Imagine there was only one series of CSI, but every week it would change its cast and setting to return a few weeks later. What this does is, it gives the writers more time to craft a new story for the characters of one setting while giving fans of the genre something else to see and keep their connection to the brand. Different teams and in fact different publishers work on each series within the series to market it under one joint brand.
Even when some of the sub-series are bad (which happens all the time), the overall brand persists. It’s been running for 47 years now, reaching 1,000 feature-length episodes.
80 years of continuous publication is quite the feat, probably a record in fiction. It is held by Detective Comics, home to Batman. Superman’s Action Comics follows along, running for 77 years now.
For a long time, comic books did not care much for being series. Characters would get introduced and return, and the hero’s powers would be fleshed out, but other than that each issue was a story unto itself. When that changed from the 60′s on, problems arose. Problems that needed fixing.
Because of their disjointed nature, comic books were a mess of conflicting information from different books. Often, this got resolved by splitting the shared world of a publisher’s books into several universes. That did anything but making this easier. Now readers had to keep track what character was in what universe, including things like three different supermen having adventures at the same time at one point. Thus, universe reboots became a regular thing.
What happens in comic books is that every now and then, characters or whole worlds get restarted. DC Comics did this twice with its complete lineup by ending the world and starting anew. Marvel Comics tends to kill off characters to restart them on their own, like when villain Onslaught killed the Fantastic Four and Avengers, for them to return after being reborn in a separate universe.
And this leads us to the reboot spin-off. Where a series continues on its own while a modernized version runs parallel for new readers who don’t want or can’t get into all the stuff that has happened over the decades of publishing. Marvel’s Ultimate series are an example with the most popular books getting spin-offs that completely restarted a character while the same character would go on unaffected in their old book. Naturally, that creates confusion and eventually, all their series would merge again, coming full circle.
I guess the take-away here is how comic books manage to stay afloat even though even after more than 70 years, they still don’t know what they’re doing, and keep repeating their old mistakes.
I promised to get into Star Trek a little more, so: Star Trek managed to simultaneously delete its history and keep the worst parts of it. Basically, Mister Spock traveled to the past and deleted the future he came from in the process so iconic character James T. Kirk could be cast with a new actor to experience new adventures. In theory, this creates an original universe that still offers space for new adventures as well as a new universe to be defined. The same goes for Star Wars when almost everything except the movies was declared a separate entity from the main franchise (Star Wars Legends) after Disney took over the brand. Weirdly, both franchises have not done anything with that so far. Maybe they saw the struggles comic books go through with this. And, on the bad end of this, both series retained their most controversial additions for their new versions, Enterprise and Episode I-III, respectively.
63 years and about 30 movies feature everybody’s favorite Lovecraftian abomination, Gojira, king of the monsters and especially the kaiju.
Godzilla‘s most noteworthy strategy for staying current is probably its inherent iconicity, but its regular reboots help. The former makes it its own genre surviving even the most terrible of movies by sheer reputation, the latter ensures those most terrible of movies can just be ignored.
The series had its misdirections, but everybody knows by now that just means a reboot is coming to try and return the giant dinosaur that is definitely not a mutated iguana to its former glory.
Thing is, I don’t think authors will be able to deliberately recreate this strategy.
Soap Operas are fascinating. They do persist and nobody knows, why. I’m a little too removed from that genre to pick one, but I think their solution to the problem of continuity is the same across the board: Have none!
And because I feel like being lazy after about 1,400 words in a single blog post (instead of a book), I just let Austin McConnell take this one, including a very impressive description of how long some of these series have been running: