Previous articles I have written have challenged the purpose and value of supplementary material to a franchise, claiming it can remove the mystery from it and is reflective of a commercialisation of an idea in order to attract only the most dedicated fans. However, despite this, when done well a continuation of an idea can fit neatly into a setting, provided the method of its inclusion is appropriate to the narrative. This is most often in series or settings where the core narrative takes place over an uncertain length of time, or the background details are so vague as to be irrelevant because the story is about character first, setting second.
One such example is Macross Dynamite 7, a miniseries that is in some way a continuation of the series Macross 7 (one which I am perhaps unreasonably fond of for its affectionate parody of its own franchise, and have written about several times already). Dynamite 7, much like the other main sidestories The Galaxy is Calling Me and Fleet of the Strongest Women, is set at an indistinct point in the series’ chronology – indeed, a major plot point throughout the series is the protagonist trying to divorce himself from his responsibilities as inadvertant saviour of the universe and going off on mysterious sabbaticals so even if some of these minor adventures are fleshed out, the entire tone of the series (that the story being told over its 49 episodes is just one adventure of many the Macross 7 fleet has on its mission) remains, unlike some of the Gundam sidestories which redefine and undermine the strict chronology that the original series establish. Indeed, this reflects the tone of much of the setting – a series of first contacts as mankind meets and either befriends or conquers new alien races.
Dynamite 7 is also crucially tonally consistent with the main series; it does not introduce a complete cast of new characters, new protagonists and new events that do not fit the main story (as some sidestories do, in so doing undermining the tone of the setting they use by changing its focus to be something else) and its protagonist is the same as all the others; the character of Nekki Basara is one which a viewer who has watched Macross 7 will know and love. This familiarity is vital to the success of the sidestory. Were it a story about some previously unknown singer in the Macross 7 setting, on a distant planet, encountering a new alien race, then it would be indistinguishable from any other first-contact story and probably weakened for being associated with the core material. Instead, it hints at being one of many untold stories – not completing any unanswered narrative threads (it does not even, at first, explain why Basara is where he is) but simply providing more of the same. Some would say providing more of the same is a failure of a sidestory or sequel, that repetition of a formula without innovation is dull. However, when the entire focus of the setting is on intensely memorable and relatable characters, and cycles of discovery and communication, then more of the same can be just the ticket.
However, while the tone remains consistent, and the protagonist the same, it is different in its own way; rather than the first contact story being “humanity meets aliens” it is this time “aliens come to learn about humanity”; it begins in media res with Basara living among the indiginous people of the planet Zola, and encountering someone who has never heard of him despite his prestigious career as a musician. In this way, the sidestory sets itself strongly apart from the core narrative while keeping enough familiarity (and introducing characters who do recognise Basara) to tie it firmly into the setting. Furthermore, despite being closely linked in some ways, it does go in its own way towards fleshing out the setting’s mysteries. However, it does not seek to be authoritative; if there is one thing that the Macross franchise has achieved it is giving the illusion of an infinite and bizarre universe better than its peers in the SF anime genre. A new planet and species being introduced in a franchise whose most common metaplot is first-contact narratives does not feel restricting (as the introduction of a new character in a more closed setting might) but instead confirmation of how immense the setting is without specifically saying so. The story of Dynamite 7, beginning as it does on a relaxing tropical island with its bizarre space whales, elfin women and laser-wielding bandits, is an intimate comedic one in fitting with the series’ tone.
That the planet Zola is not mentioned in the core series is immaterial; Basara is there, something interesting is happening. It is much like Doctor Who, in which almost every episode can be considered one adventure of many – when even the protagonists are not sure where they will end up next, or what is around the next corner, the illusion of a massive setting remains. Defining a setting, and seeking to categorise and restrict it in canon, as some sidestories set out to do, makes even a supposedly immense empire seem tiny and artificial. Haphazard adventures through a setting touching on small aspects of it in intimate detail make the whole seem big and unknown. Indeed, when Doctor Who tried to have a more intricate metaplot the results seemed unsatisfying and constricting; when then entire premise of the series is an inept traveller dragging his companions along on a journey with no fixed route, to suddenly constrain this so tightly in conspiracy and foreshadowing is claustrophobic and a major departure.
Thus, the reasons why Dynamite 7 works as a sidestory are in effect the reasons why it is not really one at all; it does not seek to explain very much, or define its setting, but instead to simply continue the adventures of a character implied in the core narrative to have many adventures. This remaining true to the main storyline actively works to support the entire tone of it; that humanity is not alone in space and there is always something interesting to find. If anything, the quite episodic nature of Macross 7 works well here; its structure almost as a situation comedy set in the future rather than a great serious adventure (despite the presence of an overarching plot that some of the characters actively try to avoid) make these standalone adventures fit tightly into the series in tonal and structural terms. The more tightly defined a setting is, and the more effort that goes into establishing a named mythology for it, the less satisfying any sidestories are. For example, the Star Wars prequels; establishing the mystery of how Darth Vader got his mask, or name-dropping the “clone wars” as an event which happened in the past drove the main narrative. Fleshing them out as the prequel trilogy did removed all mystery. There was enough detail given in the original references to allow the audience to fill in the gaps. By contrast, Macross 7 does not set out to suggest the intentional gaps in its story need filling, and does not hint about what happens during them. As a result, when they are filled, there is no mystery or anticipation to undermine; there is simply a useful familiarity with the cast and the suggestion that they have an ongoing series of adventures some of which may be told.