Dan Hanks, author of Captain Moxley and the Embers of the Empire, is a writer, editor, and vastly overqualified archaeologist who has lived everywhere from London to Hertfordshire to Manchester to Sydney, which explains the panic in his eyes anytime someone asks “Where are you from?” Thankfully he is now settled in the rolling green hills of the Peak District with his human family and fluffy sidekicks Indy and Maverick, where he writes books, screenplays and comics.
By Dan Hanks: Nostalgia can be dangerous.
Sure, I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t enjoyed rolling about in it for the last decade or so, as it became a dominating force in our films, shows and books. As a Gen Xer, I consider a lot of my life to have been shaped by the stories I was lucky enough to have growing up. So I’ve appreciated the opportunity to meet beloved characters again. To hear their theme tunes blasting from the speakers, as I hunker down with some popcorn and let myself be swept back off to a universe I visited often as a child. I’ve even relished the chance to read new stories featuring a whole lifetime’s supply of references to everything I ever watched.
I’ve loved it all.
But let’s be honest. Has this pandering to nostalgia always led to good things?
With my debut novel, Captain Moxley and the Embers of the Empire, I’m wearing my nostalgic heart on my sleeve. From the cover to the story inside, this book is all about trying to tap into that old school adventure feeling of Saturday morning serials, Indiana Jones, The Mummy, and The Rocketeer to name a few influences. Yet I’ve also strived to ensure I’m providing something fresh and exciting at the heart of the story, with characters who seem at once both familiar and new, in roles that might not go in the directions you’re expecting.
Yes, there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ guys in my story. However, there are plenty of shades of grey on offer too, as well as some different thinking on the nature of the treasure-hunting archaeological quest everyone’s on. Again, I’ve attempted to twist expectations just a little.
And that’s where I think the danger of nostalgia can lurk.
I can only speak for myself, but the recent revisiting of hugely popular universes from decades ago didn’t quite work as I’d hoped they might. The trailers nailed the look and feel. Oh boy did they, capturing the tone and the excitement, often making me feel like a kid again as the scores swept by and we get glimpses of the kinds of adventures we loved back then.
But arguably the films themselves fell short, possibly falling into the trap of catering too much to nostalgia. They brought back characters we knew and loved… and kept them exactly as we’d met them previously. They hadn’t evolved in any of the ways I thought they could (or should) have. Plus we got stories that trod similar paths to ones we’ve followed before, without offering up anything new or exciting (although you could argue that they show how society can get stuck in a loop without learning from its past – as our own seems to have done – and sure that’s valid, but not necessarily entertaining).
These disappointments made me understand a little more about the danger of letting memory overwhelm creativity. Yet there are other examples where the nostalgia is weaved into the story perfectly.
I’ve just finished binge-watching both seasons of Cobra Kai and holy crap this is a wonderful example of how to tap those old memories and feelings without falling into the pitfalls they can bring. Giving us the same feel on the screen, with characters we already loved or loved to hate, but serving a twist on expectations of who they are and what their journeys will be.
I wasn’t excited for this show. Mainly because the trailers were so-so, showing middle-aged men squaring off as they once had 35 years ago, just a bit slower. But in fact this is a beautiful, funny show, about the redemption of the old antagonist through exploring the reasons he fell to the dark side and detailing his awakening in the modern world as a deadbeat parent. And this is almost a literal awakening too, as one of the best things of the show is the way Johnny seems to have skipped straight here from the 80s, having had his drunken head down all this time until he’s finally forced to confront the present.
You wouldn’t think a modern revisiting of The Karate Kid would be about such things and yet it’s the perfect evolution of the characters. Because we all grow up and get responsibilities. Sometimes we have kids. We fall into jobs we don’t like or that aren’t quite where we pictured ourselves. Life isn’t the same. And sometimes the events of the past – good and bad – can haunt us in different ways if we don’t let them go.
Thinking back, the reboot of Battlestar Galactica did a similar thing. I loved the original, with its cheesy special effects and brilliant flowing hair. However, making the updated version so vastly different within the familiar universe was a stroke of genius and ensured this great version of the show would find a whole bunch of new fans as well as bring along most of the old who were curious.
If we’re going to continue mining the nostalgia of our childhoods – we probably will and I am still here for it – I think we need to understand that this is the way it can work well. Give us the tone and spirit of the original influences as a touchstone to the feelings we had in our past. But also give us a twist in the stories if you can. Make them fresh and exciting and relevant to us now. Let the characters have changed in all the time we haven’t seen them. Give them new concerns and responsibilities. Let’s see where they’ve come from and the new and interesting path they have ahead.
Most importantly, be brave enough to acknowledge that the power of nostalgia can’t carry any project. There has to be an evolution of some form within it.