BSG spinoff Caprica launches next Friday, but as good as its opening episodes may be (And they are), we're still worried. Why? Because it's a prequel, and if science fiction has taught us one thing, it's that prequels generally suck.
It's easy to point to the Star Wars prequels as an example of the inherent failure of prequels, but instead, I'm going to push you in the direction of something much more recent: Last summer's X-Men Origins: Wolverine. For those of you who saw that movie - even those who enjoyed it - you'll know already that something was missing: Anything resembling dramatic tension. Despite all the action and the Liev Schreiber chewing scenery, there was never really a moment where anyone in the audience would've worried about the outcome, because we'd all seen Wolverine in the three X-Men movies already and he definitely seemed alive there*.
The real problem with prequels is that, in almost every instance, they're never really stories in their own right. They're "How did we get to the point we started at in the story you already know about," whether it's in the form of character backstory, societal/cultural/technological history or whatever, and that immediately robs them of any real way of surprising us with their outcome without resorting to gimmicky variations on "A HA! Things weren't the way you thought they were before! Everything you know is wrong!" (which is, you know, annoying). And when you know how a story ends, that story has to be told extremely well to hold your attention (Of course, knowing the ending can, every now and then, be the point; the three Star Wars prequels were pretty much pre-sold on the idea of "How does this cute little annoying boy become Darth Vader?" and there was something in that approach... but, again, at that point it becomes all about the execution, which is where - Hayden Christensen hates sand? - Episodes 1 and 2 fell down. Although I have to admit enjoying the third one).
There's a way of getting around this, mind you, and it's the route that Caprica seems to be taking: Essentially telling a new story only tangentally connected to the original story. Caprica features no Battlestars, post-apocalyptic adventures of the survivors of the human race and no robotic badguys trying to kill us all off. Yes, it's involved with the (an?) origin of the cylons in one sense, but the series, the story, is - from what we've seen - so disconnected from Battlestar Galactica in so many ways that it feels like something new. Which is good for Caprica the show, but begs the question, Why not just make it its own show, unconnected to any existing mythology at all? Is the branding advantage that big?
(And to everyone currently shouting "YES!" at their screens, I know. I just wish it wasn't so, is all.)
Prequels are almost always afterthoughts, no matter how many times their creators may pretend that there's always been a massive plan that we never knew about and it's all planned really; they're add-ons created to exploit success or cover storytelling asses or fulfill someone's OCD desire to explain everything. Sure, there have been the occasional good ones (Last year's The Surrogates: Flesh and Bone being a fine example), but don't let that distract you from the simple fact: Prequels generally suck.
* See also: "Smallville, The Whole Damn Series Of." Yeah, even with the "We've killed Jimmy Olsen, oh noes" thing.