There seem to be two methods for rebooting a once successful franchise.
The first is to look at the series itself, discern what it was about the franchise that made it successful and attempt to repeat the same notes, only changing superficial or cosmetic details to “update” the franchise. Using this method, creators often wind up making something that is, at its best, a more visually impressive and tonally up-to-date series that is as good or perhaps slightly better than the original.
Therein lies the problem. Oftentimes, the original series isn’t that good to begin with.
Many franchises that receive a reboot these days had a primary audience of children or young adults and for that audience, with its more enduring imagination and disbelief that was much more easily suspended, it was enough. As time rolls on and the young fans of those franchises get older, they remember these series through the proverbial glasses of rose. Their more mature minds, whether they realize it or not, add an imagined quality to their beloved episodes, characters and plots. In their minds, the series that they remember becomes vastly better than the series that actually existed. So when one attempts to reboot a franchise in this way, the result is usually poorly received because the reboot did its best to recreate the series as it was, instead of how it was remembered.
A classic example of this is the Transformers reboot from Paramount and Michael Bay along with Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman. The creative team behind the film series changed superficial details about the story, setting and characters to “update” the franchise to fit into the modern day, but did little to add any kind of depth or dimension – elements that are demanded by todays adult audiences, who have been taught by people like Ronald D. Moore and J.J. Abrams to expect more from their reboots. The Transformers film reboot, while it was financially successful, and even entertaining, fell short with critics and fans, and this was because the creators failed to recognize the imagined quality of the series in the minds of the fans.
The second method of rebooting a franchise requires a little more imagination and a lot more work, but it ultimately results in a rebooted series that is much more satisfying and entertaining for audiences, both new and existing fans.
The process, while varying in minor details from project to project, involves a more in depth analysis of the series that serves as the inspiration for the reboot. It requires picking the series apart, bit by bit until one is left with only the basic elements of the show. Picking it down to the bare bones and, hopefully at least, revealing an idea of either what the show is about at its core or what it could be about with some work. Usually, in the case of a reboot it is the latter.
Either way, a new or existing thread is revealed and one begins the process of grafting new muscles to the bare bones of the series – selectively choosing which elements from the original series to keep unchanged, while adding new elements that serve the reboot’s new, more mature direction.
Characters are rebuilt from scratch, adding new elements that give them more depth and dimension, setting them up for a more complete arc during the series run. From the characters’ history is born the universe history, which as a by-product of more realized characters, is more complex and believable.
What one ends up with is a series that rings true to the original, while vastly improving on the series by adding depth and dimension that previously only existed in the minds of fans. It is a series that is as good as the fans remember it, which is to say better than it actually was, objectively speaking. By adding in this imagined quality, it is not only a service to existing fans of the series, but also to new audiences as well, who experience the franchise for the first time expecting a level of drama and depth on par with adult contemporary media.
A great example is Battlestar Galactica reboot from Sci-Fi and the aforementioned Ronald D. Moore. The creative team looked at the original franchise as a whole and extrapolated an idea – a theme that ran through the entirety of the trilogy, spawning other themes along the way, and built the characters around this idea, keeping certain core elements (though even some of those were changed slightly, again, to fit the idea) and re-defining others. Moore and company reconstructed the mythos to rise to the imagined quality in the minds the original series’ fans.