It's been around for some time. It's certainly not a new thing. However, it definitely seems to be gaining more and more popularity and I'm not overly convinced that's necessarily a good thing. The problem? A disease afflicting TV and film which shall be henceforth known as prequelitis.
The disease tends to rear it's ugly head when you have a successful property or franchise that has reached a very definite ending. The problem? Well, how do you make more films / episodes when all the characters have found a happy ending / been hideously slaughtered (delete as applicable)? Simple. You go back and fill in all those little gaps that really didn't actually need filling in the first place.
The most famous example of this is, of course, Mr George Lucas with the Star Wars prequels but they've been discussed often enough so let's just take those as read. He's by no means the only offender. Peter Jackson, now faced with trying to follow up his massively successful Lord Of The Rings trilogy, is now producing a two-film adaptation of Tolkien's earlier work, The Hobbit. Following the stalling of the X-Men franchise with the reasonably awful X-Men: The Last Stand, we've been presented with the clunkily titled X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Exorcist: The Beginning, Cube Zero, Ring Zero - all have gone back to the start to do their bit. In TV terms, Star Trek: Enterprise went where pretty much everyone had gone before and we have Caprica going back to the worlds of Battlestar Galactica before they were destroyed in the opening episode. And soon, back to the big screen, we have upcoming prequels to both The Thing and Alien (supposedly to be directed by Ridley Scott himself) to fill in more of those details that nobody was clamouring for.
And therein lies the problem. Dramatic tension. Who cares? Really, you know ultimately what's going to happen to all of these worlds so why you should really care about these extra, almost superfluous details. I don;t need to know the origin of the alien space pilot from the crashed spaceship in Alien - it's much cooler being a massive mysterious presence. And yet, I know what I'm like. I'll end up watching some of these things and I'll end up with the inevitable sense of disappointment that comes from knowing how it all will ultimately play out.
You're never going to get a surprise ending to a prequel or some sudden unexpected character development because, by definition, the end of a prequel has to fit into the beginning of the original story so you always know where you're going to end up. That's not to say that is no enjoyment to be had in a prequel, it's just that, for me, it's almost always going to be dramatically limited.
That doesn't mean that there isn't the odd success story. J.J Abrams' prequel / sequel / reboot of Star Trek was a real winner but these are few and far between and definitely the exception to the (increasing) norm. For the most part, give us something new. If a story's done, move on to a new one.
Mind you, we're also overly fond of trilogies these days but that's another topic...