There's a very strange relationship between character/plot development and maintaining the status quo. Changing said status, if done poorly, may result in a Dork Age. A Dork Age is a period in a franchise, especially a long-running one, where there was a dramatic change of concept or execution, usually to stay current and it did not work.
It could be an ill-advised "new direction". Or a costume change that was dated the instant it premiered. Maybe it's a timely gimmick that was dated five months before it premiered. Perhaps the character lost their trademark powers and went through a run of very different ones. Or there was a Retcon or plot twist that revealed something that didn't quite gel, or attached a completely new mythos that came off as completely at odds with a character's history and overall mood. Sudden Genre Shifts. Clones. Scrappies. Romantic Plot Tumors. Overshadowing Controversies. Many and unsubtle are the forms of the Dork Age.
While this trope is most readily associated with fictional characters, note that musicians and other performers can enter Dork Ages as well. Especially when they try (and fail) to form a new and radically different onstage persona, experiment with a very different genre, attempt to dramatically alter their entire image permanently, or a band loses a key member. You know a band is in its Dork Age if you, as a fan, are wholly unaware that they're still around and releasing albums.
There are even cases when reality itself can enter a Dork Age (or reality as perceived in the mass media, at least, as attempts to change all of reality will never be successful).
This fundamental change is often an attempt to attract new fans. Unfortunately, that usually does not work. Worse, the change does not go over well with the established fans. Generally, the more dramatically something diverts from its basics, the more likely it's the start of a Dork Age.
Now the idea that creates a Dork Age isn't necessarily a bad idea — not in theory at least — but depending on how deep a legacy runs, it can make for a strange detour. Like its close cousin Jumping the Shark, it's much easier to spot in hindsight. The main clue that a Dork Age has happened is that it's mentioned as little as possible by newer writers. You can bet a series with Adaptation Distillation will never mention it outside of a Discontinuity Nod.
That said, often there will be a group of fans who remember the Dork Age with affection, and every so often there may be a Continuity Nod about it. Once enough distance has been put between the readers and the offending material, it'll usually be considered "safe" and people will start referring to it again, often in a self-deprecating jest. Part of the reason for this change in attitude is that, while a Dork Age is still ongoing, readers understandably fear that it will never end (at least not without taking the franchise with it) and that the franchise will be Ruined Forever. Once it has ended and the status quo safely restored, the entire incident can be remembered as just one self-contained story arc in the franchise's history, rather than a permanent drastic change.
And much like Jumping the Shark, this is most evident and should be supported upon retrospect. A Dork Age can sometimes be a Franchise Killer, and also a result of Seasonal Rot, but quite often those involved learned their lesson and things will change upon recognizing the dork age. It's They Changed It, Now It Sucks! when it really does suck.
Not to be confused with The Dark Age of Comic Books or The Dark Age of Animation, though anything that earns the label "Dark Age" is likely to overlap. Definitely not to be confused with Dogbert's condescending name for one of Dilbert's inventions.
See also Fanon Discontinuity, Canon Discontinuity, Running the Asylum, Early Installment Weirdness, Dead Horse Genre (for the musical era equivalent) and Network Decay (the network equivalent, though it is somewhat more akin to Jumping the Shark or Seasonal Rot). If the causes of the Dork Age are visible in earlier, good installments (if to a much lesser degree), we can point to that as the Franchise Original Sin. Often happens because a long-running series feels the need to say "We're Still Relevant, Dammit!!", or because the creator had a Tough Act to Follow. This can be a lucky case of Jumping the Shark and surviving later. Speaking of sharks, see Voodoo Shark for a similar trope applied specifically to plot devices.
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