None of the film or TV series we're about to mention are bad -- we're not saying that. Some of them are great, even. But each of them was presented as having a master plan from the start, an overarching story or mystery that caused viewers to wait intently for the resolution, to see what the creators had in mind.
But time and time again, it turns out that the creators had nothing in mind at all, figuring they could throw out the mystery now and figure out the rest when it got closer to deadline. This is true of the minds behind...
The first film says it's "Episode IV" right in the opening credits. That's what makes Star Wars different from, say, Transformers or even the Matrix trilogy -- it was a single grand epic spawned in the possibly deranged mind of George Lucas long before cameras started rolling on the first film.
"There's no way the first three are anything but gold!"
According to the legend, when Lucas began writing the story it got too big for one movie, so he decided to split it up. Shortly after releasing the first film, Lucas claimed he already had an idea of what all nine parts of the saga would be about.
"Bullshit. They'll all be about stupid, pointless, petty bullshit."
But Actually ...
Obviously there have been only six films (Lucas now says there were always supposed to be just six). But the truth is, when he released the first film he had no idea it was anything other than a stand-alone movie. The studio greenlit only the one film, and they had their doubts about making their money back. Lucas thus had to write it assuming he'd never get a chance to add to the story.
Most fans don't realize that the famous "Episode IV" isn't anywhere in the original opening crawl -- it was only added to later prints:
The original Star Wars started production under the name Adventures of Luke Starkiller, as taken from the Journal of the Whills, Saga I: The Star Wars, later shortened to just the last two words. The idea of numbering the episodes came up with the second film ... which was originally announced as Star Wars II.
" Star Wars II: Electric Boogaloo, thank you very much."
Oh, and about the story... let's look at Darth Vader as an example. The prequels make it clear that the overall saga is supposed to be the story of Darth Vader's corruption and final redemption -- but Lucas didn't even know who Darth Vader was until the second draft of Star Wars II (that is, The Empire Strikes Back).
In interviews, Lucas has claimed that he came up with the name "Darth Vader" as a variation of "Dark Father," implying that it was always supposed to be a clue of his relationship with Luke. But in the early drafts, Lucas gave the name "Darth Vader" to a completely normal Imperial general who had nothing to do with Luke. In all likelihood, Darth Vader's real name was supposed to be ... Darth Vader. That's why in the original Star Wars, Obi-Wan calls him "Darth" instead of "Anakin," the name he would have known him by. In fact, in Lucas' early notes, Vader and Luke's father are supposed to appear together on-screen.
Though we're saying all of this to avoid the obvious: If Lucas had planned for Leia to be Luke's sister all along, this probably wouldn't have happened:
Unlike the formulaic 70s sci-fi show it's based on, the 2004 version of Battlestar Galactica had a running narrative with a fascinating mystery at its center: the identity of the 12 Cylons posing as humans, sometimes without their knowledge.
The remake also surpassed the original by touching on philosophical, social and spiritual topics, as opposed to just trying to rip off Star Trek.
AND Star Wars.
Fans stayed tuned until the very end to find the solution to the mystery the writers clearly had known from the beginning. Right?
But Actually ...
So, the show ran for four seasons. At what point did showrunner Ronald D. Moore decide that five regular cast members had been Cylons all along? In the middle of Season 3.
Here's how this massive, show-changing decision was made, in his own words:
"We were in the writers room on the finale of that season ... and I literally made it up in the room, I said, 'What if four of our characters walk from different parts of the ship, end up in a room and say, Oh my God, we're Cylons? And we leave one for next season.' ... And then we sat and spent a couple of hours talking about who those four would be."
"Eventually, we just drew names out of a hat."
Suddenly, the show's finale makes a whole lot more sense. Fans were annoyed to say the least when, in the last episode, the characters found an uncivilized planet resembling their old Earth (which, as it turns out, had been devastated by a nuclear war) and settled there. At which point it is revealed that this planet is our Earth, and that this futuristic sci-fi show really took place in the distant past all along! Of course, this revelation created countless contradictions (at one point, the Cylons use the song All Along the Watchtower as a secret code, for instance).
Maybe this explains why it wasn't the Hendrix version
We're not saying the writers just threw out a bunch of stuff without ultimately knowing how it would pay off. We would never accuse them of that. Instead, Moore refers to it as" stuff we just threw up and decided to take a flier on without ultimately knowing where it would pay off."
Oh, wait ...
The X-Files was mostly made up of "monster of the week" episodes where the two agents would take on some kind of supernatural threat or other. But what made the show famous, and what drew in obsessive fans, was the over-arching story behind it -- a complex mythology involving a seasons-spanning alien conspiracy. Also, enough sexual tension to kill anyone standing between the two protagonists from sheer atmospheric pressure.
If real FBI agents were this sexy, they'd never get anything done.
Fans are still looking forward to the proposed third movie, which according to Chris Carter's master plan will center on the 2012 alien invasion predicted by the series finale.
But Actually ...
There was never supposed to be a continuing story at all. It all happened because Gillian Anderson got knocked up.
It was David Duchovny's first interaction with a pregnant woman that didn't end in screaming and death threats.
The whole premise of The X-Files was originally just having two agents go around investigating random, unconnected weird shit, which is what they did for most of the first season. They did have some alien conspiracy-themed episodes in Season 1, but writer/producer Frank Spotnitz says they weren't really supposed to form an overall arc. The main reason this all changed had nothing to do with artistic growth or originality; it's because Gillian Anderson got pregnant.
The writers decided to work around Anderson's pregnancy by showing her as little as possible -- that's why the government splits the two agents in the Season 1 finale.
Scully's reduced role resulted in other characters getting more developed, like Director Skinner, the Cigarette-Smoking Man and Alex Krycek. None were supposed to be major characters. The Cigarette-Smoking Man, ultimately the key figure in the entire mythology, started off as "an extra leaning on a shelf."
Then Scully had to be written out for a few episodes so she could have her damn baby already, so the writers came up with the story arc where she's abducted and Mulder has to search for her. This was the first larger plot they ever did, and it was completely unplanned. As Spotnitz put it, "This mythology really ended up running through the life of the series, all because Gillian Anderson became pregnant."
So, no, Chris Carter never had a master plan and probably knew as much about the conspiracy as the people watching. For instance, one of the main draws of the show was the mystery behind the abduction of Mulder's sister, but even that was improvised. The early seasons dropped numerous clues that she was still alive, like Mulder finding a medical file with a "recent tissue sample" or, you know, being flat-out told "She's still alive" by people who had no reason to lie. But then, when the writers got tired of the plot, they revealed that she had been dead all along.
"Well, shit, that was a waste of time."