Star Wars, “Star Wars”, and Episode VII

Sometime in the mid-90s my brothers and I were gathered around our parents’ dinner table. The fact that the prequels were in the works had been announced, but nobody knew anything else yet, not even the title of the first movie. My brothers and I were enthusiastically speculating about the upcoming movies and how awesome they’d be. When we paused for air, Mom asked, “What if the new movies aren’t as good as the old ones?” We scoffed. Why, George had deliberately stopped making Star Wars movies at the top of his game just to let special effects catch up with his vision. Clearly, the new movies were going to not just equal but surpass the old ones.

Score one for you, Mom.

Why do I care so much about Star Wars? I suppose that could be taken in two ways: why do I, personally, care so much about Star Wars, and why does my generation care so much about Star Wars?

For me personally, it was always the sense of personal freedom and an enormous–and enormously strange–universe to explore. I did not want to be Luke Skywalker. I wanted to be Han Solo, with my best friend, my ship, and the whole galaxy just a hyperspace jump away.

I did not have an unhappy childhood. Far from it. But I was an unsatisfied child trapped by childhood itself. I knew from a very early age that I wanted to be a paleontologist, but I didn’t want to be a paleontologist when I grew up, I wanted to be one right then. And more to the point, I didn’t want to have to wait to grow up. I wanted the personal freedom that came with being an adult. (Obviously, I knew nothing about the responsibilities that limit that freedom, but still…) And I could tell that what for want of a better term I will call childhood society was both fake and pointless. The schoolyard rivalries, popularity games, and above all, organized sports were all manifestly things that would stop mattering the moment I walked off campus for the last time. So I was never invested in them. I was in band and academic bowl because they were fun, but for the most part I was just marking time until I could do what I wanted.

Science fiction was my escape from the mundane world. I knew about the idea of escapist literature from a young age and I saw no problem with it. I explicitly used sci-fi that way, like a drug. For the decade between the ages of 11 and 21 I was not here most of the time; psychologically I was out there. What changed when I was 21 was that I got put on my first real research project, which got me back into this world because I finally had real meaningful work to do here (and, er, I got married).

But in between I spent a lot of time out there in general, and out there in the Star Wars galaxy in particular. I ingested loads of other sci-fi and fantasy. I read Tolkien and the Dune books and watched a ton of Star Trek, and enjoyed them all. But none of them had the same qualities as Star Wars, which as I see them are (1) limitless freedom and (2) the idea that the actions of one ordinary person can change the future. Tolkien wins on (2)–the hobbits were Just Folks thrown into exceptional circumstances–but loses on (1), because for me limitless freedom meant space, not a medieval fantasy realm, no matter how convincingly realized. Star Trek loses on both counts, for me, because it is so explicitly a team thing. Nobody on Star Trek ever goes off and has adventures on their own. I was already stuck in one command structure (school) and had no desire to escape into another one. I enjoyed Star Trek for the space exploration and the occasional battle–the stuff most reminiscent of Star Wars, in other words. Dune loses because of the strict stratification between the aristocracy, who Matter, and everyone else, who Don’t. Only Paul Atreides could be the Kwisatz Haderach. Anyone could be Luke Skywalker, the farmboy who got swept up in an adventure.

(Or so I thought. Little did I know then that Luke was a pawn in a 20-year-old conspiracy by Obi-Wan and Yoda to turn Anakin’s son into a weapon against the Sith. Innocence really was bliss.)

So: escapism, freedom, the idea that an ordinary farmboy (or, just possibly, a socially isolated nerd) could save the universe. Probably the same things that have made Star Wars the most important science fictional thing since Jules Verne. I guess there’s only one way to take the question after all.

Stephen King used to write a back-page column for Entertainment Weekly called “The Pop of King”. It was a great column; it’s how I discovered Veronica Mars (from a certain point of view) and the Jack Reacher books, which are pretty much my favorite TV show and thriller series, respectively. Once King wrote about why he kept going to horror movies. He knew that almost every one of them was going to suck. Every time he walked into the theater he knew the movie would not only be a disappointment but a predictable, boring disappointment. So why did he keep going in? Why not just say, “Bah!”, wave his hands, and walk away?

The answer, he wrote, is that a handful of times in his life he had been scared witless by a good horror movie, and that even though such movies only seemed to come along once or twice a decade, he kept plunking down his eight bucks (did I mention that this column was written several years ago?) and getting his hopes up, on the off chance that this movie would be one of the handful that could really channel the magic.

Star Wars is now more of a genre than a brand or a setting. Counting the Ewok movies and the Clone Wars movie, there are nine movies, four television series, more than 100 novels, dozens of comic books and graphic novels, and loads of video games, spanning several millennia of galactic history. Some of this stuff is excellent, a lot of it is good, almost all of it is at least entertaining. Perhaps inevitably, some of it just plain sucks. I doubt if anyone has identical feelings toward all of it. Most of us fans probably console ourselves with the thought that the stinkers “aren’t really Star Wars”, that there is an invisible but real metaphysical line between Star Wars–whatever it is that channels the magic for us–and “Star Wars”, the derivative stuff that happens to be set in the same universe. This privately-drawn line probably has little relationship with the official Lucasfilm position on what stuff is canon and what is apocrypha–a point I’ll return to later on.

So then the interesting thing is not insisting that my divvying up of all the Star Wars stuff into Star Wars and “Star Wars” is the One True Path, but finding out where different people draw the line, and more importantly, why.

Andrew Rilstone apparently draws the line between Star Wars–that is, the original 1977 film that only received the Episode IV: A New Hope tagline on its 1981 rerelease–and everything else. In “Review: Revenge of the Sith” he wrote:

I have a smart answer to the question “What do you think of the Star Wars prequels?” It is this: “I like ALL of the Star Wars movies, apart from Empire Strikes Back, and the ones which came afterwards.”

Now, he does go on to say that this a joke, and he’s written shedloads of very insightful essays on the other movies, which clearly indicates that he thinks they’re worthy of such close examination. But I still take him at his word, and as for why, I can only point you to his short, bittersweet essay “Thoughts on Revenge of the Sith“, where he concluded, “[it] was special, special to you, and this sequel which everyone is talking about is, well, only a movie”.

I suppose for me the original trilogy is Star Wars and everything else is just “Star Wars”. Mike will probably protest that I wrote waaay too glowingly about Revenge of the Sith (e.g., this and this) for that to be accurate. And it’s true, there is a certain charge that one gets from seeing a new Star Wars movie in the theater. I know, I’ve experienced it three times in my adult life (I’m not including The Clone Wars, which was entertaining but, well, only a movie). But each time, the charge wore off. It was only a borrowed gown, gilt by association.

As far as everything else goes, the closest thing to Star Wars is the Thrawn trilogy by Timothy Zahn. One of the back cover blurbs said, “Read and enjoy, the magic is back.” Well, okay, this magic wore off after a while, too. But it got me closer to the hidden wellspring of Star Wars than anything else has. Where Zahn’s novels fall down for me is that they are too prosaic. They are basically technothrillers set in the Star Wars galaxy, featuring characters we know and love. That may not be entirely Zahn’s fault, because he never had complete narrative freedom. For example, the alien race that eventually became the Noghri was originally going to be the Sith, until Lucasfilm shot that idea down because it trespassed on the prequel trilogy. Who knows what a no-holds-barred Zahn Star Wars novel would look like?

I still doubt that such a novel would transcend “Star Wars” and become Star Wars, because I’ve read lots of Zahn’s other books, and they’re all of a piece. They’re very good, but the stories tend to get resolved entirely by people being clever, which is satisfying reading, but not Star Wars. In Star Wars, sometimes the good guys prevail because Han lets out a battle cry and bum-rushes a whole squad of stormtroopers. Zahn’s characters are never quite that seat-of-the-pants, and the books are somewhat diminished for it (to be clear, by “diminished” I mean “less Star Wars“, not “less than stonking reads”).

Next up is the Clone Wars television series. The characterization, storytelling, and occasional sheer badassery (read: Yoda taking on a bunch of droid tanks singlehandedly) are much better than most of the prequel trilogy. But the stories are inherently limited in scope by the television format. In the original trilogy, Luke, Han, and Leia had about six hours to save the galaxy. In four seasons of 22 half-hour episodes (with one more to come), Anakin, Asohka, and Obi-Wan have had 44 hours to, er, fight the Clone Wars to a draw. And that’s that. I think the show is about as good as it could be, given what it is. It’s just that what it is makes it “Star Wars”, not Star Wars.

And after that, I’ll stand by what I said above: some of it is good, some of it is bad, almost all of it is entertaining. And, en masse, it’s ultimately exhausting. Star Wars is a great escape. “Star Wars” is only a pretty good playground. I’m ready for the real stuff.

Here’s a curious thing. George Lucas has said many, many times that there would never be any sequel trilogy. Surprise, surprise–he also said that there would never be a prequel trilogy, right up until the day he announced that there would be one after all. But he has also said a couple of times that if there was a sequel trilogy, he would probably ignore all of the Expanded Universe stuff set after Return of the Jedi, and do his own thing. And it appears that he is now making good on that promise–or is it a threat? Because as of right now there are at least 80 novels set after ROTJ, not to mention several extremely popular comic book series and graphic novels (e.g., Dark Empire), and all of that is probably going to become apocrypha when Episode VII comes out.

If I was a producer of post-ROTJ Star Wars material, I’d be upset, somewhere on the spectrum between “a little miffed” and “volcanic”. But I’d have to remind myself that Lucas has never been unclear about the fact that if he made the sequels, he’d tank whatever I’d done. Caveat auctor. (FWIW, Timothy Zahn appears to be totally cool with it: “They have no obligation to touch base. As with any other franchise, once we write something, it’s owned by Lucasfilm, as it should be. It’s their property.”)

However, as a consumer, I’m ecstatic. A lot of the EU post-ROTJ storylines just don’t do it for me, starting with the whole Yuuzhan Vong thing. (1) Alien invasion is an inherently Earthbound storyline. It doesn’t work at galactic scale, unless the invading aliens are godlike galaxy-shapers. (2) The Yuuzhan Vong are invisible in the Force. How convenient. But Yoda said he could feel the Force flow through rocks and trees and even between the land and the ship. Last time I checked, the midi-chlorian count of a rock was pretty damned low. If Y-Z are just sentient ysalamiri, I’m calling foul. (3) Organic ships and gravity-based weapons? Stupid. Here’s why (scroll down to ‘Organic technology’ and ‘gravitics’). (4) You guys killed Chewbacca over this crap? To be edgy? Screw you. I don’t mourn Chewbacca, I mourn whatever chowder-head gave the keys to the galaxy to R.A. Salvatore instead of Timothy Zahn. It’s like someone up there (in San Fran) said, “Hey, let’s make the whole Star Wars galaxy fight a bunch of guys that aren’t Star Wars!” So, throwing all that out is a Good Thing.

Also, I think it’s magnificently profligate of Lucas(film) to just write off 80+ novels and other tie-ins–worth, conservatively, tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars. Maybe I’ve always been overly enamored with Larry Niven’s “Down in Flames“, but that’s cool (even it means just abandoning this timeline instead of unmaking it).

Finally, if tanking all of this “Star Wars” gets me more Star Wars, I will dig the mass (entertainment) grave myself.

Here’s a dumb reason to be prematurely down on Episode VII: Disney is distributing it. The same fanboys who are bitching about Star Wars being a Disney property now were happy enough to give Disney their coin six months ago when they went to see The Avengers. Which was made by Marvel Studios, another Disney property, and distributed by Disney. Which didn’t stop it from rocking all of our faces off last summer. Episode VII is being made by Lucasfilm, produced by Kathleen Kennedy, based on a story by George Lucas, with the actual script being written by Michael Arndt. Now, Arndt has only had two screenplays produced to date, but the first was Little Miss Sunshine, which won him an Oscar, and the second was Toy Story 3, which made us bawl as the toys slid down the hill of garbage toward the incinerator (and was also Oscar-nominated, if that matters). So I think we can be cautiously optimistic.

If the movie ends up sucking after all, well, I’ve lived through the disappointment of a crappy Star Wars movie. Like Stephen King going to see the latest horror movie, I’ll undoubtedly pony up for a ticket, to see if Episode VII is “Star Wars” or, just maybe, Star Wars.

All the images used herein are concept paintings by Ralph McQuarrie, borrowed from here and, for the last one, here.
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18 Responses to Star Wars, “Star Wars”, and Episode VII

  1. Mike Taylor says:

    “Or so I thought.”

    Exactly! They took that away from you. But fortunately, not until it didn’t matter so much.

  2. Mike Taylor says:

    “Stephen King used to write a back-page column for Entertainment Weekly called “The Pop of King”. It was a great column; it’s how I discovered Veronica Mars

    And there was me thinking that you discovered Veronica Mars by me gifting you a DVD box-set on October 12, 2009! (I found it about it myself from Abigail Nussbaum’s blog, back before she started hating everything.)

  3. Mike Taylor says:

    “Most of us fans probably console ourselves with the thought that the stinkers “aren’t really Star Wars””

    This is known as the No True Scotsman manoeuvre. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No_true_Scotsman

  4. Matt Wedel says:

    What you say is true…from a certain point of view. I first wanted to see Veronica Mars because Stephen King praised it in that column. That led me to other reviews, almost all of which described VM as the best TV drama ever. But I had held that interest for a couple of years at least, with no sign of acting on it, when you sent me the boxed set.

    So yes, dammit, you’re right. Sorry I slighted you!

  5. Matt Wedel says:

    This is known as the No True Scotsman manoeuvre.

    Sure. But unlike Scotsmen, there is an original Star Wars, and an original trilogy, and the main feature films, and possibly other points at which one could separate out “the real stuff” from all the rest, whereas if there was ever One True Scotsperson, he or she is lost to us.

    Point is, where do you draw the line around Star Wars, and why?

  6. Mike Taylor says:

    Quibbling aside, I agree with nearly all of this, and look forward to Episode VII with at least as much optimism as I did to I, II or III.

    For me, the single greatest thing about Real Star Wars is the visuals — something that you’ve captured beautifully with the paintings that illustrate this post. When I watch Ep. IV, there are maybe 20 or 30 moments where a tableau is struck that is so perfect that I feel it’s seared permanently onto my neurons. You’ve written before about how X-Wings and the Falcon are iconic in a way that all Padme’s silver ships aren’t. That’s true; but it’s only part of a much wider truth about the absolutely distinctive visual impact of the original film (and to a lesser extent V and VI).

  7. Matt Wedel says:

    Word.

    Three things come to mind. The first is that for all that they were swashbucklers, the original films occasionally linger over a beautiful shot, like Luke watching the double sunset. I can’t offhand remember any similar still moments in the prequel trilogy. They were too much, too fast, all the time.

    Second, I think you’re bang on the money about “and to a lesser extent V and VI”. In fact, IMHO the only images from the later films that equal the best from IV are the AT-ATs striding across Hoth and Cloud City floating against the sunset. I especially like it that Cloud City is played down as “a small facility”. You know, just the kind of little rinky-dink place you expect in a galaxy-spanning empire. Mind-blowing for us, but hum-drum for the residents.

    Which bring me to my third point: when Lucas said he was going to stop making Star Wars movies until special effects caught up, I thought he meant that we’d get more Big Stuff, like Death Stars and cities in the sky. Some good old-fashioned sci-fi scope. Instead we got…battle droids. I suppose Coruscant might have had more visual punch if the vertical flying-car chase hadn’t already been done in The Fifth Element. But seriously, I wanted more Big Stuff, not just endless waves of Normal Stuff, no matter how prettily rendered. Call me shallow, but I hope the sequel trilogy has some Big Stuff.

  8. Mike Taylor says:

    Well, there is also the Super Star Destroyer, especially in scenes with regular SDs. And the carbonite-freezing facility. That’s all in V, sure, but VI also has the Emperor’s distinctive throne room — plus even mundane things like the design of the bunker that the rebels on the moon need to break into is striking and memorable.

    Oddly enough, the one part of the prequels that really did that for me (apart from Theed, OK) was the blink-and-you-miss-it montage of all the Jedi being killed when Order 66 is implemented. I could have used more of that. By contrast, Mustafa, for example, is very meh.

  9. Matt Wedel says:

    Oddly enough, the one part of the prequels that really did that for me (apart from Theed, OK) was the blink-and-you-miss-it montage of all the Jedi being killed when Order 66 is implemented. I could have used more of that.

    Yeah, there for about 60 seconds we got glimpses of some really interesting Other Places. Rilstone again: “Thousands of starships zoom across the screen; spectacular planet-scapes created almost in passing, billion dollar special effects as give-away lines. Did you ever stand in W.H. Smiths drooling at the rows of “sci-fi” paperbacks with lurid covers and lamenting that you would never, ever be able to read them all? George made this film for you”.

  10. Mike Taylor says:

    No, he made those sixty seconds for me.

    The bits with Anakin and Padme doing love-story dialogue? Not for me.

  11. Matt Wedel says:

    I hate to admit it, but I was kinda happy when Padme died.

  12. Mike Taylor says:

    I’d have been happier if Anakin had died.

  13. Matt Wedel says:

    Apparently we are as deeply-nested as WordPress will let a comment thread get. So I’m popping back out.

    I’d have been happier if Anakin had died.

    Well, sure. I’d have been ecstatic to see him choke to death on eopie farts. But we knew he was going to survive, and one of them had to go.

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  16. Mike Taylor says:

    Back in 2012, I wrote: “When I watch Ep. IV, there are maybe 20 or 30 moments where a tableau is struck that is so perfect that I feel it’s seared permanently onto my neurons.”

    I watched it again last night. Boy, what I wrote is SO true.

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