Star Wars, storytelling, and me

(via Penny Arcade)

When I was a kid, I went nuts for Star Wars (hell, I still do). When I didn’t want to be Han Solo or Luke Skywalker, I wanted to be George Lucas. Yes, you read that right.

One of the first stories I remember sitting down and wanting to write in my spare time (as opposed to creating one with toys, or being told to write one at school), at the tender age of 6 or 7, was what I imagined must’ve taken place in The Empire Strikes Back. I’d already seen Return Of The Jedi in the cinema and A New Hope on Christmas television (back in the days when there was hardly any choice), so I knew what happened before and after. I knew from the toys that were available what characters, creatures and vehicles must’ve appeared in the middle film; I wanted to join the dots.

The end result was… about as good as you’d expect from a small boy writing his first book. But it was a start. It got me interested in the ‘flow’ of stories, the three-act structure, and the idea that the good guys have to lose sometimes in order to make the bad guys seem stronger (at least, on a crude, childish level of understanding). But most of all, it gave me a need to be able to link disparate things together, especially in storytelling.

It helped me grasp (eventually) what the bad guys’ drugs’n’guns’n’Taliban plan was in The Living Daylights, and more than simple surface impressions of what was going on in The Hunt For Red October (growing older probably helped too). It also meant I didn’t mind (I actually thoroughly enjoyed) Isaac Asimov’s attempt to link all his previous science fiction stories into one, gigantic narrative in the 1980s (I understand that his older fans didn’t like it).

In my adolescent writing (science fiction and an unfortunate tendency towards Star Trek fanfic), I concentrated on plot at the expense of character – events rather than emotions. I tended to miss emotional aspects when I read stories too. For example, it was years after reading Bill Bryson’s account of driving across the USA, Lost Continent, when I chatted to improv actor Steve Steen after his Edinburgh Fringe stage performance of the book, that I became aware of the emotional underpinning of the journey – Bryson’s bereavement for his father, and nostalgia for his childhood; seeing how ‘his’ USA was just as lost as his his past was.

Returning to the galaxy far, far away, despite this preference for intricate plotting over emotion, there was one thing I just couldn’t get into: the ‘Expanded Universe’ (EU) was a sprawling mound of stories that tried to fill in every last detail between the films and after them, involving comics, books and computer games. There was too much! And the quality was decidedly variable (some fuck-awful authors were on a par with me, aged six); they ended up with distinctly non-Star-Warsy aliens invading the whole galaxy and killing Chewbacca by dropping  a moon on him (really!). From the earliest days of reading the Marvel comics in the early 80s, I just couldn’t see the ‘EU’ as anything other than professional fan fiction. Sure, it could be entertaining, but I simply didn’t see it as part of the Star Wars trilogy.

When The Phantom Menace came out, I didn’t have the negative reaction a lot of my friends had. I didn’t hate Jar Jar Binks; I just saw him as a risky, creative experiment in the vein of Yoda: immensely quotable, computer generated instead of a muppet, he talked funny, and was prone to slapstick – perhaps if he uttered pseudo-Buddhist deepity platitudes, older fans would’ve liked him more? I reckon a good deal of the negative reaction came from the fact that tonally The Phantom Menace was just as earnest as the previous films. It wasn’t ironic, and it wasn’t trying to be ‘modern’ (like The Matrix); it was hearkening back to classic adventure movies from the mid-20th century, and it was aimed at kids.

I was interested to see where it would go from there. I wanted to see how the saga would join the dots from there to A New Hope. I thought Attack Of The Clones was a bit of a narrative mess (I found the game Knights Of The Old Republic to be a more satisfying Star Wars experience), with moments that were too subtle to be picked up – such as Liam Neeson’s cameo as a post-mortem Qui Gon Jinn. I saw numerous missed links and storytelling opportunities from The Phantom Menace (it was almost as if that film never happened! – let alone the poorly-scripted romance between Padme and Anakin), but was largely pleased by the end of Revenge Of The Sith (even if there were still a few outstanding inconsistencies – for example how could Princess Leia have known her mother was sad if Padme died immediately after childbirth?).

Emperor Palpatine’s plot to destroy the Jedi and rule the galaxy was intricate and flawless. Compared with the evil plots of Star Trek Into Darkness or James Bond in Skyfall, or Loki’s planor anyone’s – in Avengers Assemble, Palpatine’s plan to frame the Jedi for creating clones and starting the Clone Wars, and then using those wars to destroy the Jedi and make himself Emperor shows other evil supervillains’ plots to be products of writers who are far less intelligent than the antagonists they’re attempting to write.

It’s just a shame that this galactic-politics-level of plotting wasn’t as emotionally engaging as the story of a farmboy discovering his destiny. Nor could it ever hope to be. I just wanted to see how it all tied together. I was shown. Sure, I’d’ve loved to have seen more of the Clone Wars, or Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi being friends, but I was happy to make do with what I was given.

Happily, George Lucas – in his last involvement with the Star Wars universe – gave me precisely what I’d’ve loved to have seen, in the Clone Wars TV series. It joined the dots in a way the ‘Expanded Universe’ never could. Yes, it was a computer-generated cartoon, but to dismiss it for that reason is to overlook the power animation can hold (how many adults cried at the opening sequence of Up?). It showed more details and practicalities of Palpatine’s plans, and how they affected people. It showed that maybe it was a good thing the Jedi were wiped out. It showed the growth of the military-industrial complex. It showed more about how Yoda learnt of life after death. It featured galactic politics, Godfather-style intrigue with Jabba the Hutt, Yoda plumbing the secrets of The Force (featuring Mark Hamill as the first Sith Lord), and all the swashbuckling one could hope for. It provides context for the ‘prequel’ films that was missing, and makes the situations in each film more intense.

More importantly, it featured two characters who are -ultimately- betrayed by the people they thought were their family. The villainess Asajj Ventress is a former Jedi turned bad, who is recruited by Count Dooku (voiced by Christopher Lee in the pilot film), only to be cast aside. Her story (and backstory) is as compelling as that of the heroes, until she finds herself relating to the series’ principal character, Anakin’s apprentice, Ahsoka Tano.

Ahsoka starts as a bratty teenage girl. She screws up, badly. But she learns from her mistakes, and grows. She ends up finding out how the separatists see things (they’re not just ‘The Bad Guys’), teaming up with the likes of film favourites Chewbacca, Captain Ackbar and Captain Tarkin, and training rebels (against the separatists). And then, the Jedi reject her. The conclusion of the series shows an adolescent girl growing up and making her own, mature decisions about what’s best for her. Not bad for a space show with robots and laser beams!

Needless to say, if you’re a fan of the films, but haven’t kept up with Star Wars on TV (or the internet), you’ve missed out.

After George Lucas sold Lucasfilm to Disney, the Star Wars ‘story group’ decided to officially class all the previous ‘Expanded Universe’ books, games, and comics as ‘Legends’ which might be dipped into for inspiration, but would not be an official part of the Star Wars storyline – only  the films and TV shows and books written from that point forward would be part of the ‘universe’. Some of the fans who’d grown up on this extra material went nuts; as I understand it, they were outraged that the ‘Expanded Universe’ stories were no longer ‘real’ (ignoring the fact that Star Wars… isn’t real).

Since then, George Lucas’ successors have created the TV show Rebels (a fine bridge between Clone Wars, Revenge Of The Sith and A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back), in which characters from the earlier and later films and shows make appearances, voiced by the original film actors. Like Clone Wars, it provides context for the films which we didn’t have before. At the time of writing, its second season has only just begun, but if it proceeds as I suspect it will, it will make the events of A New Hope even more dire and important to the overall storyline. In the meantime, we can enjoy the heroes meeting a young Lando Calrissian and the sheer bastardry of Governor Tarkin and Darth Vader at their height.

As for the forthcoming The Force Awakens (and subsequent episodes in the new trilogy) and the stand-alone ‘anthology’ films (beginning with the forthcoming Rogue One)? My attitude is the same as that before – I’m just interested in seeing what they do with the Star Wars universe, and I’m glad it isn’t just glorified fan fiction.

I’m a fan of Star Wars, but not a completely knowledgeable or obsessive one (my fiance might dispute the last part). I’ve been described as a prequel ‘apologist’ (and was punched in the face in 1999 by a ‘Star Wars fan’ after saying why I thought The Phantom Menace was definitely a Star Wars film). Quite simply, I just like the universe George Lucas created and others are developing. I’m interested in seeing how it goes. I just like the storytelling.

I don’t care for other people’s ‘preferred order in which to watch the films‘; I saw Episode 6, then 4, 5, 1, 2 and 3, yet I still love the drama or intrigue no matter what film I’m watching. Why try to contrive an sequence to preserve a ‘surprise’ that only those born before 1975 would have experienced? Sorry, grandpa, but the kids aren’t going to get off your lawn; it’s not even your lawn any more! 1970s Star Wars and 1990s ‘Expanded Universe’ is just as lost as Bill Bryson’s 1950s America. Whinge about Jar Jar as much as you like; times have changed.

Star Wars draws on many influences and storytelling traditions. Watch it all. Watch just the ‘old trilogy’. Watch it in whatever order you like. Who cares? If you get something out of any of it, whether it’s nostalgia or inspiration, you can probably consider yourself a fan – but whatever kind of fan you think you are, don’t be a dick about it.

I mention this because some of my friends are getting back into Star Wars via their kids – to them, I say start wherever you want to start, show it to them in whatever order you like. Just bear in mind that there’s more to the series now than what we grew up with, and the new stuff is actually pretty good.

Don’t be a bore about your nostalgia!


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