Musings on Star Wars

17 Jan

Musings on Star Wars

When he devised Star Wars, depending on which version of the story you believe about how much Lucas planned before he started making movies, George Lucas set himself an unusual challenge.  Deliberately or not, he opened in the middle of the story with A New Hope and followed up with The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi – episodes 4-6 of the overall 9-movie story.  This had both advantages and disadvantages.  A New Hope started with no fans and no following, so Lucas could afford to paper over the cracks in the backstory without upsetting the more nit-picky amongst the audience.  The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi had the relatively simple task of building on A New Hope.  The disadvantages, however, were two-fold.

First, the prequel trilogy had to build up to the original trilogy.

Second, the sequel trilogy had to build on both the original trilogy and the prequel trilogy.

This was not an easy task.  A New Hope is a relatively simple story, centred around the power trio of Luke, Han and Leia.  Lucas established their characters in broad strokes, either leaving the other characters to the side (Vader, Chewbacca, Wedge, the droids) where they served as plot elements rather than characters in their own right, or killing them off to suit the story (Ben Kenobi, Tarkin).  The Empire Strikes Back allowed more focus on Vader, as well as introducing Lando and the Emperor, because the power trio were already well established and both Lando and the Emperor were relatively minor characters for most of the movie.  Return of the Jedi culminated this trend by bringing the Emperor front and centre, allowing him to drive Vader’s plot and giving Lando a much bigger role.  It also introduced a handful of minor characters that loomed large through the Expanded Universe/Legends canon.

Luke himself served as our viewpoint character for most of the trilogy.  It’s important to realise that Lucas painted Luke as a simple farm boy, dangerously inexperienced as he crawls into a wider universe.  His character and skills develop as we watch.  He makes mistakes, from getting into a bar fight to abandoning his training to save his friends, but his mistakes are understandable.  Han and Leia have less development – Leia certainly comes across as far more mature, even older, than her twin brother – but what little we see makes sense.  Han grows into a hero, almost despite himself; Leia takes control of her surroundings and, when she is put in chains by an alien slug, uses them to strangle him. Leia is a feminist icon for a reason.  Neither she nor either of the other two are Mary Sues.

The movie series might have worked better if Lucas had moved straight to crafting the prequel trilogy.  Instead, Star Wars lay fallow for a few years before giving birth to the Expanded Universe/Legends.  This ranged from the extremely good – the Thrawn and X-Wing books – to the shockingly poor and problematic The Courtship of Princess Leia and the deeply weird The Crystal Star. The canon grew into a colossal universe set between A New Hope and massive interstellar wars deep into the post-ROTJ era.  This was both good and bad for Star Wars.  On one hand, it kept the flame alive and gave birth to all kinds of source material that could be mined for the later movies.  On the other, it created a fandom that had emotionally invested itself in the Expanded Universe/Legends canon, which would be very hard to please when – if – the next set of movies were ever made.  The real problem facing Star Wars Aftermath was not the gay character, but the simple fact that the book was competing with the brilliant Heir to the Empire and lost badly. 

Lucas eventually did make the prequel trilogy.  However, to some extent, his vision was competing with the Expanded Universe/Legends canon too.  (Notice the version of the Clone Wars presented in Heir to the Empire, which has little in common with Attack of the Clones.)  This alone might not have been a major problem.  The Phantom Menace, however, had too many weak spots to please the fandom.  Jake Lloyd, like most child actors, couldn’t live up to the demands placed on him.  (Personally, I’d have started with an older actor and declared Anakin to be in his early teens.)  Add this to a comedic character who isn’t funny – Jar-Jar – and a plot that makes little sense (although it does in hindsight) and you have a recipe for trouble. 

These flaws spread into Attack of the Clones, which had a bad guy of little impact (personally, I like the Darth Jar-Jar theory) and cast a baleful shadow over Revenge of the Sith.  The third of the trilogy is the best, but the actors were unable to cope with the script’s demands they play the doomed romance as true love rather than two young people making a series of mistakes and being unable to cope with it.  That said, the movie does wonders for the Emperor and the trilogy as a whole shows why the Jedi were falling to the dark side long before the Emperor effectively wiped them out.  (If they were stupid enough not to realise that bringing ‘balance to the force’ was probably bad news for them, as they hugely outnumbered the Sith, they probably deserved to lose.)

Still, the flaws in the prequel trilogy didn’t overshadow the original trilogy.  The important characters were amply justified (save Jar-Jar) and relatively few of them survived into the next series.  Those of us who disliked the movies could afford to ignore them.  Not everyone did, of course.  Lucas might have recovered from the problems of The Phantom Menace, but his stock had slipped.  He was no longer seen as a genius by his fans.  Star Wars, in a sense, had outgrown him.  His decision to sell the rights to Disney was, generally, taken as a good thing. 

I still don’t understand how they managed to mess it up.

I do understand one part of it.  They were trying to please both the fans – some of whom became known as the Fandom Menace – and new viewers.  The latter would not be steeped in Star Wars to the point they’d understand elements that grew out of the Expanded Universe/Legends canon.  If they’d gone with a movie version of the Thrawn books, they would have had to explain a lot to new viewers  And yet, they wouldn’t need to do that much explaining.  Luke, Han and Leia are known characters; Mara Jade, Thrawn and C’baoth could be introduced relatively easily (Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Thrawn and Pellaeon).  It wouldn’t have been that hard to go through the Expanded Universe/Legends canon, take whatever they wanted and discard the rest.  The Marvel Cinematic Universe did that and it worked very well.

Instead, they discarded practically all of the Expanded Universe/Legends canon.

That was, for me at least, the point where I decided I wasn’t going to get invested in the Disney Wars canon.  I was already irked that some of my favourite comics were being steadily rebooted, time and time again.  I wasn’t going to read the books unless the new post-ROTJ canon really grabbed me.  I’d thought the original Expanded Universe/Legends canon did well enough.  But even that wasn’t the real killer.

The sequel trilogy had to build on the original trilogy, at the very least.  Instead, The Force Awakens proved to be – largely – a beat-for-beat reprise of A New Hope.  There is a Rebel Alliance – the Resistance – fighting the remnants of the Empire (aka the First Order.)  The First Order has an even bigger Death Star, plus they’re searching for a droid with a map to Luke Skywalker’s hiding place.  (And why did someone who wanted to hide go to the trouble of drawing a map?)  The overall story arc is very much like A New Hope, with Han playing the role of Ben Kenobi (his death was easy to predict). 

The characters had potential, but that was largely wasted.  Poe didn’t get enough screen time to be a really developed character.  Finn, the best of the new characters, had too many cowardly lion moments for my tastes.  He comes across as weak, where Han looked cocky in the original trilogy.  And Rey is very much a Mary Sue.  She’s too good, given where she started from (Mara Jade, by contrast, had her awesomeness very clearly explained from the start).  The movie denies us the chance to watch her grow, as we watched Luke grow in the original trilogy.  I sometimes feel that the writer gave all the pratfalls to Finn, who isn’t the type of character who can handle it.  In conclusion, The Force Awakens is good for nostalgia, but bad for character development.  It’s tissue-thin and falls apart when you look at it too closely.

Leaving aside Rogue One, perhaps the best of the Disney Wars movies, we move on to The Last Jedi.  Again, it draws heavily from the original trilogy – in this case, unsurprisingly, The Empire Strikes Back.  However, it is unable to justify itself as well as the original.  The plot makes little sense, practically assassinating all three of the main characters as well as both Luke and Leia.  (Kenobi and Yoda hid from an entire empire.  What was Luke hiding from?)

Worse, it lacks the original’s compact storytelling.  Instead of a united plot that diverges and then recombines, there are three separate plots.  The power trio are split up – after having been separated at the end of The Force Awakens – and sent on different missions for various plot reasons. One of them should really have been eliminated, preferably Finn’s.  As much as I like him, and I do, his plot is the least useful.  Finn and Poe should have been kept together, if only because Poe and Finn have a lot more chemistry than Finn and Rose. (Rose herself is completely surplus to requirements, although she’s a better character than her detractors say.)

It’s fairly clear the writer knew little about the military, let alone character development.  Poe is bashed for being wrong, when it’s blatantly obvious he was pretty much right.  (If that dreadnaught hadn’t been destroyed, the Resistance would have been taken out instead.)  This bashing continues as Leia is put out of action, which throws command to Vice Admiral Holdo … who we are told is a great commander, but rapidly shown that she’s nothing of the sort.  Poe clashes with her repeatedly, ending in a mutiny (hell, the only real charge that can be levelled against Poe is that he left the mutiny too late.)  Leia talks everyone down and the plan goes ahead, leading to utter disaster.  Finn, in the meantime, is completely wasted on a side plot that does nothing more than lecture us on war profiteers … a pointless lecture, given that the Resistance couldn’t exist if it wasn’t being supplied by … war profiteers.

Rey, in the meantime, continues to develop far faster than either Luke or his father.  The movie continues the tradition of not letting her show weakness or taking a pratfall, even after she’s yanked into the Dark Lord’s chamber and fights beside Kylo Ren.  She develops at astonishing – indeed, impossible – speed.  This alone might not be a problem, but her development comes at Luke’s expense – remember, Luke was the hero of the original movies – and makes her look like she’s been shrilled, rather than developed naturally.  The temptations she faces are different, but – in a sense – they’re the temptations we’ve already seen in the first two trilogies.  It might have been better, from a story-telling point of view, if Rey and Ben Solo had switched places midway through The Last Jedi.

As a piece of Star Wars canon, The Last Jedi is largely a disaster.  It kills off Luke (and effectively Leia, as well as a handful of others) without building a proper legacy for their successors.  As a movie in its own right, it isn’t any better.  Gross incompetence on one side is countered by gross incompetence on the other side (see the What An Idiot page for details).  Snoke, Hux and Finn suffer negative character development, the former being killed off midway through the movie and the middle turned into a walking joke.  What little development it does is soundly wasted by The Rise of Skywalker.  There were only two good points in The Last Jedi – Ren becoming the Supreme Dark Lord and Rey’s parents being nobodies – and both of them are thrown away. 

It also suffered from a desperate case of trying to be all things to all men.  ‘Shipping’ wasn’t a thing when Star Wars came out.  There wasn’t much, as far as I know, debate about who Leia would wind up marrying.  (And this died, obviously, when Luke and Leia were revealed to be siblings.)  The prequel trilogy had it’s one relationship set in stone from the start.  The Force Awakens, however, birthed a whole universe of ships, from Rey/Finn to Rey/Ben Solo and Poe/Finn.  Pretty much everyone who cared about this was a little disappointed by the outcome.  Worse, perhaps, it gave too much – and also too little – time to minor characters, a mistake neither of the other two trilogies made.  For all their importance to the rebellion, Mon Mothma and Ackbar never steal the show.  Holdo and Rose try to.  It doesn’t work.

This led to an odd problem.  On one hand, Disney tried to be diverse.  On the other hand, it didn’t give its diverse characters a chance to shine in their own right.  (Finn and Poe got undermined, Rey got everything handed to her on a silver platter.)  That undermined the push for diversity, ensuring that Disney would be bashed for both pandering to the SJW demographic and not being diverse enough

I never watched Solo.  But from what I’ve heard about it, the movie suffers from the same weaknesses as the successor trilogy as a whole.  It simply doesn’t live up to the source material (and would probably have worked better following a new character, like Rogue One, or becoming a stand-alone set in a different universe).

And now, we have The Rise of Skywalker.

It didn’t surprise me that they followed the beat of Return of the Jedi.  The return of the Emperor did surprise me, if only because it invalidated everything that happened in both Return and The Last Jedi.  The new Dark Lord gave up his position and submitted himself to the Emperor … why?  The one good thing to come out of The Last Jedi and they threw it away?  (Not to mention the boneheaded reveal that Rey is the Emperor’s granddaughter …)

I could go on about this for hours.  But, really, the successor trilogy had sunk itself.

The biggest problem, as I see it, is that there was no one with the authority to sketch out a story arc (either copied from Legends or newly-devised) and stick to it.  There was no real overarching plot – I recognise the signs – and a great deal of hasty modification to the movies that annoyed everyone.  Beyond that, there was a simple failure to recognise that Star Wars is not a romance series, but softcore science-fiction with laser swords that had a vast fanbase … one that would be easily pleased, as long as the producers stuck to the themes that made Star Wars popular in the first place.  Instead, the fans felt insulted and decided to withdraw their support.  For this, they were blasted as racists and sexists. 

The smaller problem is that there were too many new characters and too little development.  Rey, Finn and Poe either take steps backwards in The Last Jedi or progress in leaps and bounds that are not justified within the movie itself.  Ben/Kylo does better as a character in The Last Jedi, but this is undone by The Rise of Skywalker.  Holdo, Rose, Hux and Snoke do relatively little for the plot, yet they get too much exposure to be purely minor characters (and the former two get blasted for being ‘diverse’ without any competence and/or importance.

In short, much like The Last Jedi itself, Disney tried to appeal to everyone and failed.

I’ve seen this happen more than once in books and it rarely ends well.  The problem is that most creative works only have a very limited audience.  Very few of them break into the mainstream.  (Harry Potter and Game of Thrones are the two biggest examples.)  A fantasy book may appeal to the entire world of fantasy readers, but rarely to anyone beyond (and, of course, not every fantasy book manages as much.)  The more you move away from your core focus, the greater the chance of losing readers without actually picking up replacement readers.  The point is not that you cannot have ‘diverse’ characters, or open a field for ‘shipping’ debates, but that you have to remain aware of what you’re actually doing.  Your ‘diverse’ characters have to be given a chance to be more than just diverse.  If you pull this off, it works wonderfully.  Disney did not pull it off.  And, from the way things developed between The Force Awakens and The Rise of Skywalker, I don’t think Disney ever understood why.

I think it’s fairly clear the three trilogies fell into a pattern.  The prequels focused on the decline and fall of the Old Republic and the rise of the Empire.  The originals focused on the rebellion against the Empire, ending with the Emperor’s death.  Logically, the successor trilogy should have focused on the rise of the New Republic and the fight against the remnants of the Empire (like I said, The Thrawn Trilogy covered that very well).  However, The Force Awakens and the rest chose to hit the reset switch.  Everything important – Han and Leia getting hitched, their kid going dark, Han and Leia splitting up – happens off-screen, leaving us with complete newcomers.  This worked in the original series because there were no preconceptions.  This (sort of) worked in the prequels, because we knew who Kenobi, Anakin, Yoda and Palpatine would grow into.  It didn’t work in the successor trilogy because there was an established backstory and the vast majority of the fans wanted and expected Luke, Han and Leia to be the stars. 

In fact, if you watch the movies in order, you can see the prequel characters giving birth to the original characters (both metaphorically and literally).  There’s no immediate connection, however, between the original stars and their successors – and when the connection is made, it involves too much shrilling for my tastes.

How would I have done it, I wonder?  Assuming simply filming The Thrawn Trilogy wasn’t an option – I’d need to hire lookalikes for Luke, Han and Leia – I might skip forward fifteen years or so after Return of the Jedi.  Leia would be serving as a New Republic Ambassador, Luke would have his Jedi Academy and Han … I’m not sure about Han.  He could remain in the military, if he wishes, or – if he splits from Leia – remain exploring the fringes of explored space.  The new threat would be a revitalised empire, led by one of the Emperor’s surviving students.  Ben Solo would be one of Luke’s students, tempted to fall to the dark side; Poe would be involved in the first skirmishes, giving him a chance to meet Finn and urge him to deflect from the Empire.  Rey would remain a desert girl, lured into the dark side by the big bad, or another of Luke’s students.  The first movie might end with a battle over the Jedi Academy, the second with the Empire seemingly posed to win; the third with a final desperate strike at the big bad before he could win the war.  By the time the series ended, the old characters would have gone out in style and the new characters would be firmly established.

In the end, Disney Star Wars will go down in history as something akin to the DC Cinematic Universe.  A concept with much great promise, based on a well-known and loved franchise, that was effectively wasted by its owners. 

12 Responses to “Musings on Star Wars”

  1. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard January 17, 2020 at 8:56 pm #

    The big problem IMO with the “prequels” is the Jedi Order.

    The original movies have it as this “Great Wonderful Knightly Order”.

    We get the feeling that Luke is saying something great when he says (to the Emperor) “I Am A Jedi Like My Father Before Me”.

    I doubt the Luke of the original movies would like the Jedi Order that his father was part of. 😦

    As for the later movies, for all its real faults it attempted IMO to bring back the fun that the original movies gave us.

    On the other hand, it would have been nice for the later movies to give us a new menace that the reestablished Republic and Jedi Order to face.

    I’d prefer that the movies focus at first on the niece & nephews (from the Expanded Universe) of Jedi Master Luke. Developing them as characters with additional new characters. The Original Stars would exist but mainly in sending off the new characters to face the new menace.

  2. Robert Kaliski January 17, 2020 at 10:47 pm #

    I know a lot of you did not see the original Star Wars aka A new Hope when it came out. Lucas and the series doomed itself with the viseral sense of astonishment and wonder that occurs when the Imperial star destroyer thundered across the screen. Every movie that came out after that tried to capture that sense of WOW. They might as well have been trying to to capture that same feeling from the first time you fell in love.

    Adding to the problem is telling such a sweeping story in about 18 hours. Sounds like a lot till you add up the running time of shows like Star Trek. Imagine if Chris tried to compress Schooled in Magic to the same running time AND satisfy the studio heads who want more SFX and action scenes.

    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard January 17, 2020 at 11:20 pm #

      Well, I read the novelization of the first Star Wars novel first. 😉

      Seriously, I am old enough to have seen the first Star Wars movie and I “hear you” about the problems of telling a Big Story in a given set of movies.

      It’s been said that a single movie is equal to a print novella (not a full novel).

      However, generally I judge movies by different standards than I judge the printed word (either dead-tree or e-format).

      In many ways, the original movies were simplistic but that’s more of a factor of the media.

      They were also Fun (and had the element of WOW).

      While the prequels had the problem that we knew the ending and the ending was a downer, I think Lucas could still have done a better job with them.

      For one thing, he could have accepted that the destruction of the Jedi Order would be a tragedy. But he chose to show the Jedi Order as an organization that “deserved to be destroyed”.

      Now I never viewed The Force Awakens, but I did read the Alan Dean Foster novelization.

      While Fun to a degree (especially compared to the prequels), I think it could have been better with a different story.

      The next movie (Last Jedi) seems to have forgotten the Fun element as well as throwing a way elements of the Force Awakens that sounded “interesting”.

      The final movie apparently attempted to undo much of the garbage of Last Jedi.

      Mind you, I don’t think this is a problem of the media (film) but was a problem of script-writers, producers & directors who didn’t realize (or care) about why people watched & enjoyed the original movies.

      • Robert Kaliski January 19, 2020 at 7:55 am #

        These days the book comes out well after the movie. I read the original Star Wars and it had some photos from the movie. I have yet to get into the final trilogy, I’m not sure why. The Expanse has drawn my viewing time and caught my imagination.

        When you consider how many people stick their noses into a film besides the writers, directors and actors it is amazing that any film turns out right. I wonder if Lucas got caught up more into creating his universe than giving us characters we cared about. Good God by the time the second movie ended I wanted to stuff Anakin Skywalker into a volcano myself. I would have settled for Jar Jar to become Vader.

  3. Scott Osmond January 18, 2020 at 12:14 am #

    How do you stuff up Starwars? Malice. That’s the only thing that makes sense. That and cra-cra-KK wanting a mary sue for herself. I don’t care as I spent a lot of money buying the expanded universe books and spent a lot of time reading them. DisneyWars is badly written and produced fanfic which I don’t watch or read. Also I adhere to the creed of not giving money to people who hate me and mine.

  4. Kyle Haight January 18, 2020 at 1:09 am #

    A fantastic example of a ‘diverse’ character who does much more than just be diverse, and a sterling example of how to do it right, is Chrisjen Avaserala in _The Expanse_.

  5. Billy January 18, 2020 at 1:57 am #

    One thing I noticed the Original Star Wars – was kind of Real World Grimy – The Desert , The Alien Bar, The Ship falling apart, the jumping into the garbage disposal etc

    The sequels – everyone wearing brand new cloths, new everything – the real world everything is not new – brand new everything = fake everything or like a cartoon or something

  6. Daniel January 18, 2020 at 3:06 am #

    Personally I’m hoping in about 5-10 years somebody at Disney decides to toss 7-9 and redo it totally new

    • Big Ben January 18, 2020 at 6:20 pm #

      You’re probably right. Not because the money people listen to their fan base and decide they can redo it better but because they lack the courage to make new stuff so they’ll return to a former money maker to try’n squeeze more magic out. Indiana Jones 4 comes immediately to mind.
      I’m sure all us sci-fi folks could nominate any number of fantastic series that could get the big screen (or small screen) treatment and likely be successful … though the tragically short life of Firefly makes me wonder.

  7. Nicholas January 18, 2020 at 7:13 am #

    Thanks Chris. You put in words my disappointment in how Star Wars was ruined. I loved the Thrawn and Rogue squadron books. What happened on screen, not so much.

  8. Ken January 19, 2020 at 10:29 am #

    I agree. I really hate constant retconning good stories.The later movies felt like stories done by committee and not a talented writer. There was a lot of great material to work with such as the New Republic battling the remnants of the Empire.Like Chris wrote, no WOW and little FUN.

  9. Stuart van Zee January 20, 2020 at 3:28 pm #

    In my opinion, the prequels fell down for two reasons. They strayed from the “fuzzy” Sci-fi light/space opera roots of the original trilogy (midichlorians anyone? Why put a hard tech edge on the mystical Force?) And they tried too hard to be “entertaining”. They should have stuck to telling the story, which it could have done without all the antics and slapstick that strayed far from the feel of the original.

    I mostly think the sequels fell flat because they were done without someone being in control of the overall story arch. So fans were caught in a tug-o-war between one director’s ideas and another’s. Someone being in charge of the sequel trilogy story arch would also have helped with such things as character development and growth.

    I wasn’t so much bothered by the return of Palpatine. The idea of using the force to defeat death was established as a possibility that came to fruition as the Jedi force ghosts; but it stands to reason that the dark side of the force might have it’s own version of that power (which was spoken of by Palpatine). IF the sequels had someone controlling the over-all storyline for the trilogy, it could have worked a lot better by carefully foreshadowing a power behind Snoke.

    I was also not bothered by the revelation that Rey was Palpatine’s granddaughter. Frankly I thought it was out of place for Rey to be a nobody in an over-all work that featured force-powered characters that were so related. From Vader to Luke/Leia to Ben Solo. Not to mention that the whole “nobody” bit was put out there by Ren, when he was trying to get Rey to join his side (Galactic scale negging anyone?) Not to mention that if she was such a nobody, how would he know anything about her? The galaxy is a big place. How would he have any information at all on an orphan girl on such an unimportant planet?

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