Wednesday, October 18, 2023

Star Wars Subjectivities: Why We Don't Love Star Wars (Roundtable)

Yesterday, I moderated a discussion about how great the Star Wars franchise is—and how meaningful it has been to our development as nerds. Today I am joined by NOAF luminaries Roseanna and Arturo. Our mission: to explore why Star Wars is actually not great—but overrated and boring!

Haters gonna hate.

G - Let me kick things off with a disclaimer: I think you are all crazy for not loving Star Wars. Kidding, of course! Art and culture are highly personal and it’s impossible for anything to appeal to everyone. And, as you’ll see next week, there’s plenty of Star Wars content that I do not love. Or even like. But, granted, I am heavily invested in the franchise.

So let’s talk about the franchise from the perspective of not being heavily invested in the franchise! To start, how did you first encounter Star Wars and what was your immediate visceral reaction?

Roseanna - I actually came to Star Wars pretty late, I think, compared to most people I know. I have a very strong memory of being on holiday in Majorca with a friend in my teens and just sitting down and watching the entire original trilogy on a rainy day… I remember the snacks we ate and what the villa we were in looked like, but I have almost no memory of what I thought about them as films, only as a part of that holiday and that friendship. They just… didn’t make an impact on me pretty much at all, and that’s sort of set the tone for me ever since. They just didn’t resonate—I didn’t hate them or love them; they were just… fine.

Arturo - In second grade, I had a thermos designed in the shape of R2D2. I knew nothing about the movies yet, so to me it was just a pretty thermos. Later, around seventh grade, I became a regular at the school library, and I found novelizations of the Star Wars movies. I found them very difficult to follow, and left the first book unfinished. Because I grew up too poor for VHS or cable TV, I never watched the movies until we had internet, and that was in my first year of college. By then it was too late for them to hook me. I went through the six movies then in existence just for purposes of cultural catching up, but they didn’t move me or excite me. I suspect Star Wars needs to find you when you’re still sufficiently impressionable, or else it won’t do anything for you.

G - That’s a good point, Arturo—and it seems to reflect Roseanna’s experience as well. Maybe Star Wars is best discovered during childhood, when the world is just more enchanted than it is as adults living under hyper-rational modernity. Now, that said, all of us love science fiction and fantasy, both of which are fundamentally imaginative genres. The key to loving genre fiction, in my opinion, lies with being able to imagine life under drastically different circumstances. To really buy into that idea that those drastically different circumstances are normative. Conceptually, Star Wars should fit in there—so maybe there’s also something specific that the two of you just couldn’t buy into?

So let’s unpack that a bit. What does SF/F need to do in order to work for you?

Arturo - The stories that first captivated me (I’m counting only the years before high school) were Jem and the Holograms, Inspector Gadget, Manimal, Airwolf, the original She-Ra, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Knight Rider, M.A.S.K., Alien Nation, Thundercats, Small Wonder, ALF, Ulysses 31, Automan, Misfits of Science, the original Bionic Woman, The Jetsons, the original DuckTales, Captain Planet, Spider Woman, Count Duckula, Turbo Teen, the original Danger Mouse, Wonder Woman, and the original Pink Panther shorts. Looking at this list, it’s very difficult to pinpoint what made a story click for me. Besides the copious copaganda, these shows had barely anything in common, and many resembled other shows that didn’t particularly entertain me, such as The Incredible Hulk, Quantum Leap, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Real Ghostbusters, or Voyagers! So, for those formative years, the secret recipe may have been a toss of the coin or an ineffable je ne sais quoi. I was far from having a defined taste.

And yet, I was older, and supposedly more mature, when I became absolutely obsessed with Saint Seiya, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, the original X-Men cartoon, Lois & Clark, Viper, and Sailor Moon. Again, a haphazard selection. Now I was old enough to get the gist of compelling emotional stakes, but what caught my attention the most were cool costumes and cool superpowers. And again, there’s no accounting for why I ended up liking those and being rather meh about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dragon Ball Z, Stargate SG1, and Pokemon. What I do know is that I had no clue that speculative fiction could be used to explore the big, important questions until I stumbled upon the majestic masterpiece that is Babylon 5.

Babylon 5 massively shaped my tastes, and is probably what gave me the final inoculation shot that would make me immune to the charms of Star Wars. From then on, as I became aware of the sheer number of productions that were out there, I had to become more judicious with my screen time. Revival Doctor Who yay, Firefly meh. The X-Files yay, Fringe meh. Smallville yay, Lost meh. Original Powerpuff Girls yay, The Fairy Oddparents meh.

When the internet freed me from having to follow broadcast schedules (remember: I had no VHS and rarely any cash for movies), I realized that I no longer knew what the new generation was watching. The day I saw coloring books of the PJ Masks in the supermarket was the day I knew I was getting old.

Roseanna - Arturo has already mentioned a fair number of the things that did capture me, especially when I was a kid/teen. I was hardcore into Star Trek (and still am, though the proliferation of content has spiralled somewhat out of my grasp these days), as well as Danger Mouse, the original X-Men cartoon, Lois & Clark, Quantum Leap and indeed Babylon 5. I’d also add Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena: Warrior Princess, Revolutionary Girl Utena and Stargate SG1 to the tally. I don’t think there’s really any unifying factor that pulls them all together, but the thing I strongly remember from them, and that persists as I’ve grown up, is characters, and particularly good characters. One of the things I find uniquely prolific in SF/F, if not so common these days, is characters who fall onto the Lawful Good section of the D&D alignment chart—they are my kryptonite (especially and including Superman himself). And so the things that hooked me, before anything else, were shows that had someone uncomplicatedly moral at their centre, around whom complexity occurred, and with whom it interferes, or a character striving for morality in a world that makes such a thing impossible. For Star Trek, that’s Captain Picard and Data, but also Julian Bashir and my childhood minor obsession Malcolm Reed. It’s characters like She-Ra, like Xena, like the unfortunately-Kevin-Sorbo-acted central character in Gene Roddenberry’s decidedly odd Andromeda. It’s Daniel Jackson and Jeffrey Sinclair. I’ll forgive an awful lot of nonsense if the characters feel worth it.

And for whatever reason, whether that I came to it too late or it simply did not quite cater to what I was after, Star Wars never hit that button of character love for me. Logically, I appreciate Leia. But that’s it, at least for the original trilogy.

The other thing, and something I think far better suited in SFF visual media to TV rather than film (which is noticeably lacking from my list of childhood influences) is being able to see those characters pitted against different problems, triangulating their morality around the monster or dilemma of the week, something that was absolutely standard fare for the long-running TV shows of the 90s. Did they always succeed at tackling those big questions Arturo mentions? We-ell, no. Sometimes they absolutely fluffed it. But I enjoyed the process of watching them try and try and try, and learning about the characters through their responses to problems. Maybe Star Wars was always too much a clear adventure story for me?

Arturo - Another factor in a developing fan’s relationship with Star Wars is the rewatch experience. I grew up dependent on TV schedules, and the concept of rewatching was alien to me until my 20s. Still today I feel weird when reading conversations about “What’s your comfort show to rewatch?” I just don’t do that, unless I’m introducing someone to a show. I suspect the fans who got into Star Wars via VHS have a different relationship to it compared to those who spent years with only the memory of the movies before they were obtainable in home media.

Roseanna - I feel like this is an interesting thread to pick up on, because I’m also very much not a rewatcher. We had a VHS player, but the only videos I really remember having were a few Disney films and some horribly shoddy taped versions of TV shows my stepdad wanted to watch. I think my relationship with Star Trek is largely what it is today because I never watched any of it in any coherent order—just whatever repeats were on—until Enterprise came out when I was about 11 and I could religiously check the schedule in the TV guide and watch it as it happened. Thus, an Enterprise apologist was born (but only S1 and 2, I’m not a monster). Maybe Arturo has hit upon the key?

G - Roseanna, funny that you mention Star Trek—I think "Star Wars vs. Star Trek" functions almost as an ideological divide within fandom, in the sense that most people seem to gravitate toward one or the other. And yeah, they are pretty different—to be honest, I don't see them having much in common besides space. Star Trek, in my interpretation at least, is a reimagining of the Age of Exploration without Conquistadors. It is ultimately utopian—premised on the notion that a more technologically advanced civilization can make contact without resorting to conquest or assimilation (whether coerced or not). Star Wars, by contrast, starts from the premise that power is inherently corrupting and always in danger of being corrupted. Only the bonds of friendship and personal altruism provide the tools to resist that corrupting impulse. I find both premises appealing—which is why I’ve never felt the need to choose. But I do think that these framings appeal to different people for different reasons.

I think the rewatch bit Arturo brought up is interesting to think about. I’ve probably watched the Original Trilogy 100 times (no joke). I was hooked right off the bat, but rewatching the films keeps me connected to my childhood in a very visceral way.

In that sense, it’s partially generational—I’m an Xennial, and there just wasn’t that much SF/F content back then. Not like there is today. Star Wars was a spectacle like no other. Kenner was also still making the action figures when I first discovered Star Wars. Most toys back then were tied to TV shows, which were often just 30-minute commercials for the toys. Getting my parents to let me watch a 120-minute film was a bigger lift than a 30-minute show, so if I wanted to “replay” Star Wars it was mostly on my own, or with friends, enacted with action figures in the snow, sand or grass. I think for fans of a certain age (me included) that was integral to the experience.


G had all of these.

Want to also touch on something Roseanna said—that she prefers to see characters facing a lot of different types of problems. That reminds me of why I find the Disney Sequels so frustrating—specifically, that the (new) characters are facing more or less the same problems as the protagonists of the Original Trilogy. (Thanks for nothing, JJ Abrams!) The other thing it brings to mind is how much more I’m enjoying Disney’s TV series compared with Disney’s films. And ultimately that’s a big part of why: here we have different kinds of characters solving different kinds of problems on a different, often much less grand, scale. Star Wars is the “world” these stories take place in, not a narrative format.

Roseanna - So I should possibly say here —maybe in support of your point, maybe not— that my favourite Star Wars film (and arguably the only one I’d claim to genuinely like) is Rogue One. It feels qualitatively different to the stories the rest of them tell, and so it feels less… boring. Less predictable. Apologies, but I’m including the Original Trilogy in that description. But some of that is that I grew up in a post-Star Wars world. Other stuff built off it, so when I did come to it, I only knew its later reflections, and they made it look all the less. Whereas Rogue One felt new, and interesting, and substantial. I also possibly stray into controversial territory when I say that the second one in the newest trilogy —The Last Jedi? I think? The Rian Johnson one— is my second most enjoyed, though with a pretty sizeable gap. Again because it feels like it’s straying from the predictable and the traditional. When I watched it, I remember thinking “oh wow, maybe this story will go somewhere interesting,” like there was this palpable sense the rulebook might be about to be torn up and who knew what would emerge. I’ve not seen the third one. I choose to live in ignorance and headcanon, from all I’ve heard about what actually happens. If I put my fingers in my ears and don’t look at social media or AO3, Reylo doesn’t exist. Lalala. Can’t hear you.

But Rogue One is where it’s at for me. It felt like it was grasping at something real underneath the adventure, in a way I never found in the other stories.

I also wonder if there’s a gendered component—the sort of toys marketed at kids are very very targeted at either girls or boys, and that only increases the more into the 90s and 80s you go. SF was still extremely boy-coded when I was a kid, so pretending to be a hero with a laser sword probably was too. I don’t know—the sort of imaginative play I engaged in with my friends was more about little toy animals that we invented elaborate interpersonal dramas for than being a hero and fighting the baddies. It didn’t stop me engaging with SF media, but maybe the gendering of it did factor into how we internalised it, and externalised our reactions to it, and without that repetitive reenactment, I didn’t get the sort of reinforcement I might have. Though of course, I was never going to do that when I was 15 and had finally seen the films anyway, so the point is somewhat moot. But I’d seen plenty of SG1 and never played at being Sam Carter.

Arturo - The toys are part of the only argument I’ll concede about the historical value of Star Wars: it changed the business of moviemaking. It changed film release schedules, created a new relationship between viewers and movies, expanded the possibilities of visual effects, and singlehandedly made movie toys into a huge business. It contributed nothing to science fiction (and not just because it’s not science fiction), but it did wonders for movie studios. The neat thing about the toys, of course, is that your consumption of the story isn’t over when you walk out of the theater: there’s still more Star Wars you can tell yourself at home. That’s an effective way to nurture a lifelong devotion.

Funny coincidence: I also like Rogue One, precisely because it’s the least Star Wars of the Star Wars. (And Andor is the chef’s kiss.) It was because of Rogue One that I decided to give the sequel trilogy a chance, and I was amazed by the artistry and depth of The Last Jedi. (Roseanna is wise to avoid Episode 9; there’s nothing to like there.) In my never humble opinion, The Last Jedi is the best of all nine episodes—in fact, the only good of all nine episodes.

G. makes a good point that Star Trek and Star Wars are archetypal opposites, the Apollonian and Dionysian views of space travel. Star Trek tickles your brain; Star Wars grabs your guts. Now, my experience of this divide is atypical. I didn’t become a dedicated Trek fan until the pandemic quarantine, when I decided to binge the entire franchise at home (back when all the Trek shows were still on Netflix). Again, this was motivated by cultural catching up, but Melinda Snodgrass’s work on The Next Generation made me into a convert. The future of Star Trek is the future I want to live in, mainly because it has something Star Wars is inherently unable to offer: an expectation that wars end.


The one we all agree on.

G - Yeah, Star Trek is definitely more utopian. Even the Galactic Republic in Star Wars is kind of a bad place to live. It’s corrupt, not very effective at delivering services, unable to fully impose a Weberian monopoly on legitimate violence in the core worlds—and is barely present in the Outer Rim, a “Wild West” frontier that is more or less run by gangsters and pirates. The Empire is worse, but that doesn’t make the Republic good.

In the Disney films, the New Republic doesn’t even play a significant role in the story. We are told it exists, but it doesn’t exist in the narrative. This is going off topic a bit, but for me this was a huge mistake—an absolute failure of vision that derives from reboot fever, as the Disney sequels are more reboot/re-interpretation of the Original Trilogy than a unique story in their own right. TV shows like Ahsoka and The Mandalorian show us how many rich stories can be told in the wake of the Empire’s fall, when the New Republic is struggling to replace a fascist regime. Andor and Rogue One show us that there are lots of secondary stories to be told that focus on different kinds of actors, whose narratives are meaningful but who aren’t Jedi.

Arturo - I’m with David Brin in this criticism of Star Wars: it fails to represent the advantages of democratic rule over authoritarian rule. (I’m with David Brin in many other criticisms of Star Wars, but that’s a dozen other discussions.)

Roseanna - I think for me… if you need to keep resurrecting your evil big bad empire in order to have a space to tell stories (either of resisting it, or dealing with the aftermath of its most recent demise), either your world lacks scope for stories, or you’re not very good at telling them. Maybe this is the fact that I’ve never read any of the Extended Universe novels or got into the lore talking, but I do wonder if some of the struggle for me with it all is that I don’t find, in the bits I’ve watched, that world feels complex or deep or interesting enough to support the rehashing of these storylines.

And there’s a version of Star Wars you could write that takes that terrible cycle of failure and makes some really interesting points about suffering, about power in the temporal sense (rather than the magical glowing sword and murdering people with lightning sense), and the edges of that power, something that could really dig into what those cycles mean… but it’s not any of the Star Wars I’ve consumed (which, I admit, does not include Andor or Ahsoka, and only bits of the Mandalorian, which I found incredibly dull). But even Rogue One, which I still think is pretty good, is still bound up in that necessary cycle of democracy and autocracy, without really getting to grips with it in a meta sense.

G - Yes, that’s absolutely true. The Galactic Republic is a democracy in decline—I think Lucas wants us to see it as a stand-in for the late-stage Roman Republic, still tottering along but ripe for a slide into authoritarianism. Or, to use a more recent example, like Indonesia before 1965—there’s a democracy that everyone agrees doesn’t really work anymore, but what comes after is appreciably worse. So, one of the challenges for the New Republic —after the Empire has been defeated— would be to not just recreate the Old Republic, but create a version of it that is more democratic, more effective in delivering services and more just. Now that's a Star Wars story I’d really like to see put to film!

Arturo - The problem I see with that approach is that it would no longer feel like Star Wars. If the war ends, the franchise ends. Even the stories set in peacetime (The Mandalorian, Boba Fett, Ahsoka) hinge on what goes on between armed factions. The Galactic Republic must always be in crisis; the enemies of the Republic must always be lurking and scheming. I guess this is part of the DNA that Star Wars inherited from epic myth: a suspended time where Good and Evil are eternally clashing.

This creates an additional problem: the only victory condition allowed to Star Wars heroes is the restoration of status quo. (Because the money-making machine demands there must be space left open for more sequels, so the story can’t be allowed to truly end.) This makes the general plot a conservative one, as opposed to progressivist plots where the victory condition is to create a new state of affairs.

Roseanna - Hoo boy don’t compare stuff to the Roman Republic with an ex-classicist around. You’ll never shut me up. Suffice it to say, I think the flaws of the two are verrrrry different, in a large part because Star Wars’ background to the fall of democracy is less deep (this isn’t really a criticism—it’s quite hard to do several centuries' worth of economic, sociocultural and political shift in a movie under two hours and still make it fun—the real world just has the benefit of time and messiness that we can’t capture in fiction). There’s an inevitability to the Sith, too, that you don’t find in the real world, because the real world is too full of different forces pulling in different directions. Even if, by the fall, the Roman Republic’s end did look inevitable, it’s only with the benefit of hindsight that we can say that. Maybe, in a different world, someone could have pulled the brakes. But Star Wars has always seemed to me (again, in my limited encounters with it) that the Dark Side of the Force is a truly inevitable part of things, and so necessarily there will be cycles of evil, in some form or another. Destiny, of a sort… which I never find particularly thrilling in stories.

On a more meta front, I do agree with Arturo regarding the need to return to status quo to keep telling the types of stories they want to tell, but I am also doubtful quite how much of a market they’d have even if they did break from tradition and, as G suggests, have a film about them creating a better democracy. As Arturo says, at this point, Star Wars has to appeal to very very big numbers for the people involved in making it to be happy with the return they’re going to get, and appealing to that sort of enormity of audience has drawbacks in how… innovative you can be in your content. It’s the same problem as Marvel—it’s just too big to take risks. And so unless something really significantly changes in how we make and get Star Wars, I don’t think we’ll see a shift away from that conservatism.

G - Roseanna: regarding your comment on the Roman Republic, I totally agree that, yes—it isn’t a great analogy. I think Lucas originally intended for the Republic to be a stand-in for the Roman Republic, but it isn't all that developed. What’s revealed in A New Hope is just that there was a Senate, which the Emperor dissolved in favor of direct administration by regional governors. We don’t really get much else. I'm okay with that—I actually like it when backstory is presented as fact without lengthy (and often tedious) exposition of the lore. That's a major problem in SF/F generally, so I'm completely okay with it just being backgrounded like it is in A New Hope. But then Lucas then retcons the story in the prequels in ways that take it farther from the Roman historical example.

I think, with the Prequels in mind, we’re looking at something more akin to a modern democratic reversal. I brought up Indonesia because it’s the example I know best, but essentially there was a nascent democracy, its factions grew increasingly hostile to one another, the central state grew less representative as it tried to manage those tensions—and then was eventually overthrown after multiple separatist wars, a failed coup and then an ultimately successful counter-coup, which turned Indonesia into a military-authoritarian state that lasted 33 years. To me that’s a closer metaphor, if still not exact.

Okay, on to Arturo’s point about restoring the status quo—wondering if this is just Star Wars showing its roots in epic fantasy? Lord of the Rings is the same, as are most multi-volume epics. Not all, of course, but most center a clash between good and evil, or normal and abnormal. Even most grimdark fantasy meets this criteria, though in that case it’s a battle between the evil you can live with and the evil you cannot.

A major reason why I’m so attracted to The Mandalorian is that it isn’t really about these big epic battles. Ahsoka and Andor, as good as they are, fundamentally depict battles within this epic conflict and center on protagonists who are self-consciously fighting those battles. Mandalorian takes place against that backdrop, but the protagonist only goes after Moff Gideon because Moff Gideon wants Grogu, not because Moff Gideon is a bad person plotting to reconstitute the Empire.

Okay, last question: let’s say you guys are given carte blanche by Disney to come up with new stories set in the Star Wars universe. What are some that you would be genuinely excited to see made?

At the risk of repeating myself, I wish the Disney sequels had been about an Imperial insurgency in the Outer Rim and the struggles of the New Republic to manage that insurgency without alienating the population it is trying to represent. A lot of my academic research focused on states where democracy is new, wobbly, poorly institutionalized or under threat (explicit or implicit). The core struggle is to make democracy representative, participatory, efficient and normative when there are so many opportunities for bad faith actors to follow their own, narrow interests rather than contribute to building something just and equitable. I’d love to see some stories about that, or just stories set against that backdrop.

Roseanna - I’ve not watched all of Star Wars, so maybe this exists already, but something that steps away from the absolutes of good and evil, and something that gives more scope for people to define their own fate, even still perhaps on a very grand scale, without being tied to destiny or legacies of family and inherent abilities. Something like what it felt as though Rian Johnson was striving for, self-conscious and knowing about the patterns of its forebears, and choosing to play with them, or break them, or use them to mess with the viewer’s expectations. Taking the reins of canon and giving them a good shake, because what use is having all of this lore, this legacy, this structure and paradigm for how your stories are supposed to go, if not to occasionally get someone to give the box a good rattle and make you reexamine what you think you know about it all? Something that knows what it means to be Star Wars, and knows you know, and asks how far it can push that knowledge, in that shared playground of understanding. That, I think, would be cool.

Arturo - With total carte blanche? Oh, I’d love an Episode Zero that reveals midichlorians were invented by the robots as part of a long plan to trick humans into butchering each other.

But more seriously, I’d dissolve the Dark/Light opposition. It’s a childish understanding of morality that doesn’t mesh with the self-seriousness that Star Wars claims for itself. I hoped The Last Jedi would finally introduce the Gray Jedis, but, for all its great qualities, that movie is a lot less daring than it’s perceived as.

What The Last Jedi attempted is worth finishing. Aside from the moral oversimplification, the Star Wars franchise has committed two grave sins against storytelling: The first movie was born from an intentional misreading of Campbell and taught generations of aspiring writers to lazily copy the same Hero’s Journey in infinite iterations. The sin of the second movie was to reduce all the potential of a galaxy-sized war epic to the soap-opera anxieties of family melodrama. Now the franchise is in a state of crisis where it’s so enamored with its own legend that it dare not go anywhere new. That’s what it takes to fix Star Wars: first, drag the story kicking and screaming out of the Campbellian monomyth, and second, expand the focus outside of the Skywalker family.

Also, since we’re talking carte blanche, let’s get rid of lightsabers. Those glorified party glow sticks look just ridiculous.

G - I can’t agree on the lightsabers, Arturo—but ultimately that’s the point of this exercise!

Thank you both for joining me and sharing your views on what Star Wars is, isn’t and should be. And thanks to all the readers for “listening!” If you want to continue any of the conversational threads started here, leave a comment or hit us up on social media.