Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Star Wars Subjectivities: Why We Love Star Wars (Roundtable)

I'm joined here today by NOAF superstars Vance, Paul, Haley and Alex. Our mission: to unpack why Star Wars has so captured our collective imaginations. 

The NOAF staff on a typical Wednesday

G - Let me kick things off with a simple question: how did you first discover Star Wars?

For me, it started with the toys. My mom was in the hospital and my dad wanted to cheer me up, so he got me Darth Vader's tie fighter plus his action figure. I flew that thing all over the house, inventing scenarios for Vader that really had nothing to do with the film, because this happened before I had internet access and no one I knew, aside from my parents, had seen the films. Then HBO was going to run Star Wars/A New Hope for the first time, and my buddy had HBO at his house, so I went there to see it. We all did. From that first blast of John Williams score, with the angled text creeping up the screen, I was completely entranced. I don't think I blinked until the end credits.

How about you guys?

Vance - I first saw Star Wars/A New Hope in the theater. I wasn’t alive in ‘77, but I was here pre-VHS and video rentals, so popular films would routinely be re-released into theaters. I saw Bambi in the theater, and I think Snow White as well. Even though it’s hazy now, it must’ve been a re-release of the original Star Wars maybe in 1982? In advance of Jedi coming in ‘83? I would’ve been three. It might have been my first movie. But I remember being in the theater with my dad, and the first jump to lightspeed, when the stars stretched out before my eyes—indelible. But certainly, by the time Jedi hit theaters, I was a dyed-in-the-Tauntaun-wool devotee. I had the toys, I kept the TV Guide issues when they broadcast the original on TV, and my parents report that there was a brief time where I insisted they call me “Han Solo.” So…yeah.

Paul - I discovered Star Wars through the TV commercials for the Death Star playset back in the 70's. I hadn't seen the movie, would not see it for many years, but my brother and I got the playset, a few figures...and did our own adventures that had very little to do with the movie. We took inspiration from the commercials and ran with it.

Haley - Interestingly, I don’t have a conscious memory of the first time—it seems like it was always just a part of my life. I don’t recall, for instance, the pivotal moment of learning Darth Vader was Luke’s dad. Of course he was! But in terms of origin stories, I do remember spending a lot of time at my cousin’s house in the late ‘80s, and in his bedroom, he had a wooden VHS cabinet where his family’s copy of the trilogy lived (we didn’t have one yet). I can still remember the sharp, oaky smell of creaking open the sliding doors and grabbing the well-worn copy of Empire Strikes Back. A few years later, as I aged into middle school around 1995, the EU was just coming into prominence. My young nerdy self, so immersed in the classic movies, was raring to go for all this new content. Games like Rebel Assault, Dark Forces, X-Wing, and TIE Fighter scratched this overpowering Star Wars itch. Then, books like Tales from Jabba Palace opened up a new world. The rest is history!

Alex - It was through LEGO, ultimately; I loved LEGO in the late 2000s and Lego Star Wars II: the Original Trilogy looked nifty. Seeing that I was interested in that game, my father watched the six movies then available and I fell in love.

G - Tell me about the things that first pulled you in—what made Star Wars different or special to you?

Paul - My first Star Wars movie that I saw was, in fact, Return of the Jedi, second movie I ever saw in a movie theater (that's another, longer story). I was dropped feet first in a mythology that was now on its third film, but a 12-year-old loving science fiction took this as a challenge to "figure things out". So for me, from the start and ever since, trying to figure out how the world works, trying to make sense of this science fantasy world with laser guns AND magical swords, with starships AND knights in armor, kept me engaged, interested and enthused. I had had Star Trek and a lot of it, but Star Wars was different, and exploring those differences made it special.

Vance - I had an experience about ten years ago now that crystalized this for me in a really unique way. I’m not a drug guy, but I hurt my back pretty badly and my wife had a prescription for edibles. I was laid up on the couch, and we decided to watch A New Hope just as the edible kicked in for me. In that moment, I was able to experience the movie in a new way, and it was such a gift to be able to basically watch it again for the first time. I was utterly enthralled, just like I had been as a kid. So I can tell you that what really grabbed me was the grubbiness and lived-in quality of the world. The worlds of the film felt like real places you could go to. Unlike…say Pandora from the Avatar films, to use a more recent example. I think that’s what made playing with the toys as a kid so engrossing, as well. Through your imagination (and so, so many dollars handed over to Kenner), you could re-inhabit that world. I certainly wasn’t hip to the implications of living in a fascist space dystopia, so what grabbed me was the possibility of a tangible world filled with spaceships, robots, and adventure on every horizon.

Haley - I think for me it’s the introduction into a whole new world. Or rather, whole new worlds, plural. Us fans joke about all the countless planets with microclimes—Hoth being just snow, Endor being northern California, and everyone’s favorite janky desert planet, Tatooine—but they’re objectively pretty freaking cool. The universe in Star Wars is similar to ours, but is so much more expansive. The idea of the outer rim spoke to me as a kid growing up on a small island off the coast of Savannah, Georgia. When I finally learned about the capital city planet of Coruscant in Heir to the Empire, which I read when I was around 12, I imagined it with wide-eyed awe like I imagined the faraway New York City. I’ve also had a soft spot for temples on Yavin 4, ancient home of the Massassi people with that burning huge red gas giant taking up a quarter of the daytime sky. Secondarily—C3PO. I’m also a worrier, so I understand him on a deep level.

Alex - It’s just so much—the expansiveness of the galaxy, the sheer drama of the story, the charismatic characters, John Williams’ bombastic score—it just feels classic in a way that I have a hard time putting into words.

G - I want to focus on something both Vance and Haley highlighted—worldbuilding. It’s a concept we talk about a lot in fantasy fiction, where you usually get a literal map at the start of the book. But really all SF/F hinges on the “world” being believable, and Star Wars —to me— is unusually believable. Vance once described the galaxy as having a “lived-in” feel, and that’s exactly the world we step into in A New Hope. Tatooine is kind of a shithole, this sort of junkyard Old West frontier town where half the population scavenges and the menace of violence is ever-present. Meanwhile, the Millennium Falcon is basically held together by duct tape. To me that made it feel like a real place populated by real people with real problems.

One of the things that frustrates me about the prequels is that everything is too neat and clean. Yes, I know that the books center Coruscant—which, as the center of power, should be neat and clean. But *everything* and *everyone* is like that. For all its faults, the one thing that The Force Awakens does well was revive the notion that these stories take place in a shithole galaxy, which is relatable because we live in a shithole world. 

Haley - Hell yeah to the rundown-ness of Star Wars! I’ve tried my entire life to get into Star Trek, and for the life of me, I just can’t. Now that you mention it, I think it’s because it’s so squeaky-clean sanitized! Fans of the Trek will probably say that’s the point, that society has evolved and is noble and trustworthy. But to that I say—boring. Give me a rusty old YT-1300 Corellian bucket of bolts and some morally gray heroes and I’m in heaven.

Alex - I dunno, I disagree with what you say about the prequels. Lucas was quite deliberately contrasting the squalid nature of the poor parts of the galaxy versus the opulence of the rich parts. It’s Paris versus Kinshasa, it’s New York versus a reservation. It enhances the world to me. The sequels, I think, gave a good mix of both.

Paul - I do note that Star Wars does suffer a bit from the “One biome problem,” in which a lot of planets seem to be all the same throughout the planet as far as can be seen. That’s more of a general problem with SF/F, though. One thing I have noticed, though, is that “high-tech worlds” seem to have a sameness to them for reasons I can’t put my finger on. There needs to be varieties of high tech, I think. One thing I do want to note, though, and positively, is that Star Wars can do set pieces rather well. Even if the pod race IMO goes on too long, it is Spectacle. The Death Star, both I and III? Spectacle. The “Arena” in Attack of the Clones? Spectacle. And Revenge of the Sith...a fight on a volcano! About the only thing Trek really hits me in the feels in the same way is in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, where we see the Enterprise in Space Dock. The biome inside of the planet in Wrath of Khan is good...but it doesn’t hold a candle to Star Wars.

Alex - I concur with Paul in that Star Wars is seeped in an old-school form of pulp storytelling that used ‘planet’ as its way of differentiating different locales. I’m reminded of this bit from an interview with Kim Stanley Robinson:
“Yes, when she [Ursula K. Le Guin] began there was a thing going on in science fiction that I would call the planetary romance. You get to a new planet and things there are wild and different. It goes back to works like David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus in the ’20s, but then in the ’50s, Jack Vance and Cordwainer Smith and many others. When Ursula began to read science fiction there was quite a bit of this going on. And she loved it and put it to use.

Note that in science fiction you see the word planet, while in fantasy it would be a world, or in any case, never the word planet. These little markers indicate which game you’re playing.”
Vance - I think these are good points about Star Wars vs. Star Trek. I love both, but Star Trek to me has always been about the characters and the relationships, and in some sense the philosophy of human beings being able to rise to their better angels in time. Star Wars, though, really is about the world(s). Not having done any kind of actual research into this, my *impression* is that Star Wars takes place much more on planets, whereas Star Trek takes place much more in space, on the ship. That’s why, in part, seeing the Enterprise destroyed in The Search for Spock hurt so much. And the pulpy adventure of Star Wars on janky planets that all have a different personality—it hooked me.

G - Alex, that’s a good point about contrasting the squalid outer rim with the splendid core worlds, but even Tatooine is “clean” in comparison to how it feels in A New Hope or even The Force Awakens, as are the separatist worlds. And real-life historical Metropoles—I’m thinking medieval Istanbul, 18th-century London, 21st-century Washington DC, etc.—are often studies in social contrast themselves, where you have a gleaming center butting right up against squalid neighborhoods where the poor and working classes live. I think the challenge for Lucas was that he really wanted to highlight CGI technology in filmmaking, and CGI sort of lends itself toward overdesign, which in turn can lend itself to “unintended opulence.” All that said, I do take your point—maybe a better way for me to have put it would be that he just should have shown more of the squalid bits in the prequels. I like the squalid bits.

Okay, changing gears a bit—want to dig into Paul’s characterization of Star Wars as “science fantasy,” which is to say, it splits the difference between (pulpy) science fiction and fantasy. I think that’s an accurate way to describe it. But question for all of you: do you connect with Star Wars more on the SF side or the fantasy side? For me it’s the SF side…nothing wrong with the fantasy bits, which I think are well done; I’m just more in it for the space adventures than Force mysticism/powers.

Vance - I also agree with Paul’s characterization, but to be honest, my tastes have always hewed much closer to sci-fi, and it’s the sprawling space adventures that grabbed me. I read a fair amount of pulpy kid fiction when I was small, devouring all the Hardy Boys incarnations, and the short-lived reboot of Tom Swift for, as I recall, a late-1980s audience that started showing up on the racks beside the Hardy Boys Casefiles books made me really wish for more stuff like that. Certainly it was out there, but I didn’t know how to find it. I think that those quick, pulpy sci-fi adventures really scratched the Star Wars itch for me, because Star Wars was pretty inaccessible at that point. Hard to even imagine such a time, now.

Alex - I don’t really draw a distinction between the two. Star Wars draws from the well of pulp fiction and cinematic shorts of Lucas’ childhood. It draws a lot from the old planetary romances, of which Edgar Rice Burroughs is the most famous writer, and there the line between science fiction and fantasy is a very porous one. Indeed, the two genres have never been as separate as many would like to believe.

Haley - 100% on the SF side. We have a joke on my podcast, and it revolves around “Is this Hugo-award winning novel more ‘Star Wars’ or ‘Lord of the Rings?” And because I’m a notorious LotR hater, I always try to finagle my favorites into Star Wars (even if it doesn’t make sense). Ironically, when we read The Courtship of Princess Leia we all agreed it was more LotR.

But yeah, I love the droids, the ships, science, the technology, the galaxy-spanning civilization of the Star Wars universe. I think Jedi are cool, and their mystic power definitely spoke to me more as a child, but the fact that my favorite glimpses into this universe are the X-Wing Legends novels really showcases my love for non-mystic sides of the world. I love the Gonk droids, the deathstick slingers in the lower bowels of Coruscant, the moisture farmers on Tatooine.

G - Haley, I’m also a LotR hater! Maybe that's too strong a term—but I am pretty ambivalent on it. Sure, it is a landmark work and watershed moment for fantasy—but it’s just so…dull. Star Wars is anything but dull.

Okay, let's talk about Star Wars as television for a bit. Looking at some of the more recent TV series, Andor and Ahsoka —both of which I think are excellent— lean heavily in these different directions. Andor is much “harder” science fiction than the baseline for Star Wars. Which is not to say that it’s hard SF in the Larry Niven vein, but rather that the fantasy elements have been completely stripped out. There are no Jedi, no Force powers and zero mysticism. It’s a hardboiled political thriller, basically, that centers the operatives and regular people who build out the Rebel insurgency against the Empire. Ahsoka, by contrast, leans into those fantasy elements—or maybe it’s more accurate to say it leans into the pseudo-medieval aspects of Star Wars. Ultimately, it reminds me of Samurai films, with Ahsoka and Baelon as dueling, spacefaring Ronin. It’s also shot in a way that, to me at least, immediately evokes Kurosawa.

Sidebar, but the cinematography and visual style are extraordinarily good for a TV series. Even Andor just looks like really good TV—HBO-level prestige TV, but TV nonetheless. Ahsoka looks like cinema…like arthouse cinema.

Okay, I’ll stop talking and actually ask a question. So we’ve been talking about what we love; what is it we don’t love? The stuff we get frustrated by or bounce off of.

Haley - While I have loved The Mandalorian, I’m fine with never seeing another Mando or Boba Fett ever again. I also don’t love the Old Republic as a general backdrop for Star Wars stories—when Star Wars gets into politics, I get bored.

Alex - The over-emphasis on the period between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope—there are a lot of good stories in that period, but that can get old after a certain point.

Paul - When Star Wars seems to pretend that the extended Skywalker family are the only people that truly matter. When Star Wars escapes that (c.f. Andor), it really can and does shine. It’s a big universe—and I get using the Skywalkers is a way to tie and ground a reader, viewer, watcher—but they can’t and shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all.

Vance - Having just done a deep-dive on both the prequels and the…post-quels?...for other aspects of Star Wars Subjectivities, I have to agree with both Haley and Paul, here. Having not yet watched Andor (I know…bad fan, slap on the wrist), the only political Star Wars I’m familiar with is the stuff from the prequels, and you can miss me with all that. And my biggest frustration with The Rise of Skywalker is that it turned around and stepped right back into the Skywalker-always-and-forever bear trap that The Last Jedi had tried so hard to move the series beyond. But just on the pet-peeve level, I find myself continuously irked by the mono-climate planets that Star Wars seems to love so much.

Oh. And also Jar-Jar. How I hate Jar-Jar…

G - You and me both, Vance. Okay, last set of questions to wrap things up. First, give me your top 6 Star Wars properties (any medium). Mine are:
  1. Star Wars/A New Hope (film)
  2. The Empire Strikes Back (film)
  3. The Mandalorian (TV series)
  4. Return of the Jedi (film)
  5. Andor (TV series)
  6. Ahsoka (TV series)
Honorable mention for the classic RPG, Knights of the Old Republic!

Haley -
  1. Return of the Jedi (film)
  2. The Last Jedi (film)
  3. Ahsoka (TV series)
  4. Rogue One (film)
  5. Xwing/TIE Fighter (game)
  6. The Rogue Squadron novels by Michael A. Stackpole (novel)
Alex -
  1. Return of the Jedi (film)
  2. Star Wars/A New Hope (film)
  3. The Empire Strikes Back (film)
  4. Star Wars: Battlefront 2 (game)
  5. Revenge of the Sith (film)
  6. Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn (novel)
Paul -
  1. Star Wars/A New Hope (film)
  2. The Empire Strikes Back (film)
  3. Rogue One (film)
  4. The Last Jedi (film)
  5. The Force Awakens
  6. Xwing/TIE Fighter (games)
Vance -
  1. The Empire Strikes Back (film)
  2. Star Wars/A New Hope (film)
  3. Star Wars: Rebels (animated TV series)
  4. Return of the Jedi (film)
  5. The Clone Wars (animated TV series)
  6. The Force Awakens (film)
(Special shout-out to Bad Lip Reading’s “Seagulls,” which might have been #1 if it were canon.)

G - Finally, what kinds of Star Wars stories do you want to see Disney explore going forward in future movies or TV series?

Alex - Dive into the complexities of the morality of it, including but not limited to the politics. My dream story for the new EU would be the ‘Nuremberg Trials’ after the Galactic Civil War, and in particular I’d love to see a followup to Claudia Gray’s Lost Stars with Ciena Ree on trial but I know that Disney will never let that happen. A guy can dream, can’t he?

Paul - As above, let’s skip the Skywalkers and really see this universe, temporally and otherwise. In this age where authoritarianism is a real and strong strain in world politics, engaging with the problems of Empire is a good thing. And dare I say, we could also see this universe in other modes. I know Solo had its issues (being a tad too slavish for my taste) but it tried to tell a different kind of story. Telling other kinds of stories than war stories has value, to help show Star Wars as a living and breathing world that many kinds of stories can be seen and explored.

Vance - I used to read the Dark Horse comics pretty regularly, and to be honest, a lot of those were diverting for me, but not super-engaging. A lot of different adventures of Leia and Darth Vader and stuff that happened 10,000 years earlier, which just felt weird. So I’m with Paul, here, in that I’d love to see different pockets of this world, and more varied types of stories in the worlds the films/shows have already begun to explore. I’m not really familiar with the arts having ever been something to really come up in Star Wars, but watching resistance, or oppression, or awakening through the lens of an artist or group would be fascinating, I think. Like The Lives of Others, but on Alderaan, or the scattering of Spanish Surrealists as the fascists came to power, but with the backdrop of the Empire. And, you know, I’d also be down for a workplace comedy on the Death Star. 

Paging Leslie Knope

Haley - I’m always interested in the Empire-era stories of nearly anyone or anything. I also love the New Republic era as we’ve been seeing in Mandalorian, Obi-Wan, and Ahsoka. Would love to see what happens 30 years out, 500 years out—like the Old Republic but in the future, if that makes sense.

G - I want to see more stories that take place between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope, and I want to see more stories that take place between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. Those are the most interesting moments to me—when the Empire is consolidating its rule and when the New Republic is trying (and struggling) to replace it. These are just inherently more interesting moments in time than the alternatives, and explain part of why Mandalorian, Andor and Ahsoka are as good as they are. I can live without any more Clone Wars-era content.

I’m also a big fan of Bioware’s RPG Knights of the Old Republic, so if we’re going old, I’d like to go really old. Let’s see some stories about the early Sith wars!

Okay, that wraps things up—thanks to Haley, Paul, Vance and Alex for joining me on this one, and thanks to all of you out there for reading! As always, curious to hear your thoughts too—hit us up in the comments or on social media.