Saturday, November 10, 2018

Taking Stock of Star Wars: A Question of Canon

My first thought was: Well, I guess I’m done with this whole series now.  That was my state of mind   after taking in the strange social phenomenon/debacle now known as The Last Jedi.  What’s makes it even more weird is the Disney studio insists on behaving as if it all had something to do with the series of films, and various assorted novels, short stories, and video games known as Star Wars.
The good news is, my thoughts have evolved since that initial first reaction.  For anyone else out there seriously pondering whether or to remain a fan, or just renege on the whole deal, perhaps this post can provide a few reasons not to stow away the old childhood memories in the attic trunk just yet. 

If nothing else, the most positive fallout TLJ is that it can serve an opportunity for fans and aficionados to pause take stock of SW, not just as a franchise, but as a phenomenon with a history that includes more than just the films, but also its relation to Science fiction as a whole.

There are a lot of SW fans out there who might have found my take on TLJ to something of a letdown.  My opinions on the matter were agreeable, just a lot less substantial than anyone might have liked.  Why didn’t I go into more detail about certain plot elements, or into the portrayal (or lack thereof) of all the major legacy characters?  My reasons for that are interesting.  In the first place, by the time I managed to get those essays down on paper, I’d spent hours doing the same as others fans, pouring over countless YouTube videos by disgruntled fans and online critics, each of them more than willing to take the Disney franchise apart one detail at a time.  In this regard, some of them were able to do better than anything I could.  I’d especially like to single out reviewers like Mauler, theMisanthrope, along with EU expert Matt Wilkins, and Joseph Choi for both his essay and video of same essay on the Character Assassination of the one figure who I’d have to argue is has really been the main focus of the series all along. 

With this in mind, I’ve sort of found it easier to build a case against what I prefer to think of as the “Disney Franchise” by examining both the Original Trilogy as well as the Expanded Universe.  I’d like to examine both topics in relation to the ever-present question of just what is supposed to be canon, anyway?  I’d like to make a case that even before Disney acquired the property, what was done with the EU was more than enough.  The EU had just enough inspiration in all the stories it needed in order to stand on its own legs.  I’d also like to argue that right now, the old EU is the closest offer fans are likely to get in the way of artistic compensation as well as satisfactory form of imaginative consolation.

In order to do this, there are several elements of the OT we’ll have to examine.  We need to look at what kind of characters we’re dealing with.  It also helps if we stop and try to dig as much as possible into the nature of the archetypes that ultimately stand behind and support both the OT and, I’d argue, the EU.

If I’m being honest, my goal here is a lot less grand than it sounds.  The only reason for this essay is just to help sort out my own thinking, and at least try to gain something close to a coherent perspective on the whole mess.  I’ve had time enough to get at least some thinking done about the matter.  I’m not just talking about Disney’s own Heaven’s Gate.  I’m also considering whether or not such a spectacularly bad film has any claim to validity, either as Canon, or as art.  Because of that, I want to focus on just what is the right perspective to view Star Wars. 

In other words, when is the story on the right track, and when does it go off the rails.  What kind of story is Stars Wars?  Is it like an endless serial on par with the business model of DC or Marvel Comics?  Or is it meant to more along the lines of a traditional narrative, with a definitive beginning, middle, and an irrevocable end?  Who gets to decide all this stuff, anyway?  Who’s in charge of piloting this whole thing?

I think there are answers to these questions.  The irony lies in whichever circuitous paths this quest for answers may wind up leading us down.  So far, I think the best answer can be found in asking the following question:

How was the original idea written down? In other words, is there any grand design behind the scenes as so may fans claim, or is the story something else?

What is the exact nature of the Star Wars story?  This question is related to the one above.  The difference lies in one of perspective.  The first question asked is more concerned with the nature of the composition of the Original Trilogy.  This question is concerned with what precise kind of story is the finished product?  Specifically, I want to know, regardless of any stated design, whether or not there is any creative idea underlying the first three films.  This could be important for a number of reasons, all of which lead to the last point.

If there was a genuine creative idea behind the inspiration of Star Wars, finding out just what that idea is may be able to give us a clue not just to how we should view the nature of the films, but also how far it could go in terms of an over-arching narrative. This will help determine my final talking point: the question of Cannon.     
This has become a touchy subject, with the fanbase splitting up into basically two warring camps.  My focus has been to follow the logic of my own thinking on the matter.  I think a definitive answer as to which Star Wars, the old Expanded Universe or the Disney version, should be considered canonical can be found.  The trick is laying out a solid enough case for it.

We’ll also have to take the plunge and examine the curiosity that is The Last Jedi, in order to determine what kind of story it is, and what, if any, narrative validity it has (maybe it got lost somewhere between the couch cushions or something).

What follows are just the insights I’ve been able to glean from what will probably go down as one of the great cinematic debacles of Hollywood history.  In order to make my points clear, I’ll have to examine the actual creative process behind the Original Trilogy, and how it differs from the current Disney product.

A Chronology of Composition: Canon and Creative Authority.

After a lot of reading around, I’d have to say that the best source to trust for the truth behind the making of the OT is Michael Kaminski’s The Secret History of Star Wars.  It is the one text that tries to look past all the hype and legacy and get an understanding of the actual facts behind the making of the first three films.  The value of Kaminski’s book lies in the ultimate picture it paints about the films.  While Kaminski’s text is essential, it is not without it’s flaws.  The good news is that all the flaws seem to be minor, and don’t interfere too much with the final idea suggested in how study.  The irony is that, while all of the evidence the author assembles points to one inescapable conclusion, it is one he seems reluctant to arrive at.  It also, for better or worse, the only conclusion left based on all the materials shown over the course of the book.

Kaminski’s big reveal is that the whole thing was pretty much made up on the fly from beginning to end.   It is true to say that it was Lucas who came up with an initial idea, Star Wars as a tentative working title.  The full truth however is that the full fleshing out of any ideas he came up with, such elements as the names, personality traits for now familiar characters, and even the eventual direction of the narrative was always carried out others.  It was the people Lucas surrounded himself with who are responsible for the finished product. 

In particular, two people seem to stand out as the main driving forces for getting Lucas to make and value certain creative choices over others. Their names are Gary Kurtz and Marcia Lucas.  It is in his dealings with Kurtz’s contribution to the series that Kaminski’s faults are on display.  At the precise moment where he should assert the objectivity required of a critic, Kaminski instead let’s his own personal investment get the better of him.  His own emotional response to the saga leads him to being more of a partisan apologist for Lucas than is perhaps necessary.

That Kurtz, along with others may have misremembered minor details doesn’t take away from the fact that the OT is an example of one of those rare cases where the producer seemed to know at least a bit more than the director.  It’s curious in that the ultimate truth of the making of Star Wars is that is seems almost to be a patch-work product, sown together by several hands at the same time.  The irony is in the old saying: too many cooks spoil the broth.  The punchline seems to be that the OT is the one exception that just might prove that old rule.  However, one element Kaminski does get right is how pivotal Marcia Lucas was to the basic tone we now identify with the series.

“Mark Hamill remember her being severely underestimated influence in her husband’s films and whom was responsible for providing their warmth and emotion:

“You can see a huge difference in the films that he does now and the films that he did when he was married.  I know for a fact that Marcia was responsible for convincing him to keep that little ‘kiss for luck’ before Carrie (Fisher) and I swing across the chasm in the first film: ‘Oh, I don’t like it, people laugh in the previews,’ and she said, ‘George, they’re laughing because it’s so sweet and unexpected’ – and her influence was such that if she wanted to keep it, it was in.  When the little mouse robot comes up when Harrison and I are delivering Chewbacca to the prison and he roars at it and it screams, sort of, and runs away, George wanted to cut that and Marcia insisted he keep it.  She was really the warmth and heart of those films, a good person he could talk to, bounce ideas off of (276)”.  Kaminski later went into further details in an online article on the contributions of Marcia Lucas.

Kaminski sums up the big takeaway as follows:

“A common explanation is merely that "Lucas lost his touch" [10]--he made two great films and one good film (the original trilogy), plus the masterpieces of American Graffiti and Raiders of the Lost Ark and the overlooked gem of THX 1138, but now he's past his prime. While this is ostensibly part of the explanation, it is too simple a view. The research enacted for my monograph on the screenwriting of the Star Wars franchise, however, afforded me the availability of a number of facts which outlined a distinct division in the processes used to construct the six films which comprise the series, especially where the screenplays were concerned. To put it succinctly, Lucas never really had "the touch" to begin with in this sense. This is not to argue that he was untalented and that the original films should be credited to everyone but him. However, on his own, Lucas is incapable of constructing a plot-and-character-based film which emotionally grabs the audience; he is not a Lawrence Kasdan or a Francis Coppola, two writers he is often connected with. One can observe that the films that are considered his best--Graffiti, Star Wars, Empire, and Raiders--were the most collaborative, in fact highly collaborative, in terms of the script, and the films that are his worst--namely the prequels, and to a lesser degree Jedi--were the least collaborative. There is a very observable correlation between the methods Lucas used to construct the screenplays and the popular opinion of their quality.

“The films of George Lucas have had a wide range of reception, but it is quite conspicuous that his      earliest efforts have received so much acclaim, while his second phase of films--the prequel trilogy--faced an equal amount of slander. These criticisms are rarely articulated in terms of historical processes, beyond vague sentiments that Lucas "lost his magic." Inquiries into the construction and methodology of the writing process of his films, however, reveal corresponding consistencies that show that the concept of collaboration, above all else, was responsible for those successes, caught in a larger matrix of social integration and power-checking that, once fallen away, led to the critical failures…with the prequels (web)”.

So, what does this leave us with?  What is the big takeaway from all this?  I think there are several conclusions to be made.

In terms of grand design, the original Star Wars movies seem to have none.  Instead, the OT is similar to most other works of fiction in that the author(s) just made the whole thing up as they went along.  The three films are a literal hodge-podge of influences and inspirations coming together to form a whole that still manages to work, more or less.  There still remains the question of what kind of story is the result of this shoot-from-the-hip creative process.  We also still need to address the question of canonicity.

If the first films are a hodge-podge, then the fact that they are still a success remains to be examined.  I think the ultimate reason for their success can be found answering just what kind of stories we’re dealing with in these films.  There are two aspects to these stories that make-up their basic nature as narratives.  I’ll as close a look as possible at both.  However, this will have to be the subject of a future essay. 

Before we can get to that though, we’ll have to take the bitter before the sweet.  I’m afraid I’ll have to give two cents on a cinematic anomaly.  I’ll have to examine the finished product known as Last Jedi in terms of certain story points, and why there’s something strange about it that no one seems to notice.  This is all for the next post.  In the meantime, how am I doing so far?  Drop a word below and tell me what you think.  Just remember to keep it civil.  Any troll or bot will get blocked automatically.  Till next time.


  1. "one of the great cinematic debacles of Hollywood history" -- Even if I agreed it was a debacle, I'd disagree it was among the most disastrous in Hollywood history.

    "I’m not just talking about Disney’s own Heaven’s Gate." -- The two films don't compare. One was a colossal financial failure, the other was a colossal financial success.

    "I’m also considering whether or not such a spectacularly bad film has any claim to validity, either as Canon, or as art." -- Crazy Fat Ethel II is a spectacularly bad film. Battlefield Earth is a spectacularly bad film. Neil Diamond's The Jazz Singer is a spectacularly bad film.

    The Last Jedi is, at worst, a bad film. I don't think it's even that, personally; but even if I did, I couldn't dive into the pools of hyperbole that so many of its detractors seem to be swimming in.

    1. Apologies for the hyperbole. The thing is, I'm not sure I've ever seen reactions, or a film quite like this, really. The problem is there's very little I can find to compliment.


    2. That's a fair reaction. Not everyone is going to like everything. If a movie doesn't work for you, it doesn't; that's how it is sometimes.

      In case it's not self-evident, let me state outright: I've got no problem with someone disliking the movie. I might raise a verbal eyebrow at it -- or the internet-comment equivalent of that -- but ultimately that's YO bidness, not mine. I'm enjoying reading your thoughts on the whole thing, even when I disagree with them.

      That said, I'd like to offer some food for thought.

      The reactions to this movie were indeed divisive, to say the least. Or so it is said. I don't believe it, personally.

      I mention it because I've got experience which makes me think so. I manage a movie theatre, and I talked to, I think, four people (two groups of two) who disliked the movie. Four. By no means is that a scientific result; but when a movie is widely disliked, I hear people talking about it on their way out. I heard almost none of it with this movie.

      My theory is that a lot of the people attacking the movie -- and I'm not pointing a finger at you, by the way -- aren't fans of Star Wars. They're fans of being Star Wars fans. They almost certainly came to this by way of BEING Star Wars fans, but I think that long since gave way to placing the fandom itself above all else. And for whatever reason, their preferred method of being fans is now to complain about various aspects of it. This creates a sense of community to which they become attached, and so the opinions/beliefs which drive that process become their default setting. Faster than lickety-split, you've got an echo chamber on your hands, with what amounts to a very small number of people doing the internet equivalent of hollering through a bullhorn.

      Meanwhile, all the people who liked the movie -- and don't kid yourself, this number VASTLY outpaces the ones who don't -- mostly just shrug at it and move on, if they notice it at all. A few of the more argumentative types (like me!) might occasionally engage someone on the subject, but mostly we feel like it's not worth the effort unless the someone we're engaging with is a known quantity with whom an actual conversation can be had (like you!).

      You've got a hundred people with bullhorns hollering about how Canto Bight sucks, and a thousand people shrugging about it and going on with their lives. Of those thousand, maybe a handful take the time to holler back; but mostly, they'd rather opt out. So the bullhorn crowd seems way larger than the pro-TLJ crowd, but that's a perception, not an actuality.

      Again, this is not to demean anyone's distaste for the movie. I just distrust talking points, which is all most of these objections strike me as being.

      And in my gut, I feel it to be true that the anti-TLJ crowd is vastly smaller than it wants everyone else to think it is. The box office for Episode IX will almost certainly prove this. (Detractors will point to the weak performance of "Solo" as proof I'm wrong. I will assert that that movie was never going to do well because nobody -- literally nobody -- wanted to see anyone other than H. Ford play H. Solo. The fact that it did as well as it did is a miracle attributable to the fact that it's actually pretty good.)

      Anyways, that's my take on this stuff.

    3. I always enjoy a discussion of what does and/or does not constitute canon. My default setting on the issue of "Star Wars" canon is that it's the movies, and nothing else.

      But it's obviously a much thornier issue than that. The truth is, there is no one canon. Each fan assembles their own. Mine is bifurcated (if not trifurcated). It mostly consists only of the movies, but I do have a great fondness for some of the EU material I read back in the day. So I think if you pressed me, what I'd say is that I take the movies as one canon (THE canon, if you will), but with another that contains both movies and some novels/comics (and maybe tv shows, although I mostly haven't seen those), none of which is actually required to fit together into a coherent whole.

      This is insanity, of course. But it's fun insanity that allows me to enjoy the Disney era without giving s**t one about whether it invalidates the EU or not. (My feeling on that: it doesn't. It's right there on the shelf. You can literally point to it, or even read it. It's gone nowhere, and anyways, it never counted as canon in the first place...

      ...from a certain point of view.)

    4. There's an interesting tidbit related to the idea "that a lot of the people attacking the movie aren't STAR WARS fans". While I have posted links to a few critics who seem genuine (best I can tell), I'll have to admit there were a lot of others that I felt it best not to go with because there was just too much of an ideological vibe from a lot of them that I just want to avoid.

      One in particular, I saw, but never watched, was about how women were somehow the problem with the new series. Yeah, it has gotten that bad for some reason, and it's part of why I said I was worried about walking into a minefield. If watching those reviews in any way influenced my word choice for some sentences, then WOW, I really owe anyone who tunes in an apology up front.

      The interesting bit is those reviews I didn't care to link might have done at least one thing. don't know where I'd say Episodes 7 and 8 fit in here, yet I do wonder how much today's toxic culture is either reflected in, or influenced "TLJ". While I can't say for certain,, I do wonder if all the toxic guardianship talk effected the final product. Just a thought, and I'll have to give it more.

      Either way, when it comes to canon, I'd hope to avoid those same pitfalls (he wrote, knowing he'd probably blow it without even trying, anyway).

      All I know is when I came away from the film, I read you're review of "Stark Trek: Discovery" and thought, for this whole thing, just switch out all the Federation characters for those in the "SW" galaxy as portrayed in "TFA" and "TLJ", and you'd pretty much have my thoughts on the matter. Far as I'm concerned, all this is just a way of trying to understand that reaction while possibly trying to clarify a few things.

      In terms of how I see the "SW" canon, I'm still putting some finishing touches on this. I plan on culminating it all with a discussion of "Dark Empire", and then just summing up. A short version goes as follows. Prequel trilogy doesn't work for me, though it's there if anyone wants it. The EU I like, though I think you can only go so far before knowing when you need to definitively write: The End.

      Now I just gotta see how I can expand that without running over long (hint: I probably can't accomplish that much, I'm afraid).


    5. P.S.

      As regards "STD", as they say, "forewarned is forearmed". I came away disliking what I saw, yet I was also sorta laughing at just how ridiculous it all was (what "sister"?). I decided not to hang around after that, so I don't know much more, though I can feel safe calling it not good, and it doesn't really deserve to be called canon.


    6. "I'll have to admit there were a lot of others that I felt it best not to go with because there was just too much of an ideological vibe from a lot of them that I just want to avoid." -- Yeah, for sure. There's a ton of that out there. Patently misogynistic, patently racist, etc. And, of course, that's all a shame.

      It's also a shame that, as you suggest, both it and the counter-reaction against it make it difficult to express one's own perfectly innocuous dislike for the movie without getting labeled a woman-hating race-baiter. On that, I hear you loud and clear. I've had the same problems vocally criticizing "Star Trek: Discovery." Say you don't like the fact that they made the main character Spock's sister and you are assumed to be something you're not. Man, I'm all for the lead of that show being a black woman; I like the actress. Did she have to be Spock's sister?!? That's all I'm sayin'.

      "While I can't say for certain,, I do wonder if all the toxic guardianship talk effected the final product. Just a thought, and I'll have to give it more." -- It probably did in some ways, and will almost certainly affect it going forward even more. How could it not?

      "Far as I'm concerned, all this is just a way of trying to understand that reaction while possibly trying to clarify a few things." -- Blogging is very, very good for that. So I've found, at least.

      "I decided not to hang around after that, so I don't know much more, though I can feel safe calling it not good, and it doesn't really deserve to be called canon." -- I agree. I'm probably still going to watch the new season, though, because I am a sucker.

      Out of curiosity: what are your plans for Episode IX? Have they lost you, or will you grit your teeth and give it a shot?

    7. Right now I'm leaning more toward the wait and see, though I have to admit, after Episode 8, I'm pretty much convinced Disney does not know how to handle a property like Star Wars.

      I'd like to be convinced otherwise, the trouble I just don't how you course correct from something like this. On the off chance that it is a success, the fact that it could (potentially) be because of retconning "TLJ" would serve as an unfortunate acknowledgement by the company that a mistake has been made, and the 8th film's reputation is going to just suffer even more. It seems like one of those damned if they do or don't situations to me right now.


  2. Interesting remarks, comments, and discussion! I can't really offer much here, but I enjoyed reading it.

    As with Trek, I think canon comes down to whomever's paying the bills, really, regardless of fan reaction. It's like who owns the copyright to something in dispute - well, who paid for it? The court will always go in that direction.

    As for head-canon/ what-fans-say, that's a whole different discussion.

    I have more experience with Trek, here, than I do with SW, but I've always been amused at those Trek fans that get uber-serious about canon. Dude(s), the canon didn't even survive TOS. Come on now. It's always going to be a fluid concept; such is the nature of fictional 'verses and why they will always need ("need") a reboot.

  3. p.s. I definitely agree about Marcia Lucas.

    1. Well, I won't make the same mistake and call her story the Great Unsung Tragedy of Star Wars, yet it probably is a key bit of background info to keep in mind next to you watch any of the OT.

      That said, even I have to admit I don't mind ROTJ as much as others. To me it's just enjoyable, and, for the record, I have literally no opinion on Ewoks one way or the other. I never felt they detracted, or got in the way, and they've remained a non-issue for me to this day.


    2. I always loved 'em, personally. Loved 'em in 1983, love 'em in 2018.