Sunday, February 17, 2019

Star Wars and the Question of Canon 6: Dark Empire.

I started all this to try and reach an understanding of just what kind of story Star Wars is and what are the themes and ideas that give it its identity.  I set about trying to find the answers to these issues by examining both the original trilogy, along with a selected series of materials stemming from the Expanded Universe.  The big take-away from this attempt at a deep dive into the franchise has revealed a number of thematic concepts that more or less define the core of both the first trilogy and its literary, audio, and digital off-shoots.  These concepts can be divided into three categories.

The first is the surprising number of symbols, characters, and even plot elements that can be discerned as deriving from Elizabethan Drama.  In particular the characters of Luke, Vader, and the Emperor contain character notes and trajectories similar to those found in the work of Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe.  The main Renaissance theatrical texts that find a modern echo in the OT are Doctor Faustus, Macbeth by way of King Lear, and Hamlet.  It is the thematic content of these plays which seems to inform a great deal of plots of ANH, TESB, and ROTJ.

The second shared element in all the narratives under consideration is the subject of characters who change from one type of individual into another.  Each of the main films, even the novels and video games in the franchise concern themselves with how a person's outlook, and hence their entire identity can reshaped by the force of the narrative events that happen to them.  The best way to gain an understanding of what I'm talking about is not to focus on the heroic trio of the OT.  Those characters have become a bit too familiar to audiences everywhere to the point that there might be a risk of turning them into ciphers for one's own personality or outlook at the expense of objectivity.  A better candidate to help understand this theme of change from black to white is the spinoff figure of Kyle Katarn.  He is a character who begins as an anti-hero who finds himself turning into a Jedi.  The dichotomy at work here is like what happens when a professional thief one day decides to become an aid to the police in catching others just like him.  The transformation of Kyle is from that of a negative to a positive state by the time his story reaches its conclusion.  It is the one theme he shares with the OT crew.

Because this theme of narrative transformation is so prevalent in each of the franchise stories I've chosen, it may help to point out the worldview behind this constant motif.  I said above that the nature of change demonstrated in the SW story was that of  going from a negative to a positive.  The reason for this might have something to do with the final third element in these stories, and it has to do with storytelling modes and genres.  I would argue that it is necessary to understand that the SW trilogy and its EU off-shoots are fundamentally works of Romantic fiction

This is an important point to emphasize, as establishing what genre tropes and structures make-up both the OT and EU will go a long way toward clarifying the nature and definition of the franchise.  If you can define what gives SW it's identity as a story, then you can comes as close as possible to defining which possible sequel material deserves to be singled out as canon.  I think the fact that the trilogy counts as a Romantic tale means that whatever comes after has to be consonant with that mode.  Too much of a deviation would strike a false note that would be noticeable to most of the audience.  Even if they can never find the words for it, the existence of that false note will cause them to use phrases like "something just seems off somehow".  The reason things seem off is because of the introduction of a discordant note in what is supposed to be a harmonious Romantic mode.

The best proof of SW as a work of Epic Romance comes from one it's main sources of inspiration: Joseph Campbell.  According to his biographer Stephen Larsen, Campbell spent the better part of his career in teaching a class on German Romanticism (233).  This study course was aided a great deal by his meetings with scholars like Heinrich Zimmer (319).  For better or worse, the net result is that it means Campbell is in some sense an heir of the Romantic School of creative writing.  It is a method of approach to both writing and criticism that is contained in a text like The Hero with a Thousand Faces, a book that went on to influence directors like George Lucas.  Because of this historical excavation it is possible to make the case that SW does count as a work of Romantic fiction.  This forms an identifiable tie-in with the works of Shakespeare inasmuch as the Romantics were the inheritors of many of the tropes and dramatic practices from the playwright's day.  From this vantage point it is possible that the constant recurrence of certain types of Shakespearean motifs begin to make just a bit more psychological and thematic sense. 

The ability to define the franchise as a Romantic work of art does carry with it a certain amount of limitation in terms of what kinds of stories you can tell in this fictional universe.  What works in a horror story, for instance, will always be out of place in the Far Away setting.  There has been at least one attempt to wed the Romantic setting of SW to the gory aesthetic of a horror story.  The problem is while there's talent involved, the writer still can't bring his ingredients together to create a unified whole.  The styles of Romanticism and Lovecraftian Cosmicism are always clashing in a way that fails to gell in a satisfying final product.  This doesn't seem to be the only literary mode that serves an ill fit with the franchise, as it seems to be the natural function of the Romantic or Epic mode to act as a contrasting or transformative agent to the anti-heroic nihilism to which it acts as a form of counter-cultural response.

While it might not be possible to set a work of horror in the SW galaxy, it may still be possible to tell a Romance Epic with elements of Gothic fiction thrown into the mix.  Such appears to be the case with Dark Empire.  It has to be stressed that here that it is possible to draw a dividing line between between the modern genre known as horror and the elements and themes labeled as Gothic.  The genre of horror was an outgrowth of certain narrative and atmospheric tropes first utilized in the work of the Romantic poets such as Coleridge's Ancient MarinerThese tropes were then transferred to the burgeoning novel format by Victorian author Horace Walpole with the publication of The Castle of Otranto.  While this work and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein helped cement Horror as the main genre of Gothic aesthetics, it must be remembered that the tropes normally identified as Gothic (an atmosphere of foreboding and dread, confusion on the part of the protagonists, the blurring of illusion and reality) all had an independent existence in myth and folktale before each separate element came together to form the modern horror story.  It is, after all, just a version of a fairy tale where the emphasis has been placed on the ogres, goblins, and trolls under the bridge instead of the elves and nymphs in the pastorals.

Dark Empire serves as a neat blend of both the Science Fictional and the Gothic.  There are other reasons as well for taking a deep dive into an entry in the Star Wars Expanded Universe that has had the bad luck to fall through the cracks of mass audience attention.  I'd like to examine not just the Gothic strands in the story, but also its connection to classical myth.  I'd like to go so far as to argue that part of the writings of Plato is a the heart of what I consider a fitting end to the Skywalker saga.  In order to do this, I will be reviewing yet another audio drama.  This time the production is based off the first series of a graphic novel run.  I will be focusing strictly on the audio adaptation because I consider it a general improvement on its source material.  In this regard, it is interesting to note the way that characters and situations in this universe can expand and grow when given enough time and actual creative effort.  With that in mind, let's go exploring.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Star Wars and the Question of Canon 5: The Dark Forces/Jedi Knight Series.

It's interesting to consider the nature of spinoffs in relation to canonical texts.  The rule of thumb seems to be that they always stand in the shadow of either a parent franchise, or else a more  polished, well regarded text.  Still, history does contain a few examples where spinoffs managed to stand on their own.  The two best examples are still Huckleberry Finn and Lord of the Rings.  While it might not be possible for the stories centered around Kyle Katarn to ever eclipse the original trilogy, it would be a mistake to call his fictional exploits a failure.  I'd like to spend some time exploring some of the reasons why a character from a different medium offers some of the best follow-up material to the original Star Wars films.