Authority, Canonicity and Franchises: Star Wars

So last week, I outlined my approach to creative decisions that I found lacking. I suggested that the companies who own these franchises appoint authors who bring their ideas to the property, and that consumers are free to accept or reject these ideas to suit their own. Doctor Who was deliberately designed by committee. The BBC needed a programme to fill the tea-time slot and the show was the result. We can point to the original producers and certain early writers but, past those origins, the series was constantly evolving as a result of the constant cycle of new creators.

Star Wars is different. Though I would argue that the franchise expanded beyond its creator from early on, we generally accept George Lucas as the authority on the franchise. The first film came out at a time when the director of a film was considered the first and last authority on all aspects of production. Lucas’ peers, friends like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, are readily identifiable with this school of film development. Lucas seemed at first to fit this developing archetype. His script, though it borrowed heavily from the media he had enjoyed growing up, was arranged in a manner unique to him. The world of Star Wars (1977) was derived from what he had in his head. Few others would have deliberately put those elements together in that exact way. The finished film, however, was very much a collaborative product; the film as Lucas envisioned. The film itself it was heavily re-arranged by the editors. No Hollywood film leaps straight onto the screen from the head of a writer or even a director, instead being the product of hundreds (or, these days, often thousands) of workers, creative and otherwise. Given the film’s massive popularity and the rapid pace at which this single movie became a franchise, the scale of Star Wars is now much greater. I certainly don’t mean to belittle Lucas’ vision (God knows, he’s had enough of that), but I just don’t think it’s accurate to say that he has sole creative authority over the franchise, because, at this stage, it’s so much bigger than just him.

Much like Doctor Who, the most prominent arm of the franchise (the live action works) are just the core of a much wider array of works in Lucas’ setting. More people watch the feature films than even know of the existence of the hundreds of novels and comics produced since 1977. Now, the The Walt Disney Company owns the franchise and are busy building it further and further out with more movies and series than most people are realistically going to watch. Previously, it was possible for the casual movie-goer to have seen all the live action Star Wars media produced, since the films came out years apart. There were 16 years between Return of the Jedi (1983) and The Phantom Menace (1999), ten between Revenge of the Sith (2005) and The Force Awakens (2015). Now, The Rise of Skywalker came out in 2019, as did the franchise’ first live-action series The Mandalorian, only for the following year to bring an announcement of many, many more live-action productions, including several films and TV series. General audiences’ choice was previously limited to “Do I want to watch the next film or not?”, a choice that came once a year at most. I think this is the stage where consumers have to start to make choices as to which of the announced productions they want to see and which ones they don’t, especially since all the live-action series come out exclusively on Disney Plus, the company’s pricey streaming service. This is the level of decision-making those who read the novels and comics and played the games have always had to make (I assume; I wasn’t there, so I’m open to correction).

With a franchise of such size, run by a huge corporate entity and with so many different creative voices in charge of their respective areas, I believe it’s no longer possible to look to George Lucas as the final word on the world he created and which still bears the marks of his vision. In other words, since he turned in the script for the first movie, Lucas has spent decades slowly watching Star Wars slip further and further out of his hands. He attempted to make Star Wars movies entirely on his own terms with episodes I-III and the results were widely reviled. I certainly accept the flaws in those stories, but given how huge his creation had become, I can’t help but sympathise with his ill-fated attempts to reclaim it. Even so, I think that there’s an upper limit to the creative potential of any work of fiction so long as it remains in the hands of one person, be they the original creator or otherwise.

Opening up the setting to more and more creators simply allows the variety of stories told to broaden. A series which has a tradition of crossing boundaries and being enjoyed by so many different sectors of society deserves not to have its scope limited to one white guy from California (albeit one who had a breadth of media awareness and inherent creativity that belied that general perspective). It is right and just that the creative forces behind the many arms of this single franchise should include women and non-white people and non-Americans and non-straight people. I doubt Star Wars will, as a result, suddenly become closed off to white guys over the age of 50- though I do say this as someone who aspires to be a white guy over the age of 50 at some point, so take that with a pinch of salt, I suppose.

But in this new scenario, with no single authority over the franchise, how do we differentiate between what is and is not acceptable? My response is that every consumer decides what makes the franchise important to them, and pursues whatever form of the franchise fits their conclusions. For my part, I haven’t seen the prequel films, but I have read the novelisations. This gives me the context required to enjoy the works that explore that period of the setting’s history in the forms I generally prefer, i.e. novels, half-hour cartoons, comics and games. I have no doubt that in the eyes of many Star Wars purists, this makes me heretical, since it means that live-action, big-screen Star Wars is relatively low in my order of interest. I honestly think, though, that there’s enough variety in those works that I can get plenty of entertainment out of them. I’m interested in iconography and continuity only insofar as they enhance the all-important aspects of plot, themes and characterisation. That’s why I’m willing to allow changes to the fabric of a franchise IF those changes make the story more compelling. That’s why I seriously dislike the creative decisions made in recent series of Doctor Who but (oh yes. we’re going there, kinda) I loved the creative decisions made in The Last Jedi. In order to explain this, I’ll have to delve further into my developing relationship with Star Wars.

Until recently, I wouldn’t have considered myself a Star Wars fan. I’d seen the first three movies years ago and had the 1977 movie downloaded on my iPod Nano. I watched it often enough that, although I haven’t seen any of them for many years, I still remember the beats of that first movie. I spent ages reading through the Panini sticker book for Revenge of the Sith in 2005, a movie I’ve still never seen. I soon moved on to other properties (mainly games), so I don’t recall any great nostalgia for the franchise as I grew up. I developed an appreciation for their quality as films while my critical faculties matured and I applied the critical skills I’d learned to films I remembered seeing. Despite my growing respect for the works and my admiration for Lucas and his collaborators, I just didn’t feel the emotional connection that so many others felt. In 2017, some friends suggested we go to see the new Star Wars movie. Having passed up the chance to see The Force Awakens with the rest of my family in 2015, I watched it the week before we went to see the new one. I really liked that one, especially how they translated the classic aesthetic to modern film production, just as I’d marvelled at Rogue One when I saw the various ships and space stations in the theatre the previous year. I thought the older characters were appropriately utilised while also giving the newer characters the narrative space they deserved. My positive disposition towards The Force Awakens layed the foundation for my response to the new film.

I saw The Last Jedi not long after its release. I connected with the characters and themes of Johnson’s film in a way I hadn’t with the original trilogy. I’m not about to relitigate in exhaustive detail the merits or demerits of the film, since that’s been done so well elsewhere. I will say, though, that I honestly found the reconstitution of old themes in new forms compelling. I was excited to find a film prepared to challenge how concepts like the Force and the Jedi had previously been constructed. I feel that focalising these challenges through the characters was an organic way of foregrounding the themes of iconoclasty and recontextualisation. I also feel that where the viewer stands on these challenges influences how they respond to the film. I liked that Johnson was willing to pose those challenges and I also agree with his conclusions. If, however, you felt that the challenges weren’t legitimate or the conclusions inaccurate, I imagine you would have disliked the film. Star Wars means different things to different people, now more than ever, and it would be a mistake for me to tell anyone that their meaning is somehow illegitimate.

I think we live in a time where there’s enough Star Wars to go around. People who didn’t like the prequels were likely left out of the franchise, unless they were interested in games, books, comics or cartoons. Now, if you didn’t like The Rise of Skywalker, you have more chances to enjoy the franchise. The Mandalorian is an excellent series which broadens the scope of the setting like never before. Its episodic, wandering hero format enables it to explore that world from so many different angles. Much as I loved The Last Jedi, I think the show’s more varied approach is inherently more valuable than a single iconoclastic film. The second season seems to have been envisioned as the launchpad for many of the properties that were recently announced, allowing for greater inter-connection between productions.

I’m sure I’ll get round to finishing The Mandalorian and to seeing all the rest of the upcoming content. For now, I’m got Clone Wars to watch. I read the Episode II novelisation recently and so now I’m working on books set in that period. I’d like to read as many of the books between Episodes II and III as possible before I read the novelisation of Revenge of the Sith. I know that, at the present time, few of those books are considered canon to the franchise, but if you’ve learnt anything about me from the two posts in this series, it’s that I generally have a take it or leave it approach to canon. I just want to become a student of Star Wars, to see how many different stories can be created in this universe, to understand its themes and concepts in as much depth as reasonably possible. After that, I’ll probably focus on the comics published since the Disney purchase. There are so many worthwhile stories for so many characters, old and new.

I have no plans at the moment to write any more posts in this series. I certainly have more to say on the subject and think there’s scope for me to expand on certain aspects I’ve discussed. First, I’d like to build up more posts on a specific work, mainly standalone comics and novels.

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