A few weeks ago, Zubon posted some thoughts on the difference between fans of Star Wars and Star Trek. It’s been a lifetime in blogger-time since that post, but it’s been running circles in my head ever since. (For one, what about those of us who are fans of both?)
I agree with a lot of what the post says, particularly when it comes to the greater tolerance of Star Trek fans for material that is of lower quality, and with the reasons Zubon gives. When you have a multitude of offerings within a franchise, it’s far easier to put aside the bad and focus more on the good.When you only have one or two offerings in a given format (e.g. movies) per decade, the requirements for quality are much more critical. I think this is the reason the Star Wars books rarely get heavy criticism for their varying quality – there are just so many more of them from which to choose that it makes it easier to pick the ones we like and put aside those we don’t.
We were discussing this last night, and oddly enough both my wife and I agreed that, as far as Star Trek goes, the first two versions (the original series and Next Generation) were by far the best and, where “family” television is concerned, the only realistic options from the range of shows that are available. Everything else is either far too violent (Deep Space 9, some of Voyager), too intellectual for kids (Enterprise, Voyager, and some of Deep Space 9), or of no interest to those who actually care about it (Enterprise and Voyager, mostly). Namely, me.
But all that is beside the point.
What really got me thinking was the perception of a “unified faith” in Star Wars fandom. Zubon is right; as a whole, Star Wars fans take the sanctity of the entire universe far more seriously, and demand far more consistency and consideration from every decision made by LucasArts/LucasFilms/whoever-is-really-responsible-for-this-stuff. When our concept of the Star Wars universe is betrayed, it truly is a defilement; it hurts in ways that Star Trek fans may not be able to conceive.
“Maybe that comes from The Vision. There seems to be an expectation that there will be one central Star Wars story line. If you mess that up, you have ruined the entire universe. One bad decision about who falls to the Dark Side and now everyone is stuck with that as canon.”
~Zubon, Kill Ten Rats
Except that for many of us, the long-time fans of the IP, so much damage has been done that it’s hard to cling to the belief there there is such a thing as The Vision. How can we considering the haphazard, ignore-everything-except-pure-profit treatment of Star Wars? For many of us, George Lucas has trampled over so much of the original magic and allowed so many bad decisions to be made that we’ve developed selective ignorance purely as a coping mechanism. For whatever his reasons, there is just so much about the current state of Star Wars that old school fans have to ignore if they are to maintain their love of the franchise.
We were (in many ways) betrayed by the Prequel Trilogy, and have been constantly battered by the current generation’s strip mining of our beloved stories. For me, it has become a literal “acceptability” matrix of sorts:
|Original Trilogy(*)||Prequel Trilogy||Television (“Clone Wars”)||Video Games|
|Story||Sacred Canon||Blasphemous Garbage (Midichlorians? Really?)||Unknown. Slightly Interesting?||Varies. Pretty good to Bad.|
|Slightly Damaged Canon|
|Characters||Relatable, Endearing, Growing. Perfect.||Shallow, Whiny, Utterly Unlikable. Several should Die In A Fire.||Unknown. Mostly Uninteresting?||Mostly Positive (outside Prequel-based games).|
|Stupid changes. Han shot first.|
|Setting||Enthralling. The Gold Standard.||At Best: Coruscant.
At Worst: Blandly Undamaging.
|Standard Fare (best guess).||Standard Fare (overall).|
|Visuals||Revolutionary. Created Techniques. Real Creativity.||Deep, detailed, but soulless digital.||Interesting and appealing (but mostly to younger fans).||Varies. Mostly good.|
|Minor (Unnecessary) Improvements.|
|“Action”||Classic. Simple elegance.||Duels were pretty good. Few dogfights.||Unknown.||Varies. Mostly good, with some excellent examples.|
|Audience Appeal||Anyone||Lucas’ children (Podracing) and marketing focus groups||Children (and die hard fans)||Fans of the IP|
I left out books because, one, they are of wildly divergent quality and, two, because almost everything about them is completely personal; visuals, setting, characters, “action” – the quality of all is more subjective than any other form of media. (And yes, I’m aware that the entire matrix is subjective, but I hold books to a different standard than other media.) Also, the library of books covers the complete range of entries in the canon, as opposed to a specific time period as do the two trilogies and the television series. They just seem to be impossible to evaluate as a single category.
Call me biased (clearly I am), but that’s how I approach the Star Wars material. And I get the feeling I’m not the only one. One thing became abundantly clear to me while putting the above table together – about the only thing that LucasFilms consistently get right is the setting and the visuals. This is the one aspect where there is even a hint of consistency; and sadly, while this may be the easiest thing to “sell” to people, it is also the aspect with which people connect the least. As much as we love the flashy combat and pretty spaceships, it’s the characters with whom we connect, and their stories that stick with us. Lightsabers and the Force are cool, but it’s the redemption of Anakin Skywalker that we love.
So why does any of this matter? Well, it matters for a few reasons.
First, as a long-time fan of Star Wars, and now as a father of two children, the state of the Star Wars IP matters to me. For better or for worse, I am heavily invested, emotionally invested, in Star Wars. Art does that to people, and in the modern era of franchises, art with which we feel a connection is not a static thing. It’s not as straightforward as a painting or a book anymore; it changes and grows over time. And I want to share that art, and that love, with my children. So, naturally, I care about the quality of Star Wars. I want my children to experience the fun and wonder I did and, if they choose, find something to love as I did. To me, that is the original Star Wars, not the marketing-blitz-merchandising-tsunami that modern Star Wars has become. Sure, there are positive aspects of the IP even now (some of the games and toys, and even the television series) but the motivation behind the IP has shifted drastically; the heart of Star Wars has become twisted and the soul has withered.
Two, it matters because there are still offerings in the Star Wars universe that I eagerly anticipate. Namely, The Old Republic. As much as I dislike the direction franchise has been headed these many years, I look forward to this addition to the Star Wars material. Both because of it’s format (an MMO) and because of its setting (the Old Republic). TOR is an expansion of the Star Wars universe, and every expansion is another opportunity to get things right and do something truly exceptional. In many ways, BioWare is adding to Star Wars in the only way that has a real chance at success – by adopting a segment of the timeline that is almost completely unexplored (and untainted). They have more creative freedom, and aren’t operating under the shadow of Luke, Leia, Han, and everything we fell in love with over 25 years ago.
Finally, it matters because I say it matters. Star Wars fans have invested an incredible amount of time, energy, and money into what is essentially a hobby. If Lucas had left things as the original trilogy and it’s accompanying merchandise, I would say the he’s done his part and doesn’t owe us squat. But the moment he opened the Expanded Universe and turned it into a multimedia empire, he became beholden to us, the fans. His empire is built from our love, and he has a responsibility to us. It falls to him to maintain and protect the quality of the franchise; not to let it be raped in the interest of market saturation and quick profits.
It’s a mandate that George has failed. Abysmally, at times. That’s why we have the state of rabid love/hate that characterizes Star Wars fandom. That’s why fans like me have developed coping mechanisms just to remain fans and stomach each new piece of Star Wars that’s released. BioWare is in a precarious position with TOR, and I certainly don’t envy them.