Let me start off by making it clear that I love Star Wars. Ever since I saw the originals (on VHS–lucky me!) I’ve been in love with the universe. Years back, I read many of the Expanded Universe books (though I did take issue with some of them, but more on that later), and played a number of the games, including Battlefront II and, of course, Knights of the Old Republic. I think I can safely say that the Star Wars universe is my favorite fictional universe, surpassing both those of Star Trek and Mass Effect, which I also greatly enjoy (I would actually choose to live in the Mass Effect Universe, given the choice, but I enjoy the Star Wars setting more overall as far as entertainment goes.) I wouldn’t classify myself a “fanboy” or a “hardcore fan,” but I do know a fair amount of trivia, at least as relates to canon works, I religiously watched both Clone Wars TV shows, and now watch Rebels weekly. As for the prequels…I can appreciate the few good things in them, but yes, they’re simply bad movies. I have little desire to watch them, thought I have several times, because I do get some enjoyment out of it. I’m generally a very forgiving moviegoer, and I’m good at figuring out why something might’ve been done a certain way that makes sense, even if in the context of the film it falls flat–though I’m not one of those that grasps as straws to explain Jar-Jar’s presence or anything–some things are just plain bad. I also agree with the line of thought that “it’s explained in the novelization,” or in some other Star Wars work, is not a valid defense. The films, need to stand on their own, as do whole shows ( individual episodes can get away with leaning on other episodes of the same show, however.)
More recently on the Star Wars front, I looked forward to The Force Awakens, and I enjoyed it quite a bit, as it truly felt like Star Wars again, after three bad prequel films. However, by that point, I started to notice cracks in Star Wars as a franchise, and I think that may have been where I first started to recognize that my love for the franchise was waning, at least in reference to the released works. The setting conceptually is another matter altogether. Rogue One, which I enjoyed, and think is a better film than Force Awakens, despite its own significant flaws, some of which I enumerated in my appearance on the Geek Gab podcast (in which, due to the limited time, I realize I may have come off as more harsh on the film than I actually am.) However, upon watching Rogue One, and then thinking about it a bit, the growing problem I had with the franchise began to crystallize, and as I finally watched/listened to reviews of the film by the online critics/commentators who are big Star Wars fans and whose opinions I most value and find interesting, specifically Red Letter Media, and the Star Wars New Canon Book Club (the former being analogous to the cynical devil on the shoulder, the latter being the excitable fanboy angel on the shoulder), everything fully solidified–mostly, as least. With these things, you can never be 100% certain.
My growing problem with Star Wars is a multifaceted one, pertaining to the universe itself, and how that universe has been approached by those creating Star Wars fiction, and said fiction itself (specifically the films, as they make up the backbone of the franchise.) There is a separate issue I have regarding those currently engaged in creating new Star Wars fiction, but that is less a reason than the narrative and creative ones. But even for myself, one who generally prefers to separate art from artist, there are issues to address at another time.
To address my problems with the universe and the current state of Star Wars fiction, I must refer back to RedLetterMedia, who I think do the best job of talking about Star Wars as fans, without ever slipping into fanboy mode (apart from sarcastic sketches, of course.) In their review of Rogue One, where they describe a sort of catch-22 that cripples Star Wars. On the one hand, we want (and need) to see Star Wars try new things and expand beyond the very basics, specifically things that evoke nostalgia of the original films, you have the primary problem of Rogue One, as the story doesn’t feel like Star Wars. Rogue One could very easily have been a generic sci-fi action movie with the same plot and characters, and if we just replaced the iconic TIE Fighters, X-Wings, Star Destroyers, etc., with other equivalents. It had cool stuff, but didn’t have the fun that Star Wars needs and established as a staple from the outset. But on the other hand, we want different things, and thus arises the problem of The Force Awakens, which has been criticized for being too derivative of the originals. Which is why, with a major studio seeking to play it safe and make money, it always comes back to the nostalgia beats. Rogue One tried to be different, but it still had to have the classic ships, had to shoehorn in Darth Vader (it was a very cool scene at the end, don’t get me wrong, but we all know it was there for the sake of nostalgia.) As Mike and Rich put it, the Star Wars universe makes it seem like it’s so expansive and open, but in reality it is very limited and there isn’t much you can do with it–at least not in mainstream Star Wars fiction.
Just looking at all of the new canon stuff (for the sake of this post I’m largely going to ignore what are now termed Legends, which at times did succeed in expanding the universe but had many, many problems of its own), it is all tied to things we already know. We have the new films; Force Awakens is a sequel to the events of Return of the Jedi, Rogue One is a direct prequel to a New Hope, Star Wars Rebels (while fortunately focusing mostly on new characters) is very closely tied with the classic trilogy, while Clone Wars primarily followed characters from the prequel films. And in the future we’re getting episodes 8 & 9, a Han Solo film, and an Obi-Wan film. And the Aftermath books exist solely to fill in the blanks between episodes 6 & 7.
But there’s a whole damned galaxy to play around in! Why can’t we have stories set in the undercity of Coruscant, or in the Outer Rim? Why can’t we have a television show about a force-sensitive individual trying to survive while remaining hidden from the empire? The Star Wars galaxy, on paper, is HUGE. It should be very easy to tell the stories of individuals’ adventures that are fulfilling while not directly related to the tired Skywalker family drama, and the focus on this in a large sense crippled the universe by making such a big setting feel so small, with everything tying back in to the same narrow story. The prequels made this so much worse, This is an area where the old canon (now Legends) at times did well, specifically with the Knights of the Old Republic games (not so much the MMO, which largely played off KOTOR nostalgia). Those games took place way before anything we were familiar with, and while there were of course the staple Jedi, Sith, and lightsabers, and superweapons, and similar character types, they allowed us to truly experience the galaxy in a way that we haven’t really had since. A lot of the reason the Legends stuff lost me was because it too focused on stories either directly involving primarily the classic Star Wars elements and then devolved into an unfun grimdark soap opera that simply did not feel like Star Wars. Because that is the other thing about Star Wars: The original films set a very clear tone, echoing the older pulp serials that originally inspired Lucas, more an adventure story than an epic. While not overly lighthearted, the originals were not so “dark,” or “gritty” like Rogue One, where all the main characters die. They had darker moments, but the tone was consistent. Even in the prequels, as bad as they were and with as much boring crap and bad plots as there were, Lucas tried to keep the story tone consistent–at least until the end of Revenge of the Sith. This is why I will say that Force Awakens, which also captured that Star Wars feel, was a better Star Wars movie than Rogue One, but Rogue One was a better movie on its own, and more interesting conceptually.
Going back again to the supposed expansive galaxy, with hundreds or thousands of worlds, and apparently thousands of years of history. Why does the vast majority of the Star Wars fiction revolve around Skywalkers or other things that can be easily linked to the main films? Why not a story about a war between two otherwise background worlds? You can even throw in some Jedi, maybe a master and apprentice assigned to resolve the conflict, one from each of the warring worlds. This can be a very interesting story set in the Star Wars galaxy, but it doesn’t need to be a “Star Wars” story. You can maintain the Star Wars tone if you want, or decide not to, justifying it more easily as it’s not related to “core” Star Wars. I can go on and on with ideas, but I think I’ve elaborated on RedLetterMedia’s point: On paper you can do so, so much with this galaxy, but we all know that just about all the fiction we’ll get will either revolve around or feel forced to reference the nostalgia stuff. By tying everything together around the Skywalker plotline and by setting a very specific tone, Star Wars, perhaps unintentionally, greatly limited itself from a story perspective. As much as I want to agree with the more fanboy-ish Star Wars commentators I enjoy (and I did genuinely enjoy some of the references and callbacks in Rogue One, specifically Red and Gold Leaders), as a creator myself I can’t excuse this self-limiting nature.
Where does this leave Star Wars, then? For me, I’m going to stick with Rebels, because at least it focuses mostly on new characters. Television shows in general might suit it better, as it allows for more expansion of things and gradual development (Ahsoka Tano of the Clone Wars show was the best thing Star Wars in a long, long time, because they successfully developed her character from an annoyance into a fan favorite over the course of the show and then further with Rebels. Generally, Clone Wars was the best Star Wars fiction since the originals, and Rebels is also quite good.) Even the quality shows, however, are handicapped by the need to maintain continuity with the originals, Clone Wars more so, as we know the fates of most of the main characters, and relationships built up couldn’t always come to conclusions that would work best, because of continuity. For example, it would’ve been extremely satisfying and make for an excellent story if Ahsoka was the one who ultimately redeemed Anakin, and we followed her through the Rebellion years. But they had to get everything set up by the show’s end to fit with the films, so we couldn’t get that.
Hopefully there will eventually be some more games that explore things beyond Skywalkers, Solos, the Empire, the Rebellion the Clone Wars, and things we’ve seen time and time again. This is why I’m starting to get into Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars tabletop RPGs. Because at least there, we can create our own stories in the Star Wars setting, without having to tie in to the Skywalker plotline or zoom in on blue milk because nostalgia (that was probably the worst moment of Rogue One, by the way.) It shouldn’t be too much to expect a large, expansive universe to actually be expansive, and to have the adventure and/or epic science fantasy stories I love.
That’s part of the reason why, when I seriously delved into the creation of my own epic sci-fi setting, I intentionally took steps to leave space for me to explore and expand this galaxy going forward, but in a way that does not have to tie in directly to A Greater Duty and the rest of the planned series. This isn’t the place for me to delve into my own work, but I will state that my problems with Star Wars definitely informed my galaxy-building as well as my plans for the future of this setting, in which I will make this type of story great again. There are numerous stories I could tell in my setting, whether simply small unrelated stories or telling the stories of events briefly mentioned in the book, events which would feature none of the same characters, stories which focus entirely on only a portion of the setting thus unveiled. Of course, I do have the luxury of thinking of this ahead of time, but that doesn’t make it any less true.
I hope this didn’t get too rambly; it was written in parts over a significant period of time, and it wasn’t as easy to get down in type as it was to go through in my head. That’s all for now though. However, I will say that I might do a couple smaller, Star Wars specific posts in the future.
More importantly, later this week I will begin to introduce A Greater Duty to all of you, at long last (no specific release date just yet, but it’s not far off.)
RedLetterMedia’s Rogue One Review (They have other videos relating to it, but this is the key one.)
A blog post that points out a similar issue (more concisely than I did) with Star Wars’ lack of imagination and being limited despite there seeming to be an endless supply of material.