Thursday, February 24, 2022

More than one person has told me that they like Star Wars but that they don't like "the fan fiction"....

More than one person has told me that they like Star Wars but that they don't like "the fan fiction".

They mean that they like the Trilogy but not the Prequels; or that they like Episodes I - VI but not Episodes VII, VIII and IX; or that they like the movies but not the cartoons, or that they think the Mandalorian contains too many inside references for its own damn good.

One old friend in the Twittersphere says that there is only one Star Wars film ("it is called Star Wars") and that everything else is fan fiction.

Well, from a critical point of view, this is not a million miles away from my own position. The 1977 movie "Star Wars" -- the one now known as Episode IV, A New Hope -- had a unique flavour, and nothing since has come anywhere near recapturing that flavour. As Star Wars critic and theorist Andrew Rilstone once said, the Empire Strikes Back doesn't extend the Star Wars Universe; but it is just about possible to retrofit Star Wars into the universe created in Empire Strikes Back.

But "everything else is fan fiction" is a really, really odd way of expressing that thought.

"The Book of Boba Fett is fan-fic" is a snarky way of saying "The Book of Boba Fett is not canon". Which, in the first place, isn't true. And in the second place, is unnecessarily demeaning to the folk who actually read and enjoy fan fiction.  And in the third place -- well, why does it matter if it is canon or not?

Sometimes, when I watch Star Wars -- a New Hope -- I choose to watch it as if it was a stand alone fairy tale set in space. As if Obi-Wan told the truth, and Darth Vader really murdered Luke's father. As if there was nothing incestuous about Luke and Leia's kiss.
You might say that I am pretending that no such movie as The Empire Strikes Back was ever made. You might say that it does exist as an artefact, but that it didn't really happen. That it doesn't have secondary reality. That it is only a story. That is belongs in Box Four. 

Or, if you absolutely insist, that it is fan fiction.

Sometimes when I watch Star Wars Episode IV I choose to watch it as if it were one component of a vast space saga stretching from The High Republic to the Rise of Skywalker and beyond. I like that kind of thing: Dune and the New Gods and the Thanos saga. Star Wars is bigger and more fun than any of them. In which case you might say that I am treating The Empire Strikes Back (and the Force Awakens, and all hundred and something episodes of the Clone Wars, and all fifty something issues of Doctor Aphra) as if it were canonical. As if it "really happened"; as secondary reality; and belongs in Box Three.

I suppose most of the time we hold both readings in our head. Obi-Wan is both lying and telling the truth; Leia is both Luke's lover and Luke's sister. See Threepio is both a droid and a man in an uncomfortable metal suit. The desert is both on Tatooine and in Tunisia. Wherever you go in the universe, there is a loud orchestra playing, but Luke and Han and Leia don't seem to be able to hear it.

I don't see how any of this is clarified by saying "fan fiction".

You could take the line that the only Star Wars Universe is the one George Lucas created. J.J Abrams ideas about how Han and Leia's marriage turned out and what they named their son has the same status as a piece of Han/Leia erotica on a Star Wars word-press blog. (Tash is no more than Aslan.) 

That would be an intelligible approach. I believe that fans of the Other Franchise used to say that only episodes Gene Roddenbury had a direct hand in were canonical. 

I myself am sometimes inclined to think that the first decade of Marvel Comics -- say from 1962 to 1973 -- are the only "real" Marvel comics. The primary text is the text that Stan Lee directly created; everything else is other writers riffing on his material. Some of them were very good writers; some of them produced very good riffs. But none of them was Stan Lee. But on this definition it would be deeply odd to say that The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith -- three films over which Lucas had complete artistic control -- are "only fan-fic". Fan-fic is pretty much the opposite of what they are. The Clone Wars TV series is probably as close as we can get to George Lucas's original, unadulterated vision of how he wanted Star Wars to be. The true identity of Luke's father wasn't in George's original notebook: but the Midichlorians decidedly were. 

Is Attack of the Clones a good movie? No, it is not. 

Is Attack of the Clones a good Star Wars movie? No, it is not. 

Do I think that Anakin's massacre of the Sand People is going to be a major plot point in the forthcoming Tatooine-set Obi-Wan TV show? Yes, I do.

Okay then. You could simply say that you really liked the prologue to Return of the Jedi, in which Boba Fett met an ignominious end in the Pit of Sarlacc, and really dislike the way the Mandalorian changed the story and said that he survived. 

There is nothing wrong with that. Where there are two versions of one story, it is quite natural to prefer one to the other. In Pygmalion, Eliza leaves Higgins and opens a florist shop with Freddie. In My Fair Lady, she goes back to the Professor. The original ending is better, in my opinion: the musical comedy version feels like a cop-out. Both exist; both were approved by the Author, who recognised that movies and stage-plays had different rules.

"Did you really just reference Jabba the Hutt and Eliza Doolittle in the same paragraph, Andrew?" 

Yes. I am rather afraid that I did.

But in preferring "Boba died" to "Boba survived" we are not comparing two versions of one story. We are not talking about Return of the Jedi. Return of the Jedi is a film. It's the same film in 2022 that it was in 1986  (give or take a Haden Christensen and a couple of gub-gubs.) We are not talking about The Book of Boba Fett. The Book of Boba Fett is a TV series about space gangsters, which some of us liked and some of us didn't like. We are talking about some third thing, which doesn't exist in any particular text, but which is out there, in idea-space, in our collective imagination, in fan discourse. We have tacitly agreed that what we talk about when we talk about Star Wars is The Star Wars Universe. We approve or disapprove of Boba Fett and the Last Jedi and the Bad Batch because of what they do, or what they do not do, to that conceptual non-thing.

If everything was an imaginary story then you wouldn't be complaining about the pit of Sarlacc. You care about the change because you think that all the different bits of Star Wars fit together into one enormous story. It's that one enormous story you think the Book of Boba Fett has spoiled. You are only saying that it is fan fiction because you don't believe that it is fan fiction. 

I agree that Star Wars has taken some missteps. I think that Star Wars is irreducibly a comic-strip world of people in black hats and people in white hats. I think that once you start giving the scary savage natives their own culture and their own way of life, then the very thing which was fun about Star Wars goes away. But that's an artistic judgement. A political judgement, too, if you think that "cowboys and Indians" is a racist trope. Some of the novels and comics have gone so far as to say that The Jedi and The Sith are not forces of good and forces of evil locked in perpetual manichean opposition; but two different but perfectly valid ways of looking at the world. The Dark Side is Dark, not because it is evil, but because it is hidden. I think that this is a really bad idea. I think that Star Wars is about goodies and baddies or else it is about nothing. But I wouldn't frame this in terms of canon and fan fic. 

I will never love anything in the way that I first loved Star Wars. But I like the composite fix-up universe of which Star Wars: A New Hope is one component very much; enough to be rewatching all 150 episodes of The Clone Wars and trying to keep up with Marvel's infinitely extended War of the Bounty Hunters "event". I like baroque, complicated, fictional worlds. I particularly like the way in which sleazy space saloons; mystical space-monk retreats; honourable space-knights in space-armour; and thrilling space opera all fit together into one story. I think this is one of the things that The Clone Wars cartoon does very well. It's slightly bloated, ensemble format showcases the scope of the Star Wars Universe. 

There are some really interesting out-takes on Disney Plus. There's a clip of Harrison Ford meeting a fat human called Jabba the Hutt; and a clip of Mark Hamill talking to a man with moustache about the nationalisation of the shipping lanes. They offer a really strange lens to look at Star Wars through. A universe almost, but not completely unlike the one we are familiar with. 

Fan fic? Canon? Stories? Things which George Lucas wrote on the back of an envelope and crossed out. 

Shall I tell you a secret? I even slightly don't hate the Holiday Special, because it takes me back to my pre-Hoth world where Star Wars was just a movie.
The TV franchise -- from The Clone Wars to Obi-Wan and beyond -- treats Star Wars as a place and a history. It assumes that we want to know who took over on Tatooine after Jabba died and are interested in who the first students in Luke's Jedi school were. How much we care it depends on our degree of engagement with the franchise. If you have even the vaguest idea of what a Star War is, then you understand questions like "What was Obi-Wan doing on Tattooine in the years of his exile?" and "Had Luke met Old Ben before that day in the Dune Sea?" If you regard Star Wars: Rebels as being in the same category as Droids and Ewoks then "Where is Ezra Bridger?" is pretty much devoid of meaning.

I think David Filoni is doing a pretty good job of bringing balance to the franchise. Mr Canon Freak gets to say "That was a Lothcat, wasn't it? I'm pretty sure it was a Lothcat", while Mr I've Never Seen Star Wars can still get the gist of what is basically a  spaghetti western with ray guns. If you haven't seen Rebels, you can still grok that Ashoka is a former Jedi and a person of some importance; but if you have seen it, you smile knowingly when she mentions she’s an old friend of Luke’s family.

Some people like this stuff on general principles. Some people object to it on equally general principles. I am lawful neutral. I like fantasy worlds. I like the illusion of the Star Wars universe being "out there" and that it would carry on being "out there" even if no-one was telling any stories about it. I am not intrinsically thrilled when a baddie from one of the cartoons appears in one of the live action series; but I don’t run away whimpering “fan service, fan service, get a life, get a life, fan fiction, fan fiction” either.

Mr Ultra Hard Core Canon Freak likes internal continuity and hates it at the same time. He spends three months saying “Squee! Squee! That gangster who kid Boba used to hang out with a series two of ther Clone Wars is going to be in the live action series, squee! squee!”. But once they see the episode in question, they are like “You did it wrong! He didn’t look right! You changed it! You have raped my childhood!"

Star Wars can't be an imaginary world and at the same time not be an imaginary world. You can't add to the setting and leave the setting unchanged. You can't pretend Tatooine is a real place and avoid mentioning dewbacks and krayt dragons in case someone thinks you are a sad case who needs to get out more. If I point out that a female of Yoda’s race (named ‘Yaddle’) was a member of the Jedi Council in Phantom Menace, and wonder out loud if perhaps she is Grogu’s mother, then Filoni might very well say “Nice thought, but no, they aren’t related...” But he would be unlikely to say “Phantom Menace is only a film; Female Yoda was both on the council and not on the council because the council was made up out of George’s head and anyway Episode I was shit, get a life, this is an imaginary story, aren't they all”. On the other hand, if I were to ask what happened to Jaxxon the giant bunny he would naturally say “That was stuff that Roy Thomas made up for a 1970s comic book, before Empire Strikes Back even came out."

Unless, of course, David Filoni decided that a giant green leporine bounty hunter was exactly what the Galaxy needed. In which case he might very well write a new story which happened to have Jaxxon in it. Star Wars "legends" material continue to exert a gravitational pull on the new, post-Disney canon. Comics, books and novels and cartoons and computer games are being treated as a vast melting pot of tropes from which characters and storylines can be scooped. Ashoka mentions that she is hunting down an ex-imperial officer named Thrawn. Thrawn was the main villain in Timothy Zahn’s Star Wars novels: he was the eponymous Heir to the Empire who tried to keep things going after Vader and the Emperor were killed. That’s all been retrospectively de-canonised: but Thrawn -- a blue skinned alien, like an evil Sherlock Holmes crossed with an evil Mr Spock -- turned up as a villain in Rebels. Because he’s fun. Perhaps someone will decide that Jaxxon the Rabbit is fun as well.  

Disney has not retrospectively re-canonized an entirely different post-Endor history. But neither had it flipped Baby Yoda into a different part of the Multiverse where Ben Solo was never born, the First Order never arose, and the Starkiller project never occurred. The Star Wars universe remains resolutely singular. 


SK said...

But "everything else is fan fiction" is a really, really odd way of expressing that thought.

Is it though? I mean, while terminologically they may be totally wrong, you can see what they're getting at, which is presumably, 'I like the films with the big space battles and the laser swords and the rousing music, but I don't give a fig what the backgrounds to any of these characters are, or how that one got his scar, or who was who's Jedi master in the dim and distant past, or any of that guff — just give me exploding spaceships and whooshy fights and John effing Williams!'

That's basically my attitude — it's why I've seen all the films with 'Star Wars' in the actual title, and the one with the weird dead-eyed waxy-skinned Doctor Who which was supposed to be like an old war film, but I haven't watched the Han Solo one and you'd have to strap me in that Clockwork Orange contraption they put Paul McGann in in Doctor Who: The Movie to get me to watch any of the TV programmes.

So while they may not be saying the right words they have certainly managed to communicate the idea, and isn't communicating ideas what language is all about?

I mean, obviously you wouldn't accept 'I don't like the fan fiction' in an academic essay, and it's always weird when people in natural conversation appropriate and misuse jargon terms from academic discourse, but as a way in natural language of expressing what they mean it seems to work.

I mean, if you worked in, say, IT and you got hot under the cover every time someone misused, say, a cryptography term, even thoguht it was clear what they were getting at, you'd spend your entire life in a state of rage.

SK said...

(I mean you can even see where their confusion has come about, if they have heard the term 'fan fiction' out of context and thought that it meant not 'fiction written by fans' or even 'unlicensed fiction' but 'the sort of fiction that appeals to fans who care about all that background stuff', ie they think the adjective 'fan' is modifying 'fiction' like the 'young adult' in 'young adult fiction' — that it, it's specifying the target audience rather than the producers. Fiction for fans rather than fiction by fans.)

Andrew Rilstone said...

I have explained what I think "fan fiction" conveyed. I think it conveys "Material which is not canonical" and "Material which I don't think ought to be canonical." Since many people admire Empire Strikes Back and deprecate The Force Awakens, the mere presence of backstory can't be the deciding factor. It's hard to imagine how you would construct a long-form series narrative set in fictional world without including what the young people describe as "lore". "Now the Jedi are all but extinct" and "No Luke, I am your father" are both statements about backstory; and no more obscure than "Boba Fett survived the trap that Jabba the Hutt put him in" and "That gunfighter knew Boba Fett when he was a child".

I don't understand in what way your would consider watching a series of adventures set in the Star Wars universe painful; I don't see why your pain would be increased because some of the characters have story arcs which extends across more than one medium. Of course there are is lots of content out there in the world, and if you don't think the are the sorts of thing you would like then by all means don't watch them. But rhetoric about strapping you into torture device makes me wonder just what it is about space westerns which makes you so angry.

SK said...

I have explained what I think "fan fiction" conveyed. I think it conveys "Material which is not canonical" and "Material which I don't think ought to be canonical."

Indeed. I'm saying that I don't think that that is what most people who say it mean (it may well be for some). Because I don't think most people care about 'canonical'.

(I wonder if the issue is that we are talking about different sub-populations? I'm talking about people who are not and would not consider themselves 'Star Wars fans' (a population which vastly outnumbers those who would consider themselves such). Are you talking about a different gorup?)

Since many people admire Empire Strikes Back and deprecate The Force Awakens, the mere presence of backstory can't be the deciding factor.

No, in that case I suspect it is, as you have previously observed, most to do with the age at which one saw the film in question first. I can report from anecdotal, but multiple, evidence, that today's children much prefer the later sets of films to original Star Wars because the original takes ages for the story to get going, and they find all the Tatooine stuff incredibly boring. Often they straight up refuse to watch any more long before the Millennium Falcon takes off.

I don't understand in what way your would consider watching a series of adventures set in the Star Wars universe painful;

Because I find being incredibly bored painful.

I don't see why your pain would be increased because some of the characters have story arcs which extends across more than one medium.

Because I don't care about those story arcs, so if explaining them is what the story is about — if it's 'how Jabba the Hut came to rule Tatooine' or something — then watching it would be an incredibly boring experience.

But rhetoric about strapping you into torture device makes me wonder just what it is about space westerns which makes you so angry.

Ah, you think I'm angry? No. Sorry. I was using hyperbole for rhetorical effect, something I know you would never do.

Andrew Rilstone said...

We are apparently talking about different things and you are apparently not interested in the things I am interested in talking about.