Tuesday, November 21, 2023

21: Not infrequently people say to me that they are quite interested in my writing (I am not quite sure that I believe this) but that they don’t read my political essays (which I am perfectly happy to believe).

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Not infrequently people say to me that they are quite interested in my writing (I am not quite sure that I believe this) but that they don’t read my political essays (which I am perfectly happy to believe).

The reason, they say, is that I read things that they do not read, and this makes it very hard for them to understand what the hell I am going on about. I find this fairly flattering because it implies that they do know what I am going on about some of the time.

In particular, they say that there is an entire culture war raging that people who do not read the site formerly known as Twitter are blissfully unaware of. They understand the actual words, but they don’t know the layers of ideology which have accrued around them. They don’t necessarily know that common sense is, for some people, the opposite of political correctness (and indeed that political correctness may be defined as the opposite of common sense). They don’t know that being anti-fascist is not quite the same as being against fascism, or what taking the knee means this week. They may even think that Harry Potter is a children’s book about wizards. I myself was quite surprised to discover by accident out that having an interest in older versions of Dungeons & Dragons was potentially a way of signifying that you are a misogynist and a homophobe.

It’s a bit like joining a conversation at midnight and finding that you have said exactly the wrong thing because of something someone else said at nine o’ clock.

It’s also a bit like Star Wars. Everything is also bit like Star Wars.

One of the people who doesn’t read my blog and is almost certainly not reading this was very cross slightly miffed because the final part of the first series of the Mandalorian included (in a subsidiary role) some evil robots who had previously appeared in Star Wars: Rebels and Star Wars: Clone Wars, which are cartoon series set in the Star Wars continuity. The appearance of these robots in a live action show manifested a quality my correspondent described as “being up itself”. 

Similarly, a TV reviewer in the Guardian argued that George Lucas’s corpse was being violated and his life’s work trampled, partly because the eponymous character the latest live action TV show, Ahsoka, has previously appeared in the aforementioned cartoons. This, they said, meant that the current series, was a “spin-off from a spin-off”.

On several levels, this is an odd thing to say. We probably wouldn’t describe the Empire Strikes Back, or for that matter, the Godfather Part Two as “spin-offs”, and even if we did, I am not sure that would automatically be a bad thing. A lot of people thought Frasier, which was a spin-off from Cheers, was quite funny; and some of us are quite enjoying the new series in which he goes back to academia and turns out to be an old friend of Rodney Trotter. [Check This - Ed.]

It’s a little like our dear old friend “fan-fiction”. Fan fiction certainly exists: some of my friends write stories in which characters from their favourite TV shows have sex with each other, and even ones in which they don’t.

There certainly are such things as spin-offs. A producer reportedly looked at the script for the first episode of Man About The House and immediately spotted that George and Mildred could sustain a series of their own.

But there is a way of pronouncing fan fic or spin off which simply connotes contempt for the material. It might almost be one of George Orwell’s swearwords.

Ahsoka is -- from a certain point of view -- a sequel to Star Wars: Rebels. The cartoon series ended in 2018 on a cliffhanger. The juvenile lead, trainee Jedi Ezra Bridger, had surrendered to the Empire in order to save his comrades from destruction. Ezra is, in the jargon, the McGuffin for the new series: several familiar characters and some new ones are on a Quest to find and rescue their former ship mate. So, if you haven’t seen the cartoon, you may well feel that you are coming in half way through the story.

But isn’t coming in half way through the story very much part of the Star Wars aesthetic? Didn’t the Star Wars RPG begin all it’s adventures in media res? Wasn’t the first movie retrospectively labelled Episode IV?

“I should have expected to find you holding Vader’s leash” snarls Carrie Fisher at Peter Cushing. We don’t know what Leia’s past connection with Tarkin is: we never particularly find out. We just take it for granted that one of the good guys has had a previous encounter with one of the bad guys. One of the things which made Star Wars so endlessly fascinating was the way characters kept talking about things they knew about and we didn't. So I am unconvinced that Ahsoka is spoiled because some of the backstory is available to people who want it in a different media?

So far as I can see, all the actual necessary information is skilfully woven into the text. In the Mandalorian, we meet a mysterious Jedi Knight. In Boba Fett we find her at Luke’s Jedi school where she mentions that she has a prior connection with his family. In the first episode of Ahsoka, she mentions in passing that Anakin never completed her training. In Episode Five… 

Perhaps I’d better not say what happens in Episode Five in case you haven’t seen it.

“But it’s not quite like that, is it, Andrew? No one is saying that if you haven’t seen Rebels it is impossible to understand Ahsoka. What some of them may be saying is that if you haven't seen the former it is impossible to care about the latter. Sure, we didn’t know who Luke Skywalker was when the curtain first went up on Episode IV: but the film itself works hard to show you that he is an important and likeable character. Ahsoka takes it for granted that you have a prior investment in the quest. If you have seen the cartoon, the first time someone says ‘Ezra Bridger’ little fireworks go off. If you haven’t they don’t.”

There is a Star Trek episode called Who Mourns For Adonis. I think it makes total sense if you don’t know that Adonis was the son of Uranus who was mauled by a wild bull. I think it makes total sense if you don’t know that Shelley used the name in a poem about his friend John Keats, who (in his opinion) was mauled by a wild poetry critic. I think it makes total sense if you don’t know that the word Adonis is commonly used to describe a handsome and athletic young man, with or without nipples. But I do think you need to be able to spot that "who mourns for Adonis" is a line from a poem, or sounds as if it might be. The title isn’t enquring who is sad about a particular mythological figure. It isn't even saying "In this story Kirk feels the same way that Lord Byron did about John Keats." It's saying something more like “Star Trek is the sort of TV show that quotes classical poetry” or more generally “Please take this episode very seriously indeed.” 

It assumes a shared cultural framework. 

Which in our case, we have not got. 

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This post forms part of an extended essay. 
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g said...

Allow me to balance those Not Infrequent People a bit, by saying that I find your political writing especially interesting.

I like the way that you finish up your remark about having, or not having, shared cultural frameworks with a reference that (I am guessing and could be badly wrong in either direction) about half of your audience will recognize and half will not.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Ah, you spotted that, did you. :)

g said...

I did: I am truly a man of parts.

Gavin Burrows said...

I confess to having seeing none of these ‘Star Wars’ spin-offs, or whatever we might want to call them. However, are the Marvel movies a similar example? Its often been said that the earlier films were jumponable, while the later ones have become more tangled in their own backstory. Which may well be a reason why ‘The Marvels’ was other than a box office hit.
But on the other hand…
I expect most of Andrew’s readers will be of the age to remember the somewhat haphazard distribution American comics used to get over here. Finding two consecutive issues was harder than winning Bingo.

A friend once told me that drove him to DC, who had more single-issue stories than Marvel. But for me, plunging in, not knowing how any of this had started or where it was going, that piqued my interest.

And looking back much of that may have been down to the way Kirby wrote. The Marvel universe back then was a volatile place, where strange characters were always abruptly showing up in stories that took strange twists, even if you were reading every issue. Reading random snapshots if anything enhanced that, it was like getting your Kirby more neat.

So the answer to the question “do you always need to read the whole of X before proceeding to Y?” is, I suppose, “depends.”
That’s okay, you’re welcome.