November 8, 2012

The Empire Strikes Gold

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As you might have heard, a few days ago, like a bolt out of the blue, the news that Disney had acquired Lucasfilm for a tidy $4 billion sent shockwaves across the world of entertainment. In the entertainment industry, it’s shaping up to be the biggest news of the year, at least in terms of market capitalization. The corporate bigwigs, and indeed George Lucas himself, were exuberant about the development, calling it a necessary and positive next step for the Star Wars franchise. Part of the deal involved Disney cranking out new Star Wars films at the rate of one every few years, starting with the fabled sequel trilogy, that most elusive of phantoms, the holy grail that fans had simultaneously yearned for and dreaded in equal measure ever since they watched the Ewoks dancing on Endor. Fans, after the initial open-jawed, catatonic shock at hearing the news that more movies were coming out, were split. On one hand, some expressed doubt that Disney, with its kiddie-brand reputation, was the right company to shepherd the franchise into its bright new future. Other fans were rapturous at the prospect of Star Wars being wrested from the palsied creative control of Lucas, who had, in their opinion, ruined the prequels with his inability to write convincing dialogue, and his incessant alterations — or desecrations — of the original trilogy. In between, moderates welcomed the news as a potentially positive development, but stressed the need for proper stewardship and maintenance of the integrity of the Star Wars mythos.

I belong to this latter camp. I believe that the Disney acquisition is good news for the franchise in terms of seeing new material. The fact that directors other than Lucas will helm these productions can only be a positive development. In fact, history has borne this out: The best received Star Wars film to date, The Empire Strikes Back, was directed not by Lucas, but by his mentor and friend, Irvin Kershner. The Star Wars franchise has also shown itself to be resilient to creative outsourcing, with authors and game designers creating hundreds of unique stories and products for fan consumption, many of which were critically acclaimed. Star Wars was a creation of George Lucas, and for that, he deserves the thanks of his fans. But there is no better time for his stewardship to end than now.

In shifting the reins from Lucas to Disney, however, the franchise faces a massive potential upheaval in the way it produces stories in its so-called Expanded Universe, the realm of books, games and comics. Hitherto, the Star Wars universe has been one continuous, internally consistent mythopoeia. An internal agency within Lucasfilm, headed by the so-called Keeper of the Holocron, Leland Chee, has worked hard to ensure that every story in the Star Wars Universe is consistent with every other story. Their attention to detail borders on the obsessive: elaborate “retcons,” or revisions of errant story material, are written by the continuity hawks at Lucasfilm and inserted into any in-universe text to establish its legitimacy. These retcons often go to great lengths and employ some pretty twisted logic to work. Stories that are too contradictory to be rehabilitated in this fashion are relegated to a lower, less legitimate level of validity in the hierarchy of what constitutes the accepted continuity.

This was in the early days of the so-called Expanded Universe of the Star Wars galaxy, however, and more recent works are planned out in advance and tend to be much more coherent with the greater narrative. In this way, the books and games have pretty much staked out a vast swathe of narrative history that stretches back tens of thousands of years before the movies, during the time that the mystic power of the Force was discovered, to hundreds of years after the movies. The approach has its disadvantages; it tends to punctuate the timeline with “crises of the week” type stories, and frankly, gives the universe a tinge of hopelessness at the cyclical nature of violence. On the other hand, this grand, long-running experiment in collaborative storytelling has produced a mythos that is much richer, deeper and more variegated than the typical science fiction or fantasy franchise.

The Disney acquisition threatens this mythopoeia. By taking the franchise in a “bold new direction” and writing three sequel movies based on original material, there is the very real chance that Star Wars might be heading the way of Marvel, another Disney-owned property: the reboot. If the promised episodes VII, VIII and IX are produced, and they do not take place in the current continuity but instead form a separate and distinct one, the one element of Star Wars that has made it such a wonderful creative sandbox will be ruptured. It will create two competing narratives, much like the Marvel universe has several competing narratives. Star Wars has never embraced the hokey concept of alternate universes and time travel in a way the Marvel franchises, or even Star Trek, has. Rumor has it that Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and possibly Carrie Fisher are agreeable to return for the sequels. If true, it would be interesting, and not a little frightening, to see how the movies would develop. Would their appearances evoke the same magic of the originals? Would they become mockeries of the roles they once carried with such youthful aplomb? And most importantly, would they be true to the tapestry of the narrative that the Star Wars mythopoeia has already created?

Obsessing over the details of mythopoeia almost reminds me of the lengths to which religious scholars would argue over the canonicity of various components of their respective holy texts. Truly, the desire for a guiding narrative governs our lives; the geek’s protectiveness of his or her chosen mythos and the impulse of the religious in upholding their version of doctrinal orthodoxy, gushes, I believe, much from the same fount.

Original Author: Colin Chan