If you combine ZkinandBonez’s excellent essay (https://originaltrilogy.com/topic/star-wars-is-surrealism-not-science-fiction-essay/id/82402/page/1) with some of the thoughts in rocknroll41’s essays on his blog, particularly the 4-parter that starts at https://henrynsilva.blogspot.com/2020/11/the-real-reason-you-probably-dont-like.html, you end up with a very solid version of where my head has been for several years, though I never took the time to get it all down with references the way that the two of them have. Thanks to both for doing the hard work that I think illuminates the underlying issues so well!
I think that the (generally) unsatisfying place some of us have found ourselves with Star Wars (in toto, as distinct from Star Wars the 1977 movie) can be traced back to two specific things:
- “I am your father” (much like rocknroll41, I’ve called this line the thing that gives the series true immortality, and also breaks the universe)
- West End Games (if you weren’t into tabletop roleplaying games in the late 80s-late 90s, you might not understand how a little game company could be this important, but I’ll go into a lot of detail below)
Before I look at how those two relate, some personal history.
Like many kids who grew up in the 70s (I was born in '67), Star Wars occupies a massive place in my childhood. It set up shop in my brain months before I even saw it - my family bought a new house and moved in the summer of '77, and that stretched the family budget more than I realized at the time, because we didn’t see Star Wars until we were offered the choice of going out to dinner or going to the movies for my sister’s birthday in October. Months before that, my cousins saw it, and I asked them to tell me all about it, after which we played “Star Wars” while running around my great aunt’s yard in the fading light of a Michigan summer evening.
The move to the new town and school was rough on me. I went from having two great friends who lived across the street to having a bully who lived across the street - after I broke my arm on my birthday in '78, he knocked on the door and asked my mom if I could come out so he could break my other arm (he was a really damaged kid whose dad committed suicide in their garage shortly after we moved to the neighborhood). My old elementary school was pretty progressive for the '70s, with multi-grade classes and the option for kids who could do more advanced work to move between teachers for subjects they were moving ahead in (which I took advantage of) without the pressure of completely skipping grades. My new school had nothing like this, so I was just another 5th grader doing 5th grade work, some of which I’d already done the previous year.
Once I’d finally seen Star Wars in October, it offered a refuge from my day-to-day life, which wasn’t really that rough compared to what many have gone through - I was still a middle-class white kid in America, after all - but it was an unpleasant mix of 90% boredom/loneliness/missing my friends and 10% fear of my bully and his friends.
I’m not sure what I did before Star Wars, but after I saw it, my days were filled with:
- reading Star Wars comic books (there was a time when I didn’t go anywhere without the oversize Marvel Star Wars adaptations)
- collecting Star Wars trading cards
- drawing Star Wars characters and spaceships (with trading cards for reference)
- reading the novelization (Christmas '77 gift)
- reading the Official Poster Monthly
- reading Starlog and Fantastic Films magazines
- poring over the Sketchbook and Portfolio (and later, the Art of Star Wars books, still favorites)
- reading (and rereading) Splinter of the Mind’s Eye (1978), Han Solo at Stars’ End (1979), Han Solo’s Revenge (1980), and Han Solo and the Lost Legacy (1980)
- playing with Star Wars action figures (the Early Bird set was another Christmas '77 gift; my mom actually opened it and sent the card in early, so I received, and still have, a Luke Skywalker with double-telescoping lightsaber)
- watching brief snippets of the movie with the Star Wars Movie Viewer (I had all five cartridges; see https://toyinformer.com/mikes-closet/kenner-star-wars-movie-viewer-cartridges/ for details)
(It’s important to remember that we couldn’t just watch Star Wars whenever we wanted - videotapes barely existed for home viewing back then, and I didn’t realize that I could buy Star Wars until after I bought The Empire Strikes Back in 1984; I paid $90 each for lousy pan & scan versions.)
It recently occurred to me that, in modern terms, I grew up in a time of Star Wars scarcity - there literally wasn’t enough Star Wars to satiate our desire for it, so there was room for it to become a very personal thing. One of the key things about Star Wars for me, as it existed in 1977-80, was a feeling of almost limitless possibility. It wasn’t so much a story as a place that felt real and vast and open; a place where you could tell any kind of story as long as you got the overall feel right (Brian Daley mastered this in his Han Solo novels, which don’t even deal with the Empire; let’s just say that L. Neil Smith, in his Lando Calrissian novels, didn’t). This feeling was maintained right up until Darth Vader said those four little words, and while that decision works with the mythological underpinnings that Lucas was mining, it absolutely kills that limitless, open feeling that was in play previously. From that point on, Star Wars was the story of one guy and his problematic father (and now nephew), and everything revolves around serving that story. I was excited by the prospect of the “anthology” movies that Disney announced, with many younger directors attached, but even the might of Disney marketing couldn’t break the general public’s feeling, cultivated over four decades, that Star Wars movies = The Skywalker Saga, full stop. The Mandalorian offered some hope in parts of its first season, but after it was established as a hit, the marketing beast was awakened and it was, almost inevitably, tied back into the meta-narrative as quickly as possible.
What of West End Games? Well, that ties in more directly with ZkinandBonez’s excellent essay. As a tabletop RPG enthusiast since about 1980, I was as excited as anyone when West End Games announced The Star Wars Roleplaying Game in 1987. The first several releases in the line were excellent - the game system was perfect for the setting, The Star Wars Sourcebook gave just enough detail to flesh things out without going overboard, and several decent standalone adventures were released over the following year. However, one of the truisms of the RPG market by the late '80s was that “adventures don’t sell, sourcebooks do”. Gamemasters (and players) always wanted more general detail about the world, but GMs tended to want to make up their own adventures. West End might have hoped that the Star Wars name would change that, but I think that the sales numbers for The Star Wars Sourcebook and 1988’s Imperial Sourcebook made it clear where they should be concentrating their efforts going forward. While they continued to release adventures over the next several years, much more effort went into various sourcebooks, such as the various Galaxy Guides which included essays on many of the background characters, alien races, vehicles, and locales from each of the OT movies. Later sourcebooks went into excruciating detail on the organization of the Rebel Alliance, various smuggler havens, spaceports, planets, more aliens, various types of equipment and vehicles, criminal organizations - the list went on and on.
One of the key elements of the movies that ZkinandBonez highlighted (via Lovecraft) was “Never Explain Anything”. West End discovered that the easiest way to make money (and pay the LFL licensing fees) was to EXPLAIN EVERYTHING that was in the movies, and then make up more stuff so you can explain that, too. The success of the RPG helped get some other licensees interested in trying to resurrect the brand, and Lucas, completely uninterested in Star Wars at the time (and certainly never going to make anything beyond Episode VI), opened up the post-ROTJ era for use by Dark Horse Comics (with the prescient Dark Empire, where Luke fights clones of the Emperor) and Del Rey Books (with Zahn’s Heir to the Empire) in 1991. Crucially, Timothy Zahn was given several West End Games sourcebooks to use when writing his novels, thereby bringing their overly-detailed explanations for everything into general Star Wars canon. This led to an entire generation of fans seeing Star Wars not as a set of mythological stories with a sci-fi gloss, set in a vague but believable universe of limitless possibility, but as a science-fantasy set in an explainable, detailed world, with multiple companies working feverishly to fill in any gaps where your imagination used to do the job. Star Wars went from being a vast universe with a few simple rules to keep the feel right to an overly-defined place where it was expected that anything that didn’t already have a detailed entry in an encyclopedia, soon would.
The limitless universe that existed from 1977-1980 started to shrink as soon as Vader said “I am your father”, and just about everything that has happened since has continued to make it seem smaller. Even mainstream critics have started to notice that, while it’s supposedly set in an entire, sprawling galaxy far, far away, Star Wars feels very “small-town”. Everybody knows everybody, everything is too connected, and there are few real surprises. Disney, with all the money in the world and millions of fans ready to buy tickets for anything with the Star Wars name on it, initiated their ownership of the property by basically resetting everything back to the way it was in 1977 and changing some names.
Even The Mandalorian, which is a breath of fresh air in some ways (as ZkinandBonez points out), still stumbles frequently, sometimes by relying too heavily on existing aliens and other things we’ve seen before (Jon Favreau seems to think that fans like being able to recognize things, but I’d much rather see something new that feels right). At other times, I think it falls prey to Dave Filoni’s desire to re-canonize things from largely West End Games-based 1990s properties, which are the polar opposite of the mythological fairy tale that Star Wars originated as. So, for every Mudhorn or alien summoning speeders with a flute, we get Moff Gideon painfully quoting the “E-web heavy repeating blaster cannon” sales brochure and then brandishing the Darksaber from Filoni’s Clone Wars animated series, itself a repurposing of a (groan-worthy) name from a 1990s Kevin J. Anderson novel. We also get the reintroduction of the Darktroopers from the Dark Forces 1990s video game — an idea that works well enough in that context, where something more challenging than cannon-fodder Stormtroopers is needed as the game character advances and gets better weapons — but really doesn’t feel quite right in a dramatic context. Did Star Wars really need autonomous Iron Man suits introduced just so that they could be cut down by the existing in-universe super-hero?
Starting out as a mashup of Flash Gordon, pulp sci-fi and fairytale, Star Wars was a mythology for the Space Age, and it succeeded far beyond its creator’s wildest dreams. In the first years of its existence, it felt like the most amazing sandbox imaginable, a place where anything could happen and any story could be told. Unfortunately, Lucas made a decision during the writing of the first sequel (and it was absolutely a decision at that point, not something that was always intended) that kneecapped the storytelling potential of the universe he’d created. This transformed the Star Wars saga from one of many possible stories in this universe, to the only story that ever really mattered - it’s been wall-to-wall Sith vs. Jedi, “always there are two”, and “who are my parents?” ever since. Compounding that issue, when Lucas lost interest in the universe he’d created, the voluminous, ill-advised background material that was created out of economic necessity by a little game company in Pennsylvania became a sort of bible for a decade of Expanded Universe stories, fundamentally altering the nature of the Star Wars universe. All of the explanations added via the Prequel Trilogy do similar damage to the implied background of the original, ironically proving that Lucas did in fact choose correctly when he decided which part of his vague, expansive outline would make for the best single movie (in his hands, at least).
Star Wars was never really intended to depict an explainable world (as ZkinandBonez ably explains), but because of its production design and some vague bits of dialog, it had incredible implied scope and breadth - the “used universe” approach implies history for everything, but doesn’t spell any of it out. The vast majority of the detail added since the late '80s is completely at odds with the very nature of the original story, but there’s no way to go back. There are multiple generations of fans for whom the original Star Wars is just a quaint old movie, a bit of a footnote in an ever-expanding media empire that produces an endless supply of new information to deepen their knowledge of a universe that was never designed to have such depth, and for me, really can’t support it.