Sunday, May 4, 2014
Sensor Scan: Star Wars
But this is going to be a different sort of Star Wars retrospective then is perhaps the expected norm. Because I really find all the major things that can be said about this movie to be not only obvious, but commonly accepted knowledge. And ultimately because, one or two points notwithstanding, the legacy and impact of Star Wars are not actually especially important here in Star Trek land.
The major intersection between Star Wars and Star Trek I can think of is far more materialistic than inspirational: Paramount's decision to scrap Star Trek Phase II and greenlight Star Trek: The Motion Picture instead would seem to be the standard response, but that actually had far more to do with Close Encounters of the Third Kind then it did with Episode IV, as during the period between the two films everyone largely assumed Star Wars was a fluke and science fiction held no promise for regular, reliable success at the box office. The only other thing I can think of off the top of my head is the frequent description of Benjamin Sisko's story as a “Hero's Journey”, which to me is just as much about a fundamental failure to understand what Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was supposed to be about then it is about Star Wars cementing itself into the collective Western consciousness.
I am, of course, expected to talk about Joseph Campbell, the Myth of the Hero, how Star Wars draws on many myth and story archetypes from around the world and how that transformed not only the pop culture landscape, but how people respond to all stories at an instinctual level. It's had an incalculable impact on entire generations of writers and readers alike, and I'm sure you all are waiting for me to say something about it. The thing is, absolutely everybody who has ever written about Star Wars has talked about this: Star Wars is, in fact, one of the most overanalysed and overstudied works of fiction in history. I'll just let James Rolfe explain this in a far more heartfelt, poignant and personal way then I could ever manage, and then call in Phil Sandifer to make the case for the prosecution (in spite of me largely disagreeing completely with his opinion of Star Trek) and to point out the problems with the Campbellian approach. I have literally nothing more to contribute.
One observation I will make is that one of the reasons at least the original Star Wars had the impact it did was because it is very good at building a sense of a larger pre-exisiting world and history that we only get fleeting glimpses of. Everything from the famous opening text crawl, to Obi-Wan telling Luke about the mysterious and long-departed Jedi, to the Jawa merchants and the canteen on Tatooine (with its twin suns) to the Empire itself, is described in terms that make them seem equally wondrous, fantastical and mundane. Star Wars, right from the very beginning, seems to exist in a grand, rich world of its own, and the fact that the characters were all very well versed in what this world was and how it worked and we as the audience very much weren't was surely fascinating at the time, and made it all the easier to become drawn to Luke Skywalker and his Hero's Journey Myth Arc. And I will grant that Star Trek, in spite of its ridiculous predilection to pointless fanwank, is simply nowhere near as good at this: It's not reliably great at instilling that particular kind of wonder and imagination, even in the cases where it really, really needed to be (Bajor springs immediately to mind here).
But the thing is, for whatever reason, Star Wars' magic spell never worked on me. I can't really tell you why (well, I can to some extent, but I'll talk about that later), it just didn't. What interests me the most about Star Wars as a work is how patchwork a thing it really is. The iconic look and feel of the series is of course due to Ralph McQuarrie, as is well known by now, and most of the world-building elements come from Alan Dean Foster. Even the much talked-about toyetic nature of Star Wars comes from somebody else, namely Steven Spielberg. During the production of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Spielberg was approached by Kenner who wanted to use the film as the basis for a large-scale new line of toys. Spielberg pointed them in the direction of an up-and-coming filmmaker named George Lucas who was working on a new science fiction film that he felt might be more what Kenner was looking for.
Most tellingly, though George Lucas gets a bunch of credit for taking the Myth of the Hero stuff and translating it into the context of a science fiction blockbuster, neither he nor anyone else associated with it seemed to talk that angle up much until The Empire Strikes Back, which was also suspiciously around the time Joseph Campbell was starting to get really popular as a fixture on PBS and when discourse about Star Wars was starting to reach critical mass. Furthermore, in spite of what literally everyone says, as far as I understand it The Empire Strikes Back was never even planned, nor, for that matter, was Return of the Jedi or any other Star Wars work: The original film was a total gamble with no real expectations, and it retroactively became the first part of an epic when George Lucas realised how successful it had been (I don't have a specific link here, but search Cracked.com for “Star Wars”: They do a surprising amount of historical mythbusting in this regard).
So what we have here is, like all examples of large-scale Soda Pop Art, a loose, dissociated collection of things that have been given the appearance of being a singular, monolithic, untouchable artistic statement in the wake of, and to capitalize on, its unexpected popular and critical success. Indeed, I'm not even convinced that Star Wars' resurrection of the pulp style of science fiction was in any way unique apart from being the first real time this was done on a blockbuster, hyper-mainstream scale. Certainly not when compared to the fusion of Hard SF, Pulp sci-fi and soap opera that characterizes, say, Star Trek. Which is, incidentally, what this blog is about.
Looking at Star Wars from a Star Trek perspective (or, at least mine) is a confusing experience. There was a period in my life where it seemed the most obvious thing in the world to view Star Wars and the Star Wars faithful (who I once derisively nicknamed “Warries” as payback for “Trekkie”-It was very, very long ago and I wasn't any cleverer at that time then I am now) as The Enemy. This was exacerbated by the fact that the Star Wars fans I did know were extremely loyal and combative, and took every opportunity to attack me for my love of Star Trek and indifference to their franchise. This became especially painful for me when Star Wars began to take over *massively* in the 1990s on the back of the home video and theatrical re-releases, Special Editions and prequel films while Star Trek faltered and stumbled through that same era, beginning its long, slow slide towards irrelevance the moment Star Trek: The Next Generation signed off. Nor did it help when, in response to this, the Hasbro Star Wars toy line absolutely exploded, relegating my beloved Playmates Star Trek line to extinction, ironically doing so on the back of Playmates' reinvigoration of the toy industry.
(This is a longstanding source of enmity between me and Star Wars: I explicitly blame it for preventing me from being able to find figures of Tasha Yar, Ro Laren and the *entire* Star Trek: Deep Space Nine line for over a *decade*. Similarly, I'm also less than thrilled that the “official” Star Wars “holiday” on May 4 each and every year completely overshadows the actual history of the day, which is, among other things, Alice Liddel's birthday and the day when Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is said to take place, as well as a major date in revolutionary politics. Sometimes it feels like this franchise is deliberately harassing me.)
Indeed, this seemed to be the accepted thing for at least a time. Star Wars fans and Star Trek fans were not seen in polite company together, and there was no love lost between the two camps. One of the foundational pop culture debates has always been: “Star Wars or Star Trek?”, to the point it's even a question on OKCupid. But then there came a period where there started to be more of a bleedover between the two fandoms, and I'm not sure where to draw the line here. I want to say it wasn't any time in my lifetime: Maybe it was with The Phantom Menace, as that was the first Star Wars in living memory of the generation for whom fandoms stopped being seen as a sparring, factionalized things and became things you collected: The Tumblr generation talks at great length about all the different fandoms they're a part of where when I was younger you only tended to have one (the obvious thing that changed was, of course, the Internet. No, I'm not doing a Sensor Scan on that).
But then there does seem to be the belief among some people that the people who like Star Trek should like Star Wars as well, and I'm not sure why, as they're not even remotely the same thing: While both Star Wars and Star Trek can loosely be called sci-fi-fantasy, Star Wars owes far, far more to the epic sword-and-socery adventure serials and dimestore novels then Star Trek, which is more its own weird little thing. If you could sum up Star Trek's brand of sci-fi fantasy, you might say it's about exploring the territory between the mythic and the mundane and what it means to be utopian. Star Trek isn't always as true to its underlying philosophy as it really needs to be, but Star Wars doesn't even have an underlying philosophy, except for some superficial motifs haphazardly lifted from Eastern mysticism and United States-ized to make them palatable to a popcorn blockbuster audience.
(There is an argument to be made here that it's specifically this slapdash syncretism and hyper-mainstream status that allows Star Wars to be many people's first interaction with the concept of comparative mythology, and I grant that: Star Wars isn't particularly good at this, but it's likely the first exposure many people are going to have with the idea.)
I want to say this shift in attitude has to do with Nerd Culture, who stereotypically enjoy anything that's remotely science-y (it doesn't have to be actual science and very frequently isn't: The key is that it's science-y and thus has a whiff of futurism, technofetishism and elitism about it), but then again one of the biggest joint Star Trek and Star Wars fans I can think of is VFX artist and professional MythBuster Grant Imahara, who I wouldn't call part of Nerd Culture. Imahara is more what I'd refer to as a Maker Hobbyist and has a fascination with tinkering, the process of making movies and practical effects, which is not something the average Nerd cares about.
(The reverse is also true: The Makers I know who aren't interested in the filmmaking side of things couldn't care less about Nerd Culture stuff.)
Indeed, Imahara, as well as his colleagues at M5, did a lot of the effects for the Star Wars prequels themselves. But Imahara also talks about how much he was inspired by “Arena” and watching Captain Kirk build the tree cannon as a kid (not to mention the fact he's as of this writing the current Mr. Sulu, which means I probably ought to talk about him more often), which is a statement that would have been considered blasphemous when I was younger. No, M5 may be heroes to a certain sect of Nerds, but they're not Nerds themselves.
But I've run into this attitude and overlap elsewhere too. As a matter of fact, it's the primary reason I have a history with Star Wars to talk about in the first place. My parents strongly pushed me to watch the original Star Wars trilogy after my love of Star Trek started to blossom, being of the belief that because I clearly liked science fiction now and Star Wars was science fiction too, I'd like it just as much as Star Trek. This...did not go over well with me at first and it took some arm twisting to get me to actually sit down with these movies. Even then I knew Star Trek and Star Wars were never supposed to meet, and watching the original trilogy felt a little bit like betrayal. Though I will say I didn't *hate* the first movie when I finally saw it, and I remember actually being impressed with a few things. Naturally, Princess Leia was my favourite, and I also liked the design of the X-Wings and the Death Star, as well as the trench run bit from the end. I liked the other two movies significantly less (though I did dig the Luke vs. Vader tightrope battle over the pit scene in Empire Strikes Back), to the point I actively disliked Return of the Jedi, and I'm still not a fan of either it or Empire to this day.
But in spite of this, and even though I quite enjoyed the Star Wars: Rogue Squadron video games from the late-90s and early-2000s, Star Wars simply did not have the profound, life-changing impact on me that it seems to have had on everyone else (Well, everyone save Phil Sandifer, obviously). People who I'd otherwise consider kindred spirits and fellow travellers (like James Rolfe above) don't hesitate to share their breathless love of the Star Wars Saga, and it always leaves me feeling left out. Even Michael Kirkbride, one of the lead designers on The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind and someone who has become a massively inspirational figure for me, was profoundly shaped by Star Wars, so much so that in 1999 he and fellow Elder Scrolls luminaries Kurt Kuhlmann and Ken Rolston pitched a television show set in the Star Wars universe called Star Wars: Rebellion, which would have chronicled the rise of the Rebel Alliance, and, knowing who was involved, would likely have been a brilliant, subversive and transformative take on the franchise and probably the single greatest science fiction show of its time. It bothers me that I can't see the same things people like them see in Star Wars.
(Though now that I've said that I wonder if one of these things might in fact be the same thing I see in Star Trek: The fact it's a contemporary myth structure drawing from a wide pool of cultural themes and motifs that has grown to such a size it belongs to everyone. It's telling to me that at least Kirkbride's background is in comparative religion: He and his co-writers are the only people apart from Aleister Crowley and Alan Moore I've ever read who can do syncretism without lapsing into cultural appropriation. In fact, given that and where my interests for future projects lie, this means I may have to actually cover Star Wars: Rebellion in depth at some point.)
This is actually the real legacy of Star Wars for me: It left me with a profound feeling of loneliness and isolation, because it was so obviously a shared cultural signifier that I was denied participating in because I simply didn't get it. Everyone else I know seems to have the exact same story and experience with the original Star Wars Trilogy...except me. Everyone shares their fond, vivid memories of having their lives changed, eyes opened and worldviews shifted upon viewing these films at an early age...except me. And, as the Hasbro Star Wars line snowballed to greater and greater sizes, displacing everything else and pushing the Playmates Star Trek line I loved so much and so deeply further and further to the margins of each and every toy store I visited, my lack of understanding turned to active anger and resentment, as it seemed to be a metaphor in plastic for the direction science fiction fandom was starting to go in the 1990s. And it was a direction that had no place for me anymore.