Star Wars Without Star Wars

Ah, the twin suns of Tatooine.

Ah, the twin suns of Tatooine.


Episode I: A New Nope

I like Star Wars. I know that’s not a revealing fact. Star Wars is one of the world’s most popular common cultural experiences since 1977, but since it’s Star Wars time once again, let’s talk about something I like.

Let’s talk about Star Wars. But first, let’s talk about the lack of Star Wars.

I didn’t see the original Star Wars in the theaters. I was barely alive when Return of the Jedi came out. My first exposure to that ancient distant galaxy was through cultural osmosis - the videotape of Spaceballs the “older” kids got to watch at daycare, references on Letterman, old action figures that nobody was collecting, absurd comic books.

This is perhaps impossible to imagine in the year 2017, but for years, I could not get my hands on a copy of Star Wars. It was the nineties, I lived in a small town, and then the country, and video cassettes were expensive, or they would have been expensive if I could have gotten to them. I had no catalog, no friendly Suncoast in the mall.

Canton, Mississippi (and later, Pickens) did not have a blockbuster. We had a local video rental place in a tiny shopping center with a radio shack and a Sears delivery store, something called Pause N’ Play Video or Video Shak or Video King or Video Stop or - I should remember the name, they had a phone number, a landline phone number in the pre caller-ID days, that was only one digit away from my parent’s home phone. We’d get called at all hours of the night by people just wanting to hear what time it was on that answering machine.

The 80s were a strange time when we had to figure things out the best we could, and for a lot of people that meant calling up the video rental place at 1 AM to see what time it was rather than tracking down a working clock. I would stay up late and answer the phone with a robotic voice, hoping to fool someone.

But whatever the reason might have been, Video Stop (I think it was Video Stop) didn’t have Star Wars. Even then, before the internet and without a comic book shop, I knew I had to watch Star Wars, if only to get the jokes on Mystery Science Theater 3000. That show had made me aware of the huge hole in my knowledge of the world, I was dimly aware of the jokes that were flying over my head.

I found out that a neighbor had Star Wars on laserdisc, and a big television, back when big TVs were an absurd novelty. I wanted to watch Star Wars, far more than the owner of the discs, so I wound up only seeing each movie once or twice, but in those few viewings, something happened.

I knew I had been missing out, and as I sat there watching the screen light up, all the little punchlines and references fell into place, crystallizing around this structure that I had never accessed.

An intrinsic fact of Star Wars fandom was revealed to me in reverse. Before I ever saw the movies, I read the comic books at the Jitney Jungle while my mom shopped, I scoured the RPG sourcebooks at the bookstore, I spent afternoons at the library where I read the Thrawn Trilogy, I destroyed action figures, and this fractal nature of all of this non-Star Wars Star Wars was a sort of meta-reference, everything that happens in the Expanded Universe always comes back to some millisecond of the Holy Trilogy.

So when I saw those movies it all became clear. Now, Boba Fett had a face. Well, a helmet. I may have known that it was made of Mandalorian steel that had survived the sarlacc's digestive chambers, but I had never seen it.

I was not yet obsessed, just awakened. The library had the three books, I had worn out my welcome at anyone’s home who had a copy of Star Wars, and I was very alone. While Star Wars is and was a cultural juggernaut, the world is bigger than that galaxy, and in those days, with the movies so far away, there were plenty of places where you would be the only fan.

If you can imagine a world without the internet, you might can imagine not knowing how big Star Wars is. Now, you can imagine being proud that this little thing you like - you and no one else - is somehow one of the best selling movies of all time. Imagine thumping your finger into a dog-eared copy of a Videohound Golden Movie Retriever (it was like a MASSIVE paperback bound IMDB, without the ads, and an index instead of a database) and being sincere when you thought it proved something important about you that your tastes were good because you liked this thing that no one else did, and yet, outside of your little dirty town, that movie was the biggest thing EVER.  

That was me, and if I didn’t have a thousand stories far more embarrassing, some of which will come later, I’d be ashamed to admit it.

I didn’t get more Star Wars until I could drive. It was the mid-90s. Star Wars video games were oozing out of the walls, and I was a teenager with a job and a rural existence with a lot of down time.

Video games were how I came to love Star Wars, how I came to understand it without the films. Before I had a videotape, back when all I had to go on was some shared cultural touchstones and the vague memories of laserdisc showings, I could play through the weird interactive movie that was Star Wars: Rebel Alliance. I could marvel at the opening snowspeeder level to Shadow of the Empire and work my way through the rest of the game just for a hint of Luke Skywalker. I was fascinated, and then lo and behold, a ridiculously priced three-pack of Star Wars VHS tapes showed up at Northpark Mall and finally, I could watch them as much as I wanted.

I wanted to watch them a lot. Like Luke Skywalker, I was a kid in the country in a place where conformity was rather ruthlessly enforced, where people got into trouble, and people died, usually behind the wheel of an automobile or the end of a gun. I was out there on the farm, away from the excitement. Like all weird teenagers, I thought I had magic powers. Who knows, though - maybe I do?

I wore out those tapes and took Yoda’s advice to be better than the stuff at church. I read books about meditating and I emulated them. I don’t know if it counted as meditation, because inevitably I’d end up walking around making laser noises with my mouth and swinging a stick around like a lightsaber, blessed by the Time Gods that nobody could film it. I wanted to find a Yoda. I gave Yoda-like advice to my classmates. Yes, even back then, weird swamp advice was my thing.

And at this time, this time when I was just being opened up to the Extended Universe, to the Original Trilogy, to all those Things that Must be Capitalized, without warning came the Special Editions. I didn’t have much internet back then - I had to drive 20 minutes to Canton just to get a dial-up connection at a friend’s house. The idea of being blitzed with teasers and spoilers was alien and from the the future. I saw an ad in a GamePro magazine, and then the next month - I was driving forty five minutes to Jackson once a week to watch Star Wars on the big screen.

We could talk about the Special Editions. I could do a whole post just on them, but it’s been done before and by more fanatic and fantastic folks than I. I know that Han shot first, I am now aware of the rather jarring CGI (no matter how impressive by 1997 standards) but you have to know - I already loved this thing that was meant to be a spectacle on a BIG screen with surround sound. Getting it blasted into my face at full volume on a screen almost as big as my imagination was like a trip to a place I had never been, but had seen the pictures of, a place everyone had been telling me stories about as long as I could remember, a place that they’d made video games and shitty little VHS home movies and books about, and now, I was actually going there.

I was in love, and the millennium was coming to an end. Of course, at the time, I didn’t know what was coming, and how it would change me. I wasn’t very mature for someone who was coming toward 18 - I am now, of course, very mature for an 18 year old.

Two things would happen that would change the way I felt about this thing that I loved. One was The Phantom Menace. The other was AOL getting a phone number in Pickens, Mississippi.

Episode II: The Embarrassment Returns

Let’s just get this embarrassment out of the way. I liked Episode One when I saw it in the theater. It probably has something to do with the fact that I stood in line for hours for a midnight showing and finally felt like all was right with the world. For the first time I was around people dressing up like Jedi and Stormtroopers and waving plastic lightsabers. I was the coolest kid in the room for the first time in my life, and keep in mind I’d been a state champion at Quiz Bowl.

I saw Episode One on opening night and I loved it. I loved the soundtrack. I wanted more Qui-Gon Jinn. I rationalized Jar Jar Binks away. I DEFINITELY drove down the streets or a country road speeding and blaring a CD set to Duel of the Fates on repeat at least once a day.

Then, I saw it again. And even though I was only 17, some things did not sit well on that second viewing. I kept these blasphemous doubts to myself, soothing them over with theories and hopes about how great Episode 2 was going to be.

I knew something was wrong when I didn’t go back to the theater a third time, despite no small amount of peer pressure.

I felt that I had soaked up everything there was to soak up in two meager viewings. The dense tapestry of that Extended Universe that I drew and redrew every time I saw Star Wars, that endless series of retcons and updates that I made in my head - it didn’t seem to reach here, and this movie didn’t seem to be part of that galaxy.

Finally, I got the VHS. I got it the day it came out, my reserved copy with the holographic still and signed certificate and gold box and all that Episode 1 paraphernalia. I put it into the magically small TV I had growing up, a thing with an antenna and a built-in VCR that I had a conglomerate of dubious aftermarket adaptors on the back just so I could play my Playstation on it, a strand I built just to sit dangerously close to a screen so I could read the menus in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.

Normally, that small grey slab of thick glass was a portal, a magic mirror, and late at night it would show me somewhere I wanted to go. Dagobah. The Satellite of Love. The basement of the FBI. Los Angeles, but only to fight Terminators.

This time, it was a portal to a desert. Sand had gotten everywhere. What I saw reminded me of some public access sci-fi rocketship show on Edward Saint Pe’s Enigma Theater, but with better special effects. So I did what I had to do. I riffed Episode One. I had been reading (and re-reading, and obsessing over) the Mystery Science Theater 3000 Amazing Colossal Episode Guide, so I knew that their magical process involved something called a “timestamp,” and they had notebooks where they would jot down the joke and the timestamp. I didn’t have a timestamp, but I did have a stopwatch and a notebook and a growing hole in my heart where something that used to be joy lived, but watching and rewatching Episode 1 a few feet from my face with that stopwatch and composition book, I felt the love leave me, felt it become something dark that I was writing with, more than I was writing with pencils or inks. But the writing didn’t get it out, it just seemed to grow the pool of hate.

And there was a new reservoir for my hate to fill. Just as Special Edition Star Wars had been my first step into a larger world, this new internet was my introduction to a hive of scum and villany.

I was now away at college, visiting forums and chat rooms and taking my previous interest in Ultima Online and spinning it into EverQuest. Sony, the company that still, to this day, makes EverQuest, was starting up something new and exciting - a Star Wars MMO, Star Wars Galaxies. I never actually played it, but that’s not the point. The point is that they had a huge online forum before the game came out. A place where I discovered that liking videogames filled young men with incoherent rage. A place where I discovered that liking things made you gay. Where I finally could commiserate on just how bad Episode I was.

This was a dark path, and I had begun down it. I was like Luke in Return of the Jedi now, clad in edgy black and gambling my friends in a gambit to destroy something. Like Luke strangling the Gamorrean guard in Jabba’s Palace, I had discovered that the rare ability I had, the one that few people shared - stringing words into coherent thoughts - was not just a way to enlighten and repair the world, it was a thing that could hurt people.

 

But just as Luke turned away from the Dark Side, I too was pulled back. Sony restricted the Star Wars forums to people who were playing the game. Mainstream vidja games thinker respectability was denied me. A dark future was averted, one in which I would now be screaming at SJW harpies because I’m an atheist on YouTube.

Now we get to another embarrassing secret. I was writing a ton of Star Wars fanfiction on those forums. In these enlightened days, this is not, perhaps, as damning as it was in that bygone era. I had started around the time of Episode Two, which I will come to in a moment.

My love of role-playing games got me there. The Garrett character that I had created for Ultima Online turned into a Star Wars character. Garrett was poorly written. Most of the Star Wars Galaxies Roleplaying Forum characters were - and most of them were one trick characters with a lot of brooding and grit. At least I could say that my character was fluid and changing, because his character reflected whatever my interests were at the time. When I was reading (re-reading) The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Garrett was a reporter for something called the Galactic Guide.  Because I was interested in science, Garrett was a scientist. When I was reading Hunter S Thompso, Garrett was an outlaw and a con man. When I was in college trying to become a biologist with hopes of medical school in my head, Garrett was a doctor. When I started liking computers, Garrett was a hacker. When I was an anarchist, Garrett was an anarchist.

After Sony declared the experiment over, a more technically-savvy group of us banded together and created a home (check out that glorious early internet look) for our shared stories. I link to it for honesty’s sake, and you can feel free to humiliate me later. There’s 23 pages of search results - just the fan fiction, none of the friendly out of character stuff -  there, so I’ve basically just ruined my chances of ever being cool again, okay?

It was at this point I was soaking up the maximum amount of Star Wars. I was bitter about the centrality of the Jedi to the prequels, as much as I was the plethora of Jedi characters in every roleplaying forum and chat room online, so I did not write Jedi - well, at least until I read Dune, and made a Bene Jedi-rit sidekick/love interest for Garrett.

When I say there were a lot of Jedi, I mean it. You couldn’t log in anywhere without being beset by brooding force-witches, sadistic Sith, omnipotent ancient ones, or Grey Jedi who wore armor and had ancient weapons and were clearly based on Dragon Ball Z characters in a slap to the face that I was still taking very seriously.

It was my turn to mine the Extended Universe for all that detail. Genetically engineering midichlorians into bacteria, taking hold of a Ysalamiri farm, riding Space Worms and using robots to trick Jedi - it must have been what it felt like to work on some Star Wars property, taking all those little things and throwing in a “Bad feeling about this” and calling it Star Wars when it could just have well been a cyberpunk story about cyborg dogs.

It would have been hard to be more entrenched in Star Wars than I was for those years. I was on wookieepedia every day. I was writing paragraphs in Shyriiwook and Binary. This was when Episode 2 and 3 came out, teasing us with the prospect of prequels that could have been good.

I said I had an aside about Episode 2, and I do. I think Episode 2 is the Star Wars movie George Lucas wanted the most. I think it is the most George Lucas of all the Star Wars movies. Here, he is free from budget and technical constraints, but doesn’t have the unlimited creative control that ruined Episode 1. Someone is telling George “no,” but this is still his baby. It’s got more Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon than any of the other movies. There’s space battles and lightsaber duels and Space Dracula. It is, in my opinion, the most concentrated Star Wars.

It’s also not very good. It’s not terrible like Episode 1, but it’s laden with a leaden love story, pointless pacing and sidewinding, and Lucas’s writing. There are no stakes, no point, no purpose. It is, in many ways, a quintessential modern movie, but without the flash and wit and zest of a good Marvel film. It’s like Zach Synder made a movie that didn’t take itself seriously.

That aside may let you in on a fact: We had hope, a new hope, for Episode 3. We assumed that 3 would be the improvement over 2 that 2 was over 1. Sure, we weren’t Hollywood analysts, we were writing fan fictions with space hackers (I must let you know that in Star Wars they are called Slicers) and Space Wizard Jedi helping the rebels finish off One More Death Star, We were amid wooden hackneyed cliches as overused as that phrase I just wrote, but I’ll be damned if the community and pseudo-social media interface didn’t make it far more fascinating than the Prequel Trilogy. Seriously, just imagine how much more fun Facebook would be if you were waiting on your friends to tell you about their next move in the Battle for Mon Calamari, instead of showing you pictures about how much better their lives are than yours.

When Revenge of the Sith finally came out, I finally had a movie that would have been good enough to start the Prequel Trilogy - assuming, of course, that the next two would be better and better.

So this brings me to one of my favorite discussions of the Prequel Era: What could have been. Instead of wasting a movie, what if we’d had three chances? Consider that most modern of Star Wars innovations, the Machete Order. It entirely dismisses Episode 1. Wisely, I say.

So let us just begin with a humble request of the time-travelers who will influence George Lucas: What if The Clone Wars had been Episode 1 and Revenge of the Sith had been Episode 2? An entirely new movie, something before Rogue One, would be Episode 3. There would be a chance to watch Darth Vader take on the remnants of the Jedi, ferret out the last traces of the Old Republic.

Or let’s presume an entirely different Episode 1: Obi-Wan and Anakin, the Space Wizard Buddy Cop Movie. With wise old Qui-Gonn behind the desk (until he’s killed in a climactic battle at the end of the movie, just one day away from Jedi Retirement) trying to keep those wild youths in line? I’d watch the shit out of that.

Then they have their falling out, their fight, and you get Darth Vader.

Either one of these is the sort of thing I have spent a decade or so wondering about. Fantasizing about. Writing in fan fiction corners and talking about on long car rides. Nobody likes to take long car rides with me, anymore.

I fell out of the fanfiction circuit when I started trying to write for my own benefit with my own characters. (You may have read my website, Pearl River Flow) I got a full time job, a wife, a hobby, a creative outlet. There was no more need for Star Wars writing. No more need for the endless conjectures and hypotheticals.

I kept the Star Wars fix fed. I played Knights of the Old Republic, even though they were centered around Jedi. I found Star Wars: The Old Republic to be an extraordinary roleplaying and Star Wars outlet - finally, I had a populated setting where I could live out Star Wars and didn’t have to be a Jedi or a Sith. Garrett made a comeback, as a smuggler with a shotgun and a stealth belt and a lot of drugs - a character class so tailor-made to his forum stories that I still half-wonder if some Bioware employee wasn’t lazily reading through what I’d written in his time LP coming up smuggler flare.

As far as I was concerned, this was what Star Wars was going to be from there on: Space fights and hanging around in space station bars slinging the lingo, making sure that people were drinking Corellian Whiskey and Whyvren’s Reserve instead of vodka, calling guns “slugthrowers,” making sure that people had neutronium instead of steel, duracrete instead of concrete, and duraplast instead of plastic.

It was good enough for what I was doing - not much Star Wars. It was done, now. The movies were in the rear view, George Lucas wasn’t doing them anymore, and the games weren’t happening.

Finally, as though it was a suicide pill, I took the last step, one that I had attempted, fearful and drugged, years before.

I watched the Star Wars Holiday Special.

George Lucas had tried to save me by destroying all copies of it, the internet had tried to show it to me again and again, but never could I ever get past the interminable first fifteen minutes of Shyriiwook howling and wookiee suits that caused nightmares.

Only my old friends (at times they had been my only friends) from Mystery Science Theater 3000 were able to shepherd me through this last test.  Armed with a Rifftrax, I watched the entire Star Wars Holiday Special, made barely tolerable by their japes and jaunts.

Was there any redeeming quality of that special? Yes. Those sweet commercials.

I had reached the end of fandom. I was, finally, at peace. Star Wars was over.

Then, Disney happened.

Episode III: Return of the Star Wars

Disney happened. That’s where we are today. On the verge of an endless series of Star Wars, be they Episode X or fun little Star War stories like Rogue One.

So far, we have seen good movies. Not in the sense that they are great movies, or groundbreaking, or fascinating, but mainly in the sense that they are better than the prequels.

They lack the imagination of the Original Trilogy. By necessity they lack the novelty, by dint of modern cinema-by-committee, they lack the weird and inexplicable. This can be good, and this can be bad. The upside of this no-nonsense risk taking? No Jar Jar Binks. The downside? No Salacious B. Crumb, who likely has a novel written about him somewhere on a back aisle of a thift shop, and is also my wife’s favorite character in Star Wars, with good reason.

Like the prequels, however, the new Star Wars movies are limited, because it’s already known that they will need to be tied into an Expanded Universe of toys, games, comics, and action figures. It’s fascinating to watch the two evolve and grow purposefully, and not with the slap-dash quilt of continuity and retcon that drove LucasArts to create a database (they call it a holocron) on what Is and Is Not Star Wars. It had 61 thousand entries in 2013, and of course, LucasArts didn’t start maintaining it until 2000, which explains the time Han Solo fought a giant space otter queen.

The Star Wars I grew up with and created - that Extended Universe that was more Star Wars than anything on the screen, as far as I was concerned - is gone, not to be referenced.

I’m not going to sit here and say that this hurts me in any way or causes any degradation of the Star Wars films, because that’s not true. I do not require a corporation to give credence to what I think something should be.

Disney will change what “Star Wars” means, what it is, of that I am sure. It will, in many ways be a mere update to stay with the times and sensibilities of the present. It will be a cleaner, more satisfying and consistent project. It will be checked and rechecked to make sure that it is a mirror of human concerns, not an idiosyncratic window into the fantasy of one man. Inevitably, some cinematic stinker will dampen the enthusiasm, give them pause on the whole project, and when interest wanes, Star Wars will go dormant again, like some spore waiting for the right conditions.

The changing face of Star Wars and cinema is not why I think my experience with Star Wars is worth writing about.

First, I am sure that many of you had similar experiences - the late eighties and early nineties were a time when many people had only this rapidly expanding Thing to provide them with Star Wars. Second, the experience that everyone is going to get now - and not just with Star Wars, in this age of Disney and Marvel and Cinematic Universes - is a lot like the prequel experience.

These movies are made to have things tie into them. They have hardpoints, attachments that are premade, a character that’s just there to tie something in, a scene that’s there to build a sequel, a plotline that can’t resolve until some other point.

There are holes that you see because you don’t see the TV series connecting to that point. There are weird structures that you see as bumps, but are actually hooks designed to pull another movie or video game or comic book toward you.

In a way it is the opposite of the experience I had.  The alchemical act of finding these fractal shards of Expanded Universe, applying the Original Trilogy formula, and watching as this weird thing became Star Wars, is no longer necessary. The movies are available. There will be a new one soon.

Despite the fact that it was undoubtedly not unique, my experience with the Star Wars was not normal.  It was not the way these things were designed to work. I was a paleontologist, finding the outline of a creature buried in the mud. I knew it had bones, but it took years before I found them, and therefore, I created something like a brontosaurus, a conglomeration that never existed in the in the wild but yet had an immense cultural value.

Now, there’s no need to discover piece by piece. You can have it all. All the little side stories, all the weird characters, all the TV shows and Easter Eggs are ready to go.

The new movies are like a good Netflix series or a Marvel movie or a Blizzard game. They are perfectly designed, endlessly tested, so that they are enjoyable every step of the way.

There are no awful spots, no boring second acts, no missteps, but they lack the delight that comes from getting something wrong, that delight I felt when I got it wrong because I couldn't know that I didn't have all the pieces.

It will be better than the worst of Star Wars. It will always be better than the worst of Star Wars. It is a triumph over the sort of unique disaster that the prequels were: one man’s unbridled vision.

So there won't be any reason to go on a forum and do it better, there won't be any reason to commiserate online and imagine what could have been. That’s okay. People are pretty smart, they’ll go talk about something else and write sprawling fanfictions about something, of that, I am sure.

I grew up not understanding this thing that was so big to so many people. I pieced it together like it was some kind of Nicolas Cage/Dan Brown thing, and I was very proud of myself for no good reason.

That’s not going to be an issue anymore, not unless Google and Disney go out of business or the apocalypse strikes. So, who knows? Maybe one day we’ll be finding little bits of action figures down by the river. Maybe in that blasted future we’ll worship them.

I'll see you in the trash.

- FPJEROME

Oh, and here’s the reason we’re all here anyway, I imagine: