Star Wars Orthodoxy
February 13, 2012
I most likely will not be going to see the 3-D release of The Phantom Menace, even though I consider myself quite the Star Wars fan. But I’m one of those Star Wars fans who would prefer that the prequel trilogy not exist in its current form. I’ll talk about that in a bit. First, something I learned from spending time on Star Wars fan forums, and with the local Rocky Mountain Fan Force (who are a great group of people, BTW): however I feel about The Phantom Menace, this film was many people’s first introduction to Star Wars, and it made them feel the same way A New Hope made me feel, back when I was 5 years old, watching it in the family station wagon at the drive-in movie theater. It introduced them to a rich, amazing universe full of adventure and awesomeness (my perceived failings of the prequels are with the story, not the worldbuilding), and it changed their lives. I can’t mock that. I can’t denounce that. These Star Wars fans, the ones who embrace the prequels, have their New Testament, and that’s great. Me, I have my Torah, and that’s great too. I’m an orthodox Star Wars fan, you see. (The edits made on various DVD and Special Editions — those are the Apocrypha. We can argue about that until the bantha come home. And if you think the religious analogy is inappropriate, you haven’t taken part in any original trilogy vs. prequels discussions…) But I do have problems with the prequels. Some of them come from being an old-school Star Wars fan, some come from me being a professional writer who can’t leave well enough alone.
Me and the Prequels
I was so excited for The Phantom Menace, when it first came out in 1999. I went to the first Celebration here in Denver. I camped out for tickets. I wore a costume to the midnight premier. Back then, Star Wars cosplay was not at all the huge and well developed activity that it is now — the 501st Legion existed, but wasn’t at the premier, as far as I could tell. I was one of about a dozen people in costume out of the hundreds who went to that showing, and my patched-together Corellian smuggler getup was one of the best there. (That costume wouldn’t past muster for Halloween, these days.)
I really tried to like the movie. I saw it 2 or 3 times. I made apologies and clung to the great bits. I tried not to be annoyed by 8 year old Anakin, even though 8 year olds are inherently annoying and building a movie around one was probably a mistake. I loved Ewan McGregor’s Obi Wan. Then Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith came out. About two thirds of the way through Sith I realized: the whole trilogy is a rough draft. A terribly backloaded rough draft. If I’d gotten the thing as a manuscript in a workshop, I would have torn it apart and put it back together again: The story starts on page 20, lose all the annoying irrelevant business in chapter 1; don’t start with your most awesome villain and kill him off a third of the way through, let him stick around; make your main character likable and wonderful, so that we all fall in love with him; all the important bits of story happen in the last third and really ought to be spread out. I promptly rewrote the entire thing in my head. Once I’d done that, I found I couldn’t watch the movies at all anymore. I try, and I just see that messy rough draft. (The films are problematic in many other ways as well. I’m not going to rehash thousands of hours of other peoples’ analyses.)
The other problem with the prequels that orthodox Star Wars fans like myself have is that they’re not the movies we were promised. The original trilogy gives us lots of clues about what happened before — it’s one of the things that makes those movies great, because they hint at this deep history and backstory. We were promised a story about a young fighter pilot — young meaning Luke’s age, that’s the resonance there, that Luke is a doppelganger for his father and won’t make the mistakes his father made — whom Obi Wan adopts and trains. We spent half of The Phantom Menace trying to figure out what the hell Qui Gon was doing there — Yoda trained Obi Wan, not this dude. And so on. We had a certain story living in our heads for 20 years, and it turned out that none of it was true. This is why we get angry.
(One of the odd things that happens when you talk to New Testament Star Wars fans is you discover that instead of being pissed off that the prequels don’t match the story we were told in the original trilogy, they retcon the original trilogy to match the prequels — because for them, the original trilogy isn’t original. For example, I always thought the reason Leia says in Jedi that she remembers her birth mother is that she, you know, actually remembers her mother, who died when she was young, but not an infant. (Which would mean that Padme should have survived to take Leia to Alderaan herself while leaving Luke with Ben, but never mind. . .) New fans say Leia remembers , despite Padme dying fairly promptly after her birth, because infant Leia’s Force powers allowed her imprint on Padme at birth, or something like that. Why this happened to Leia and not Luke is apparently not important. This can be infuriating if you don’t let it slide.)
Why Han Shot First
This is the one orthodox point that I will get flustered over. Because it’s very important for the story, and for Han’s character, that he shoots first. Han is a scoundrel. We’re told this over and over again. He’s the kind of guy who won’t consider rescuing a princess from a detention block until there’s a promise of lots of money. He is the kind of guy who will shoot a dumbass Rodian under the table without blinking. He has to be this guy, because we have to believe that he won’t come back to save the day during the Battle of Yavin. Like Luke, we have to be disappointed, but not surprised, that he doesn’t stay — because he’s a scoundrel. When Han does return to save the day, it’s his redemption moment. When it mattered most he did the right thing. But if he’s really a good guy all along — as not shooting until one is shot at suggests — then he isn’t really a scoundrel, and there’s not a redemption. We never doubt that he’ll do that right thing at the end. Losing that moment of redemption? The whole character goes down the tubes. What we’re told about him (scoundrel) and what he actually does (always a good guy) become two different things, and his whole story arc loses meaning. I know I’m not the first person to explicate this. But it bears repeating, I think. (And actually, technically, it isn’t “Han Shot First,” because in the original version Greedo doesn’t get to shoot at all because Han is just that much of a badass.)
I still love Star Wars. The first time I saw a squad of Stormtroopers marching at a convention, I got chills and felt an uncanny urge to run and warn the Rebel Alliance. I love the X-Wing: Rogue Squadron novels and comics, and Tales of the Jedi comics. I love the energy and enthusiasm this new wave of fandom has brought to the franchise. Just don’t ask me to watch the prequels.