Some thoughts on small-screen Star Wars

Star Wars is a story that I simply cannot quit, my thoughts on The Rise of Skywalker notwithstanding.

Perhaps this should be expected. I might have seen the original trilogy once in the past decade and a half, but I watched Return of the Jedi so frequently as a teenager that I can recount verbatim entire scenes from the movie. I had more issues with the prequel trilogy, but that didn’t get in the way of hours of late-night debate about the films when I was in college and I devoured dozens of the now-heretical novelizations.

I was cautiously excited to see the return of Star Wars to the big screen, but, although I acknowledge a myriad of ways in which they are superior movies to the original trilogy, they ultimately didn’t land for me. I thought that the newest trilogy ended up creating super-cuts of the original trilogy that largely created an inescapable loop of scenes and beats from the original trilogy, just with a superficially new set of locations and a somewhat more garbled narrative. Basically, this loop prevented pushing the story in new and interesting ways in any meaningful way. I accepted this as a feature of The Force Awakens, but then it happened again in The Last Jedi and I simply skipped The Rise of Skywalker.

And yet, I have found myself pulled back into the latest batch of small-screen Star Wars stories. At the time of writing this, I have seen both seasons of The Mandalorian, The Book of Boba Fett, and the first four episodes of Obi-Wan Kenobi.

These shows seem more designed for viewers like me, at least on the surface. These are smaller stories by design. I really enjoyed the Space-Western aesthetic of Mandalorian, and the “lone wolf and cub” story arc of season one was appealing even before that cub turned out to be the adorable Grogu. I’d give the season a B/B+. The second season and Boba Fett both had their moments, but I found the stories muddled and uneven.

Which brings me to Obi-Wan. Like these other projects, there are things I like about the series. As much as I was drawn to the Space Western parts of Star Wars, I will admit a little thrill at getting to see the Space Samurai in action again. I also think that the arc that holds the most promise is the internal one of Ben Kenobi himself. We have only ever seen him competent—first as a hotshot padawan, then as a capable general, and finally as a wizened old sage who masterfully uses the force and still goes toe-to-toe with Vader. In this series, Ewan McGregor is playing a man lost. He is a hermit not unlike the one we meet in the original movie, but without any of his surety. He had buried the light sabers and, seemingly, renounced using the force such that, four episodes into a six-episode arc, he is still barely willing to use the simplest little tricks that he used when we first met him. Both the narrative internal to the series and the larger character arc demand that he recovers his mojo before the end of the series, but I quite like the way that the show juxtaposes an isolated and emotionally fragile Jedi with the inchoate but growing resistance to the empire.

But while there are individual aspects of Obi-Wan that I like, I am finding myself questioning what purpose it serves other than as fodder for an insatiable content machine.

In a recent article in WIRED, Graeme McMillan asserted that the fundamental problem with these shows is that they are burdened by the weight of the Star Wars backstory. That is, each story is seemingly approved based on how well it ties back to Ur-text, which, in turn, prevents them from flourishing on their own. We know that Han Solo saved Chewbacca’s life, won the Millennium Falcon from Lando Calrissian, and did the Kessel Run, so we get Solo. We know the rebels stole the Death Star plans, so Rogue One. What happened to Boba Fett after the Sarlaac? There’s a show for that. Ever wonder what Ben was up to while hanging out near Luke on Tatooine? Get ready for Obi-Wan Kenobi.

As McMillan puts it:

By this point, what truly worked about the original Star Wars movies—the awe of invention and discovery, and the momentum of the propulsive storytelling that left details and common sense behind in the rush to get to the next emotional beat—has been lost almost entirely, replaced by a compulsive need to fulfill nostalgia and comfortably mine existing intellectual property. Whereas those first three movies were the Big Bang that started everything and built a galaxy far, far away, what we’re witnessing now is an implosion of fractal storytelling, with each spin-off focusing on a smaller part of the story leading to a new spin-off focusing on an ever smaller part of that smaller part.

I broadly agree with McMillan’s argument, but also think that the root problem is more than just the unwillingness of adults to suspend disbelief—though that might have influenced the short-lived midichlorian fiasco in the prequel trilogies.

What McMillan attributes to “the awe and invention of discovery” and “propulsive storytelling that left details and common sense design,” I would describe as the legendary nature of the story. Lucas took deep inspiration for the original trilogy from the archetypes found in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces, and the trappings of myth and legend go beyond Luke’s heroic journey. I particularly see this in how the original trilogy situates itself within a larger universe with nods and hand waves. We don’t need to see them to know that they exist. They just are. What does it mean that:

General Kenobi. Years ago you served my father in the Clone Wars. Now he begs you to help him in his struggle against the Empire. I regret that I am unable to present my father’s request to you in person, but my ship has fallen under attack, and I’m afraid my mission to bring you to Alderaan has failed.

Doesn’t matter. Waves hand. Move along.

Here’s the problem: legends aren’t well-served by filling in the cracks.

It is one thing to approach a legend from a fresh perspective—the Arthur story from the perspective of Merlin or Morgan or the Theseus story from the perspective of Asterion (the Minotaur). This has been the stock in trade of mythology since antiquity. Legends are fundamentally iterative. But approaching legends this way respects the stories as legends. It doesn’t matter whether the character is familiar when each new story contributes to a polyphonous chorus that defies the logic necessary for a “canonical” story.

By contrast, the current wave of Star Wars projects (and even the prequel trilogy, to an extent) strike me as fundamentally expository. They can be brilliant pieces of cinematography and well-acted (and they often are!), but they are filling in the cracks of the legend and creating new discontinuities in the process. When Vader and Kenobi square off on the Death Star, Vader says “when we last met I was but the learner, but now I am the master.” At the time and through the prequels, this seemed to indicate that they hadn’t met since the events in Revenge of the Sith, but now they fight at least once in the intervening years. This series can only turn out one way if that line is still going to work, but it also spawns a series of follow-up questions that strain disbelief in the original. Similarly, one might ask whether someone is going to completely wipe the memory of young Leia for her to appeal Kenobi on the basis of her father rather than, you know, reminding him that he saved her life once and now she needs his help again.

I am skeptical that either the big or small screen Star Wars will be able to escape this problem. Few of the new characters have been particularly memorable, and most of those that were owed their origins outside of these projects. As McMillan notes, the result has been increasing insularity within the narrative world of Star Wars that relies on familiar names to draw viewers and generally fails to create new characters that can expand and complicate the universe.

All of this stands in contrast to the approach taken in the books set in the untamed wilds of the period after the original trilogy when there was no plan for movies to carry the canonical stories forward. Some of these books are pretty good, some are quite bad, but they collectively built out a rich universe that carried forward the stories of characters from the movies (e.g. Wedge Antilles) while inventing new favorites among both the protagonists (e.g. Corran Horn and the Skywalker children) and the antagonists (e.g. Admirals Thrawn and Daala).

They didn’t worry about filling in the cracks of the legends, but accepted the films as gospel while looking forward to what came next. The result is a series of more compelling questions: how does the Rebel Alliance capture Coruscant (the capitol) when the emperor is dead but his military apparatus is still in place? What would it be like for an alien or woman to rise to the rank of admiral in the notoriously patriarchal and xenophobic imperial navy? What happens when you introduce good guys who for one reason or another dislike Luke Skywalker and Han Solo?

I can understand the reasons why a studio might reject this approach out of hand, of course. For instance, the novels remain deeply reliant on the original characters and there are only so many times that an actor can play the same role. James Bond and comic book characters like Batman, Superman, and Spiderman have survived reboots with different actors, but it has also led to some fatigue with the proliferation of dead parents in an alleyway behind the theater. A closer analogue to Star Wars is its corporate sibling, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has not made any attempt to recast Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark and thus is itself at a crossroads. Star Wars can hardly replace the much-missed Carrie Fisher, leaving the studio to rely on de-aging Mark Hammill and producing CGI-renderings of Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher. But this also leaves Star Wars a fragile shell perpetually at risk of collapsing in on itself. To echo Princess Leia in the film that started it all: the more you tighten your grip sometimes, the more that your objective slips through your fingers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.