Star Wars: A Modest Proposal

Star Wars: A Modest Proposal

I have a Star Wars proposal, and it is this:

It is time to acknowledge that Poe Dameron is the unacknowledged love child of Han Solo and Lando Calrissian. Wait. *checks notes* Okay, that’s not it. *rifles through some papers* Is it that Lucasfilm should finally put an openly and obviously LGBT character on-screen and in a film soon? YES. Yes! Yes, but also, that’s not this post. Wait, so, what’s this post again?

*shuffles more papers*

AH HERE WE GO.

I propose that, after Episode IX, it’s time to separate out a Star Wars Cinematic Universe.

The SWCU.

You might be saying, “But wait, isn’t that already a thing?” And the answer is no, but also kinda yes?

The existing status of the Star Wars universe is this: pretty much everything is canon or canon-adjacent, meaning, it is existing across the spectrum of a singular Star Wars timeline. Everything is, for lack of a better term, connected along, and by, that timeline. The stories form a kind of narrative web, and every piece of the story is part of the tension of that web.

Here’s the problem, though: a web is a perfectly stable structure, as long as you don’t fuck with it. You can’t pull too hard or push too hard or create any dramatic movements, lest the web unthread and fray and fall to wisps of silk lost on the wind. And so it is somewhat with an increasingly large narrative web: you just can’t fuck with it too much, or you’ll tear the web. And that term I just used, increasingly large, is part of the problem: the web is getting bigger and bigger, because the Star Wars universe is growing across theoretically infinite borders. It’s films. It’s TV. It’s books, comics, games. Shit, it’s even a theme park, now. The Galaxy’s Edge theme expansion probably isn’t precisely canonical — but given that it’s getting a great deal of source material devoted to it, it’s at least canon-adjacent. And it seems to be “set” in a particular timeframe: the current-era sequel timeline, during the Resistance vs First Order struggle. It’s part of the material.

To go back to the question, isn’t the SWCU already a thing?

I answered the ‘no’ part.

But the ‘also yes’ part is important, too. The Star Wars Cinematic Universe does exist already, it’s just that nothing else really exists beside it. All are part of it. What I mean is, at present, the Star Wars universe is driven explicitly by the films. The films, understandably, set the course for the rest of it. In this great web, the films are less a part of the web and more the spider making it: I can speak from some experience writing the books and the comics that all the narrative work that goes into the Star Wars Universe is effectively happening in the wake of the films. They can’t get ahead of the movies. They can’t contradict the movies. They can’t deal with material that might one day be dealt with in film. They can only be additive to the cinematic experience, not really separate from it.

They do not stand alone.

They do not stand on their own.

To be clear, that’s sensible. The films are the driver of the universe and have been from the beginning. They were not adapted from pre-existing material. They were the pre-existing material.

Just the same, it presents problems. One problem is that ultimately, nearly all of the new material is essentially prequel material. It’s there to fill in gaps and details — essentially, an information-delivery-system nestled inside narrative. That’s not to say there’s no interesting stories to tell there, or that it’s impossible to craft a compelling narrative, but it does mean that very little is straight-up new, and not written to fit an existing pipeline. It means most of the stories are *record scratch* I BET YOU’RE WONDERING HOW I GOT HERE. That’s okay for a while! But as the universe continues to narratively expand, it ends up starting to feel like it’s just mining pre-existing material. Like any gold rush, you get that initial surge of cool new stuff, but it’s not long before you’re panning for meager flecks of shiny stuff and not great big nuggets of value. And to be clear, this is by no means a dig at my work or the work of any body telling stories inside Star Wars, it’s just a note that everything that happens in that space is happening in service to pre-existing material. Again: it’s all prequels.

Prequels represent a tricky conundrum because a story should have everything it needs to be understood in its first iteration. Right? From start to finish, the audience needs all the salient details to parse the plot and more importantly, the emotional throughline. So, to prequelize anything either means you’re going over redundant information or you’re leaving required material out of the prime narrative so that it can be told later. Neither are super-delicious choices. If you go over redundant information you run the risk of being bored, or actually changing the story (think of stepping on a narrative butterfly in the narrative past which then retroactively changes the future, like how Darth Vader’s redemption is very seriously complicated by Anakin’s choice to kill children and physically abuse the pregnant mother of his future Jedi-babbies). And if you’re leaving required information out, now you’re just doing the equivalent of offering paid DLC to complete a game someone paid full price to play in the belief it was, well, complete already. Which can be frustrating for the audience.

That’s not to say, again, there’s no room for this. Certainly there is! A character may not be fully-revealed on-screen, just by dint of a limited run time. A world may not be fully explored. Supplementary material can do this. But again, it’s important to see that phrase: supplementary material. Because that’s what it all ends up being. Very little standing on its own. Nearly all of it requiring service to a larger story property. (And it also falls prey to the “we need to explain every single detail, like gosh, where did Han Solo get those leather pants, and what is the epic origin story of the phrase, How Rude! —?)

One of the other problems is that a single timeline is essentially treated as a history — it’s why canon is a tough nut to crack, because canon treats stories less like stories and more like a history book. Everything becomes the fucking Silmarillion. Everything becomes binary — er, not the binary language of moisture vaporators, but rather, meaning things in the stories are either TRUE or they are FALSE, and realistically, in a connected canonical timeline, everything must be true, and nothing can disagree. Even though actual history books are full of disagreement (which is why historians are a thing). Because every single story informs every other single story — and the whole body of storytelling! — it means canon is a pair of goddamn zip-ties that gets tighter and tighter as more material is added, as you wriggle around.

Things don’t get looser and freer. They become more concretized, more calcified.

Think of it like that old Tron lightcycle video game — at first you have ultimate freedom but eventually, your lightcycle is building literal walls behind it that you will soon be trapped by. You do not have an infinite range of movement. One day: you gonna crash.

The more you establish about characters and worlds, the less you can continue to establish about characters and worlds. You’re filling in a finite number of boxes. It’s a crossword puzzle — all the things have to line up. Which, on the one hand, is an amazing achievement in narrative. But, on the other hand, is really, really difficult, and eventually maybe almost impossible.

As a sidenote on canon: it’s already kinda mostly broken. Stuff doesn’t line up nice and neat anyway, which is an understandable side-effect of a huge, connected universe. The end of Rogue One doesn’t actually line up neatly with A New Hope. The Solo movie tweaks the origin on stuff — like the dice — that is different elsewhere. Kylo’s scar moves. Stuff inside Battlefront II doesn’t agree with Aftermath.

Whatever. It’s cool. It’s part of the package.

Here is where I explain that my favorite metaphor to explain Star Wars:

Star Wars is the Millennium Falcon. It’s a hastily-cobbled together junk-boat that flies fast and is amazing and it’s full of heroes and we fucking love it for its flaws as much as not. This may sound like an insult, but I promise, it’s not: Star Wars is a glorious fucking mess. It probably shouldn’t work, but through the artfulness of the storytelling and the care of the designs and the passion brought to the stories, it doesn’t just work, it flies at lightspeed. Think, honestly, how much of Star Wars is junk in the story: from the Falcon to Mister Bones, from Jakku to the trash compactor, from Watto’s black market to the building of Threepio, it’s characters cobbling together stuff that shouldn’t work, but does. Just like Star Wars itsowndamnself.

“The garbage will do!”

And that’s a spirit I love about it. This brave, bold, gonzo mode of just smashing stuff together — it’s very much kid playing with dolls and action figures, writ large, and again, if you think I’m saying that as an insult, you seriously don’t know me. But what it does mean is that the brave, bold, gonzo stuff gets harder and harder to do in a deeply enmeshed, super-connected, singular-timeline universe.

So, to (ahem finally) get to the point of all this:

You gotta blow it all up.

It’s been sensible to keep it going through this sequel trilogy. You don’t want information competing with what’s out there. You don’t want Luke competing with Luke. (Though in writing the Aftermath trilogy I wish we’d been able to keep the Luke chapters! They were fun and wouldn’t have disagreed with anything, but I also get that they need to err on the side of caution.)

But, once Episode IX hits?

Blow it up.

Establish a SWCU, where the films and TV shows are explicitly their own thing. That, similar to the MCU: what happens in Marvel films do not necessarily impact what happens on the comic book pages, or in the novels, or in the games. They can! But they don’t have to. It’s loosier and dare I make a Captain Marvel pun, goosier.

(Captain Marvel was so flerkin’ good by the way. Also a good example of why it’s good to disentangle these stories — some of the decisions made there are explicitly different from what’s on comic book pages, and because it can play with conventions and expectations that way, it gets to tell its own story, not one married to something else. Yes, the way SW is doing it now is arguably “cleaner” — but “clean” is not an adjective I’d happily want to describe Star Wars. I like it messy!)

What does this allow you to do?

Well, for starters, you can —

(I know, I’m sorry)

Bring back Legends. While, yes, some Legends groups were, uhh, a little unpleasant to deal with at the release of Aftermath, I also recognize that there was an unholy host of stories that just kinda… end. So, do more. Finish that story. Or spin it out into more stuff.

It also lets you get back to Old Republic era stuff. Games, books, comics, whatever.

It also lets you go fucking wild. You can tell alt-universe Luke or Rey stories, or you can make up whole new eras that never have to be represented in film — they can be, but don’t have to be.

You wanna get real weird, play with some of the time-traveling features born in Rebels with some Spider-Verse thrown in. Different universes of Luke and Leia, different Rey and Kylo, whatever. So, splitting off into other universes can be literally reflected in the narrative. I mean, why the fuck not? A lot of Star Wars is narrative convenience. How long does lightspeed take? Some people want you to believe it has some kind of equation you can figure out — but trust me when I tell you, lightspeed takes as long as the story needs it to. Long enough to have the right conversation or discuss the right plan and then, zoop, you’re out.

(Well, actually, if you wanna get real real weird, you do the comic book universe reboot. You start alllllll over again. Which I suspect will happen, though I hope not for a couple decades. But it would give a change to adjust some of the prequel stuff which feels weird now, and maybe the Luke and Leia relationship, and you could sand down some of the rougher bits…)

(Anyway.)

We already have a little bit of this — the From a Certain Point-of-View anthology is, despite what some people think, non-canonical. Nothing there is “true” in the sense of the larger universe, and in fact, no one single story is true in relation to the other stories. They don’t connect. Each is a weird, wonderful little island. And who cares? Is the dianoga in that anthology the same as the dianoga in the movie? As much as I deeply appreciate the hyper-connected state of the SW universe, I also miss the unruly Wild West days where the stories were just stories — as isolated or as connected as they needed to be, understood to all be from their own certain point-of-view. Staying married to that approach runs the risk of the narrative becomes data-driven, where the spider web becomes chains more than flexible silk, where everything is forced to homage everything else. It’s not that it won’t work — it can, and will, because honestly, the SWU as-is exists as a property driven by people who are fans as much as they are capable creators. Just the same, I also look forward to them blowing it all up, and freeing the narrative to go wherever it wants, to whomever it must, however it can.

p.s. seriously though it’s time for LGBT representation on-screen, LFL

p.p.s hey did you know I write books, like this one…

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10 responses to “Star Wars: A Modest Proposal”

  1. Chuck, as a lifelong Star Wars fan, I appreciate this well-thought out post. I agree with you..once Episode IX is done. With the Skywalker Saga done, you can do so much and tell so many different tales that this constrained storytelling can go by the wayside. This allows for more variety and diversification.
    But I love Jedi, so at least include some of them. Maybe not prequel-era Jedi, but ones who have just enough power/skill/training to be dangerous, you know?

  2. I’ve watched a couple of the newer movies and it’s like “it’s kinda like the books, it’s a little familiar, but not enough like the books”. So it kinda puts the film(s) in no-man’s-land for me. But maybe my perception/memory is off. *laugh*

  3. Unfortunately, by basing the ST on a big mystery, LFL is making “what happened” and “what didn’t happen” far more relevant to those fans trying to figure out what story LFL is actually telling with these new films. At least with respect to the ST, therefore, they are either inviting fans to obsess about “canon” or really don’t care either way. When it comes to canon unrelated to a constructed mystery, I agree that it’s less vital. But, as Pablo once said, “canon” means “something subsequent creators must take into account,” meaning that connections might be drawn to other elements of the setting/timeline. Which is interesting and fun. Leland Chee and the rest of the SG seem to think so, at least, or else they wouldn’t be deliberately inserting such connections in the EU. That being said, the dubious canon status of, say, the stories told in the wonderful “Legends of Luke Skywalker” has unfortunately lead to many fans ignoring the book, which is sad.

  4. I wholeheartedly agree with you Chuck. This is a very-well thought out article and identifies some really important conventions, not only in the Star Wars universe, but narratives in general. Your argument on the SW universe being based on the singularity of a linear timeline really resonated with me. I have been writing a Star Wars feature-film screenplay for the past couple years now and in doing so I had to be diligent in understanding the delicacy of creating something new and refreshing for audiences while also honoring the “canon” (as you mentioned) in the universe I was writing. I began writing my story some time right after Episode VII was released. During that time, I found I had to stop myself – numerous times – and ask very important questions, especially since my main character is a “Gray Jedi.” How can another Jedi exist in the timeframe of Episode VII? (Especially, since Luke Skywalker is, quote-unquote, “The Last Jedi”). How can the circumstances of such an existence and origins of my main character be believable? And most importantly, how does it honor (again) the “canon” of what’s came before in this universe? It was a small and somewhat taunting space of wiggle room to work with. I even found myself feeling that I couldn’t continue my writing until Episode VIII was released, lest I write something in my screenplay that would later be debuffed by the events that would unfold in that story – then all of my work would come crumbling down. In the end, it was the “Interlude” chapters in your AFTERMATH series that helped me to understand the space I had to create new characters and storylines that could not only fit into the Star Wars universe, but stand on their own and expand it. I regained my confidence to keep writing and began to discover new ways to create diverse characters and stories that would resonate with audiences of different identities. Thank you so much for your insight and for your work into the Star Wars universe. Here’s to the diverse and over expanding galaxy of the SWCU! Happy writing!

  5. Reading this reminded me how much fun I had with comic books before I was 10 or so, when I had no idea what “canon” was. Occasionally there’s be something like Spiderman thinking “Oh, no! The Rhino is back!*” and at the bottom of the panel a little note: “*see issue 172 – Stan.” I didn’t have issue 172, and I wasn’t too concerned about trying to find it, because SPIDERMAN IS FIGHTING A GUY IN A RHINOCEROS SUIT! NEAT! Ditto the antics of Superman, Batman, and whoever else I happened to pick up any given month, back when a comic cost a dime and I didn’t have to worry about who was paying the mortgage.

    Canon, lore, the accepted word of The Creator– it’s all cool, but it’s also, as you point out, constricting. I hope you inspire someone in a position of IP authority to allow some frolicking in a Star Wars creative playground, because some stuff that isn’t meant to be doctrinally orthodox would be bushel-of-monkeys fun. That it would likely also piss off people who have invested far too much in THE TRUE AND ONLY CANON would be a nice cherry on top, too.

  6. Respectfully, I submit that “canon” — what “counts” and what doesn’t — is an utterly artificial (and entirely fungible) designation imposed on media mega-franchises that prioritizes continuity (how everything in some sprawling fictional “universe” connects, as if any of it was actually designed with a grand unifying plan) over meaningful storytelling — a narrative with an emotional arc and a point that isn’t beholden to some set of preestablished “rules” and in-universe historical precedent. When a franchise becomes a slave to its own canon, it does so at the expense of being about anything other than its own internal logistics. And where’s the fun in that? I’d like us to do more than blow up Star Wars canon — I’d like to do away with the concept altogether.

    To that end, it’s important to remember, I think, that there’s exactly one person in the world who decides which Star Wars stories (be them films, comics, novels, or cartoons) are canonical and which aren’t: you. Let’s start exercising that power.

  7. Kylo Ren’s scar moves. *chokes* New headcanon: he doesn’t actually have a scar, he just puts on a fake one because he thinks it makes him look badass. And he doesn’t always remember where it’s supposed to go.

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