“You’ve taken your first step into a larger world.”
I’ve thought about that quote a lot as the wait for Episode VII news grows longer. Fans who are on the edge of their seats waiting for new information have been digging deep and investigating every filming location and piece of concept art they can find, but Disney has largely kept the project under wraps.
Star Wars is a larger, partially unknown world - both in terms of the Expanded Universe, and in terms of the yet-unknown details about Episode VII.
While at first I was reluctant to speculate on something which I wanted to be fresh and new the first time I saw it in the theater, my interest in the Expanded Universe and in transmedia both have kept me coming back to Star Wars news. I wrote a little bit about J. J. Abrams and nostalgia here, and talked about what impressions from their own lives Star Wars creators have brought to the films. It’s difficult to speculate at this juncture, but fans work with what we have.
The Sequel Trilogy naturally faces many of the same concerns that Lucas might have thought about when writing the Prequel Trilogy, including the introduction of familiar elements which fans will recognize as callbacks to the previous movies. These can come off as endearing, and reinforce the movies’ continuity, but they can also come off as pandering.
The introductions of established characters C-3PO and R2-D2 displayed Episode I’s relationship with its predecessors. R2-D2 was introduced as one of many R2 series droids. The viewer wouldn’t have immediately known which one he even was until he survived the battle. Therefore, Artoo felt like an organic part of the Star Wars world.
On the other hand, C-3PO’s introduction was more blatant. Although he was presented in a slightly different form than the one fans were used to, there was more aplomb about his introduction. It was more immediately apparent that we were supposed to recognize him, and some fans found this to be one more overly cutesy thing about the scenes with Anakin. (On the other hand, C-3PO’s origin as Anakin Skywalker’s science project may actually be more memorable to fans than Artoo’s Naboo origins because of the comic in which Darth Vader reunites with Threepio on Cloud City.)
While it isn’t possible to know the plot or all of the characters of Episode VII today, there are four options when it comes to the film handling the introduction of established characters:
Maximum Nostalgia: In this version of the story, Han, Luke, and Leia are the heroes again. Like Harrison Ford did in Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull, they may have young proteges or children along for the ride, but the Original Trilogy cast members still lead the action of the movie. I think that this is unlikely, since Disney has now found itself in the role of introducing Star Wars to new fans. Just like George Lucas and Dave Filoni created Ahsoka to be a character through which young fans could experience The Clone Wars, the Sequel Trilogy is likely to have a fresh, young cast - complete unknowns if they follow tradition.
Disney has successfully brought Marvel comics characters to a new generation of fans, but Star Wars characters cannot be de-aged in the way the re-imagined versions of Thor, Iron Man, and their ilk have been.
The Middle Ground: This is the area in which I think the Sequel Trilogy movies are most likely to fall. The original cast will not hold the entire movie on their backs, but they will be present in it, perhaps passing the torch to a new trio of characters. I consider J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot which came out in 2009 to have taken this route. The older Spock from the alternate universe was a significant part of the plot, and his appearance was used to move the story forward as well as for humor and for heartwarming moments. However, there was no question that the movie was about young Kirk, Spock, and Uhura, not Leonard Nimoy’s Spock - and the movie was successfully, both at the box office and in the hearts and minds of a new group of fans. I expect the Sequel Trilogy to at least attempt this balance.
Minimum Nostalgia: No humorous callbacks, no cantinas playing jaunty music, no desert planets. The Original Trilogy cast would only be in a Star Wars movie with minimum nostalgia for a few minutes, perhaps as holos or in flashbacks. This would establish the Sequel Trilogy as something completely divorced from what came before. Some fans would be glad to see a movie that completely eliminates references that they might see as cutesy or pandering.
However, I think this is extremely unlikely to be the case. The idea of the original cast’s involvement in the Sequel Trilogy has gotten fans buzzing, and Disney knows that they have a pre-made audience, many of whom have not followed the Expanded Universe, who want to know specifically what happens to Han, Luke, and Leia after the movies. Disney has made an effort to closely tie the Rebels TV show to the Original Trilogy using music, Ralph McQuarrie concept art, and visual language.
The final nail in the coffin for the minimum nostalgia theory is the fact that second unit shooting for Episode VII is occurring in Abu Dhabi - which may indicate a desert setting.
Something Else: If I had written a list like this for the 2009 Star Trek, I would have also classified it as “something else.” The pocket universe that Abrams created for his Star Trek story affected the original story of the franchise without destroying any of the original canon, since it happened in a different reality where large plot events could divert from the original. Star Trek has a different relationship to its expanded universe than Star Wars does, though, so fans are more ready to accept the movie canon and the book canon as two separate entities.
Is this likely to work in the Star Wars universe? I’m not sure. Alternate timelines seem a bit less thematically fitting in the Star Wars galaxy, which is more mythic than scientific. However, the whole nature of the “Something Else” option is that we don’t know what it is. Sith powers ripping open a hole to another world? I would be surprised to see Abrams repeating himself in this way, but it could happen.
Gradually Distributed Nostalgia: A lot of my focus so far has been on Episode VII. It is inevitable, since we have so little information about that first film, not to mention the two to follow. But Episode VIII and IX are following, so it’s possible that the Original Trilogy cast will be dispersed between them. A new group of heroes, who visit Han, Luke, and Leia respectively in each episode? Any speculation is a long shot at this point, but it’s almost certain that the creators of Episode VII weren’t only thinking about one movie when they wrote the script.
No matter what possibility comes true, I think that it is important to have a balance in the film. Of course, Abrams and company can and should think circles around their fans, and I will be happy if they deliver a fun, emotionally resonant, quality movie which doesn’t fall neatly into any of these categories.
Although there’s certainly such a thing as too many references to the Original Trilogy, as often seems to happen in Expanded Universe material where every cantina in the galaxy reminds Han of the one on Tatooine, it would be just as jarring to see a Star Wars which did not look like the Original Trilogy at all. (Thus the many jokes soon after the announcement of Abrams’ involvement about lightsabers with lens flares.)
There are no new stories, after all.
In an interview with Stephen Zito in a 1977 issue of American Film magazine, George Lucas said, “I loved the Flash Gordon comic books. I loved the Universal serials with Buster Crabbe. After THX 1138 I wanted to do Flash Gordon and tried to buy the rights to it from King Features, but they wanted a lot of money for it, more than I could afford then.”
In one way, Star Wars is Flash Gordon fan fiction. In another, it’s what happened when Lucas couldn’t afford to produce Flash Gordon fan fiction. In the same interview he called Star Wars “a compilation.”
Star Wars maintains a lot of the tone and concepts from Flash Gordon, but Lucas’ ability to both slim down and energize the story created something which is less myopic nostalgia and more homage. Homage is nostalgia plus love, plus awareness of a larger system, minus the details which may prevent fans from understanding or enjoying an experience because it is too blatantly personal. Not that we don’t do blatantly personal in genre, but one doesn’t have to have grown up in California wanting to be a race car driver like George Lucas did to understand Luke or Anakin Skywalker’s longing to escape Tatooine. It is the power of story - and as a part of story, the power of fan fiction - to translate one person’s experience into a more universal experience. Star Wars strikes a tenuous balance between a pulp blockbuster and a work of art, if that position has indeed ever been tenuous.
Now, J. J. Abrams is creating his own sort of Star Wars fan fiction. How well Abrams and company convey their experience depends on what kind of story they are trying to tell. If they balance a mythic, universal feel with personal nostalgia for Star Wars, not overwhelming the audience with either of them, Episode VII will be poised to take its own unique place alongside the Original Trilogy which Disney wants it to resemble.