I never drank the Kool-Aid here. I mean, Star Wars was fine. I enjoyed the movies when I watched them – probably third grade? But the fact that I have to ask the question shows pretty clearly the extent to which this was not a rabbit hole I fell down. I attentively rented the entire trilogy from my local grocery store (ah, the 90s), if only to finally suss out the difference between it and Star Trek, watched them, and was later very puzzled by people who fell in love with them. I still find them terribly overrated, and the continual grating of my ambivalence against people who do love Star Wars has pretty much worn me down to active dislike of the franchise. So, you know. We’re doing this because we have to, not because I’m jumping for joy at the entry. Or maybe because I’m secretly a bitter misanthrope who delights in the wave of comments that this will inevitably generate.
Still, regardless of my feelings, there’s no arguing with the film’s historical importance. There is a clear line that can be drawn across the history of science fiction, splitting it into “before Star Wars” and “after Star Wars.” Doubly so if the science fiction is in a visual medium. So for Doctor Who, there’s a huge difference in how The Sun Makers, the last story to air before Star Wars opened in the UK, was watched, and how Friday’s story, Underworld, the first to air after it. And we can’t not talk about it.
But knowing that Star Wars was transformative is not equivalent to understanding why. Let’s first set aside the question of innovation. Whether or not Star Wars was, in fact, innovative in terms of what it does with science fiction (I don’t think it particularly was), there’s really no way to argue that Star Wars didn’t mark a huge turning point in how science fiction was seen by the broader culture. It’s clearly not that Star Wars was when science fiction broke into the mainstream – there are far too many successful sci-fi movies from previous decades to take that claim seriously. But Star Wars is the tipping point in a transition between two modes of science fiction that we’ve been talking about since nearly two seasons ago. And for those who have been keeping track, that means that Star Wars is, in the broader culture, the point where Doctor Who’s view of science fiction becomes the dominant one. So that’s interesting.
Some history. The question of what the first piece of science fiction was is one with a wealth of possible answers. On the other hand, the point where science fiction emerged as a distinct genre is rather easier to pin down – it happened in 1926 when Hugo Gernsback created Amazing Stories – the first pulp to be devoted entirely to science fiction. The first thing we should note about this, then, is that science fiction in its original form did not exist in its “hard” manifestation. When science fiction became a genre (at which point various things before 1926 could be identified as early examples of the genre) it was a specific case of pulp adventure.
So even as “hard SF” developed, it always existed alongside stories in which the science fiction elements were simply genre trappings. Because in a lot of ways, the pulp genres were somewhat interchangeable. Consider, for instance, the fact that HP Lovecraft’s stories could often be placed in a science fiction mode, but Robert E. Howard was able to use many of Lovecraft’s ideas just as well in Swords and Sorcery-style fantasy stories.
On the other hand, when science fiction began to be taken seriously – in its so-called “golden age” in the 1940s and 50s – it was largely in what we now recognize as the “hard SF” mode. This is the era where definitions of science fiction like Theodore Sturgeon’s were formulated – “a human problem, and a human solution, which would not have happened at all without its speculative scientific content,” for instance. These were also the days of writers like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, whose stories often resembled logic puzzles more than actual narratives.
I don’t mean that as a criticism, to be clear. Science fiction rose to its golden age in the aftermath of World War II, a war that ended with a tremendous and dangerous feat of science. In its aftermath the world took a deep breath and realized that science had both saved it and that it risked causing its destruction. This was then followed by an explosion of consumer-focused science as home appliances and television became common. This was the era in which the image of the scientist-as-ultimate-authority came up – an era characterized by things like Vanevar Bush’s “As We May Think” and other bits of popular science prognostication. (Bush’s essay having appeared in Life magazine almost immediately after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Bush himself having played an instrumental role in the Manhattan Project)
Given that context, a genre about thinking through the consequences of science made perfect sense. Golden age-style science fiction was a genre that responded directly to the concerns of its era, which explains a lot of why it marked the point where science fiction began to acquire some legitimate literary cache. It also helped cement science fiction as a genre – for the first time, it wasn’t just a subset of pulp adventure but a genre that could do things nothing else could. You could do much of the plot of “The Call of Cthulhu” in a fantasy setting. You could never do much of the plot of one of the stories in I, Robot that way.
But it’s also important to note that this SF approach to science fiction was never the only game in town. The 1950s were full of stuff that was still basically pulp adventure with spaceships. The science fiction that could properly be called a genre independent of all others was still a subset of the larger body of science fiction. The high water mark of the SF approach, culturally speaking, was Star Trek – a mainstream television show that was firmly and unabashedly science fiction in the golden age style.
The problem with the SF approach is that it very much was a product of its times. That’s not to say its irrelevant – stuff like the remake of Battlestar Galactica or Duncan Jone’s fantastic film Moon are genuinely fantastic recent examples of SF. But once the giddy optimism of the space race gave way to the skepticism of things like Doomwatch there was no way for SF to remain the dominant mode of science fiction. SF was based on the idea that science was going to be the future. Once widespread trust of scientists crumbled to a more skeptical position the sort of “let’s figure out how technology will shape the future” approach lost much of its appeal. Simply put, SF requires belief in the existence of the future. Once that belief is gone, SF can’t really function and becomes a fairly marginal genre.
As a result, science fiction slowly moved away from being an independent genre and back towards being one of several adventure genres. And that’s the context that Star Wars must be understood in. Because while science fiction had been off being its own genre, another one of the pulp genres had been busy having a remake of its own. The key year here is 1954, when J.R.R. Tolkien published The Lord of the Rings and created fantasy as a genre.
The Lord of the Rings is a much simpler story than people give it credit for. Essentially all Tolkien did was take a smattering of Norse myths – most notably the story of Sigurd – and change all the names. And usually not even very much. Again, this is not a criticism. Tolkien had a brilliant idea here. Myths – Norse and otherwise – are popular and beloved for wholly sensible and obvious reasons. But there’s a finite number of them. The obvious solution, then, is to start telling myth-like stories severed from their contexts. Which is what Tolkien figured out how to do: create a mythology that didn’t actually belong straightforwardly to any given culture.
Now, then, we get to George Lucas’s big idea. Lucas figured that if science fiction was going to revert back to being one of many styles then it could be merged with fantasy. In other word, Lucas figured out that you could do fantasy-style myth making with spaceships instead of the trappings of high fantasy. Hence Star Wars, which is essentially a fantasy story in terms of its plot structure and view of the world, but which is set in a world of spaceships and robots instead of in a world with dragons and elves.
Oftentimes this move on Lucas’s part is described in terms of the specific source he used for his myths: Joseph Campbell’s idea of the Hero’s Journey. But describing what Lucas did that way requires an unfortunate thing that I generally take pains to avoid, namely taking Joseph Campbell remotely seriously. But OK. Let’s do Joseph Campbell. Why not.
The thing about Joseph Campbell that should immediately make you enormously suspicious is that he claims to have identified a fundamental structure to mythology and heroism that establishes a universal vision of human greatness. This is just too sweeping a claim. But that’s not actually the biggest problem. The problem is how cack-handed his approach to it is. He provides an appallingly eurocentric view of mythology that manages to argue that all Eastern mythology is descended from Egyptian mythology and that culture flows primarily west-to-east. On top of that, his view of the hero is absurdly patriarchal. Given that he believes in a fundamental structure in human consciousness that creates the monomyth and that the monomyth is overtly male dominated, the necessary conclusion of Campbell’s thought is that patriarchy is a fundamental structure in human consciousness, which, frankly, fuck him. (There are points in reasoned debate about literary theory where it is necessary to tell people to go fuck themselves, and most of them involve Joseph Campbell.)
No. Campbell is a crank. A well-read crank, but a crank nevertheless. Basically, he identified one story he liked about death and resurrection and proceeded to find every instance of it he could in world mythology. Having discovered a vast expanse of nails for his newfound hammer he declared that it was a fundamental aspect of human existence, ignoring the fact that there were a thousand other “fundamental stories” that you could find in world mythology and that he’d twisted large amounts of world culture badly out of shape in order to suit his pre-selected conclusion. The stuff Miles and Wood suggested Image of the Fendahl was demonstrating the absurdity of? That’s Campbell. He has zero credibility in any of the actual academic fields his “research” intersects with. He’s pseudohumanities. Which is an impressive feat, and I’m not sure I can actually think of anyone else who qualifies as that. He is Timecube Man with a Bill Moyers special.
That said, the story he identified does work. It’s not a transcendent and fundamental aspect of human experience, but it’s a pretty good story, and George Lucas was savvy to nick it for the plot of Star Wars. Unfortunately, because Campbell was a lunatic blowhard who claimed that he’d identified a fundamental aspect of human existence, once Lucas showed that it also made money it became the mandatory structure of any piece of science fiction or fantasy made in Hollywood. I mean, unfortunately, this was the real legacy of Star Wars. Hollywood got suckered by a literary crank and came to believe there’s only one way to do a large number of movies. And so we continue to get a formulaic structure applied to all manner of things as though it’s the only story in the world. When, in fact, it’s frankly gotten boring.
There. I said it. The Hero’s Journey has gotten boring. There should be an outright moratorium on the Hero’s Journey across all narrative forms for at least a decade. The world would be a better place for it. But if we’re being honest and fair, and we do try to be, this is incidental. Even if Lucas did fall for Joseph Campbell’s quackery, he wasn’t trying to convert Hollywood to the cult.
But once you understand that Star Wars is more broadly about wedding mythic structures to science fiction iconography you realize that it’s not terribly original at all, what with Doctor Who having been doing it since 1963 (100,000 BC having been, at its heart, about ur-myths). And this is not to particularly privilege Doctor Who. Scads of science fiction was doing this stuff. It’s just that nobody had done it with quite the monomaniacal zeal of George Lucas, nor with his skill as a director (which is not inconsiderable – certainly well beyond the skills of anyone else who was directing sci-fi movies in 1977).
But once this switches to being the dominant paradigm of science fiction, it has some interesting effects for everyone else – ones that go beyond the cliches about effects or mythic structures or cute robots. Because it means that science fiction is viewed in a way that is much, much less focused on actual science and much more focused on storytelling, which had, in the golden age, very often played second fiddle to being clever with playground physics.
In effect, from this point on science fiction is less genre defined by plot or ideas and more a pile of images that feel science fictiony. And when you put those images into a story it becomes science fiction. This is not in and of itself a new idea, obviously, but even today you can find plenty of people who would cry foul at it. Because one of the things that this distinction splits people on is the nature of “believability” or “world-building” or (one of my least favorite terms ever) “suspension of disbelief.” So heck, having pissed off a raft of people by hating Star Wars and then another raft of them by hating Joseph Campbell, let’s just go for the triple crown and take down this too.
There’s a default mode that people think stories work in. In it, the reader (or whatever the appropriate noun for “consumer of the story” is in a given case) pretends that the work of fiction is really happening so as to respond to it. Related to this is a concept articulated by Tolkien of “secondary belief” in which the work of fiction is treated as if it presents a vision of a world that happens to not be real. In all of these views the problem with something that appears contradictory within a story or that doesn’t make sense is that it breaks the “realism” of the story and shatters the reader’s immersion.
This is, simply put, wrong. It is not how stories work at all. In the words of Gayatri Spivak, which I think I quoted just recently in the blog, but which I love quoting enough that I’ll use it again, novels are not gossip about imaginary people. They are not descriptions of people that just happen not to exist. Rather, they’re imitations, as Aristotle put it. Fiction has impact because it resembles the real world in some fashion and thus inherits some of its emotional affect. We care about things in fiction because they remind us of things that are real. And we read fiction through a process of continual interpretation and deciphering. Aristotle describes a plot as a web of events that make each other likely or necessary. Much of reading a work of fiction is working out that web – trying to figure out what the future implications of something are, or trying to work out why something happened based on what happened previously. (Indeed, this understanding of how reading works, as this parenthetical example shows by steadily approaching its conclusion so as to give you time to anticipate what it is, even on the sentence level.)
Understood this way, the problem with contradictions is that they are likely to be points in which the reader is led to make incorrect interpretive decisions for reasons having nothing to do with misdirection or surprise. To mention Doctor Who for a moment, the problem with having the Doctor pull a gun on someone and shoot them in cold blood is not that it’s not believable. If that for some ungodly reason happens in the Christmas special the problem will not be that the audience will in some sense disbelieve what happens on the screen. They will not deny that the Doctor shot someone. Instead they will be pissed off because everything about Doctor Who up to this point has told us that we should not ever expect the Doctor to do something like that. And so if it happened viewers would immediately want to know what had happened in order to cause the Doctor to change so drastically, and if that were not provided would rightly reject the story. And the reason they’d be right to reject it is that the story wouldn’t be interpretable – there’d be no way to coherently track the viewer’s expectations and assumptions as the story goes on.
The point of this digression is to clarify a consequence of treating a genre as an aesthetic. If a genre like science fiction is an aesthetic and not a narrative structure then the nature of what has to be explained in a science fiction story changes dramatically. In an aesthetic, elements can be combined purely because they are the sorts of things that go together. If you have a spaceship, you can put robots on it without having to explain how the robots work or what role they play in the operation of the spaceship, simply because robots are the sorts of things that go on a spaceship. What this means is that things don’t have to make sense. You don’t actually need a coherent account of the technology or history of your science fiction “world.” You just need to be able to tell a story that people can adequately anticipate and interpret.
And furthermore, you can have more than one logic going on at once. Star Wars works simultaneously along the Buck Rogers space action set of expectations and along the Tolkien-style fantasy expectations. Because the Buck Rogers style of stuff is really just a haze of events and style anyway, this was an easy merge, but the fact that it was done so smoothly and in such a high profile fashion did shove the baseline assumptions of science fiction and of genre-based writing in general to a new default position. The crossing of genres and the use of multiple concurrent narrative logics is going to become standard operating procedure starting from now. Again, of course, this is a switch that Doctor Who was ahead of the curve on.
But there were other switches Star Wars brought that Doctor Who was less ahead of the curve on. Obviously one of the big ones is special effects – the BBC was never going to match Lucas’s budget. Doctor Who also was far from near Star Wars on the link between science fiction and action sequences, though those are hardly new waters for Doctor Who to be navigating. And, of course, Doctor Who was mercifully behind the curve on all that Hero’s Journey nonsense, largely managing to avoid that crap until 1996.
Unfortunately, those are all the consequences of Star Wars that everybody noticed at the time, leaving Doctor Who in an odd position. In the short term, it just became profoundly uncool, and the show is going to take a slow and painful beating because of it. In the longer term, though, the shift of Star Wars towards a more story-based and postmodern (in the sense of combining multiple contexts and logics in one work) mode of science fiction also marks the point where the ideas Doctor Who has been using for fourteen years now suddenly take over the world. They just don’t bring Doctor Who with them. Yet.