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L.I. Underhill is a media critic and historian specializing in pop culture, with a focus on science fiction (especially Star Trek) and video games. Their projects include a critical history of Star Trek told through the narrative of a war in time, a “heretical” history of The Legend of Zelda series and a literary postmodern reading of Jim Davis' Garfield.

11 Comments

  1. Andrew Hickey
    May 5, 2014 @ 2:00 am

    You're not alone. Replace Star Trek with Doctor Who in this essay and I could have written it.
    (Oh, and I think RAW could also do syncretism without appropriation, but then as the missing link between Crowley and Moore, that would make sense.)

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  2. T. Hartwell
    May 5, 2014 @ 7:57 am

    The "belongs to everyone" point interests me a bit, because I think a crucial difference between Star Wars and Star Trek is that Star Wars actually doesn't belong to everyone- at least not in the same way that a multi-version long running science fiction show with multitudes of writers and a history of fan involvement does.

    Even before the takeover by Disney, Star Wars has always been run pretty firmly by a corporation- the same can be said of Star Trek, but the extent to which Lucasfilm and later Disney really controlled the franchise is nearly incomparable. Plus there's the issue of Lucas himself- while Star Trek always has the shadow of Roddenberry to deal with, there's at least an extent to which other writers and creatives' contributions to the show are seen and appreciated, and the fact the franchise continued noticeably after his death helped to establish the franchise as something more than just Roddenberry's brainchild.

    But Lucas has a weird sort of power over the franchise that, even though it's now out of his hands, you still feel his shadow over the property. I suspect a large part of this is the tendency to treat film directors as the be-all and end-all to a film's quality (despite Star Wars having obviously come from multiple other creatives like Katz, Kasdan, Marcia Lucas, etc.), but it's also the amount of control he really exerts over the films The special editions are telling, as he outright refuses to release any version of the film he doesn't specifically approve of (giving the film preservationists of us a bit of a headache), and explicitly views the franchise as "his movies". Even canon is part and parcel of this, with Lucas taking part in saying what did and didn't count more than Roddenberry ever did. It's possible things'll change in this regard with the new films, but it doesn't strike me as particularly likely.

    For me, I quite enjoy Star Wars and Empire (the latter I do consider to be a legitimately great film, seeing as it's the only one that's actually about anything), but don't really care for the others- Return especially I find lazy and unimaginative, especially as a follow-up to what Empire was doing. It makes the franchise monumentally less interesting, and one wonders how it'd be perceived today had Lucas not rewritten the script after Empire's financial issues.

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  3. Josh Marsfelder
    May 5, 2014 @ 8:44 am

    I can't speak for Merry Eyesore the Elk here, but I grant that there's a sense of authorship/authority that dogs Star Wars in a way even Star Trek lacks. Gene Roddenberry tends to get all the credit for everything Star Trek did that was good, while George Lucas gets all the credit for everything Star Wars did, good or ill. Strange: Roddenberry seems to have a reputation for being a Singular Creative Authority, whereas Lucas actually was one. I do think some of this has to do with one franchise being primarily filmic and one being primarily TV- (and fanfic-) based, though.

    But I'm speaking in a far more esoteric sense. Star Wars has been around long enough (and been big long enough) that it's permanently embedded in the pop consciousness. Despite the protestations of Lucas, given that it's been an iconic shared cultural experience for everyone (me, Phil and Andrew aside-Hi, Andrew) and the mere fact people do get so upset about what is and isn't canon and what Star Wars means to them, personally…I think that has to count for something.

    (But no. It's not as successful in this regard as Star Trek. Nowhere near so. But that's a discussion for another time…)

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  4. Jack Graham
    May 5, 2014 @ 12:47 pm

    I have a foot in both camps here because.. yes, Star Wars was a massive part of my childhood, but it has entirely failed to carry forward into my adulthood. I just don't care about it much anymore. I still stick the original trilogy on from time to time, but in the same way that I occasionally stick Clash of the Titans on… and Star Wars probably gets put in the DVD player significantly less frequently than that particular attempt to cash-in.

    It's primary influence upon me was probably as a gateway drug. It led me to other SF, including Trek and Who, both of which loom much larger – though Who is the franchise that insinuated itself into my head as a part of my personality, a myth I continue to use to think with.

    Star Wars was several narratives for me. It was the movies and, primarily, it was the stories I made up for myself using the toys. The memory of asking my Mum for a Luke Skywalker figure precedes the memory of seeing the film (on my uncle's top-loading VHS player with massive springy buttons) and the memory of seeing Doctor Who for the first time. Star Wars pulled me towards Who, Trek, Blakes 7, Hitch-Hikers, and then on to the George Pal H.G. Wells adaptations, and from there on to SF books, etc etc etc. Ironic, given how little it has in common with such other works… but then Josh himself narrates the assumption in his own kidhood that liking Trek will entail liking Wars.

    Star Wars works for me now primarily on the level of pure aesthetics. Images and music and moments. And catchphrases that I share with my cousins, with whom I played Star Wars when we were all kids. I think that's how it works best, since it is primarily an aesthetic experience. It lacks that novelistic fullness that comes with cobbled-together, rambling, polyauthored TV franchises like Trek and Who, even if it has a superficial unity coherence that they lack.

    One thing that Wars always had over other stuff (except Who) was its villains. Vader and the Emperor are tremendously powerful figures of evil for kids – sinister, aesthetically menacing, yet also safely delineated and fantastical. In Trek, only the Borg have really achieved anything like the same oneiric monstrous power – and they are a generalised monstrosity rather than 'villains'. Who, of course, has Daleks and Davros and Cybermen, etc. This is probably one reason why Trek tends not to latch itself onto the brains of kids in the same way as those other franchises.

    One last thing: I was looking over a sort of online Star Wars encyclopedia once and read that the Empire 'nationalised' everything. Star Wars is inherently more reactionary than Trek. But it is reactionary in the same fairytale way that it manages to be hippyish. All bitesize chunks of nice, comforting oversimplification. Yoda has mindless soundbites about the Force that can be mistaken for profundities. And the Empire is the ultimate Republican wet nightmare of 'the state' run amok.

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  5. Josh Marsfelder
    May 5, 2014 @ 2:42 pm

    This is probably the definitive thing on Star Wars I've ever read. Seriously, great job. You could probably write a retrospective of your own if you wanted.

    "Star Wars was several narratives for me. It was the movies and, primarily, it was the stories I made up for myself using the toys. The memory of asking my Mum for a Luke Skywalker figure precedes the memory of seeing the film (on my uncle's top-loading VHS player with massive springy buttons) and the memory of seeing Doctor Who for the first time."

    "Star Wars works for me now primarily on the level of pure aesthetics. Images and music and moments. And catchphrases that I share with my cousins, with whom I played Star Wars when we were all kids."

    And this, right here, touches on the heart of this kind of fandom for me. Swap out Star Wars for Star Trek and you've essentially explained, word-for-word, the affinity I retain for this franchise. The difference is that I do in fact think there are material Soda Pop Artefacts in Star Trek worth studying as well where, as you said, Star Wars tends to fall apart once you stop being a kid.

    But its the characters, the setting, the images and the ideas the stick with me the most, combined with this spiritual dimension I keep writing back onto things. And I think that translates into fanfiction and role-playing, and why I genuinely do feel that's the future for franchises like this: It's not just about writing your own stories, it's about expressing your love and connection to the universe and what that accumulation of symbols means to you.

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  6. Cleofis
    May 5, 2014 @ 6:51 pm

    "Star Wars works for me now primarily on the level of pure aesthetics. Images and music and moments."

    This right here. Appropriate you mention VFX Makers, Josh, as it's primarily on the basis of it's practical effects that the original movies continue to hold appeal for me; the original trilogy is a visual feast, and wonderfully tactile in a way only movies preceding our current CGI-dependent digital age are (although when it comes to the "used universe" look, Ridley Scott's Alien trumps it in every conceivable way, mostly by actually being about something, as Jack so aptly put it).

    And yet…Episode IV was actually the first film I ever saw in a theater (my first film ever that I can remember seeing and loving was an advance VHS copy of Disney's Cinderella my parents got from some friends of theirs who worked a video store. It was a personal favorite of me and my sister, and that I grew up on both it and the old Filmation Superman cartoons, amongst others, ended up foreshadowing the person I would eventually grow up to be uncannily well). My dad took me to see the Special Edition re-release at the now long gone local theater in my town. I certainly wouldn't call it worldview-shaping or life changing, but it was great spectacle. That said, my relationship with Star Wars is strange. I've partaken of the Expanded Universe material (primarily in terms of video games and some of the novels and comics) to such an extent, and have a broad working knowledge of The Verse, as it were, that I can't really call my self a casual fan. On the other hand, I really don't give a flying fuck about what gets done with SW, aside from bemoaning the fact that so many great series the franchise spawned will never be continued. Indeed, SW video games probably had a bigger presence for me growing up (and even today) then the movies themselves, which I rarely saw. Dark Forces/Jedi Knight, Rogue Squadron, Knights of the Old Republic, and so on.

    Speaking of that last, Josh, that "brilliant, subversive and transformative take on the franchise" you mentioned? We got it, in the form of Knights of the Old Republic 2: The Sith Lords, courtesy of Chris Avellone and Obsidian (of Planescape: Torment and Fallout: New Vegas fame), considered by many to be the best thing with Star Wars name on it ever created. You'd love it, I think; it's essentially a multi-hour long demolition of SW's cardboard philosophy and spirituality, and in many ways helped to kickstart the very gradual move towards more ambiguity in moral choice in gaming, western RPGs in particular. Like much of the Trek of which you're most fond, it works quietly within the confines of a flawed larger tradition to make something great. It was also, sadly, rushed out prematurely by Lucasarts for the Christmas rush, and thus was buggy as all hell on release and quite literally without an ending; Obsidian ended up releasing all or most of the cut or missing material to the fans, who went ahead and created a mod that allows one to play it more or less as it was originally intended. Highly recommended if you haven't given it a try, and don't mind a rather lengthy introductory quest before things really start rolling.

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  7. Josh Marsfelder
    May 6, 2014 @ 11:00 am

    I was aware the original Knights of the Old Republic is considered by many to be the high water mark of Star Wars: I was first getting into game journalism when that that game was just starting to get a lot of really exciting buzz. I was also aware that the sequel was considered by many to be a massive disappointment for precisely the reasons you outline above-I didn't know there was a mod out to fix all of that, so that's really great to hear, thanks!

    I get the feeling Knights of the Old Republic is sort of the pioneer for where BioWare eventually went with Mass Effect. Every few years I think about playing it, but then never get around to.Maybe I will now. Hopefully I'll like it better than Mass Effect.

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  8. Daru
    May 10, 2014 @ 3:10 am

    Thanks for a great essay Josh.

    Very interesting to hear about your experience and relationship to Star Wars. I am gonna be honest here, I do have a totally divergent experience from you – but I am not in any way partisan, unlike some folk I have comes across, and would never want to stand up and shout that it is the best thing in the world and highlight your true feeling of loneliness, despite the fact that the movies (the original trilogy) have shot through my life with a bit of a golden thread of memory.

    But first I want to start with Joseph Campbell. About 9 or so years after watching the original movie as a kid with my father which is a pretty golden memory. I remember seeing Campbell on TV here in the UK presenting his ideas on the Myth of the Hero over a series of talking head interviews, with one of the linking in Star Wars. At the time this wowed me and really inspired me massively on my inner personal journey. Now, I do totally get the criticism of Campbell and the problems with his mono-mythic approach, as I have attempted reading The Hero With a Thousand Faces and Myths to Live By and neither work for me. In lot of ways I think he might have been piggy-backing on the popularity of SW and allowing Lucas to ret-con mythic intent into his work.

    There is though a lot more to Campbell – I recommend checking out his book series The Masks of God where he explores myth in a much wider (and deeper) context than his later books. I sadly do then think that Campbell did himself a big disservice in linking himself with SW, leading to a diluting down of his ideas and The Writer's Journey where the most over-simplified form of his approach is offered up as a one-size-fits-all approach to scriptwriting. I do not think that is work can now easily be seen beyond this or SW now.

    "Star Wars to be many people's first interaction with the concept of comparative mythology, and I grant that: Star Wars isn't particularly good at this, but it's likely the first exposure many people are going to have with the idea"

    So yes as you can see the above was big part of my journey with SW, as well as RPG, and getting me into storytelling. I did love playing SW RPG more than Trek RPG as with Trek I had real trouble playing to rank and that turned me off. So I agree nowadays that SW is a cobbled together series of images, symbols and themes woven from many cultures – but as a kid it totally drew me in along with the "wonderfully tactile" (thanks Cleofis) approach to model making, that helped my imagination feel like it was in a world that had solid things in it.

    In the end though, I do love (and have loved) Trek SW and Doctor Who all equally. Though each work on me in different ways, as well as me spending time with SW less now. In the 90's I was not part of any fandom and as a result I have never had the experience of being on one side or the other as far as fan divisions go – and I would never have time for anyone who makes someone else feel lesser for not sharing a love for the same product they have.

    So Josh, thanks for sharing such a personal story of your relationship to Star Wars.

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  9. BerserkRL
    May 10, 2014 @ 9:34 pm

    I always thought the Empire was just the Federation as more honestly seen form the standpoint of its subjects.

    And I'm willing to forgive the prequels much because they get the politics so right.

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  10. bbqplatypus318
    May 13, 2014 @ 4:23 pm

    I've been so busy lately that I've fallen massively behind on your blog – as I have a lot of things that are interesting and fun. Consequently, I find that nearly everybody's said what I have to say already. My family had the original trilogy on VHS when I was a kid. My brothers and I watched it so many times I'm surprised we didn't wear out the tape. Needless to say, I can still "sing along" to basically every line of dialogue in the original trilogy. (I remember one of the commercials before the start of the tape, loudly proclaiming that this would be the LAST TIME the Original Trilogy would be available on home video – a claim that I was able to see through even as an 8 year-old boy).

    There are a few things I could say about it (one of these days I'm going to come to the defense of Return of the Jedi in a big way), but on the whole, it works on much the same level that you and the commenters here say it does: on a visceral cinematic level. The original Star Wars trilogy is a series of films that knows how to grab you by the short and curlies. The characters are incredibly broad, yet recognizable and sharply drawn, archetypes which can easily be identified, understood, liked, and disliked. The production design is a triumph – it feels lived in, but the design choices made also evoke clear emotions (not thoughts or ideas, emotions – think the opening shot of the Tantive IV being chased by the massive Star Destroyer, which tells you much of what you need to know about the story without any need for dialogue). In short, Star Trek, the new BSG, Doctor Who, and the like may have more intelligent things to say, but at its best, Star Wars made people CARE. Which in my opinion is owing to the way it makes use of visual and symbolic language. Maybe that's why MK likes it so much.

    Of course, all this makes it all the more clear that Star Wars' success owes far more to Ralph McQuarrie than it does to George Lucas.

    On a completely separate note that I found no way to make a good segue into, as much as George Lucas looms over the franchise, it's interesting that his EU policy is more inclusive than, say, Star Trek's. As opposed to "nothing is canon unless I say it is," it's "everything released commercially is canon unless I say it's not." Which is still inferior to Doctor Who's policy (and more inferior still to The Elder Scrolls's policy), I did find it interesting. And as a kid, enjoyable – since I was a fan of the Dark Forces games (and later on, Knights of the Old Republic). Still, it makes sense – playing with the action figures and making your own stories is what kids are supposed to do.

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  11. Froborr
    October 12, 2014 @ 8:24 am

    Count me as another for whom Star Wars is nothing special. It had its appeal as a child, then I grew out of it. I watched the prequels and was left entirely unenthused, so I went back and watched the original films with the nostalgia goggles off, only to realize that they are really just as bad.

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