Among the major franchises, Star Wars has held itself apart by maintaining a single continuity within all the components of the franchise. Unlike Marvel and DC comics, there have been no split timelines or reboots of character origin stories. Unlike Star Trek, the Star Wars novels and comics are canon stories. In fact, Star Wars has even treated the nonfiction supplements, roleplaying game manuals, and videogame plots as Expanded Universe canon, too.
After twenty years of this single continuity being such a success for the franchise, it seems to me as though there are more fans calling for jettisoning that defining part of Star Wars than ever before. I understand why these fans feel the way that they do, but I firmly believe that eliminating the single continuity from Star Wars and the Expanded Universe would be a huge mistake – and a blow to the fandom from which the franchise might never recover.
A Split Continuity for The Clone Wars?
There has been a lot of uproar recently in the Star Wars fandom about the impact of The Clone Wars on the Expanded Universe. Some fans have signed a petition, aimed primarily at George Lucas, calling for greater efforts to ensure TCW complies with previously established facts in the EU. Other fans have gone further, suggesting ending the single continuity and severing TCW and the EU into separate, diverging universes.
Should there be some penalty flags thrown over a few of the recent continuity glitches? Absolutely. But suggesting rebooting into a second timeline is another path entirely. The suggestion is basically this: If TCW won’t maintain consistency with previous EU material, isn’t it better to reboot TCW into its own separate freestanding story than to let TCW continue mucking around with the EU? In one word, no.
One of the flashpoints in the recent fan uproar is the example of Jedi Master Even Piell. His death in one of the final third-season episodes of TCW contradicts the prior EU novel Jedi Twilight, which showed Piell living nearly two decades longer until his death in that book. True it’s a contradiction, but it’s a minor issue. For one thing, movies and television shows are generally told from omniscient point of view, which provides an objective truth to the story. By contrast Jedi Twilight, like most of the EU, is told from past-tense third-person limited point of view. It’s a recollection of someone’s memory given as narration. Therefore it’s unreliable, and any errors can easily be attributed to faulty memory, confusion, or misremembering. Besides, even if the EU does have some objective components, real-world encyclopedias and history books get rewritten all time. There’s nothing troubling about the in-universe history of Star Wars being adjusted and revised from time to time, as well. And let’s not forget that the EU has created plenty of factual conflicts on its own, long before TCW ever came onto the scene. So we need to be skeptical of the idea that TCW needs to be segregated out into a rebooted timeline for doing something the EU itself has done and continues to do.
While many continuity-minded fans – and yes, these are generally fanboys – can’t get past the fact-checking conflicts created by TCW, I’m going to look at this as a storyteller. And here’s the most important part: it’s someone else’s story. Specifically the man who created Star Wars; some like to call him The Maker. Let’s imagine sitting in the room with him, discussing Master Piell’s death in the TCW story conference. George Lucas says he wants to kill Piell in the Citadel story. Someone points out the contradiction with prior material. The Maker might ask, just how serious of a conflict is this? Well, the reply would go, it’s a couple of brief passages in a single EU novel in a standalone trilogy. In other words, Lucas might rightfully say, something a small number of people will ever notice compared to how many people will watch the TCW episode. So if Lucas believes in his story idea enough, compared to the insignificance of the EU facts he’s overwriting, then he’s going to go ahead with it.
True, Master Piell’s death in TCW requires a little bit of tweaking of some small details in the EU. But hardly worth crying over spilled milk. At this point, we’re a long way from needing a split continuity or a reboot based on the relatively small number of fact-checking conflicts between TCW and the EU.
I’ll readily concede that there might be a breaking point, but we’re nowhere near that yet. I don’t think I need to explain why we’d be past that point if Lucas had decided that he really liked the character of Mara Jade and wanted to include her in TCW, and he did that by including her as a twenty-year-old personal assassin for Count Dooku instead of Asajj Ventress. Or consider Padmé. If Lucas decides that she was a blonde and always was a blonde, and he wants to digitally edit all three movies of the prequel trilogy and three seasons of TCW to change her hair color, it would clearly mark a revision to previous continuity. But would it change anything? Not really; her hair color has basically no significance to anything about her characterization. On the other hand, if Lucas rebooted Padmé from a politician to an underworld smuggler with a heart of gold, she’s no longer the same person. It’s a matter of degree, but we’re still in the minor leagues right now, by far.
Ultimately, though, that’s my real concern about reboots: when it’s not about giving factual consistency a fresh start, but instead about starting over with the characters and their portrayals. That kind of reboot would be devastating to the Star Wars fandom.
A Reboot for the post-movies Expanded Universe?
That’s exactly what some EU fans are asking for: a reboot of the post-Return of the Jedi storyline. Just this week, for example, two threads in the TFN Literature forum have sparked serious discussion about previously passionate fans now feeling apathy toward the EU and whether the post-ROTJ stories should have ended when the NJO series did. Not all of these disaffected fans have called for a reboot, of course, but some of them have. And it’s not concerns about fact-checking conflicts that are motivating those EU fans. Instead, it’s their dissatisfaction with the plotlines and characterizations that leads them to want the characters’ lives to start over. For these fans, the only way to “save” the EU is to restart it.
One major problem with this idea, of course, is deciding what the scope of any reboot would be. Where do we reboot from? What do we keep and what gets restarted?
The fans calling for a reboot often don’t agree about where the “right” cut-off point is. You’ll see very few people who want everything post-ROTJ eliminated, because almost nobody wants to see Thrawn and Mara Jade erased. A few people want everything after the Thrawn Trilogy erased, though, because they don’t like Dark Empire or the Callista books. Other people are content to keep the pre-NJO books, but they want everything starting with Vector Prime to be gone. Still others like the NJO series, but are outraged by the path taken in the subsequent novels (in particular, for example, Jacen Solo’s fall to the dark side and Mara’s death). Some fans want the Legacy comics excised from canon.
This, in and of itself, is a good reason not to reboot. No matter where the reboot point is, it will inevitably be excluding novels or comics that some people really like.
Another significant difficulty with the idea of a reboot is that it doesn’t address the true problem with the Star Wars EU – that the storytelling vision has been weak for some time now. Ultimately, we’d get a reboot with the exact same flaws all over again – butchering of characterization, subpar writing, and weak plots. There’s no point to starting over if we’ll just end up right back where we started.
A final reason not to reboot is that for every fan who might come back to the EU if the plotlines or characterizations they dislike were gone, there will be many more who walk away. Anyone who’s been reading my blog knows that I have my share of dissatisfactions with the recent EU, too – but if the EU reboots, I’ll be one of those people who never buys an EU product again. I’ve invested a decade and hundreds of dollars in these stories. I have absolutely no interest in starting over. And I know there are a lot of others like me.
Why Fangirls Don’t Connect With Reboots
Here’s the thing: there generally is a difference between male and female fans in terms of what kind of consistency matters most to them. Not everyone fits the general demographics perfectly, but part of selling a product is recognizing trends in the market. And when it comes to a Star Wars, I haven’t seen a lot of fangirls suggesting they have any interest in a reboot. There are some who want a post-ROTJ EU reboot, but most of the fans calling for that are men, too. It also seems that more women have walked away from the EU, and quicker, than men. A reboot, I think, would make the problem a thousand times worse.
For the most part, fanboys gravitate toward facts, details, and minutiae. How many women helped scour the obscure sources of the EU to chart all those star systems for the Essential Atlas and its online supplements? How many girls do you know who can rattle off the stats of every baseball player on their hometown team? Not many. Or cars: when the auctions like Barrett-Jackson dominate Speed Channel, it’s a team of men spouting an endless myriad of facts about a car made in 1957, then telling you this car has lost some value because it doesn’t quite meet all those standards of detail. It’s not quite perfect…
I’m not saying all men do this, but if you look at the ingrained genetic makeup, men are wired to look for some ideal of perfection that can be quantified: in baseball stats, in cars, in the length of a Star Destroyer – and yes, in women. Or at least that’s how women perceive it, especially as we progress toward the more dinged-up, less-perfect age. How many of us can recite the story of Mr. So-and-So who left his older wife or girlfriend for a younger, slimmer, hotter model? Reboot the relationship, anyone?
On the other hand, women are wired a little differently. There are a whole slew of sociological and physiological reasons why women are much more willing to take the bad with the good. The most important reason is that, while we aren’t always comfortable embracing our own imperfections, women are generally accepting of our loved ones, our friends, and even our favorite franchises – warts and all.
Fangirls are invested in characters, not plots or facts. It’s the reason women went to see Titanic dozens of times or reread their favorite book over and over. It’s the experience of the characters and their story that reaches us. That’s why women don’t write biographies on Wookieepedia; we write fanfiction to tell more stories about our favorite characters, digging more deeply into their lives, personalities, and choices. It also explains why women who loved Alias or Buffy the Vampire Slayer weren’t necessarily eager to dive into similarly styled stories unless they were sold equally compelling characters and storylines, such as what happened with Undercovers and Dollhouse.
And above all, that’s why reboots have a very difficult time connecting with most female fans. We simply are unable to just dismiss what we’ve already experienced as part of these characters’ lives. The notion of a do-over is inconceivable. There are exceptions, of course, like the success with women of the recent reboot of Battlestar Galactica. But that was also a franchise that had been long out of the public eye and had a very small existing fanbase; I bet the newer BSG has a considerably bigger fanbase than the older one. Contrast that to the extensive female fan disgust (if not outrage) at the news that Warner Brothers is planning to reboot Buffy, a franchise whose first incarnation is still quite popular and still has ongoing comics storylines with the original television cast. Or the heavy skepticism of NBC’s planned reboot of the Wonder Woman television series, when so many woman have fond memories of Lynda Carter’s iconic portrayal.
Think about it this way: are there any female production teams trying to redo Superman again, or Batman or Spiderman? No. While women might dislike a thing or two about whatever version of Spiderman or Superman we grew up with, we generally don’t feel a need to “make it better.” I have no interest in the next Spiderman movie, considering I still enjoy the Tobey Maguire ones. I don’t care who’s starring in the next Superman – I won’t go see it, at least not at the theaters. (Maybe when it’s on TV, and free.) My Superman is Christopher Reeve. When Brendan Routh came along in Superman Returns, I was dubious until I heard that the story moved ahead in time rather than redefining Superman’s origins; then I had no trouble accepting it. Smallville, while it steps on some parts of the movie and comics continuity, has respectfully avoided the supersuit and will draw its series finale up to the point the cape is unfurled.
Although I understand on an intellectual level that franchises like Superman and Batman have been rebooted several times in the movies, I’m not sure why it’s been necessary other than we got better special effects. Watch interviews with the producers and writers on these reboots and they talk about making it better, fresher, newer… Really, though, all it boils down to each new set of producers wanting to tell it their way. Looking back at the continuity petition, I see a little bit of that same mindset – but I wonder, really, how many people, given free rein, would actually do it better than George Lucas. The same thing goes for a post-ROTJ EU reboot. I’m sure some of the female fans would come back and give the rebooted EU a shot, but would they be enough to make up for the fangirls the EU would lose? And how long would they stick around, especially if the rebooted EU ended up taking some similar thematic turns to the current EU?
The one recent reboot I can think of that seems to have resonated with a lot of fangirls is Star Trek as redone by J.J. Abrams, who interestingly enough had previously struck fangirl gold with stories like Alias and Lost. But Star Trek was also in an interesting position at the time, much closer to BSG than to something like Superman or Spiderman. Star Trek had truly lost some of its magic when it had stopped embracing its fans, and it was ripe for some fresh enthusiasm. Abrams was smart in that he opened up possibilities for new romances and a fresh take on friendships and most importantly good storytelling. Another successful reboot for Star Trek won’t happen again, though, unless the franchise slips back into the doldrums. And keep in mind, the Abrams reboot only has one successful story under its belt at this point – it has a long way to go to prove that the reboot is a sustainable franchise on its own.
So if reboots rarely are successful with female fans, how come we see so many of them lately?
To understand the reboot phenomenon, you have to look to comics, which have seen a lot of reboots over the years. If you dig deep into the how’s and why’s of comics reboots, they often get written when maintaining the original continuity becomes difficult. Some editors simply disregarded prior stories and ended up with such a mess they had to start all over in an attempt to recapture the magic. Other times, existing backstory conflicted with ideas for where the authors wanted to go, and only a reboot would let them take the story there. And on occasion, editors and authors just worked themselves into such a disagreement that reboots were a convenient way to bring in fresh staff. In about every situation, it was some difficulty in the story design that brought about the reboot; starting over was simply the path of least resistance.
I think this is the very reason comics are generally inaccessible to female fans. If you’re invested mostly in how their lives have shaped the characters, the last thing women want to do is start from the beginning all over again. I think Sarah Michelle Gellar’s comments on the possible reboot of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie sums up quite nicely how women generally feel toward rebooting:
“I think it’s a horrible idea. To try to do a ‘Buffy’ without Joss Whedon, I mean that’s, like, honestly, to be incredibly non-eloquent: that’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard. It was a movie. It’s been made. It stars Kristy Swanson. They made it. They don’t need to make another one!”
There’s another problem with the constant reboots in comics, too. If you took a broad look at fans from any one franchise there would be a limited number who knew and understood the intricacies of any one timeline. Now compound that with multiple timelines for each franchise, and you’ve got an overwhelming amount of information to keep track of. If you’re not a factoid driven reader but enjoyed the latest Spiderman comic, it’s nearly impossible to enter a conversation on a message board without knowing not only the current universe but all those universes that went before. And if you don’t, you’ll be dismissed as less of a fan.
This is the same mentality thrown at fans in Star Wars literature discussions if they don’t know the details buried in some obscure RPG handbook or Essential Guide. In the minds of some fans, those less knowledgeable are lesser fans, when in reality the fans more focused on characterization and character-development milestones are simply choosing to enjoy the Star Wars tale differently. Their memory of Star Wars is hit by indelible grand markers – Vader telling Luke he is his father; Han, Luke, Leia and Chewie falling in the trash compactor; Han shooting first…
Or, as Tina Fey explained on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson on April 19th:
“Maybe what we – the girls took from Star Wars – what I took from Star Wars – was the Han Solo / Princess Leia relationship story.”
Why Rebooting Star Wars Would Be Disastrous
Ever wondered why Lucas’ tinkering with who shot first – Han or Greedo – was such a major sticking point for so many people, fangirls included? On one level, it’s a little fact about how one scene transpired. But it’s a lot more than that, because it actually changes who Han is in Episode IV. The guy who’d shoot first is not the same guy who’d shoot Greedo in self-defense. It changes our core understanding of the story – and many of us were deeply invested in the Han we saw first, and don’t want him whitewashed.
It’s for that very reason that a reboot of the post-ROTJ EU would cost Lucasfilm far more customers than it would gain. EU fans are invested in the lives of the characters we’ve come to know over twenty years of stories. Even if we might not always like the plots or the portrayals, it’s still who those characters are to us. Personally, I’ve become quite unhappy with the direction of the post-NJO novels – but I don’t want to suddenly have Jaina and Jacen, Jag and Tenel Ka, Tahiri and Zekk, and all the others to have nearly twenty years of their lives erased. I’ll take what we have, warts and all, over that. Honestly, I think there’s a lot available for the authors to work with. For once they should try rectifying continuity of characterization instead of continuity of inconsequential factoids; fanfiction writers have been managing to “retcon” the bizarre directions characters have been sent down for years. I actually think if the professional writers step up to that challenge, it will result in much better storytelling for the EU.
Master Piell’s death in TCW is different, because it’s a mere blip in factual detail. His appearance in Jedi Twilight was basically as a plot device, and changing that role to another character won’t make any difference to either Piell’s or Jax Pavan’s character development. Still, I do agree with basic sentiment of the fan’s petition to protect the EU. Too much chaos in the continuity runs the risk of bringing Star Wars into that zone where the editors and writers simply decide it’s too hard to maintain one continuity, and then Star Wars could fall into the same trap as comic books – a genre that still hasn’t proven it can be mainstream and universal, especially not where women are concerned.
Star Wars as a franchise isn’t suffering for fans – it’s mainly the EU that’s been struggling lately. I’ve talked a lot in past blogs about why women have walked away and why I think Lucasfilm catering to the uberfanboy mentality has made the EU inaccessible to many other fans. So while many of the female fans aren’t up in arms over events such as Master Piell’s death, at least not to the point we need to petition for Lucas himself to leave Star Wars alone, there is one clear line that would probably send many of the female fans walking away – and that’s a reboot or any type of splitting of continuities. And when it comes to selling books, the province of the EU, the driving demographic for book sales is women.
If a reboot isn’t the solution to the EU’s troubles, maybe something else can be. On Monday, I’ll share my idea for what that big event should be.
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