Thursday, December 24, 2015

Star Wars VII: Before and After!

Sean, Brooks, and Greg join Megan and Melissa to watch STAR WARS EPISODE VII: THE FORCE AWAKENS! Recording on location just moments before seeing the movie, they discuss their expectations going in, then follow up with their initial reactions once the film is over.

Props to Greg for recording and editing this special edition minisode!


Saturday, December 5, 2015

Our Expanding Universe

What is the Expanded Universe?

The main interest and focus of this series will be the analysis of licensed properties which have sought to expand the Star Wars story. While these works contribute to the same fictional universe as the Star Wars movies, they are not necessarily considered part of the story’s official timeline. Since they are not granted the same level of credibility as the movies, any works classified as “expanded” works make up a fictional universe all their own, one with a much richer history than what was exclusively established by the films.

The Star Wars Expanded Universe began with Edward Summer, a fellow filmmaker and friend of George Lucas who served as a marketing consultant on the original Star Wars film. Lucas and producer Gary Kurtz were extremely interested in Disney’s marketing model. Summer, who had a number of Disney press kits in his collection, showed many of them to Lucas and Kurtz. According to Summer, the marketing of Peter Pan was particularly masterful and stood out to them. That film enjoyed a massive amount of marketing and merchandising, including comic books, toy tie-ins, and games. This initially served as the model for how they intended to market Star Wars. Although none of them realized it at that time, it also served as the genesis of the Star Wars Expanded Universe.[i]
Lucas Licensing oversaw the creation and publication of countless Star Wars stories in printed media, during the production of the original films and long after. The effort was less structured at first, but eventually these stories developed their own intersecting storylines, legitimizing them as genuine contributions to the Star Wars universe. This ongoing effort to maintain the Star Wars mythology outside of the films was branded, and is now popularly known as, the Expanded Universe.
Like our own universe, the Star Wars mythology is an ever-expanding and sometimes contracting world of limitless possibilities. Also like our universe, there are conflicting theories and debates concerning how or why (or even if) this occurs. It sounds more like physics than fiction, but that parallel is one of the reasons I find myself fascinated with the subject in the first place. When fiction creates worlds, mythologies are born.
So the question really is...

What is a mythology?

As a point of clarity, I am defining the mythology of a story based on the themes and motifs discussed in the works of Joseph Campbell, specifically The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Any story that creates worlds and explores universal themes within those worlds is, to some extent, a mythology. What we will focus on as we examine the Star Wars mythology is how that story creates for us a new expression of the mythical hero’s journey. This is in part because Campbell’s work on the subject is as definitive as any work I know, but also because his study of the hero’s journey was a direct influence on George Lucas when he created Star Wars.

The existence of an expanded universe in any franchise hints at the existence of a greater mythology in the core story. While often enough “expanded” works offer little more than repetitions of the larger story in a smaller medium, some franchises have managed to advance the mythology even in the absence of an ongoing incarnation of the core story.
Put simply, that means that franchises like Star Trek and Star Wars can be sustainable even during considerable periods of time where there are no movies or television series being produced. Stories told in other media - such as novels or comic books - fill in the gaps between larger productions, even though such stories rarely enjoy any attention or contribution by the original creators of the franchise.
Mythology at the most basic level comes down to two things: The complexity of the universe that is built around the story and the simplicity of the themes explored within the story. The universe in which Star Wars takes place could not be more alien to us cosmetically, but when we examine the problems and dreams of Luke Skywalker, we cannot help but feel that at his core he is not very different from us.
The core story in a fictional universe is focused on themes that are to some degree universal to all audiences. The story at this level is told in mainstream media that will appeal to the largest audience, for obvious reasons.
So before we go into the thematic construction of mythologies, it’s more important for us to focus on the process of world-building. The mythos of a story is determined by the scope of the universe it creates and the richness of that universe. Scope defines size while richness defines detail. An epic story requires scope, but its mythical qualities are defined in the details.

Continuity vs. Canon

The scope of a story is defined and ultimately regulated by rules that determine both the potential and the limitations of the world they govern. These rules are not overtly stated and are generated over time by events that occur within the framework of the story. As these events unfold, they create an intuitive understanding of what is and isn’t allowed in that universe. If this is not part of a larger plan (which it usually isn’t), how do these universal laws just organically manifest?
I think in order to answer that question it’s important to explain the difference between continuity and canon, because they are the most commonly cited governors of mythological world-building. Often these terms are used interchangeably, but they are not the same thing.
Continuity refers to the level of consistency that can be expected from one installment of the story to the next. It is quantitative in that it governs the basic constants of the universe. That James Kirk’s middle name is Tiberius is a matter of continuity, as is the fact that he is from Iowa and he serves on a spaceship called the USS Enterprise in the twenty third century. Someone has to remember from one episode of Star Trek to the next that these are part of the story’s universe. If this is not done, then the universe is only as big or as small as it is in the episode you are currently watching, and your investment in the story is managed accordingly.

Continuity is essentially the record of what has happened in the history of the story, incorporating all information contributed to the universe in the course of those events. When previously established details are later contradicted, the integrity of that history is called into question and the story illusion is jeopardized.
Canon performs a similar function, but is a much newer construct as a storytelling device. Canon is less concerned with specific content as it is with the context of the story as a whole. Continuity is quantitative, describing the timeline of what happened. Canon is a qualitative concept, informing our abstract understanding of the message those events are meant to communicate. In its subtler form, canon guides our perception of what transpires within the continuity of the story. In its more intrusive aspect, canon is also used to determine whether certain events belong in that continuity, regardless of whether or not those events occurred in an episode of the story that has already been presented to the audience. Canon sometimes follows the dubious pretext that what was heard is not always what was said.
It’s complicated enough when this process follows the events within a single story, even if the story unfolds in an ongoing series of individual episodes. When you’re dealing with a franchise that spans several media outlets and formats, many of which are not created or directly supervised by the original author of the work, there comes the question of how a story in the expanded mythology is to be considered. Specifically: What makes a story canonical (meaning that it is officially regarded to have actually happened)?
There are a lot of different approaches to how the canon of a fictional universe is developed, but in the broadest sense it is generated by an indirect creative collaboration between the story’s creators and its audience. Writers put forward certain ideas and they are either embraced by the audience and therefore ratified, or they are rejected and eventually overwritten. This shared concept of what makes the fictional universe function is generally recognized as its canon.
Canon is not a function of the mythological aspect of storytelling because if a story is mythological in tone, the themes within it should already be inherently understood by the audience. For this reason I will go over what is considered canon as we discuss various expanded works, but the relative canonicity of those works will not in any way impact my analysis of them or their place in the Star Wars mythology. I’m more interested in the content of the stories as it was originally presented.

Expanding Universes

Star Wars is a movie. Star Wars is a series of books. Star Wars is a series of comic books and newspaper comic strips as well as television movies, series, and specials. In a universe that broad, what is “real” and what isn’t? Is all of it real? What if one story contradicts another? What if a future movie contradicts what is said in one of the expanded stories? These are not questions that really got asked back in 1977, but people were slowly starting to decide that they should be.

Star Wars and Star Trek were the first major franchises to address the question of a comprehensive canon because they were the first franchises to fully develop their own expanded universes. Corporate entities licensed out properties as a marketing tool long before Gene Roddenberry and George Lucas came along, but in the case of Star Trek and Star Wars we see the first instances where the original creative force behind the story worked to retain enough creative control to insure the overall integrity of their fictional universe.
They approached the challenge in distinctively different ways. Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek, considered the television series and subsequent films to be “Star Trek fact” (canon) and all licensed properties like the myriad novels and comic books to be “Star Trek fiction” (non-canon). The creative teams behind the licensed properties were forbidden to maintain any continuity of characters and events with each other or indeed to develop original characters and continuity on their own. The Star Trek Expanded Universe, such as it was, served merely as a money machine for the various corporations that owned it. Gene Roddenberry had his research assistant, Richard Arnold, work with the Paramount licensing office to make sure the expanded works didn’t contradict the film canon, but there was no concept of an expanded canon that could stand on its own.[ii]
The same could be said for the Star Wars Expanded Universe, but the methodology was significantly different in how it would be regulated. An absolutist would argue that the only true Star Wars canon would be the films, and everything else is just a different interpretation of what might have happened outside the films. But this is not the case in terms of how expanded stories are classified in Star Wars canon.
It all comes down to control. The amount of control that Roddenberry and Lucas wanted to exert was roughly the same, as were their reasons for it. They believed in their creations and wanted to protect the brand they represented. But Gene Roddenberry didn’t own Star Trek. His role in terms of how its canon was developed was almost ceremonial. He was a creative consultant, but Star Trek was licensed out to unrelated corporate entities with or without his approval.
On the other hand, Star Wars was owned by a single person. 20th Century Fox owned the original film, but George Lucas owned and controlled all interests concerned with licensing and merchandising. Because Lucasfilm controlled the Star Wars Expanded Universe, Lucas Licensing could put a lot more effort into developing it. To that end they created a model that would be more flexible to the creative process of its contributors and a lot more satisfying to the fans. George Lucas was just as concerned with protecting his story as Gene Roddenberry had been with his, but Lucas also had a financial interest in assuring that the licensed properties had enough creative freedom to be successful in their own right.
At times it felt like Gene Roddenberry would deliberately hamstring the creative teams working on Star Trek licensed properties, because the expanded works were a necessary evil whose success was of no direct benefit to him.[iii] The Star Wars Expanded Universe was a departure from that methodology because Lucas had full creative and financial control of it. That distinction is significant, because it meant Lucas had the unique opportunity to construct a fully-functioning multi-platform fictional universe with himself as the final judge of what would go into it and the primary beneficiary of everything it produced.

The Star Wars Expanded Universe was the first consciously engineered and carefully cultivated expansion of a fictional mythology. Because its success as an entity has always been a priority, we as an audience have benefited from the creative directions the Expanded Universe was allowed to take. Its actual contribution to the overall mythology has always been questionable, but it was allowed to be self-sustaining as a microcosm within that mythology, and that’s worth studying too.


[ii] In the Hailing Frequencies Open editorial page of Star Trek #1 (DC’s 1989 comic series), series editor Robert Greenberger explained some of the restrictions dictated by Paramount’s licensing team and Gene Roddenberry’s office, including a prohibition against using any original characters created for their previous Star Trek comic book. The decision had also been made that the Star Trek animated series, which had previously been considered canon, was no longer considered canon and therefore the characters from that series were also off-limits.
[iii] In the Hailing Frequencies Open letters column of Star Trek #5 (DC’s 1989 comic book series),  a fan letter condemned  Gene Roddenberry’s research assistant Richard Arnold for forcing the DC creative team to dump their original secondary characters and focus only on main characters. Robert Greenberger was quick to clarify that Richard Arnold spoke on behalf of Gene Roddenberry, so those dictates did not come from Arnold but from Roddenberry himself.