Reflecting on The Force Awakens

PosterI, as much as any fan, bought into the hype and excitement around Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I wrote a number of blog posts about it – more than any other movie, certainly. And generally, on reflection, I’m happy with what we got, mostly…

My first article, published September 14, asked if R2D2 was being demoted. Having seen the movie, I would say, we all know that the answer to that is yes.

My second article asked ‘Whither Luke?’ and posited that perhaps he wouldn?t be a big part of The Force Awakens. We now know that his cameo was a non-speaking role. It also speculated that he needed to die for his successor’s journey to be complete (ironic, that)

My third pre-release article was ‘De-Mythologizing the Lightsaber‘ because, truth be told, lightsabers aren?t that great a weapon.

Lastly, I reviewed the film after its release, The Force Awakens: Star Wars’ Greatest Hits with A Few New Numbers. I revised this article slightly after a second viewing.

I stand by each of these articles. They offered my opinion at the time and generally still hold true for me.

Now I’d like to revisit The Force Awakens from a different perspective: How to improve the version that we’ve all seen. I know, as soon as we talk about ‘improving’ Star Wars, we get ‘Special Edition’ fright. But the Phantom Edit and other unofficial works have shown that improvement isn’t necessarily bad. Besides, there are only two places that I would prefer to have seen changes, so bear with my hypothetical “improvements.”

One of the first scenes in the film that jarred me, pushed me out of the narrative, was Rey and Finn boarding the Falcon. The ramp was down, inviting entry. Why? Wouldn’t it have been cooler if it was because Han and Chewie were there, outside the Falcon. Rey and Finn run onboard, Han and Chewie scramble to get back onboard – so it’s still Rey flying, Finn on the gun.

This scenario allows us to excise the rather lame mid-film set-piece involving weird monsters and Yakuza-like gangs. The argument that the scene allowed popular Chinese actors to participate in Star Wars, and hopefully make the film popular in China, is, frankly, lame.

What, you weren’t going to make enough money off the film? And, again frankly, whatever boost you expected to get in China from that scene would only last a few days until word of mouth (and possibly a backlash) spread.

The whole side-track to Maz’s planet was silly. Maz should have been living on the same planet as the Resistance base. This would have simplified the plot a lot. The Resistance is stronger than expected, repelling the first attack (or the base is revealed to be there when the fighters quickly appear to repel Ren’s invasion).

Fan Participation: Star Wars vs Star Trek

I hope that I don’t have to tell you that I’m a Star Wars fan. I’ve been less demonstrative of my love of Trek, partially because that’s how Trekkies/Trekkers roll (all logical and all that crap) and partially because JJ Abrams seems to have used the last two Star Trek outings to audition to direct Star Wars Episode VII. But I’ve lived inside the fan bases of both of these franchises and they are very different. I think one key difference comes down to how they are nurtured by their respective franchise owners, Paramount and Lucasfilm: the originality that Paramount nurtures versus the inclusion that Lucasfilms promotes.

Initially, there wasn’t much to tell them apart. Both had conventions, comic books, paperback new adventures, and not much more.

Then something strange happened. Star Wars fans, many of whom were inspired to join the moviemaking industry, started making fan films. We had simple efforts like Toaster Wars, absurd full-budget parodies like Spaceballs, and eventually the classic fan films Troops and George Lucas in Love (Which uses Shakespeare in Love as its template). Lucasfilm has a convoluted relationship with fan films, some times embracing them, sometimes rejecting their existence. For the average, non-Hollywood fan, Star Wars fandom tended to be limited to cosplay (dress up like their favourite characters). The 501 Imperial Legion (Vader’s Fist) grew from this, as did its opposition, the Rebel Legion (a.k.a. Rebel Scum).

Paramount has allowed fans to expand the Star Trek legacy in a way that Lucasfilms hasn’t allowed with Star Wars. Star Trek actors have participated in the creation of fan-based Trek, notably, William Shatner participated in Free Enterprise, about an obsessed fan.

Lately, the Star Trek fanbase, and many of the original actors (from main character players like Walter Koenig, Tim Russ, and Michael Dorn to recurring character actors like Gary Graham) have started making high quality Star Trek stories. Star Trek Continues and Star Trek New Voyages both continue the original series with new episodes, obviously recasting the roles. The highly anticipated Star Trek Axanar tells the backstory of legendary military strategist Garth (Whom Kirk had to defeat in the original series episode “Whom Gods Destroy”). This fan-funded project hasn’t been completed yet, but the mockumentary Prelude to Axanar is on Youtube and well worth the watch. There are a whole series of episodes related to the Enterprise’s sister ships: Starship Exeter, Starship Excelsior, Starship Farragut. There are probably others.

There’s also Star Trek Renegades, which features at least one character from Star Trek Voyager, and less well-known productions like Star Trek Odyssey, Star Trek Horizon, Star Trek: Digital Ghost, Star Trek: Redemption, and there are probably others. These are large team efforts with either full movie plots or multi-episode plots and some attempt at authenticity although a few of them aren’t ageing well.

There have been recent Star Wars fan films, but the difference in quality and narrative between the pre-prequels batch and the new ones is obvious (the new ones lack accuracy of setting, they lack story – mostly light sabre battles, and they lack budget). To my knowledge Star Wars actors have never participated in fan films. Part of the disparity here is that Star Wars is mostly a movie franchise with a few seasons of cartoons added later. Star Trek is first and foremost a sequence of TV series. The actors play the roles for much longer, and invest more in the fanbase. Also, the actors go to many fan conventions a year, earning speaking fees and meeting fans regularly. Movie actors do ComiCon and move on to the next role.

But, we have to remember that Star Wars inspired many people to get into movie making, and some of those have the tools to do interesting work. Although there hasn’t been a lot of strong fan films recently, there is a strong underground community of fan edits to official films. The Phantom Edit, which improves Star Wars episode 1: The Phantom Menace by, among other things, mostly removing Jar Jar Binks, and even then giving him a foreign, sub-titled language. Filmmaker Kevin Smith, a longtime Star Wars nerd, was reported to be the Phantom Editor, but has denied such, although he was one of the first to publicly talk about the film. Topher Grace, best known as Eric Foreman on That ’70s Show, has created his own edit of Episodes I-III, apparently making them into one seamless movie, and according to reports, much more enjoyable (This film is not available online). Another fan, inspired by notes from Grace’s edit, made a version that is available on YouTube.

I guess my final thought is that if you are either a Trekkie/Trekker or a Star Wars fanatic, there is more to do than simply buy things or dress in costumes. BUT… the Star Trek community is much more active in film and TV creation. Star Wars fans have to console themselves with the fact that at least they’re not browncoats. Those people have nothing but their coats and silly rumours..!

Just kidding Whedonites, just kidding 😉

But I am sure that I’ve missed stuff. You can comment below, using your Facebok, Twitter, Gmail or Disqus account. I’d love to hear your thoughts, disagreements, or about any substantial errors or omissions.

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While researching this article, I started reviewing for Saturday Night Live spoofs of both Star Wars and Star Trek. Here’s what I found:

Saturday Night Live does Star Trek:
Two favourites:
Chevy Chase as Spock, John Belushi as Captain Kirk on their last mission
William Shatner makes fun of Trekkers
A couple I?d never seen before:
Star Trek Restaurant with Shatner
Jim Carrey as Kirk – Wrath of Farrakhan

Saturday Night live does Star Wars:
Kevin Spacey as Jack Lemon auditioning for Chewbacca
Kevin Spacey as Christopher Walken auditioning for Han Solo
Star Wars fans at the wrong movie
Richard Prior visits the Star Wars cantina
Mocking The Force Awakens trailer