What is Star Wars? For the first decade or so after George Lucas made what would come to be known as Episode IV, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, the answer to that question was easy. Star Wars was whatever Lucas said it was.
But the answer became increasingly complicated as Lucasfilm licensed comics, games, and books that were conceived and written by other authors. This would come to be known as the “expanded universe” or “EU.” Some of the EU, like the best-selling Thrawn trilogy, was broadly read and loved, but most are relatively unknown.
As the number of EU texts multiplied, and even contradicted each other, there became a need to decide what texts had standing within the Star Wars universe. If Star Wars could be anything, then Star Wars could be nothing.
The first issue of Star Wars Insider, Lucasfilm started conservative. It claimed that “‘gospel,’ or canon as we refer to it, includes the screenplays, the films, the radio dramas, and the novelizations.”
Later, Lucasfilm adopted a more expansive view. Lucas, when asked about the state of Star Wars canon in 2008 by Total Film, invoked the image of the Trinity:
“There’s three pillars: the father, the son and the holy ghost. I’m the father, Howard Roffman [president of Lucas Licensing] is the son and the holy ghost is the fans, this kind of ethereal world of people coming up with all kinds of different ideas and histories.”
By the time Lucas sold Lucasfilm to Disney in 2012, the canon situation was a mess and the coherence of the Star Wars universe was in real question. Disney decided only the Lucas-created material would be canon. Everything else would be “legends.”
Many Star Wars fans were aghast: “How dare this foreign entity tell us our favorite characters from the EU aren’t really part of the universe!” The simplistic canon/legends binary remains, however, despite continued protests from fans.
At a recent conference put on by the CAPER Center for Astronomy and Physics Education Research on “Science and Science Fictions,” I presented a paper arguing that a theological understanding of authority and canonicity — especially from a Roman Catholic perspective — can help inform the Star Wars debate.
Here’s a short list of principles from a Catholic theological perspective that has import for Star Wars:
- Formal authority structures are essential bulwarks against arbitrariness, but they are often complex and how they execute their authority in certain situations is not clear.
- The founding members of the tradition and their immediate associates have an authority that people outside of that circle do not.
- If a particular text was beloved and read by a broad range of communities, this was a strong argument in favor of including in the canon.
- The “sense of the faithful” matters and the “people of God” can help direct the formal authorities back to the path of the tradition when they have lost their way.
How might these principles be applied to the Star Wars debates?
First, the institutional authority is not as clear as one might think, and bears some striking resemblance to the current Catholic situation. Kathleen Kennedy, the new head of Lucasfilm, is “the pope,” but the person she succeeded, though he retired after [like Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI], still holds substantial authority. [Kennedy and Lucas are friendly, and Kennedy sometimes consults with him on important matters.]
One complicating factor, of course, is the presence of Disney. Perhaps the most helpful analogy here would be to the Roman Empire, with Bob Iger, chairman of the board, playing the role of Constantine.
The founding members of the tradition have a special authority — not just Lucas, but also his close associates. Dave Filoni [Lucas’ mentee] and Lawrence Kasdan [writer of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi] have an authority that recent directors hired and fired by Lucasfilm do not.
The de facto authority of the founding generation is one reason I have been annoyed that the director of the next major Star Wars film, Rian Johnson, was able to tell Mark Hamill — the actor who has played Luke Skywalker from the beginning — who his character was and what he believed, even when Hamill “fundamentally disagreed.”
Even in the face of institutional power, the “sense of the Star Wars faithful” matters.
The fan outrage over the Thrawn trilogy being relegated to “legends,” for instance, was so overwhelming that Lucasfilm simply had to respond. And it did, by making the character of Grand Admiral Thrawn canonical in the Rebels cartoon.
And remember when Lucas made Episode I and, among other things, insisted the Force had a physical, not spiritual, basis — the dreaded “midichlorians” — and created the supremely annoying character of Jar Jar Binks?
Fan reaction to these moves was so overwhelmingly negative, and, despite the movies making Lucas a billionaire, the filmmaker changed direction. Jar Jar’s role was substantially cut in future films, and we now almost never hear about midichlorians.
In other cases, however, the fans have been less successful. They know #HanShotFirst in his famous scene with Greedo in the Mos Eisley Cantina. In the special edition of that film, however, Lucas altered the sequence such that Han shot after Greedo, ruining a scene that had originally established Han’s character for an arc of redemption. Lucas eventually changed the scene once more to make the shots simultaneous, but the clear sense of the Star Wars faithful is that the original version of the scene is the correct one.
But, again, Star Wars can’t be whatever the fans want it to be. The authority of the fans comes from their capacity to hold institutional leaders accountable when they stray from already-established tradition.
The Last Jedi comes out this Christmas, and rumblings are that the film is taking huge risks and [minor spoiler alert] may even fundamentally change what the tradition has established about the Jedi and the Force. If it does, faithful Star Wars fans will faithfully dissent in large numbers, and once again call the institution back to the tradition.