Like most geeks, I’ve been hearing a lot about the new Star Wars movies for a while. People opining one way or the other about casting announcements, plot leaks, the teaser trailer, whether the new sequels will be wonderful or awful, all the things that my tribe loves to talk about. It’s one of our favorite games, and folks are gearing up for a good round of it.
Me, I can’t join them. It’s not that I think the new movies will be terrible; they might be, they might not be. I just can’t play the game again. Not after last time.
Star Wars and I came into the world at the same time: May 1977. It was, I’m told, the first film I saw in a theater, until my mom took me out because all the explosions were making me cry. Maybe it was that first experience of not getting to see the ending that started twenty years of fandom. Maybe it was just the timing. I owned this lightsaber and burned with envy of the kid who had this playset; that was my childhood.
As a teenager in the 90s, I fell in with a crowd known as the Black Fleet Star Pirates Guild. It was a club formed in response to Starfleet, the official and highly regimented Star Trek fan club; our perception was that they were uptight and we were the ones who knew how to party. Our major fandom was Star Wars, another point of contrast to the Starfleet guys, and our group was rife with lightsabers, Jedi robes, and a party spot called Mos Eisley.
That was the joy of Star Wars fandom: unlike Gene Roddenberry’s clean, utopian Federation future, the Star Wars universe was entertainingly messy. It was full of crooks, smugglers, pirates, weird old mystics in weird old places, veterans of the Clone Wars (whatever the hell those were), junked-out droids from forgotten manufacturers… it was a vast sprawl of beautiful impossibilities and imaginary history.
We had what other science fiction fandoms didn’t: an absolutely solid canon. Three movies, all dynamite. Sure, Return of the Jedi had its shaky points, but that was nothing compared to the number of lousy episodes the Star Trek fans had to steer around. To this day, I’ll take a few Ewoks over “Spock’s Brain” or the entire first season of The Next Generation. Unlike Trek, unlike comic books, unlike SF literature, Star Wars could be loved without apology. No awkward retcons to take out the stupid bits of continuity, no elaborate fanon to cover the weaknesses. Every part of the Star Wars universe was as cool as every other part. (There was non-canon material that failed to meet that test, but that’s beside the point.) It was the single complete fulfillment of the promise of filmed science fiction, and there was nothing else in the set with it.
And best of all, we’d been promised there was more to come. George Lucas said in every interview that he saw the trilogy as just one-third of a nine-part epic, that there would be six more chapters to come. Trembling with excitement, we waited for more.
We kept the faith. The first time I ran into the head of the Black Fleet Star Pirates Guild, he was in a perfectly screen-accurate Boba Fett costume. Nowadays that’s nothing surprising, but back in the early 90s, you just didn’t see those very often. He made props and costumes for others in the Black Fleet, handcrafted custom lightsabers and blaster pistols and smuggler’s gear. When The Art of Star Wars hit local museums in its 90s tour, we organized a fleetwide visit. We walked through the exhibition reverently, searching matte paintings for tiny details and memorizing all the attachments on the torture droid prop. (Including, disturbingly, a pair of birthing forceps right on top.)
Finally, after fifteen years, our patient faith was rewarded. Episode I was coming out, with an all-star cast and a new generation of special effects behind it. Sure, the “Special Edition” had contained some… dubious choices, but we told ourselves it had some good bits too. George Lucas wouldn’t steer us wrong, not the man behind both this franchise and the brilliant Indiana Jones trilogy. It was still a trilogy back then, you see.
I waited in line twelve hours for tickets to The Phantom Menace, outside the now-defunct Eastgate Theater in Portland. I’ll always remember that day, that weird little moment in geek history. That line was a long, skinny science fiction convention. We made friends right there in line, people we’d never met before, but knew we had common interests with. Music was playing, the sun was beating down, nobody expected the line to move so we didn’t mind that it didn’t. As the day wore on, we made food runs for our new ticket-line friends, and they saved our spots in line. Old Star Wars jokes were passed around one more time. (“The line is moving!” “Don’t just stand there, try and brace it with something!”) I got a sunburn and didn’t care, because I was there, I was with my people in that moment. We didn’t know it, but they were the very last hours of the Before Times, one last get-together for the old Star Wars fandom on the eve of its death.
There are still Star Wars fans, and that’s a good thing. They have more things to enjoy than we did in my day, and some of those things are great. They enjoy them in different ways than we used to, most of them better. It’s no longer a rare thing to see a perfect Boba Fett costume.
But I can’t get excited about the new movies. They’re another corporate franchise now, and I’m sure they’ll be filmed with all the slick, reliably-structured competence that Disney has become known for. I’ll probably enjoy them, at least in part. I certainly don’t want to take away from anyone’s pleasure in the new movies, not with an old Gen-Xer’s griping about CGI and gimmick lightsabers. I won’t get excited again, though. I got excited once before, and got burned. It was naive of us back then to believe that we, as geeks, could have one perfect thing. That’s not how anything actually works. But for a while, it really felt like we did.