Sean P Carlin

Writer of things that go bump in the night

Tag: J.J. Abrams

This Counts, That Does Not: On Canonicity in Media Franchises

It may surprise you to learn this, but the events of Star Wars never actually happened—the majority of them, anyway.  I mean that sincerely—not for a minute should that be interpreted as snide or condescending.  But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself…

In 1983, George Lucas brought his Star Wars trilogy to a close with Return of the Jedi (oh, those bygone days when movie franchises actually reached—wait for it—a conclusive resolution).  Throughout the eighties, the series lived on by way of a pair of made-for-television Ewok movies and the Saturday-morning cartoons Droids and Ewoks, which continued to stoke interest in the franchise—and its lucrative action-figure line… for a while.  But by the end of the decade, with no new big-screen productions to energize the fan base, Star Wars had resigned its position at the top of the pop-cultural hierarchy.

George Lucas looks to the horizon

Lucas, who had always been a forward-thinking businessman as much as he was a visionary filmmaker (he negotiated a reduced fee for writing and directing the original Star Wars in return for ownership of sequel and merchandising rights, which the studio deemed worthless and was only too happy to relinquish), had plans to revisit the Star Wars galaxy in a prequel trilogy that had been part of his grand design when he was developing the earlier films—hence the reason, in case you never thought to ask, they are numbered Episodes IV through VI.  Even though the prequels themselves were some years off—production on The Phantom Menace wouldn’t commence until 1997—he began laying the groundwork to return Star Wars to its lofty place in the cultural consciousness by commissioning science-fiction author Timothy Zahn to write a trio of novels set five years after the events of Return of the Jedi—what later became commonly known as “the Thrawn trilogy” (named for its chief antagonist).

The books were released successively in ’91, ’92, and ’93 (my best friend Chip and I couldn’t get down to the local bookstore fast enough to buy a copy of each upon publication, though being a year older, he got to read them first); they were New York Times bestsellers that not only got their intended job done—reigniting public interest in a dormant media franchise—but also led to an endless, ongoing series of novels that explored every facet of the Star Wars galaxy:  No character or event was too small to be the focus of its own story.  Thus, the Star Wars Expanded Universe (SWEU) was born.  Han and Leia had twins!  Luke got married!  Chewbacca sacrificed himself for the Solos’ son Anakin!  A universe of stories, far beyond the contained narrative arc of the classic trilogy, took on a life of its own and captured the imagination of a generation that invested itself in the ongoing space opera collectively known as Star Warsa vast, complex continuity that Lucasfilm maintained with curatorial oversight to prevent inconsistencies and contradictions in the expansive mythos, which comprised movies, books, comics, TV shows, RPGs, and video games.

The Force awakens? For many fans, it never went dormant

When Disney acquired Lucasfilm in 2012, however, they had their own ambitious plans to expand the franchise, and didn’t want to be tied down to every addenda in the extensive mythology.  And just like that, everything other than the feature films and then-current Clone Wars animated series was “retconned”—still commercially available, mind you, under the new “Legends” banner, but henceforth declared noncanonical.  This was an outrage to many of the longtime fans who considered these “expanded universe” adventures sacrosanct—who’d invested time, money, and interest in the world-building fictions of the Star Wars continuity that had been undone with the stroke of a hand.  Some of their favorite stories were now apocrypha, whereas the much-derided prequels, on the other hand, were still canonically official.  Where was the justice—the sense—in that?

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Classifying the “Star Trek” Movies by Their “Save the Cat!” Genre Categories

Star Trek turned fifty this year (something older than me, mercifully), but you needn’t be a fan to appreciate some of the lessons writers of fiction can take from its successes and failures during its five-decade voyage.  I mean, I probably wouldn’t myself qualify as a “Trekkie”—I simply don’t get caught up in the minutiae.  What I’ve always responded to in Trek is its thoughtful storytelling and philosophical profundity.  “Even the original series, for all its chintziness,” someone told me when I was thirteen, “it was still the thinking man’s show.”

I recall watching The Original Series in syndication, and being swept away by the classic time-travel episode “The City on the Edge of Forever”; finally I understood that Trek was about ideas, and those could be just as thrilling—more so, in fact—than set pieces.  Anyone who was around for it certainly remembers the excitement when The Next Generation premiered, unknowingly kicking off perhaps the first major-media “shared fictional universe” two decades before Marvel got there.  I watched the pilot with my father—which was a big deal, since television wasn’t his thing (the nightly news excepting)—and I haven’t forgotten his lovely, two-word appraisal of the first episode when it was over:  “It’s kind,” he said, with no further elaboration.

It took some years to fully appreciate that assessment.  Having grown up on the adventures of James T. Kirk, the original captain’s renegade spirit and cowboy diplomacy appealed to my juvenile worldview; Picard, on the other hand, seemed like a high-school principal in comparison.  But over time, I came to identify with Picard’s genteel, introspective mindset, and every line he uttered—even the technobabble—sounded like poetry from the mouth of Patrick Stewart, who endowed his performance with such dignity and conviction.  For me, the best part of Star Trek was getting Picard’s closing takeaway on the issue du jour.

The franchise continued to grow as I did, and my wife, whom I started dating at nineteen, was as much a fan as I was, it turned out, and we looked forward every few years to the next feature film, until the series finally, against all expectation, sputtered out with Nemesis (2002) and Enterprise (2001–2005).  Among other reasons for that, Trek had been eclipsed by a new sci-fi franchise—The Matrix—that spoke to the ethos of our new Digital Age.  Perhaps more than any other genre, science fiction needs to reflect its times, and times change; finality is something to be accepted—embraced, even—not feared.  The Enterprise, thusly, had been decommissioned.

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The Exodus Is Here: On Saying Goodbye to the Who

There was a lot of contentious shouting in our apartment throughout my childhood, so much so that it could be heard the moment I stepped off the elevator—I’m talking thunderous, mean-spirited bickering.  All of it—every word—was filtered through the tinny speaker of the AM/FM radio that sat atop our refrigerator.

My father listened daily to The Bob Grant Show—at top volume.  He didn’t particularly agree with Grant’s conservative politics, but he loved a good argument.  (I wonder if he’d feel the same today, in this era of ‘round-the-clock cable-TV squabbling masquerading as news?)  When he wasn’t listening to Grant in the kitchen, he had it blasting from the radio in our Plymouth Duster.  I didn’t understand much, if any, of what was being debated, but I laughed every time Grant hollered, “Get off my phone, you jerk!”  (He did so often.)

The endless caterwauling from Dad’s favorite station prompted an antithetical reaction in my mother (whether intentional or unconscious I do not know):  When she had control of the radio, we listened almost exclusively to 106.7 Lite FM.  Up till the age of ten or so, “easy listening” was effectively the only genre of music, save classical, I was aware of.  It was probably upon hearing Ambrosia’s “Biggest Part of Me” for the thousandth time (or maybe it was Journey’s “Open Arms”—like it even matters) that I finally asked out of both frustration and genuine curiosity, “Doesn’t anybody sing about anything besides love?”

My mother considered that for a moment.  “Love is what makes the world go ‘round.”

It wasn’t a particularly satisfying answer, and perhaps on some subconscious level she herself recognized that, because the following Christmas—this was in ’86 or ’87, I think—she gave me a cassette copy of the Who’s 1978 album Who Are You (which I recently rediscovered while cleaning out my childhood closet).

I’d had no awareness of the Who before that; Who Are You was my crash course in progressive rock, a style that came to speak to my more philosophical and intellectual proclivities throughout high school, college, and beyond.  I didn’t always understand what the songs meant—many of Pete Townshend’s lyrics, I suspect, are a mystery to all but (perhaps) himself—but that was exactly the point:  The music of the Who is a Rorschach—a receptacle into which you can pour you own feelings and experiences, and from which take your own meaning and catharsis.  The lyrics—and the narratives of the band’s operatic concept albums—are so specific to Townshend’s particular imagination, but the broader themes are universal.  Take any given Who song, and I doubt it means the same thing to any two people.

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Slouching Towards Bethlehem: A Tribute to Wes Craven

In a TED Talk from 2007, writer/director J. J. Abrams (Lost, Star Wars:  The Force Awakens) explained the unlikely origins of his filmmaking philosophy:  As a child, his grandfather had bought him a magic-store “mystery box”—a simple white cardboard container adorned with only a question mark, its contents (touted as $50 worth of magic for $15) sealed with packing tape—that remains unopened to this day; it serves as a totemic reminder to him “that mystery is the catalyst for imagination,” and that “there are times when mystery is more important than knowledge.”

This is the story of how the late filmmaker Wes Craven (A Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream) gifted me with my own “mystery box” of sorts.

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Attack of the Clones: Why Hollywood’s Creative Approach Is in Need of a Reboot

I had no context to recognize this at the time, but I came of age in a golden era of fantasy cinema.  Some of my earliest theatrical experiences included Superman II (1981), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Return of the Jedi (1983), Ghostbusters (1984), and Back to the Future (1985).  Movies like those were made, by and large, by a generation of filmmakers—notably but not exclusively Steven Spielberg and George Lucas—that had been raised on the sci-fi and fantasy offerings of 1950s B-movies and comics, and later became the first students to major in cinema studies and filmmaking; when that formal training was fused with their pulp passions, the contemporary blockbuster was born:  first with Jaws (1975), then Star Wars (1977), and then Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Superman:  The Movie (1978) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and The Goonies (1985).  That cornucopia of imaginative fantasy—hardly an all-encompassing list, by the way—was my first exposure to the movies.  Is it any wonder I was hooked for life?

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