Years ago, Weird Al Yankovic wrote a song about Yoda. Yes, the diminutive, green Jedi master with the Fozzie-Bear voice. If you’re familiar with Weird Al, this shouldn’t surprise you; this is the same guy that wrote a song accurately predicting the plot of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace months before it was released, in a day when Internet leaks weren’t a thing yet. At any rate, it’s a fun song, set to the tune of The Kinks’ Lola, about Luke Skywalker’s training relationship with Yoda. I bring it up because of a line in the last verse; when Luke is preparing to go to Bespin and rescue his friends (as in The Empire Strikes Back), he says:
But I know that I’ll be coming back someday; I’ll be playing this part ‘til I’m old and grey.
The long-term contract I had to sign says I’ll be making these movies ‘til the end of time,
with my Yoda.
Well, as it turns out…
Couldn’t find a single screenshot from The Last Jedi that included both of them. Use your imagination.
Yeah. Nailed it!
This post is not about Star Wars, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, from which those screenshots come. I find it necessary to bring it up here at the beginning, because the controversy surrounding this movie sets up nicely for the question I want to ask. That question is: When is enough, enough? Specifically, when should we say “enough is enough” to our favorite fictional franchises? It’s a simple question, but the answer is anything but simple.
My early years of fandom—not just with regard to Star Wars, but with regard to any franchise—could be summed up with three words: I want more. And what’s wrong with that? Nothing! I loved these characters, and the worlds they inhabited. I wanted the further adventures of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Han Solo. I wanted to know what happened to E.T. after he went home. I wanted to know the backstory of He-Man and Eternia (I’m an ‘80s kid, if you hadn’t noticed yet)! WHAT HAPPENED WHEN REN GOT ALL THIRTEEN TREASURES OF RULE?! WHAT ABOUT—
I loved this show way too much.
Okay, we were getting a little obscure there, sorry. (That last reference was to a cartoon called The Pirates of Dark Water, which ended before its premise could be fulfilled, and I’m still a little bitter about it.) At any rate, it wasn’t unusual to want to know more. That’s the motivation for all the sequels and prequels of the original Star Wars trilogy. It’s the reason She-Ra exists, and is getting a reboot in 2018. It led to the release of E.T.: The Book of the Green Planet, which sadly never even made it to an animated film. And it has led thousands of fans, myself included, to write fanfiction over the years. Why, though?
When fiction is well-written, the characters and settings become real to us. We read, or watch, or play (yes, video games count), or listen, and we get to live for awhile in another person’s world, and even in their shoes. Like family or friends, we want to know those individuals personally. When the story is enjoyable, we want more of the same. Sometimes we even get it, though sequels are commonly known for a dip in quality. This is all perfectly legitimate.
This really was a thing, and it was exactly as trippy as the cover would have you believe.
Still, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. Now, from this point on, what I’m saying is my own view, and I’m NOT trying to pass it off as a rule of any kind. Everyone’s threshold of tolerance is their own. You may read this and think “well, that isn’t me at all!” That’s fine. I was you for a long time, and I was happy that way. I’m also happy where I am now. You can love what you love, and you can show that love however you like! That’s the beauty of living in a world with so much variety.
Using Star Wars as an example again: For many years, Star Wars fans had what we referred to as the Expanded Universe (sometimes rendered as “Extended”), or EU. This was anything beyond the original movie trilogy and, later, the prequel trilogy. It’s a little unclear exactly where it started; early novels include Alan Dean Foster’s Splinter of the Mind’s Eye (considered the first EU novel, and dating all the way back to 1978!) and Brian Daley’s Han Solo Adventures (1979 and following). I can also remember comics or early graphic novels dating to at least 1986, and possibly earlier, though I haven’t researched it. The EU really took off in 1991 with Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire and its sequels, and the twenty-plus years afterward were packed with novels, comics, video games, and—later—cartoons. If the original trilogy was the stuff of my childhood, this was the stuff of my teens and twenties, and I absorbed it as fast as I could lay hands on it. I loved every minute, including the controversial New Jedi Order novels. All of that came crashing to a halt, though, in late October 2012, when Lucasfilm was purchased by Disney; shortly thereafter, Disney announced that it would be continuing from the end of Return of the Jedi with its own canon stories, not related to the existing EU. The EU stories were redubbed as “Star Wars Legends”, and new Legends material ceased to be produced. That’s what brings us to today, with The Force Awakens, Rogue One, The Last Jedi, and various novels and comics in the new continuity.
The original EU novel. Worth noting: Luke and Leia had not yet been revealed to be siblings. Hindsight makes this book a little uncomfortable, which is too bad; it’s a great story.
Fans, being fans, did not go quietly. Up to and including The Last Jedi—which has raked in the money anyway, of course—there has been constant debate and controversy. We’re fans; that’s what we do. I, for one, have watched all three new movies, though I haven’t read any of the books or comics; I think they’re a fair take on the series, but I’m curious to see where they go. I don’t hate them; I don’t love them, either, not the way I loved the original trilogy. Perhaps my kids will; certainly the studio has taken pains to make these movies appeal to a new generation, and that’s not a bad thing.
Still, this change in continuity has given me time to look back at the EU and think. What I’ve found in the interim is that—to my surprise, and if I may be honest, dismay—I was kind of tired of it already. You see, the EU has covered nearly every possible time period, if not place, in the Star Wars galaxy. It’s exhaustively catalogued the lives of our original heroes, both before and after the movies, and in some cases including their deaths, although writers are understandably hesitant to kill off a major character. (Actually, it’s not just the authors; the EU always had considerable oversight, and such a decision would have to be approved. Lucasfilm wasn’t fond of killing off its cash cows, and that’s no surprise.) It shows us their descendants. It explores the galaxy, and gives us side stories. It looks deeply and exhaustively into the past, back to the very origins of the Jedi and Sith and beyond. There may be stories yet to be told, but there isn’t a lot of room left to tell them! That’s why, at the end, the EU was delving further into the future; but in science fiction, that’s always a risky proposition. The further you get from your baseline date—in this case, the original movie trilogy—the more conjecture is required, whereas when delving into the past, you have a predefined period with which to work. It was at this point that I started to get tired of things, in large part because the series began to recycle its original plots again. After so much investment into eliminating the Empire and the Sith, and changing up the characters’ understanding of the Force, and expanding the character roster beyond the Skywalker-Solo family, we ended up with an evil Empire, led by a Sith lord from the Skywalker-Solo bloodline, with an underground rebellion involving another Skywalker. Sound familiar? It did to me, as well.
This is what a sigh looks like in print.
There comes a time in every long-lived franchise where you begin to think that the creators are being less creative and more money-oriented. That accusation gets tossed around a lot, and I don’t want to use it lightly. Still, recycling of plots seems to me to be a good indicator that this sort of thing is happening. I have no problem with giving money to a franchise that is earning it; but simple quantity of effort isn’t enough to earn it, if that effort is not coming from a desire to do the job well. Money may be an effective motivator, but it’s not a good one; it will always tend toward the minimum necessary effort, toward quantity over quality. And, as I’ve hinted, you can drown in quantity.
Let’s look at a more literary example. Frank Herbert’s Dune is widely regarded as one of the finest masterpieces in science fiction history. Its early sequels, Dune Messiah and Children of Dune, are regarded nearly as highly; the next three books in the series are also well loved, though less so. Unfortunately, Frank Herbert was in the midst of writing the final volume when he died, and we never got a proper ending to the Dune series. Enter his son, Brian, and established sci-fi author Kevin J. Anderson (who, perhaps not coincidentally, had already written for the Star Wars EU). This duo set out, allegedly, to finish the series, working from Frank Herbert’s notes and unfinished work, much as Brandon Sanderson would later do for Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time fantasy series. If that was all they had done, it would have been fine; but they didn’t begin there. Instead, they started with a political-intrigue prequel trilogy, and then wrote a distant-past trilogy based on the nearly-mythical Butlerian Jihad. That event had been mentioned in the original series as the reason why humans were so heavily against artificial intelligence, or “thinking machines”, but it had never been properly described. Only after completing those six volumes did they write the conclusion to Dune, which itself was split into two volumes (and thus two sales). In the end, their conclusion had much more in common with their Butlerian Jihad series than with the original Dune series—a turn of events that I find hard to imagine having been in Frank Herbert’s plans. We may never know; but we DO know that Brian and Kevin have gone on to write more Dune novels—a total of thirteen as of 2016, which is more than twice the number written by Frank Herbert.
Pictured: Too Much
We’ll leave the question of whether a fictional universe belongs to its original creator for another post; but I want to point out that Brian and Kevin’s books are almost universally regarded to be inferior to the original series. (Personally, I greatly enjoyed the Butlerian Jihad books, but they are very different from the originals; and the other entries have been mediocre at best, including the two concluding volumes.) So, was it just a money-grab? Maybe. I suspect that Brian Herbert originally wanted to do justice to his father’s legacy; but in the end, the money was just too attractive, and they couldn’t stop.
Maybe they should have. Maybe we, fans, should have, as well (though it’s more the burden of the authors than the fans, I think; we vote with our dollars, as it were, but only after the fact). Maybe, in the end, we only need so much of a good thing; and anything else becomes too much. There’s nothing wrong with wrapping up an unfinished tale; on that note, mystery writer Sue Grafton recently died, with only one volume left in her Kinsey Millhone/Alphabet Mystery series (Z is for Zero would have been the title), and I’d be thrilled if her family would let that last volume be ghostwritten. (They aren’t.) I would hate to have invested countless hours in The Wheel of Time’s twelve (at that time) volumes, and never get the conclusion Brandon Sanderson gave us later. But beyond that, there’s nothing wrong with letting a masterpiece stand on its own. The original Dune series (aside from the question of a conclusion) was a masterpiece. So was the original Star Wars trilogy. We don’t need every gap filled in, every era examined, every character’s every moment written out. We don’t—heaven help us—an Episode X, XI, or XII. Too much cheapens the original, and dilutes its impact. Sometimes, enough is really enough.
This is how you continue another author’s work.
(I feel I should say, in passing, that there are some very rare series that have built-in safeguards against this very phenomenon. The best example I have is Doctor Who, of which I am a lifelong fan; those who have followed this blog for a while already know that, and for those that are new, you can find much more of my material about that series at my companion blog, The Time Lord Archives. That series has built-in mechanisms for constantly renewing itself; it has no single monolithic era, and has always been a sort of shared universe, with a multitude of contributors and a horde of characters and settings. It was designed that way, and has proved surprisingly resilient over five and a half decades. But, this sort of situation is rare; that format doesn’t lend itself well to most series. And even with a series like Doctor Who, it’s easy to get overwhelmed or burned out, just based on the volume of material.)
That’s where I am in my own life as a fan. I’ll always love Star Wars and Dune and The Wheel of Time and many other franchises; but I’ll love them with the fondness of memory, rather than the fanaticism of the future. If I do watch or read or play any future installments—and I will; I watched The Last Jedi, and Lord willing I will watch Episode IX when it’s released—I’ll try to appreciate them for what they are, but I won’t chase them the way I did in my teens. And if I miss them, that’s okay as well. It’s been a good exercise for me, this form of letting go; it has let me enjoy these things without the burden of comparing them to what’s gone before, and therefore prevented me from hating things that don’t merit that level of investment. In the course of doing that, it’s saved me from the trap of trying to get my children to be as invested in these things as I was at their age; they’re not me, and I don’t want them to be me. They deserve their own memories, even as they learn to appreciate a few of mine. After all, there’s only so much time, and there’s a lot to experience in it. We short ourselves when we expend all our effort on one beloved franchise—and life is too short for that.
But if they ever go back and write an ending for The Pirates of Dark Water, I’m in! Just kidding. Mostly.