UCL’s Star Wars Class #1: What is Star Wars?

Class Notes 07/10/2015

In today’s class I want to make a start with exploring what ‘Star Wars’ is. There is a wealth of material out there, much of it known and used but even more unexplored and left unanalysed. In this module I will not assume you have seen all films or that you will be overly familiar with them. So for some of you part of the homework will be to watch stuff!

So … what is Star Wars? Before I start with an answer I want to show you a few minutes of Star Wars, but not from the films so even when you know those, you might not know this. Yet it is quintessential Star Wars.

Question: What did you just see?

What makes up ‘Star Wars’ and who is making it up?

Star Wars started out as an independent film project by an independent filmmaker, George Lucas. From 1977 till 2012 George Lucas, and his company Lucasfilm, independently produced Star Wars output usually financing it independently outside of the US studio-system. But at the time when Lucas was writing on his Star Wars screen play … no one wanted to distribute his ‘American Graffiti’ film and he was essentially unemployed.

The Star Wars content he planned consisted of the following elements:

  • Star Wars Episode IV A New Hope (the original Star Wars film from 1977);
  • Star Wars Episode V The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
  • Star Wars Episode VI Return of the Jedi (1983)

After 1983 Star Wars went into a ‘sleep’ most definitely in the public eye. However there was a fan-base that were happily reading Star Wars novels that were beginning to appear and that would form the foundation for what would become the Star Wars Extended Universe, or EU. Most of these books portrayed events in the post-Episode VI galaxy. George Lucas was realizing that with time and growing computer-power possibilities were becoming conceivable that would allow him to tell a new Star Wars story, but now one visually much closer to what he had had in mind all the time. So after ‘updating’ the first three movies using these new technologies, the so-called ‘Special Editions’ that were released in cinema’s in 1997 he started working towards a new trilogy.

Episodes I through III were to form that initial trilogy that he conceived to, in a sense, bring balance to the perception that had grown among the public of his original three Star Wars films. These three new films would again appear in three-year periods and most of you will remember this as the time of the The Matrix and the Lord of the Rings trilogies and the start of the Harry Potter Series. There was no lack of Fantasy-related films. The three Star Wars films were

  • Star Wars Episode I The Phantom Menace (1999)
  • Star Wars Episode II Attack of the Clones (2002)
  • Star Wars Episode III Revenge of the Sith (2005)

The Episodes IV-VI are usually known as the ‘Original Trilogy’. Episodes I-III are usually referred to as the ‘Prequel Trilogy’. After the premiere of Revenge of the Sith Lucas stated he would not return to the big screen with a Star Wars again. Which turned out to be not entirely true, from a certain point of view.

In 2002-2003 Lucas had allowed Gennedy Tartakowsky to develop and produce a 2d animation series of short, 10-minute episodes depicting the Clone Wars occurring between Episode II and Episode III. After finishing Episode III however Lucas asked a new team of people, under the directorship of Dave Filoni to produce a new Clone Wars series based on 3d animation. Lucas invested his own money made from the Prequels into creating an animated, feature-film quality series that was to appear on Cartoon Network.  The first three episodes were combined into a feature length animation film that landed in cinemas in the summer of 2008.

  • Star Wars The Clone Wars (feature length animation film premiere for TV series 2008)
  • Star Wars The Clone Wars (Seasons 1 through 6, roughly 120 22-minute episodes made 2008 – 2013

The Star Wars The Clones Wars (TCW) animation series that was produced by George Lucas and directed by Dave Filoni ran for 6 seasons. In 2012 George Lucas ‘retired’ and sold Lucasfilm to the Disney Corporation. The Clone Wars series was cancelled by Disney who wanted Star Wars output to now focus on a post-Episode VI trilogy. Just after the cancellation the Clone Wars series won numerous Emmy awards.

The new era of Star Wars content

Just before the sell to Disney Lucas had toyed publicly with the idea for a new trilogy and had in fact already contacted the Original Trilogy actors regarding a reprisal of their roles, but now as characters about 35 years older. Disney continued this idea and Lucasfilm continued its execution but now as part of Disney. The animation part of Lucasfilm also continued onto a new product.

  • Star Wars Rebels (Seasons 1 & 2, made 2014 – now)

Star Wars Rebels, where Dave Filoni is executive producer and directs some episodes, was the first ‘output’ of Lucasfilm after it was taken over formally by the Disney Corporation. The Star Wars TCW is set between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith within the Star Wars history-line. Star Wars Rebels is set between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope. Of course the announcement that caught the headlines was that of Episode VII

The upcoming actual output of Star Wars under this new regime will be

  • Star Wars Episode VII The Force Awakens (Directed by JJ Abrams, premiere December 17th 2015)
  • Star Wars Anthology Rogue One (Directed by Gareth Edwards, expected December 2016)
  • Star Wars Episode VIII … (Directed by Rian Johnson and expected May 2017)

The expectation is that after 2015 there will on average be one Star Wars film every year, either a ‘Saga film’, i.e. an ‘Episode nnn’ type film or an Anthology film. Episode films continue the Saga that was started in 1977 and Anthology films explore other, possibly related stories in the Star Wars universe. The film Rogue One will be set between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope.

What are the basic Saga characters & what is the basic Saga Story line?

The Star Wars series is a ‘Family ‘Saga’ in which every trilogy covers events in the life of one generation, while also depicting the ultimate completion of the storylines of the previous generation. Every ‘generation’ is represented by a group of characters, rather than by a single protagonist

The first generation consists of the characters Obi Wan Kenobi, Anakin Skywalker and Padme Amidala and their story is told in the Prequel Trilogy (I, II & III) that came out between 1999 & 2005. Of these three two, Anakin Skywalker and Obi Wan Kenobi survive their trilogy. Anakin is a ‘fatherless’ character, Padme has a mother, a father and several sisters and of Obi Wan’s childhood we know near to nothing. The key villain of the Prequel Trilogy is Darth Sidious a.k.a. Palpatine with other villains at his side such as Darth Maul, Count Dooku (Darth Tyranus) and General Grievous.

The second generation consists of Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa and Han Solo. Obi Wan Kenobi features in this Original Trilogy as well, in particular in Episode IV. Anakin Skywalker is Darth Vader in the Original Trilogy and he dies in Episode VI. The continuing villain of the Original Trilogy is Darth Vader with Emperor Palpatine reappearing in the final Episode.

The third generation, as it now seems, consists of Rey, Finn and Poe Dameron. We don’t know the last names of the first two, so it is unclear at the moment how their family ties are. Luke, Leia and Han are still alive and will all appear in Episode VII, what their fates will be is highly unclear. The villain of Episode VII is Kylo Renn (below) of which it is not yet clear whether he is related to any of the earlier generation.

But it is clear that Kylo Renn is not a Sith in contrast to Darth Maul, Darth Sidious, Darth Tyranus and Darth Vader.

A protagonist that cannot remain unmentioned at this stage is the lead character of the Star Wars: The Clone Wars movie and 6-season series; Ahsoka Tano!

Although Ahsoka is not a basic character of any of the Trilogies and thus falls outside of the scope of the Saga she nevertheless plays an essential role in the story as well as in the shape and form of the Star Was fan-community of these days.

Question: Can you think of examples of other franchises that involve such a cross-generational aspect? What constraints do you think does this put on the frequency with which saga-films can be released?

Basic Story

The basic story line of the films I through VI is often referred to as ‘The Tragedy of Darth Vader’. Episodes I through III tell the story of Anakin Skywalker’s struggle to free himself from the shackles of his past as a slave-boy, of the loss of his mother, of his training as a Jedi by Obi Wan Kenobi and his secret relationship with Padme Amidala that culminate in his ‘downfall’ as a Jedi and his ‘turn to the darkside’ becoming an evil Sith just as his two children are born and his wife dies in childbirth. Episodes IV through VI tell of how the training of his son Luke as a Jedi, by Obi Wan and Yoda, and the confrontation of the son with the father lead to Anakin’s redemption in the destruction of the Sith and his own death.

A secondary story line, that is however no less important, is the tale of the democratic, multi-species, multi-cultural, diverse, inclusive and gloriously creative Republic that decays into the totalitarian, human, mono-cultural, male, segregative and ‘worn out’ and industrially efficient Empire. Where Anakin’s storyline comes to a form of completion in Episode VI, the political storyline ends with the death of the Emperor but unclarity as to the state of the Empire.

The Clone Wars series add to these basic storylines another important facet, that of Ahsoka Tano as Anakin Skywalker’s padawan learner, i.e. apprentice. As of this day her story is not yet brought to conclusion. She was introduced to Anakin in between Episodes II and III, during the years of the Clone Wars. It is now clear she has survived these, as well as Anakin’s downfall and was a key player in the origins of the Rebel Alliance we see in Episode IV for the first time. It is expected that her storyline will conclude in the Era of the Star Wars Rebels series.

The reception of the Star Wars content

Let us first have a look at how individual people respond to Star Wars content.

How do people react to it?

A reaction to the most recent trailer for the upcoming film is actually rather representative for what has happened over the past

In fact, the emotional response world-wide to the teaser-trailer was commented critically in parts of the mainstream press


where for example Martin Daubney muttered that

You can forgive a small child getting overexcited about what is essentially a kids’ movie franchise, but not adults.”

only to continue a little later that

This week, the release of the trailer for The Force Awakens added almost $2 billion to the value of Disney. ”

and that’s no child’s play. So although the response of people may not be close to unanimous it is definitely strong! Star Wars in ’77-’83 inspired above all a generation of male kids. The older ones of these joined their own kids in the cinemas of ’99-’05 to see the Prequel Trilogy whereas the younger ones will do the same in ’15-’19 for the Sequels. Star Wars has become an intergenerational piece of pop-culture. And now as a new generation of ‘makers’ takes over, that same emotion is also reflected in how they make Star Wars content. Look at the reaction of Dave Filoni as he talks about a particular plot in his Clone Wars series

All 6 Star Wars films are in the USA top 88, inflation-adjusted, most-grossing films of all times. Four of these are in the top 17 and the highest grossing is the original Star Wars, Episode IV, at number 2. No other franchise gets close to that record.

The Original Trilogy & Generation X

There is no doubt that in box office terms the Original Trilogy had an incredible impact. In the Star Wars year 1977 George Lucas’ film bagged twice as much as Spielberg’s ‘Close Encounters’ and three times as much as ‘Saturday Night Fever’. Many people have seen the pictures of lines around the block filled with people waiting for an admissions ticket to a screening of Star Wars. Who were these kids that were waiting in line there and at those later two films?? Well it was the demographic born after, roughly, 1965 but before 1977. It was the core of what half a decade later would be called ‘Generation X’.

So who is Generation X? It was the Canadian author Douglas Coupland who coined the term in 1991 for this generation whose youth had played out between Star Wars and Kurt Cobain in the greyness of the 1980’s recession. Or as he phrased it

I remember spending my days almost dizzy with loneliness and feeling like I’d sold the family cow for three beans. I suppose it was this crippling loneliness that gave Gen X its bite. I was trying to imagine a life for myself on paper that certainly wasn’t happening in reality.”

Generation X was the generation that some how wasn’t happening in the public eye. The generation that wanted to be left in peace by a generation of elder Baby Boomers they regarded as a little too self-obsessed and a little too dysfunctional. X’ers were deeply sceptical about leadership, very cautious about uniformity and very dedicated to muddling through. They  were the early coders in ‘basic’ on their 32kB computers with tape-cassette as storage.

For a Generation X’er the character of Luke Skywalker was very recognizable, chained to the chores of a home of distant ‘parents’ or ‘lost fathers’ by the lack of courage for something epic. For X’ers the notion that ‘destiny’ would free one out of this … and sweep one up into a more meaningful existence on a grander scale that nevertheless would be firmly anchored in and built upon a closely knit network of friendships, was extremely attractive. The ultimate Gen X moment in Star Wars was that ‘binary sunset; the embodiment of what some call Generation X’s Woodstock, of that yearning of a generation.

Interestingly in the Star Wars films the generation that speaks most clearly to the youngsters like Luke are not the immediately preceding generation, but the one before. A ‘forgotten generation’ of old warriors like Ben Kenobi or Bail Organa, or Mon Mothma spoke to the heart of the Rebellion against the Empire. But not the large generation in between of those who seemingly had adapted as easily to the politics of Empire as they had to the creative pluralism of the Republic. In many texts written by X’ers you see this deep ambivalence or even suspicion about the Baby Boomer generation (born 1946-1964) paired with a softly spoken admiration for the ‘silent generation’ (born 1925-1940). George Lucas himself seemingly closer to being a late representative of the latter than an early representative of the former.

So when the Original Trilogy appeared on the stage these three generations were present and I think there is a case to be made for the view that the response to the films was different in these different groups. In my own family all three generations were present, me being the X’er as a ‘late child’ of parents from 1925 with ‘Boomer’ brothers and sister born in the 1950’s. When you read the reviews by film critics of the Original Trilogy they change from excitement regarding the spectacle of Star Wars to clear-cut rejection of the wooden characters, the useless dialogue, the over-emphasis on special effects and the seemingly ‘black-and-white’ morality of the story.

However the dichotomy in views on what Star Wars was has been present from the start. Compare for example the two diverging types of reviews of the original Star Wars Trilogy by reviewers.

Episode IV:


Episode V:


Episode VI:



During the Eighties the Film Critics consensus moved towards viewing the Original Trilogy as popcorn entertainment that wasn’t even particularly good because of the bad dialogue, weak acting, pompous mythological aspirations and over reliance of special effects. It was hence not really surprising that soon after 1985 Star Wars as a franchise, though still present, became somewhat of a sub-culture. The pop-culture icon was the original 1977 film, what had followed was mainly revered in that sub-group that had gotten hooked on Star Wars as a kid.

Star Wars appealed strongly to the sense of desolation, the worn-universe experience of the 80’s teens and people like Ebert seemed to be able to see through the ‘fairy tale’ metaphoric and recognize this was a set of movies about our world and our lives. But for stereotypical Baby Boomers with their well-developed sense of precisely formulated (though highly volatile) idealism the stoic hero’s journey of Luke Skywalker that ended in the redemption of a father rather than in saving the galaxy seemed incomprehensibly superficial.

The reason why Star Wars could become such an iconic feature of pop-culture was the degree to which it spoke to the emerging generation of youngsters for whom ‘saving the world’ increasingly seemed only feasible by taking your responsibilities and caring for and working with the people directly around you. Maybe it is not completely without fortunate implication that the signature vehicle of the Rebellion in the Original Trilogy was the X-Wing Starfighter

But of course kids grow older and become adults. By the time the teens of 1977-1983 were in their late twenties and early thirties rumour spread that Star Wars was on its way back to the limelight.

The Special Editions

Between 1995 and 1997 George Lucas not only devised his plans for the Prequel Trilogy while simultaneously attempting to push CGI-technology to a level where he was able to realize on-screen the world he imagined. But he also went back to his Original Trilogy and updated and revised it in various places, in my view to make the Originals fit into the more visual scheme of Prequel things to come. He openly declared the Special Editions of the Original Trilogy to be his definitive version and the original versions of ’77-’83 became a rarity to see or get.

The Special Editions sparked a huge uproar in the fan community as there was vitriolic disagreements about the ‘modifications Lucas had made. Just Google ‘Han shot first’ and you will get a taste of what was going on … and what would keep going on for the next two full decades. Part of the fans of the Originals, a very loud part especially in the USA, felt “their childhood was raped by someone who was only in it for selling more toys”. With the emergence of the Internet and a world wide web of platforms to exchange Anger and Hate the sub-surface vitriol festered on, largely invisible for the broader audience. That broader audience however was two years later caught up in a wave of global frenzy when the Episode I trailer hit the cinemas across the world

The Prequel Trilogy & the Millennials

The anticipation for Episode I in 1999 was no less then for Star Wars in 1977, however the response of the public would be a very different one. One could claim that the vitriolic divide within the fan community surfaced, or better erupted, a minute into the opening scroll of The Phantom Menace int he first showings. The critics lashed out first, and not just against The Phantom Menace, but not homogeneously. As reviews drilling The Phantom Menace into the floor I so easy to find I give you two positive ones



Yes, you read that correctly, the Daily Telegraph called it “The Phantom Menace is probably one of the most deliriously inventive films to have appeared in years” and we will encounter some arguments later on why this view may be rather justified. But against Attack of the Clones the knives came out in full again although a reviewer that had earlier considered The Phantom Menace “the crushing letdown of Episode I” saw some positive signs in Episode II.



and against Revenge of the Sith



But again we also see this polarization that the Original Trilogy evoked. It is not devoid of delicious irony that much of the criticism brought up against the Prequels is just an updated version of the criticisms against the Original Trilogy: too much of a reliance on special effects, badly written dialogue and wooden acting. Of course in the Noughties ‘special effects’ meant CGI because those ‘other’ special effects of the Original Trilogy were by now normal tools in the toolbox of any filmmaker: Blue screen = good & Green screen = bad!

So in terms of reception I would say the Prequel Trilogy did not do sigificantly better or worse than the Original Trilogy, quite a remarkable feat by itself. In terms of inflation corrected box office results the Prequels didn’t do as well as the Original Trilogy but still they were box office hits and easilly competed with any other blockbuster being released in the same year. Of course the ‘block buster’ competition from the Hollywood Studio System was pretty severe in ’99-’05 and in ’77-’83. While the Original Trilogy faced the competition of films such as ‘Battlestar Galactica’, the early Star Trek cinematic series and the early Superman series, the Prequel Trilogy ran along trilogies such as The Matrix and Lord of the Rings and the early Harry Potter series. If anything it seems to me that the competition that the Prequel Trilogy faced was more substantial with respect to the target demographic. Only two Star Wars film did not manage to be the highest box-office scoring film in its year of appearance. ‘Worst’ was 2002’s Attack of the Clones which finished behind Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Spiderman and Harry Potter: The Chamber of Secrets. But comfortably ahead of Men in Black II, Chicago and Ice Age. Revenge of the Sith came second in 2005 narrowly behind Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Given the competition I would say that the Prequel Trilogy was probably just as successful as the Original Trilogy. But the perception that grew over the years from 1999 through to 2015 was that the Prequel Trilogy was an unmitigated disaster.

The perceived mess

So what could be the reason for this perception? How can a film series that was seen by millions of viewers and drew droves into the cinema’s, that were as large as the hordes coming to see very fondly remembered films such as LOTR and Harry Potter, be widely regarded as utter failures? The following slightly lengthy excerpt from the documentary ‘The People vs George Lucas’ however makes clear that the story of the outright rejection of the Prequels is much more subtle than many people now, 10 years later, believe. Because of that … we will watch this 10-minute excerpt in full.

One thing becomes rather clear: we are (at least in part) dealing with a generational difference in preferences with respect to the Prequel Trilogy. So is what we observe here a difference in perception of the Prequel Trilogy when seen through the eyes of Generation X relative to the view of the stereotypical Millennial? The Millennials are supposedly born between, roughly, 1985 and 2000, their parents are typically later Baby Boomers or earlier X’ers. The childhood of Millennials in the US occurs during the years of the ‘Clinton Boom’ and in Europe during the period after the ‘Fall of the Wall’. A period of great expectations for the individual and of increasing appreciation of liberty and freedom especially in the private and relational spheres. But it was not the entirely carefree era some make it to be as there was the looming shadow of the separatism and conflict of the Yugoslav Civil Wars leading tot he NATO air-war on Serbia and the Kosovo intervention in 1999, the Taliban take-over of Afghanistan in 1996 and the early Al Qaeda attacks in the following years. Millennial childhood dramatically changed on September 11th 2001.

When you view the Prequel Trilogy as a stereotypical Millennial then you see a story of how the diverse, multicultural and liberal democratic society of the Republic slowly subsides to terrorism, separatism and eventually an all consuming war that allows the final rot from within to surface. Thrown into this mess are a young boy and a young girl, Anakin and Padme, who have great expectations for themselves, who try to display a pragmatic idealism and yet are confronted with a world around them that shows signs of decay and decoherence. Two youngsters in a constant struggle between what their duty expects of them and what their feelings inform them to do. Recognizable of a Millennial kid? Yes, I think so! And snap in the middle of the first half of this the witty innocent, the loyal fool, the courageous loser: Jar Jar Binks.

So there is possibly something to say for the view that the Prequel Trilogy was spot on for those who were young in ’99-’05 or at least ‘young at heart’ while for the ‘old folks’ a sixteen year wait for new Star Wars had become a sixteen year build-up of expectations regarding a story and characters they thought they knew. With enough explosive emotions around, from the disappointment of exactly these people with the Special Editions, to serve as a detonator for their disenchantment with what had become an icon of their own childhood Prequel-Bashing became the modus operandi for a section of Generation X that, in particular in the US, was just about to professionally start pulling their weight in the world of entertainment and the shaping of public opinion. Instead of destroying the Sith … they joined them!

The Sequel Trilogy: There has been an awakening … have you felt it?

So where are we now? Prequel-hate is still widely echoed in the press and other media. The perception of the Original Trilogy has almost gone into complete reverse relative to how it was perceived in ’77-’83 by contemporary adult critics. Of course the adults of then are no longer being interviewed and the kids of back then are the ones doing the interviewing now. It are the X’ers that are working on the continuation of the Saga now but they are facing a matured population of Prequel fans who will not shut up. And in the midst of all hyping of the upcoming trilogy and of creating distance to the Prequel Trilogy there has been somethign of a re-appreciation of exactly those prequels; whether it is regarding their exquisite visual language


or regarding the hypothesis that in a world of franchised serial films with superheroes Star Wars holds the mythological flame


or a soft admissions that Jar Jar wasn’t the Ueber-villain but actually just a nice guy that is part of us all


The really exciting question as far as I am concerned is whether the Sequel Trilogy will attempt at bringing it all together or whether it will again seek to connect with the contemporary young (and young at heart) possibly at the expense of those who view their childhood experiences with some sacrosanct reverence. Can the trilogies be seen together as George Lucas suggested? Surely they can

More to read:

On the impact of Star Wars






7 thoughts on “UCL’s Star Wars Class #1: What is Star Wars?

  1. This is… fantastic. Truly fantastic. A perfect summary of Star Wars, its impact and its perception. In particular the comments about the people who were kids for the OT now coming to rule entertainment media, public influence, and how the future of Star Wars is steered (truly lamentably) away from the PT were just so spot on. Another superb article.


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