[And be warned: this is a loooooong one.]
Let’s start with this…
Since George Lucas sold Lucasfilm to Disney and Kathleen Kennedy took over… they’ve actually been doing a really good job.
Come at me.
There are whole YouTube channels dedicated to trashing Kennedy and/or ‘woke Disney’, but here’s my thesis:
The Fanbase Scaling Problem
I think Star Wars is the first entertainment franchise (in the West at least) to have a fanbase so large that it is totally impossible to please everybody.
Is that hyperbole? Really? The first? Not Star Trek? James Bond? Sherlock Holmes? Shakespeare’s plays featuring Henry V?
Yeah, these were all very popular, but then along came the internet.
And I think Star Wars creator George Lucas got caught out by this. I think he assumed that his returning after 20 years to make 3 prequels to his much loved trilogy would be met by excitement by the next generation of his target audience – 11 year old boys – and that the older fans of the originals would also be able to enjoy a little gentle nostalgia.
What he didn’t realise was that the older fans assumed he was doing it for them.
And their initial excitement turned to rage when they realised that the child-centric tone of the originals hadn’t been some accident, or a cynical way to sell toys, but was actually part of the creator’s vision. And they directed their rage, online, to the movie’s actors – Ahmed Best and Jake Lloyd – in a pattern of bullying that would continue to this day.
At the same time, however, the younger audience that George Lucas was hoping to target with the prequels, and then later with a run of Star Wars cartoons for TV, did actually grow up loving the franchise and claiming it as their own.
And to complicate matters even more, there was also a generation of Star Wars fans my age who saw the original films in the cinema and became obsessed with them, and who actually did appreciate the prequels and cartoons in the affectionately nostalgic way that George Lucas hoped.
Basically, the Star Wars franchise developed a fanbase with factions. But it was also a fanbase so big (and, thanks to the internet, so connected) that it was able to make George Lucas feel its anger.
Star Wars wars
In the Tested podcast, Norman Chan once outlined the 6 Stages of Fandom:
- I love this
- I own this
- I control this
- I… can’t control this!
- I hate this!
- I WILL DESTROY THIS!
As other huge media franchises followed Star Wars, this factional battle played out over and over again, but I think it happened with Star Wars first: different segments of the audience want different things, but certain factions are louder and angrier and more aggressive than others.
Eventually I think George Lucas just had enough of this, and he sold Lucasfilm to Disney, who he felt would understand that this was a franchise whose purpose was to give young people hope (and not to make 28 year old neck-beards feel like a badass).
Kathleen Kennedy took over Lucasfilm, and – after a few tentative projects – she tasked J J Abrams with the job of basically placating the angry faction and giving them exactly what they wanted: which he did with The Force Awakens and The Rise of Skywalker.
These films were absolutely not for me. But I don’t blame Kennedy and Abrams for that. Not every project is for me, and that’s fine. I bitterly oppose the way in which many in the Angry Faction bully people online, but I think it’s a good thing that they’ve got movies that speak to them specifically. (And now they have a TV series, Andor, which seems to have done that even better – whilst keeping the rest of the fans happy too, which is nothing short of miraculous!)
Since Kennedy has taken over, every project usually gets the same criticism: it is merely ‘fine’. (Even the projects that the loudest fans love – The Mandalorian and Andor – receive this criticism, often for wildly varying reasons.)
But my thesis is that it takes extraordinary levels of skill and diplomacy to even get to just ‘fine’ with a fanbase this divided. I think Lucasfilm have recently done really well at delivering consistent entertainment that doesn’t break the universe.
They even made some for me
But first, a little backstory.
So there was a point, around the release of The Force Awakens, when it seemed to me that the loudest fans felt like the biggest problem in Star Wars… was George Lucas. They felt betrayed by him, and that he didn’t really understand what Star Wars was actually about. He had fluked a masterpiece, and now he should leave it to his fans (like J J Abrams) to continue it in a mature way.
And not too long ago I was thinking about this low point for Lucas, and wondering why he didn’t just make some kind of really small scale Star Wars project that none of the noisy fans would care about, so he could carry on making space wizard fantasy for 11 year olds.
And then I remembered.. he did. It was called The Clone Wars.
Saturday morning cartoons
The Clone Wars was a theatrical movie, but it was also a cartoon, telling a story about events between the prequels and the original trilogy.
And although Lucas oversaw it, he did something he seems to be pretty good at doing: he delegated. In particular, he picked a young animator called Dave Filoni to direct it. Filoni came back to oversee a whole TV series spin off of The Clone Wars, and over time a sort of ‘master and apprentice’ relationship developed with Lucas and Filoni.
Put a pin in that, as they say, as we’ll come back to it.
Much like the prequels, I wasn’t expecting to like the animated movie, but when I saw it I was reminded why I fell in love with Star Wars as a child in the first place.
It is corny, it is child-centric, and it doesn’t bear much relationship to the science of the real world (e.g. every planet seems to have a breathable atmosphere, and pretty much every alien is humanoid.)
In fact, it always feels like those old Flash Gordon series of the 1930s – with the epic classical music, opening crawl and “Boy am I glad to see you!” dialogue. Which I was always on board with, as I remember seeing those 30s reels repeated on TV on Saturday mornings when I was a child (yes, I am that old) alongside children’s cartoons.
But, underneath that Flash Gordon pastiche, the storytelling is masterful and always has a point to it. Everyone who knows a little about George Lucas knows how he was the best known disciple of Joseph Campbell and his book The Hero With A Thousand Faces. Less well known is Lucas sees Star Wars more as ‘anthropology fiction’ than ‘science fiction’, and I love the clear care that goes into his world-building.
Lucas and Filoni quietly carried on making new Star Wars stories for a younger audience for years, following Star Wars: The Clone Wars with Star Wars: Rebels, and then Star Wars: Resistance.
In 2012, however, Lucas sold the (then independent) Lucasfilm to Disney, and Kathleen Kennedy took over as CEO. And the heir apparent to the role of creative director appeared to be not Dave Filoni but J J Abrams, fresh off his recent Star Trek reboot. But the movies made during his era divided fans: some loved his refocusing away from Lucas’s prequels to the original films. Some, like me, felt they lacked the storytelling and world-building elements that made Lucas’s films so great.
But then along came The Mandalorian, and everything changed.
This was a live action TV series, directly influenced by the films of Sergio Leone and Akira Kurosawa (who were such an influence on the original Star Wars films), featuring a masked bounty hunter tasked with protecting a child.
And it was also the flagship show for the the Disney company’s vision of the future: a streaming service called Disney+. If The Mandalorian was a huge hit, Disney+ could get a huge number of subscribers who were unlikely to be bothered to unsubscribe, given access to all of Disney’s vast video catalogue. If The Mandalorian was a flop, or even a moderate success, Disney+ might not get over that initial subscriber hurdle and might fail, leaving Netflix as the only serious streaming platform in town.
So Disney pulled out all the stops, getting director and actor Jon Favreau to hopefully repeat the magic trick he pulled when kickstarting the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Iron Man back in 2008.
And this was really where the new era of Star Wars found its footing.
Favreau basically formed a partnership with Dave Filoni, and together they mapped about a new Star Wars cinematic universe… except it wasn’t for cinema: it was for streaming television.
And The Mandalorian was a hit. A huge hit. Enough to make Disney+ one of the biggest streaming contenders. Enough to give Favreau and Filoni a license to do… pretty much whatever they wanted. Enough to even (whisper it if you dare) unite the fans. (As much as that’s even possible these days.)
The post-Lucas era to that point had been pretty chaotic, with unconnected movies coming out here and there.
But now there seemed to be a plan.
A TV franchise with 4 showrunners
Apparently there are still movies planned, but the focus recently has been TV series (understandably, given the pandemic meant no one was going to cinemas).
And they seem to be run by this very interesting division of labour, who, for now at least, all seem to be on the same page:
George Lucas as Founder, Kathleen Kennedy as CEO, Jon Favreau as Showrunner and Dave Filoni as Head Writer (and all-round Star Wars encyclopaedia).
And the plan now seems to be to focus each TV series on a single character: Din Djarin (the eponymous Mandalorian), Boba Fett, Obi Wan Kenobi, Cassian Andor…
And now the latest, which I’ve been looking forward to the most: Ahsoka Tano.
What’s different about Ahsoka
There has been a lot of talk recently about ‘franchise fatigue’. Understandably.
Marvel showed that it was possible to be the biggest thing in global entertainment by releasing a large number of films with interconnected stories.
But that becomes hard to sustain, particularly when your fanbase gets to big that large opposing factions arise.
And here we come back to my initial thesis: the problem of fanbase scaling.
Eventually the tension between the Nostalgia and the Anti-Nostalgia camps becomes so strong that it defines the whole franchise, and output see-saws from pleasing one to pleasing the other.
But I think this new series, Ahsoka, might have been that.
Not because it’s universally loved: it isn’t. (Or it isn’t right now at least.) Not because it’s a smash hit: it’s a moderate hit at best.
But because it doesn’t have to appeal to either the Nostalgia or the Anti-Nostalgia camp.
Because it’s Dave Filoni’s baby, and the first of the new run of live action Disney+ series that’s picking up directly from his Clone Wars and Rebels cartoons. The events are set in that world, and carry on directly from the end of Rebels.
So the loud and angry fans can’t dismiss this series as yet another betrayal of the fans by George Lucas or Kathleen Kennedy, because there is now a huge new generation of fans who grew up with Filoni’s cartoons. And they can’t claim that Filoni doesn’t really understand Star Wars because he was mentored by George Lucas for decades. And he clearly loves it, and knows more about it than perhaps anyone other than Lucas himself.
Basically, George Lucas did that thing that seemed like a smart move to me: make a side project that does exactly what you want it to do, and just keep it under the radar. Until it becomes big enough that it’s immune to Gen X fan rage.
So is this new Ahsoka world the future of Star Wars?
I certainly hope not, and I don’t think so. Because the only way to manage the Fanbase Scaling problem is to recognise no project will please everybody. The Rise of Skywalker thread of Star Wars bores me, but I hope they make more of it, because other people love it and it’s not all about me and my tastes.
But what I’m hoping Ahsoka does prove is that Star Wars can beat that franchise fatigue.
Because it now has this one channel where it focus on telling new stories. As well as giving Nostalgia and Anti-Nostalgia fans what they want in separate projects.
What is the Ahsoka series about?
She was introduced right at the beginning of the first Clone Wars movie, and has been Filoni’s central character (pretty much) ever since. In fact, she’s probably the character who has had the most screen time – from a gifted but kind of brattish child into a disillusioned adult to a classic Ronin warrior. I think it’s fair to say fans know more about her than anyone else.
In terms of Star Wars entertainment, I felt the series overdelivered.
But I did initially get the sense that, unlike Lucas, Filoni didn’t have anything bigger to say. He was just good at the Star Wars vibe.
I was very happy to be proven wrong.
Towards the end, all the loose ends were tied up in a single speech, which made it clear what Filoni believes Star Wars is fundamentally about.
And I love it!
Ahsoka takes on an apprentice called Sabine, who proves to be pretty useless throughout the series. Everything she does undoes Ahsoka’s efforts, and helps the villains. And Ahsoka seems non-plussed – although nowhere near as non-plussed as I would be, frankly.
Sabine ends up giving the enemies the plans and then gets captured, while Ahsoka gets defeated, nearly dies, and has one of those great near-death dream sequences. (I’m going to call it a dream sequence although super-fans may rightly take issue with that.)
In which she meets, and then fights, her former master Anakin.
It was a great sequence, and it looks gorgeous, but I wasn’t sure what the point was – other than to get the fans excited by the return of an actor from the prequel movies.
But when Ashoka finally rescues Sabine, and Sabine says words to the effect of “you’re pretty pissed off with me, right?”, Ahsoka has this to say (and yes I’m paraphrasing).
“Here’s the thing. My master, Anakin, turned into Darth Vader – the Devil’s right hand man, essentially. And that left me a little traumatised. And I’ve been wrestling with that for a while, but here is what I realised: before that, when he was my master, he was a really good master. He stuck up for me again and again, often when no one else would. And he never abandoned me. Like I’ve abandoned you, time and time again. (And since your whole family was killed, abandonment is understandably a bit of a sore point for you!) So how about this: I will never abandon you again.”
And from that point on, Sabine goes from making all the wrong choices to all the right ones.
This is why I love this series so much, because it has condensed all of Star Wars into one central theme: mentorship.
Masters and Apprentices
And when you look back at all of Lucas’s projects, mentorship is also right at the heart of them.
These stories seem to me to be fundamentally about how we thrive with good mentors, and how we struggle and fail without them. And also how hard it is to be a good mentor, and how little mistakes can add up.
And yes, this is why, as a dad in my late 40s, I have so much time for this franchise.
Who else in entertainment (apart from Bluey) really cares about this stuff?