"I Have a Bad Feeling About This": Reflections on Star Wars, Fandom, and Transmedia

My wife, son and I are psyched to have tickets to see The Last Jedi tonight, all the more so because the early reviews have been so glowing. In hopes of helping others get into the Star Wars Christmas spirit, I wanted to share an excerpt for a  much longer interview I did as the foreword for Sean Guymes and Dan Hassler-Forrest, Star Wars and the History of Transmedia, out this holiday season from Amsterdam University Press. If you enjoy this, there's much more where it came from, including great essays from some of the world's leading scholars of fandom and transmedia. 


Dan: You’re probably one of the world’s best-known Star Trek fans – certainly within academia. Since you have always reflected on popular franchises from the dual perspective of the “aca-fan, it seems most appropriate to start with a question about your own relationship with Star Wars. What’s your own history with this franchise?

Henry: I grew up on Star Trek. It was a formative influence on my identity and my understanding of the world. On the other hand I was an undergraduate when A New Hope first appeared, so I necessarily have a different relationship to it. It took a while for Star Wars to win me over. When I saw the first preview in the movie theaters, I laughed it off the screen. From the highly generic and on-the-nose title to the dorky robots, it seemed to embody everything that I thought was wrong about Hollywood’s relationship to science fiction as a genre. It just looked laughably bad. Keep in mind though that that first trailer didn’t have John Williams’ musical score, so the tone would have felt very different for those of us seeing it for the first time. And keep in mind that it followed trailers for Logan’s Run and Damnation Alley, which were both releasing at the same time. What I really wanted was a new Planet of the Apes movie!

After I had seen that trailer, I was given the chance to interview three unknown actors, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill, about the upcoming film as a young undergraduate journalist and declined, giving the assignment to another reporter. I was, down the line, able to have a one-on-one interview with John Williams about the music, which is ranked as one of my all-time favorite opportunities to see behind the screen.

So it took me a while to even go see the movie. By that point it had started to build up some buzz. And when I saw the film, I fell hard. It totally excited my imagination. It had such a strong sense of fun and adventure; its reliance on the Hero’s Journey would have been particularly resonant with me at the time since I was undergoing a period of undergraduate infatuation with the writings of Joseph Campbell.

I’ve gone out and seen every subsequent film on opening day with my wife. I wasn’t seeing her at the time the first Star Wars came out, but it is a ritual we have kept up down to the present day. My wife loves to tell the story of how we first met: she arrived for her first undergraduate film class, and saw this undergraduate standing around talking to anyone who would listen about the social significance of Star Wars. She rolled her eyes, and later in that afternoon wrote a letter to her best friend talking about this “pretentious ass” she’d seen in the class who had embodied everything that she was afraid a film class would be like. Two years later, by the time The Empire Strikes Back came out, this “pretentious ass” was hers, and she never ceases to remind me of her first impression.

But the story from my point of view suggests just how deeply I was, at that point, engaging with the mythology around Star Wars. Subsequently, my fandom of Star Wars would wax and wane. I’ll talk about some of the twists and turns along the way, but I think that I, like many fans of my generation, was cranky when Star Wars becomes too much of a children’s franchise, and engaged when there is material there that works at a more mature level.

Dan: So as an highly engaged witness to the Star Wars phenomenon as it took shape, how would you place it within the larger framework of science fiction fandom?

Henry: In some ways I see it as a crucial turning point for the kind of media-centered fans, the mostly female fans that I wrote about in Textual Poachers. Up until that point, most of fandom had been organized around Star Trek, which had been a defining text for a generation of fans. Suddenly, you were seeing forms of fan expression that were taking shape around Star Trek expanded to incorporate new texts, including, first and foremost, Star Wars. We can see this as a move from a fandom centered around individual stories to a multi-media fandom, which would continue to expand across genres, across franchises, down to the present day.

So if we think about the text that defined fandom over time, Star Trek is certainly one of those, Star Wars is another, Harry Potter is another, Buffy is another, maybe Xena - these are the fandoms that represent a profound shift in the way fandom operates. It’s easy to understand, then, why some Star Trek fans saw Star Wars as a threat or competition. It certainly fell into the fault lines of what people thought science fiction was. Star Trek was seen as true science fiction – science fiction about ideas, about the future, about utopian and dystopian alternatives. Star Wars was seen as space opera, fantasy, bound up with spectacular special effects. But I never understood why you had to pick one over the other. Different tastes, different moments in our lives, but all representing exciting contributions to the larger development of science fiction.

Dan: Unlike most previous fantastic storyworlds, Star Wars was in many ways a transmedia experience from the very start: the comic books, the novelizations, the arcade games, the action figures, the soundtrack albums, and so on. While all the merchandising and transmedia spin-offs clearly contributed to the franchise’s phenomenal financial success and its impact as a cultural phenomenon, they also made the storyworld appear more childish, more frivolous, and more obviously commercial than other science fiction. But at the same time, its ubiquity also made it a gateway drug for millions of young fans who felt inspired to look beyond Lucas’s space opera and discover a whole universe of fantastic fiction. What is your take on the way Star Wars’ commercial success has colored its perception among fans of the genre? Is it less of a “cult text” because of its sheer scale?

Henry: There’s no question that George Lucas was a founding figure in the evolution of modern transmedia storytelling. A lot of this has to do with the deal he cut with Twentieth Century Fox around the production of the film, Lucas waiving his normal fees as director in favor of a percentage of the gross from ancillary products. Because the ancillary products became so central to his revenues, they became central to his interest in the stories. This arrangement created a strong incentive for those pieces – the comics, the toys, the novelizations, and so forth – to be more fully incorporated into the story system of Star Wars. Such experiences became central to Star Wars’ commercial success, and meant the experience of Star Wars extended off the screen and throughout the intervals between the releases of individual films. No other science fiction property had so totally saturated a generation’s media experiences. No previous science fiction film had gained this kind of blockbuster status. The summer blockbuster had only really been established as a category in Hollywood through the success of Jaws (1975) just a couple of years earlier. Star Trek barely survived on television, limping along through its three seasons, heavily backed up by two letter-writing campaigns from its audience, and only really regained the impact it had on the culture through reruns in syndication. As Star Wars achieves this kind of instant mass success, you could make the argument that science fiction was no longer a marker of subcultural identity, but something that could be a mass phenomenon.

It’s hard therefore to talk about anyone who came of age in the 1970s and 1980s for whom Star Wars and subsequent science fiction franchises weren’t a central influence on their lives. We could look toward Harry Potter as a similar mainstream niche success, a seemingly contradictory category, but one that seems earned in both cases. It’s a mass success because almost everyone in the culture would have gone to see these films, or read the books in the case of Harry Potter, as they were released; but at the same time, it’s also a niche success because there were so many subcultural practices that grew up around them. So each person’s experience of these mass hits would have had slightly different inflections and would have brought them into contact with likeminded communities. Liking Star Wars was no longer enough to gain fan street-cred, and various forms of fan involvement could still be seen as being too geeky. There’s not just one Star Wars but many Star Wars, which is why I think the ancillary properties or transmedia extensions become so interesting to study.


Dan: While the narratively self-contained original trilogy clearly wasn’t organized as a form of transmedia storytelling, the popularity of the early toys and videogames gave audiences at the time unprecedented ways of engaging with the storyworld outside the actual films. How did this affect the development of fan culture in the early years of the franchise, and how would you describe this constant interaction between immersion (in the films’ spectacularly visualized and richly detailed storyworld) and extraction (of toys, games, and other items into audience members’ lived experience)? 

Henry: There’s a tendency to underestimate how central the toys were to the Star Wars transmedia system. Academics, particularly those of us of a particular generation, are primed to dismiss toys in all forms as simple commodities that are ways of exploiting the markets opened up by individual franchises. In the case of Star Wars, as with many other contemporary media franchises, they play a much larger role. They are evocative objects that shape the imagination in particular ways. They are authoring tools that grant to the purchaser the right to retell and extend the story that they saw on the screen. The action figures suggest that there is more going on than can be captured in an individual movie, and that the background details of a fictional world can be as important as the saga of the central protagonist. Indeed it hints at a place where any given character’s story could be of central interest to us, and so in that sense we can see the action figures as paving the way for the kind of stand-alone films that are part of the new Star Wars transmedia plan. In many cases the action figures that mattered were not those of the big protagonists but those of secondary characters, background figures. In some cases characters that barely count as extras are given new emphasis and new life as they become part of the personal mythology of the fan. We often tell the story through the example of Boba Fett, who developed a fascination off-screen that far exceeded the amount of screen time granted in the films, and paved the way for Boba Fett to become a much more central character in the prequels. But I think you could tell the same kinds of stories around characters like Admiral Ackbar and Mon Mothma or Hammerhead, all of whom gained greater resonance through their extension in playrooms and playgrounds across the country.

I think this results in several different ways that one might read Star Wars. One is to see Star Wars as the Skywalker saga, which is grounded in the Hero’s Journey and which has a singular focus even as it expands outward over time and space. But the second would be to read Star Wars as a world, where many different parts can be explored, and where background details can be as rich and meaningful as anything that goes on in the lives of the protagonists. This logic of world-building, of extension, expansion, extraction, shapes all the other elements that would emerge around the Star Wars constellation. Each new extension of the Star Wars text adds potentially more depth or appreciation of the world depicted onscreen.

I’m particularly fond of a book called Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina, which consists of a series of short stories, each centered around one of the aliens featured in the Cantina sequence in A New Hope. We learn who these characters are, what brought them to the Cantina that day, and in some cases what happened to them after the events of the film. So when you read this and then go back and watch the Cantina scene in the original film, you have a much deeper appreciation of every detail in the background. You come to understand the whole of what’s going on, and in some ways the central protagonists are dwarfed by all the other dramas taking place in the bar that particular day. Given how rich the background stories provided on these various characters are, it should be no shock that say, Rogue One, features several of those characters in a different setting, depicting earlier points in their particular journeys to the Mos Eisley Cantina.

I don’t know that there’s necessarily a friction between immersion and extraction. I know I originally described this as a kind of paradoxical relationship, one drawing us into the film, one drawing us out of the film. But in the case of Star Wars, the mastery built up through the extracted elements can result in greater attention or a greater sense of immersion into the world when we return to the film. Immersion involves kinds of recognition, mastery, built up investments in certain series’ elements that pop off the screen, the more we know about them and the more we appreciate them from the world off-screen. This is a sense of making Tatooine and other fictional spaces our own by making them the sites of our collective fantasies.

Dan: In the many years between the original trilogy and the release of the prequel films, Star Wars moved away somewhat from the cultural mainstream and became something that was more of a “cult text,” maintaining its core audience of fans through the production of novels, videogames, tabletop RPGs, comics, and collectables. At the same time, the growing popularity of fantastic franchises and the arrival of the internet contributed to fan culture’s dramatic growth in that period. How do you look back at this era from the mid-1980s to the late 1990s, and how would you describe Star Wars’ position within science fiction fandom at that time?

Henry: Around the time that The Empire Strikes Back was released, George Lucas did what is now a notorious interview with Time where he described his vision for where the Star Wars franchise might be going. There he spoke about three trilogies as adding up to the full Star Wars saga. The first was the one initiated by A New Hope. Once that was completed, he had announced that he was going to go back and do a series of prequels which told the events surrounding the collapse of the Jedi knights, the Clone Wars, the corruption of Anakin Skywalker, and the breakdown of his relationship with Obi-Wan Kenobi. After those were completed and after the actors had a chance to naturally age a bit over time, he planned to go back for a third trilogy, which suggests what happened to these ruling families as they were forced to hold the galaxy together. What I think none of us anticipated was quite how long the gaps would be between each of those three trilogies, even though the interview in some ways maps out precisely the future course of the Star Wars franchise.

As fans, we knew then what to expect from the prequels. They would be Arthurian, operatic, mythic, pick the word of your choice, but shaped by Lucas’ particular reading of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth theory. All of this pointed towards a more mature, darker conception of the series that would require strong performances to achieve the emotional intensity we wanted to see on the screen. This goes hand in hand with the degree to which fans of my generation embraced The Empire Strikes Back as the best of the three Star Wars movies, and the intensity with which they repudiated the introduction of Muppets and stuffed toys, especially the Ewoks, into the next Star Wars film and its spinoffs.

Part of what cemented that sense of a shared conception of the prequels was the beginnings of the internet fandom, certainly by the 1990s. Early internet fandom was marked by sharp divides, flame wars between different factions who had very different sets of expectations about what Star Wars, or any other media property, was supposed to do. But over time, online fan communities tended to develop very strong senses of consensus around what’s best and what’s worst about a particular media franchise, and that consensus becomes more entitled and empowered over time, so that by the time the prequels came out Lucas was facing a very intense and embedded sense of fan expectations, expectations which had been building over almost twenty years during the gap between the films.

You mention here that this fan interest is kept alive by the secondary production by the corporation, but it has also been kept alive by fan cultural production. Over the 1980s and 1990s you’re seeing the extension of the timeline of Star Wars as fan writers flesh out incidents earlier and earlier and later and later in the life of the characters, and then move beyond them to tell the backstory of the Sith or the Jedi, often in ways that extend across centuries. Fans sort through these, debate them, some become semi-canonical in the fans’ imagination, and these become central forces shaping what fans want Star Wars to become. During the same time period, we’re seeing both the increased visibility of fan-cultural production, and the first rounds of skirmishes with Lucas and the other producers over what the rules of our participation are going to be. Lucas early on seems to feel a very strong need to control what fans did with Star Wars, an issue I’ll come back to in response to one of your later questions. And so Star Wars became one of the central battlegrounds by which fan relations to intellectual property would take place.