Star Wars Fandom and The ForceCast

The debate over the Star Wars Expanded Universe is a tale of us versus them that’s been raging for some time, but only recently has it exploded within fandom. The Expanded Universe (EU) matters greatly to me for reasons I’ve previously discussed, but in particular because the novels were my major gateway into Star Wars fandom. Unfortunately, that segment of my fandom has fallen under attack from people I trusted.

The ForceCast has become the podcast where there is no fan left behind unless they disagree with your particular version of fandom, in which case they will publicly mock and shame you on their program.

That’s why I have no choice but to stop listening.

The ForceCast

If you haven’t heard my previous evangelism, The ForceCast is one of the best produced Star Wars podcasts on the internet. The show is a usually weekly program for and by fans, and is the official podcast of TheForce.net and Rebelscum.com. Despite my misgivings at times, I respect the great effort poured into the show by the hosts, the production, and the marketing.

The show expands beyond its weekly variety-style programming with dedicated podcasts about The Clone Wars, the EU, collecting, regular fandom episodes, and even Indiana Jones. The mission is “No Fan Left Behind,” and it usually shows, particularly when it comes to convention coverage.

The ForceCast has been there for me when I couldn’t go to conventions, and especially when I was deployed overseas for months at a stretch without internet access. I once handcrafted a map detailing — with all regard to operational security, of course — my travels with them and included it with a fan-made scrapbook that was presented to the hosts in appreciation of their hard work.

I’ve also been able to give back a couple of times with the ForceCast Editorial Series, where listeners are invited to write essays to explore aspects of fandom. Luckily, I’ve had two such essays published through them with great feedback from fellow fans. The first was about the lessons I’ve learned from George Lucas, and the second was a literary analysis of Padmé’s death in Revenge of the Sith.

In my personal “Dark Times”, Jason, Pete, and Jimmy, and all of the friends I’ve made worldwide through the community were my light in fandom. I just can’t say enough about the impact the majority of these wonderful people have made in my life.

The Nature of the EU

The Expanded Universe started benignly, but hasn’t always been puppy dogs and marshmallows. Surrounding the release of the original movies, publishers released novels and comics that have long since faded into a sense of obscurity because their storylines have been overridden by other stories, including the movies. As Star Wars grew in popularity, the EU exploded, and my fandom started to wane from oversaturation. The ForceCast helped by deflecting some of the attention from the EU and focusing on other aspects of the fanbase. While the majority of EU fans seem pretty low-key on the material, other fans developed a sort of blind allegiance to the stories and took umbrage when other elements of the Star Wars franchise negated parts of those stories, ranging from a paragraph to an entire chapter of a novel.

My opinion of the EU is that it’s too big and growing far too fast for some fans to keep track of. While I agree that it has a certain value, I find more value in the richness provided by the mythic story of Anakin Skywalker’s rise, fall, and redemption that is found in the six movies. That arc is the basis for everything we have at our fingertips, and it’s all thanks to the vision of George Lucas. While it can be claimed that his story is entirely derivative — honestly, it is — all the other stories in the Star Wars universe are derivative from that, and not all of them are golden nuggets that need preservation.

For some fans, it is enough to understand the six movie arc. For others, the inclusion of The Clone Wars adds something more. For an even smaller segment of fandom, the novels, comics, and games flesh out a universe rich with potential. What we need to remember is that the richness is due to people who were paid to tell a story, unique or otherwise, in the Star Wars galaxy with the understanding that they may be overruled at any point. That is standard with any tie-in media. Some of these people tried to tell simple stories and others like the infamous Karen Traviss tried to set-up elaborate seven course meals for the fans to savor over time. But at the end of the day, Star Wars belongs to one man, and if he wants to tell a different story, he is fully within his rights to tell that story regardless of what has come before.

Some fans don’t share that opinion and want something more.

The Petition of the 2000

In one episode of The Clone Wars, Jedi Master Even Piell was killed. The downside was that he played a major part in an EU novel set after Revenge of the Sith, and the episode negated both an entire chapter of the book, but also impinged on the protagonist’s motivations as a character. As a result, some fans wrote the Petition of the 2000, which politely asked George Lucas to consider the previously released Star Wars material before authorizing plot points in the ongoing animated series.

Initially, I was sympathetic to their cause because of my roots in the EU fandom. I couldn’t outright support their position because I believed that they were exercising a false sense of entitlement as fans over the creator who sparked the franchise. I cannot support telling a person how he should tell his story anymore than I support redacting Mark Twain’s work because cultural sensitivities have shifted. I don’t idolize Lucas like some sort of god, but I recognize his position as a creator and storyteller. Even in the act of asking him to bound his creations by the EU, the petitioners are asking him to stifle some degree of his efforts. By that measure, I consider the petition to be an embarrassment to me as a fan. I would be ashamed to have George Lucas read that petition and believe that it came from fandom as a whole.

I appreciated the fact that they asked in lieu of demanding a change, but I appreciate more the fact that George Lucas has said on record that the only stories that truly matter in the Star Wars franchise are his. The rest are filler for our entertainment alone, and we haven’t wasted time or money on these products if you have enjoyed them because that was their purpose. Lucasfilm is in the business of creating entertainment and making money on it, not building vast continuities spanning millennia and meticulously maintaining it because a group of 1,000 fans requested it. I see the very existence of a continuity checker like Leland Chee to be a concession to the fandom that Lucasfilm is trying, but I also see it as purely symbolic. They know at Lucasfilm who signs their paychecks, and if the continuity policies were really that strict, novels and games and comics would never contradict each other.

I don’t agree with some choices made in franchises like Harry Potter, Star Trek, Stargate, or others, but I don’t support telling the creators of these works how they should steer their properties. If I don’t like it enough, I jump off and go find something else to occupy my time. Life’s too short for that crap. I look at it like I see mythology: It’s all about the big picture, not the intricate details. There’s too much EU, and I am glad that some of it is being carved away. The very nature of working as a tie-in novelist is that your work may be superceded at any point. When you write for a franchise, you understand what is canon and what is not. The ground rules are clearly established. Avatar: The Last Airbender includes everything in-universe as canon, but series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel are only canon if on-screen, authorized by creator Joss Whedon, or written by the original writing staff. The random Buffy novel by Christie Golden is not canon, and she knew that when writing it. If you’re hired to write an Avatar project, you know going in that it’s going to be incorporated into canon. If you’re hired to write a Star Wars novel, you know that it can be overruled by a George Lucas decision.

At the end of the day, the only points I deeply care about are the ones concerned with the core mythos of Anakin Skywalker. Beyond that, they’re nice stories, but I’m not beholden to them.

The boys at The ForceCast took a slightly different approach by dissecting the argument and countering it point-by-point with Jimmy taking a more conservative approach and Jason taking his usual antagonistic stance when it comes to EU matters. The petition authors reacted by attacking the podcast hosts, exacting the “he hit me first” style of revenge. They also insulted Jason for not being well-read and having to look up certain words in the petition with a dictionary.

That’s where the petitioners lost all support from me. I never have agreed with Jason’s antagonism toward EU fans, but resorting to schoolyard bully tactics doesn’t prove the petition’s point. Quite the contrary, it dissuades me. The very structure of the “thought-out” reply from one fan to another was condescending, particularly in respect to a life-long fan. I don’t take well to people dragging another person’s intellect through the mud based on their differing views. Instead of explaining the nature of the movement in terms people can understand without resorting to a dictionary, the petitioners took to reducing two fans and their opinions to an observation on their supposed idol worship of George Lucas.

Don’t get me wrong: The ForceCast also shares part of the blame in this regard. Jason Swank seems to revel in building entertainment from spinning up fans by poking at sore points. In fact, this matter with the petition only emboldened him to become more antagonistic and condescending toward EU fans.

Overall, I believe that both sides are mired in their desire to maintain the status quo.

The Lessons of Star Trek

Star Trek got back to the basics in ‘09 and if it’s truly going to be forever, the Star Wars Expanded Universe will have to as well.”

–Jason Swank (May 21, 2011 via the ForceCast Facebook page)

Star Trek started back as early as 1966 as the concept of a utopian society who learned to overcome their adversities venturing to the stars on a mission of exploration. After three seasons, the original series was cancelled but found new life in syndicated re-runs. It eventually spawned a short-lived animated series, six movies with the original series crew, and a spinoff with Star Trek: The Next Generation. After that, the franchise blossomed into four movies with the new crew and three more spinoff series.

The Next Generation started as an updated version of the original’s campy utopian fantasy, and in my opinion, after seven years it had hardly evolved beyond that. It followed Star Trek’s formula of social commentaries shrouded in science fiction, but stayed safely shy of really digging into modern topics. Deep Space Nine followed suit for the first two or three seasons, but eventually evolved into a series about war and religion, which made sense for the era in which it existed. Voyager and Enterprise reverted to the classic roots and made little to no effort to venture beyond what made the franchise so much money. While it made the classic fans happy, it didn’t bring in fresh faces. Star Trek wasn’t addressing concerns that modern science-fiction fans needed it to address. After Voyager, Enterprise, and the tenth movie Nemesis failed to expand beyond Trek’s initial charter but successfully displayed the doldrums of the writing staff, Paramount pulled the plug. For the first time in nearly twenty years, Star Trek was off the air.

Paramount fired everyone, from Rick Berman and Brannon Braga at the top to the web designers at the bottom. The franchise was dark for years until J. J. Abrams and his team rebooted it. They didn’t override what had come before, but rather reset the clock in an alternate universe and started over. They got back to the basics of what made Star Trek what it was. It was a mirror of the modern day, reflecting modern concerns on the screen with characters we knew. But, the reboot came with a price. Two major planets were destroyed (one in the original timeline, one in the new), supporting characters were killed, and character motivations were changed from where they started in the 1960s. The basics are there, but the formula is different.

Why am I mentioning this?

Because many think that the Star Wars EU is in those Voyager/Enterprise doldrums. Luke Skywalker is not the same character we saw on the silver screen, Chewbacca is dead, and the supporting cast is weary and dimensionless. The hero’s journey was completed long ago, yet people keep trying to find missions for him to complete. A story arc that could be condensed into tight trilogy or even a single large novel takes twelve or fifteen books to complete over a year or two of publication.

Maybe Star Wars needs to get back to basics, but we know such an action comes with a price. One possible offer was made, but at least one fan doesn’t want to pay.

The Death of Luke Skywalker

On May 16, a Star Wars EU fan named Tricia wrote an article entitled “Luke Skywalker Must Die” which summarized five reasons why she believed that the EU would benefit from killing off the poster child of Star Wars. Overall, I agreed with her main contention that the hero’s journey — the very backbone of the Star Wars films — has long since ended. Luke Skywalker has no real purpose in the EU aside from that of “Merlin Goes to Washington” as his character has become less hero and more politician and figurehead to a resurrected Jedi Order. Tricia’s blog post was incredibly well written and researched in my opinion, and presented her in the light of a very well-read woman. The ForceCast decided to cover this topic on their May 20 show, and included it in their teaser with the line, “EU kooks call for the death of Luke Skywalker”.

Consider a moment the use of the word “kook”. Merriam-Webster defines the term as “one whose ideas or actions are eccentric, fantastic, or insane” and cross-references to the word “screwball” among other synonyms. Also remember that Jimmy has championed a public crusade against defining members of fandom as “nerds”. Remember how embarrassed I was about the Petition of the 2000? This embarrasses me more.

As if the use of derogatory names against fellow fans wasn’t enough, The ForceCast’s official reaction was even worse. Jimmy took his normal conservative EU stance, and Jason picked us his antagonism with his usual fervor. Jason started with a blanket statement that none of the five reasons presented were good ones. While he has a right to that opinion, it became clear over the next forty-five minutes that, for lack of a better term, he just didn’t get Tricia’s argument at all.

He accused Tricia of threatening Mark Hamill when she mentioned the differences between reality and fiction, and if Jason was trying to be humorous, it wasn’t funny at all. As the ForceCast crew have discussed before, Star Wars transcends the fiction of the screen or the page and has a profound effect on everyday life. The ForceCast even runs a segment called “Star Wars in Pop Culture,” but Jason failed to realize that the death of a fictional character would spread ripples throughout the real world, even beyond the limited scope of selling more books. Such an act on behalf of Lucasfilm mirror the death of Chewbacca in Vector Prime, spurring both anger and critical thought beyond the confines of our little community, and would possibly make Star Wars more relevant than a quick nod on a sitcom. Instead of realizing that, Jason wants to call the 501st to protect Mark Hamill.

Jason suggests that perceived inability to adequately capture Luke’s character on the written page can be solved by simply finding new writers. Just, you know, pull them out of mid-air and hand them a contract because the current offering of science-fiction and fantasy novelists just don’t cut it. This solution is a cop-out, mostly because of the same reasons that other fictional epics cannot be translated to the movie screen, no matter how much we hope and pray that they can. Not all characters or plots can easily survive the transition between media, and it is possible that Luke Skywalker has some magic on the silver screen that can’t be captured on the page.

One other exchange captured my attention in its sheer audacity:

Jimmy: Because there is — and I think she brings this up later in her blog — there is this focus on Luke still, even though they’ve grown far away from the character of Luke Skywalker that we know from the films, there’s still this attention to him on all these novels that happen further and further away from the events of Return of the Jedi. If you kill him off, then that takes the focus off of his character and you could focus more on these secondary characters like Jaina Solo.

Jason: Who? What movie was she in?

Jimmy: Well, we’re talking about Star Wars Expanded Universe.

Jason: Well, we’re talking about Star Wars. [emphasis by Jason]

–Transcribed from The Weekly ForceCast for May 20, 2011 (time codes 1:29:35 to 1:30:18)

Jason continues on to describe his irritation at fans putting aspects of the franchise into convenient little boxes, such as novels, video games, and so on. Jason lost a significant amount of my respect at this point with this contradictory argument. He wants a global overarching franchise view, but refuses to acknowledge anything beyond the films when confronted with it. He argues that Star Wars is Luke, Leia, Han, Chewie, Padmé, Anakin, and all the other film characters, but even George Lucas disagrees with him. The core of the Star Wars saga is the rise, fall, and redemption of Anakin Skywalker. The core of Star Wars is the epic tale of father and son and the ends each will go to in order to save each other.

The core of Star Wars is the hero’s journey. That’s why Lucas is so attached to Luke Skywalker.

Jason argues that Star Wars fandom extends beyond the “small group” that reads the novels, and I will agree to that with a caveat. I believe that the majority of Star Wars fans — people who enjoy Star Wars — stop at the films because that’s all they need of the franchise. I think the ones that get involved in the minutia of Star Wars fandom and the community, the ones that listen to The ForceCast and other Star Wars podcasts, and the ones that participate on discussion boards are those who we need to care about, and those are the ones who Jason is considering a splinter group.

True Fandom

I’ve been told by other ForceCast listeners that Jason’s vitriol is manufactured for the sake of entertainment and sparking discussion. There are few things I despise more than hate and vitriol for the sake of entertainment. Such tactics are disingenuous and build a core following that represents more of a lynch mob than a critical community. Even now, people on the ForceCast Facebook page are drawing a line between “EU kooks” and “true fans”.

On January 21, 2008, I asked on the ForceCast forums what comprised a Star Wars fan. Jimmy responded within an hour with the following:

“Mom, Dad, Son, Daughter, Brother, Sister, Aunt, Uncle, Cousin, Grandparent, In-Law, Teacher, Friend, Kid, Adult, Artist, PODCASTER, Doctor, Lawyer, Public Servant, Mailman, Truck Driver, Professional, Professor, Student, Filmmaker, Office Worker, Librarian, Musician, Salesman, Cabbie, Dentist, Technician, Pilot, Marketing Professional, Bus Driver, Construction Worker, Cop, Fireman, Service Clerk…

…YOU….ME…THEM…EVERYBODY….

These are the people who listen to The Force-Cast…These are the people who love Star Wars.

Universal and Undefinable.”

These are the people who Jimmy and several others after him define as fans, and I agree. There are no “true fans”, but I do see The ForceCast drawing a line in the Tatooine sand with respect to their mission. With the venom and vitriol directed toward fans of the EU by one show’s hosts, it’s quickly becoming the official statement of one of the most “influential members of Star Wars media” that EU fans are somehow less than any other fan. Ironic, considering their sponsorship by Audible, which includes many Star Wars EU titles that the hosts highlight on a weekly basis.

In my view, fandom is supposed to be fun. Fandom should be a place of sanctity from the world where I can discuss popular culture and passions without fear of reprisal or mockery. I don’t mind critical analysis, but when fandom adds the shackles of blind stereotyping and condescending critique, it becomes a weight instead of a freedom.

One example is a forty-something Star Trek fan named Rob who frequents the Blastr (formerly Sci-Fi Wire) site. Any mention of anything related to the Star Trek reboot gets his immediate condescension and troll flaming, even down to the point of offering people to come to his home in Washington, Indiana to get some sense beat into them. I don’t go there much anymore because I don’t need that amount of hate in my fandom. There are much better places to experience fandom than in an environment that fosters such negativity.

Jason has become more and more rude over recent episodes, but particularly when dealing with the EU. He was rude to Jimmy by cutting him off and stepping all over him after dominating the one-way discussion on the Luke article. Small moments of interrupting each other are acceptable when dealing with Skype, but this was downright rude.

The ForceCast also has problems with responding to feedback, and that doesn’t fly well with me as a podcaster or a fan. I have tried many times to explain my position and concerns directly to them on the channels they have established. I’ve sent e-mails. I’ve posted on their Facebook page. I’ve posted on their forums. I’ve posted to Twitter, both to the show account and their personal accounts.

I don’t need this degree of negativity or hostility toward the fandom.

The end result of this is that I will need to exercise my Star Wars fandom somewhere else. I’ll keep listening to The IndyCast because that show has been nothing but professional in all dealings, and I’ll keep frequenting the usual haunts because the majority of the listener base are good people. I’m not going to sever ties with the outstanding friends I have made just because the show that brought us together as a community is flagging.

I will come back if I have good reason to believe that The ForceCast has changed. After all they’ve done, I owe them that courtesy of seeing if they can recover.

That said, I honestly don’t expect any reply from them on or about this blog post, nor do I honestly expect anything to change. Not when I consider how Jason has reacted in the past to those who ask him to stop the antagonism, condescension, and rude behavior. What I don’t understand is why it is even warranted.

So, here’s the bottom line: Fandom should be fun. For me, it currently is not. It’s time to change something before I lose the passion that brought me here to begin with.