Luke: What's in there?
Yoda: Only what you take with you.
In a discussion of my post last week about the redemption of Anakin Skywalker, a friend of mine pointed me to the episode of the We Got This podcast wherein the hosts, Adam Savage, and John Hodgman tackle the question of Star Trek vs. Star Wars—specifically, the parts where Hodgman argues that 1) the prequels never should have been made and 2) the Star Wars universe and story are inherently conservative. While I generally try to avoid “Someone is wrong on the internet”-style posts, Hodgman’s complaints are not uncommon and I think they are worth addressing.
I will address the prequels question first:
John Hodgman: The last thing I'll say on this …. so the prequels were a misstep from the very, very beginning; they never should have been made, because truthfully, there are two problems with it. One, Lucas could do anything he wanted, and he had no strong producer who would say, "No, no, no, no, you need to draft out the story better, you need to consolidate this, no Jar Jar Binks." No one said no to him. At the same time, paradoxically, he had his hands tied, because to tell that story, he had to essentially invalidate the premise of Star Wars and show that things weren't better before. That the government was corrupt and failing. That there were Jedis who were Count Dooku'ing it up all the time and betraying their order. It basically was just a reminder, like, "No, it wasn't particularly good then either, and now it's boring to boot."
I have largely come to terms with the prequels. That was a conscious decision on my part. They are part of the Star Wars canon, my kids will want to see them, and I do not find it productive to dig in my heels and refuse to acknowledge their existence. I am not out to try to convince anyone of their worth, but will only say that, for me, there are some good ideas and I can appreciate the overall arc of the story. However, doing so requires digging through multiple layers of poor execution and bad technical decisions—to Hodgman’s point about Lucas being able to do whatever he wanted without anyone to tell him no.
Should the prequels never have been made? I don’t see why not. In the old Extended Universe (now “Legends”), I think there is a problem with over-explanation. However, that is hundreds of novels, short stories, comics, games and other media. I don’t have a problem with the backstory we learn in the prequel films, and I have to wonder if part of the reason Hodgman is so insistent they should not have been made is that they undercut the second argument he wants to make.
And that brings us to the notion that Star Wars is inherently conservative:
John Hodgman: And Star Trek has a very specific mission in the science fiction tradition, providing social commentary and speculation as to how things might get worse or better in the future, if you take things to certain logical conclusions. Whereas Star Wars is a piece of nostalgia. The whole thing ... and this is why never want to see the prequels, because the whole movie is premised on things were better in the past. Things were better before the Empire here, and if we work hard enough, and we fight the right war, we can make America great again. It wasn't until I was talking with you that morning, Mark, that I realized, that in fact, Star Wars has a profoundly toxic cultural influence, because nostalgia is the fuel of every terrorist movement on Earth. I would say that without Star Wars, Ronald Reagan never would have been elected.
He goes on at some length over the course of the second half of the episode, comparing the Princess Leia to Dick Cheney and blaming Star Wars for not only Reagan and the rise of the right-wing in the 1980s, but also for Donald Trump.
I suspect Hodgman, knowing his audience, is being deliberately provocative here, because that sort of thing is fun. I did the same thing just the other day in a separate Facebook thread where I called The Matrix mediocre and overrated.
Nonetheless, the argument he is making is nonsense.
There are aspects of Star Wars that can function as a metaphor for everything Hodgman describes, but there are aspects of Star Wars that can function as metaphors for a lot of things. If you go into Star Wars looking for pieces to make your case about World View X, you will probably be able to find them. Moreover, the success or failure of your argument will have more to do with your rhetorical skills than with the source material. When Revenge Of the Sith came out, Lucas took no small amount of abuse from the Right for what they perceived to be its criticism of George W. Bush's war on terror, the exact opposite of Hodgman's interpretation. I could make the case that Star Wars is about how the individual fits into the larger world and has to come to some form of peace with the fact much of the world is outside of her/his control, or that it is an attempt to resolve the mind-body problem. Talk to fans, and you will hear thousands of different stories about how it got them through a hard time in their life or helped them find an identity and a place for themselves. For some people, the Force is religion and magic; for others, it is a way to talk about connections between people and the world around them.
Star Wars functions as myth because it has been assembled from symbols. You take out of it what you bring with you. It is an active, living mythology—one that has been constantly added to and updated over the last forty years and continues to be developed—and we engage with it as such.
As for Hodgman’s claims about nostalgia, they are incoherent. He attempts to inject the nostalgia that fans feel for the original trilogy into the story itself with some hand-waving, but then turns around and insists that the prequels do not make sense because they undercut that nostalgia. And the less said about his guilt-by-association suggestion regarding terrorist movements, the better.
The Force Awakens does play at nostalgia, but I would argue that it does so in a very deliberate and interesting way. Rey, like the fans, lives out her life amidst the wreckage and detritus of events that happened more than thirty years ago. She spends her days waiting for someone to come back for her, only to discover that she is the one who needs to pick up the pieces, put them together in a new way, and move forward on her own path through the universe. Through Rey, the film brings the audience into the present (and presumably the future). It acknowledges the audience's feelings of nostalgia, but it does not rely upon them or overly indulge them.