Consider how a writer must feel when hired to create new stories for one of science fiction’s big, long-running franchises, like Star Wars or Doctor Who.
Storytellers who grew up with these sagas will have been imagining new tales in the series since they were children.
The trouble is, so will millions of fans.
I think this problem might explain why Star Wars: The Last Jedi has run into such anger from some fans. And as a new era of Doctor Who looms, we’ll see how a new show-runner deals with a similar challenge.
The Last Jedi currently has a 91% approval rating from professional critics, according to the fairly crude metrics of RottenTotatoes.com, while its audience rating is stalled at just 51%. At IMDB.com, the user reviews have titles like “NEVER, in ALL MY LIFE, have I been more GENUINELY ANGRY at a movie”, “The day that Star Wars died” and simply “My heart is broken”.
I enjoyed The Last Jedi, but it has quite a few faults as a story. Writer-director Rian Johnson also dispenses a bit too offhandedly with some of the mysteries set up in the previous movie, and he gives us a grumpier Luke Skywalker. I can understand many of the criticisms directed at it from some fans.
But it seems to me that Star Wars has been so important to so many people, for so long, that sequels are almost bound to run into one of two problems. Either they will be criticised for imitating their predecessors (as was The Force Awakens) or, like The Last Jedi, they will be derided for not staying true the spirit of the saga.
Over a 40-year period, lots of people have grown attached to the Star Wars they grew up with. But different generations grew up with different conceptions of the saga.
If you were a first generation fan, you knew Star Wars at a time when it was presented as a 1970s take on Flash Gordon. It was the tale of a farm boy who got mixed up in the rescue of a galactic princess, and it seemed as though any sequels would be the further adventures of Luke Skywalker.
The Empire Strikes Back was already a departure, in some ways, from that original concept. It was a well–received departure, though, because it added some more resonance to the saga and suggested that Luke’s involvement in the Rebellion was no accident.
Return of the Jedi asked us to accept some further departures from the Star Wars we had known. We saw the series’ romantic triangle wrapped up via the unconvincing revelation that Luke and Leia were siblings. And we had to accept a more childish tone in parts of the movie, thanks to the Ewoks and a legion of rubber aliens.
The prequels were a pretty painful further departure for followers who had been with the franchise since the beginning. But many fans who grew up with them have accepted them as part of “their” Star Wars.
Everyone will have an opinion about whether The Last Jedi’s writer-director Rian Johnson made good choices in his story-telling, and whether he was too cavalier in his treatment of the series’ mainstays. But with all this baggage to deal with, you have to wonder whether it’s even possible to make a new Star Wars episode that enjoys widespread acceptance.
Incidentally, the best-received of the three Disney Star Wars films to date is probably Rogue One – a film that focused on a small part of the galaxy’s history and was not encumbered by having to do anything decisive with the saga’s major characters.
Not many SF franchises have 40 years of history behind them, but on British TV, there’s one that’s lasted 54 years so far.
Doctor Who is shortly to get a new show-runner and a new star, following an impressive Christmas episode that was a swansong for writer-producer Steven Moffat and star Peter Capaldi.
The difference between Who and Star Wars is that the TV series’ premise allows for it to be regularly refreshed and reinvented. Chris Chibnall, the new man in charge, has tinkered with its one constant, which is that the lead character was a man.
But whether or not Jodie Whittaker impresses as the first female Doctor, the show will be subjected to more scrutiny and debate than practically anything else on TV. Like Star Wars, Who has umpteen generations of fans, each with happy memories of the stories they first enjoyed. And many of them know the show’s history better than the people now making it.
In common with Rian Johnson, Chris Chibnall will surely have to accept that it’s impossible to please a fandom that big.