40 years on, did Star Wars change SF for the better or worse?

Imagine George Lucas at the Pearly Gates: would he get into heaven because of his contribution to science fiction, or would he be cast down?

Star Wars on release in May 1977


Last week saw the 40th anniversary of the release of Star Wars. It didn’t exactly go unremarked – nothing ­to do with Star Wars goes unremarked – yet there was less hullaballoo than I expected. It seemed the world was less taken with May 25, the real Star Wars Day, than it was in the made-up Star Wars Day which owes its existence to the pun “May the Forth be With You”.

Perhaps that’s because people now think of Star Wars as a never-ending franchise, rather than as a film released in 1977. (We’re not even supposed to call that film Star Wars, of course; we’re expected to pretend Episode IV: A New Hope was always in the title.)

I’m fascinated by Star Wars as it was back on May 25, 1977. In fact, I’ve dedicated a whole blog to it, called Episode Nothing: Star Wars in the 1970s. It’s dormant for now because of the traditional Other Commitments, but you will find various articles there that try to tell the story of watching Star Wars the first time around. Starting that Wednesday in 1977, Star Wars began changing the science fiction genre and the entertainment industry.

Imagine if George Lucas were to meet St Peter at the Pearly Gates and argue his case for admission to Heaven. I imagine the millions of people he has entertained, the thousands of people he has employed, and the munificence of his charitable giving, would see him waved in. But what if he faced a Heavenly guardian who was particularly well-read in SF, and who wanted to judge him by whether he had done good or bad for the genre?

The Star Wars-inspired Battlestar Galactica

Weighing against George Lucas in that judgment would be those early, post-Star Wars years when everybody wanted to get in on the science fiction act. Battlestar Galactica. The Black Hole. Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. Even The Cat From Outer Space. Many film-makers were so keen to have their own equivalent of Star Wars that they seemed content to run Star Wars through the cinematic equivalent of a Xerox machine and end up with a lower-grade copy.

The effect Star Wars had on SF literature might also count against Lucas. Most fans know that Lucas read a lot of SF when he was writing the film. (That didn’t always impress genre authors. One, Michael Moorcock, said of the film: “It rips off a sub-culture and gives nothing back to it.”) But while I’m sure Star Wars sent some people off to read the SF novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs or Edwin Arnold, many more of us were content with our umpteenth reading of the Star Wars novel or its early sequel Splinter of the Mind’s Eye. And by the 1990s, Star Wars was to become a whole arm of the publishing industry.  Bookstores around the world have countless shelves of “expanded universe” material, squeezing out original SF. Ask, at many of those stores, for a Robert Heinlein or Philip Jose Farmer and you’re likely to have to put in a special order.

Lucas took little personal interest in the Star Wars novels, but the prequel films were all his, and they surely blotted his copybook. Lucas’s flair for story-telling and character seemed to have deserted him. Whereas his first Star Wars film was endlessly rewritten until it was good, Episodes I to III had enormous resources of talent and money lavished on scripts that Lucas should have taken back to his study for another try.

But perhaps the most unfortunate legacy of Star Wars is the rise of the franchise movie. There had been SF franchises before Star Wars, of course. We had recently seen the Planet of the Apes series come to a halt. But once its first sequel paid off handsomely, Star Wars went from being a film to a saga, and then a franchise – a word the industry shamelessly borrowed from retailing. Today, a hit science fiction movie is all very well, but what studios really want is a whole cycle of them.

Blade Runner: one of the better consequences of Star Wars

With all these things weighing against him, would George Lucas stand any chance of being admitted to genre Heaven? Well, yes.

Let’s start with those early Star Wars rip-offs. If you were ten years old, Buck Rogers or Battlestar Galactica could be enjoyable, and they would sustain a child’s interest in the genre until their tastes matured. And let’s not forget that the genre did try more adult, bolder things – Alien and Blade Runner, for example.

As for that Michael Moorcock accusation that Star Wars took from a sub-culture without giving anything back, it surely gave one very important thing back: Fun. It blended SF ideas and images so appealingly, and with such pace and wit, that it made the genre enjoyable on the big screen in a way we had never seen before.

But perhaps Lucas’s biggest contribution to the genre was this: His relationship to fandom. Fandom was already a big, organised force in the mid-1970s. (It had been campaigning for years for the return of Star Trek.) And back when no one knew whether Star Wars would cover its $10 million budget, Lucas reckoned there were enough SF fans in America to cover $8 million of that.

Together with his merchandising and publicity supremo Charles Lippincott, Lucas engaged that fandom with canny pre-release publicity. He honoured those fans with a film that was as big and spectacular as the images they had in their heads as they read literary SF. And then his film won millions more converts to that fandom.

Today, SF and fantasy are the dominant genre in film-making. And while we all might deride franchise movies sometimes, a lot of those films are made with panache and wit, because they know that’s what fans demand. Genre fans may be mocked on The Big Bang Theory, but only affectionately – because the geeks rule the world.

For that, above all, we can surely say that George Lucas and Star Wars have done more good than harm.

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