I'm writing this short piece more or less as a commentary on the various news releases now issued in advance of "Star Wars Episode VII," the forthcoming Star Wars motion picture. Watching "Star Wars" movies makes me want to imagine an alternative historical time-line in which "Star Wars" didn't exist, and some other more deserving story popularized the genre of space opera in film.
Generally, I think of the "Star Wars" movies in the late 1970s and early 1980s as a symptom of the decline of futurism in the neoliberal era (1973-present). The original movie, "A New Hope," (1977) or "Star Wars: Episode IV," managed to anticipate the Carter administration's revival of the Cold War by a year or two, and its notion of the "evil empire" fit Cold War rhetoric as was to be later popularized by Carter and even more so by Reagan. In my own experience, "Star Wars" was a fantasy addition to the science fiction I used to read when I was a teenager in the 1970s. At some point in that earlier time I lost hope that space opera movies could be even half as good as written space operas such as what you could read in magazines such as Analog or Galaxy or even Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction or Fantasy and Science Fiction.
If future historians bother to read, they will discover that the actual Cold War period (1946-1991) also produced a treasure trove of science fiction, much of which deserved (and still deserves) to be adapted to film. Larry Niven's "Known Space" series, Ursula K. LeGuin's "Hainish cycle" fiction, Poul Anderson's "Ensign Flandry" series, Joe Haldeman's "The Forever Wars," Isaac Asimov's "Foundation" series, Arthur C. Clarke's "Childhood's End," and so on. Include in this list anything that was ever nominated for a Hugo or Nebula award.
What was actually popularized from the genre of space opera was "Star Trek," thanks to Gene Roddenberry (and Lucille Ball, pointedly), and of course "Star Wars." "Star Wars" combined George Lucas's love of 1950s pulp space opera with his fondness for Akira Kurosawa samurai action and mushy Joseph Campbell mythologizing.
(As a side-note, the best that "Star Trek" ever achieved was achieved by "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine," which placed much of its action on a space station, thus to avoid the endless repetition of the starship-meets-planet plot formula. So that's one series out of five.)
The first three movies were a lot of fun to watch, though we'd probably think of them as mediocre (as I've suggested above) if we had something better to watch in the genre of space opera. I think their most enjoyable quality was that they didn't take themselves seriously. We are introduced to a universe in which the bad guys are campy and the good guys belong to a cool magicians' guild. This universe stars Luke Skywalker, an embodied gee-whiz kid experiencing a coming-of-age story, and Han Solo, the All-American rugged individualist from outer space. Running the rebellion is Princess Leia, a capable political leader who doubles as the focus of the romantic subplot.
The three prequels were boring because Lucas wasted the whole experience mechanically filling in plot holes in much the same way that a road repair crew applies concrete to potholes on a well-traveled highway. Most of the interest in the prequels has to do with their use of special effects and their depiction of new and exotic worlds. (I am nonetheless grateful that Lucas did all of that hard work.)
Now, I suppose the prequels could have been improved had their plot structures been different. At any rate, here are my suggestions for alternative prequels, such as might have saved the prequels from the dustbin into which film history will doubtless cast them:
My alternate Episode I would begin during the Clone Wars. Obi-Wan Kenobi and Qui-Gon Jinn discover Anakin Skywalker on Tatooine while seeking refuge from Trade Federation attacks. By the time of the movie's plot, Anakin has already gone over to the dark side, though he is temporarily redeemed by Qui-Gon Jinn's light-side power before being discovered by Palpatine. Through some sort of plot machination Anakin saves the Republic from the Trade Federation.
My alternate Episode II would tell the story of how the Republic collapses and the Empire comes into being, through a more convincing explanation than "Chancellor Palpatine deceived everyone." Padme Amidala hides her twins from Anakin through a more convincing explanation than "she was too busy to get an ultrasound." Qui-Gon Jinn dies, but not before demonstrating the meaning and worth of the "living Force" in a way which allows him to make something of himself before he's killed off.
My alternate Episode III would tell the story of how Yoda fails to destroy the Emperor and of how Obi-Wan mutilates Anakin/ Vader, and also the story of how the Emperor fails to kill Yoda and of how Obi-Wan escapes from Darth Vader's armies to survive for two decades as a crazy old man on Tatooine. Once the Jedi stop looking like idiots and once Anakin/ Vader stops looking like a fool, the directors of my hypothetical prequel series might start building character personalities in a far more believable and less perfunctory way than what you saw in Lucas's prequels.
Overall, the whole project of "Star Wars" appears rather dubious when one questions the nature of "The Force." "The Force" is the ultimate deus ex machina: if the good guys win, it's because "The Force" is with them; if the bad guys win, it's because "The Force" is with them. Who needs a universe with physical laws when you have "The Force"? Even more disturbing, Lucas makes extremely little of the potential inherent in "The Force" as he has defined it. Imagine "The Force" used to extend collective happiness, create mass sexual pleasure, or make lots of money for its possessors. Instead, in Lucas's plots "The Force" is mostly used to fight duels. Did the 18th-century Enlightenment ever occur on any planet of Lucas's fictional galaxy? Maybe "The Force" is just a slip-up of the sort you see in "Revenge of the Sith," in which, in a universe with spaceships traversing the galaxy, Padme Amidala somehow fails to use ultrasound to discover that she's carrying twins.
Now, space opera is a matter of creative fantasy, and Lucas obviously wanted a fantasy to combine 1950s pulp fiction with samurai action scenes. The fantasy elements of space opera, however, make for successful fiction insofar as they show restraint and don't just grant infinite power to the characters in any particular story. Faster-than-light travel, for instance, opens up space opera to a multitude of different planets, species, and scenes, while at the same time being physically impossible. So it's OK.
Time travel, on the other hand, opens up an even bigger can of worms, such as should ultimately result in plot problems for every writer who uses it as a plot device to any great extent. I would have to assume that, in every universe in which time travel was accessible, massive attempts would be made to rid history of its most egregious problems. Create time travel tomorrow, and within a year you can expect hundreds if not thousands of attempts to rid history of Hitler, Stalin, Efrain Rios-Montt, the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia, and numerous other such people. So maybe the attempts to perfect history create problems of their own? More people will go back in time to solve those problems! Once history becomes a plaything, all limits disappear. One of the virtues of the "Star Wars" universe is that its writers abstained from writing time-travel stories.
"The Force," on the other hand, is just magic, without any sort of limitation of the sort you might see in (for instance) J.R.R. Tolkien's "Middle-Earth." (I am, it might be added, okay with Peter Jackson's Tolkien movies.) At some point in the unfolding of Disney's attempt to capitalize on "Star Wars" (while dozens of other more promising stories remain without complimentary movies), fans of space opera will all be singing this song: