As the filmmaker George Lucas renews promises of a Star Wars television series, we look at the brand's apparently limitless source of narrative material - and fans' insatiable appetite for it.
A new front opens
Most good artists learn sooner or later about the unpleasant consequences of fame, but one imagines that George Lucas in particular may often not want to get out of bed in the morning. When, in 1977, he launched upon the world the first volume of a long-standing pet project - based on old Flash Gordon serials, a pair of Akira Kurosawa films and the narrative theories of Joseph Campbell - Lucas could not possibly have foreseen that it would become one of the most popular films in history. Nor would he have thought, perhaps, that in 2010 audiences around the world would be eagerly queuing to see The People vs George Lucas, a documentary out next month that promises to air grievances and encomia from fans and colleagues on the topic of this Bill Gates of science-fiction cinema.
It promises to run the full gamut of fandom, from Hollywood producers to the kind of guy who spends a year's salary on a life-size replica of Han Solo in carbonite. Star Wars - or, as it was almost called, The Adventures of Luke Starkiller as taken from the Journal of the Whills, (Saga One), Star Wars - remains a topic of all-consuming importance in the lives of thousands of people. And all of them will be thrilled and dismayed in approximately equal measure to hear that there is soon going to be more.
This month, in remarks to Total Film magazine, Lucas offered a glimpse into the long-promised Star Wars television series that he has been trailing for nearly a decade. Now casting for a release in the next two years, it will, Lucas said, be "a lot more talky" than the films - "more of what I would call a soap opera" - and draw inspiration not so much from "action-adventure movies of the 1930s" as from "noir movies of the 1940s".
As though this weren't already enough to make fans' heads explode - The Big Sleep meets Neighbours, set in the Star Wars universe? - Rick McCallum, the show's producer, recently said on the official Star Wars blog that he hoped the new show "will run to 400 episodes". By way of comparison, Lost, the current behemoth of TV drama, will clock up a mere 121 as it staggers to a close this year. And although The Simpsons may appear to have been around since at least the Pleistocene, it has run for fewer than 460 episodes. Meanwhile, ER, that white-coated stalwart of the network schedules, managed 331 before dying on the table last year.
Will there be enough Star Wars material to fill 400 episodes? The answer is almost certainly yes: one of the most staggering things about the franchise is the amount of content it embraces. Since the 1970s, fans and professional writers have been contributing to what is known as the Expanded Universe, which plots out the history, customs, bloodlines and conflicts of the Star Wars galaxy in hundreds and hundreds of books, comics and video games. Some novels imagine the characters growing old, having children and training up a New Jedi Order. Timothy Zahn's, in particular, are a good deal better than the films.
Others books meander down random side alleys of narrative. What happened to the masked bounty hunter Boba Fett after he made his way out of the Sarlacc's stomach? The writer KW Jeter, a former friend and acolyte of Philip K Dick, has produced a helpful trilogy of answers. Meanwhile, the games company BioWare has solicited beta testers for an online role-playing game set 4,000 years before the events of the Star Wars films. Called The Old Republic, it may yet be the game whose hissing lightsaber finally triumphs over World of Warcraft.
In any case, we may wish to take McCallum's claim of 400 episodes - or, indeed, of a series at all - with a pinch of salt. It took Lucas 16 years after the release of Return of the Jedi to come up with the first prequel, The Phantom Menace, and, as countless disappointed fans have observed, he can't possibly have spent all that time writing the script. The elephant-memoried internet also reveals McCallum telling the BBC in 2006 that the promised series would appear by 2008 and have 100 episodes. If the trend continues, the project could be out in 2020 and last for the rest of human existence.
None of this, one imagines, will appease the guy who spent who-knows-how-many weeks assembling the majestic, 70-minute YouTube documentary that presents a scene-by-scene rebuttal of the first film - just the first film - in the new trilogy. Anyway, Star Wars geeks complaining about how nothing beats the first three films have failed to pay heed to the sage words of Master Yoda: "Mourn them do not. Miss them do not. Attachment leads to jealousy. The shadow of greed, that is."