The Last Jedi: Second Thoughts

The controversy over The Last Jedi has become so incendiary that one hesitates to rejoin the fray. I thought I was going to be one of a small minority of purists who wasn’t happy with the film. In fact my review turns out to have been one of the moderate ones. 

The debate has reached Colstonian levels of absurdity. If I continue to not like the Last Jedi very much, I am aligning myself with dangerous nutters who think that the very existence of Daisy Ridley is part of a Cultural Marxist plot to emasculate young men. But if I decide I quite liked it after all I am taking the side of people who think that Star Wars fans are contemptible and that any film which irritates them is a good film.

I largely stand by the criticisms I made after my first viewing. I still think that the Last Jedi is muddled. I still think that it uses humour inappropriately. I still think it includes imagery which is incompatible with the established look and feel of Star Wars. I still think that there is evidence of multiple rewrites and poor editing. I still don’t know how Rey goes from having an emotional climax in the Supreme Leader’s throne room to being all “yee-har!” on the Millennium Falcon five minutes later. I still think that several plot threads fizzle out without pay-offs. I am still concerned about the direction it seems to be taking the saga. 


I think that the film is far smarter and far more interesting than I initially gave it credit for.

Star Wars is all about landscape and scenery and imagery; about kids with binoculars looking at binary sunsets and small moons turning out not to be. The Last Jedi is full of genuinely beautiful moments. Luke Skywalker and Kylo Renn facing each other, samurai style, from opposite ends of the letter box screen. Holdo crashing the Rebel capital ship into the Imperial dreadnought. The whacky beauty of Luke's Craggy Island retreat.

The whole thing — I don’t know how better to phrase this — is shaped like a space opera: the clash of mighty dreadnoughts forming a background against which knights battle with laser swords; soldiers mutiny against their leaders and traitors face execution. I adore the way that Finn's big confrontation with Captain Phasma takes place on a ship which has already been wrecked and is going to break up at any moment.  Phasma has no particular importance to the plot, but she looks utterly fabulous. The scene put me in mind of Captain Victory and the Hunger Dogs. Star Wars was always more Kirbyesque than we cared to admit.

Star Wars is a movie serial and fairy tale and a Wagnerian saga, but the and biggest yellowest letters are the ones which tell us that it is about a series of WARS fought out among the STARS. The Last Jedi follows Rogue One in actually feeling like a war movie. We’ve always had Mon Mothas and General Dodonnas telling the galactic Few what target to aim at; but never before has the Rebellion felt so much like a military operation. Never before has so much of the plot taken place on board a Rebel command ship. 

And yet, I was disappointed. Why?

If you are not very careful “that was not at all what I expected” can turn into “that was bad”. I honestly can’t remember whether my first (and therefore truest) reaction to the Empire Strikes Back was that the surprise ending was gobsmackingly cool or that it was a bit of a cheat because it totally changed everything about Star Wars.

This is a big problem with blockbuster culture. You live for three years on speculation and hints and leaks about what is going to be in a movie, and then spend two hours thinking “oh…so that rumor was true and that rumor was false and why wasn’t that bit in the trailer?” rather than actually watching the film. I can very clearly remember my first (and therefore truest) reaction to Rogue One. It was “How the hell did they keep that ending a secret?” We can only experience a film once we have already seen it. Where that leaves the question of spoilers I really couldn't say.

So my first (and truest) reaction to the Last Jedi was disappointment. "After 30 years, is this really all the Luke Skywalker we are going to get?" One of the lovely things about the Force Awakens was that we got a big, meaty chunk of Harrison Ford playing at being Han Solo before his Proper Major Plot Arc started to kick in. I suppose I wanted to see Luke Skywalker the swashbuckling hero swing across one last chasm or fly one last X-Wing down one last trench. Or at least walk into a bar and chop a walrus man's arm off. He may be getting too old for that kind of thing, but he’s not as old as all that. Canon says he was 19 in Star Wars so he is barely 50 in Last Jedi. Star Wars never did handle time very consistently.

That would have pleased me, pleased the crowds, pleased the fans. It is doubtless to Rian Johnson’s credit that this isn't where he went. 

Back in '77 we expected to get a Star War every couple of years. We assumed we’d eventually get to Star Wars Part XVII in which Very Old Jedi Knight Luke Skywalker rattles around the galaxy in a rickety old starship, dispensing fortune cookie wisdom to the new generation of hot young turks and probably cutting down a few Bad Jedi along the way. By '83, we were imagining a film about the early days of the New Republic in which Luke sets up a new Jedi Academy while Mr and Mrs Solo play politics in the reconstituted Senate.

And, from a certain point of view, this is exactly what does happen. All the obligatory plot developments have, in fact, developed. Han and Leia did marry and have a son. Luke did set up Jedi Camp for younglings. But Mr Johnson and Mr Abrams have correctly spotted that people living happily ever after is not what Episode VIII of a space opera saga should be about. (What were you going to call it? Star Peace?) The various comic books and novels told us that our heroes hardly had time to do the washing up after the Ewok party before, whoosh, they were off on another adventure. The new movies tell us that their happy ending lasted for a quarter of a century. But we don't rejoin the action until everything has gone horribly wrong. The story resumes in the immediate aftermath of the apparent triumph of evil; when the surviving Jedi are all hiding out in swamps and in deserts and on islands and some people are holding out for a new hope. 

Exactly where we came in during Episode IV.

I expected Old Luke to be kind of a strange old hermit; or maybe even a wise Councillor to Leia or Mon Motha. (Obi Wan always seemed more Merlin than Lancelot.) Maybe he could have been one of those old alien duffers who sit in the Jedi Temple being serene and insufferable. But in retrospect, he was always going to become Yoda; hiding away on an uninhabited planet, cooking soup, milking cows, refusing to train obviously talented students who come looking for him, not taking the film quite seriously. It's easy to forget how comedic Yoda was when he first appeared. That was everyone's second reaction as the lights came up at the end of Empire Strikes Back. “Alec Guiness’s mentor was a muppet? Are you kidding me?” Luke’s rejection of Rey’s precious lightsaber is an important plot-point. Luke chucking the thing over his shoulder as if it was a piece of junk is not a misstep (as I first thought) but a perfectly judged piece of characterization. It’s just the kind of thing which Yoda would have done.

From the fannish point of view, it seems a great shame to have put Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher into the same studio and only given them 30 seconds of screen time together. And we all wanted Luke and Artoo to take one last trip in an X-Wing, or at least on the Millennium Falcon, with Threepio making annoying comments in the background. But that would have just been a tribute act: getting the band back together to sing all the old hits. That kind of thing never works. And anyway, it would have gone against the whole idea of the saga. Heroes get old. They pass the torch, or at any rate the lightsaber, to the younger ones. Po and Beebee fly the X-Wings nowadays. Luke is a supporting character in their movie, just as Alec Guinness was a supporting character in his. That is the way of things. The way of the Force. That was the life lesson that Joseph Campbell thought that the Journey of the Hero taught us. Life is a journey; everyone has a character; one man in his time plays many parts. (And women too, but not so much.) You've had your go at the Reckless Young Hero template. Now it's time to have a go at the Mysterious Old Mentor.

The few seconds which Luke spends with each of Leia and Chewie and the two robots will prove more memorable than any anticipated reunion scene could have done. The wink at Threepio is just perfect.

But still. Doesn't this failed Luke, this defeated Luke, this Luke who came to Ach-To in order to die, undermine the ending of the Return of the Jedi -- and therefore of the original Star Wars saga.

Yes. Yes, it does. Of course it does.

Return of the Jedi ended with a resounding full-stop. Granted, some people looked at the fireworks and listened to the gub-gub song and said “Well, okay, they’ve destroyed a really, really big battle station…but is that really the end of the Empire?” But the prequels answered that question. The Empire turned out to be the final gambit in a centuries long struggle between the Jedi (hooray!) and the Sith (boo!) George Lucas had originally conceived Star Wars as a multi-generational saga about the Skywalker clan, but the death of the Emperor and the redemption of Vader had such finality that for years he said that there couldn’t be any more episodes. I agreed with him:

The cycle, which has been more like a spiral, is completed. Lucas is absolutely correct to rule out making Episodes VII, VIII and IX: there is absolutely nowhere left for the sequels to go. Hochsten Heiles Wunder! Erlosung dem Erloser!

(That's your actual Wagner, that is.)

So where does that leave the Last Jedi? Is it a story set after the end of the story; a new cycle which begins after the final notes of Gotterdamerung have faded away? Or is it merely a new chapter in which it turns out that the story wasn’t quite so over as we thought it was?

Perhaps Star Wars is like Lenseman where behind each ultimate evil there lurks an evil even more ultimate? Or is it more like Middle-earth, where each iteration of evil becomes pettier but more insidious? 

It is quite late in the day to start complaining about spoiling happy endings. Star Wars -- Star Wars Episode IV A New Hope -- is a perfectly framed fairy tale, with a satisfying happy ending. It has always seemed rather vulgar to imagine more adventures after the medal ceremony. Luke is a Jedi the moment he switches off his targeting computer: it is almost sacrilege to think that he has to go to a swamp and take extra P.E lessons from a frog.

But it makes no sense to be a Star Wars fan and wish that there were no Star Wars movies.

The ending of Star Wars was spoiled the moment someone said “We could do Star Wars 2”. The ending of Return of the Jedi was spoiled the moment George said “Okay, let’s do a third trilogy after all.” But that, I suspect, is also the way of the Force.

Last Best Hopes

Definition of Fan

A fan is one who regards, or affects to regard, a book, comic or TV series as a record or description of a real person or real historical events.

A fan is one who sees individual episodes or comic books primarily as sources of pseudo-biographical or pseudo-historical information.

A fan is one who is more interested in whether a text is consistent from a pseudo-biographical or pseudo-historical point of view than in any literary, aesthetic or artistic merits that text might have.

You're Just Not the Man I Fell In Love With

Therefore the Valar may walk, if they will, unclad, and then even the Eldar cannot clearly perceive them, though they be present. But when they desire to clothe themselves the Valar take upon them forms some as of male and some as of female; for that difference of temper they had even from their beginning, and it is but bodied forth in the choice of each, not made by the choice, even as with us male and female may be shown by the raiment but is not made thereby.
The Silmarillion

It could so easily have made sense.

We could have decided from the outset that Time Lords were incorporeal intelligences. We could have said that they take on physical bodies when they need to interact with mortals; and that the form they take resembles the race they are interacting with: a human when talking to humans; a Silurian when talking to Silurians. We could have said that most Time Lords can put these bodies on and off at a whim but a few — especially the renegades — become attached to them. Of course these temporary bodies eventually wear out and need to be replaced.

This would have explained, at a stroke, why an ancient being from a fantastically sophisticated alien civilization is also a dotty English prof who likes cricket and jelly babies. It would be consistent with the First Doctor referring to his body as if it were a possession (”this old body of mine”); with the Fourth Doctor talking about “settling in” to his new body as if it were a new house; and with Romana talking about “trying on” and “wearing” new bodies as if they were clothes. It would explain why the Time Lords allowed the Second Doctor to choose his new appearance, and why the Watcher was really the Doctor all the time.

And it would deal nicely with the issue of gender. We don't know what Time Lords have in their pants, but they have the same secondary sexual characteristics as humans — breasts and beards and hips oh my. And they seem to have a very human attitude to gender presentation. The Doctor may be a bohemian and a dandy, but he wears neck-ties and shirts and cravats — never a skirt. Unless he’s in Scotland, obviously. Romana is ostentatiously feminine and Missy is positively camp. This makes quite a lot of sense if bodies have nothing to do with Time Lord's essential nature, but are merely things they choose to take on. An incorporeal intelligence isn’t masculine or feminine, any more than it is Northern or Scottish, but a particular body may happen to be one or the other. Missy’s exaggeratedly feminine clothes and the Doctor’s liking for cricket are examples of the same phenomenon: taking on a form which is more girly than a girl and more British than a Brit.

But this is not how we decided to do things. We decided that the Time Lords would be advanced human beings, with court rooms and affairs of state and harps and extremely silly hats.

My way would have made sense, and been consistent. But consistency is a straitjacket for writers. Not making sense turned out to be much more fun.

An Unwanted Opinion

My beloved Doctor Who shone on Christmas Day with an official figure of eight million viewers. I could cry that it's the end of a wonderful era, and political correctness has now ruined it forever after such a glorious swan song. No unwanted opinions please. 
Ian Levine

Some former Doctor Who fans are very cross about the BBC’s decision to cast Jodie Whittaker as the fifteenth incarnation of the Doctor. By which I mean, as the fourteenth Doctor. By which I mean, obviously, the sixteenth actor to play the Doctor on TV. Unless you count Comic Relief, in which case I mean the twenty-first.

Some former Doctor Who fans are very cross about the BBC’s decision to cast Jodie Whittaker as the thirteenth actor to be regularly billed as the eponymous character in the canonical TV series. Let’s not worry too much about the word “eponymous”.

Some of these former Doctor Who fans are are just nasty little boys who don’t want gurls in their treehouse. Some of them have a much wilder, political objection. The idiot who got up an actual petition against Jodie Whittaker's casting uses a lot of easily identifiable far-right code-words: the idea of a female Doctor was forced on the BBC by the “SJW community”; the idea that the Doctor has to be male is “common sense”. He mentions in passing that there are “only two genders” suggesting that he failed his German ‘O’ Level. And he thinks the series started in 1957. He isn’t actually concerned about Doctor Who as such: he objects to the idea that the Doctor could change gender because he objects to the idea that anyone could change gender. His distaste for Jodie Whittaker is simply a distaste for trans people. He sees the casting of a female Doctor is part of a wider PC/SJW plot to destroy civilization. He is a very silly man and I don’t know why I am paying any attention to him.

However, quite a number of the Jodie denialist community are worried about something much more serious than the end of civilization. They are worried about Doctor Who continuity. 

Here is one Tony Ingham on Twitter:

It doesn't make sense. It would make the Doctor leaving Susan on Earth to be with David criminally irresponsible if the poor guy was likely to wake up one day and find she'd become a bloke! And what about Leela and Andred? How could family relationships on Gallifrey even work?

I think “How might family relationships on Gallifrey work?” is a perfectly good question. In the same way that I think “What happened to Doctor Watson’s dog?” and “How many children had Lady Macbeth?” and “Was Mary Magdalene the beloved disciple?” are perfectly good questions. It is the kind of perfectly good question that can’t possibly have an answer, but that doesn't stop someone writing a really interesting essay or a really terrible short story about it.

But what state of mind would you have to be in to start from the premise that family relationships could never work if Time Lords are gender-fluid, that no solution is possible, and that a male-female regeneration is a good and adequate reason to give up watching Doctor Who forever? The casting of Jodie Whittaker breaks the entire text: a male Fourteenth Doctor won’t repair the damage. Once we have admitted that the Doctor can be a woman, the show called Doctor Who no longer exists.

First, you have to take the decision to treat seven hundred and something episodes of a TV show as if it was a single text: to treat Dalek Invasion of Earth and Twice Upon a Time as somehow part of the same story. This kind of fan often talks as if there was a single divinely inspired text of Doctor Who in heaven, and that the script writers merely channel that text. They don’t say “In Spearhead from Space, some jobbing writer made some shit up, partly as a joke and partly as a plot device, and over the years some other jobbing writers have kept the same joke going.” They say “In Spearhead from Space it was revealed that the Doctor had two hearts.” Revealed is an interestingly religious choice of words. 

Second, you have to be more interested in the one great story made up of every single episode of Doctor Who even the ones which haven’t been written yet than in the actual episode that we are watching right now. If a 2018 story says something that makes it impossible to believe in that one great story then you either have to pretend that the new story never happened, or else you have to admit that the one big story never actually existed in the first place and quit watching Doctor Who altogether.

I grant that some texts are meant to be read that way. It’s fair to assume that something which is true in Season 1 of Game of Thrones is still true in Season 7. It is perfectly sensible to rewatch the early episodes of The Good Place in the light of what you have learned from the later ones. Stan and Jack may have been stuffing their comics full of whatever nonsense seemed fun at the time, but various Thomas’s and Gruenwald’s worked fairly hard in the 1970s and 1980s to turn the whole thing into a halfway consistent shared universe. Anyone might read Spider-Man and wonder if Uncle Ben ever met Captain America during World War 2. But it's a deeply odd way of watching Doctor Who.

Next, you have to come up with a series of answers to which there are no sensible questions, and convince yourself that they represent some kind of absolute truth. Yes, indeed, the First Doctor had a companion called Susan Foreman and yes she did indeed call the Doctor “Grandfather”. And in one particular story the Doctor left her on earth because she wanted to marry David Cameron. Years after Susan had left the series, the idea that the Doctor sometimes physically changes from an older man into a younger man was plucked out of thin air. Years after that, someone else made the idea that he was a Time Lord up out of their heads. 

I was about to type “No canonical origin for Susan has ever been established.” But I don’t really mean that. What I mean is “No-one involved in the actual TV program either knew or cared how the idea of the Time Lords, or the Time War, or Regeneration would affect Susan Foreman, because she was a minor supporting character who no longer had any relevance to Doctor Who.

The more you think about it, the odder it becomes. The invention of regeneration in 1966 retrospectively gives Susan the power to regenerate (even though she is no longer in the series); the invention of the Time Lords in 1969 retrospectively turns her into a Time Lord (even though she is no longer in the series); the casting of Jodie Whittaker in 2018 retrospectively gives her the power to regenerate as a man (even though she is no longer in the series). And this is so axiomatic that it is now impossible to continue to watch Doctor Who.

Even on its own terms, the argument is pretty feeble. Despite canonical statements to the contrary, the First Doctor is now firmly established to have literally been the first Doctor: there were no previous versions of him which we haven’t seen. It has been firmly established that he was at one time a baby, then a boy and an adolescent and then an undergraduate. When we first meet him he's an old man of 60 or 70. Susan is physically and psychologically a teenager, and will presumably become a middle aged woman and an old lady before her current body wears out. The Doctor eventually gives his age as 450, so unless some centuries have passed between Tenth Planet and Tomb of the Cybermen he is much older than he looks, in which case Susan’s present incarnation will outlive David by centuries. 

So the problem isn’t “Susan might turn into a man”; the problem is “Susan is immortal and David is mortal.” If this is an irresolvable problem then the Who-text was broken when Leela married Andred; when the Doctor revealed himself to have mixed parentage; or when he first had a dalliance with Madam de Pompadour.  Human / Time Lord pairings are what should be utterly verboten.

If nothing else, it’s a weird view of human relationships. We can somehow accept that David Cameron might see a very elderly Susan morph into a much younger person (with a radically different personality) and be completely okay with that provided she retains the same physiological sex. But if she changed into a similar person, but with a flat chest and man's Thingie rather than a lady's Etcetera than his marriage would be over. And the fact that this is a conceptual possibility means that you can't ever watch Doctor Who again. 

You don’t think its possible that a married Time Lord might have some kind of choice about their gender, do you?

This question was directly addressed in the very first thing Steven Moffat ever wrote for Doctor Who. You will recall that the the Doctor carelessly regenerates into Joanna Lumley while he is engaged to marry his companion, Emma. The Doctor is fine with the wedding going ahead, but Emma isn't; so the Doctor is equally fine with them just being friends.

"Well, never mind. We can still rattle around the universe, fighting monsters and saving planets. What could be more fun? My best friend by my side, my trusty old TARDIS and, of course, my sonic screwdriver."

And that would strike me a being the answer that any non-crazy person would come up with. Granted that Time Lords marry and are given in marriage and granted that Time Lords sometimes regenerate and granted that regeneration sometimes involves a change of twiddly bits it is perfectly obvious that a Gallifreyan marriage is “til regeneration do we part”. If Andred regenerates while Leela is still alive, or if Susan regenerates when David is still alive, then the marriage is over. Sad, of course, for the survivor, but every marriage includes the possibility that one partner might die while the other is still young.

That explains why the Doctor never talks about his own wife and children. After his first regeneration he is literally dead to them. There is probably a taboo against meeting your previous incarnation’s lover. Remember the symbiots on Deep Space Nine?.

The Third Age of Fan

I must tell you all that, rewatching Babylon 5, it touches depths that Dr Who could never come close to approaching. The fact that no new B5 is being made is the greatest crime to television drama. JM Straczynski is the greatest writer of intelligent science fantasy in history 
Ian Levine

Perhaps the most prominent Jodie denialist is semi-professional Doctor Who fan Ian Levine. Mr Levine has a complicated position in Who history. For being one of those who, in the 1980s, prevented BBC archivists from destroying the surviving black and white episodes of Doctor Who, he deserves our thanks and respect. For having been fan-adviser on Attack of the Cybermen, not so much. 

He is so cross that the next Doctor is going to be a lady that he has announced through the medium of Twitter that he is never going to watch Doctor Who again, ever, ever, ever, and that in any case Babylon 5 was always better than Doctor Who and in fact the best science fiction story and the best TV series that there ever was or ever could be. "Unsuppassable" was the word he used.

It isn’t quite clear whether his objection to a female Doctor is political or canonical: he says that he has no problem with strong female characters, but that the Doctors themselves can only be men; but he also describes the casting as “politically correct”. But his sudden epiphany that Babylon 5 was always better than Doctor Who, and his embracing of it as a Who substitute is both wonderfully ironic and historically inevitable. A very, very long time ago — at the time of the Paul McGann movie, I wrote:

“The post-fan aspires to the condition where the person who has read the episode guides, memorized the synopsis, and learned the character stats for the role-playing game is at no disadvantage to the person who has actually watched the programme. Content is all, execution and artistic merit is nothing. Babylon 5 is the consummation of this approach.”

If I were writing the same essay now, I would have said that the Harry Potter books do the same thing even more successfully. Doctor Who fans have to struggle to make the Who-text make sense. For many of us, the absurdity of that struggle is precisely what makes it fun. Harry Potter and Babylon 5 come with their geek-potential pre-loaded. There are no silly questions: any continuity problem which occurs to you has almost certainly occurred to J.K Rowling and J. Michael Straczynski.

Doctor Who was never a very good match to Ian Levine’s approach. Babylon 5 will suit him much better. He has his reward. And I remain thankful that he stopped that archivist from wiping the Dead Planet.