The birth of a successful Science Fiction franchise can be a revelation, a transformation that startles people and sweeps a large fan base in its wake. Journalists begin looking to find high minded angles for explaining the phenomenon and its appeal and creators eager to be flattered comply reaching beyond Science Fiction and Fantasy to transform their creation into something philosophical and political, noble minded and distinct from ordinary Science Fiction or even Science Fiction at all. And thus often begins the doom of a Science Fiction franchise.
Here we can take a look at three of the more prominent examples of what happened when the creators of three Science Fiction movies\tv series’ began to believe their own hype and in the process killed much of what appealed to fans in the first place.
Star Wars and particularly George Lucas will always occupy a special place in any discussion of a creator coming to believe his own press. Like Indiana Jones, the original Star Wars movie was born out of the movie serials magically recreating the goofy idealism, galactic spanning stories, peudomysticism and the wacky aliens, ominous enemies and amusing sidekicks of the SciFi serial. That of course is why Star Wars succeeded, it did what Hollywood had begun forgetting to do in the seventies by producing a massive crowd pleasing epic along well worn lines. An idealistic hero, a beautiful impulsive princess, a battle against evil and the power of a ‘magic’ sword. These tropes were not derived by George Lucas from ancient myths but from the comic books and serials of an American childhood.
The problem of course is that critics and pundits could not accept this success at its face value. It couldn’t be that audiences enjoyed the movie for what it was. It had to mean something more than that. And so soon enough it did. Scratch any Hollywood figure from producer to actor to best boy and you find a guy who can throw out quotes about existentialism and the human condition faster than frisbees in a park. And with the help of Joseph Campbell, a popularizer of certain theories about mythology, Star Wars suddenly became an extension of the story humanity had always been telling, a modern myth, a hero’s journey and many other pretentious things.
As the franchise continued and the movies and the franchise were dumbed down, culminating in the infamous Star Wars Christmas Special and eventually Star Wars The Phantom Menace, George Lucas’ pretentiousness went off the charts. While on the screen we were getting racist stereotype aliens lifted from the worst of American xenophobia toward foreigners in the first half of the 20th century, off-screen we were getting lectures from George Lucas and Joseph Campbell on mythology and the hero’s journey.
Praise tends to insulate creators from reality and buffer them against criticism and even backlashes. And success of course pays for everything. The worse the Star Wars movies got, the more money they made. And the transformation of George Lucas from a guy, who like Steven Spielberg, was drawn to remaking the stories he had loved in his childhood in grand style on the big screen, to a pop philosopher and superproducer; meant that he never had to pay attention to or acknowledge the mistakes he was making and the fans he was alienating.
For all of Captain Kirk’s nobler speeches Commander Spock’s observations and Dr. McCoy’s philosophizing, Star Trek in the Original Series was a show about going out into the darkness of space and confronting the dangers, material and immaterial, lurking out there. It was a violent series. Phasers were used and even more frequently fists. Kirk might wish for Eden, for a pleasant planet he could settle down on in a sylvan glade; but in the end he was an adventurer and explorer, more Captain Cook than Bertrand Russell. Starfleet might have issued the Prime Directive but Captain Kirk would violate it as often as not when he came across something that offended his sense of how things should be. Sometimes he was right and sometimes he was wrong, but he usually got his way. Kirk was many things but he was not a pushover and neither was the Enterprise. It was in the end a ship full of two fisted heroes and willing to use those fists too.
Star Trek examined moral complexities but it was also an adventure show filled with mystery, danger and heroism. For its fans though Star Trek came to be more than it was. For some it became a revelation, a revelation about the way the world should be and the way people should live. These fans spawned the most passionate and determined clubs, some of which still exist today, dressing in Starfleet uniforms and taking the playacting seriously. To them Star Trek is not a beloved TV series, it is a guide for life.
For Gene Roddenberry, a producer with a spotty record who often clashed with executives who didn’t understand his vision, the existence of a large fandom and a large market both flattered him and made his ideas financially feasible. Their politics and agendas also began to overlap with his. The Gene Roddenberry who had overseen a TV series where Captain Kirk regularly beat assorted aliens into following the right path and even risked the destruction of a planet to end its virtual war, now insisted on an extreme form of pacifism. Star Trek: The Motion Picture was as cartoonishly unrepresentative an adaptation of the Star Trek series as Star Wars: The Phantom Menace had been of the original three Star Wars movies, both were movies in touch with one exaggerated attribute of the original films\tv shows, but out of touch with all the others. Star Trek: The Motion Picture emerged as a highly idealistic attempt to talk about the human mind, our place in the universe and the vastness of what’s out there and what’s in here. But it was also elongated and hollow because the same two fisted adventurous spirit of the series was missing.
When Star Trek rebooted with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, a movie that brought back the two fisted spirit of the series in all its glory, Gene Roddenberry furiously protested that Kirk would not have shot the Ceti eel that had just nearly forced Captain Terrell to murder them and had left Chekov in a horrible state. In fact Operation Annihilate strongly suggests he would have. Yet by this point Gene Roddenberry had become insistent that Kirk’s respect for all forms of life would have prevented him from reacting in a natural human way.
It was not that Star Trek had been dedicated to Kirk finding and destroying new forms of life. Indeed in The Devil in the Dark,Kirk had learned that a creature which was attacking the miners was in fact a sentient Horta and a mother protecting her babies. There was no inconsistency in Kirk as an explorer understanding that what had been occurring with the Horta was a misunderstanding and delighting in the discovery of a new lifeform and Kirk the human being blowing away a vicious parasite that had been used to torture and kill a number of his fellow officers. But Gene Roddenberry had fallen so far into the depths of a knee jerk pacifism fed by fans who viewed him as a philosopher rather than a storyteller, that the man who had sat with a rifle in preparation for the riots was now insisting that Kirk harming the Ceti Eel was immoral and out of character for Star Trek.
Remember the Matrix? What began as a cool mind blowing movie that moved between reality and unreality and danced around philosophical conundrums as well as bullets, became a trilogy so mired in those philosophical conundrums that they weighed it down too much for it to even move. If Star Wars had managed two or three movies (depending on your opinion) before succumbing to the growing Jabba the Hut like ego of its creator and Star Trek had managed to mostly dodge Gene Roddenberry’s growing moral relativism and pacifism (aside from some bad moments in Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Voyager), the Matrix managed only one single film before the weight of its own philosophical ruminations crushed the movie series into self-indulgent mythological posturing and playing a shell game with cybernetic conundrums.
The unexpected success of The Matrix at the box office to the extent that it had temporarily become a sort of cultural touchstone, led to the kind of creative independence that rarely brings about good things. In the case of the Matrix it produced two follow up movies, one that mixed random martial arts fights with seemingly irrelevant journeys around the Matrix and heaps of exposition on freedom of will and predestination. This was followed by a closing film that made the machines into the stars of the film, disposing of most of its main characters while the machines suddenly touched by Neo’s heroism decided to reform and become better people, well machines.
Coddling creators rarely leads to much good. Creative people perform best when they are up against the wall, forced to cobble together compromises between their wildest ideas and the more conventional demands of editors and producers. Worship is very bad for creative people. Tell a creative person that he has produced a philosophy that has changed your life and he will take you seriously and you will have created a monster. When creative people begin believing in themselves and stop listening to criticism, the value of their work quickly withers and diminishes.
Creative people, like all humans, need balance in their lives. They need to be able to test their far out ideas against the more grounded practical realities of the philistines whose job it is to make sure the public will actually buy what they’re selling. When creative people are detached from those restrains and free of all discipline they often gorge themselves on their wildest ideas and produce the unwatchable and the unreadable.
The movies and TV shows you love are not a work of any one man’s genius. They are part of a collaborative process in which the creator is not omnipotent. We can all feel bad when a creator complains about his work being edited and cut, but the above examples provide ample evidence of what happens when the creator’s work remains unedited and free from a collaborative process.