An unexpected comparison can be drawn this holiday season between two of the biggest science-fiction franchises – Doctor Who and Star Wars. In both Peter Capaldi’s final turn as the Doctor in Twice Upon a Time and Rian Johnson’s sequel The Last Jedi, central characters openly advocate rejecting both their pasts, and indeed intertextually the pasts of their product’s own history. The Doctor, an old man on the verge of rejecting a new lifespan, ‘let’s go’ of his incarnation while The Last Jedi‘s ostensible villain, Kylo Ren, just about avoids fratricide as he advocates killing his own past, killing his own history and letting it die (and by default the known galaxy) to create something new.
In both examples, you have two long-standing, iconic storytelling franchises, both with powerful, ingrained and dedicated fanbases, actively attempting to jettison aspects which made them adored in the first place. And, indeed, in both cases, the fandom of both properties have lost their minds in desperately rejecting this rejection. I won’t rake over my earlier thoughts about the current state of fandom, but it gives birth to another question – why can’t fans let go of the past?
In principle, the answer is obvious. Fandom is a coming together of shared adoration and appreciation of work which touched us deeply, existentially. Star Wars and Doctor Who are both franchises, much like Star Trek or James Bond, which have defined the childhoods of at least three generations of people the world over. The power of how TV or movies imprint on children cannot be overestimated – they can define hobbies, life choices and behaviours for the rest of people’s lives.
People who haven’t experienced this struggle to understand the phenomenon and can find such fans worthy of mockery when they declare “this matters!”, often as a response to someone saying “chill out, it’s only a story”.
Would you ever say that to a die hard Manchester United fan? Because the principle is the same. Sport holds to a narrative just as much as writing a book or a script – you prepare, you structure, then you hope for the best. Sports operate on narrative triumphs and defeats just as keenly as science-fiction shows or franchises. Fandom comes in all shapes and sizes but the common thread exists when it comes to continuity and history – they are the most important thing. As a Man Utd fan will never forget the 1999 Champions League extra-time winner, a Star Wars fan will protect Darth Vader’s stunning revelation in The Empire Strikes Back with all their zeal.
If fans cannot, therefore, forget their past–which is perfectly acceptable and understandable–why conversely must they cling to it with a religious sense of devotion? Why, for instance, must to many the Doctor never be a female? Jodie Whittaker took over the role at the very end of Twice Upon a Time after months of debate from die-hard Who purists about the legitimacy of a woman controlling the TARDIS. “But he’s a man!” these fans cry, simply because he’s always been a man. This is after outgoing showrunner Steven Moffat explicitly showed in recent seasons that Gallifreyan Time Lords and Ladies were of a fluid gender, encapsulated by Michelle Gomez’ delightful turn as Missy, a female incarnation of the Doctor’s arch nemesis the Master.
Moffat didn’t change any rules either, he just introduced canonical fact to a fictional world where such clarity never previously existed. Mainly because it wasn’t until the 1980’s that the idea of a Time Lady was even invented, let alone the concept of a female Doctor. An in-joke within Twice Upon a Time, which I discuss more in my review, regards the First Doctor shown up for endemic 1960’s sexism in his dialogue. Moffat changed the possibilities because times have changed and as a dramatist, he’s aware nothing in the Doctor’s character is explicitly masculine in the way, perhaps, a female James Bond might not be true to the DNA of the character. All of these facts don’t matter because, apparently, “the Doctor can’t be a woman”. He just can’t.
Where Steven Moffat therefore, as he hands the reins to a new showrunner, ends by not just letting go of a Doctor but of the explicit male license on the character, Rian Johnson in the latest Star Wars film redefines the very concepts behind the saga George Lucas strove to create. My review goes into greater detail, which again I won’t rehash here, but Johnson gives a new, egalitarian approach to the existential empowerment which is the Force, and redefines the previously unassailable hero Luke Skywalker as a seasoned, flawed failure who needs to regain his faith and purpose. “But you can’t do that to Luke!” have cried the fans as The Last Jedi has polarised fandom perhaps more than any Star Wars movie since The Phantom Menace.
My question is why? Why can’t Rian Johnson challenge Luke as an older man? A major reason is because of fan entitlement. Especially with Star Wars, fans feel like they own these characters and this world and if you try something that goes outside of their own creative thinking, or which contradicts what many believe should be what happens next, then fans will refuse to accept these forward steps. When, once again, there are no rules which dictate anything in The Last Jedi couldn’t or shouldn’t happen. What that film does is place Star Wars in uncertain narrative territory, such as when Kylo kills who everyone imagined would be The Rise of Skywalker‘s bad guy at the end of Act 2. “This isn’t the way the story is supposed to go!” these fans cry. And it’s because they cannot let go of what Star Wars was, and embrace what it could be.
Here’s what many writers/directors/producers and indeed the stronger critics in the arena of entertainment understand about storytelling: it only stays alive if it evolves.
Almost every major franchise has experienced these kind of changes, many of which have stoked enormous ire in their fandoms, over the last decade or more. Bond experienced it with the advent of Daniel Craig’s stripped back era, ditching the gags and overblown escapism of yesteryear to embrace a murkier world of hard hitting espionage, which in Skyfall saw the series gain a bigger box office and greater critical respect than it had in decades. Trek, having slowly died a death on TV thanks to diminishing returns, reinvented itself as a big-budget action adventure ‘reboot’ of the 1960’s, the aesthetics of which have now bled into what could well be a brand new era of the series back on television, where it started.
Even Doctor Who, before it’s latest point of division over a female Doctor, had significant problems within its own fandom after it was revived in 2005 in a far more fast, punchy, modern style than the original serials. Fans quickly diversified into Classic Who and NuWho adherents, though you can bet almost every Classic Whovian who has spent a decade being negative about the new show, watched every single episode. They just moan about it afterwards. The point is, every long-running fan property in TV and cinema has evolved and, more pointedly, needs to evolve in order to survive. This is the point fans with this stagnant mindset simply refuse to accept or even acknowledge. If it’s not exactly the property they grew up with, in the same style, then it is not their show or movie. Nor should it be anyone else’s.
This is retrograde thinking which does nothing to help the franchises these fans love. If anything, it holds them back. All it does is show up how these fans are trapped in their own sense of entitlement, in the halcyon vision of their childhoods, and their belief “it was better in the old days”. Was it? Are some of the painfully clunky Who episodes from the 1980’s better than Russell T. Davies’ ‘Midnight’ from Season 4? Is Return of the Jedi honestly stronger than The Last Jedi? Can you hand on heart tell me that A View to a Kill is a better movie than Casino Royale?
Think critically. Think objectively. Step outside your entitled fandom and look at the product you love with honest eyes and appraise the material. What came before is often to be savoured, remembered, adored and replayed, but it is not always better than what we have now, or what we may have to come. By believing the best days are behind us, or these franchises are being ruined by innovative thinking which challenges what they might mean for future generations or in light of the world we live in now, will only hasten the end of these imaginary creations that have survived and persisted over generations.
Maybe not let the past die, like Kylo Ren, but take a tip from the Doctor. So we can embrace all the greatness to come… just let it go.