Who owns art? And by art I mean Star Wars

This past weekend, I jumped in the car with a friend to take a quick day trip to Philadelphia Comic Con. While we really just went in to the Matt Smith panel and didn’t explore much else, it brought up a few questions and Deep Thoughts from my friend who’s not quite as familiar with the rest of nerd culture outside of the Whoniverse. A few of those Deep Thought discussion topics included: What makes a nerd? Can people be nerdy about non-traditionally-geek things? And hey, what did happen with Star Wars exactly?

Ah, Star Wars fandom. As I’ve mentioned here in passing, I have a very conflicted relationship with the land of Jedi and Sith. Growing up I adored Star Wars. Posters were everywhere, extended universe books were kept meticulously on my bookcase in chronological order (based on the timeline, of course, not the publishing dates) and my Han Solo action figure was generally much more used than Barbies.  Then it was my Freshman year of high school and *cue dramatic music* The Phantom Menace happened. My issues lay much more with the “improved” DVD releases than Episodes I-III, though like any self-respecting geek I hated those movies with a firey passion reserved for the devastated fan.

Let’s first acknowledge the (IMO excellent) documentary which sums all this up with far more humor and tales of woe than one fangirl could express, which is of course The People vs. George Lucas. If you haven’t seen it, do, and if you have, stick with me while I sum up before we continue with our Deep Thoughts and add some Conflicting Opinions. Yes, Episodes I and II are miserable films. I personally think III isn’t terrible, entirely, but by that time the whole thing was just too far gone. And while those failures might have been enough for many of us to say “to hell with you and this whole Skywalker family saga” that’s really only part of the problem. The problem, oh, the problem, is those bloody remastered DVD’s of Episodes IV-VI.

I get ragey even thinking about it. And frankly, I haven’t been able to watch them in years. So please excuse a gif to express my feelings.

Yup. That. SO MANY FLAMES.

We know how it went down – dear old George slowly but surely made increasingly large edits to the beloved films, starting with remastered explosions and ending with absurd CGI alien dance scenes getting inserted for NO DAMN REASON. FLAMES. (Et-hem. Sorry.) He also made it nearly impossible to get the originals without the “enhancements” he decided to include. Yes, they can be found. But they’re expensive, it’s not even remotely clear which versions are which, and they are made to look as bad as humanly possible to discourage people from buying them.

Time for the Deep Thoughts and Conflicting Opinions. Here’s the thing. He’s allowed. He is. It’s his film, it’s his baby, *cough*it’s his cash grab*cough* , and he can update things as much as he likes. I do genuinely believe that George Lucas thought he was making these movies better. More in line with his original vision. He always said technology wasn’t fast enough for him, and in case anyone doesn’t believe him, see the fact that he started with Episode IV. But what are the moral implications of an artist changing his art after he’s previously closed the book and sent the canisters to the movie theaters?

I do believe films are art. I do believe sci-fi is art, and TV is art, and books are art, and frankly anything created to give our brains an emotional experience or inspire thought and analysis is art. Who does that art belong to after it’s put out into the world for public consumption? Authors can make updates to their books with new editions, and while that’s mostly reserved for nonfiction, there are certainly new editions of poetry and novels coming from past centuries.  As a Lit major I spent a lot of time analyzing the differences from one draft to another. No new edition is worth less than the first, or more, for that matter. It’s different, and worthy of analysis. That doesn’t stop the general art-appreciating public from declaring one version of an artistic product “better” than the rest. (See: The two variations of Hamlet from various folios.) Mostly we all look at these artistic variations and analyze them and debate over their merits. But no one argues that Shakespeare had no right to change his monologue from one folio to the other. And yes, I just compared Star Wars to Shakespeare. Stick with me.  I believe, with let’s say 90% of the analytic bones in my body, that George Lucas had every right to change his art as he saw fit.

It’s not that easy, though. Literary entries can only take the comparison so far. Generations of people, over hundreds of years, have read and noticed different versions of different stories. Storytelling can be living art. But cinema is inherently different. It’s a moment more automatically frozen in time. Plus, there are some things, some huge moments in our society, touchstones of our culture, that take on a life of their own. Star Wars was one of those touchstones. It changed everything. Cinema, sci-fi, effects, storytelling, myth, the concept of a blockbuster. I’d argue that sort of a sea-change didn’t happen again until The Matrix (another entry in the Deep Thoughts and Conflicting Opinions saga for another day). Star Wars is a moment in time that can’t be repeated, can’t be changed. It does belong to George Lucas – but it also belongs to everyone who saw it and was changed by it. Artists always want to make one more switch, one more edit, one more nip, one more tuck. But any artist worth their salt will also tell you there comes a time when you just have to walk away. It has to be done. And part of that is to acknowledge that it’s not just yours anymore. It’s out there, for better or worse, and you have to acknowledge the versions that came before.

Maybe that’s the part that troubles us so much. There’s no sense that George acknowledges the versions that came before. He doesn’t really talk about them, he doesn’t make it easy for us to access them, and as far as he seems to be concerned, they didn’t exist. Only his newer, shinier, truer versions are canon. But that’s just blatantly incorrect. We all know Han shot first. And we all love him for it. It’s not that George Lucas can’t say “hey, actually I made a mistake or have some new fancy technology and I want to change it” – it’s that he can’t stare at us all blankly and say “…what’s the problem?”

So who DOES the damn thing belong to anyway? (And DON’T say Disney, you know what I mean.) I’d say all of us. Including George. But just as much as it belongs to George, it belongs to everyone whose lives it touched. And we all just want to be acknowledged. You can have art without viewers appreciating it, if we want to get particularly pedantic about it, sure. I’m not trying to have an “if a tree falls in the woods” argument here.  Because regardless of who saw it or how many people interacted with your work,  on a more emotional level (which is what art is all about, right?) things aren’t just about who holds the ownership rights. Art gets questioned, and analyzed, and written about, and experienced, and a piece of it does go into every person who views it, for better or worse. That’s what makes it art. It’s complicated and messy and it should be. We all own art, and we all own Star Wars, and that doesn’t mean we all have to agree about it but it does mean that all of our voices, I believe, count for something.

The rumor mill has steadily reported that now that Disney owns the rights, they’ll re-release a proper DVD/Blu-Ray of the original films. I hope they do; I’ll happily pay them money and watch the movies again without all those pesky flames coming out of my face. In the meantime, I genuinely hope George (with whom I’ve apparently decided I’m on a first name basis) has found some peace knowing that the franchise, and any more of those “one last change” temptations, are finally out of his hands.

“Did you just cry at the title screen?” or, why Doctor Who matters to me

This’ll be a long one, kids. Consider yourselves warned.

My Dad was in town recently. I get a lot of geeky habits from both my parents, but Dad is single-handedly responsible for my love of Doctor Who. It’s one of my very first fandoms – in fifth grade, when we were tasked to make a little boat to race in science class, mine flew a flag of Rassilon and I would tell anyone who listened what TARDIS stood for. When the show rebooted and gained popularity stateside, there was a wave of old middle and high school friends coming to me and asking “…hey, wasn’t that that thing you wouldn’t shut up about when we were kids?” Yes. Yes it is.

Anyway, when I was little, Dad would let me stay up late with him on Friday nights to watch Doctor Who on PBS. We would tape them all on VHS, rewatch to our hearts content, and anxiously await the PBS fundraisers that focused on Doctor Who so we could get some swag and tape some marathoned episodes. They imprinted on me in a serious way. Tom Baker will forever be my Doctor, and Sarah Jane my favorite companion. I also have a serious soft spot for Harry Sullivan, and both the Romanas. (For the record, Dad’s Doctor is Jon Pertwee – he watched on PBS too when he was a kid, slightly closer to real-time. ) At the reboot in 2005, again it was Dad pushing me to start watching. I was a stubborn old fan, loudly proclaiming that Doctor Who without spray painted aliens made of bubble wrap was no Doctor Who of mine. He watched and loved Eccleston and Tennant pretty much right out of the gate and tried his best to get me to rejoin the troop. In the days of Netflix DVD’s and not a lot of streaming, he caught me on a break from grad school and sat me down in front of the TV to watch some New Who. Tragically, they were at the Daleks In Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks two parter. I rarely say any Doctor Who is terrible…. but to this day, I don’t rewatch that ep. So take that as you will. It’s even worse because now I know the next DVD was hiding Human Nature/Family of Blood/ Blink, which I will always defend as the greatest three-ep run in New Who history. But I digress. Finally, just two and a half years ago, I caught Midnight (still one of my favorite episodes) with a friend. And that – that was Doctor Who like I’d never seen it before. I immediately went home, started up with Eccleston, and came into the modern fandom with a vengeance.

I tore through it all, sobbing my way through School Reunion and Vincent and the Doctor, giggling endlessly at The Unicorn and the Wasp and Closing Time. David Tennant is my New Who Doctor, but I took to Matt Smith quickly too. I dove into the fantastic podcast community, google news searched Doctor Who on a regular basis, and was soon talking to my Dad (and anyone else who would listen) non-stop about the goings on and lead up to the seventh season, to a new companion, to the 50th, and to a new Doctor.

This is where things get a little more serious. The timing of my re-introduction into Doctor Who life is really important here. I had come out of a three and a half year relationship, moved apartments, and was in the middle of deciding with said ex if we should give it another go. (We did, for another year and change, before it crashed and burned.) So it goes without saying I was feeling a bit … fragile. Vulnerable. Unsure of myself. Rather desperately in need of something that would give me back the identity and self-assuredness that I had, in so many ways, lost. I already had the childhood memories, deep inside my geeky little soul, that if something was wrong, the Doctor would make it right. That the adventures of one sonic-wielding, two-hearted Time Lord would always be a place for safety and security and an exploration of all things good throughout time and space. Even before getting into New Who, on those worst nights, I would pull up Classic eps with Tom Baker and would always, always feel better when I saw my Doctor’s face in the time vortex of the title screen.  Once I started with New Who, I found that its emotional intensity was exactly what I needed – I could laugh at Ten being spectacular and obnoxious and wonderful even when the stories were dark. Especially because the stories were dark. Because the Doctor kept going, and wasn’t above being heartbroken or lonely or overly dramatic nearly to the point of being insufferable, and that things always ended up OK even when they really didn’t. Ten’s catch phrase, allons-y, became my mantra. So I kept going too, and hearing that phrase in Tennant’s voice always, always made my heart feel better.

Ironically, one of the only times my ex watched Doctor Who with me is what got me thinking more seriously about what Who means to me, and what it has meant since I was 10. Back in 2012, we watched that year’s Christmas Special, The Snowmen, together a few days after it aired. I was already giddy about it because Ian McKellen, and was thrilled to see a new title screen and theme song variation start up. And then it happened. Matt Smith’s face was outlined in the stars around the time vortex. It undeniably referenced Classic Who, and my dear Doctor Tom Baker (and the other Classic Docs, of course), and everything welled up inside me. I couldn’t hold back the tears and went straight for the remote to rewind and watch it again. Next to me on the couch, I heard “…Did you just cry at the title screen?” I fussed and fumbled and tried to explain how a face in the stars of the time vortex was a gorgeous reference to Classic, one that we hadn’t seen since the reboot, and to the intro that I watched over and over as a kid, and how that face in the stars represented so much more. That’s when I started to think about how Who had shaped my life. Since then, it’s gotten to be a more and more influential part of my day to day. Some of you who follow me on Twitter or even know me IRL know that I spent two weeks in the UK over Christmas and New Years this past winter. It’s not an exaggeration to say those two weeks changed my life. It also changed my body – on my last day in London, 3 January,  just outside Piccadilly Circus, I got allons-y tattooed on my foot.

So back to where we started. Dad was in town for work not long ago, and we were walking down Central Park West discussing Capaldi and Verity Lambert and my excitement about going to my first cons (LI Who and Gally, here I come!). I realized that while he knew all about my trip, and my tattoo, and my fandom adventures and he had heard me talk about the history of the show and my favorite episodes and companions until I was blue in the face, he might not really know what it meant to me. How this thing that he showed me when I was 10 changed me entirely for the better. So I told him. I told him that the Doctor was there for me during some of my darkest adult days, showing me a way to be thoughtful and compassionate and make bad jokes in the face of even worse circumstances. I told him how the idea of a hero with two hearts, whose first instinct is rarely violence and who wants to find the good in everything he comes across, kept my spirit up when not many things could. And how it always did, even when I was 10, and how grateful I am that he showed me Tom Baker and always pointed out how the women of Who were so often empowered and strong and fantastic and witty, and chosen for their intellect and independence. And we both got just a little emotional because we’re emotional people who do things like cry at title screens and tell the internet about it.

There are so many other things I could say about Doctor Who, and so many other favorite memories that I could get into and probably will – but those are for another day. Suffice it to say that the title screen of The Snowmen isn’t the only Who title that’s made me cry; like many other Classic Who fans, I cried openly at the 50th with its black and white title screen. And I’m not the slightest bit ashamed of it. I’m deeply proud of everything Who has given me and so many of us around the world. It’s made me who I am today and will help me be a better person tomorrow.

Allons-y.