Rogue One: A Fan Story?

Last week, the first teaser trailer for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story hit the internet. If you somehow managed to miss it, you can watch it below. ScreenRant also has a great breakdown of the trailer here, as does io9 here, if you aren’t in a place where you can watch YouTube videos.

Scheduled for release in December, Rogue One is set just before the events of A New Hope (1977), the very first Star Wars film. Fittingly, the plot for Rogue One is taken straight from A New Hope’s opening crawl:

It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire.

During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.

As Lucasfilm company president Kathleen Kennedy puts it, ‘In the case of Rogue One, we’re essentially making a period piece’, which is set both in a galaxy far, far away and in the retro-futuristic world of 1970s Hollywood cinema. Rather than marketing it as a dreaded ‘prequel’, however, Disney is instead approaching the film as a standalone Star Wars story with ‘a different sensibility’, and a new perspective.

How exactly? Well, unlike the previous seven films, Rogue One will not follow the legacy of the Skywalker family. In fact, neither Rogue One or the other planned standalone films will cross over with the regular, episode-based saga at all. This sets them somewhat apart from the films in the Marvel universe, which tends to liberally sprinkle in the cameos. The tone of Rogue One is allegedly darker and morally grey, the genre is more ‘grand heist’ or ‘war movie’ than ‘space opera’, and the story is more personal. Basically, Rogue One is about some of the bit players in the bigger, more epic story the films in the main canon portray.

The main cast of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
The main cast of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

Jared Petty over at IGN prefaces his (very interesting, if brief) review of the trailer with the following words:

We’re a long way from the Mos Eisley cantina…there’s nary an alien or monster to be seen in the teaser trailer. There’s not a sign of Jedi, Sith, lightsabers, space battles, dogfights, or any of the other staples I’ve come to expect from Star Wars. Except for Mon Mothma, not a single familiar face appears, though I’ll be shocked  if we don’t see at least a glimpse of Vader in the final product.

For Petty, then, while the Rogue One might still be a Star Wars film from an aesthetic perspective, and in the sense than it is set in the same universe, it takes a new approach to the franchise’s tone, genre, and central themes. Personally, I’m not sure whether this is the case, though admittedly I come to the new Star Wars films from a different perspective than many viewers: as a long-time, and rather highly involved fan. I have seen the Star Wars universe take numerous different forms, both inside and outside of ‘canon’ (a contested term these days) and have participated in creating some of them myself.

Jared Petty may well be in the same situation (possibly minus the Earl Grey), and I’m sure he doesn’t mean to make any kind of value judgement here. Quite the opposite – he seems very positive about the possibilities Rogue One signals, precisely because of its apparent willingness to go in untested directions. Towards the end of his review, however, he makes a noteworthy statement that echoes what a lot of people, including Kathleen Kennedy, have been saying about Disney’s plans for future standalone Star Wars films:

If it works, Rogue One will open the door for other kinds of tales to be told in the Star Wars galaxy: scary stories, exploration epics, true romances, maybe even more comedic and deeper dramatic experiments.

While true, from a certain point of view, Petty’s statement is basically still predicated on the assumption that the Star Wars films are the only real Star Wars stories. While this may be a valid assumption, given that the films are all most people know of the franchise, many of the official Star Wars comics, television shows, and (before they were redacted from Star Wars canon) the material of the Expanded Universe have played with genre and tone, and have explored the world from the perspective of minor characters. These stories may not be ‘canon’, but they have made an impact on many past and current fans. One example childhood me remembers with particular fondness is Tales from Jabba’s Palace (1995), part of a series of short story anthologies that focused on minor characters from the original Star Wars trilogy.

After reading Kevin J. Anderson’s ‘A Boy and His Monster’, I could never look at this guy the same way again.

The Rogue One teaser itself already contains a number of references to obscure fan favourites from the original trilogy, like Mon Mothma or the Gonk droid. This suggests that the film, like The Force Awakens, will do its best not to alienate its hardcore fanbase. In addition to downplaying the stories told off the big screen, however, the idea that Rogue One will be a completely new type of Star Wars story ignores the ways in which the film’s entire approach to the Star Wars galaxy has actually been replicated many times over in fan culture.

By this I’m not at all trying to say that the Star Wars franchise needs to pander to the fan community’s every whim, or that it must stick to any kind of canon. I am simply intrigued by the way that now, more than ever before, the most prominent parts of Star Wars ‘canon’ are coming to resemble the fan creations it has been inspiring for many, many years.

Felicity Jones as Rogue One protagonist Jyn Erso
Felicity Jones as Rogue One protagonist Jyn Erso

Story from the perspective of a minor, unnamed, or practically nonexistent character in the original film trilogy? Check. Darker, more adult overtones? Check. Fills in gaps and stories hinted at by ‘canonical’ stories? Check. Wild genre shifts? Check. Strong female lead? Check. Fandom has done it all many times over. If people thought that The Force Awakens was essentially fan fiction, what will they make of Rogue One? It’s likely that most won’t even be aware of the similarities it bears to fan-led productions. Others might make the familiar move of classifying it as homage or transformative fiction, rather than fanfic.

In part, this shift into what is essentially ‘professional’ fan fiction no doubt comes simply because many of the people now working for Lucasfilm and Disney were themselves massive fans of Star Wars – both as children and as adults. They were always fans in the commonly understood sense of the word, but now they are also professionals. Hollywood, and Star Wars in particular, are getting very good at mining both fan culture and independent film for creative talent. This was also evident in the appointment of relative newcomer Gareth Edwards (Monsters, Godzilla) to direct Rogue One.

Edwards, himself a massive Star Wars fan, visited the Lars homestead in Tunisia for his 30th birthday (via the Nerdist).
Edwards, himself a massive Star Wars fan, visited the Lars homestead in Tunisia for his 30th birthday (image via the Nerdist).

In general, Lucasfilm has treated its fanbase in a welcoming and encouraging way. This is of course not without ulterior motives, restrictions, and gender biases, as Henry Jenkins already pointed out many years ago. In any case, the people who once wrote the fanfic now regularly write the ‘real’ thing.

So who decides what is a ‘real’ Star Wars story, and what is not? Technically, that job falls to Pablo Hidalgo, who works as part of Lucasfilm Story Group to make sure each new story fits together coherently with the others. Hidalgo, himself a founding member of the Star Wars Fanboy Association, answers the question of what makes something canon in less than 130 characters:

I would argue that Disney most certainly needs to take the huge body of stories that already exist into account. We’ve already seen how mild fan blowback about the elimination of the Expanded Universe stories from canon has threatened to spill over into the ‘real world’. Disney seems highly sensitive to the fact that fan opinion matters, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect them to cater to this group however they are able. What’s more, I think that is exactly what they are doing as they construct these spinoff stories, though perhaps not in the way we expected. I am incredibly interested in the extent to which Rogue One will come to resemble a piece of fan art, and there may well be follow-up posts to this effect. It is an exiting time to be a fan, and an especially exciting time to be a Star Wars fan.

Felicity Jones as Rogue One protagonist Jyn Erso
Felicity Jones as Rogue One protagonist Jyn Erso

I will also be closely following the ways in which Disney capitalises on the fan community to inspire, create, and market both this and future spinoff films. Things are off to an intriguing start, as it was recently announced that Gareth Edwards, Rogue One co-producer John Swartz, and executive producer John Knoll will be judges for this year’s Star Wars Fan Film Awards. Who knows – a winner of this year’s award may even, in a few years’ time, see his name (the winners are almost always male) in the credits of a canonical Star Wars film. In the wake of the Rogue One trailer, several professional artists (some working for various Star Wars properties) also tweeted fan renditions of the film to fellow fans – but also, inevitably, to customers.

The line between ‘profic’ and fanfic is becoming increasingly blurred.

What do you think? Is this an accurate reading of Rogue One, or do you see something different going on? Let me know in the comments, or on Twitter.

‘Embrace Your Dark Side’: Penny Dreadful‘s Season 3 Trailer

PrintAbout two weeks ago a proper trailer for the next season of Penny Dreadful was released. Various other obligations have kept me from looking at it properly, but this week I’ve finally been able to sink my teeth into it. Without further ado, then, my take on this 1-minute-and-45-second trailer.

(Note: there will be spoilers for seasons 1 and 2).

To start, you can watch the whole thing here on Penny Dreadful‘s YouTube channel:

The trailer starts out strong with a shot of the much-touted star of the series Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), before swiftly introducing us to an exciting new location (North America?):

Screen Shot 2016-03-16 at 20.29.26

We’re then treated to a none-too subtle shot of the moon, in case we needed a reminder that everyone’s favourite Penny Dreadful werewolf was last seen bound for the New World:

Screen Shot 2016-03-16 at 20.29.44
Let’s hope Penny Dreadful handles the skinwalker associations better than J.K. Rowling did.

Also returning are ‘world-renowned explorer with an axe to grind‘ Malcolm Murray, (Timothy Dalton), American werewolf in London Ethan Chandler (though, as we discovered last season, that’s not his real name; played by Josh Hartnett), Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), his monstrous creation Caliban/John Clare (Rory Kinnear), the depraved Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney), and the delightful Lily Frankenstein (Billie Piper).

Newcomers to season 3 include Dr. Seward – presumably a nod to Dracula’s Jack Seward – played by Patti LuPone (who also played the cut-wife in season 2),  Dr. Henry Jekyll (followed by Edward Hyde?) played by Shazad Latif, and a Native American warrior played by Wes Studi.

And apparently this girl?
And apparently this girl? Nice addition to the long-running Gothic tradition of creepy women in white, in any case.

We can only hope that Shazad Latif and Wes Studi’s characters fare better than Sembene (Danny Sapani), who died brutally last season – in what was sadly only the last of several appearances that were apparently only designed to help move the storylines of the white characters along.

Don't hold your breath,
Don’t get too attached.

We also get to see some obligatory hints about the Showtime-level sex scenes we’ll be treated to:

Naturally when Vanessa says she's been 'touched by Satan' she means it in the sexual (and gratuitously bloody) sense. 
Naturally when Vanessa says she’s been  ‘touched by Satan’ she means it in the sexual (and gratuitously gory) sense. It’s Showtime, dammit!
Screen Shot 2016-03-16 at 20.33.18
Is the woman sleeping with John Clare in this scene black? In a trailer where the tagline is ’embrace your dark side’? If so I see a series of thesis paragraphs on unfortunate colonial subtext in my future.

Not a bad trailer by any means, but some of the things it teases are worryingly familiar to me. I’ve written before about how, despite that fact that I absolutely love the show on a personal level, on an academic one it has some issues with the way it represents monstrosity. Specifically, it capitalises on a number of the characteristics of monsters established by critical theorists, without actually delivering on most fronts. It also has a problematic relationship with its LGBTQ characters, despite show runner John Logan’s frequent linking of monstrosity and his own homosexuality.

Screen Shot 2016-03-16 at 20.31.20
Except the cheesy classic werewolf font. The show delivers all the way on that one.
Screen Shot 2016-03-16 at 20.33.00
Also (potentially) the Bride of Frankenstein front. Give me more of Lily Frankenstein – but less, please, of the ‘prostitute with a heart of gold‘ stereotype and the ‘Strong Female Character with a sexually traumatic past‘ stereotype.

For Judith Halberstam, while the monster always foregrounds physical difference and visibility, ‘the monsters of the nineteenth century metaphorized modern subjectivity as a balancing act’ between a series of binary oppositions, frightening precisely because they stood poised to transgress established identities and social parameters (Skin Shows, p. 1). Ultimately,  despite its self-advertised exploration of identity binaries, Penny Dreadful uses monstrosity (and its Victorian setting) in a way that constructs a false sense of diversity, disturbance, and change. In its attempts to represent ‘everyone’, it instead shuts out all but the privileged minority it represents on-screen.

Rather than using the past to discuss present-day issues, as it claims, the show instead presents the issues of certain Victorian outcasts – many of whom are now far from marginalised. In a sense, then, Penny Dreadful uses its Victorian setting to reclaim monstrosity for the privileged.

Screen Shot 2016-03-16 at 20.34.14
For instance, what is this tasty bit of Orientalism? ‘We may be monsters, but those foreign monsters are way scarier’.

In addition to the predictable issues and reveals, there are a number of scenes where I genuinely have no idea what’s going on:

Screen Shot 2016-03-16 at 20.34.42
Who is this creepy dude and why is he smelling Vanessa? Tell me more.
Screen Shot 2016-03-16 at 20.35.11
…Dorian and Lily take down a sexual slavery ring? Again, intrigued as to the context of this scene.

I am, however, very interested to find out. With just under two months to go until the premiere of season 3, and a few months more until it’s spun out all nine episodes on broadcast television, Penny Dreadful has plenty of time to change my mind about its politics of the monstrous.

And let’s be honest – they’ve already gone a good way towards placating my non-academic brain with this shot of Timothy Dalton in a cowboy hat:

Oh Timothy Dalton. You will always be the only James Bond in my books.
Oh Timothy Dalton. You will always be the only James Bond in my books.

What do you think? Are you excited for the new season of Penny Dreadful?