Star Wars: a personal history

When The Force Awakens came out in 2015, I wrote a blog about how Star Wars had a strong sense of history, referencing previous times and films about them. After watching the new movie The Rise of Skywalker last Friday, I have been thinking about how the series has a history in a more personal sense.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

I am a child of the seventies and it feels like Star Wars has been with me my whole life. I was too young when the first one came out, but it was on TV once a year in the early eighties so that was the first one I saw. I was allowed to stay up late to watch it, despite my parents’ reservations that the monsters would scare me.

Like many kids at the time, I primarily got into Star Wars through the toys, comics and other paraphernalia rather than the films themselves. The toys enabled children to come up with their own stories, which was a big part of the power of the Star Wars universe. My friends and I would pool our own modest collections in order to stage epic battles – for this reason, I mostly collected the baddies, to even the sides up.

We didn’t have a VCR at that point, so I first saw Empire Strikes Back as part of a triple-bill at the cinema when Return of the Jedi came out. My dad took some arm-twisting to take me. We missed the start of the first film, and popped out after the second for some KFC to fortify us for the third. Having previously devoured comics and novelisations, the big revelation in Empire didn’t come as a shock.

In the later eighties, Star Wars wasn’t cool. I sold nearly all of the toys at car boot sales to buy things like records. But I still enjoyed watching the films, having taped them off the telly.

In the nineties, Star Wars became cool once more. I was then a student, and spent much of my time on the Star Wars pinball machine in the JCR, trying to shoot the Death Star. The films were revived at student film nights: a friend of mine at another campus told me that people would bring torches to their smoky cinema, to use during the lightsabre battles. I remember going to see the special editions as a student. I was unimpressed with the digital ‘improvements’, but just remember the thrill of seeing these films on the massive screen of York’s Odeon rather than on TV.

The prequel trilogy started coming out when I was finishing my PhD. My similarly Star Wars-obsessed friends and I went to see The Phantom Menace full of expectation, and emerged feeling very deflated. In retrospect, this was a bit unfair. It was and is a terrible film, but it plays very young, so people who had grown up with the original trilogy were not really the target audience. The Gungans are no more childish than the Ewoks.

After the disappointment of Episode 1, I didn’t bother with the next one, until I watched it round a friend’s house on his new-fangled DVD player, which showed off the battle scene to spectacular effect. Maybe it wasn’t so bad, so I gave Revenge of the Sith the benefit of the doubt and went to see it at the cinema.

When the third trilogy came around, I had kids of my own so partly experienced it through them. They were too young to see the new films at the cinema themselves (so I went with other parents of young children, on rare nights out). Like me the children experienced the film vicariously through toys. Rather than the action figures, they mostly played Star Wars through Lego, which offers up even more opportunities for imaginative engagement with its universe. Unlike me, though, they had easy access to the films on DVD. They love Phantom Menace, despite me informing them that they are wrong.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Watching the final installment last week therefore felt rather significant. Having been with me my whole life, it felt as though a chapter of it had come to a close. The documentary short before the film, with grainy out-takes and interviews from the first film, added to the sense of nostalgia. In retrospect, my relationship with the nine films (and the two spin-offs, of which there will no doubt be more) is influenced by the points in my own life when they came out.

Star Wars is a very personal thing. Its stories are bound up with the stories we tell ourselves about our own lives. It is therefore part of my own history.

Matthew McCormack