The Spaceman and King Arthur: Matt Smith and Star Wars

It’s harvest time, and with agonising, inexorable slowness, the clock ticks towards autumn. You can tell the wait for Series 11 is killing people. Well, not literally killing people. That would be silly. But details are scant: no monsters, no plots, and only a single episode title to work with. We’ve only just had the air date, for crying out loud. It’s a media blackout, the updates drip-fed, dissected and discussed to death. Just about the most exciting Who-related news this last week is an unconfirmed rumour that the last Doctor but one has been cast in the new Star Wars film, which grants us the perfect opportunity for another foray into classic science fiction and two worlds that aren’t as dissimilar as they might seem at first glance. So pour yourself a Jawa Juice (whatever the hell that is, and I’m not sure I really want to know); we’re going to be here a while.

I once got into an argument with an angry American on YouTube about the relative merits of Doctor Who and Red Dwarf. “The British can’t do sci-fi,” he said. “We have Star Trek and Star Wars and Philip K Dick, so we’re king.”

“You don’t have Star Wars,” I parried. “It was written and produced by an American and some of the leads are American, but a significant chunk of the cast are British (the ones who can act, anyway) and an awful lot of it was filmed here with British crews.”

“The creator is American, bitch,” he said, whereupon I pointed out that Lucas ripped off the idea from Lord of the Rings. Which really isn’t true, of course – but it was the point at which the troll realised he was being counter-trolled, and he promptly shut up. It is a little bit like Britain arguing with Argentina over who owns the Falklands, but sometimes you have to teach people a lesson, and at least no shots were fired.

Besides, root tracing is complicated. Star Wars is the classic quest for identity – Arthurian legend window dressed as a spaghetti western, with ray guns. Not that Leone was the sole influence on Lucas’ masterwork: the lightsabers are an obvious nod to Kurosawa and the pod race in The Phantom Menace borrows very deliberately from Ben Hur. There are others. It’s not a bad thing: there’s nothing wrong with paying your respects, and however much we complain about it, Star Wars does so with such enthusiasm we’re prepared to forgive its narrative shortcomings. For every nugget of clunky dialogue, every wooden performance and every scene with Hayden Christensen (who embodies the very worst of both) there is a moment of brilliance: Yoda’s colossal showdown with Palpatine in the Senate Chamber as the Republic crumbles both literally and figuratively around them; the tragic deaths of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Han Solo; the ice battle on Hoth; the dual-ended lightsaber wielded by Darth Maul; and – a personal highlight – the moment when Lando Calrissian leads the rebel fleet over and inside the incomplete Death Star and then out the other end, pausing only to destroy its reactor and escaping from the inferno in a thrilling belch of spark and flame.

And yet no one remembers these bits. They just complain about political correctness. That scene where Ewan McGregor crash-lands his starfighter into the hangar of The Invisible Hand and then catapults himself out of the pilot seat, igniting his lightsaber in mid-air and bringing it crashing down on an unsuspecting battle droid? What good is that when you’ve got an ASIAN AMERICAN WORKING AS AN ENGINEER? How can we possibly justify such sycophantic virtue signalling? Listen, the Rose / Finn subplot was irritating to a fault, but race isn’t a factor. It’s just the characters are tedious and whiny. If they’d cast…I don’t know, Jennifer Lawrence, you’d have had the same problem: a bad script is a bad script and a bad actor is a bad actor, irrespective of their skin pigmentation. Mark Hamill has improved with age, but his acting in A New Hope is awful. And New Hope Luke is an Aryan poster boy, even if he’s a little short.

The same applies in Doctor Who. Bits of The Mutants are downright painful – specifically, Rick James is downright painful – but that’s not because he’s black. He’s just rubbish, which I daresay has bugger all to do with ethnicity. Fulfilment of the diversity quota is alive and well and people who grew up watching white-dominated TV programmes (and Desmond’s) clearly have a problem with it, but there are bad black actors and bad white actors and sometimes good black actors get bad scripts, and…well, this sentence is already quite long enough. Samuel Anderson was one of the best things about Series 8. Noel Clarke, on the other hand, has never been an easy watch. Both of them are black. Go figure.

Fast forward to 2017 and there are a number of people who don’t like Jodie Whittaker the actress, which is categorically not the same as disliking Jodie Whittaker the woman. It’s not that she’s female, they tell us, it’s just that she’s rubbish. This is a legitimate point of view, insofar as we naturally prejudge a person’s ability to play a character based on their previous work, although personally I think she’s decent enough – but then I was convinced Matt Smith wouldn’t have the gravitas to manage the Doctor, and I turned out to be wrong about that, so perhaps it’s a lesson I’ve learned the hard way. Some of us would prefer to hedge our bets before making any sort of decision, with opinions formed on the basis of actual evidence rather than speculation, but this is an unpopular way of doing things, and we tend to get spat upon in the street.

Every conversation I have with disgruntled Star Wars fans these days is quite similar to the conversation Bill Bailey has with Simon Pegg during Spaced. You remember. Tim’s just yelled at a small boy, describing Episode I as a “jumped up firework display of a toy advert”. The boy runs out of the shop in tears: enter the boss, stage left.

Bilbo: I let my principles get in the way sometimes. I punched a bloke in the face once for saying Hawk the Slayer was rubbish.

Tim: Good for you.

Bilbo: Thanks. But that’s not the point. The point is, I was defending the fantasy genre with terminal intensity, when what I should have said is, “Dad, you’re right. Let’s give Krull a try and we’ll discuss it later”. The Phantom Menace was eighteen months ago, Tim.

Tim: I know, Bilbo. It’s just it still hurts. That kid brought in a Jar Jar doll.

Bilbo: Kids like Jar Jar.

Tim: Why?

Bilbo: What about the Ewoks ? They were rubbish. You don’t complain about them.

Tim: Jar Jar Binks makes the Ewoks look like f**king Shaft.

I was one of the few people who appear to have enjoyed The Last Jedi. I watched it with the boys, and they all liked it, and that’s good enough. It is overblown, overlong and occasionally silly, but this is a series in which a teenager who’s only recently cast off the shackles of puberty roams the universe in the company of an old man in a dressing gown, waving a plastic toy and getting off with his own sister. Far From The Madding Crowd it is not (although it is, in many ways, not a million miles from Jude the Obscure). There is no point in complaining about a kids’ franchise that refuses to grow up with you. It is you that has changed, not the films, and this insistence that Real Fans Don’t Like Jar Jar is poisonous gatekeeping. It’s endemic in the Star Wars fan groups, and all I can say is thank god we don’t have this problem with Doctor Who.

[coughs]

Superficially, the Star Wars and Doctor Who universe are very different: the unnamed galaxy in which A New Hope takes place is chaotic, violent and linear, experiencing its history one day at a time. Said history is both insular and self-contained – there is very little of the world of Star Wars that is not in some way connected in some way or other with the worthy-but-dull proponents of the Force (on both sides) or the spread of the galactic empire, in its various guises. How often do we really hear anything of culture or entertainment, unless it’s the occasional snatches of music in the Mos Eisley cantina or the cookery programme on that godawful Holiday Special? Put another way, how come no one in Star Wars ever actually readanything?

It’s a strange set of affairs. Here’s a galaxy in which every animal we encounter is both familiar and yet peculiar, and in which the taxonomy is deliberately removed, but in which everyone knows about falcons. There is a sense of culture bubbling under the surface – something about Lucas’s vision that never quite rings true because it feels like an incomplete universe, a circle missing an edge. Yoda scoffs at the sight of Luke weeping over the supposedly lost Jedi texts, via the words “Page turners they were not” (a line memorable for all the wrong reasons, largely because it really doesn’t feel like anything you’d expect Yoda to say), but how would he know? Is there a Dickens in the Star Wars canon? A Dumas? A Dan Brown?

Certainly this new trilogy has caught us all on the hop a bit. First we had The Force Awakens, which had a story so similar to A New Hope it was to all intents and purposes a straight-up remake rather than a sequel – not since Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot recreation of Psycho has the source material been so recklessly plundered under the pretence of being something it’s clearly not. Meanwhile, The Last Jedi started out as a remake of Empire and then veered off on a side quest midway through its second act, including an Emperor’s Throne Room moment that threw just about everybody (although it is hardly outlandish to suggest that Snoke is probably not dead). It then goes on for another hour. There are more climaxes than a Swedish porn movie, and at least that features nudity. The very end of TLJ is a duel that takes place between an angry millennial and a grumpy middle-aged man – a product of Generation X who is actually waging his war from thousands of miles away and is hiding behind a false profile picture. It’s the sort of thing I encounter every day on Twitter, only with fewer explosions.

In between the two we’ve had Rogue One, a Star Wars film in which no one gets out alive. It is a lot of fun, particularly if you marry it with the Red Dwarf theme.  And then there was Solo, the spin-off nobody wanted and comparatively few people went to see, thus putting it in the same league as Class. This was largely down to the producers’ decision to cast a different actor as a youthful Han Solo, rather than have Harrison Ford risk a major coronary cavorting about the Falcon’s gun turrets and then slap on the same CG retouching that everyone complained about a couple of years ago. You can’t please all of the people all of the time, and if some of the people happen to be purists you’re better off leaving them in the corner with a sheaf of paper and some crayons. The jury’s out for the as-yet untitled Episode IX, although my sources tell me it will involve two stories: Rey’s attempts to renovate her old family hotel interspersed with scenes featuring a teenage Luke and Leia, concluding with a large production number and a cameo from Cher.

Star Wars is a violent place: might makes right, and whatever rubbish the Jedi want to spout about only using the Force for defence, the body count is enormous. Both Rebels and Stormtroopers fall like dominoes, and there are kamikazes galore. And yet this isn’t so similar from the Doctor’s world, given that scarcely a series goes by without him being plunged into some sort of skirmish. Conflict is an active part of the Doctor’s life and – as I’ve argued in the past – he’s vehemently not a pacifist; it’s just he wages his wars very differently. By the time the wheezing, groaning sound of the TARDIS cuts through the score, most of the fighting is usually already done (this is a family show, after all, on a BBC budget), leaving a battlefield littered with implied corpses, and a threat that’s easily contained, or at least rendered with only one or two actors. (One of them is usually Nicholas Briggs, of course, but let’s not go there.)

Certainly the opportunities for crossover are superficially limited, given that Doctor Who takes place in a world in which Star Wars exists as a cultural essence – and that even 51st century Time Agents are aware of it. It’s ironic, given that Michael Grade cites Star Wars as among the reasons he put Who on hiatus in the first place. Dipping into popular culture is commonplace in Doctor Who – they regularly dabbled with Star Trek, but when the Doctor met the crew of the Enterprise it was explained away with parallel universe theory; it’s a shame the resulting story was so badly written. There are other ways of doing it. The cast of Red Dwarf, for example, landed on Earth and discovered they were fictional entities about to be killed off – this was revealed to be a hallucination but in a final twist the hallucinated universe was made flesh by virtue of quantum mechanics, with the audience doomed to “live out the rest of their lives convinced they’re the real ones and we’re characters from a TV show”.

But fudged explanations aside there’s no reason why the Doctor couldn’t make an appearance somewhere, hanging from a ledge of a Coruscant skyscraper above heavy traffic, a screwdriver sandwiched in his teeth, or fixing the hyperdrive on the Falcon, or muddying his trousers in the swamps of Degobah. Perhaps he’d calm the Rancor by singing to it. More than that, he’d be able to tell us what’s going on. I’d love to see Smith talk about the science of the Force, for example, perhaps by reducing it to latent telekinesis wound up with a collective race memory. Maybe he could even explain how Leia managed that that vacuum of space trick. At the very least he could explain how lightsabers function. And do they do wood?

More to the point (and the question on the salivating lips of the fandom), precisely which character is Smith about to portray? There are a number of ideas running around – Grand Admiral Thrawn is the current favourite, although there is speculation that he could have a family connection to Rey, or even play a grown-up version of Temiri Blagg, the kid we saw at the end of The Last Jedi. A hundred ideas, none of them particularly interesting. Are we perhaps in a place now where we don’t need any new characters in this cluttered, endlessly diluted universe? Do we do the films a disservice if we acknowledge that the Palpatine / Vader team-up was the quintessential bad guy combination, aped and subverted but never bettered? As Bob Dylan once said, “The world don’t need any more songs”.

But there’s one theory I quite like. It was put to me by another fan who suggested that rather than a corporeal humanoid, Smith could instead be set to appear as the living embodiment of the Force. It draws from his brief appearance in Terminator: Genisys, in which he basically plays Skynet, appearing as an undercover spy at the film’s beginning and a digital avatar at its conclusion (although we don’t talk about any of this, because it’s frankly embarrassing to watch). But in Episode IX, suggests Robert, the former Doctor will play a god-like creature “as found within a Holocron from ages back. Something that represents the duality of the light and the dark side of the Force. He/It will teach Rey about the balance that the first Jedi destroyed by eschewing the darkness within every being. During this training montage, it will be hinted at or revealed that Rey was created by the Balance within the Force.”

I confess I rather like that. It’s a valuable life lesson – embrace and acknowledge the darkness within you and turn it to good, rather than unsuccessfully trying to purge it – but it works on a number of levels. Think it through: a forty-year-old franchise draws to its natural conclusion, and it turns out the mystical religion at its core was the work of the British all along. That’ll keep the gatekeepers arguing for years.