The Price of Fan Demand

Reviving Star Wars and Sherlock Holmes

Much ado has been made about Disney’s management of Star Wars. Regardless of where one’s opinion falls, leadership has made some inarguably dubious choices. But consumer demand has forced art to contort beyond the writer’s intent before… The famous Sherlock may hold the key.

The beginning of a new Star Wars trilogy has always been marked by a tense buildup of excitement, as fans across the globe line up to be the first to see Lucasfilm’s newest installment in the beloved universe. At this point, however, it’s starting to feel a lot like Charlie Brown and that coveted football; fans charge forth, ready to embrace and adore the new films as much as the old ones, only for the company to pull the rug out and the fandom to fall flat on its back, staring at the sky and wondering how they got duped into thinking that this time, somehow, the magic would be recaptured again.

To be fair, the Disney trilogy is not the same sort of insult to screenwriting that the prequel trilogy has become known as, but the revitalization has left some fans with a bad taste in their mouths, specifically after the conga line of disappointments that they were treated to in The Last Jedi. Contrary to the rhetoric among the lowest common denominator, it has nothing to do with the increased diversity and inclusion of social issues that were the detriment to the film, as those aspects have always been integral and celebrated features in the Star Wars franchise.

The problems with The Last Jedi are a little more nuanced than any so-called “pandering to SJWs,” or even the counterargument of “some fans are just racist.” There are legitimate reasons to feel heartbroken by The Last Jedi, and, to a lesser extent, the Disney sequel trilogy in general, and to get to the bottom of them, we must consult, as many have before us, with the world’s greatest detective, Sherlock Holmes.

As creators of one of the largest franchise-fictions of their respective eras, both George Lucas and Arthur Conan Doyle were subject to immense pressures from public demand, which lead to so loss of “shine” on the apple of their fame and success.

As the man was allegedly born in 1861—more on that below—and would more than likely be dead by the time of this writing—and, above that, is a fictional character—we are unable to visit him at 221B Baker Street to request his aid, so we will instead be comparing the rise and fall of Disney’s Star Wars with the death and return of Sherlock Holmes.

It’s Time for Sherlock Holmes … to Die

By 1893, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had been writing stories about Sherlock Holmes for The Strand Magazine almost nonstop for six years, enough to fill two anthologies as well as two novels starring the detective. While the claims that Doyle “hated” his creation are largely exaggeration, it is true that he had grown weary of the character, viewing himself as more of a science fiction and historical writer.

In the author’s own words, “If in 100 years I am only known as the man who invented Sherlock Holmes then I will have considered my life a failure” [ 1 ]. Today, Doyle would be very disappointed indeed as his other works have largely been panned in comparison to those featuring Sherlock Holmes. In 1887, Doyle originally had been inspired to write A Study in Scarlet by observing his close friend and mentor, Dr. Thomas Bell, who many identify as the closest thing to a real-life Sherlock Holmes. Dr. Bell’s ability to diagnose patients without ever meeting them influenced Holmes’s powers of deduction.

This is not unlike George Lucas’ own inspiration for Star Wars, which was based on the philosophy and writings of his own mentor, Joseph Campbell, in particular the well-known structure he laid out known as “The Hero’s Journey” [ 2 ]. If you compare the finished product of Star Wars to Lucas previous work, it stands out as having little to nothing in common. Lucas’s other popular film was American Graffiti, a nostalgic teen comedy about the 1950s that is more like Happy Days than it is The Empire Strikes Back.

However, the difference is that while Doyle saw his work with the detective as hackwork and largely just a way to pay the bills, George Lucas has always loved Star Wars and its sequels, and has even defended the prequels [ 3 ]. Unlike Doyle, when Lucas turned his back on what will go down in history as his greatest creation, he did not feel like he had shrugged off a heavy burden. In an interview with Charlie Rose, Lucas said:

Okay, I will go my way and I’ll let them go their way. And it really does come down to a simple rule of life; which is, when you break up with somebody … you just say “Nope. Gone. History. I’m moving forward.” … You have to put it behind you, and it’s a very, very, very hard thing to do. [ 4 ]

Lucas sees his leaving the Star Wars franchise as a break-up, and perhaps Doyle did too, but in his case, it was more like a break-up with a clingy person who he felt he didn’t connect with in the first place, as opposed to Lucas’s heartbreak.

Then we come to The Last Jedi, the film that, like Doyle’s “The Final Problem,” kills off the franchise’s main character. When Doyle wrote “The Final Problem,” he saw it as a way to escape the character. In a letter to his mother, he wrote, “I must save my mind for better things, even if it means I must bury my pocketbook with him” [ 5 ].

Many fans, including Mark Hamill himself, aren’t exactly thrilled by the depiction of Luke Skywalker in Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, or the sequels in general. The understandable outcry could be stated as comparable to that of Sherlock fans following Conan Doyle’s intended finale, with his sacrifice to destroy Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls.

Doyle did, however, resolve to give the character a proper send-off with a blaze of glory, ridding the world of a criminal so notorious and dangerous that any task afterwards would seem trivial; this is a sentiment that was not only in the mind of the author, but is also explicitly stated by the character himself [ 6 ]. And so Holmes is given a death that sees him off as a hero. This sendoff would prove futile, sure, but it was clear at least that Doyle appreciated the character’s legacy and did not mean to insult his fans, despite his own distaste for the character [ 7 ].

This same method was used by Disney when writing off the character of Luke Skywalker. It’s evident that the writers of the new trilogy felt stifled by the characters of the original films; no matter what any of the new characters did, the real draw was seeing Han, Leia, and Luke onscreen again. There’s also something pragmatic about killing off the older human characters before they can retire, while leaving characters like Chewbacca, R2-D2, and C-3PO alive to give the franchise some cohesiveness. Disney killing Luke was motivated by the exact opposite of Doyle’s motivations; they killed Luke Skywalker so that the franchise could continue to exist, rather than to end it. That being said, his actual death scene lacks the gravity of Holmes’ fall at Reichenbach.

Whereas Holmes died in a climactic victory over evil, Luke’s death is only a Band-Aid, holding off a villain so that the heroes can live to fight another day [ 8 ]. He doesn’t take the villain with him, and he doesn’t purge evil for good, because the purpose was to leave the franchise open for the new characters to do that. For this reason, it can feel a little like a waste of the character, like his death was meaningless.

Despite his resentment toward Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle made sure that Holmes’ death not only had meaning but would be so impactful that to continue beyond that would seem pointless (although clearly that was not the case). Although Disney was giving the character a climactic final battle, they killed Luke Skywalker in a way that deliberately downplays his role in the finale, which simultaneously boosts the other characters at the expense of his own legacy. It is for this reason that the death feels disappointing and even unearned.

There is a flip side to this, though. Kylo Ren’s defeat at the hands of a projection is a sort of meta-symbolism for the franchise as a whole, as well as the pedantic fans that the series has been known to attract. It’s the same reason why Kylo Ren wears a Vader-esque mask despite having no scarring or real need for it [ 9 ]; he is effectively a Darth Vader cosplayer, a Star Wars fanboy who idolizes the might of the Empire and misses the message of the entire series.

Compare him to Rey, who lives in a demolished AT-AT, plays with Rebel Alliance dolls, and recognizes Han Solo from the stories about his adventures [ 9 ]. She, too, is a Star Wars fan, but in the narrative, she is a fan who respects the message and the franchise better than Kylo Ren does. So, when Kylo Ren is defeated by a projection of Luke Skywalker, it is a way for the movie—which is, itself, a projection of Luke Skywalker—to say that its message will defeat its more toxic fanbase [ 8 ].

It’s the same reason why, when Luke Skywalker says “I will not be the last Jedi,” he is looking directly at the camera, as though speaking to the audience [ 8 ]. The film is directly addressing the audience, through Luke. That line, of course, refers to the franchise; Luke is assuring the audience that the series has a future. Whether that redeems his death or not, however, is up to the individual. Just because it is thematically sound does not mean it’s not dramatically disappointing.

The death of Luke Skywalker was not the first time the Star Wars series died, however. The franchise had already come to a satisfying end back in 1983, with Return of the Jedi, which stood, for decades, as the final film of the series. While Lucas refers to an expansive saga that includes the prequels and his own idea of the sequels, the history of the Star Wars series does not support this [ 10 ].

The original film was designed as a stand-alone to evoke the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers films that Lucas grew up with. “I liked Flash Gordon as a kid … It was the only action-adventure thing I came across as a kid that I could remember. So I got interested in that. I went and actually talked to the people who owned the rights to it. They said they weren’t interested” [ 10 ].

This, combined with the structure provided by Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, gave birth to a single film, but its success inspired Lucas to revisit the film and turn it into a series, at the time with sequels that would go beyond Return of the Jedi [ 10 ]. While the series ended up resting at a trilogy for seventeen years, it was something of a “death” for the franchise, as much as “The Final Problem” served as a death for the Sherlock Holmes franchise. But, just like Holmes, Star Wars would not stay dead.

In a curious parallel, both series would end up revived thanks to a novel. Despite Doyle’s misgivings that continuing to write about Holmes would be pointless after “The Final Problem,” Holmesians demanded that he return to the series for the entirety of his retirement from it, leading first to what is often considered the seminal Sherlock Holmes story, The Hound of the Baskervilles, set before Holmes’s death, as recounted by a mourning Watson. The popularity of this novel inspired Doyle to resurrect the detective only a few years later.

Star Wars, meanwhile, was revived in 1991, when Timothy Zahn published Heir to the Empire, the first of the Thrawn Trilogy. It renewed interest in the franchise enough that in 1999, Star Wars was revived for the big screen with Episode I: The Phantom Menace, to worldwide fan disappointment. This is in contrast to The Adventure of the Empty House, the story in which Sherlock Holmes returned from the dead and revealed how he survived his encounter with Professor Moriarty [ 11 ].

Therein may lie the difference between Empty House and The Last Jedi; Holmes’s return opened by answering in detail the questions left by the previous installment, The Last Jedi looked at the questions that the previous film, The Force Awakens, posed, and shrugs them off. Questions like, “Who are Rey’s parents?” and, “Who is Snoke?” are given the exact same answer; “Nobody.” Not only does the film give non-answers to its predecessor’s questions, it almost seems to have contempt for the audience for asking them. This decision, while bold, serves only to disappoint the audience and leave them wholly unsatisfied.

Empty House, meanwhile, is very open with its answers, and explores the consequences of “The Final Problem” by using Moriarty’s former sidekick as the villain, and the story’s cohesive exploration of Holmes’ survival is certainly part of why Doyle himself ranked it as his sixth favorite Sherlock Holmes story [ 12 ].

The Licensed Fanfic

In 2012, Disney bought Star Wars, and shortly after, George Lucas walked away from what had been considered by many to be his magnum opus. To say that this was a mistake would be… a stretch. While Lucas managed to strike gold in the original trilogy, his ideas, when undoctored, tend to be very strange. There’s a reason why his original pitch—as well as his second draft—for Star Wars was rejected until he incorporated Campbell’s story structure into it [ 10 ]. And as polarizing as the Disney trilogy has been so far, all we know about Lucas’s proposal for Episode VII was just as bad.

“[The next three Star Wars films] were going to get into a microbiotic world. But there’s this world of creatures that operate differently than we do,” Lucas said. “I call them Whills. And the Whills are the ones who actually control the universe. They feed off the Force.” [ 13 ]

If this name sounds familiar, it should; the original working title for Star Wars was Journal of the Whills, so unless George is trying to reference himself, (which would not be unusual for him), he may indeed have intended the story to culminate in this from the series’ inception. That being said, it also bears uncomfortable resemblance to the much maligned “midichlorians” of The Phantom Menace, which are implied to be a microbe that is directly tied to one’s proficiency with the Force [ 14 ].

This idea was so directly in conflict with how the Force had been presented in the original trilogy—as something mystical, not scientific—that fans everywhere decried its inclusion until it was essentially scrubbed from the canon. Lucas himself is quoted to have “admitted fans probably wouldn’t love the idea since it would draw parallels to The Phantom Menace[ 14 ]. So regardless of your thoughts on how Disney is handling the franchise, it’s silly to try to claim that only Lucas could do it “right;” the truth is, Lucas is as capable of messing it up as anyone else.

One of the most decried decisions made by Disney involving the new Star Wars trilogy was to end the Expanded Universe, the name given to the comics and novels set in the world of Star Wars, serving as sequels and expanding on minor characters, all while building history into the franchise. While the Expanded Universe told a great many beloved stories, it was essential for the creation of a new trilogy to do away with them, if Disney wanted free range over the franchise.

Had they tried to retell stories from the Expanded Universe, there would be no suspense in the stories, as they had already been released years ago. They might have tried to tell new stories set around the previously published ones, but then their universe would be plagued by grand epics like the Thrawn trilogy, or the Dark Empire comic, or the New Jedi Order trilogy, that featured such pivotal moments as the death of Chewbacca, that they could only reference in passing.

They also may have limited themselves to tales set in the far-flung future of the franchise, or perhaps a distant part of the galaxy, completely separate from the original trilogy and everything that is known about it except for sharing a universe, but this would have defeated the purpose of resurrecting the franchise in the first place. Disney’s decision to remove the Expanded Universe from canon, while controversial, was the only feasible answer to the quandary that resurrecting the series left them with.

Furthermore, some credit must be given to the respectful way in which they did it; the stories were not deemed unrelated, they remain a part of the Star Wars universe as “Legends,” both canonical to their own universe, and present in the main universe as tales that have been passed between its denizens over the years. Harkening back to the comparison made above, these are exactly the kind of stories that Rey and Kylo have grown up admiring, which is an appropriate tribute to the many minds that have indulged it and served to create it in its nearly 25-year lifespan.

The Sherlock Holmes canon also has been the victim of passing between authors’ hands over the years. As the character is in public domain, many stories have been published featuring or referencing him, but it’s generally accepted that they are not meant to be canonical, and instead are licensed fan fiction.

Much like Lucas’ exhaustion with his fan base following relentless criticisms of the prequel trilogy, Conan Doyle’s exasperation with his creation was well documented following the intended final story. Needless to say, fans were not pleased with either writers’ candor.

This is not the case for all of them, however; in 1954, Arthur Conan Doyle’s son Adrian and his biographer, John Dickson Carr, released a collaborative novel titled The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes, which was made up of 12 short stories that were meant to expand upon the off-hand references Watson made to adventures in his other stories, but which had never been expanded upon by Arthur Conan Doyle himself.

Take, for example, the fifth story in the cycle, titled “The Adventure of the Black Baronet,” which was inspired by a reference in The Hound of the Baskervilles to a “Famous Card Scandal of the Nonpareil Club” and “The Unfortunate Madame Montpensier,” or the third story, “The Adventure of the Wax Gamblers,” which is meant as a sequel to the Case of the Darlington Substitution Scandal mentioned in A Scandal in Bohemia [ 15 ]. These stories could be compared to the “Star Wars Stories” that Disney has released in between installments of the new trilogy, as they seek to answer questions posed from the original works.

Rogue One answers the popular question of why the Death Star had such an easily accessible weak spot; it was intentionally put there by the designer, who opposed its creation, and Solo answers, among other things, why Han describes the Millennium Falcon as being capable of doing the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs, a unit of space measurement rather than time [ 16 ]. The Kessel Run is a storm that must be traversed in specific routes, and Solo found a (very dangerous) shortcut [ 17 ].

The reception to these films has been quite warm, and while Solo flopped so badly that it cost Disney $400-450 million, its reviews have been generally favorable, with its failure being more attributed to competition with other blockbusters like Avengers: Infinity War and Deadpool 2, which were released within weeks of the film [ 18 ]. However, it’s also possible that a full movie whose only purpose is to explain away plot holes is not a good business model after all.

The Phantom Menace is considered to this day to be one of the worst blockbusters ever released, bogged down by corny dialogue, confused plotting, and a lack of tonal focus. “Burdened by exposition and populated with stock characters, The Phantom Menace gets the Star Wars prequels off to a bumpy—albeit visually dazzling—start” [ 19 ]. Where the original film succeeded based on its adherence to a clear structure, The Phantom Menace lacked anything resembling a structure, without even a “Hero” to follow through his Journey. The magic had been lost. Perhaps it was time for someone else to take the reins?

The Sherlock Holmes fandom may have predated the Internet, and so its fan theories tend only to surface for the public through books, with perhaps the most notable source being William S. Barring-Gould’s Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street, a fictional biography of Holmes. This book fills a role that the original stories never did; while the stories all featured Sherlock Holmes, they were largely unconcerned with the man himself, and instead devoted the majority of their prose to whichever adventure was plaguing the detective at the time.

But it’s from Barring-Gould’s novel that we get Sherlock’s birthday, Jan. 6, 1861, as well as such pervasive ideas as Watson having been married three times, Sherlock having a second brother named Sherringford, and having been part of a traveling acting troupe that toured the Americas [ 20 ]. It also places Sherlock’s canonical brother Mycroft as the head of Britain’s Secret Service, which is easily mistakable for originating from Doyle’s novels [ 20 ].

As a testament to the level of seriousness that Barring-Gould meant this book to be taken, as well as how much it has taken hold of the fandom, it goes so far as to suggest that Holmes lived well into his 90s, and spent the last decade of his life fighting Nazis in World War II. It is also from this book that the romance between Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler originates, but Barring-Gould included it only as a vehicle for the popular fan theory that they were the parents of Rex Stout’s detective, Nero Wolfe [ 20 ]. Nonetheless, the book is treated as a bible for the Sherlock Holmes canon, proving that there more natural ways in which questions can be answered for Star Wars as well.

Take, for example, a fairly well-accepted theory that dates back to the original movie, which says that the Empire’s Stormtrooper army are not responsible for the murder of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru:

“Isn’t it a little weird to think that Stormtroopers did this? I get that the Empire was looking for R2-D2 and C-3PO, and that they’d be more than willing to trash someone’s home to get what they want. But what they did to Luke’s guardians seems a tad dramatic.” [ 21 ]

The theory posits that Boba Fett—who, through supplemental materials, is confirmed as having been on Tatooine when the Lars couple was killed—was the actual murderer, referring to the line where Darth Vader turns to Boba Fett and admonishes him, saying “No disintegrations.”

“Boba Fett has such a rep for disintegrations that word got all the way up to the #2 seat in the Empire,” Cooper writes. “Isn’t it a little weird to think that Stormtroopers did this? I get that the Empire was looking for R2-D2 and C-3PO, and that they’d be more than willing to trash someone’s home to get what they want. But what they did to Luke’s guardians seems a tad dramatic.” [ 21 ]. This theory was not proposed by Lucasfilm, much less confirmed, but is regarded across the fandom as fully canonical—at least, more so than midichlorians. This more natural way of filling plot holes serves to keep the fandom involved in the media they love, and often leads to more organic answers than an admissions officer naming Han “Solo” because he’s alone [ 17 ].

Speculation: How Would Holmesians Respond to The Reichenbach Fall on Social Media?

The outcry when Doyle closed the book on Sherlock Holmes in 1893 was quite tangible, enough that editors offered him obscene amounts of money to revive the character. It’s not hard to picture how fans may have responded to a stunt like that had it been pulled in the age of Twitter, Reddit, and YouTube. “Doyle has ruined Sherlock Holmes!” they might cry, or perhaps they’d release clickbait videos on “7 Clues that Sherlock Holmes is Still Alive After Reichenbach.”

They likely would tear apart “The Final Problem,” pointing out any plot hole in fits of emotion after their hero had been killed off. They might point to the twist in one of Doyle’s earlier stories, “The Five Orange Pips,” as “pandering to SJWs”—“Since when did Sherlock Holmes have to get so political?” they’d ask, forgetting that in his first ever adventure, Holmes went up against an escapee of the Mormon church.

This is not to say that there are not legitimate complaints to be had with the direction the Star Wars franchise has taken, but they go far deeper than the gut reaction to a punch in the stomach. The death of a franchise, or even just a central hero, will always be difficult to digest, but that on its own does not denote a bad film. Perhaps the revival of a franchise should not be about answering the questions that fans will answer themselves; tell a story that expands the world and feels organic to the progression of the characters, and maybe we will get the Star Wars movie we’ve been craving since 1983.


i. Composite12_DoyleLucas-fixed.jpg
“As creators of one of the largest franchise-fictions of their respective eras, both George Lucas and Arthur Conan Doyle were subject to immense pressures from public demand, which lead to so loss of ‘shine’ on the apple of their fame and success.”
b. “george-lucas-1569316199.jpg

ii. Composite13_HolmesSkywalker-fixed.jpg
“Many fans, including Mark Hamill himself, aren’t exactly thrilled by the depiction of Luke Skywalker in Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, or the sequels in general. The understandable outcry could be stated as comparable to that of Sherlock fans following Conan Doyle’s intended finale, with his sacrifice to destroy Moriarty at Reichenbach falls.”
c. “Holmes-and-Moriarty-fighting-at-Reichenbach-Falls-by-Sidney-Paget.jpg”
d. “the-last-jedi-luke-skywalker.jpg”
Source: iii. “IHateTheOldMan.gif”
“Much like Lucas’ exhaustion with his fan base following relentless criticisms of the prequel trilogy, Conan Doyle’s exasperation with his creation was well documented following the intended final story. Needless to say, fans were not pleased with either writers’ candor.”

iii. “IHateTheOldMan.gif”
“Much like Lucas’ exhaustion with his fan base following relentless criticisms of the prequel trilogy, Conan Doyle’s exasperation with his creation was well documented following the intended final story. Needless to say, fans were not pleased with either writers’ candor.”

With a BA in English from the University of Massachusetts and his service in the public library system, Marcelo Gusmão’s considerable experience has served him and this endeavor well. Since joining Steam-Funk Studios in 2018, he’s demonstrated a blend of exacting, finely honed analysis, boundless creativity and skillful interpretation, all framed by a vigorous joie de vivre for all things nerd culture. A key member of SFS’ Intermediate writing and editorial staff, he’s penned several series.


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