When the Star Wars prequel trilogy was first announced, I was as excited as anybody else. One of the the things that excited me was the idea that I would someday be a dad showing these movies to my kid(s) for the first time. I take Star Wars as mythology seriously, so I began to devise a plan for the best order to show the six Star Wars movies to a child to properly bring them into the galaxy far far away. After careful thought I decided that the best thing to do would be to show one kid the Original Trilogy (OT) first, followed by the Prequel Trilogy (PT), and then reverse that for the second kid, and compare the results. Think of it as a control kid and experiment kid. This seemed like a good plan back then. Before the dark times; before the prequels.
Part 1, The Prequel Menace
Like most Star Wars fans I began to realize, the moment Jar Jar showed up on screen, that something was wrong. The realization built to a visceral discomfort by the end of the movie; Menace was terrible. I just assumed it was a fluke, that Lucas was just off his game. Like how incumbent Presidents always bomb at the first televised debate because nobody has argued with them about anything for four years. Maybe Lucas just needed some harsh feedback from fans and critics and he would get it together for the next two. I did not yet think I needed to change my nerd parenting plans.
By the 17th of May, 2002 a day after Attack of the Clones had premiered, I realized there was a serious problem with my original plan. The prequels sucked really, really bad. The Phantom Menace had turned out not to be a fluke – Clones had been cartoonish, featured a creepy, unbelievably badly written love affair, and of course a new bad guy whose name sounded like a Sesame Street character that teaches children about pooping. My plan was ruined – show a kid the OT then the PT, and leave her with a sense of Star Wars in terrible decline. Show a kid the PT then the OT and her first impression of Star Wars will be Jar Jar fucking Binks and fireside stalker confessionals. Fuck.
Things did not improve from there. In Revenge of the Sith, Lucas turned Anakin into a whiney George W. Bush commentary, adding instant irrelevance to the already damning litany of criticisms against the PT writing. Lucas even managed to include a bit about Vader slaughtering children. Just in case the kids don’t get the horror of it when it happens, the security footage of the slaughter is shown later, and the event is discussed at least three times. My plan was ruined, my nerd parenting dreams had officially been reduced to a steaming pile of Dooku.
Part 2, A New Order
I had almost ten years to recover from the disappointment of the PT and think of a new plan for introducing my kid to Star Wars. (No, I did not delay having children in order to solve this problem first, though I could empathize with anyone who did.) Through a combination of careful thinking, inspiration from friends, and caring way too much about the topic, I discovered the optimal OT/PT viewing order. Remember this is specifically for introducing someone to Star Wars, not for repeat viewers:
Episode 4, A New Hope
Episode 5, The Empire Strikes Back
Episode 1, The Phantom Menace
Episode 2, Attack of the Clones
Episode 3, Revenge of the Sith
Episode 6, Return of the Jedi
[Episode 7, The Force Awakens]
I know: “WTF?!” You ask. Hear me out: The first Star Wars movie is the first Star Wars movie, and that is A New Hope. Nuff said. There is no reason at all not to go from there straight in to Empire. But at the end of Empire, there is an opportunity, because the kid is all “WTF Darth Vader is Luke’s daddy?” and you can say “yes he is, let’s watch a story about how that happened” and then bam, prequel trilogy time. Once the prequels have been watched (and I do recommend skipping most Anakin-Padme dialogue and all the paedocide) you say “and that’s how he became Darth Vader” and then move on to Jedi, ending on a quality Star Wars movie and an emotional high point.
Yes, with this plan, you still have to watch the prequel trilogy, but it is reduced to functioning as an Anakin backstory mini series. It’s just a 7ish hour chance to let the whole “Vader is Luke’s dad” thing sink in, before we goto Jedi. Plus, at the end of Empire, Yoda teases there is another Skywalker, and so the kid gets to learn it is Leia even before Luke does, but after all the scenes that are made awkward by this knowledge.
Of course there is the risk that, due to lack of cognitive development and taste, the child will enjoy seeing Anakin as a young child, or be fascinated by the clones, or intrigued by General Grievous, and so want to watch the prequels again. In my case, my son just really wanted to rewatch the fight with Darth Maul because of the two-sided light saber, and that’s how most of our Menace viewing has come about. He is usually okay watching just that sequence, which I appreciate a great deal.
Looking ahead, the new trilogy had already been announced, and I had hoped it would work just to add 7, 8, and 9 to the end of this order for subsequent children. Except it turns out none of this matters, anyway.
Part 3, The Franchise Awakens
During the ten years that I was focused on OT/PT viewing order, something happened: a bunch of other Star Wars stuff became available for viewing. In descending order of awesomeness:
Genndy Tartakovsky’s Clone Wars
Star Wars The Clone Wars, seasons 2-5
Star Wars Rebels
Star Wars The Clone Wars, seasons 1 and 6
Star Wars The Clone Wars, movie
Lego Star Wars: The Yoda Chronicles
It’s not all bad. Genndy Tartakovsky’s Clone Wars are unrelentingly cool. The Netflix The Clone Wars series and the new Rebels show are pretty good, with the latter passing the Bechdel-Wallace test most episodes. Both shows include the character of Ahsoka Tano, who is the best thing to happen to Star Wars since Max Rebo. (While I am open to critical feedback about this post from my fellow nerds, I warn you: Do not hate on Max Rebo.)
I left some spaces in there to make it clear that the animated Clone Wars movie and the The Yoda Chronicles are really bad. I’m not going to get into the details about The Clone Wars movie, other than to say that it is unethical to title a movie “The Clone Wars” when it is more accurately described as “Anakin and Ahsoka’s Adventures in Galactic Babysitting.” The Lego show, however, deserves at least a paragraph of context and scorn.
Lego shows and movies, with the ironic exception of The LEGO Movie, are all just ads for Lego products. With the Bionicle stuff they release a single toy line twice a year and make shows that tell the story of that year’s toys. Same thing with Ninjago. They are slight stories, but they are at least coherent narratives. With Star Wars, Lego puts out sets each year that are from the Original Trilogy, the Prequel Trilogy, and The Clone Wars. As a result The Yoda Chronicles ends up jumping all around through time and mixing and matching characters from different Star Wars movies. Young Obi Wan Kenobi hangs out with Han Solo and Chewbacca, the Chancellor/Emperor is turned into comic relief, and this mega-Sith-clone dude with a force lightning arm named Jek 14 is introduced and then woven into the entire Star Wars timeline. Jek 14 is basically all powerful, looks really cool, and has a really cool spaceship. He also shares a first name with Jek “Stay-on-Target” Porkins. And he ruined everything.
My son, who is 4 years old, still enjoys the Star Wars movies and other shows, but he frequently mentions how every single problem faced in both trilogies would be easy to handle if somebody just called Jek 14. And he is right! New Death Star nearly operational? Just have Jek use his force-lightning-Lego-control arm to turn into into a big toilet, and flush Palpatine! So funny this struggle between good and evil is!
Why am I writing about all this? Partly for catharsis, I have held in the pain of the prequels and the shared universe shows and now even the Lego show for too long. I must write to alleviate my suffering. Mostly this is about how much it strikes me to realize that, for anyone who was born after 1990 or so, Star Wars is an increasingly sprawling franchise not a mythology that has grown out of the original trilogy. Most folks writing about Star Wars on websites and in magazines might be from the OT generation, but for most people watching the new trilogy and anthology movies from Disney, Star Wars is just a big ongoing story with no particular origin. For kids around my son’s age, the Star Wars universe is now more cartoons than movies. If that changes again, it will only be because Disney is planning to release a Star Wars movie every year, indefinitely. And they aren’t even planning to do anything new with the Anthology movies (so far), they’re just going to dig around in the OT timeline and make origin stories for beloved characters. My next kid will probably think of Han Solo as a teenager (who shoots second, ugh), Anakin/Vader as a cute pod-racing kid, and think of Bobba Fett as some badass rogue clone instead of as some scoundrel that got killed by a blind prisoner in a moment of slapstick.
All the disappointment of the story and some characters losing a bit of their magic and mystery aside, the real joy is still there in sharing these stories with my son. I also take a lot of pleasure in experiencing some of the new stories together. Watching The Clone Wars series together was a real treat, and neither of us knew exactly what would happen. Rebels is remarkably good for a kids show. As for the Lego shows, they’re terrible, but the Star Wars Legos toys are totally awesome and a blast to share with the kiddo (even if Jek wins every single battle). We even have Nerf lightsabers now, which provide a much more satisfying duel than the looks-good-but-can’t-hit-anything light-up plastic lightsabers.
My unsolicited advice to my fellow nerd parents is to grieve the layer of the magic that has been lost, then accept this new reality. Introduce the movies first, do it in a good way (using my recommended order or another you like), and then just hope some of it sticks as the floodgates of the new shared universe open into your child’s imagination.
The franchise, it is calling to you. Just let it in.