Loud and proud sci-fi geeks
Can you remember when you first saw Star Wars?
It was a rather unusual, dare I say it ‘unique’ way of first encountering the films. It was October 1982, and it was the first time that Star Wars - A New Hope had been televised on British TV. I’d just turned 7 years old, and was visiting my mother in a psychiatric hospital. Life had dealt her a bad set of cards and she needed some time out to heal that broken spirit. Yet, I was still a kid highly aware of all things Star Wars.
When that Sunday night in October came around and I was visiting my mum, the patients around us all gathered in the smoker’s lounge to watch a TV carefully nailed into the ceiling for safety. I didn’t stay to see the whole film and later saw it properly. This is why there’s a chapter in the book called Obi-Wan Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.
When you first saw Star Wars, how did it make you feel?
Relief! Here was a set of films launched by such a pop-cultural, 20th Century-defining classic that saw me - a bit like all first times - just glad to have broken that movie cherry at long last. This was a time before the internet, Netflix, movie downloads, YouTube, and even home video. It was a massive event to see these films.
I finally saw A New Hope when a school-friend’s dad let us watch a video copy he had. The film appealed in many, many ways. Not only was it a beautifully mounted piece of escapist cinema with game-changing FX, storytelling, characterisation, design, and branding, it was also aligned to our toys, our lunch boxes, our weekend play, our lunchtime games, and our bedroom walls.
Before an era of social media and shared viral posts, at that time this was the movie equivalent - participation in a massive global event. That was what appealed - that universal sense of sharing the language of a movie with more than just whoever was in your lounge at the time.
As a gay kid watching Star Wars, were you conscious that your response to the film was different to that of other boys?
All our responses - the elements and tics we latch onto - no doubt differed whichever later sexuality we would grow into. I do recall noting how Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia would always seem to have more costume change moments than the boys, and it did give me a lasting love of mop-haired young men.
The later observations then go through that queer prism - C-3PO is a screaming queen, R2-D2 his put upon house-boy, the Emperor Palpatine is some old West End Wendy, twinky Anakin Skywalker is all hot, topless and bothered, and after 2018’s Solo, now Lando Calrissian is meant to be into everyone! Don’t get me started on Han Solo and his bromance with his hairy co-pilot wearing only a leather harness.
Did you have a crush on any of the characters in Star Wars?
I remember being fascinated by Luke Skywalker and his 1977 moisture farm-boy robes and that hint of flesh at the neck. But it was always more about wanting to hang out with him, rather than any carnal urges - they came later with Christopher Reeve and Superman.
When 1980 Luke is injured at the launch of The Empire Strikes Back, and has to fully soak in only his skimpies in a glass recovery tank, I do remember my older self pausing the VHS button to take that moment properly in. As an adult now looking back at that 1980 sequel - my younger self totally missed how damn hot Harrison Ford was in that movie!
Why do you think Star Wars has stayed with you as an important cultural touch-point?
It was my generation’s pop-culture touchstone - the movie trilogy that was all around us even if we hadn’t seen the first three films in order, or even at all.
Star Wars was one of the biggest cultural moments of the 20th century. It rewrote the language of film production, it changed the grammar of film exhibition and how movies were presented theatrically, it was a major player in the emancipation of the movies from the theatrical to the rental and then the retail that allowed these films into our homes forever more. The toys created a domestic folklore and vital revenue that reinforced George Lucas’s attempts to be independent from the ailing Hollywood studio hierarchies, and the saga nurtured a substantial sense of fan ownership that’s ever-growing to this very day.
How do you feel about the prequels and sequels that have been released over the years?
What we’ve seen so far is three very different waves of cinema and three very different cycles of movies, that form a greater whole whilst being totally indicative of their times. The prequels always had their work cut out. Whilst the earlier pitched tale of a young Darth Vader was always going to be an enticing prospect, the ultimate story outcome was known to anyone who saw the original trilogy of movies. It’s like a prequel to Titanic - whatever happens and can be expounded along the way, we are still aiming at that iceberg.
As my book explores, Lucas was then in the precarious position of adding grammar to sentences that were already written. They have their problems and issues. But the easy insistence of dismissing them is wrong. Without the Star Wars prequels and the interest and commerce they generated, there would be no new Star Wars sequels and sidebar movies.
As many kids got into Star Wars through the prequels and its spin-off merchandising world as they did famously queue in those black and white movie lines during the summer of 1977 in the US.
What is it about science fiction such as Star Wars that brings out the Gay Geek in all of us?
It’s fascinating. A lot of factors are at gay play here. Science-fiction doesn’t automatically need or perpetuate all the hetero-biased staples that other film genres slip way too easily into. There are less straight couples getting together in sci-fi. It’s rarely about that. So, immediately there is less straight-washing alienating LGBTQ audiences.
Close Encounters is about the human spirit, not ones of sexuality or even gender. Sci-fi tends to also celebrate the individual and the different. In a franchise like Star Wars, the episodes are littered with sole eccentrics and outsiders. One reading of A New Hope is that it’s about a bunch of disparate outsiders banding together to rescue Debbie Reynolds daughter from the clutches of a band of fetish-wear fascists in masks. While it’s not really that gay, it all holds a certain degree of camp.
Science fiction needs a sense of production - a creative and visual statement that one could argue is not that far from a lot of queer sensibilities and fascination in artistry, expression, colour and design. Sexuality is often low down on the priorities of a sci-fi movie. Its titles and storytelling has often moved way beyond marginalising people or creatures because of their sexuality. That is majorly enticing for gay audiences.
Also, if you’re the quiet little gay kid at school with less confidence to think about your gay future as I very much was, the social currency of a film like Star Wars gives you connections to others that isn’t hinged on ‘which girl do you fancy?’ and ‘what position do you play in football?’. Sci-fi celebrates the outsider. Sci-fi is often about outsiders being let in. Whether it all goes narratively wrong or not matters less when you’re a gay kid presented with universes where differences are fascinating, celebrated and narratively necessary.
The LGBTQ sci-fi communities were always part of the subcultures for a lot of queer folk. Look at the gay following of Doctor Who - a show which is going strong because a gay man, Russell T. Davies, trusted its renewal for new audiences. One of the great things about Star Wars today is its wealth of fan communities in a social media age. Suddenly, gay geeks are at the forefront of that because we always were. We’re in the age of the loud and proud social media geek.