Today is May 4th, for anyone who is part of the Star Wars fandom, a date of significance, celebration and an opportunity to transport yourself to a galaxy far, far away and re-engage with the franchise. The day has been celebrated through media and grassroots celebrations since it all began in 1977 and more recently in 2013 when Star Wars Day was recognised as an official celebration by Walt Disney Studios.
The occasion originated from the pun ‘May the Fourth be with you’ a variation on the phrase “May the Force be with you” which was first uttered by General Dodonna in the 1977 film Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, as Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Princess Leia prepared for battle on the Death Star. This catchphrase has been repeated by characters in subsequent films as a way of wishing another person a safe journey / good fortune against the dark side. Today it is without a doubt one of the most iconic lines in cinematic history.
At the South Coast Centre of Excellence, we are joining the celebrations today which in the past have included astronauts on the International Space Station watching Star Wars, fans constructing giant Star Wars Lego and of course cosplay, by speaking with Professor Lincoln Geraghty of the University of Portsmouth. A self confessed geek, whose own research covers nostalgia, fandom and science fiction, Lincoln joined us to explain the importance of May 4th, how Star Wars has contributed to space sector ambitions – and the best ways to celebrate
Who are you? What do you do?
I am Professor Lincoln Geraghty, Professor of Media Cultures in the School of Film, Media and Communications, in the Faculty of Creative and Cultural Industries (CCI) at the University of Portsmouth.
I have been teaching and researching at the University of Portsmouth since 2004. My research interests are almost entirely based in the realms of popular culture, looking at the big Hollywood multimedia franchises, like Star Wars and Star Trek. But also anything in the related fields of science fiction and fantasy.
To give you an example, my PhD thesis many moons ago was looking at Star Trek fans and how they relate and talk about the series through nostalgic lenses. Over the years I have looked at other popular franchises and fan connections. My last book explored the collecting practices of fans, the objects fan’s value and how they get interested in merchandise or action figures, or props and memorabilia and how that circulates within the fan community creating cultural value and economic value.
Most recently with some colleagues and researchers from this and other universities, I did some primary research at the Star Wars Celebration Convention at the London Excel which asked fans what they love about Star Wars. And what it is that makes them come back to it time and time again.
I am also exploring the trans-media franchise – how Star Wars (and other franchises) span film, television, games, comic books – and how that narrative that we are very familiar with, spills out into all those areas and connects a community.
All this allows me to teach on the BA Film and Media Degrees at the University of Portsmouth where I teach a module on fan cultures, a module on trans-media strategies – using Star Wars as a case-study! As you can see this all works on multiple levels, the academic, the research but also getting students to think about how storytelling works in the modern digital era and how franchises work in 21st Century media industries. It’s all because I am a geek really – I got into it because I loved this stuff growing up!
Is May 4th important to you? Why do you enjoy Star Wars so much?
Yes – I do love Star Wars – but for me, it’s important to remember to draw the line between hobby, love and academic interest. That was often my feedback whilst completing my PhD, where and how do you come at this work with a critical eye? But also how do you build on your insider knowledge as a fan to understand how fan’s work / how they tick! That is always a balancing act that I have to perform.
A lot of academics and colleagues working on this area from other institutions – they are clearly geeks, they love this stuff, this is how they got into the field BUT they are constantly challenging those objective/subjective boundaries – and indeed in the fan studies arena – there is a whole a term for us Acafan – an academic who also identifies as a fan. You are in the community – so you have the knowledge from inside the community but you also have to position yourself outside it as an objective observer too.
How does a love of science fiction inform your research?
Growing up; watching Star Wars, my formative memories are of watching the Empire Strikes Back when it was in the cinema for the first time. I spent my time watching that alongside other iconic Sci-Fi like Spielberg driven movies (ET) or Back to the Future. And ever since then those worlds and science fiction as a storytelling possibility have been fascinating to me. The possibility of these worlds being endless, that is what truly draws the fans (and me!) into it. These worlds are built on screen, but they do not end there. You can then go off and create your own alternative endings or additions to the narratives.
To reiterate – science fiction is so expansive – anything is possible, aliens, time travel, any technology, parallel worlds and universes, there are no boundaries to the story telling potential. Obviously the creators know this – but so do the fans, who are able to create their own material that is equally valued within the community as that of the studios. And it is this interest in fans and sci-fi that is a lynchpin in my research.
How will you be celebrating on May 4th?
I will be lecturing on Star Wars – very apt on May the fourth! I will also treat myself to a Lego-set or two despite the fact my collection is growing far beyond what I can display in my house. For me, I have recently reignited my interest in the Clone Wars on Disney+ so will spend some time re-orienting myself with Star Wars.
Star Wars is always there in the background but I suppose moments when I am not researching it and when I need a bit of a pick me up or a bit of enthusiasm – that’s when I will take the opportunity to dive back into it, read one of the novels or catch up on a film. To refresh myself and re-engage with the universe.
What can Star Wars teach us?
There are many, many ways to answer this. Science fiction has a great sort of knack of offering insight into real life, into social issues and how we relate and live with each other as a society. Star Wars has many messages, for example to go back to the Clone Wars – they begin with philosophical messages, about getting to know yourself better, or relating to other people, or understanding how emotions work in culture.
Stories like Star Wars can teach us how to be better people, the thread throughout the major movies is all about learning to deal with life. It provides inspiration and examples of challenges that you can overcome, messages of team-work, collaboration – how to take inspiration from mentors – all important life messages.
As well, of course, as the learning you can get from some of the obviously symbolic and heroic characters – who are great examples of good, and who provide inspiration on a daily basis about dealing with life’s problems and not turning to the dark side, not letting the negative overwhelm you.
Do you think Star Wars has contributed to space sector ambitions?
Of course – it has set an aspirational blue-print, a lot of people think back (for good or ill) to how Star Wars inspired Ronald Regan’s space race, to populate our galaxy and solar system with great bits of technology (unfortunately often used for war, or surveillance rather than progressing the human race).
Again it’s those stories that we have on the big screen, the small screen or read in books that provide the inspiration for people to say ‘what if we can go to another planet’ or ‘what if we create technology that can see into another galaxy millions of lightyears away’.
All the Mars Rover programmes and what is happening right now – is inspired by those visions of interplanetary space travel in media like Star Wars. The reality is not as slick and as celestial as the Star Wars vision – at the moment it’s just a remote control car on a very bleak looking planet. But I think the grassroots of inspiration are there, pushing people forward – and that is the exploration spirit – the true spirit of enterprise that gets people thinking about what is possible. How science and human ingenuity help us get there and achieve it!