Open Letter to Star Wars Fans by the Duncans
|Title:||Open Letter to Star Wars Fans by the Duncans|
|From:||Tracy Duncan & Nancy Duncan|
|Topic:||The Empire Strikes Back|
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Open Letter to Star Wars Fans by the Duncans refers to a nine-page letter written in May 1980 by Tracy Duncan and her sister Nancy Duncan (editors of the popular zine Against the Sith) very shortly after seeing the movie The Empire Strikes Back for the first time. They followed this open letter with a one-page retraction a few weeks later.
This letter most likely added to the strained relations between George Lucas and fans and was one more marker on the road to Lucas' crackdown on fan fiction. See Open Letter to Star Wars Zine Publishers by Maureen Garrett.
The original Duncan letter stated their intense dislike of the film. The Duncans disagreed with the characterizations of Luke, Han, and Leia and were angry about some of the movie's plot. They asked fans to boycott the movie and demanded that George Lucas destroy all copies of the film. 
The Duncans' retraction and apparent change-of-mind is reflected in an interview in a mainstream newspaper published in mid-July 1980,  less than two months after sending the first letter. In it, Nancy and Tracy admit they'd seen the movie many times and suggested to the interviewer that one shouldn't compare the first film with the second as they were two very different movies. Their change in mind may have happened organically, but at least one fan writes in Alderaan #12 that the Duncans had gotten themselves in some legal hot water with The Powers That Be regarding potentially libelous statements, something that may have added some backpedaling to their public commments. In any case, they published only one more issue of Against the Sith, publishing it in October 1980. There is nothing in that last issue to indicate that issue #9 was their last issue, and it appears that they fully intended to publish another issue as per a questionnaire they dispersed to fans, one with a note saying the results would be presented in issue #10. In January 1981, however, the Duncans sent another open letter to fans, explaining their decision to cease publication of Against the Sith. See ...it has become increasingly clear to us that we cannot continue publishing a fanzine for a movie in which we find so little to recommend.
In April 1981, Nancy wrote a letter to Alderaan scolding fans a bit, telling them that they shouldn't be afraid of controversy and of strong opinions, and that she considered her and her sister's zine to be a sort of fandom watchdog. 
Reactions and ReviewsAfter fans had received the letter/s, the editors of Alderaan asked for their readers' comments on this affair. The editors then wrote that they wouldn't publish the letters, as they were too uncivil:
Another comment:We have received quite a few comments in response to an open letter by Nancy and Tracy Duncan following the opening of Empire. Not many of the letters, however, were printable. While we don't wish to exclude any subjects from the pages of Alderaan, we do want to keep the discussions civil. If you have any comment in the issues raised, we'll consider including thoughtful and diplomatic letters. We can provide copies of the original Duncan letter and their retraction for $1.00 plus 28c postage... 
A fan comments:And finally a word in defense of Tracy and Nancy Duncan. Like many, I got their open letter about TESB and their retraction a couple of weeks later. I also got to talk to Tracy and Nancy personally. Tracy and Nancy came to Portland for a one-day SF festival featuring Peter Mayhew and later to see TESB... [this fan mentions that Mount St. Helens had erupted a day or so earlier, a datestamp]... We had a chance to discuss their open letter. The Duncans were at the opening of TESB in Eugene... [the letter writer writes that when the Duncans first saw the film, the theatre had multitude of technical problems, including the film reels being shown in the wrong order]... Do you know what Tracy and Nancy saw? In the final battle scene, Luke has just lost his lightsabre and has been backed into a hole in the center of the carbon freezing chamber and Darth Vader has just pulled the switch. Suddenly, Luke is walking down a dark hallway with his lightsabre when suddenly Darth Vader pops out of nowhere (he must have been holding his breath in that scene) and attacks. Wouldn't that ruin the film for you too? The loss of those critical moments in the final scenes of the movie made Luke look like he didn't know one end of his sabre from the other and for Tracy and Nancy, both dedicated Luke fans, that was devastating. Their reaction was strong, perhaps a bit too strong, but quite understandable considering the circumstances. I can't fault Tracy and Nancy for their open letter but rather place the blame for the whole incident on the shoulders of some unknown Imperial projectionist in Eugene. May the whole affair rest in peace. 
A fan writes:A good example of knowing what to put into print and what not to is the Duncan diatribe. If they didn't like Empire, it could have [been] stated succinctly in a few paragraphs. Instead, they chose to take nine pages of print to say it, quite virulently at points, and even linking the volcanic eruption in Washington  to Empire. A simple statement — I didn't like Luke losing his hand; I wanted Luke to get Leia, not Han to get her; I don't agree at all with Vader as Luke's father; etc. — would have sufficed. It is unfortunate that they did not do so. The contents of the original narrative would have been fine if they had wished to send it as a personal letter to people. But they printed it up and sent it to a large group of people. With the statements made within it, I consider it to be libelous. The one page retraction was nice to receive, but it can't erase what rage they incurred to themselves and fandom. Hopefully, a lesson can be learned for all this... people must think before putting something down in print. Fanzines don't have lawyers to protect them like newspapers do. 
And from someone else:This business with Nancy and Tracy was really something, wasn't it? No sooner did the letter arrive than I got the retraction. I don't quite understand why those few minutes should change their view of the whole film — [they] misread just about everything, in my opinion. I especially didn't like the way they came down on Han. I suppose you have guessed by now that I'm a raving Solo-maniac! 
This fan writes:In regards to the Duncan letter: Well, we've always known that fandom is nothing if not a refuge for strange people. We're all a little off if you look at us through mundane eyes. I ignored the Duncan's letter because I didn't feel that it deserved the effort of a reply and the retraction just made me smile. However, it seems to have galvanized some factions of fandom into action. The hobby of the summer seemed to have become "how to write the nastiest letter possible to the Duncans." Ugh, not my idea of a hobby. I understand that they are already in trouble with Lucas over their demands that fans boycott Empire, so they really don't need anymore hassle. This is not the first time I've seen this sort of crap. Sharon Emily is still being hassled by anonymous letters complete with threats and her only crime was to write stories that some folks didn't like. I hate seeing what fandom is turning into. If we don't watch it, we'll end up with a bunch of back-biting megalomaniacs whose idea of having a good time is to torment someone. Have we that many friends in the "outside world" that we can afford to slit each other's throats in the one refuge we have? 
From another fan, this one in Scoundrel:No comment on the Duncan letter, except to say that while criticism of Lucas's work is not libelous, they went far beyond criticizing the work in their long letter and cast aspersions on the man's morals and character, and that ia libelous. Aside from amusement, my first reaction to receiving their letter was incredulity that anyone would leave herself so open to a libel suit. It's true that Lucasfilm could not have shut down fandom as a result, but they could well have cracked down on fanzines; and while it may turn out that Judith Gran is correct and fanzines are really a fair use under the new copyright law, how many fans have the time and money to take on Lucasfilm? There's an old saying: don't bite the hand that feeds you. This is purely aside from ethical issues involved in libeling someone else; it constantly amazes me that the people most concerned with "morality" are often most likely to resort to unethical means to preserve it. 
From another fan, this one five years later:One of the problems I see in the continuing evolution of fan stories has been the fact that many fans placed both Luke and Han in assigned boxes with A New Hope and never realized that the characters had already surpassed those boundaries by the end of that film. Then when Empire came along and ail the relationships had continued to grow in the space between the films, many fans were locked into given interpretations and got all shook up. Now, nobody says one can't continue writing a given universe. Nowakowska has done so with apparent success. The Continuator folks seem to be giving it the old college try. But I'm thinking of that famous flap with the Duncans in which they tried to tell George Lucas he couldn't do what he wanted with his characters because, in essence, they thought he'd trashed Luke and made Han something he shouldn't be (this after Empire). As I've said before, I think, maybe they were right. But also, maybe they left the game before the final whistle. 
I do agree with Mickey that major difference between then and now is that the various waves of dogmatism faded more quickly in earlier days, which brings up another bit of history. There's been a lot of mention recently about The Duncans of Oregon, a lot of comparison between their absorption with Luke and the current emphasis on Han. There has also been a certain amount of excuses made for current Han dogmatism through an alleged Duncan precedent. I'm going to stick my neck out and protest the revisionism I see developing. I'm open to discussion on the matter if anyone out there is interested; I think the newer fans need as clear a view on what happened as possible.
For those who weren't around then, the Duncans published AGAINST THE SITH, early in 1978, a zine that vies with SKYWALKER (Bev Clark, ed.) for being the first major SW zine (I've never gotten the chronology straight). ATS published for about 3 years, and was Very Conservative in its outlook. Luke was openly deified, Leia was criticized for her liberation, Han was Not Approved Of. Many of the stories and articles and LoCs they wrote provided liberal fandom with hours of entertainment/indignation; but they did. have their following, and they did introduce to fandom a lot of people still around. I knew them, in a fannishly social sense; they were naive, parochial, and young. But their "sin" was not in promoting Luke as Christ. What turned fandom on the Duncans with a vengeance was their post TESB letter to fan ed's, and to Lucasfilm, demanding that TESB be burned, that fans boycott the film, that fandom agree with them, in their insinuation that Lucas was a servant of Satan. Fandom was furious with this letter, I remember hours spent on the phone with people across the country, discussing the issue (trying to explain backwoods Oregon mores and social perceptions to anyone outside the Northwest is not easy, believe me. Apologies to any Oregonians out there, but you gotta admit, the NW does have its share of Strange People and Places). Anyway. Fans wrote LF protesting the Duncans, defending their image. Fans wrote the Duncans protesting.,.you can imagine -- Some of the letters were pips.Not long after this, the Our Intolerance and self-righteousness are what felled them, though, not their opinions of Luke, Han or anyone else. And all this happened 5 years ago. I personally do not think that the Duncan scandal is legitimate ground for the current debate over whe ther Han fans should feel the need to defend their favorite against Luke fans. Especially not when the only issue remotely resembling the absolutism of the Duncans is the dogmatic way some people are (and have been for issue after issue after issue of letterzines) presenting Han. 
- "The Duncans of 'Against the Sith' [were] a major subset of discussion after they circulated a long letter to fanzine editors, demanding a boycott of TESB and the destruction of the film by Lucas." Southern Enclave Issue #22 pdf, page 47
- "And finally a word in defense of Tracy and Nancy Duncan. Like many, I got their open letter about TESB [best guess: very late May, early June] and their retraction a couple of weeks later. I also got to talk to Tracy and Nancy personally. Tracy and Nancy came to Portland for a one-day SF festival featuring Pater Meyhew and later to see TESB... [this fan mentions that Mount St. Helens had erupted a day or so earlier, a datestamp]... We had a chance to discuss their open letter. The Duncans were at the opening of TESB in Eugene... [the letter writer writes that when the Duncans first saw the film, the theatre had multitude of technical problems, including the film reels being shown in the wrong order]... Do you know what Tracy and Nancy saw? In the final battle scene, Luke has just lost his lightsabre and has been backed into a hole in the center of the carbon freezing chamber and Darth Vader has just pulled the switch. Suddenly, Luke is walking down a dark hallway with his lightsabre when suddenly Darth Vader pops out of nowhere (he must have been holding his breath in that scene) and attacks. Wouldn't that ruin the film for you too? The loss of those critical moments in the final scenes of the movie made Luke look like he didn't know one end of his sabre from the other and for Tracy and Nancy, both dedicated Luke fans, that was devastating. Their reaction was strong, perhaps a bit too strong, but quite understandable considering the circumstances. I can't fault Tracy and Nancy for their open letter but rather place the blame for the whole incident on the shoulders of some unknown. Imperial projectionist in Eugene. May the whole affair rest in peace." -- from a fan in Alderaan #11
- For some excerpts from this newspaper article, see Against the Sith.
- from Alderaan #11
- from Alderaan #9
- from a fan in Alderaan #11
- Mount St. Helens had erupted a day or so before the film's debut
- from Alderaan #11
- from Alderaan #12
- from Alderaan #12
- from Alderaan #14
- from Scoundrel #7
- from Southern Enclave #9