In the summer of 1977, there was only Star Wars. No "Episode IV." No "A New Hope." Just Star Wars. That talk started when the greatly anticipated sequel was released as Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. This provoked discussion in fan circles. Assuming that Star Wars was "Episode I," were three chapters missing? Would we ever see "Episodes II", "III", and "IV"? Lucas cleared up the matter in 1981, when Star Wars was re-released as Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.
Somewhere along the way, Lucas gave an interview (or possibly more than one) in which he indicated that the entire Star Wars saga would be comprised of three trilogies. He intended to make all nine films, with "Episodes I"-"III" coming out after "Episode VI", then "VII"-"IX" in the future. Fan speculation was that Lucas would maintain the pace he set for the original trilogy. Using that schedule, the prequel trilogy would be released in 1986/1989/1992 and the sequel trilogy would be released in 1995/1998/2001. 2001 seemed to be an appealing date to end Star Wars given its importance in science fiction circles. Of course, none of that happened.
After Return of the Jedi, Lucas claimed to be burned out. He was not in a good place, either personally or professionally. Fans suspected he just "needed a break" but, as the years went by, there was growing doubt that there would ever be another Star Wars film. By 1990, the concept of a "prequel trilogy" seemed dead and many believed the only way we would see an "Episode I" or "Episode VII" was if Lucas sold the rights to the property, something he was unwilling to do. So Star Wars fans waited as the product remained on hiatus. This wasn't a new experience for devotees of a sci-fi franchise. Star Trek aficionados endured a long, cold winter from 1969 until 1979. Similarly, "Whovians" endured two long spans without Doctor Who: 1989 through 1996 and 1996 through 2005.
Then, somewhere around 1993 when he saw a pre-release cut of his good buddy Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park, Lucas again caught the filmmaking bug. He came to the realization that it was now possible to do with special effects what he had only been able to imagine when making "Episodes IV"-"VI". His first decision was to "enhance" the original trilogy with new effects, replacing some of the "clunkiest" elements (that most likely bothered only him). After that, he would move onto new material, specifically "Episodes I"-"III". There was bad news to go along with the good, however. Shortly after announcing that he would be making the prequels, Lucas torpedoed hopes that he would proceed from "Episode III" to "Episode VII". He made it abundantly clear that the entire Star Wars series would be six films only. He had repurposed the saga to make it the story of Anakin Skywalker and, since Anakin died at the end of "Episode VI", there seemed little point going beyond that.
It's unnecessary to rehash the reception of The Phantom Menace by the general movie-going populace and the die-hard fans who had been waiting more than 15 years for something that, in the opinions of some, was closer to The Star Wars Holiday Special than A New Hope. Lucas' reputation took a beating. He was transformed almost overnight from a godlike figure into a focal point of anger and derision. The phrase "George Lucas raped my childhood" was not first uttered until the late '90s when Lucas announced his decision to "retire" the non-enhanced version of the original trilogy in tandem with delivering a movie that failed to overwhelm fandom.
The root problem with "Episodes I"-"III" is their status as prequels. While (circa 1999) there was some curiosity about seeing how Anakin became Darth Vader, there's something inherently anticlimactic about watching a story unfold when you know not only the ending but some of the sign posts along the way. "Episodes I"-"III" felt superfluous. Now that they're out and can be watched in a larger context, they have greater value, but it still feels like a waste of money and energy getting them out when we could have had "Episodes VII"-"IX" instead. The prequels were more important to Lucas but, if you asked most fans, they would have preferred to see the story continued rather than have the history "brought to life."
From 2005 until early 2012, Lucas' position regarding a potential "Episode VII" was consistent and unambiguous: it wasn't going to happen. His future plans for Star Wars included 3-D reworking of both trilogies and a TV series set during the time period between "Episodes III" and "IV". But there would be nothing post-Return of the Jedi. That was it. At one point, Lucas' overall Star Wars vision might have included a universe in which Luke Skywalker was an old man, but that was no longer the case. Luke, in Lucas' new vision, was a supporting character, not the lead. Kind of a blow to those of us who identified with the fresh-faced would-be Jedi in 1977.
Most people believed there would be an "Episode VII"… eventually. The definition of "eventually" was after Lucas had died and his heir(s) had decided to sell the rights. Probably around 2040. That would make most of the original Star Wars fans in their 70s. But some time between Lucas' latest refutation of a sequel in February - "The dogfights in Red Tails are the closest anyone will get to 'Episode VII'" - and a clandestine August meeting with Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill, something changed. We'll probably never learn what, but Lucas decided not only to move forward with "Episode VII", but to allow that story to be told by someone else.
It remains a mystery why Lucas sold Lucasfilm to Disney. Circumstances suggest one of two possibilities. It may be that Lucas, worn down by the griping and demonizing by so-called "fans," simply grew weary of anything and everything related to Star Wars and decided to divest himself of it so he could live his silver years in relative peace. Or it's possible that he understood the hunger for more Star Wars and, unable or unwilling to fulfill it, he sold the property to a studio that could do so. Like a beloved pet that had become too big for its cage, he gave it away to what he believes to be a good new home.
Whatever happens with Star Wars, we won't have George to thrash for it. The divestiture is apparently complete, although he will receive a "consultant" credit on "Episode VII" and has had some input into the story. His involvement in "Episode VII" will be akin to that of Gene Roddenberry in the post-Star Trek: The Motion Picture movies: minimal. With "Episode VII", Star Wars ceases to be synonymous with George Lucas. Disney paid $4B for the ability to break that equation. No one doubts that, upon the release of "Episode VII", George will be making the rounds saying all the right things (that's another thing $4B buys you), but for the first time he'll be talking about someone else's Star Wars, not his own.
Not much is known about the content of "Episode VII" at this time. It won't be based on any of the post-Return of the Jedi novels; this will be a new story. It's likely that Luke, Leia, and Han will be involved in one way or another - either as leads or as familiar "old faces" that pop up at celebrated moments. Disney will be attempting to do two things with "Episode VII" - repair bridges with the Star Wars fans who broke with Lucas over the prequels and widen the franchise's audience. It's possible those two goals are mutually exclusive, although both Star Trek and Doctor Who have managed it with at least some success. The difficulty is making Star Wars serious and reverent enough to pacify the Old Guard while making it lively and energetic enough to satisfy Disney's primary target demographic: kids. As much as Disney might want to "honor" the legacy of Star Wars, they're going to be more interested in attracting 8-year olds than 48-year olds. That's the blunt and brutal truth and expectations about "Episode VII" must be tempered by it. It has been a long time since Star Wars was more about the movies than collateral business interests.
I admit to being intrigued by what "Episode VII" might offer. Those of us who rely solely on the movie screen for Star Wars have been waiting 30 years to learn what happens next. But a note of caution should be sounded. Expectations can be a bitch. Expect too much in a case like this and disappointment isn't just likely, it's guaranteed. The closer we get to summer 2015, the more people will talk about it, blog about it, and try to uncover exclusive spoilers. But as those of us who were around in the run-up to The Phantom Menace in 1999 will recall (that's just about anyone who has graduated high school), there's an old maxim that applies: Be careful what you wish for, you may get it.