“Star Wars” toy poll becomes a fan feud

toy fight.pngHow much trouble could a Star Wars action figure cause? It’s hard to believe that it could. Toy companies have been making and selling them since the ‘70s, producing everything from the main characters to the random background extras you’d have to freeze-frame to find, and anything else that’ll part fans from their money. The Powers That Be have even occasionally had polls to allow us peons to select characters we want to see recreated in plastic.

This year’s fan choice poll was held on the official Star Wars website in the weeks counting down to May the Fourth, with the options being Ahsoka Tano, the fan favorite Clone Wars character; Fives, a memorable clone trooper from Clone Wars; Saelt-Marae (Yak Face), a random background denizen of Jabba’s Palace seen for all of a few seconds in Return of the Jedi; Sim Aloo, member of the Emperor’s entourage in Return of the Jedi who was seen for all of a few less seconds than Yak Face; Emperor Sheev Palpatine himself,  who needs no further introduction; and Doctor Aphra, a supporting character in Marvel’s Darth Vader comic series and the lead of her own series Doctor Aphra.

Aphra was the final winner, managing to beat out close-second Ahsoka. Since the cheeky, self-proclaimed rogue archeologist (with dubious credentials) and outlaw technician (specializing in acquiring and fixing dangerous weaponry) is one of my favorite characters added to the franchise since Disney purchased LucasFilm and the character I’d voted for, I was happy with the results. Aphra’s creator, comic book writer Kieron Gillen, was jazzed about it too, as he was quoted in the announcement of the results. So, except for the fact that we’ll have to wait at least a year before the toy will be made and sold, it would seem like it was a good event.

Not exactly. The vote on starwars.com was only the final poll that was conducted. There were also preliminary polls on certain fan-maintained sites to come up with and narrow down the candidate list to the final six. By chance, I found out about the earlier rounds while the vote was in the final stages and, poking deeper, discovered that it had become a lightning rod for controversy within the fanbase subcultures.

To explain why, we’re going to need to hop into the DeLorean for a little trip back in time. Besides the toys, Star Wars merchandise includes tons of books, comics, video games, and other tie-ins that continued the story of the world beyond what we saw in the movies (from the ancient past to the adventures of Luke Skywalker and company for decades after Return of the Jedi), generally called the “Star Wars Expanded Universe” (EU). It ran for decades, building a generally internally consistent world and history that was ostensibly considered to be the canonical continuations of the movies.

Doctor-Aphra 2
Doctor Aphra, the winner of the poll, as seen with co-star Bee Tee in Doctor Aphra #1.

The EU enjoyed considerable success with its target audience, with a lot of good stories and new regular characters. Your’s truly built up a decent collection of EU paperbacks that he still has on his shelf. The EU continued until Disney’s acquisition of LucasFilm in 2014. As part of the plan for carrying on the Star Wars franchise, it was decided to completely reboot the EU, starting over from scratch to create a new multi-media canon to support the new movies and new directions. The EU, as it existed from 1976 to 2014, was declared “non-canon” and re-branded as “Star Wars Legends” for the purposes of reprints.

Some factions of the fanbase didn’t accept this new paradigm, with the more vocal organizing into loosely allied online groups that I’m going to collectively call the “Legends movement.” Still ongoing, their mission is to convince LucasFilm to create new Legends materials, generally through petitions, social media, and voting with their wallets. Probably the most notable of these cells within the movement is the “Give Us Legends” group , who’ve set up a non-profit orgainization, the Twin Suns Foundation, to act as a platform for their cause.

So, when the announcement of the action figure poll came, Give Us Legends helped organize their sister cells in the movement with a voting campaign. Working together, they came up with a specific character to officially support and encourage movement members and other fans to vote for during the polls: Ben Skywalker. Never heard of him? His full biography can be found here, but the short explanation is that in the Legends version of the Star Wars universe, Luke Skywalker eventually got married and had a son, named Ben after “Ben” Kenobi. The younger Ben started out as an infant in the New Jedi Order novels, eventually becoming a teenage supporting character in subsequent stories like the Legacy of the Force and Fate of the Jedi series.

Reading the “official” announcement of the Ben campaign gives me a bad feeling about the whole thing honestly. The reason given for his nomination was: “…he’s a character that Disney can’t appropriate for their reboot canon…” and “…a far better use of the name ‘Ben’ for the next generation of Star Wars.” I can understand picking a character because you want the figure on your shelf, but if the main reason comes down to that you want to use the poll to thumb your nose at the franchise, it seems to be in bad taste and violate the spirit of the event. Fan politics aside, I personally think that Ben was not that great a character in the first place and so was an uninspired choice for the campaign, at best. However, while I wouldn’t have voted for him in any of the polls on those grounds, that is subjective, and from a certain point of view on my part, not objective fact.

Either way, Ben Skywalker did not make it into the final round of votes that selected Doctor Aphra. Herein lies the controversy: some of the websites managing the initial polls reported cheating on part of the Ben campaign. For example, Jedi Temple Archives, a website devoted to Star Wars action figures, reported double-voting and argued that the Ben campaign was organizing people to vote who had no intention of actually buying the toy should it come out just to protest the reboot. Other sites, like Yak Face Forums, also reported double votes and improperly submitted votes for the character, which were not counted in the final tallies. The end result was that Ben Skywalker was eliminated before the final round.
The Legends movement and Ben campaigners lashed out at this, retorting that the websites were the ones cheating and deliberately ignoring legitimate votes out of anti-Legends sentiments or to maximize the changes of their preferred nominations to win. It got pretty vitriolic pretty quick (judging by the comments on the pages where the final vote and the announcement of the final decision where held). In fact, most Legends movement sites, Twitter feeds and social media hubs I’ve seen while researching the polls have been full of posts and memes criticizing the decision and hashtags like “#WhoReallyCheated?,” “#DeletingIsCheating,” “#DisgracedJTA,” etc. The general sentiment from the movement is that Ben Skywalker won the initial round and they were cheated by him not being in the final poll because of the selfishness of others and irrational hatred for the Legend and the Legends movement.

It’s really hard to verify anything in a he said/she said situation, but, not counting the “This is unfair!” online chatter, I have found a couple of specific sources where the Ben campaign organizers explain their side. Brian Borg, a Give Us Legends leader involved in organizing the campaign, posted a YouTube video challenging the Jedi Temple Archive’s three accusations: the improper vote, that campaigning for a character was unfair, and that only hard-core toy collectors should’ve been allowed to vote in the first place. I also found an article on Give Us Legends’ website by member and YouTuber Matt Wilkins offering additional explanation.

In regards to Borg’s video, I agree with him that campaigning in and of itself was fair. As noted before, I do question the motivations of the campaign based on how it was presented, but breaking the spirit of something is still within the letter of the law. It could’ve also just been that the announcement was poorly worded.

Star Wars Backlash cover
Ben Skywalker, as seen on the cover of the Star Wars novel Fate of the Jedi: Backlash, a title that proved prophetic given the reaction to Ben loosing the Hasboro poll.

It also goes without saying that Jedi Temple Archives is wrong that the poll should exclude casual toy collectors and other customers in favor of “hardcore” collectors only; that wasn’t part of the rules given by Hasboro, nor is it fair. I do, though, think it’s disingenuous to vote if you only want to prove a point without any intention of buying the toy in question if it wins. That goes whether you’re a Legends movement member or a die-hard fan of the current iteration of the Star Wars franchise, something that the Archive did agree with when denouncing the Ben campaign in the first place.

However, the way Borg glosses over the fact that there were improperly submitted votes is something I have a harder time getting around. While I will concede that his suggestion to rectify the problem wasn’t the worse bargain I’ve heard, it still seems to me that the voters had the responsibility to understand how the voting process worked beforehand and should’ve contacted the website admins for help if accidents happened, rather than just letting them accumulate into double votes and ballot stuffing.

It’s also worth noting that, in the minds of the people running Jedi Temple Archives, the Legends movement already had a couple strikes; in their estimation, the group had successfully cheated in the last poll by ballot stuffing for a figure of Legends character Jaina Solo (I actually legitimately voted for that character and am looking forward to it becoming available this fall). Whether it’s true that there was cheating on part of the Legends movement for Jaina, I can’t verify, but the suspicions would explain why the site admins didn’t show patience with the Ben campaign, which would’ve seemed to be superficially more of the same.

Wilkins’ article centered on the ballot-stuffing charge. Long story short, he argued that it was okay, since everyone would be doing it, anyways. Beyond the fact that I didn’t stuff ballots (I think it’s unfair, too), I don’t see how “everyone does it” is a valid reason; it’s a red herring that doesn’t actually address the question: “Was ballot-stuffing okay?” It also misses the point that the website is the one who makes those rules, and if they say that you can only vote once, then that’s how the Force works. Even if you disregard their authority in the matter, if at least one group has already made it clear that they considered ballot stuffing to be unfair in these polls in the past (the Jaina Solo incident), why would anyone be surprised that they’re not tolerating it now?

The article is also somewhat disingenuous about at least one website involved. Imperial Shipyards is grouped as one of the poll holders that “cheated” against the Legends movement and Ben campaign. In actuality, the site admins chose to forward all information to Hasboro so they could decide if Ben had legitimately won or not and had two Legends characters of their own on their final list (the website Star Wars News Net also did the same thing). The other websites grouped as hostiles in the article also reported that Ben votes were improperly submitted or had other infractions against the rules, which are charges that seem to have merit to them thanks to corroboration.

While it is theoretically possible that the Ben campaigners were indeed, as they feel, treated unfairly, as those challenging the polls results, the burden of proof falls on them. As of right now, all the answers they have offered are vague and unconvincing. To be totally candid, the situation makes the Legend movement members look like poor sports who can’t accept loss graciously. Now, it is possible that the Ben campaign wasn’t given the benefit of the doubt because of the Legends movement’s reputation as an extremely toxic part of the fanbase (that’s a whole article in and of itself, but this description of the incidents from the early days is a starting point).

It’s not fair to those members who do behave themselves in this poll and elsewhere to get painted with the same brush, but, when there’s a running pattern of bad apples, it does raise the question if there’s a rotten core at the center of the movement. No matter how you slice it, those running the polls acted within their rights to enforce their rules. Not being happy about the results of that and explaining why is okay. Lashing out and not acting one’s age while doing so isn’t and reflects badly on the cause you belong to.

It’s unfortunate that an activity designed to engage with fans, made with the best of intentions, and a toy, the main purpose of which is to bring joy to children, was hijacked by the toxic politics between general fans, toy-collecting fans, and the Legends movement. Preexisting agendas and old disagreements turned it into another front of an old fan war that’s been going on too long and corrupting organized fandom. It doesn’t do anyone any good and saps the joy out of something that’s supposed to be fun and positive. Next time one these is held, something’s got to change, whether it be the mechanics of the poll or how we the voters approach it.

So, what do you think of the poll’s results and the disagreement? Share your thoughts in the comments below (I know it’s the Internet and this had been a hot-button topic for people involved, but please keep it civil).

(Note: I am not affiliated with Hasboro, LucasFilm, any of the sites that participated in the polls, or any of the Legends movement groups. I am just someone who’s looked at public statements and online chatter and using critical thinking to examine them.)

Extra Notes:

– The illustration at the beginning of this article is a Photoshop job by yours truly, combining artwork from Star Wars #15 (reprinted in Star Wars Volume 3: Rebel Jail) and  Star Wars Tales #19 (reprinted in Star Wars Tales Volume 5), with a background from a Star Wars: The Old Republic screensaver.

– I’m sure that I’ll probably be labeled as a Legends-hater for this article. In practice, I’m a fan of Star Wars Legends (even if I think that the reboot is better) and do sympathize with the movement wanting it back (I feel the same way about Spider-Man). I don’t approve of all the methods used or the hostility to pro-Disney fans and vibes of angry entitlement. To be totally fair to Give Us Legends, I have found them to be among the more reasonable Legends movement members in general when it comes to interacting with other fans, even if I find their goals unrealistic.

– If any Legends characters are ever considered for future polls, I want to see Kerra Holt, from the Knight Errant comics, or the droid I-5YQ, from various Michael Reaves novels, get their own figures. On the other hand, now that we’re getting an Aphra toy, wouldn’t be nice to see her droid co-stars, Triple Zero and Bee Tee, get action figures as well?

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