The much publicized upcoming Cinemax Star Wars marathon got me thinking about the optimal viewing order for the Star Wars saga. The logical approach is to view the movies in episodic order (which is how Cinemax plans to air it). But I'm not so certain that this is the best way to watch Star Wars.

What follows is a rundown on the only four *viable* ways to view the Star Wars saga that I can think of. Sure there are other viewing orders, but these are the only ones that make sense from the standpoint of storytelling and continuity.

Here goes:

Method 1: By Order of Episode

This approach is clearly the viewing order intended by George Lucas. Quite simply, you watch the movies by episode number starting from Episode I: The Phantom Menace and Finishing with Episode VI: Return of the Jedi.

Why it works: This approach provides a strong high-level story arc centered on the rise, fall and redemption of Darth Vader. You essentially move chronologically through his life from childhood all the way to his death and final redemption by his children. You also get the added benefit of nicely spaced emotionally wrenching episodes (3 and 5) contrasted with the more emotionally upbeat episodes 4 and 6.

Where it fails: The biggest problem with this approach is not in plot continuity but with cinematic continuity. Since Lucas wrote and directed the original saga (episodes IV-VI) a good two decades before the Prequels (episodes I-III), there's a jarring shift in the quality of special effects, set design and dramatic pacing between the two trilogies. No where is this more pronounced than between culmination of the Prequels, The Return of the Sith and the film that started it all the original Star Wars: A New Hope. Watching the lightsaber duels from Episode IV after coming off of Episode III is beyond jarring. It's almost as if the entire universe went stupid between the two films. Jedis got lamer, spaceshipts got lamer...everyone got kinda...um...lame. Sure you can pass some of it off on the fact that these are "dark times" and that the heyday of the Jedi had long passed, but comon' that argument can only take you so far.

In addition, there are some key plot surprises from the Original Trilogy that are completely ruined by the Prequels. The biggest of them being the revelation that Darth Vader is Luke's father. But other nifty twists also get lost in this viewing order, like the moment when we realize that this little green toad living on Dagobah is, in fact, Yoda the "great Jedi warrior" or that Leia is Luke's long-lost twin. The episodic viewing order all but renders these details meaningless to those watching the saga for the first time.

Verdict: This is a viable viewing order, but not my favorite. The special effects and cinematic pacing continuity problems are significant enough that I cannot recommend this as the best method for watching the Star Wars saga. In particular, I would avoid this viewing order for Star Wars n00bs. Grade? B+

Method 2: Chronological Order

This viewing order is another popular one where the films are viewed in chronological order in which they were made and released. So one would begin with the Original Trilogy (episodes IV-VI), watch those episodes in order and then jump to the Prequels (episodes I-III). The variation to this method by the more cynical long-time Star Wars enthusiasts is to watch the Original Trilogy and just bypass the Prequels altogether - but we won't get into that heated debate here ;-)

Why it works: This approach eliminates most of the problems that crop up with the episodic viewing order. Since you begin with the oldest of the episodes filmed, the technological transitions are much more natural. The slow lightsaber duels and less complex space battles give way to increasingly rich effects and more acrobatically choreographic fight sequences. Additionally, all the great dramatic twists (the Vader-Luke-Leia connection included) are preserved.

Where it fails: The biggest problem with this viewing order is that the celebratory conclusion to the Star Wars saga lands smack dab in the middle of the marathon (with Episode VI) and instead of ending on a high-note, with the end of the evil Empire, you end with the death of Padme and the fall of Anakin Skywalker/birth of Darth Vader.

The Verdict: As someone who grew up with Star Wars as a kid, this viewing order has a strong nostalgic pull to it. But the fact that the saga - if viewed in this fashion - ends on such a low, low note with Episode III makes it difficult for me to recommend it to everyone. For long-time Star Wars fans with a strong nostalgic bent, this is the way to go. For everyone else, I'd pass on watching the saga this way. Grade: B

Method 3: The Prequels as Flashback

This viewing order is really interesting. You begin with the Original Trilogy and watch Episode IV, 'A New Hope' followed by Episode V, 'The Empire Strikes Back'. But instead of watching Return of the Jedi, you hold off and instead watch the three Prequels. Only after you have finished the prequels do you watch Return of the Jedi to cap off your marathon.

Why it works: This approach tries to reconcile the biggest problems with the chronological and episodic viewing orders: plot and cinematic continuity. The oldest episodes are placed first in the viewing order while the newer episodes are nested in the middle. The climactic finale provided by Episode VI, however, is still retained. Additionally, some of the key dramatic twists are still preserved such as the surprise revelation in Empire Strikes Back about Luke's parentage. The prequel is preceded by a nice cliffhanger from episode V and episode III also serves as a nice cliffhanger before the final culmination of episode VI. The special effects continuity is mostly contained since episodes IV and V have the most dated appearance (episode VI holds up relatively well against the space battles from the Prequels).

Where it fails: In this viewing order the Prequels represent a flashback. This device might be a bit confusing to some viewers. The fact that the flashback is not a short sequence but a full-extended trilogy might also present some problems. One workaround would be to skip Episode I entirely so that the flashback only lasts for two films.

The verdict: I must admit, I have a soft-spot for this viewing order. In many ways it makes the most sense for both long-time fans as well as newcomers. Also, if the 3-episode "flashback" is overwhelming it seems like it would be relatively easy to drop epsides I and even II entirely. The most abridged version therefore being IV-V-III-VI. I particularly like the fact that the Darth Vader as father and Yoda as warrior twists are preserved AND we still get the fantastic finish from Return of the Jedi. Grade: A

Method 4: Alternating Trilogies

This is the final *viable* viewing order, imho. This approach has you alternating between the Prequel and Original Trilogies starting with Episode I. So the viewing order would be: I - IV - II - V - III - VI.

Why it works: This sequence tries to highlight the similarities between the two trilogies through juxtaposition. So with the first third of the marathon, we get to see Anakin's coming-of-age on Tatooine, followed by Luke's. We also see their initial responses to the world of the Jedi and early mentorship (from Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan respectively). This viewing order also provides an intriguing one-two punch finale in the back-to-back airing of episodes III and VI.

Where it fails: Plot and episodic continuity suffer greatly in this viewing order. This is probably also the most unorthodox of the four ways to watch the saga.

Verdict: This is one of those viewing orders that sounds better on paper than in real life. Not recommended for general Star Wars audiences, but may serve as an interesting diversion for die-hard fans. Still, I'd be hard-pressed to consider this as one of the definitive approaches for watching the series. Grade: C+

The Bottom Line

Now that we've looked at the various ways to watch the Star Wars saga, what do I recommend? Well, I think it's safe to say that the standard approaches - chronological and episodic - are still the safest. I'd choose the chronological order for first-time viewers purely for the dramatic twists that are otherwise ruined by an episode-ordered showing. That being said, I still think that the flashback approach provides the best overall experience that remains somewhat true to Lucas' desired viewing order while bridging some of the cinematographic continuity problems. The alternating order is best left for die-hard fans who want to watch the series in a whole new light.

But enough of what I think, what do you think is the best way to watch a Star Wars marathon?

By the way - if you plan to watch the Cinemax marathon, you can whet your appetite on these Star Wars saga teaser spots they've been running on cable.