What if… Star Wars had never been made?

There were many points during the inception of Star Wars when friends and studio execs said to George Lucas words to the effect of, “Have you been smoking a lot of weed lately, George?” Had Lucas been deterred, or had he actually smoked more weed, the world – indeed the galaxy – would be a very different place.

First, let’s consider the immediate consequences of Star Wars’ non–existence: Lucas would have been reduced to making kids’ movies, and probably ended up running Disney. Instead of Star Wars, the US’ highest-grossing film of 1977 would have been Smokey And The Bandit, followed by Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. This would have prompted a wave of trucking movies that shifted skiploads of toy cars, and a Spielberg space franchise full of benign aliens with no Dark Side.

It would be nice to think we’d have no summer blockbusters, effects–driven franchises or cinematic universes without Star Wars, but it’s not really likely, is it? Superman and Jaws 2 were already in production before Lucas’s space opera was released, after all. But where would we be without all the cultural reference points Star Wars gave us? No Force, no Yoda, no “Jedi mind tricks”, no Jar Jar Binks. The likes of The Simpsons, Spaced and Family Guy would be scrabbling for content, and king of the nerds Kevin Smith would probably still be working in a convenience store.

Furthermore, without Star Wars, Ronald Reagan might not have invested in his “Star Wars” weaponry programme against what he called the “evil empire”. Instead, he might have reached out to the Soviet Union as if they were peaceful extraterrestrials, Close Encounters–style. Differences between capitalism and communism would have been harmoniously reconciled, creating a new, unified global order based on equality, cooperation and a five–tone jingle. And geeks around the world would have developed an alternative belief system based on… Smokey And The Bandit. Steve Rose

What if… Alan McGee’s sister had bought a new watch?

As the busy head of Creation Records, Alan McGee didn’t have a habit of turning up to gigs early. Back in 1993, he was never supposed to see a bunch of lairy Mancs fourth on the bill to his label’s 18 Wheeler at Glasgow’s King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut; legend has it that his sister Susan’s faulty timepiece caused McGee to turn up a couple of hours earlier than intended; he stumbled upon Oasis and the rest is rock history.

Whether or not a band as rough–hewn as Oasis would have ended up being signed anyway is moot, but surely only under McGee’s exuberant guidance would their chaotic spirit have been fostered in order for them to dominate 90s culture as they did.

Apart from depriving us of one of the world’s greatest rock’n’roll groups, how else might this functioning Swatch have changed the music scene? It’s hard to imagine, say, a Cast stepping up to fill the gaping Knebworth–sized hole, while a whole load of Britpop also–rans – your Northern Uproars and Menswears – would probably never have bothered getting together in the first place.

The obvious thinking is that this would have sent Britpop in a more cerebral direction, in which the Blurs and Pulps flourished. But was it not Damon Albarn’s competitive spirit that inspired countless Blur reinventions? Would Britpop even have had its true mainstream moment without the Gallaghers’ laddy yang to balance the Albarnites’ arty yin?

More likely Britpop would simply have had less impact and the culture gap would have been filled with raucous pop in the Spice Girls mould, a less patriotic outlook towards US R&B and hip–hop and increased attention on the 1990s’ other main musical story – the rise of superclub culture. It could have been Orbital headlining the era’s defining shows, while a generation of future bands from Arctic Monkeys to Kasabian would never have picked up guitars. In this world, Alex Turner becomes the UK’s foremost white rapper, while Tom Meighan wins series three of the X Factor. Let’s thank the gods above that Susan never got her watch fixed. Tim Jonze

What if… David Chase had made The Sopranos as a film?

At a TV festival earlier this year, David Chase was asked about the origins of The Sopranos, his drama of mothers, sons, hits and mistresses. “I wanted to do it as a movie,” he said. “It never got anywhere.” But what if a butterfly had flapped its Bada Bings? What if this veteran TV writer – who had toiled for more than two decades on shows such as The Rockford Files and Northern Exposure – had been wooed by Hollywood rather than HBO in the mid–1990s?

Perhaps the autobiographical elements of Chase’s tale of a New Jersey gangster trying therapy to detoxify his relationship with an overbearing mother might have given this imagined Sopranos film enough edge to stand alongside Coppola and Scorsese’s mythic movie mobsters. More likely, it would have been a footnote, filed alongside Analyze This, the dumb comedy with a broadly similar wiseguy–on–the–couch premise.

Wipe The Sopranos from the telly timeline, though, and it would be like deleting the GPS of our current age of peak TV. Sure, you could point a finger at Tony for godfathering all the antiheroes that crowded our screens in his wake – for every Walter White, there have been a dozen Ray Donovans – but that would be to forget how The Sopranos changed the (mob) rules for ever: upending storytelling rhythms, atomising complex characters, burrowing deep into moral ambiguity.

Crucially, The Sopranos did all of this while delivering whopping ratings, doing more to cement HBO’s reputation as the home of deluxe, path–breaking TV than any other show before or since. So it’s not hard to imagine a parallel world in which a Sopranos–less HBO failed to dominate the entertainment–industrial complex, and stuck instead to pay–per–view sports. It’s a universe where Netflix was never emboldened to move into similarly highbrow programming and where you’d need to read an actual book to get your Game Of Thrones fix. Graeme Virtue

What if… JK Rowling never found a publisher for Harry Potter?

A world without the boy wizard? It’s testament to JK Rowling’s achievement in single–handedly taking over the entire world that this is so hard to envision. The Harry Potter books have sold a minimum of 55m each. The films have grossed billions. The latest cinematic spinoff took $215m in its opening weekend. The current theatre incarnation? Booked up until 2018.

It might never have happened if Christopher Little, a small Fulham–based agency, had never taken a punt on the unknown Rowling. The 1997 publication of The Philosopher’s Stone, alongside the first of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials books, heralded a new era of crossover fantasy that has endured among kids and adults alike. After all, it was Rowling’s popularity that saw “grownup” book covers for kids’ titles become de rigueur for self–conscious commuters seeking a great yarn. In formats and licensing, influence and audience, Potter changed the game in a way unlikely to be equalled: just check out the mega–selling Twilight series, or the Hunger Games empire.

Indeed, if The Philosopher’s Stone had not been published, how would we have been able, instantly, to distinguish the class status of kids in the late 1990s according to their pronunciation of Hermione (Her–mee–own: the hero of all comp school girls). Adults wouldn’t spend their weekends in public parks with broomsticks between their legs, playing Quidditch. One thing is for sure: a generation would have grown up less empathetic and less politically aware, not having been educated on the sly by a brilliant, accessible parable of our real-world complexities. We can all raise a toast of butterbeer to that. Hannah Jane Parkinson

What if… Seinfeld had been cancelled?

By the end of its run, Seinfeld was a cultural monolith: 76.3 million Americans – more than double the population of Canada – tuned in to watch its final episode. Yet, in its early years Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David’s sitcom struggled in the ratings, with NBC execs concerned that it was “too New York” and “too Jewish” to ever appeal to a mass audience. They nearly put the “show about nothing” out of its misery after a poorly received pilot, but gave it a reprieve. A shrewd decision as it turned out, but what if the suits had been more trigger–happy?

Certainly it’s tempting to suggest that the entire sweep of comedy would be irrevocably altered. Seinfeld established many of what are now considered sitcom norms. Antiheroic characters, observational comedy stylings, self–referential meta–ness, season–long story arcs: all of these traits, seen in everything from Arrested Development to It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, were birthed on Seinfeld. (Thankfully one trend that didn’t catch on was the show’s hideous slap–bass theme tune.)

Yet, the argument that these tropes would simply be wiped out had Seinfeld been prematurely canned is less than watertight. The persistent urge in comedy to push boundaries would have surely meant such daring elements would have come to light eventually: David and Seinfeld were just either lucky or inspired enough to get there first.

Yet there is one show we can confidently erase from history. Had Seinfeld been considered a failure, NBC would never have risked commissioning another series about a group of New Yorkers who spend their days hanging out in cafes talking about relationships. Farewell, Friends. Gwilym Mumford

What if… Donald Trump had turned down The Apprentice?

“Bottom–feeders!” barked Donald Trump before he was pitched The Apprentice in 2002; that was his take on the nascent reality-contest genre. But producer Mark Burnett played on Trump’s love of easy wins, ego massages and publicity: by spending a few hours filming up in Trump Tower, he could have a show that plugged his businesses while casting him as a godlike ruler. The Donald signed up and was soon barking his catchphrase: “You’re fired.”

US TV already had Idol and Next Top Model, plus Burnett’s own Survivor, shows where bad humans fight over fool’s gold would have flourished anyway. But The Apprentice is uniquely Trump-shaped. The alternative tycoons mooted for the pilot, Mark Cuban and Richard Branson, have some capacity for reflection and shame: surely they couldn’t have fronted a world that rewarded people who were so transparently incompetent and unpleasant. Apprentice contestants pursued crap ideas with utter conviction, while viewers who ought to have known better couldn’t stop watching. This caused wider cultural abrasions: more than one ex–candidate has since got rich selling worthless opinions on which people can’t stop clicking.

A Trump–less US Apprentice would likely have been a three–season workhorse, culturally insignificant and not worth a UK remake, leaving the traits that made Alan Sugar the perfect Donald clone – rich yet cheap, dominant yet thin–skinned – untapped. He’d now be a frustrated 80s throwback, wondering why no one has bought his new two-in-one landline phone and fondue set.

Most importantly, if Trump says no to Burnett, there’s a chance the US doesn’t slide into disaster 13 years later. Trump trolled his way to the White House by learning from his screen proteges and harnessing the power of brazen bullshit. That TV world where no self–promotion is too tawdry, and morality is for wimps? We live in it. Jack Seale