Star Wars: Which order to watch them in?
With the completion of the trilogy, there are now two
(or more; see below) clear ways to watch the trilogy: In chronological order by their date of production/release or in "episode" order, by their sequence in the story.  Let's look at the issues involved in this decision.

By starting with Episode I, you totally miss out on the revelations that made the original trilogy so exciting.  For example:
  • Ben can return from the dead
  • Yoda the muppet is a Jedi master
  • Vader is Luke's father
  • Leia is Luke's sister
  • What's behind Vader's mask?
All of these facts are revealed in the prequels, and I wouldn't trade the surprise for anything.  The prequels work best at dramatizing how things came to be rather than setting up the story for the "later" episodes of the original trilogy.

Special effects
It's beyond debate that George Lucas pushed special effects farther faster than anyone in the history of cinema.  While Episode IV: A New Hope was breathtaking for its day, it was only the beginning.  There is a clear and consistent escalation in effects technology that is evident with each subsequent episode, and part of the fun of watching the series was seeing where they could take things next.

By viewing things chronologically, even starting with the "Special Edition" versions of the trilogy, there is a steady increase throughout the saga... with a notable leap forward into fully-realized CG characters when one comes to the prequels.  To start with Episode I means lowering expectations halfway through the series.  While the original trilogy is movie-making at its best, viewers will certainly miss the remarkable panoramas of worlds like Coruscant that are never equaled in the original trilogy (aside from the brief Special Edition inserts such as the celebration tacked onto the end of Return of the Jedi).

The only visual surprise Lucas saved for the original trilogy was smeared starfield of the hyperspace jump (first revealed aboard the Millennium Falcon in A New Hope).  Dramatic as that was, it's very little compared to the modern digital capabilities realized in the prequel trilogy.

Overall quality of filmmaking
As of 6/10/05 the scores for the saga were as follows:
Episode 1 = 6.4
Episode 2 = 7.0
Episode 3 = 7.9
Episode 4 = 8.8
Episode 5 = 8.8
Episode 6 = 8.1

When viewed "episodically" starting with The Phantom Menace, the series starts on a very low note.  In fact, it is at its lowest of the series.  One might view this philosophically as humble beginnings, but that doesn't encourage the viewer to move onward.  The series continues to build in overall appeal through The Empire Strikes Back, but concludes with the anti-climactic Return of the Jedi, a movie that is merely a reworking of A New Hope.
On the other hand, if the series is viewed in chronological order of production, the saga starts with a bang.  While it looses some of its appeal over the course of the series, the prequels do get gradually better in quality and ultimately conclude with Revenge of the Sith, that is tremendously satisfying visually and emotionally.

The verdict
Start in 1977 with A New Hope.  Let your kids enjoy it just like we did!

Update: Alternative viewing orders

Basically the two sequences most fans consider (including myself in the text above) are Release Order (i.e., watch the films in the order they came out) and Episode Order (i.e., George Lucas' chronological telling of the story).  But there are other ideas:

Alternative Suggestion: IV, V, I, II, III, VI.
This approach has the advantage of ensuring the big Vader reveal is a surprise.  It also introduces the young version of Anakin before the end of Return of the Jedi.  (Personally, I think showing him as a young man instead of the "healed" version of Vader that Luke just met made more sense to me.  That's the version I plan to show my kid(s).)  The idea is that there's a sort of lengthy flashback two-thirds of the way through the original trilogy in which we get the backstory.  That certainly helps us better understand Vader's relationship with the Emperor, but I don't know that it brings that much to the game.  It also makes RotJ a bigger let-down for me because I consider RotS a better movie, meaning there's a big drop from the 2nd-to-last movie to the last movie in this viewing order.

Machete Order: IV, V, II, III, VI (Episode I is gone.)
Assuming you like the Alternative Suggestion above, this is a genius amendment to it.  The rationale is that tPM simply sets up a lot of things later in the series that we really don't even need to know about.  We can certainly live without Jar Jar or knowing that (among other odd facts) Padme was once a queen before she was a senator (which doesn't make sense anyway since she was elected in both cases).  This order still has the same problems I mentioned above with the drop-off in quality from RotS to RotJ, both in terms of the story and the special effects.

However, I have always felt like the series wasn't two trilogies but rather a single movie (tPM) that served as a prologue or prequel to a two-parter about a galaxy going to war (AotC and RotS) followed by a twenty-year gap before we resume the saga with a three-part story about the next generation attempting to right the wrongs that followed from that war.

Godfather order: IV, I, II, V, III, VI
If you read the comments on the page cited below, there was also the suggestion to juggle the order just a bit more in order to keep the whole Anakin/Vader secret a secret for just that much longer.  It is so-named for the parallels it has with the De Niro flashbacks in "The Godfather II." 

These are all interesting intellectual exercises, but I'm going to settle for Release Order for many of the reasons stated above.

You can read more about these here:

Copyright 2005, 2012 Ale[X]-wing fighter.
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