Monday, May 01, 2017

The Last Star Wars Essay


Part Nine of an ongoing series.
Catch up with Part One here.
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I

So let me explain why Star Wars is cool . . .

I’m going to assume you know nothing about Star Wars. I’m going to assume, furthermore, that you may very well have negative associations with Star Wars. There is nothing whatsoever cool about Star Wars, after all. With neither the redeeming social messages of Star Trek nor the cult exoticism of Dr. Who, it instead reaffirms conventional family values and appeals to the lowest common denominator with whiz-bang special effects. The whole package, finally is gilded with populist New Age philosophical tripe.

Yet it lingers. It stuck. It stuck with aficionados and the general public. Even people who hate the movies know them. Most movies are disposable. Even a great director will only be remembered for a handful of truly great films, and most directors struggle their entire careers to find just one. Lucas will be remembered as a filmmaker long after most of his influences have been forgotten. Star Wars is ubiquity. The films will linger after much of the twentieth century is dust. They are the hegemon.

It’s different now. Star Wars was always going to be more than George Lucas intended. It’s never going to be the same, much as Spider-Man was never quite the same after Steve Ditko left. But Spider-Man lingered far past his expiration date due to being a popular idea owned by people who want to make a great deal of money.

I used to think it was important to specify that Star Wars wasn’t science fiction, and that it had little to do with science fiction other than the setting. It’s fantasy, so goes this argument. There’s no attempt to use the technology and environments in the films as anything other than tools and backdrops, to the degree that the same plots could be applied to any setting and remain legible. That’s intentional. Outer space works because it defamiliarizes the audience. We are told in the very first few frames, with those same ten words everyone knows by heart, that we are a long way from home, and that the events in this world have no possible resonance with our own. The existence of magic, then, takes the events one step further even from the already unfamiliar. We are in myth.  

Go one step further, though: we are told to suspend our critical faculties. We’re safe. No ideology here.

But follow me a moment: what if I was wrong? Accept the premise that the setting of Star Wars does matter. The setting is centrally important. It’s not incidental. Everything you need to know about galactic culture can be extrapolated from the attitude that galactic citizens have towards technology and history. In turn, everything you need to know about Star Wars can be extrapolated from understanding this galactic culture – including why the story has lingered in our culture when so much else falls away.

So, how do the characters within Star Wars feel about science and technology in their universe?

No one cares. No one stops to gawk at technological marvels. There is little scientific exposition. No one stops to explain how something works to another character – no attempts are made to provide the same kind of authentication devices that other sci-fi reflexively peppers into dialogue. What little there is describes immediate cause-and-effect – press a button and something happens. Power converters convert power, it can be assumed from context. Assumedly that’s a useful function.

Han Solo fixes the Millennium Falcon the same way car guys work on old cars: spitballs and bailing wire, whatever gets it on the road. If you asked him to explain the ins-and-outs of how his faster-than-light drive works he’d probably be able to tell you about as much as the average gearhead about the chemistry of the internal combustion engine. Maybe some, but it’s hardly a priority.

No one who sees the Death Star marvels at the incredible scientific acumen required to construct a mobile battle station so big. Everyone in the galaxy is accustomed to a high degree of scientific accomplishment as a fact of daily life. It doesn’t need to be interesting, it just needs to be scary. No one cares about the how, which leaves the story free to focus on the question of why.

The beauty of Star Wars is that so much care has been spent making the universe onscreen appear normal for the people who inhabit it. No one is awkwardly walking around a sci-fi movie set because it’s the future and in the far future people are stiff and self-conscious. People are sitting down to family dinner, hunched around an awkward meeting table and getting yelled at by the boss, playing video games with dirtbag friends in their basement apartment. Everyone has technology but most can’t afford the good stuff – or at least the new stuff – so things break. Such very specific details paint a picture of a lived-in world, a world where people have hobbies, listen to music, go to sporting events, and take drugs. People in Star Wars get drunk, talk shit, and are generally quite racist – even the good guys.

The conceit of Star Wars is that literally every character onscreen has a story. You don’t know that story. It entirely incidental to the plot. You probably don’t even know the character’s name. He looks like he’s been around, seen a few things. He adds nothing to the plot of the movie, but his presence sells the setting. When you watch a movie set in present day New York you take it for granted that an extra walking through the scene has a life and a story outside of the movie – obviously they do, they’re a person just like me and you. Likewise, extras in Star Wars get to be effectively interesting even covered in makeup and spray painted car parts. The camera lingers on “boring” verisimilitude that most other sci-fi doesn’t touch.

The galactic civilization in Star Wars is old enough that most people don’t need to know why technology works the way it does. Engineers are still quite popular, and necessary to design the latest ships and battle stations. But scientific breakthroughs have no immediate bearing on the story of Star Wars.

The characters are the inheritors of a very old universe. The technological infrastructure necessary to maintain a galaxy-wide civilization was constructed so far in the past that no one in these stories knows or cares. Who mapped the hyperspace lanes that allow near-instantaneous interstellar travel at speeds far exceeding “conventional” faster-than-light? No one gives them a second thought, and the lanes are regarded as a public utility. Who carved the crumbling fragments of Cyclopean masonry that dot the series? Every planet in the galaxy is ancient, with tens of thousands of years of mysteries waiting to be uncovered. But the populace is so inured to ancient mysteries that they carry little interest to anyone but the locals.

There must have been a time even longer ago, before the time of the films, when the Galaxy was not yet so tightly connected. Before hyperspace it had to have been as hard to get between planets as it is for us, now. Then the galaxy became interconnected and suddenly trade was possible, massive resettlements and immigration were possible, cultural exchange was possible. War was possible. The galaxy has been what it is for a very long time.

Star Wars doesn’t do a lot of things that other sci-fi does:

It doesn’t assume that planets have only one government and culture. Planets have civil wars and competing states.

It doesn’t assume that technological advancement naturally leads to civilized enlightenment. There are peaceful isolationist races and noisy belligerent civilizations operating at roughly the same level of technology.

It doesn’t assume that inequality won’t exist. Some planets do better than others. Some races are better suited to travel and commerce than others. Some planets have really fucked up political situations, some seem to operate without much in the way of organized politics. A giant chunk of the galaxy is owned outright by a cartel of near-immortal xenophobic slugs that don’t even regard bipeds as fully sentient. (Probably not great for anyone else in that part of the galaxy.)

Star Wars does, however, assume that even advanced technological civilizations could never fully escape corruption and inefficiency. It assumes that history is cyclical, with devastating conflicts recurring throughout history with alarming regularly. It assumes that children are wise to be skeptical of their parents. Intelligence is no guarantor of virtue in these stories, but ignorance is punished severely.

Most races in the galaxy seem content to simply be. It’s humans who create the most problems, humans who build Imperial war machines to set the galaxy on fire to satisfy their egos. Humans don’t even have a homeworld, they’re just there, everywhere across the galaxy from Coruscant to the depths of Hutt Space, prolific breeders without much in the way of natural gifts save for their adaptability. This is a tactical advantage over many other races, and their ubiquity makes them the single most powerful species in the galaxy through sheer weight. Other races, one imagines, say unflattering things about humans when humans aren’t around.

So why is all of this important?

Immersion is the key sensation of Star Wars. Everything feels real, carries authority that makes every frame seem like a portal into another world, perfectly plausible on its own terms. A galaxy of adventure left for the viewer to explore independently. For the first two decades of Star Wars’ existence, this sense of projection was vital to the survival of the franchise.   

It’s easy to forget, now, but Star Wars went away. After Return of the Jedi faded from theaters in 1983, attempts were made to expand the franchise with cheap spin-offs – the Droids and Ewoks cartoons, a pair of made-for-TV Ewok films. These didn’t take and without new movies on the horizon toy sales dried up. By the late 80s Star Wars was as dead as Star Trek had been in the early 70s. But just as generations of nerds learned Star Trek from seeing the original series on TV over and over again for decades, the Star Wars films never went away either. People loved them and watched them whenever they showed up on TV, which was a special event – but they were spoken of in the past tense. Star Wars was a thing that had happened.

Things used to go away and people took it for granted that they didn’t come back. Star Wars was very popular for a while, and then it wasn’t quite as popular anymore because it was gone. Even if everyone knew that Lucas had always spoke vaguely about the possibility of new films, no one ever seriously imagined it would happen. It was fun to talk about. Maybe someday.

In hindsight Star Wars really didn’t stay away for long. The property regained traction in the early 90s, expanding into a popular series of novels and returning to comics. There were a few years in the late 80s where the only new Star Wars material being produced were role-playing sourcebooks from West End Games. These books helped fan the waning embers of Star Wars fandom, ensuring there was still a core audience of die-hards left when Lucas ramped up production of new material set in the now defunct Expanded Universe.

I wasn’t paying much attention at the time. I didn’t care that there were new Star Wars novels on the shelves. I didn’t read Star Trek novels, and at the time I liked Star Trek better. There was a lot of Trek in the 90s. It fit the times. The 90s were optimistic. Everything was rotting under the floorboards but people were nevertheless pretty happy. In hindsight I wish I’d spent more time reading Star Wars paperbacks than watching Star Trek reruns.

The line I heard I few times when I was younger – not so much these days, I think, but definitely in the days when the first three films were the only canon that counted – was that Star Wars was about good and evil, and that good and evil is pretty basic. No nuance. Joseph Campbell and the Hero of a Thousand Faces – myth and superstition for an irreligious age. I heard it so much that I even tricked myself into believing it.

My opinion changed. I grew older. Rather than sharpening the nuance of my moral calculus years of hard luck simplified it, instilled the lesson that good and evil do exist. I see the proliferation of evil, evil beyond measure – but I also see a profusion of goodness, of hope despite the times. Cruelty is real. Kindness, too. We live with these facts as daily realities. They don’t lack nuance.

I think one of the reason the Prequels resonated so strongly with me was that the movies fixed the parts of Star Wars that had never sat well. It added a bunch of new stuff to the simplicity of the first three films. Some of it worked and a few things didn’t but overall every new addition to canon complicated, rather than simplified, the core ideas around which Star Wars coalesced. What the Prequels did that moviegoers could never forgive was make the main characters murky and complicated and even unpleasant, rarely defeated in open battle but undone by their own arrogance, ignorance, and corruption.

The newer movies had the temerity to point out that the classic good and evil set-up of the original was . . . not the whole story. Good and evil is what they tell pumped-up farmboys from Tatooine when they send them off to kill their fathers. What Yoda and Obi-Wan don’t talk about so much is how they worked closely alongside the Emperor for decades, helped him consolidate power, even saved his life dozens of times. They helped build the Imperial war machine. They have a lot of blood on their hands. Good and evil are real and solid things, and the people who have to navigate between them are small and fragile. 

It’s complicated. People don’t like complicated. I think it adds a great deal to see that the most powerful and righteous heroes in the galaxy were unable to detect evil in their midst. What are the Jedi, after all, but a galaxy-spanning law enforcement agency dedicated to enforcing parliamentary neoliberalism and economic norms? So committed were they to maintaining order as a singular virtue in and of itself that they neglected the menace in plain sight.

The Prequels hit a chord with me when they did because they mirrored the progress of my life, and national politics, through the timeline of their release. It’s not a good arc. It’s an arc from hope to despair, with very little on the other side but the idea that maybe, one day, things might be better. No promises. Everything is complicated and nothing ever really works out the way it’s supposed to. Sometimes that has to be good enough.

The key to understanding Star Wars, and its strange, grudging, but undeniable place of honor within the sci-fi canon, is that it’s neither a utopia nor a dystopia. It’s a place, like any other place, with lots of people just trying to get by and who are perfectly happy to look the other way so long as the bad things don’t happen here. The most “radical” notion proposed by Star Wars and its enduring popularity is that all the ancient splendor and inconceivable technology of a distant galaxy ultimately doesn’t change the proposition that humans can be and often are exceedingly cruel to one another for no reason whatsoever.

II

Here’s the thing about movies (and books, and music, and): they’re just there. They don’t talk back. They don’t think. If they speak it’s an idiot wind, and we hear the echoes of past lives speaking to us through the television. Star Wars doesn’t need defending. The movies exist, are quite famous, many people like them and many other people don’t. Trying to influence other peoples’ response to art diminishes it. You can’t tell someone how to react. Dictating the terms of their interaction is a good way to ensure the interaction is a negative one.  

I have no desire to dictate how to feel about Star Wars. Honestly? I don’t care if you love or hate Star Wars the movie or Star Wars the franchise. I tell you how I feel so that you can understand me. How I frame my narrative reveals everything about me and nothing about the film itself.

Star Wars is a big idea. Lingering insecurity is unnecessary. Lots of people watch Star Wars to help them deal with pain – it’s the kind of world into which anyone can project their own lives, their fears and hopes. It’s generic not in terms of facelessness but expansiveness. Fantasy or science-fiction? It’s both and neither. Star Wars is just Star Wars. After forty years of cultural dominance it’s sui generis, less a story now than a genre unto itself.

Four decades makes a big footprint. Many people are invested in making certain Star Wars is loved and appreciated for the foreseeable future. Star Wars will be around even after the economic order that made possible the creation of these resource-intensive mass entertainments has been swept into the dustbin of history. It will be remembered – and certainly someone in the far future will look back and say, “the twentieth century was pretty shit, but they had rock & roll and Star Wars, and that’s not nothing.”

III

Star Trek and Star Wars are such radically different ideas that their eternal “struggle” – if that is indeed the right word – for the hearts and minds of fandom has always confused me. There’s room for both. I grew up with both. There’s no conflict.

Star Trek was on every night, seven O’clock sharp, right before the movie. There were Trek movies too, and they were pretty good, but they were obviously not the core of the franchise – especially since the movies being made in the 1980s and 90s were texturally different from the late 60s reruns that my family watched every day. Then at a certain point not only were there repeats from the 60s and the occasional new movie, but new Trek on TV, weekly beginning in 1987 and running in some form for almost two decades, until the end of Enterprise in 2005. There hasn’t been a new Trek TV show in twelve years, although that is set to change soon.

Star Wars, on the contrary, was never on. The movies ran on TV at the holidays, or you could rent the VHS tapes. There were spin-offs, but they weren’t the real deal – Star Wars was Star Wars, spin-offs were never quite as solid. None of the spin-offs amounted to much, and all were quietly discontinued. People loved Star Wars, they never stopped loving it. But (at least back in the day) Star Wars wasn’t something you could obsess over for hundreds of hours – it was a finite experience, and the existence of off-brand Star Wars signified only dilution.

For those who loved Trek, the 80s and 90s were a bonanza. The same people who loved Trek usually liked Star Wars as well – and vice-versa, although the core of Star Wars fandom reaches a bit further beyond the constraints of the traditional sci-fi audience. (There are of course exceptions – nerds who grew up on Trek and see Wars as a junk bastardization. I mean, they used to exist. Certainly they still must? I used to hear about them all the time. Maybe, like cannibals, they’re always the tribe on the other side of the mountain.) Trek was ascendant throughout the period when Wars was in exile, and there were no grounds for direct conflict.

Star Trek is a big idea too, and has proven remarkably resilient. It’s a story about the future of the species with a happy ending, or at least a peaceful denouement. Human evolution is rough and leads inevitably to warfare and barbarism – but at some point the species gets its shit together and makes it to the stars. The parts of us that we send out into the empty universe are the best parts of us – our curiosity, our justice, our commitment to cooperation and useful pragmatism.

There is optimism at the core of Star Trek that places it slightly out-of-step with culture – people are attracted to Starfleet because it’s nice to believe that one day we might live in an egalitarian post-scarcity society where a functioning technocracy steers the greater destiny of humanity in the service of common goals and ideals. Put aside the fact that Gene Roddenberry’s own ideals were the product of his time, and that a series conceptualized as “Wagon Train to the stars” could never escape the inference of manifest destiny – or at least the 1960s humanistic version, complete with progressive anti-racist politics. People like Star Trek partly because it’s nice to believe that one day we’ll be able to leave all our shit behind and just go, somewhere else, and maybe be better at being ourselves than we are now.

The original Trek was an adventure story. Subsequent television iterations, however, were procedurals: every week the Enterprise NCC-1701-D under the command of the intrepid Captain Jean-Luc Picard encountered a new challenge – diplomatic, scientific, personal, or occasionally (very occasionally) even military. And in every instance there were rules to follow. The reason why Picard was such a reassuring figure is that he symbolized the ascension of the rational technocrat as a voice of moral authority at just the time when we needed someone like that in our culture. In a calm, comforting, and authoritative tone he assured us that no problem was insurmountable to a rational and compassionate civilization, or so difficult as to demand we abandon our ideals. He’d get along well with Yoda, and that’s not entirely a compliment. (Tellingly, the last in-canon appearances by both Picard and Yoda show them as forgotten and diminished figures, wise idealists betrayed by the inevitable pragmatism of time.)

The difference between Star Trek and Star Wars, then, is a difference between who we want to be and who we are. Sometimes it’s nice to believe we can be better, but it’s also exhausting to realize that we aren’t yet. Seeing the most vexing problems – from warp coil malfunctions to interstellar war – fixed by trained and amiable specialists in the space of an hour can be disheartening. Deep Space Nine circumvented the problem by giving the show a stationary setting. Without the option of flying into the wild blue yonder at the end of every episode problems have a tendency to stick around, become sharper and more intractable. It was a darker and less reassuring show because it was premised on a most un-Trek idea: we can’t always get in our ships and leave after putting a Band-Aid on insoluble dilemmas.

One of Trek’s hallmarks is its deep bench of alien races. The franchise works partially by plucking out different facets of the human condition and extrapolating them onto different alien species as a means of commenting on and critiquing the present. In the original series, broadcast during the height of the Cold War, Klingons were belligerent and obsessed with violence, Vulcans cold and rational. In the Next Generation - a product of the age of Perestroika. The Ferengi symbolized avarice, the Borg automation, bugbears of late-stage capitalism without a serious external threat.

By contrast, aliens in Star Wars are just alien, with alien cultures, values, and virtues that exist outside of any clear allegorical relationship to human culture. What do the Rodians symbolize? Wookiees? Whereas Trek is concerned above all else with finding common ground and peaceful rapprochement with alien species, there’s little exploration in Wars. There’s diplomacy, but it’s not based around cultural understanding, it’s based around the same old banal concerns we’ve had for thousands of years of our own history – trade and warfare, maybe not in that order. There’s nothing novel about meeting a new species, because people meet new species all the time. Why, just the other day I ran into an asshole down at the spaceport with three arms, bastard stole my wallet.

(There’s not a lot to say about about alien races in Dr. Who. They mostly come in two flavors: genocidal monsters who have to be contained or destroyed, and, er, humans. The two categories are not mutually exclusive. That franchise, which it should be noted predates both Trek and Wars, is far more pessimistic than either of its American cousins.)

I still love Star Trek, but for too long now Trek has been a thing that has happened. For someone who grew up with the Enterprise and retains affection for all its incarnations, it’s difficult to see a franchise that was once practically a part of my family fallen into such disrepair. Paramount doesn’t seem to know what to do with it. Trying to turn it into a series of action movies was a terrible idea. Returning to TV is a good start. Trek needs the space of a talky medium to be able to discuss ideas and define characters and do the kind of deep-dive world building that the franchise requires. It’s not a universe you dip into and back out of for two hours at a time, it’s a frame of mind.

Oddly enough, considering which one is supposedly a fantasy story, Star Wars feels more real. It’s not a story about how good we could be, or even how awful we have been, but just how we are in the here and now. Flawed people having flawed adventures and fucking up quite a bit on the way to victories that often prove short lived. There’s a buy-in with Trek you just don’t have with Wars even if the latter might seem more distant from our own lives. The idea that the world might one day get better is far more radical and disorienting than the idea that it might not.

IV

I first saw Rogue One a day after it’s release in December of 2016. It was my last trip to the theater dressed as a man. The second time I saw Rogue One was the first week of January, and it was my first trip to the theater dressed as a woman. Also the first time leaving the house by myself dressed as a woman.

Far more than The Force Awakens – overhyped and occasionally pro forma – Rogue One makes good on the promise of a Lucas-less Star Wars. If there must be Star Wars without its creator (and it is apparent that there will be for a good long time to come) then let it be like this. The people who made this movie understand how Star Wars works, what the rules of this universe are, what does and doesn’t make sense in the context of a franchise built on the intersection of sci-fi and magic. The movie hangs together as a legitimate part of a canon where The Force Awakens struggles, and ultimately is only able to do so thanks to the charisma of an excellent cast and the sentimental punch of seeing all our old favorites back on the screen. (Rogue One, of course, has Darth Vader, which is pretty cool too.)

After walking out of the theater in December, my first comment was that this is the Star Wars movie I’d waited my entire life to see. Nothing specific about the movie itself. Certainly I never imagined the story of the Death Star, other than what was already on film, from the revelation that it began as a rough blueprint developed by Geonosian separatists at the outset of the Clone Wars through to its maiden voyage in A New Hope. But that there was more to the story I never doubted. Because there’s always more to the story in Star Wars.

Star Wars was a surprise success. If you don’t know anything about the history of the franchise, it might come as a shock to hear that no one expected the movie even to make back its budget. There weren’t even toys when the movie hit screens. It proved to be such a massive success that even though the film – released in May of 1977 – still didn’t have toys on the shelves in December of that year, the toy company made a killing selling IOUs for parents to put under the tree. Folks who got those IOUs are in their forties and fifties now, but regardless of how they feel about the current state of the franchise they all remember the undisguised glee of finally receiving the toys in the mail, as much as a year after the film premiered.

And that’s the point. The toys weren’t secondary to Star Wars, the toys weren’t a spin-off – the toys may even be Star Wars at its most primal. The movies? They last a couple hours. But the toys carry a promise of something more. Sure, everyone wants Han Solo or Darth Vader, but to really understand what I’m saying you need to find someone like Hammerhead. Hold him in your hand for a moment. Here’s a character who appears onscreen in the original Star Wars for literally a second, says nothing, does nothing, just sits there and looks interesting for less time than it takes for the viewer to register what they’re seeing. And yet he rates a 3 3/4” toy, a tiny plastic icon representing a character without even a name.

Now, of course, you can easily learn that Hammerhead’s real name is Momaw Nadon, and he is a native of the planet Ithor. But that doesn’t matter. Kids in 1978 didn’t know that, they just knew that he was one of the coolest looking aliens in the film. Because he didn’t do anything onscreen, that meant his story was yet to be told. But you could tell that story, you could tell any story you wanted, because that was Star Wars. You always want the camera to linger on details for a little longer than it does, but it’s always gone, moving on to the next bit of the plot – everything else on the margins is left for you to figure out on your own.

After the Expanded Universe officially began in the early 90s, every secondary, tertiary, and quaternary character in the series got a backstory. Some of it was good, some of it was bad, most of it was superfluous but much of it was enjoyable. Momaw Nadon now has an extended backstory, a culture, a home. Maybe it’s still canon, maybe it isn’t. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that thousands of kids in 1978 bought that toy and built entire mythologies just around that one guy, and they were all a thousand times more engaging and interesting than anything a professional writer could ever come up with, because that’s how being a kid works.

Rogue One gets that. Star Wars is a place where not only can any passing character in a movie have an interesting backstory, but you know they do. Maybe it hasn’t been written yet. Maybe he’ll get his own spin-off novel. Doesn’t matter. Characters in Star Wars are always introduced as if they have only just concluded the greatest adventure of their lives, and are chilling in the downtime waiting for their next adventure to start. You don’t know what Han Solo was doing in Mos Eisley before being approached by Obi-Wan, but you’re sure it was interesting. The only character you know for certain has led a boring life is Luke, because he tells us over and over again – but even then, a “boring” life of zooming around a distant planet in a hovercar, dodging Tusken Raiders, and haggling with Jawas for droid parts is still pretty interesting. And Tatooine has the best sunsets.

A good Star Wars story, then, is one that expands on everything you’ve seen before while always implying the existence of even more awesome stuff just around the corner. Of course the spies and guerillas who stole the Death Star plans have their own backstory. The first time you see Baze and Chirrut onscreen, you want to know everything about those guys. Gay warrior monks in space? Sign me up. Of course, you learn nothing about them in the movie itself. Everything you need to know about them is right there on the screen. One day someone will write stories about Baze and Chirrut – hell, someone is probably doing so right now. And if they’re any good – that is, if they’re Proper Star Wars – it will only leave you wanting more.

Star Wars exists in its most potent form in the space between what little the movies actually tell you and all the cracks you fill with your own imagination. It’s a sense of anticipation, being greedy for more details, more stories set in this endlessly immersive distant world. It’s to Lucas’ credit that after four decades his universe is sturdy, expansive, and interesting enough to accommodate not just the hundreds of stories told by Lucasfilm (and now Disney), but the hundreds of millions of stories told by fans in their living rooms and backyards and imaginations. It’s full to the brim, but there’s always room for more. 

V

I caught up with The Clone Wars TV show in the year leading up to the release of The Force Awakens. At the time of its release it hardly seemed necessary. After the Prequels finished, Star Wars seemed to be entering another period of hibernation – with more ancillary product than existed in the late 80s, certainly, but again no new movies on the horizon. Even if everyone knew that Lucas had always spoke vaguely about the possibility of new films, no one ever seriously imagined it would happen. It was fun to talk about. Maybe someday.  

In the back of our minds, most fans knew that Episode III couldn’t be the last new Star Wars film. Even if Lucas himself felt no desire to make them, eventually someone would. It was difficult to imagine a scenario where Lucas held the franchise fallow for the rest of his life out of a stubborn desire to maintain the succinctness of his finished six film arc. But Revenge of the Sith, even though technically speaking ending on a “To Be Continued,” felt strongly as if it were the end of whatever story Lucas himself wanted to tell. He had come full circle, from telling a story about a kid yearning to get away from his boring desert home, all the way back to that same kid coming home again for the first time. Perhaps there were more Star Wars stories to tell – but those six films were Lucas’ story, and he had told it.

Now there are two stories: Lucas’ Star Wars, Original and Prequel, one story from middle to end to beginning and back to the middle; and now Disney’s Star Wars. The former is over. The latter is just beginning – will continue forward for so long as the franchise makes money. Who knows what it will look like in ten or twenty or thirty years. Eventually the company will move away from strip-mining the original material and create something new. Rogue One is a step in the right direction: filling in a hole from the original films, yes, but doing so by introducing a number of new elements to the series, as well as providing a general blueprint for how future elaborations on the formula might work. Throw a stone in any direction in Star Wars – ten thousand years in the past or the future, you will find whole species and wars and dynasties and heroes and villains spanning an undiscovered galaxy. 

The Clone Wars was a singularly important artifact in the evolution of the franchise. The last major contribution to canon created with Lucas’ direct input, it points in the direction of how the main series might exist as an entity separate from the dynastic saga of the Skywalkers. It’s a fantastic show. Although there are certainly highs and lows throughout the run, when it hits – as with the Pong Krell arc in Season Four, or the Dathomir interludes scattered throughout – it is the best written and most effective Star Wars has ever been. The show’s final arc, featuring Yoda on a journey into the heart of the Force itself, sells the single most vexing character of the franchise as a frail and imperfect vessel, surprisingly unprepared for the responsibilities placed on his tiny shoulders – that is, presiding over the destruction of the Order to which he had dedicated much of his 900 years. For its last trick, The Clone Wars made Yoda human and real, a three-dimensional and flawed person with a rich interior life filled with, yes, doubt and fear that he works hard to overcome.

The series is eventually overtaken by paranoia and frustration. The war grinds on and the characters find themselves warped by the demands of constant battle. The Jedi Order finds itself changed, unrecognizable and dangerous, running ragged and cutting corners across the galaxy. Characters we come to know and love eventually fall apart. The invincible heroes for whom we waited our entire lives to see are . . . fallible. Their power limits them. Their rules leave them vulnerable. Sentiment and affection are necessary human functions, and cutting themselves off from love and friendship only weakens them – and has the direct consequence of empowering their worst enemies.

See, I get that.

Being a Jedi sucks, and it sucks because under normal circumstances you’re taken from your family as an infant and raised by strangers to regard attachment of any kind as anathema. We even see, at a few points, Jedi taking Force-sensitive children from their families, taking them out of their mothers’ arms before they can even speak. It’s hard to regard them as heroes after that.

What is it like to grow up believing emotions are dangerous, that repression is healthy, that falling in love and forming deep bonds of friendship are harmful? That’s why the council rejects Anakin: he’s already too old. He has already learned to love, and that makes him extraordinarily dangerous to an Order founded on the eradication of love as a necessary precaution against allowing passion to override reason and restraint.

Poor Anakin, he never had a chance.

What did people want? Did they want Anakin to be a grand and noble warrior brought low by – what? Pride? Trickery? Some sort of noble impulse betrayed? Anakin’s a kid. He’s a kid with the power of an atom bomb in his heart, desperate for some kind of education in how to be a man, how to be a husband – hell, just how to be a responsible human being. He gets by because he knows how to fake it just enough to get by, but no more. He’s smart as a whip and can pick up the surface tricks of peoples’ behaviors just enough to seem like he knows why he’s supposed to say jokes at certain times, or express affection in certain ways. He learns how to kill, but he doesn’t understand why.

Anakin fails because he’s a vulnerable kid who happens to fall under the sway of the most dangerous man in the galaxy, bent on grooming the child into a weapon. It’s not glamorous. It’s quite sordid and disturbing – but what do you expect from the embodiment of evil? That’s not some kind of fake space war conflict, that’s real life shit: insecure kids from broken homes are easy prey. Anakin needed a dad, he found a monster. Abused children often become abusers in their turn. 

Evil is real, but it isn’t simple.

Darth Vader is a mass-murderer and a thug. He’s irredeemable by any measure – and, very important, I’ve never believed that turning against the Emperor at the last minute was any kind of real redemption. He turned the rage and loathing he had directed at himself for two decades as a result of the Emperor’s abuse outward, to the one person in the universe who deserved it. He goes out on a high note, but it’s not enough to erase anything.

The paradox of the Prequels is that, after decades of actively encouraging fans to tell their own stories, to put their own imaginations into his vehicle, his own answers could never compare to whatever fans had imagined themselves. His version was unbearably sad. It was a story about failure and fear, about good men brought low by hubris and weak men broken by circumstances. Seeing Anakin snap and begin killing children seemingly at the drop of a hat – it’s hard to watch. But it doesn’t come out of nowhere, or at least it shouldn’t for anyone paying attention. The Force isn’t a beneficent extension of the Godhead, it’s a dangerous power that warps and breaks the people who are unfortunate enough to have been “blessed” with a high Midichlorian count. When Anakin finally cracks in the final act of Episode III, it seems to come as a relief. The power broke him, and he gives in to his absolute worse impulses with the enthusiasm of a recovering alcoholic throwing away ten years of chips to get shitfaced. He fought as long as he could. He wasn’t strong enough because the tools his elders gave him were insufficient to the task.

What the Prequels tell us is that good and evil do exist, but they don’t exist separate from ourselves. The Force is just power, power that can theoretically be used for either good or evil, but which in practice is best not used at all. This is the core of Jedi teaching, after all: restraint as the means of avoiding the temptation that naturally arises from the exercise of great power. The wisest use of power, the series says, is not to use power. Whatever the ontology of the Force itself may be, it can only ever be a reflection of the imperfect men and women who use it.

Watching The Clone Wars in the year leading up to the release of The Force Awakens rekindled my passion for the franchise – a passion that had never dwindled, but which certainly waxed and waned. It was something vital to which I could grab hold in the worst period of my life, the long months and years of paralyzing depression leading up to the revelation of 30 April 2016 that I am a transgender woman. Star Wars was there for me when I needed it the most. Nothing else made sense.

It may not have pointed the way out of the darkest period of my life, but I could hold onto it, a real and solid object that I could obsess over and with which I could distract myself while literally everything else around me began to crumble. George Lucas saved my life in a way that isn’t even slightly hyperbolic, gave me something I could carry from my earliest – literally, my very earliest childhood memories through to the present. I could look forward to new Star Wars even if I knew it would never be the same Star Wars. It was something to look forward to at a time when I had precious little else.

Of course, it’s all owned by Disney now, the same Disney that owns Spider-Man and Captain America, Buzz and Woody, Donald and Mickey – all those icons who never leave. If you think about it too much it’s quite disgusting that one company owns so much of our shared mental real estate. Our childhoods. Walk around Target today and you’ll see Star Wars plastered on everything from corn chips to underwear. These characters are icons, symbols of commerce and Hollywood, pax Americana writ large. But look under the hood and they’re also personal reflections of the cares and concerns of the man who made them, who directed their creation and oversaw their existence for three and a half decades. Scrub away the crap and you’re left with six profoundly weird movies, movies with unsettling themes and messages, powered by the profound and irresolvable dichotomy between childlike wonder at the endless possibilities of fantasy storytelling and a fatalistic belief in the frailty and corruptibility of human nature.

The Star Wars created and overseen by Lucas was a reflection, for better and for worse, of his own biases and neuroses. It was weird and idiosyncratic in a way that most people overlook because of the series’ popularity. I doubt Star Wars will ever be that weird or interesting again. But just because Spider-Man was never as weird after Ditko left doesn’t mean that it was never good. Just different.

Life goes on. Oh well.

VI

One more thing:

Star Wars isn’t meant to be seen on TV. It’s not designed to live on a plastic disc on your shelf.

The way to understand Star Wars is to go opening night. Used to be preview showings were at midnight, but in recent years they’ve expanded to Thursday evening. Whichever. It has to be first showing.

It has to be first showing because it has to be packed. Every seat filled. I’m agoraphobic. I don’t like crowds. But you have to be in a crowd to see Star Wars. You have to be shoulder to shoulder with strangers from all walks of life, herded into tiny plastic chairs and waiting together in darkness.

It’s electric. There’s nothing else like it. No other movies command the same respect from an audience. You are assembled to witness for the first time something completely new that you will carry for the rest of your life. Instantly indelible.

The lights go down. Silence. You squirm through the previews. You roll your eyes en masse at the candy advertisements. Finally.

For a moment, everything is black. Then the words come up, those same ten words everyone knows by heart. There’s another moment, the most exquisite moment of anticipation, a single heartbeat that holds the collective weight of hundreds of moviegoers for an eternity of breathless excitement . . .


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 Part Nine of an ongoing series

4. Someday We Will All Be Free
5. Trifles, Light As Air

Let's Talk About What We Talk About When We
Talk About Teaching Let's Talk About Love
6.  One - The Modern Age
7. Two - Slow Decay
8. Three - A Time To Be So Small

9. The Last Star Wars Essay


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3 comments :

William Burns said...

Huh, I guess everyone comments on Twitter these days.

Not a Star Wars fan, never will be, but this essay made it clearer to me why people are Star Wars fans than anything else I've seen.

Bully said...

Beautiful stuff, Tegan. Once again you articulate virtually seamlessly a lot of musings in my head, especially about the denizens of the Star Wars universe and the shared experience.

I had a Hammerhead action figure, and he was an Action Archeologist, discovering lost treasures and swooping bin to snatch them away from the Empire. Indiana Hammerhead. He had many adventures.

Charles R said...

Every time you write about the Prequels it makes me reconsider them, because I so desperately would love to value them as you do. The dark unsettling sheen being given to the original Trilogy sounds very interesting; that’s not what puts me off whenever I try to revisit them.

I think you touched on this earlier, when you talk about your reaction to the Force Awakens. You say that the film barely hangs together, mostly because of its excellent cast. I feel like the Prequels missed having that excellent cast to hang its story on; at the very least, it didn’t have one that could overcome Lucas’s known minimal direction the way the original trio could on sheer charisma. Added to that is the overuse of CGI. It’s unfortunate that late 90’s early 00’s CGI is dating itself in a less charming way than traditional special effects do to the best movies of the 80s, 70s, and 60s. That being said, it’s hard to appreciate the gravitas of certain scenes when they are awash in CGI overkill, like climactic battle between Anakin and Obi-Wan when they are surfing on cute bug eyed-droids over rivers of CGI lava. So many moments of the Prequels are undermined by the cast and the CGI that it makes it hard to appreciate them, even with the vital reading you’ve provided here.

But I know I will try again, because Star Wars.