Monday, February 24, 2020

The Skywalker Saga IV

There was a moment, the third time I saw the Rise of Skywalker. The Dark Side Jedi and the Light Side Jedi were standing on the wreckage of the second Death Star on Endor fighting with lightsabers. And a little voice in my head says "This is not a Star Wars movie any more."

This is, of course, absurd. The film -- the whole sequel trilogy -- is very much like a Star Wars movie. If anything, too much like one.

A list of references and call backs to the original trilogy would be longer than the actual movie.In Episode IV we saw Luke practicing his lightsaber: trying to hit something called a remote; wearing a helmet with a blast shield which obscures his vision. It is made pretty clear that the helmet and the remote are things which Ben found on the Millennium Falcon and re-purposed for Jedi Training. The radio version says explicitly that Han used the remote for target practice. Certainly, Ben didn't bring them with him from Tatooine. In Episode IX, we see Rey running through a Jedi training programme, wearing that exact same helmet; being zapped in the leg by the exact same remote. (Jedi Knights are clearly related to English P.E teachers, not averse to using little zaps and stings to make sure you are doing your best. Luke even raps Rey's knuckles in the Last Jedi.) Luke and Leia are wearing the same helmets in the flashback to her training. This is not very logical; but it works artistically. It draws a mental line from the rec room on the Millennium Falcon to the Resistance Base on Ajan Kloss.

When Rey crashes her stolen TIE Fighter on Ahch-To, Luke kindly lends her his old X-Wing; which is referred to as Red One. It has been underwater for the past decade. Luke levitates it out of the sea, just like Yoda did on Dagobah, with the same serene expression on his face. (There is no rust in the Star Wars universe.) Rey flies off wearing Luke's helmet from A New Hope, which in turn looked a lot like Anakin's helmet from Phantom Menace.

The trilogy is held together by recurrent themes and leitmotifs, just as surely as John Williams score is.



During the first half of the movie, our heroes visit Kijimi, a cyberpunk planet where Poe Dameron used to hang out. He meets up with a lady called, and if there's any giggling there'll be trouble, Zorii Bliss. During a pause in the action, they have a chat. They are sitting on the edge of a building. They don't say all that much. They were evidently lovers at one time. Poe wants Zorii to join the Resistance; and Zorri wants Poe to come away and be a scoundrel with her. In the end she gives him a stolen First Order Plot Device which will unlock the next level for him. But the tone of it -- just two characters having quite a long conversation -- is different from anything we have seen before.

It happens again on Endor. This time it is Finn who has made friends with Jannah, who turns out to be one of a group of Stormtroopers who deserted from the First Order when they were ordered to open fire on civilians. It is insinuated that the Force made this happen; and that it was the Force which made Finn run away from the First Order in Episode VII.

Perhaps that is what the title meant. Perhaps the Force had "awakened" in the sense that it was moving goodies all over the galaxy to stop working for the bad guys. Perhaps that's the underlying theme of the trilogy: Poe in the first movie; the boy with the mop in the second; thousands and thousands of ships in this one. A terrible piece of editing means that we hear Finn telling Rey that he has something very important to tell her; but we never find out what he was going to say. The easy answer is "Rey, I love you, but we literally have only sixteen hours to save the universe." But the more interesting suggestion is "I, like you, have Force powers. Will you teach me?"

Jannah and Zorrii are fairly marginal characters. They don't turn the wheels of the plot any more than Admiral Ackbar or Wedge Antilles did. And yet they get to talk, at length. They come across far more as characters than Rose Tico, who had a much more important role in Last Jedi.

The Prequels happen in a world where nobles and queens perform arias. The Trilogy is a world of comic strip heroes who shout cliches with exclamation marks on the end. Bu the Sequels take place in a world of human beings -- or at any rate, believable movie characters -- who have a past and a future and an off stage existence.

It has been said that the Trilogy is constructed like a silent movie. You could easily look at the pictures and infer: "Luke hesitates. He wants to go with Ben but also feels responsible to his uncle" without actually hearing the words. The Prequels would, of course, be greatly improved if you couldn't hear any of the dialogue. Rise of Skywalker moves directly away from this: quite pointedly so in the opening scenes where everyone keeps talking at once. The speech bubbles have been replaced by dialogue. The comic book characters have morphed into people.


George Lucas originally planned to make a series of twelve Star Wars movies. And they were going to be set over hundreds of years; but they would all have been focused on the Skywalker Clan.

That makes a certain amount of sense, given that part of the original premise (back when the project was still called The Star Wars) was that Luke was from the Starkiller family, one of twelve different Jedi Clans. Lucas may not have known the identity of Darth Vader while working on the first film; but he always envisaged a generational story. The Skywalkers were always going to be very important people.

Some people find the whole idea of a story about a clan or a family distinctly problematic. The idea that heroes become heroes because of their heritage smacks of royalty, nobility and privilege. You could even draw racial conclusions from the idea that you are a goodie because your daddy was a goodie and your daddy is a goodie because his father was... That is why the boy-with-the-mop scene was so radical in the Last Jedi.

Then Lucas changed his mind, and started to talk in terms of a trilogy of trilogies; three films about Anakin Skywalker; three films about Luke Skywalker; and three films about the next generation of Skywalkers. The dashing young heroes from one trilogy could become the ageing mentors of the next.

Then Lucas changed his mind, and said that the original trilogy told the whole saga of the redemption of Darth Vader. And once you have bought into the Joseph Campbell refit which occurred between episode four and five then I think he was right. The unmasking of the father is a very beautiful thing. Once Luke and Anakin were reconciled the story was over. It was a nice joke to say that the first film was the fourth episode, but there was no need for episodes one, two and three to exist.

Then Lucas changed his mind, kind of. Star Wars was a six part story after all. His three prequels didn't change the central premise; but they rehearsed the established back-story on the screen. We learned more about the Republic and the Emperor and the Jedi and the Clone Wars and how Vader fell into darkness. But that only made Return of the Jedi more definitively the end of the story. Six parts, two trilogies, all the extended universe novels you could eat, but no more movies.

Then Lucas changed his mind and authorized Walt Disney to create three further installments of the Saga, with minimal input from him. The story which started with Phantom Menace would end in the Rise of Skywalker; but that is only one story in the universe. We already have two floating chapters, the very good Rogue One and the really not at all bad Solo; but other movies will follow. Possibly a new trilogy or a new trilogy of trilogies.

"Where will it all end?" asked Threepio in the 1977 Making of Star Wars TV documentary. "Perhaps, Artoo" he replied "It will never end."

So the sacred Trilogy is now only one third of a nine part saga; and that nine part saga is only one element in a saga that that includes cartoon shows, comic books, novels and a theme park. And that saga is only one small thread in the history of the Galaxy. It is one tale; a big one, certainly, one that takes forty years to play out and ends in the most apocalyptic of apocalyptic wars. But it is not all that is happening.

The epilogue tells us very clearly where the Sequels stand in relation to the Prequels. The final seconds of Rise of Skywalker take us back to the beginning. If we really believed that Star Wars was a nine part story beginning with Phantom menace, then Rey would have gone back to Threed and laid a flower on the grave of Amidala; or else she would have gone back to Tatooine and found the slave hovel where Anakin was born. But we all know that Star Wars really begins in the Lars moisture farm; with Aunt Beru calling out "Luke! Luke!" The final scene doffs a cap, not to the multi-part saga, but to our Trilogy.

Rey buries Luke's lightsaber on Tatooine. She buries Leia's as well, in a place she never visited and which had no particular significance for her. (She did go to Tatooine briefly to rescue Han from Jabba.) I will lay you to rest in the place your grandpa lived for a while, and where your brother was fostered. Well, okay. Leia's childhood home exploded a long time ago.

Going back to Tatooine means going back to the where the films started...and crucially, conceptually, to the image of two suns. Twin suns. Luke looking to the horizon; Rey walking off into the sunset.

Rey takes on the name Skywalker. After Luke, and I suppose Leia; identifying them as her parents. Anakin was lost when he took on the name Vader; I suppose Rey taking on the name Skywalker somehow reverses his fall. And although Rey buries the lightsabers, she now has one of her own. Making your own lightsaber is the mark of completing Jedi training. Rey is totally a Jedi, and so...

...and so what? The idea that the Jedi would end and be replaced by something different has been overwritten. The hints of a Jedi Reformation, in which everything comes down to your personal relationship with the Force, seems to have gone away as well. There has to be a Jedi Order with Jedi Books and Jedi Temples. Is Rey going to start the whole thing up again? Will she avoid the mistakes that Luke made; or will one of her students fall to the Dark Side? Does Palpatine have other living descendants?

Cinema audiences are more savvy then they used to be. Cinema audiences grew up with Star Wars. Cinema audiences read Wikipedia. When the prequels came out, serious movie critics found the idea that Episode One came out after Episode Four so esoteric as to be almost impenetrable. But everyone understands that Rogue One takes place "just before Star Wars" and Solo takes place "after episode III but before episode IV" and that even the theme park has a place in the official chronology. Not that weird an idea, truthfully. If you were making a Wild West visitor attraction, then "which state are we meant to be in?" and "what year is this?" would be perfectly good questions. 

Do you know what I would like?

I would like Disney to decide that Rise of Skywalker is the terminal point in the Star Wars saga. New films and cartoons can take place anywhere within the I - IX timeline; but nothing canonical will take place outside it. The Star Wars universe will get thicker: we will see more and more of the Old Republic, the Rebellion Era and the Resistance. But it will never get longer. We will never see the New Republic. We will never see Rey's students fall to the Dark Side. We will never see the return of the return of the Sith.

That is what I would like.

I'm Andrew. I like God, Doctor Who, Star Wars, Wagner, folk-music and Spider-Man, not necessarily in that order. I have no political opinions of any kind.

If you are enjoying my essays, please consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)

Monday, February 17, 2020

The Skywalker Saga - III

Star Wars fans can never forgive the prequels. 

Everyone agrees that they were disappointing. But they were always going to be disappointing. We didn't really want to know what the Old Republic looked like. 

But we have made disliking the prequels into a bit of a fetish. We have turned Phantom Menace into a code-word for a bad film; hounding, we now know, at least one of the actors almost to the point of suicide. It's hardly possible now to go and watch the film and perceive its good points and bad points. It wasn't that great. But it was never as bad as all that. 

We can never forgive them. But we have, strangely, accepted the prequels. And the bigger fans we are, the more accepting of them we tend to be. 

If you're a casual movie goer, then the Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith are movies you saw nearly twenty years ago. You may even own the DVDs. But if you are a proper Star Wars fan; then you have also seen and enjoyed the Clone Wars cartoon. You are looking forward to Ewan McGreggor (as opposed to Alec Guiness) reprising the role of Ben Kenobi. And you can hardly deny then when Darth Maul appeared in the the penultimate scene  of Solo, you knew who he was. 

We take it for granted that the Emperor was called Palpatine; that the center of the Empire was called Coruscant; that trainee Jedi were called padwan; that the headquarters of the Jedi Knights was known as the temple; that the Emperor and Darth Vader were part of a secret organisation of Dark Side enthusiasts called "the Sith" and that all Sith take the title Darth. None of that was in the Trilogy. It comes out of the prequels that we all hate so much. 

Wiseacres tell us that the prequels do not form part of their "head canon" and that they are hardly more than "fan fic". But they define our understanding of Star Wars in a way that Caravan of Courage simply does not. You are free to say "I don't care about the Star Wars Universe; I only care about the original movies, or indeed the original movie." But if you are interested in the Star Wars Universe than you are interested in the prequels. 

Since the prequels were created by George Lucas, and since they represent his own long-cherished back-story they are the very opposite of fan-fiction. But if you accept the metric I proposed in my previous essay, they are Stories of the Second Kind: generated from within an established narrative; meaningful only if you are already familiar with the milieu. "How did Obi-Wan first meet Anakin Skywalker?" and "How did Palpatine turn Anakin to the Dark Side?" are without meaning to anyone without a passing knowledge of Star Wars. There will always be a small number of mainstream critics who claim not to understand them.

Episodes VII, VIII and IX are, in that sense, much less fannish that episode I, II and III. They are pitched at people who know who the Star Wars characters are, but who don't care all that much. Finn, Rey and Poe are new characters -- a hot young pilot, a reformed Storm Trooper, a scavenger with Force Powers. Only Kylo Renn really emerges from the matrix of the previous movies: he is Han Solo and Princess Leia's son, named after Obi-Wan Kenobi, trained in the Force by Luke Skywalker. But that back story only emerges gradually: he is introduced to us merely as a Sinister Bad Guy in Black Armour. By the time his identity is revealed, even a complete newbie can understand that "the guy in the scary armour is the son of the old guy who used to own the spaceship." For two films, Snoke was pointedly not "the Emperor's Son" or "a new Sith Apprentice": he was just "the big hologram bad guy." In the third film we find that he was in some sense created by the Emperor; but by that stage it no longer matters. 

What some fans wanted; and what Marvel Comics continues to serve up in an endlessly diminishing monthly cycle, was simply "What Luke and Han did next." And what fans wanted Luke and Han to have done next is same old same old: flying lightsabers down trenches and smuggling Ewoks for Jabba the Hutt, for ever and ever, may the Force be with you. 

The Last Jedi decided that "what Luke did next" was something unexpected and surprising. He ran away to Craggy Island and denounced the Jedi. Some of us regard this as an unexpected development. Some of us regard it as a personal betrayal. 


How should we watch the Rise of Skywalker? 

Does it still occupy that center ground between movie serials and fairy tales that Lucas laid claim to in 1976? Or is it primarily a new chapter in the history of the Galaxy? 

When we staggered out of the multiplex at 3AM, what did we think he had seen? Rey doing a back-flip into the path of an oncoming TIE-Fighter? Finn leading an actual cavalry charge on the back of a Star Destroyer? More lightsaber duels than you can shake a pink glowy stick at? Or the conclusion of the big war that began with the Naboo trade dispute? The end of the thousand year Sith conspiracy? A hint as to the future of the Jedi Knights? 

Well, all of the above, obviously. But which did you care about? Were you one of those who was thinking "Enough with all this silly Indiana Jones stuff: tell us the big secret of the Sith"? Or were you one of those who thought "Can we please get away from this second rate Harry Potter end of level guardian and have some more spaceships, please"? 

Star Wars is poly-vocal, and always has been. The iconic Cantina in A New Hope is logically a seaman's tavern; a place to hire a ship or sign on for a voyage; but it is manifestly also a cowboy Saloon and Han Solo is clearly a cowboy. But it's a cowboy tavern where the mysterious of Knight feel quite at home. The Rise of Skywalker understands this. The scene in which Finn and Poe tease Chewbacca about cheating at chess does not quite belong in the same movie as the scene where a shriveled old Dark Lord asks his young victim to perform a human sacrifice. The intense psychological relationship between Rey and Kylo is tonally different from the action scenes that Poe and Finn wise crack their way through. ("Is this a bad time?" asks Poe, as the two of them are up before a military firing squad.) 

Poe Dameron is no Han Solo, and Oscar Isaac is no Harrison Ford. But Kijimi -- more than anything in Solo -- is the kind of world that Han Solo would have swaggered through; dark and mechanical and poor and yet at the same time, very, very cool. In Blade Runner or Neuromancer it's the whole universe; in Star Wars, it's just a place the heroes pass through. Babu Frik -- the pint-sized mechanic who rewires Threepio's brain -- is not a Jawa; but his droid shop is in the same visual space as their Sandcrawler.

Star Wars is space ships and lightsabers and Freudian father figures; but it's also greasy droid foundries and sleazy spice runners. And Rise of Skywalker has, belatedly, remembered this. 


Does Rise of Skywalker make sense? Is Rise of Skywalker supposed to make sense? Does it matter whether Rise of Skywalker makes sense or not? 

Where did all those thousands and thousands of Sith on the planet Exegis come from? I thought Sithism was a secret teaching; passed from one single master to one single apprentice for thousands of years? 

It can be explained. Anything can be explained. Yoda lied. Yoda was mistaken. The crowd are not Sith, but Sith supporters. The death of Vader ended the rule of Two. Palpatine has spent the years since his death on a recruiting drive. But it isn't explained. No-one says "But I thought only two there were, a master and apprentice..." Are we supposed to remember? To care? 

Vader thought that technology was relatively unimportant compared with the Dark Side of the Force, but the Emperor appears to have spent the last thirty years doing nothing but amassing technology. Now he has invented from nowhere a rule which says that if, and only if, Rey kills him, then his spirit will jump into her. Mind-body transfer has never been hinted at as a Sith-power before. (Surviving physical death seems to be a specific Jedi power; we were once told it was an esoteric teaching of the Whills.) Suddenly, without warning or foreshadowing, Rey and Kylo are something called a dyad in the Force. They are especially powerful and the Emperor especially needs them, or especially fears them...because I say so. That's why. 

Are we supposed to listen to all this stuff, take notes and resolve to make sense of it further down the line? Or do we listen to it, note that it makes very little sense, and conclude that "this is not my Star Wars" and that Disney have destroyed our childhoods? If we are an entirely different kind of person, do we say that all this kerr-razy science fiction is nonsense and always has been? Or do we half-listen, and hear "mystical waffle; plot device; McGuffin; cool sounding Forcey Stuff" and just kind of accept that the Force will work as the Force will work and there's no doing anything about it? 

It is incredibly cool that nine movies and a thousand generations come down to one girl representing all the Jedi and one wizened old man representing all the Sith, facing off in a cave. It's as good a way of ending the saga as I can think of. If the plot-scaffolding required to bring us to this point is a little shaky, maybe I can live with that. 

"You mean Palpatine could have brought down the Rebel Fleet with Force Lightening at any time?" 

"No, not at any time. Only when it was funny." 


There are nagging questions, and they nag a bit harder than they used to. It is necessary for the Plot that there should be a traitor in the First Order. If there is a traitor, then it has to be someone; and if it has to be someone, then it is pretty cool for it to be Hux. But it is hard to work out a process by which he could have become a traitor. The animosity between Hux and his Stormtroopers and Renn and his Dark Side could have become a rift that split the First Order. I could see Hux attempting a coup or Renn having him assassinated. But the idea that Hux would betray the First Order to the Resistance just to spite Renn fits in with nothing we have been told about his personality up to this point. 

I am sure that this kind of thing would have been a problem in Star Wars and the Empire Strikes Back if we had thought about it. But we didn't. The Empire was never more than and endless succession of Storm Troopers for Han Solo to shoot and and endless succession of admirals for Darth Vader to strangle. So we didn't do a lot of thinking. Once the characters start having names you start expecting their actions to make more sense.

But not too much. The moment when Hux identifies himself as the mole is cool; as is the moment when Withnail shoots him in cold blood. It's only after we've left the cinema that we think "Wait a minute..." Can First Order officers really just execute each other on the spur of the moment? The idea that Withnail was a follower of Palpatine in the days of Empire comes from nowhere, stays around for exactly one scene, and then goes away again. It doesn't seem to make any difference to anything. 


Don't mention the Jedi books. 

They are quite a big deal in the Last Jedi. Luke is going to destroy them; Yoda steps in an actually does the deed; but then it turns out that Rey has preserved them. Luke thinks that burning the books would end the Jedi order once and for all: they are that important. Yoda seems to think that getting rid of them allows the Jedi to move forward into a new phase. But at the end of the film it turns out that Rey preserved them. This is implied to be quite a significant twist. The Resistance has everything it needs: the Jedi can continue. 

I suppose I expected Rey to use the books to become a Jedi. "Teach Yourself How To Be a Guardian of Peace and Justice"; "The Dummies Guide to Force Mastery". One could have imagined a film in which Rey is trying to learn how to be a Jedi from the dry old texts while some other Jedi -- Luke's ghost, perhaps -- seeks to move beyond the written words and create a new, more vibrant tradition. The fourth trilogy could then have been about the theological struggle between Orthodox and Reformed Jedism. 

But the books turn out to be of no significance whatsoever. Rey is seen reading them, briefly, and they contain a clue as to the whereabouts of the Sith Mcguffin. But any other plot device would have served just as well. It is painfully obvious that "Rey saves the books" was a very, very late addition to the Last Jedi and Abrams has had to think up something to do with it. 

Rey doesn't need the books to learn how to be a Jedi. Leia teaches her. 

Ah, Leia. This is very sad. Obviously, Carrie Fisher was meant to have a much bigger part in the movie. The various bits of hi-tech jiggery-pokery with unused footage and voice-overs enables them to fake her presence fairly well. If you didn't know the circumstances you would easily believe that Carrie was present, but with a reduced role. Knowing what we do, it is painfully obvious that Abrams was left with a few out-takes of Carrie Fisher saying "Yes, I think that is the case" and "No, we are not going to do it like that" and had to build complete scenes around them. (Do actors film "noddies" -- out of context reaction shots -- in the way that TV talk-show hosts do?) 

The core plot idea survives. Leia, Kylo Renn's mum, calls him back from the Dark Side; but she exhausts her strength and dies in the process. It is not a bad resolution: Luke saved Anakin; Leia saves Ben; family love is more powerful than the Dark Side. But the revelation that Leia was a Jedi all along is painfully underdeveloped. 

This isn't just because of Fisher's absence. I can't help thinking that if Leia was a fully trained Jedi who had nipped off to Ilum and created her own lightsaber; and if she had then rejected her calling, like Ahsoka... I can't help feeling that it would have been foreshadowed. Some talk about whether she would go back to her former calling when Luke dies; some moments of introspection; some flashbacks. Or, else, the revelation that Leia was a Jedi would have been presented as a big secret that is dramatically revealed. But it is presented as something to be taken for granted; something we already knew. When Luke hands Leia's lightsaber to Rey, I didn't think "Aha!" I thought "Whoah...did I miss a bit?" 

Leia as an actual Jedi with an actual lightsaber is another of those things which is just a bit too obvious. A bit too much what I would have put into a Star Wars role-playing game. Yes, in Return of the Jedi Luke says that she will one day learn to use the Force like he can: but the idea that she positively decided that she would be more use as a politician is more interesting. And more like Leia. 

And anyway: isn't it a rather major plot-point that Jedi have to be celibate? 


Lando Carlrission was interesting for exactly fourty five minutes in 1980: an ex-friend and an ex-enemy of Han Solo, gone straight, turned traitor. "I'm sorry. I had no choice, they arrived right before you did."He doesn't get any actual scenes in Return of the Jedi; he's just a warm body; a generic rebel keeping the Falcon's command seat warm while Han is being cooked by the Ewoks. The younger version we meet in Solo is quite a bit more interesting; and I deeply enjoyed the Marvel Comics version who is perpetually rushing into adventures while dictating the text of his own autobiography. 

He pops up in the second act of Rise of Skywalker, shoots a storm trooper with a bow and arrow, passes on the next clue in the treasure hunt, and is gone. He comes back for the final final final battle, taking the Falcon and impressively recruiting a fleet of some thousands of ships from all round the universe in a matter of minutes. 

Even if hyper-drive is now conceived of as instantaneous cross-universe teleportation -- and if it does work like that it's hard to see why anyone would kill time playing chess during voyages -- surely it doesn't take no time at all to launch one of those big ships? And how did Lando come up with a million billion trillion volunteers in three minutes, when Leia couldn't muster a single one at the battle of Crait? 

But I was very happy with Lando's remarks about having helped Luke when he was chasing a "Jedi Hunter" across the universe. I don't know what a Jedi Hunter is, or what he was hunting decades after the last Jedi was dead. But I do like the idea that, as well as running a Jedi school and hanging out with puffins and amphibious nuns, Luke found some time to hook up with old mates and go on adventures with them. 

And that's the real trick, isn't it? All the stuff which fans wanted turns out to have happened. Han Solo spend time zipping about the universe doing dodgy deals in the Millennium Falcon. Luke took his lightsaber on as many Jedi missions as your heart desires. Leia was a padwan and then a Jedi. But all that obvious stuff happened between the movies and we can fill in the details as we wish. 

Lucas arguably spoiled The Old Republic by putting it on screen. Disney has very wisely left What Luke Did Next where it belongs; in our collective imagination.

We may eventually be able to forgive them.

I'm Andrew. I like God, Doctor Who, Star Wars, Wagner, folk-music and Spider-Man, not necessarily in that order. I have no political opinions of any kind.

If you are enjoying my essays, please consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)

Monday, February 10, 2020

The Skywalker Saga - II

If Star Wars Episodes I - IX made up a single story, whose story would it be? 


Back in the day, George Lucas said that when the Saga was complete, it would be clear that the story had been told from the droids point of view. 

This could certainly be said to have been true of A New Hope. We start in the middle of a big battle between two spaceships; we focus down on two robots that the human combatants hardly notice. We keep focused on them was they end up with the SECRET PLANS of the EMPIRE'S ULTIMATE WEAPON and as they precipitate Luke's encounter with Ben Kenobi. Threepio saves everyone's life when they are trapped in the garbage masher; Artoo accompanies Luke on his final X-Wing mission. 

The droids defined Star Wars. Having robots as main characters was one of the film's unique selling points. People talked about "Star Wars robots" long before they knew what a Jedi Knight was. I remember being surprised every time I saw Threepio on the big screen He looked like a living,  walking toy; an image on a bubble gum card; a full sized Mickey Mouse at Disney World. He's a stooge, but he's a wonderful stooge, a straight man who keeps on stealing the scene. 

The droids have less and less to do in Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. They are present, but awkwardly present, in the prequels: shoe-horned in to fulfill a contractual commitment. Threepio feels like a series of cameos; Artoo like a cute, bleeping sonic screwdriver. 

But one of the nicest things about Rise of Skywalker is that Threepio gets some time in the spotlight. It feels like we've got our old buddy back, for the first time since Return of the Jedi. His presence affects the whole tone of the first half of the movie; puncturing every pompous or melodramatic exchange with a self-deprecating one-liner. And for the first time, he has agency and subjectivity. When he has to sacrifice his own life -- or at any rate his memories -- to save the Rebellion, he is allowed to volunteer; to form an opinion of his own; to say goodbye to his friends. No-one says "He is our toaster and we can take him apart if we want to." He still defers to "Master Luke" and "Mistress Rey", rather in the way Basil Brush used to talk about Mr Roy and Mr Derek. But Rey and Finn and Poe appear to treat him as a person. A person with his own foibles and weaknesses, but a member of the gang. 

Some people were very annoyed with Solo because it included a droid -- a lady droid at that -- who was actively campaigning for droid rights. I never pay any attention to anyone who uses words like "PC" and "SJW". But I did think that the L3-37 plotline risked releasing some political worms that ought really to have stayed in the can. 

I never had too much difficulty accepting a world where Luke Skywalker's farm machines had personalities and could answer him back. That's a fait accompli from the beginning. The Millennium Falcon's engine talks to Threepio; it is entirely likely that Aunt Beru's blue milk jug talks back at her. That's how this world works. You can't laugh at the Flintstones and also wonder if the American Humane association has okayed the working conditions of Wilma's vacuum cleaner. Yes, the sale of Threepio and Artoo looks a little like a slave auction; but it looks a little like a used car dealership as well. But a character like L3-37 forces us to think of droids not as "machines that can talk" but as "people who happen to have metal bodies." At which point it is hard not to say "Waa...Luke Skywalker, to a goodie, is a slave owner!" And then the whole saga falls to pieces. 

"But Artoo Deetoo and See Threepio positively want Luke to buy them" Well yes: but "a caste of slaves who by their nature want to be slaves" is a politically problematic idea in itself. Ask J.K. Rowling. And Douglas Adams demonstrated that "we have bred an animal which positively wants to be eaten" does not necessarily solve the moral difficulties about meat eating. 

Threepio's story arc addresses the question much more subtly. When we met him, he was more or less a willing slave. There was no big moment when anyone said "This is wrong!"  No story in which Threepio became radicalized. Threepio campaigning for Droid Rights is impossible to imagine; like Jeeves joining a trades union. But by the end of the series, Threepio is regarded as a person. By the audience; by the other characters; and most importantly, by himself. 


So: if the Skywalker Saga isn't about the droids, then whose story is it? At one time, when he was most under the influence of Joseph Campbell, George Lucas would certainly have said that it was the story of Darth Vader. For a decade he felt that the Trilogy satisfactorily told the story of the Redemption of Anakin and couldn't be expanded on. Then he -- unwisely, in some people's eyes -- decided that the older story, of the Fall of Anakin could be told as well. 

Anakin Skywalker is the one who will bring balance to the Force. Palpatine is the Sith Master who takes him as his apprentice and turns him to the Dark Side. The first trilogy ends with the birth of Anakin's son; and each of the three films of the second trilogy drive Luke and Darth Vader into confrontations: in the Death Star trench, on Cloud City, and in the Emperor's Throne room over Endor. At the end of the trilogy, Vader comes back to the light and gives his life to destroy the Emperor. He saves Luke; but he says that Luke has also saved him. In the Force Awakens, Luke says that as a result of Palpatine's fall the Force was indeed balanced for many years. A widespread fan interpretation said that Anakin's role as the Chosen One was precisely to kill the Emperor. Only by becoming a Sith Apprentice could he get close enough to the Sith Master to slay him; by turning Anakin to the Dark, Palpatine was ensuring his own destruction. (Gosh! How ironic!) This was the plot of the Dark Empire comic book, incidentally: Luke goes over to the Dark Side, or pretends to go over to the Dark Side, in order to destroy a resurgent Palpatine. 

So; where is Anakin-Vader in Episode IX? Kylo still has his melted mask, a holy relic. The third trilogy is full of the twisted remains of the second; wrecked Star Destroyers and Walkers in Episode VII; a wrecked Death Star in Episode IX - to say nothing of old lightsabers, old X-Wings and old droids. But the message of the movie appears to be that Anakin's sacrifice made no difference. He didn't defeat the Emperor. He didn't end the Sith. Palpatine got knocked down, but he got up again, a hundred times more powerful than before.

Vader is present in episodes VII - IX only as a memory, a reputation, the reputation that Ben Solo is trying and failing to live up to. In Galactic terms the main upshot of the original trilogy is to facilitate the unlikely liaison that produced Kylo Ren. If Leia hadn't put the plans into Artoo Deetoo, she would certainly have never met Han Solo. 

I suppose we could say that the Star Wars saga is the story of how a child was conceived by the midichlorians and of all the implications that single event had on the Galaxy, even unto the third generation. But that's unsatisfying; because the significance of Anakin is taken for granted and not explained. We never find out, really, what bringing balance to the Force means; we never find out who made the Prophecy and when. The Phantom Menace stepped back from the story of the Empire and the Rebellion and asks us to look at in the context of a wider struggle between Jedi and Sith. It's a very different proposition to the original trilogy, but it is an intriguing, evocative space opera in its own right. But the prequel trilogy is full of set-ups that never pay off. Return of the Jedi can't tell us what it means for Darth Vader to be the Chosen One because Lucas didn't know there was such a thing as the Chosen One when he made that movie. The Rise of Skywalker could have pulled the two trilogies together; but it chose not to. There is a broad hint in Revenge of the Sith that Anakin was created, not by microscopic Force pixies, but as the result of evil Dark Side magic carried out by Palpatine's very-nearly canonical master, Darth Plageus. If the Skywalker Saga were a single story, then don't you think that the reborn Emperor, facing Vader's grandkid in a Sith arena, might have mentioned it? "I made Snoke just as my master made Vader" But he doesn't. And now we will never know. 

Lucas reportedly wanted the third trilogy to be set in the microverse of the midichlorians, so we dodged a bullet there. 


So, then. The Skywalker Saga is about Luke Skywalker. Isn't that obvious? Episode I shows how his parents met; Episode II shows how he was conceived; Episode III ends with his birth and his fostering with Mime the Dwarf. (Check this - ed.) Episodes IV, V and VI shows how he learned his true identity and became a Jedi. Episodes VII, VIII and IX show him as an old man, passing the baton on to the next generation. A baby, a hero, the object of a quest, a mentor and a very active ghost. The saga ends in his childhood home; he appears with Leia as a Force Ghost in almost the final shot. Star Wars, the Skywalker Saga is Luke's tale. 

But Luke's Tale is an oddly unsatisfactory narrative: neither a story of great victory nor of terrible, tragic defeat. It's a sequence of apparent victories that turn out not to amount to anything. 

Luke is never as crucial to Rey as Ben Kenobi was to Luke. Pretty much Obi-Wan's life work was as Luke's guardian; saving him from Anakin and watching over him for two decades on Tatooine. Until he met Ben, Luke knew nothing of the Jedi or the Force; we can be pretty certain that if he hadn't met Ben that day he would have lived and died a moisture farmer, or been drafted into the Imperial navy, or murdered by Vader. Rey can use the Force before she knows what it is. Much of the advice that Luke gives her is bad. Old Ben remains the archetypal Jedi, the Jedi that Luke and everyone else aspire to be. Old Luke, is if anything, the Jedi that Rey has to avoid becoming. True, if not for Luke, Kylo Ren might have turned her to the Dark Side; but then, if not for Luke, Kylo Ren might not have existed. The best we can say is that, on several  crucial occasions, Anakin's family held back the tide of the Dark Side, in preparation for the moment when Palpatine's own bloodline would end it. If Luke hadn't been there at the battle of Yavin, the Rebellion would have ended there and then. Luke's presence on the second Death Star held up the Emperor's schemes by twenty years. Luke's self-sacrifice prevents the First Order from destroying the remnant of the Resistance on Crait.

We are told that for two thousand years the Sith preserved themselves by passing their teaching down the generations: from master to apprentice, master to apprentice. Luke's Jedi school is an abject failure. Ben Solo turns to the Dark Side; and all Luke's students are killed. But it achieves one thing: Luke passes Yoda's teaching on to Leia; and Leia is able to pass it on to Rey. Luke is the conduit by which Palpatine's granddaughter becomes the Last Jedi. Master to apprentice. Qui-Gon to Ben, Ben to Luke, Luke to Leia, Leia to Rey. 

That's sometimes all you can do. Take it, feel it, and pass it on. Not for me, not for you, but for someone, somewhere, one day.

For a thousand generations the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic. And then they all died. And for forty years, the Jedi ceased to exist. The Jedi teaching was preserved by just one individual: she will always be remembered as the founder of the New Jedi Order.

"How did the founder come by the name of Skywalker, Master?"

"That is a very long and very strange story, youngling."

"Please tell it to me again."

"Very well. A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away, there was a slave, and her name was Shmi..."

The Empire Strikes Back changed Star Wars. The Return of the Jedi changed the Empire Strikes Back. The prequels changed the trilogy. The sequels changed the prequels. And the final scene of Episode IX changes the nine part saga. It's called the Rise of Skywalker because it's the story of how Rey chose her name. The trilogy of trilogies is now the story of why the last and first Jedi Knight came to be called Skywalker. "The Skywalker Saga". It's Rey's story now.

I'm Andrew. I like God, Doctor Who, Star Wars, Wagner, folk-music and Spider-Man, not necessarily in that order. I have no political opinions of any kind.

If you are enjoying my essays, please consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)

Sunday, February 02, 2020

The Skywalker Saga - I


A Farm Boy intercepts a message from a Captive Princess. He is trained in ancient mysticism by a Veteran Hero, and fires the shot which saves the universe in the final battle. 

A Young Man, the son of an Ancient Hero, is trained in ancient mysticism, but recklessly confronts the evil Dark Lord before he is ready. He discovers that the evil Dark Lord is in truth his father. He tries to bring his father back to the light; and seems to fail. But when he is brought before the Dark Lord's Master to be killed, his father has compassion, turns against his Master and slays him. The Young Man is reconciled with his father and lays him to rest. 

I - VI 
A long prophesied child, the Chosen One, is discovered and trained in ancient mysticism. But a parallel, evil stream of ancient mysticism is working behind the scenes. The Chosen One is initiated into the evil cult; he wipes out the good mystics and helps the head of the evil cult become ruler of the universe. The Chosen One's children are hidden from him. But when they grow up, the Chosen One's Son confronts his father, and causes him to turn back to the light and to kill the leader of the evil cult. The Chosen One and his Son are reconciled, and the Son lays the Father to rest. The long prophesied child has ended the evil cult; the prophecies have come true, after a fashion. 

I -IX 
A long prophesied child, the Chosen One, is discovered. He is initiated into evil mysticism by the Dark Lord, and he helps the same Dark Lord rule the universe. But he has two children of his own, a Son and Daughter. The Son confronts his father and causes him to turn back to the light, and to kill the Dark Lord, at the cost of his own life. But the Dark Lord soon recovers from his death, rejoins the rest of his evil cult, and starts building a powerful, non-mystical army. The Chosen One's Son tries to create a new order of good mystics. The Chosen One's Daughter has a son of her own, who joins the new mystical order. But the Dark Lord corrupts him. He too turns evil; and slaughters the new order of mystics. The Chosen One's Son, now the last of the mystics, runs away, intending that the teaching of the mystics dies with him. But the Dark Lord had a consort; and children; and one of his children had a child of his own. The Dark Lord's Granddaughter has inherited his mystical powers, but seeks to use them for good. She finds the Chosen One's Son, in his exile, and persuades him to train her in good mysticism. The Chosen One's Evil Grandson tries to turn the Dark Lord's Granddaughter to evil; while the Dark Lord's Granddaughter tries to turn the Chosen One's Grandson back to the light. The Dark Lord intends that his Granddaughter should replace him. But at the very last moment the Chosen One's Evil Grandson comes back to the light; and gives his life to save the Dark Lord's Granddaughter. She kills the Dark Lord (with the help of the spirits of every good mystic who ever lived). The evil cult, and all the children of the Chosen One are dead; but the Dark Lord's Granddaughter takes on the Chosen One's name in memory of him. 

The opening seconds. 

The logo, shrinking into space. The fanfare; the march, so heroic it is almost whimsical. The scrolling text, slanted away from the audience, slowly receding into space. The music quietly going "twinkle twinkle" in front of a screen of black stars.

Someone must paint them, I suppose. That could be a job on What's My Line? "I'm the guy who paints the stars in Star Wars." And then a space ship flies across the screen. This time we start with the baddies. 

That's what they all have in common; all nine films. Doctor Who doesn't have the same title sequence it did when I was a kid nor even really the same theme music, and that makes me sad. Every Star Wars movie starts like every other Star Wars movie, and so did many of the computer games and this makes me happy. This is the last time we will ever see a Star Wars movie with exactly this beginning and that makes me old. 

We start with Kylo on a quest to find the Emperor. We see him cutting people down with his lightsaber. And almost immediately, while we are still in a prologue, we see the Emperor. 

Not dead. Lit in such a way that the theaters have to warn epileptics to stay away. And in a sentence the last two movies are overwritten. I was worried about Snoke. The guidebooks and novels said he was some kind of baddie. Not a Sith. Some other kind. 

My friend thought that should be enough for me. He's a baddie; that's all you need to know. But I thought that the first film set Snoke up as a mystery; and a mystery needs a solution or else it's a cheat. 

"I made Snoke" is an explanation and a back story but it changes everything and not for the better. It removes something from the Force Awakens that was rather clever. The First Order were wannabe baddies, Nazi cosplayers with some big ships to back them up; keeping the Empire going even though they knew it had lost. Kylo Ren was a tragic kid with impostor syndrome who wants, slightly ludicrously, to be the new Darth Vader but realizes he'll never be good enough to be that evil. But the First Order is now the Emperor's pet project; Kylo Ren is now the Emperor's special pawn. 

In the Last Jedi, Kylo is said to have turned to the Dark Side because Luke Skywalker recklessly drew his lightsaber when he perceived his pupil's potential for evil. That was interesting; unexpected; challenging: a failure of the Light gives birth to the Darkness. "The clone Emperor's puppet put a mole in Luke's Jedi school" is just that little bit more obvious. 

This may be the third time that a military conflict between fascists and liberals has turned out to have been part of a Sith plot to rule the universe. A third of A New Hope was given over to a thrilling battle to escape the Death Star: but it turns out that it was always Darth Vader's plan to let Leia escape so he could find the location of the Rebel's hidden fortress. We know that Luke's Jedi Dad fought in the Clone Wars. We are coming to the end of a very good 133 episode cartoon series about those same wars. But they were only ever a trick to get Palpatine elected president of the galaxy. He is in fact running both sides. 

Maybe that is the point. The Message even. Star Wars was originally going to be an oblique critique of American foreign policy, and maybe the very first film kind of was, so we are allowed to look for an allegory without spoiling the fun. In the foreground, there will always be good people fighting against bad people; blowing up space stations; swinging across chasms and falling in love. But behind the curtain, the forces of Evil are always running the show. Wars will only end when Evil itself is routed out. It is rather feeble to say "The cartoon villain from the previous trilogy was planting evil thoughts in Kylo's head." But if you flip it round and say "Kylo had terrible thoughts and urges; and he went on a quest and found those thoughts and urges personified as a scary old guy in a black cloak" it sounds a lot better. 

Scrolling text. Scrolling text slanted away from the audience. Scrolling text receding into space. "It is a period of civil war. Brave rebels, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory over the evil galactic empire". 

Even in 1977, it was incredibly anachronistic. That was the point. In the 1930s movie serials had used printed captions to bring audiences up to speed on what had happened in the previous episodes. Flash Gordon used silent-movie style captions; Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars awkwardly used panels from the original cartoon strip. But the rather ambitiously titled Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe had a slanting crawl, just like the one in Star Wars. 

It never served any particular purpose. It told us that the Empire are the baddies and the Rebels are the goodies, but we would have worked that out for ourselves -- just about at the point when the big guy in black armour walks in and starts strangling people. It tells us that the Princess has stolen plans in her possession; but Darth Vader's men are telling him that the Death Star Plans are not in the main computer from the moment the curtain rises. We would have understood Star Wars just as well if we had not been told up front that the DEATH STAR is the Evil Galactic Empire's ULTIMATE WEAPON.

But the crawl still wrong-foots us. It says to us, before anything else has happened: hey! You are coming in part way through this story. We'll try to fill you in along the way, but you won't understand everything. That's fine. You're not meant to. 

We never saw the beginning of Star Wars. We had always come in half way through. 

The opening crawl isn't there to give us information. It's there to tell us how to watch the movie. Read it as if it was a fairy tale, says the opening caption. Read it as if it was a 1930s cliffhanger movie serial says the crawl. 

Can one film be both things at once? we ask

Just wait and see! says George. 

Star Wars is full of traps and escapes. But it doesn't end on a cliffhanger. It ends on a high-note. The universe has been saved and everyone gets medals. (Nearly everyone.) This is not how individual chapters end; this is how whole sagas end. Star Wars was the final episode of a serial. We missed most of it, but we came in at the end and worked out what was going on. 

We expected Star Wars Two to start where Star Wars One ended. That's what the Marvel Comic did. Everyone steps off the pedestal and locks up their medals and Luke Skywalker flies off on a new mission to a water world and Han Solo flies off on a new adventure involving a giant green rabbit. (Beneath the Planet of the Apes began with Charlton Heston kneeling on a beach, yelling at a statue. You could watch the first two Ape films back to back as a single five-hour movie, although I wouldn't recommend it.)

But instead of Star Wars Two there was Star Wars Episode V: the Empire Strikes Back. And suddenly, Star Wars is not the end of the saga, but the middle. Lucas swears blind there are going to be twelve episodes. There is still a fanfare, a blue fairy tale caption, a yellow logo, and that all-important scrolling text.

If this were really a serial, that text would tell new viewers what they had missed; recap the plot of what-is-now-called A New Hope. Instead, it told us what we had missed: what had happened while we were away. The Star Wars universe had moved on in our absence. The Empire has forced the Rebellion into retreat; Darth Vader knows Luke Skywalker's name; there is a new base on Hoth.  It is, in short, a dark time for the Rebellion. If Star Wars made us feel we are seeing the end of a serial of which we missed the first episodes; Empire Strikes Back makes us feel we have skipped a few chapters and have some catching up to do. 

There were, incidentally, those who said that the unconventional structure of Empire Strikes Back which opens with a climax and ends without a resolution, felt a lot like seeing the second half of one film and the first half of another. And that, in the days of Saturday Morning Pictures and continuous performance was what audiences often did.

But we did eventually go right back to the beginning and find out how the story had started. Didn't we?

There is certainly a film labelled Episode I and it was definitely marketed with the slogan "Every saga has a beginning..." But The Phantom Menace doesn't stand in the same relationship to A New Hope that, say, Planet of Peril does to Battling the Sea Beast. It is not an earlier chapter of the same story. It's a different story, set in an earlier period of the same history. It shows us some of the characters when they were younger. It shows us how some of the conflicts began. But we don't come in at the beginning. Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon's mission is already underway when the film opens. The saga begins with a crawl telling us stuff which has already happened. Chaos has engulfed the Galactic Republic, apparently. And we are assumed to already know what a Galactic Republic is. 

It would be an interesting exercise to imagine how the Phantom Menace would have been constructed if it really had been released, in 1976, to a world which knew nothing of the Republic or the Jedi or the Force. My guess is that it would have been told from Anakin's point of view. We would have met the strange boy with the strange parentage on the strange planet; and marveled at the aliens and the robots and the two suns; and only learn about the Jedi Knights and the Trade Federation when Obi-Wan arrives bearing the letter from Hogwarts school. And that might have made a better movie.

And now Rise of Skywalker is the end of the saga. Kind of. 

If we were still following the metaphor of the movie serial, there should have been one last caption. After Rey takes the name Skywalker the words "THE END" should have appeared in big yellow writing on the screen. Or maybe there should have been a green slide that said "...And they all lived happily ever after." But it isn't and they won't.

All the Skywalkers are dead and all the Sith are gone, but Rey still has a lightsaber and she still has the Jedi books. Episode VIII hinted that the Jedi were coming to an end and the mystery of the Grail was going to be revealed to anyone and everyone. That has not happened. Rey either will or won't start a new Jedi school; and she either will or won't repeat Luke's mistakes; and there either will or won't be more Dark Side users for them to contend with. It may take 28 years. It may find Daisy Ridley sulking on a lost planet at the other side of the universe. But sooner or later the saga will continue.

Stories have endings. History goes on forever.

Rise of Skywalker was true to its B-Movie roots. There was quicksand and secret McGuffins and last minute reprieves from firing squads. There were cliffhangers and implausible escapes from cliffhangers. Some people were annoyed when Chewbacca was definitely killed and then turned out to be perfectly all right after all. This suggests they haven't seen a lot of Flash Gordon. But Star Wars is no longer a movie serial. Star Wars is a fragmentary future history. The nine movies would be better described as Volumes or Chapters or Scrolls than Episodes.

But the opening crawl still has a purpose. The nine films together entirely fail to add up to a single, coherent narrative. The text introductions give us a sense that we are dropping into and out of the action; seeing The Star Wars Galaxy in a series of disconnected glimpses. I dislike the timelines of history and maps of the Galaxy that you can find in some official and semi-official guidebooks. I don't want to know that there was a Sith Empire 2000 years ago or that the various planets have known locations relative to the "outer rim" and the "core". I enjoy starting in the middle. And would there have been so many comics and books and films and RPGs if there were not so many gaps to be filled in?

Star Wars came forty years after Flash Gordon. Rise of Skywalker comes forty-three years after A New Hope. The children who paid a tanner each week to see the adventures of Flash and Dale at their local fleapit are nearly all dead. Even the ones who watched on BBC 2 during the 1976 Christmas holidays are well into middle-age. Story-so-far captions no longer signify that we are in the realm of Republic Serials. But they do signify that we are still in the realm of Star Wars.

Scrolling text. Scrolling text slanted away from the audience. Scrolling text receding into space. "The dead speak! The galaxy has heard a mysterious broadcast, a threat of REVENGE in the sinister voice of the late EMPEROR PALPATINE."

I'm Andrew. I like God, Doctor Who, Star Wars, Wagner, folk-music and Spider-Man, not necessarily in that order. I have no political opinions of any kind.

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Saturday, February 01, 2020

Doomsday Clock

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Issue #12

Andrew Rilstone is a writer and critic from Bristol, England. 

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Watchmen and Doomsday Clock are copyright DC Comics. All quotes and illustrations are use for the purpose of criticism under the principle of fair dealing and fair use, and remain the property of the copyright holder.

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