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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Mike Taylor said...

"the prophecies have come true, after a fashion."

I can't believe you didn't write "... from a certain point of view".

Andrew Rilstone said...

I felt the Tolkien allusion was more appropriate given the tone of the opening paragraphs.

And it didn't occur to me.

Mike Taylor said...

Ha! I'd missed that! Well played, sir.

JWH said...

" "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."

For some reason Peter Jackson's scene with Boromir and Denethor after the re-taking of Osgiliath came to my mind when you wrote this.