Some thoughts on small-screen Star Wars

Star Wars is a story that I simply cannot quit, my thoughts on The Rise of Skywalker notwithstanding.

Perhaps this should be expected. I might have seen the original trilogy once in the past decade and a half, but I watched Return of the Jedi so frequently as a teenager that I can recount verbatim entire scenes from the movie. I had more issues with the prequel trilogy, but that didn’t get in the way of hours of late-night debate about the films when I was in college and I devoured dozens of the now-heretical novelizations.

I was cautiously excited to see the return of Star Wars to the big screen, but, although I acknowledge a myriad of ways in which they are superior movies to the original trilogy, they ultimately didn’t land for me. I thought that the newest trilogy ended up creating super-cuts of the original trilogy that largely created an inescapable loop of scenes and beats from the original trilogy, just with a superficially new set of locations and a somewhat more garbled narrative. Basically, this loop prevented pushing the story in new and interesting ways in any meaningful way. I accepted this as a feature of The Force Awakens, but then it happened again in The Last Jedi and I simply skipped The Rise of Skywalker.

And yet, I have found myself pulled back into the latest batch of small-screen Star Wars stories. At the time of writing this, I have seen both seasons of The Mandalorian, The Book of Boba Fett, and the first four episodes of Obi-Wan Kenobi.

These shows seem more designed for viewers like me, at least on the surface. These are smaller stories by design. I really enjoyed the Space-Western aesthetic of Mandalorian, and the “lone wolf and cub” story arc of season one was appealing even before that cub turned out to be the adorable Grogu. I’d give the season a B/B+. The second season and Boba Fett both had their moments, but I found the stories muddled and uneven.

Which brings me to Obi-Wan. Like these other projects, there are things I like about the series. As much as I was drawn to the Space Western parts of Star Wars, I will admit a little thrill at getting to see the Space Samurai in action again. I also think that the arc that holds the most promise is the internal one of Ben Kenobi himself. We have only ever seen him competent—first as a hotshot padawan, then as a capable general, and finally as a wizened old sage who masterfully uses the force and still goes toe-to-toe with Vader. In this series, Ewan McGregor is playing a man lost. He is a hermit not unlike the one we meet in the original movie, but without any of his surety. He had buried the light sabers and, seemingly, renounced using the force such that, four episodes into a six-episode arc, he is still barely willing to use the simplest little tricks that he used when we first met him. Both the narrative internal to the series and the larger character arc demand that he recovers his mojo before the end of the series, but I quite like the way that the show juxtaposes an isolated and emotionally fragile Jedi with the inchoate but growing resistance to the empire.

But while there are individual aspects of Obi-Wan that I like, I am finding myself questioning what purpose it serves other than as fodder for an insatiable content machine.

In a recent article in WIRED, Graeme McMillan asserted that the fundamental problem with these shows is that they are burdened by the weight of the Star Wars backstory. That is, each story is seemingly approved based on how well it ties back to Ur-text, which, in turn, prevents them from flourishing on their own. We know that Han Solo saved Chewbacca’s life, won the Millennium Falcon from Lando Calrissian, and did the Kessel Run, so we get Solo. We know the rebels stole the Death Star plans, so Rogue One. What happened to Boba Fett after the Sarlaac? There’s a show for that. Ever wonder what Ben was up to while hanging out near Luke on Tatooine? Get ready for Obi-Wan Kenobi.

As McMillan puts it:

By this point, what truly worked about the original Star Wars movies—the awe of invention and discovery, and the momentum of the propulsive storytelling that left details and common sense behind in the rush to get to the next emotional beat—has been lost almost entirely, replaced by a compulsive need to fulfill nostalgia and comfortably mine existing intellectual property. Whereas those first three movies were the Big Bang that started everything and built a galaxy far, far away, what we’re witnessing now is an implosion of fractal storytelling, with each spin-off focusing on a smaller part of the story leading to a new spin-off focusing on an ever smaller part of that smaller part.

I broadly agree with McMillan’s argument, but also think that the root problem is more than just the unwillingness of adults to suspend disbelief—though that might have influenced the short-lived midichlorian fiasco in the prequel trilogies.

What McMillan attributes to “the awe and invention of discovery” and “propulsive storytelling that left details and common sense design,” I would describe as the legendary nature of the story. Lucas took deep inspiration for the original trilogy from the archetypes found in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces, and the trappings of myth and legend go beyond Luke’s heroic journey. I particularly see this in how the original trilogy situates itself within a larger universe with nods and hand waves. We don’t need to see them to know that they exist. They just are. What does it mean that:

General Kenobi. Years ago you served my father in the Clone Wars. Now he begs you to help him in his struggle against the Empire. I regret that I am unable to present my father’s request to you in person, but my ship has fallen under attack, and I’m afraid my mission to bring you to Alderaan has failed.

Doesn’t matter. Waves hand. Move along.

Here’s the problem: legends aren’t well-served by filling in the cracks.

It is one thing to approach a legend from a fresh perspective—the Arthur story from the perspective of Merlin or Morgan or the Theseus story from the perspective of Asterion (the Minotaur). This has been the stock in trade of mythology since antiquity. Legends are fundamentally iterative. But approaching legends this way respects the stories as legends. It doesn’t matter whether the character is familiar when each new story contributes to a polyphonous chorus that defies the logic necessary for a “canonical” story.

By contrast, the current wave of Star Wars projects (and even the prequel trilogy, to an extent) strike me as fundamentally expository. They can be brilliant pieces of cinematography and well-acted (and they often are!), but they are filling in the cracks of the legend and creating new discontinuities in the process. When Vader and Kenobi square off on the Death Star, Vader says “when we last met I was but the learner, but now I am the master.” At the time and through the prequels, this seemed to indicate that they hadn’t met since the events in Revenge of the Sith, but now they fight at least once in the intervening years. This series can only turn out one way if that line is still going to work, but it also spawns a series of follow-up questions that strain disbelief in the original. Similarly, one might ask whether someone is going to completely wipe the memory of young Leia for her to appeal Kenobi on the basis of her father rather than, you know, reminding him that he saved her life once and now she needs his help again.

I am skeptical that either the big or small screen Star Wars will be able to escape this problem. Few of the new characters have been particularly memorable, and most of those that were owed their origins outside of these projects. As McMillan notes, the result has been increasing insularity within the narrative world of Star Wars that relies on familiar names to draw viewers and generally fails to create new characters that can expand and complicate the universe.

All of this stands in contrast to the approach taken in the books set in the untamed wilds of the period after the original trilogy when there was no plan for movies to carry the canonical stories forward. Some of these books are pretty good, some are quite bad, but they collectively built out a rich universe that carried forward the stories of characters from the movies (e.g. Wedge Antilles) while inventing new favorites among both the protagonists (e.g. Corran Horn and the Skywalker children) and the antagonists (e.g. Admirals Thrawn and Daala).

They didn’t worry about filling in the cracks of the legends, but accepted the films as gospel while looking forward to what came next. The result is a series of more compelling questions: how does the Rebel Alliance capture Coruscant (the capitol) when the emperor is dead but his military apparatus is still in place? What would it be like for an alien or woman to rise to the rank of admiral in the notoriously patriarchal and xenophobic imperial navy? What happens when you introduce good guys who for one reason or another dislike Luke Skywalker and Han Solo?

I can understand the reasons why a studio might reject this approach out of hand, of course. For instance, the novels remain deeply reliant on the original characters and there are only so many times that an actor can play the same role. James Bond and comic book characters like Batman, Superman, and Spiderman have survived reboots with different actors, but it has also led to some fatigue with the proliferation of dead parents in an alleyway behind the theater. A closer analogue to Star Wars is its corporate sibling, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has not made any attempt to recast Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark and thus is itself at a crossroads. Star Wars can hardly replace the much-missed Carrie Fisher, leaving the studio to rely on de-aging Mark Hammill and producing CGI-renderings of Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher. But this also leaves Star Wars a fragile shell perpetually at risk of collapsing in on itself. To echo Princess Leia in the film that started it all: the more you tighten your grip sometimes, the more that your objective slips through your fingers.

Star Wars and I

Note: although I have note see The Rise of Skywalker, this post includes a spoiler for that film.

Even before the tepid reviews of The Rise of Skywalker started coming in I had basically decided to sit this one out. Maybe I will see it when it lands on a streaming platform––probably while grading papers––but certainly not in theaters because most of the negative reviews have confirmed my fear that the movie has basically steered into everything that frustrated me about The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. However, after listening to The Watch podcast analyzing the movie and “spoiling” the big reveal, I wanted to revisit the topic.

One of the most appealing things about the original Star Wars trilogy is its simplicity, a perfect tri-colon of the hero’s journey to help the good guys triumph over the bad. Even the primary villains get progressively more powerful and villainous as the series goes along. Grand Moff Tarkin SW has a battle station that he blows up planets with, but he demonstrates his power by having control over Vader, who ascends to the top spot in ESB while teasing Emperor Palpatine for ROTJ. With all deference to Chewbacca, Ben Kenobi, and Lando, the movies only have five core characters (Luke, Leia, Han, R2, 3PO), with the others generally connected to this core group by one or more links. Similarly, each film has only three locations that aren’t starships (The Force Awakens has five, Rogue One had *seven*) and the only times I can think of where one of the original movies follows more than two simultaneous actions are the Death Star escape in SW and the climactic battle in ROTJ where Luke surrenders, Han and Leia are on the forest moon, and Lando has the Millenium Falcon, meaning that there are three arenas, but all circling one limited space.

For all of the issues in the original trilogy, including a rather shocking lack of diversity, this simplicity is one of the keys to its success. Deleted scenes from the movies reveal that Lucas had in mind a chattier story about the imperial academy and imperial politics more in line with the prequel trilogy. The final product drops most of those ambitions into the opening scrawl and a few lines of dialogue, allowing the audience to get swept away by the combination of knightly romance and space western. In turn, falling back on these tropes allows the series to develop somewhat more complex themes involving e.g. moral relativity and redemption by the end of the trilogy and leaves the door open to an expanded universe of cartoons and novels that can resolve many of the oversights in the original material.

This is an arc that can only work once. The prequel trilogy tried to literally reverse engineer the story, explaining the fall of the Anakin and the creation of the empire. As someone acutely pointed out to me in college, this turned the Star Wars saga from the Romance of a plucky young hero joining the rebellion against totalitarianism to the fall and redemption of Anakin Skywalker.

For all that they do well, the new Star Wars films are the mother of all third-act problems.

In the Watch podcast linked to above, one of the points Chris Ryan and Andy Greenwald talk about is the garbled mess that is the story in The Rise of Skywalker. The original series had a final confrontation with the Emperor and the next set had the creation of Darth Vader and the Empire, where these three movies raced about the galaxy convincing people that Star Wars was back, but introduce stories that go nowhere (some of which are evidently excised altogether because of racist backlash to The Last Jedi) or that deserve a series-worth of exploration. While these issues contribute to the movie bloat, my bigger problem is that they give the sense that this is a trilogy determined to raise the stakes by trying to convince you that each movie is more epic than the last rather than by actually raising the stakes or by having each movie substantially build on the one before it.

All of this culminates in the big twist in The Rise of Skywalker that reintroduces Palpatine and reestablishes the inherited Force-aristocracy. To be clear: Palpatine and even the idea of heritable force powers are not the problem per se. These abound in the in the non-canon EU material and this is a setting where all sorts of technology can exist. In fact, as Kylo Ren’s obsession with the crushed face mask of Darth Vader hints at, Palpatine’s memory and resurgent Palpatinistas is fertile ground for storytelling (whatever Ian McDiamird thinks), except that we had just spent two films not talking about Palpatine in relation to the fascist junta that obviously regarded itself as his political heir.

Despite the idiosyncratic fact that the original three movies were the middle trilogy of nine movies, the third trilogy was never really never developed in any substantial way, which gave room for novelists, cartoonists, and other creators to build out the story. Some of these are not great, but they also gave rise to iconic villains (e.g. Admiral Thrawn), characters (e.g. Wedge Antilles) and room to explore inter-species relationships and xenophobia.

After each of the previous two films, I expressed my hope that people enjoyed New Star Wars, but that I did not fit into whatever the niche that they were filling––fully recognizing the irony of saying this about films directed at “everyone.” I stand by the first part of the sentiment, I hope people enjoy New Star Wars, up to and including The Rise of Skywalker. However, upon further consideration, and for all that the new films do right on the micro-scale in terms of filming, dialogue, casting, making Finn a Stormtrooper who bucks his conditioning, &c, that made the films have a markedly “Star Wars, but fresh” feel, they miss a macro-vision of what made the the original trilogy iconic.

Seven Things I Liked and Didn’t Like About The Last Jedi

I saw The Last Jedi. As a friend put it on Twitter, this is, to date, the best Star Wars film of the twenty-first century. (Look at my excitement!) Like with The Force Awakens and Rogue One, my review is going to be a list of things I liked and didn’t like about the movie, a format shamelessly adapted from ESPN’s Zach Lowe. My usual caveats apply: I have read few reviews, almost none of the background on making of the film and it is possible I am mistaken about some aspects. These are things that stood out to me and may not be the same issues other people had.

Spoilers follow.

  1. While still in graduate school I took a class on the Latin author Seneca, who lived in the first century CE. We dedicated one unit to his plays, during which we read the Phaedra, a play about Theseus’ wife Phaedra’s consuming lust for her step-son Hippolytus who has no interest in her. Phaedra accuses Hippolytus of raping her and Theseus uses a boon to summon a monstrous beast from the sea to kill his son. Seneca infuses the play with contemporary themes, but the play is functionally just Euripides’ Hippolytus, with some new bits. No where is this more notable than in his description of the the sea monster, which more terrifyingly monstrous in his version. In short, this is what is happening in the new Star Wars movies.

    One review that floated by me on Twitter argued that the success of The Last Jedi is in its willingness to discard The Star Wars you know. I disagree. This is an Empire supercut, with dedicated homages to episodes IV, VI, and VII. The new movies are doing some things differently in terms of what story elements are driving plot, which I found problematic for other reasons, but the pieces are basically the same. When I pointed this out for the first movie, I was told to be patient because JJ Abrams was on board to reestablish Star Wars as a franchise and thus his agenda was to do exactly that. Wait for the next installment, they said. The good news, having seen the next installment, is that they are (probably) out of source material to work with now; the bad news is that this movie did basically the same thing.

  2. Continue reading Seven Things I Liked and Didn’t Like About The Last Jedi

Seven Things I Liked and Didn’t Like about Rogue One

I did this same sort of recap last year for The Force Awakens and figured I should just go ahead and do it again for Rogue One. Even though I am a book person and have read a lot of Star Wars books, I have read basically none of the novels set during the time of the movies. Still some caveats apply: I have read few reviews and almost none of the background on the reshoots, so it is possible I am mistaken about some aspects. Similarly, I these are things that stood out to me and may not be the same issues other people had. Overall: I enjoyed the experience of watching the film a great deal, but only if I didn’t think about it too much.

Fair warning: the rest of this post will contain spoilers for the movie, at least such that they exist. Anyone familiar with Star Wars is familiar with the ending writ large.

Continue reading Seven Things I Liked and Didn’t Like about Rogue One

Han Solo’s Pants

I have a theory that, somewhere in the planning of The Force Awakens, when the decision to jettison the bulk of Expanded Universe canon and not follow an established story arc (a decision I largely like, I might add) had been made, there was also a conscious decision to go through EU looking for reference points, objects, and names that have their own mythological status. Anything with too much cachet was excised from the movie. It is clear watching the film, which had to be resonant with the original trilogy, that they frequently gave a response the conversation around Star Wars as much as trying to forge their own path ahead. Sometimes, though, the choices seemed to zig in odd directions because a more reasonable solution had already been claimed by EU. Other times they just made choices and moved on without comment. This is something I noticed at several points in the film, including their choice for Kylo Ren’s given name, the designation “black squadron” and, particularly, Han’s pants.

In the original trilogy Han’s gear includes a blue pair of pants with a gold braided stripe down the side of each leg. This may be chalked up to nothing more than a sort of goofy ’70s costume design choice, but those stripes came to possess their own mythology that is bound up with Han’s past, his relationship with Chewbacca, and how, despite his nonchalance, interest in money, and eye toward self-preservation, he is actually a nice man at heart. Those stripes came to represent that Han did not miraculously develop a conscience across the three movies because he became friends with Luke and had the hots for Leia, but rather was a hero already–one who was only fighting who he was in running from the rebellion. Likewise, the stripes indicate that it was not mere nepotism or happenstance that Han became a general in the Rebellion for doing basically nothing. In this mythology, the stripes on Han’s pants explain who he is as a person and inform his character in the trilogy.

In the Expanded Universe, Han’s pants display Corelleian Blood Stripes, a military honor awarded for conspicuous bravery, and were the only military decoration he was allowed to retain after being drummed out of the Imperial navy for saving Chewbacca from a press labor-gang. In The Force Awakens, Han just has black pants, but when Leia comments about his wardrobe she only does so on his jacket. There are, of course, character reasons why Han would have discarded military decorations after going back to smuggling, but, even though the the movies err on the side of giving away nothing about the characters beyond what is shown on screen, the casual discard seems to be a conscious decision to say that the originals were no more important than a quirk of the original costume design.

I liked the decision to largely avoid direct portrayal of EU storylines, but the insistence in avoiding overlap is a shame. Some of the EU material is quite lackluster, but there is also a lot of it and there were some good ideas tossed about.

Eight things I liked and didn’t like about The Force Awakens

I am a book person, for better and worse. I even have a bad habit of dismissing things designed for visual representation because I read them rather than seeing them performed. In the case of Star Wars, I have read both a lot really good novels set in the expanded universe and read a lot of dreck. I went into the The Force Awakens hesitant, but cautiously optimistic that Abrams and co. would make a fun, watchable film. I was not wrong, but neither was I completely swept away. My verdict is that The Force Awakens was good, not great. With that in mind, what follows is a list of things I liked and didn’t like about the film (format adapted from ESPN’s Zach Lowe), and contains mild spoilers.

Continue reading Eight things I liked and didn’t like about The Force Awakens

Drones and fantasy literature

In one of the opening scenes of The Empire Strikes Back, Han Solo and Chebacca confront a machine with a glowing red eye and multiple, tentacle-like arms. Like a metallic jellyfish, it floats above the icy surface of Hoth, taking readings and observing. It fires at Han, but as soon as it is hit, it self-destructs rather than fall into rebel hands because it has been reporting information back to Darth Vader’s fleet–information used to discover the Rebel base and lead the in Imperial Fleet in pursuit of Luke, Leia, Han, and company.

The probe droid has a sinister look and with good reason. It is the embodiment of state power extended. The state is watching the citizen, even in that desolate wasteland. Big Brother was in the home and this is not that, but, in the (heavy handed) Star Wars universe, the remote state surveillance can summon Star Destroyers.

Nor is Star Wars along. One fantasy trope is that the “bad guys” use carrion feeders or other suspect animals (crows, rats, snakes, etc) to remotely spy on the heroes and normal people. Sometimes there is immediate feedback, sometimes they have to report. Sometimes the good guys make a point of killing those animals whenever they appear, sometimes hiding is a more reasonable option. The common threat is that the bad guys are watching in a way the good guys cannot replicate.

Last week on “Studio 360,” the radio show on PRI that I listen to on podcast, one of the segments was a discussion about drones. It was well worth a listen, [1] but several segments stood out, an artist designing clothing that hides the heat signatures picked up by drones,an interview with people who saw drones in action on the Mexican border nearly a decade ago, and an interview with a former pilot who is now a doctor of engineering. The last suggested that one reason drones live on in the movies and the imagination beyond something like PRISM is the drones–whether in actual shape or looking like the probe droid from Star Wars–are something that people can conceptualize. In this way drones are similar to Big Brother. One doesn’t actually need to comprehend what is going on in order to be taken by the sinister implications.

What struck me was the way in which the popular conception of drones, including the function of the drones and the alignment of the faceless government that dispatches the drones, seems to mirror not just the Empire with its malignant government, but also more traditional embodiments of evil in e.g. Lord of the Rings or The Wheel of Time. These fantasy tropes pre-date drones, although even there the trope is not necessarily novel. The two trends also overlap in movies and television where the scrappy hero is chased by government agencies or people hijacking government property.

I suspect there is an underlying human discontent with being observed, particularly by groups of beings that are out of reach and potentially malevolent. This natural reaction, with the inhuman remoteness of drones and the right to privacy as currently understood in the US constitution mesh to make several simultaneous negative reactions to drones. Drones are also active in a way that PRISM may not been seen to be. The issue at hand is that while drones themselves may be a relatively recent addition to the US arsenal the concept is not new and the use of drones for surveillance against a population puts the government on the wrong side of a lengthy tradition in the popular imagination.

[1] As were the interview with Linda Ronstadt and discussion of Walt Whitman.

What is rebellion for?

How do you get demographics that normally skew toward the Democrats and toward progressive values to buy into Tea Party ideology? Give them a hero who is pithy and dashing whose inner morality is equaled only by his hatred of authority. How do you get the Tea Party to condemn it outright? Set the story in space.

I am kidding, of course, but the best jokes all contain a kernel of truth. Roguish characters, presented as flippant and charismatic, come off well in all sorts of adventure tales, but particularly science fiction and fantasy. Many of these stories also capitalize on the story of a rebellion. But what is the goal of these rebellions? Usually the goal is to replace the extant state with a more liberal, more generous, and less bureaucratic society, although the final goal is practically impossible. I would suggest, though, that there is at least one example of this sort of story where the goal of the rebellion is presented not as the replacement of the government, but by its elimination and that this goal is shortsighted and naive.

Perhaps this realization is an argument against watching these shows while teaching students about Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, but I also found this it frustrating for my own enjoyment of the show.

The core story in Star Wars is that one of the Senators perverted the traditional and eternal Republic, corrupted the state religion, and ruled roughly the same territory with an iron fist. He is resisted by a small cadre of Senators and Knights and is eventually overthrown by Maximus Luke Skywalker. Eventually the Rebellion is able to restore a new Republic based on the traditional mores and with the support of the knight-priests who are a force for good in the galaxy. It is cliche to point out the ironies of Star Wars. There are shirts that claim “I had friends on that Death Star. It has been pointed out that the fundamental a small rebellion against a legitimate government funded by old money and with the aid of a robed desert mystic espousing an ancient religion targets government installations.[1] In response to a Wired symposium about the Battle of Hoth Timothy Burke offered the Longue Duree of the Galactic Empire, saying that the Rebellion (and thus focus on Hoth) is treated as a “priviliged mode of dissent” during the empire and suggesting that there would have been nothing remarkable about Hoth except for the charisma of the participants to set it off from other comparable events.[2] For the moment, though, leave aside the Roman parallels, the derivative story, and that books set in the Star Wars universe frequently grapple with many of these issues.

One constant element in Star Wars is that the protagonists do not want to eliminate government. They want to restore the government of yesteryear, which means taking out the guy in charge and whatever government employees continue to support him.[3] The Old Republic is a galactic confederacy, though. There is an elected Senate and a leader of the senate, but, until the rise of Palpatine, there is only a limited executive and basically no military, while sovereign members have their own armed forces that can be used for more than just self defense.[4] The changes made by Palpatine and the threat of a not-yet-defeated Empire mean that the New Republic is closer to an actual Republic than was the old. There is a stronger executive branch and the fleet of the Rebellion remains a standing military force. For the good guys to win in this fantasy they must recreate the government. A government with a standing army (the apparatus of tyranny), a government for the people, and to protect the people from each other and from threats abroad, but a government nonetheless.

Now flash to Joss Whedon’s Firefly. Malcolm Reynolds is your captain. He protects his crew and is an honest businessman. He salvages abandoned goods, is a smuggler, and will kill people, but, while illegal, these actions are not against his personal code of ethics. Mal was a Browncoat, a soldier who fought for the Independence movement against the Alliance, an exploitative, totalitarian bureaucratic and military establishment. From his point of view, the Alliance crushes the individual and tries to bend the population of the galaxy to civilization. Mal and his fellow Browncoats were defeated and he goes further out to the fringes of the settled world so that he can be free of the government. In the original pilot Mal goes so far as to state: “that’s what governments are for… get in a man’s way.”

One trope of the space shows and movies, much like it is in the Western genre, is to explore what happens to people beyond the reach of central governments or when governments collapse, or what happens when a central government encroaches upon anarchy muted by inchoate forms of society. In Deadwood there is interest in joining the United States. Dune has a galactic kingdom where the government rules by restricting access to resources, balancing out competing interests, and an elite Janissary force. Star Trek has multiple galactic entities with different levels of bellicosity and cooperation. Ender’s Game has military cooperation among humans to destroy an alien race that once threatened Earth. Old Man’s War has genetically modified soldiers to protect space colonies that alleviate the population stresses in third world areas of Earth. But one constant is that there is some necessity for government.

In Firefly, though, there is government. There are both local and central governments, but governments are universally described as a hindrance to ordinary people. Mal’s worldview is that everyone would be a lot better off without government. An inner morality, or people with an inner morality and guns, will ensure that the galaxy will be a place of opportunity for everyone. Except that the majority of people Mal interacts with have guns, but they do not have the same inner morality he does. His quick wits and true aim ensure that he is able to dispatch malignants and protect his crew, as well as being able to limit the conflicts of interest between individual crew members, but the general populace is not so fortunate.

The crew of Serenity accept Mal as their employer and passengers respect him as the captain. The crew and the passengers work together to survive [5] and Mal’s sovereignty is certainly more benevolent and human than is the bureaucracy of the Alliance. But, if civilization crushes the identity of an individual, liberty constantly threatens to kill him.[6] Most people are not the hero. Most people need the protection offered by civilization.

I like Mal and I enjoy the show. My issue is this: the government supplies necessary goods and creates the very terra-formed worlds on which people live. The galaxy the show is set in has both extreme, subhuman anarchy (Reavers) and more limited human corruption sprung up from violence, hardship, greed, ambition, avarice, etc, but the leader of the heroes, himself both a present and past holder of command positions, detests government. The Alliance does not come across well in the show, but the proposed solution is an extension of anarchy rather than the reform the government.[7] The Alliance has its issues, but even in the show it is presented as having benefits, whatever Mal might say.

Fiction in general and science fiction and fantasy stories in particular allow people to vicariously live out otherwise impossible fantasies of all sorts. Sexual and violent fantasies may be lived out in a safe environment [8] and, likewise, rebellious fantasies can be lived out in a safe place. The curious thing to me is that most of these instances presuppose that the rebellious fantasy is meant to improve government, to fix what is wrong with the state. Firefly, at least in the show, seems to be the exception. In this instance there is rebellion because all government is irredeemably bad.


[1] Against a dictator who had been granted extraordinary powers in a time of crisis. He never relinquished them, but, technically, they were bestowed upon him by the legitimate government. We as an audience know that he manufactures the crisis and goes on to commit plenty of other atrocities, but, if I remember correctly, the given reason for the Jedi attacking him is that he is a Sith and therefore evil. If one does not subscribe to polarities of human alignment as posited in fantasy and role-playing tropes, then the Jedi were way out of line and Palpy was justified in banning them. Killing the kids was stepping over the line, but that hasn’t stopped the US drone program from doing the same. The big difference there is that I don’t think Joe Biden is trained for that sort of job.

[2] Be that as it may, charisma of the participants will get them into the movies and the history books alike.

[3] Plus collateral damage, but working for an evil guy makes one complicit.

[4] The workings of government oversight, travel, and intragalactic relations seem more reasonably fleshed out in both Star Trek and Dune. Of course, I was never a trekkie and some of the coherence of Dune is in its very limited scope in the early books.

[5] Mal and the crew also see an uptick in random bullet wounds after getting a doctor. Perhaps safety makes them reckless, perhaps there is a sloppy-yet-all-powerful narrator.

[6] Another trope is that there must be danger and an absence of laws for a person to reach his or her full potential. But another precondition also exists–the natural ability of that individual. Even then, the absence of law is an opportunity to excel, not a surety. Further, it is the except that a hero is capable of exceling without doing so at the expense of others, [6a] as happens in The Name of the Wind as far as the story has progressed, although we know that Kvothe feels that his actions caused suffering for everyone. Even in The Hobbit, Bilbo the burglar benefits at the expense of Gollum/Smeagol, a character who is not per se evil. Strong personal morality helps and it is necessary that the ambitions of the exceptional hero be personal: get home, remedy a specific injustice, or combat true evil. [6b] When the exceptional character extends those ambitions or even has to expand the scope to remedy injustice, he becomes a Mr. Kurtz or a Paul Atreides. His personal capabilities, whether intentional or not, result in his oppression of others.

[6a] The others here being defined as bystanders or otherwise innocent people, not jerks, punks, or people are trying to put down the common man.

[6b] True evil, of the sort that appears in stories that are in some way descended Christian of Gnostic (etc. etc.) concepts about the perfect goodness above and the perfect badness below, or vice versa that construct the realm of human existence a middle arena, a locus of competition between the two extremes. True evil, irredeemable evil exists in these setups because creatures (only rarely human) actually manifest themselves in the existence. People toss the concept of evil about in reference to humans in order to explain all sorts of “evil” (vicious, cruel, malicious) or “sinful” actions. On one hand, some of these labels are borne of constructed moralities, on the other, “evil” may be the product of upbringing, abuse, mental or chemical imbalances. The case can be made that a Sauron or Balrog is evil by nature, not by choice and therefore people who have mental imbalance or are the product of abuse are not excused for not having control over their evil, but this, too, is a constructed morality. It is more accurate to suggest that actions, not people, are evil.

[7] Until, arguably, Serenity.

[8] The debate about video games such as Grand Theft Auto causing rape and violence notwithstanding. There probably is some link between the two, particularly for people who already have some other issues, while the majority of people can play violent video games without lashing out at the people around them. Now, if it is possible to link the popularity of violent video games, violent movies and tv shows, the large numbers of guns as part of a “violent American culture,” then you might be on to something.

More than a discourse

Luke Skywalker walks into a bar and orders a drink. Dr. Cornelius Evazan [1] grabs him, tells him that he is liked by neither the doctor nor his friend and then threatens to kill Luke. According to Wookiepedia, the online depository for all information about the Star Wars galaxy, Evazan threatens Luke because he is a sociopath. Evazan doesn’t want money or power or prestige or food or sex. He just wants to kill Luke because he doesn’t like him. The Emperor/Darth Vader/Grand Moff Tarkin may want to kill Luke to continue to hold onto their grip on inter-planetary power, the Sand People may want to kill Luke because he trespasses on their territory and they would like to take his stuff, and Boba Fett [2] may want to kill Luke because he is a getting paid to do so, but Evazan just doesn’t like him.

The example used here from Star Wars is an extreme example of the point I am building towards. For something more mundane, there are people I don’t like and I feel guilty about disliking some of them. It can be a personality issue, or their behavior or their voice, particularly on days when I am irritable. It can also be the circumstances under which we met or that I was decaffeinated. And, most of the time, I can be perfectly pleasant with the person I dislike–the rest of the time we can not interact. Certainly I wouldn’t try to kill that person. The point is that most of the time my dislike is not due to a rivalry for a mate/food/prestige/power or the external manifestation of a cultural discourse of alterity/machismo/nationalism/spirituality, although it may also be any of those.

I mention this because it is something that often seems forgotten when writing a historical narrative. The explanation for this is that the historian is supposed to find reasonable causes events that rely on evidence that is demonstrable. For instance, to say that two people disliked each other is acceptable, but it would be preferable to say that those two people disliked each other because they were rivals for m/f/p/p or that the antipathy is the externalization of a cultural discourse of a/m/n/s. Even an attested “s/he looked cross-ways at my spouse” provides a reasonable and acceptable explanation. Unexplained maugre doesn’t happen in history. Naturally. Well, not really.

Inevitably, there are explanations for the dislike, but they are just of the sort that are not passed down in the historical record or are terribly satisfying and, often, the picayune cause for dislike exacerbates the rivalry or the cultural discourse and vice-versa. I am not suggesting that historians should seek to explain interpersonal relationships through a simple love/hate lens. Rather, I am musing that when there is evidence for a dislike that stems from a conflict of personalities or other similarly nebulous explanations, those should not be glossed over in favor of the rivalry for m/f/p/p or a discourse of a/m/n/s.

To take one example from the histories of Alexander the Great, Craterus was, arguably, Alexander’s most skilled military commander after the execution of Parmenion and was reputed to be a friend to the king. Hephaestion was Alexander’s childhood friend and likely homosexual companion and was reputed to be a friend to Alexander. These two men certainly were in a competition for power within Alexander’s army when they drew swords and attacked each other while in India. Each had a different avenue to power and prestige within the army and each had his own partisans who participated in the melee. They were also manifesting an agonistic masculine Macedonian discourse and, at that moment, transcending the issue of alterity in order to come to blows several thousand miles from home. But there is part of me that suspects, without any specific evidence, [4] that pointing out the rivalries and discourses doesn’t actually explain why the two men didn’t get along. Maybe, just maybe, Craterus also told stupid jokes and Hephaestion made slurping sounds when drinking his wine. But this is the purview of the historical novelist more than that of the historian.[5]


[1] Yes, he has a name. No, he’s probably not a real doctor. Yes, he calls himself a doctor. No, to the extent that the galaxy has bureaucratic regulations that control who is and is not a doctor across worlds, no world recognizes Evazan as a doctor because they think he’s crazy, but the galaxy was a big place so he could evidently pass himself off as one. Yes, there is an implied question at the start of each sentence in this footnote.
[2] And the other mooks. [3]
[3] Storm Troopers, Palace Guards, etc.
[4] If I remember correctly, Plutarch says that they didn’t like each other and both seem to have been notoriously prickly characters. But that isn’t much.
[5] Then again, it has been argued time and again for millenia that the purpose of fiction is to reveal greater truths than non-fiction ever can.

Assorted Links

  1. Defense Nerds Strike BackAt Wired, there was a symposium on the Battle of Hoth (from the Empire Strikes Back, awhere contributors analyzed the battle as though it was a historical event. My favorite contribution, though was by Tim Burke, The Longue Duree of the Galactive Empire, wherein he talks about Hoth as a particularly well known, but otherwise unremarkable example of a recurring type of event in the Star Wars Universe.

    ”Treating the Rebellion as a privileged mode of dissent in an era when many other systems and social classes were in other ways ‘slipping through the fingers’ of the Coruscant metropole is itself granting too much credit to a ragtag band of avidly self-promoting malcontents.”

  2. Quitters Never Win– An article on the Atlantic about the pitfalls of leaving social media. The author specifically addresses recent articles advising or giving strategies for opting out of Facebook and he is right to a point. Not being on Facebook does cut you out of opportunities for “self-expression,” and it is true that most of the security concerns about Facebook in contrast to other social outlets are overblown, that many of the strategies for hiding important information are self-defeating, and that an increasing amount of social planning (even for academic events) is going through Facebook. What he doesn’t address is the veneer of proximity that lulls people into a false sense of connectivity and intimacy, a feeling that I miss sometimes, but that also left me with a deep sense of disquiet. Then there was the amount of idle time spent on Facebook and my frustrations with some of the heavy handed changes Facebook was making.

    That being said, the author tries to use the example of Facebook as to why you shouldn’t quit any social media sites, and the same concerns on those other media sites as to why you should not quit Facebook. It sounds nice and, like I said, true to a point, but it is also overly simplistic.

  3. The Geography of Happiness– A study of vocabulary from Twitter charts happiness by state. Certainly there is more that could be done to substantiate the findings (as the article points out), but it provides food for thought.
  4. New Book Traces the Education of Adolf Hitler– There is a new history (in German) the examines the period in Hitler’s life between the end of the first world war and his political involvement.