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.

Some thoughts on the good and the evil of human nature in fiction

According to Dark Helmet, “evil will always triumph because good is dumb.”1 Of course, Dark Helmet himself is bumbling, which results in the eventual triumph of the good guys, led by Lone Starr. Thus, Dark Helmet is wrong. Evil does not triumph, despite the overwhelming numbers and technology of the bad guys (Lone Starr flies a Winnebago!). But therein lies the catch. Evil always has greater numbers and often has better, more powerful technology.2

The reason for this traditional setup is simple: it makes for a more compelling story if the “good guys” are forced to triumph over long odds than if they are put in a position to succeed from the get-go. It is the same reason that so many of these stories involve young or inexperienced heroes. The audience then gets to follow the hero through trials and tribulations on his or her way to eventual triumph.

The Original Star Wars trilogy, for instance, provides a typical tri-partite structure that follows a coming of age story for Luke Skywalker, the chosen hero.3 As Luke’s power grows, so do his opponents. Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing) is the primary enemy that the Rebel Alliance is fighting against, so much so that Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) described him as “holding Vader’s leash.” Then, in The Empire Strikes Back, Darth Vader (David Prowse/James Earl Jones) takes over as the villain and is, if anything, more evil than Tarkin. Finally, in Return of the Jedi, Luke claims to be a Jedi Knight fully coming into his own and is forced to confront Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) who is also Dark Lord of the Sith. In each instance the good guys (Luke and the Rebel Alliance) are more powerful, but they are matched by an increasingly powerful foe such that they are always overmatched. Yet, they always escape or win against the odds.4

But Star Wars is not merely about Luke Skywalker. In fact, many people find Luke to be rather annoying and prefer the roguish and iconic Han Solo (Harrison Ford), while, as Carrie Fisher points out in her one-woman show, any number of men like Princess Leia for reasons other than her character. More importantly, though, Star Wars is the story of a small number of scrappy individuals who fight for liberty and freedom in a galaxy dominated by an evil and ruthless empire. The Empire rules the galaxy with its enormous starfleet and army, while the Rebel alliance fights back with a fraction of the forces. The movies (and, for that matter, most of the books) frame the conflict as good against evil, with the servants of the empire being entirely without mercy (or even friends or family). Some of the books do ease this set-up, demonstrating that many servants of the empire did have family and friends, and were not entirely evil. Likewise, there are shirts with the tagline “I had friends on that Death Star”. Some of the Star Wars books also explore the legitimacy issues in that some of the loyalists to the empire remain loyal because they consider it the legitimate government that provides for a peaceful galaxy. The Empire is not good in these instances, but they do provide some perspective.

What I have been working my way toward is this: the typical action/adventure, sci-fi/fantasy storyline divides people (and aliens) into three general categories. From smallest to largest, those categories are the heroes or good guys, the bad guys and their collaborators, and the oppressed or victims. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy defines humans as “Mostly Harmless,”5 but most other stories posit that there are more people who will join tyranny or stand idly by than will take action. The Boondock Saints, for instance, claims “there is another kind of evil which we must fear most, and that is the indifference of good men.”6 The goodness (or lack thereof) inherent in human nature is a persistent question and there is a wide range of answers and opinions on the issue. I am personally fond of Douglas Adam’s statement, but the answer given in fiction despite the consistent triumph of good over evil is pessimistic. Humans and other humanoid sentient races are fallible and corrupt and easily dominated. Only with the help of an exceptional few can the many be freed from the shackles that bind them, though most of the stories conclude with the moment of triumph and only rarely explore the consequences of the victory of good, whether that is new corruption or enslavement, the removal of essential services, or a sudden exposure to anarchy.

The theme is enduring. Robin Hood, for instance, is an outlaw who fights against Prince John on behalf of the poor and King Richard, and is a story that has been repeatedly retold.7 His merry men are always outnumbered, but due to his skill and ingenuity, and the ineptitude of his opponents, he always triumphs. In super hero movies the villains are usually larger and stronger than the heroes (see, for example, the first Iron Man movie where Tony Stark (Robert Downey Junior) create a sleek Iron Man suit, while Obadiah Stone (Jeff Bridges) creates a comparable suit, mostly notable for being larger and more heavily armed.8). The plot of The Avengers has them fight against otherwordly opponents because mere humans would be unable to provide a sufficient advantage over the heroes. The Die Hard movies are somewhat of an exception to this. The bad guys are the ones who are outnumbered, but the main law enforcement agencies are so inept that it takes the actions of John McClane (Bruce Willis) to defeat the bad guys.9 Then, in Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon, the government is again inept and it seems that as many or more people have joined the Decepticons as join the Autobots, the side that lost the war for their home plant, Cybertron, but is somehow able to protect earth from earth.10 The allies of the Decepticons, and particularly Dylan (Patrick Dempsey), are portrayed as realists and opportunists who want to survive at the expense of the rest of humanity.11

Now, some of these movies are good, some are watchable, while others are downright awful, and books in a similar vein have a similar range. Yet they almost universally conform to the same idea about human nature–and the same faith that good will inevitably triumph over evil. Yes, much of this stems from a particular storytelling model, but it is a popular model and generally considered a feel-good one (hooray! the good guys win again!), but it is nonetheless pessimistic about human nature. Most people are self-centered, corruptible, apathetic, greedy and cruel. Most people will side with tyranny (or stand aside) because they fear or are incapable of doing otherwise. The oppressed masses only remain free and safe due to the exertions of a select, special few who are both willing and able to do the right thing. As summed up by Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones), “a person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it.”12

1Rick Moranis, Spaceballs, 1987.
2This is, admittedly, genre specific.
3Mark Hamill, A New Hope, 1977; The Empire Strikes Back, 1980; Return of the Jedi, 1983.
4It should be noted that this structure only works for the original trilogy. It was pointed out to me by Naomi Graber long ago that when all six movies are taken together, the story ceases to be the same heroic coming of age story and becomes the corruption and redemption of Anakin Skywalker.
5An edit made by Ford Prefect, the earlier entry reading “Harmless.” Douglas Adams, 1979.
6Said during a sermon in the movie, to which Conner (Sean Patrick Flannery) says “I do believe the monsignor’s finally got the point.” The Boondock Saints, 1999.
7To name just a few, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, 1991; Robin Hood, Men in Tights, 1993; Robin Hood (BBC), 2006; and Robin Hood, 2010, the IMDB tagline for which states “In 13th century England, Robin and his band of marauders confront corruption in a local village and lead an uprising against the crown that will forever alter the balance of world power.”
8Iron Man, 2008. Obadiah Stone at one point claims “my suit is more advanced in every way!”
9E.G. Live Free or Die Hard, 2007. As Vicky Krisman put it, the Die Hard movies are decidedly blue collar and do not treat federal law enforcement agencies kindly.
10Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon, 2011.
11 Dylan claims: “If you want to survive a war, do business with the side that’s gonna win.” He evidently wants to live for another forty years, but gives no thought to the survival of humanity, or the fact that there will only be a handful of other people left on earth. One wonders what he plans on doing for those forty years. Or how he plans to eat. Or get goods and services he has taken for granted all his life as one of the handful of extremely wealthy individuals who subsists on the back of everyone else’s labor. That said, this is relatively far down on the list of logical fallacies in this film.
12Men in Black, 1997.