TCW Re-watch: Failings of the Jedi

Star Wars: The Clone Wars offered such a rich variety of stories that there are an endless array of lenses to approach the themes within the series, both those unique to it and those that elaborate on the subject matter of George Lucas’s six-film saga. I’ve gone into this re-watch with a few particular themes and contradictions on my mind, and the most current reviewed episode, “Mystery of a Thousand Moons” (1.18), touches on most of them.

Most interesting to me is the tension between the apparent necessity of the war in the moment in contrast to the audience’s foreknowledge that the Jedi’s mere entry into the war was the trap that doomed them. This narrative emerges clearly enough in the films with the end of Attack of the Clones, with Yoda’s admonition that “the shroud of the Dark Side has fallen.” Perhaps more subtly, that theme is present in the decision on the part of the Jedi and the Republic to assault a Separatist planet in the midst of heightened political tensions to rescue two Jedi and a Senator who had infiltrated that independent system to perform acts of political espionage, sabotage, and murder, and who were being punished under the laws of that system. While leaving the trio to execution would have been an unacceptable ending to audiences and would have seemed too merciless, and while viewers know that the Separatists were preparing their own attack on the Republic, interfering with the laws of another government via open invasion is a shockingly imperialistic act for a group of alleged peacekeepers. And, of course, that theme of loss merely through engagement sees fruition in the collapse of the Jedi and the Republic in Revenge of the Sith.

The Clone Wars readily acknowledges this burden. Yoda does a lot of wrangling with this moral crisis and imminent loss throughout the series. While that’s perhaps most emphasized in the final season’s episodes, the theme is present in moments with Yoda–and in merely observing what the war does to Jedi and clones alike–throughout the show. As Yoda says in “Lair of Grievous” (1.10), “To answer power with power, the Jedi way this is not. In this war, a danger there is of losing who we are.”

And this theme manifests in at least small ways in almost every episode. Returning to “Mystery of a Thousand Moons,” we see the Jedi once again putting innocents in harm’s way in an attempt to win a battle. In this case, Ahsoka, Padme, and several clone troopers are infected with a super-virus and almost die before Anakin and Obi-Wan can provide a cure. Padme’s a senator. Ahsoka is literally a child who is nonetheless invested with the powers of a military commander. And the clones have been manufactured to fight and–as Rex notes in the episode–to die, yet the Jedi were perfectly willing to enlist them and use them as though they lacked in personhood or choice (a damning decision no matter how many Jedi befriended them between battles).

Yet that super-virus is another example of the seeming necessity of the war. The recreation of the Blue Shadow Virus for biological war in “Mystery of a Thousand Moons” and in the virus’s eponymous episode (1.17) is a shocking atrocity, intended to quickly wipe out whole ecosystems on hundreds of planets. In the same arc, the Separatists have blockaded a planet with a force field that kills anyone who tries to leave orbit, seemingly with the intent of preventing the export of the one raw material that can be used to produce a cure to the virus. Similarly, in “Defenders of Peace” (1.14), the Separatists intend to test a weapon that wipes out all organic life in its blast radius but leaves droids behind–and their intended target is a village of pacifists. Messaging consistently reinforces a pro-war mentality, at least in the moment. “Defenders of Peace” and its companion “Jedi Crash” (1.13) have no room for pacifists; the ideology is portrayed as too naive to actually survive without outside intervention by occupying defenders. Certainly there are historical precedents where passive resistance or acquiescence have not halted or appeased a bloodthirsty oppressor. Yet, to complicate things further, the “Jedi Crash” arc is immediately followed by “Trespass” (1.15), which actually provides for a scenario in which peaceful diplomacy is the ideal solution in contrast to aggressive interventionism.

If nothing else, the show highlights how messy war and conflict are. Moral solutions are not always apparent. The Jedi, even early on in the show, frequently cross the line of acceptable behavior, but that line-crossing often achieves results. For specific examples, contrast “Cloak of Darkness” (1.9), in which Ahsoka brushes off Master Luminara Unduli’s warning that “terror is not a weapon the Jedi use” because her threat, which does (momentarily) convince an imprisoned Nute Gunray to cooperate, “wasn’t serious,” with Anakin’s threat in “Mystery of a Thousand Moons” to kill mad scientist Nuvo Vindi completely failing to produce results (and actually giving Vindi another opportunity to gloat).

Lastly, one little item of head canon that I’ve been toying with for a while is that some version of the Mandalorian Wars and the subsequent Jedi Civil War of Knights of the Old Republic actually happened, and that this resulted in a radical shift in Jedi dogma. We at least have confirmation of a Mandalorian-Jedi War, but it’s the latter war that’s more significant to me. Revan and Malak rushed off to join the Republic in defeating the Mandalorians, in opposition to the Jedi Order’s mandate to stay out of the war, but their experiences turned them to the Dark Side. Revan’s later redemption was the only thing that could stop Malak, and he went on to pursue a larger threat outside of the galaxy. Other Jedi who went to war did not necessarily fall to the Dark Side. The Jedi Exile, for instance, chose a life of nomadic wandering following her actions at the Battle of Malachor (a battle that has been partially introduced to the canon, as well). Her eventual return to the major events of the galaxy stopped another festering Sith threat, and it is implied that she and her disciples helped rebuild a decimated Jedi Order. (Light Side decisions and their resultant outcomes in video games were typically perceived to be closer to canon during the run of the EU, and even in this canon-reboot era, that assumption seems to me a valid starting point for discussing the state of the old EU lore.)

The implications of the first two games are cast to the wind to enable the direction of The Old Republic and its companion novels, like Star Wars: The Old Republic: Revan, which conveniently wiped Revan and the Jedi Exile off the board. I’m not so impressed by the idea of Jedi and Sith joining together to combat a larger threat; it happened surprisingly often in the old EU, it seems counter to the core messaging of Lucas’s films, and it seems like something that exists in Star Wars: The Old Republic largely as a justification for players to join the Sith faction without necessarily being pure evil. So let’s set aside the implications of everything post-KOTOR II.

With that division of the franchise in place, I rather like the idea that Revan, the Jedi Exile, and their followers would have forced a radical rethink in Jedi philosophy. Perhaps the Jedi, over time, would have felt that earlier official involvement by the Jedi Order in curbing the Mandalorian expansion would have stopped a lot of cruelty and death–and would have prevented the rise of the Sith Lords that followed. The Jedi Exile, in particular, would have been a model for a more interventionist Jedi Knight. This change in doctrinal thinking could have resulted in an over-correction that could have made the Jedi all too willing to hop into aggressive pursuit of peacekeeping operations. The reform spirit of the Jedi Exile would have faded into institutional tradition over the centuries, such that the shift in Jedi mindset would have only served as another pillar of dogmatic thought for later generations of Jedi leaders. Such a mindset would have primed them to hop straight into the Clone Wars, before cooler heads (mostly a more reflective Yoda) could prevail, and with the assumption that they were fully in the right. I think The Clone Wars and its depiction of the last years of the Jedi Order provide some ammo for that theory.

(By the way, in my full version of this head canon, which veers hard into amorphously formed fan fiction, Bultar Swan offers a lot of storytelling possibilities as a potential Jedi who quickly sees the entry of the Jedi into the business of war as detrimental. I tend to imagine her getting the hell out of the Order and the war shortly after Geonosis, after seeing just what it takes to kill and seeing the Jedi leadership all too willing to keep going down that path. But that’s getting way off topic for this post.)

I don’t plan on regularly discussing The Clone Wars over the course of this re-watch, but I do suspect that I’ll have an occasional update as this gradual viewing continues. I’ve only watched the show in full once before, and this new trip through has been quite enjoyable and thought-provoking.

Clone Wars Re-watch Go!

The official Star Wars site is leading a chronological re-watch of The Clone Wars, with new posts by the site’s Associate Editor, Kristin Baver, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. If that sort of thing sounds appealing to you, you can find the first episode recap/analysis here and a list of all the episodes here; the show and the film are available in their entirety on Netflix.

It’s still fairly early in the re-watch, and the pace of two episodes a week is not too demanding, so it’s still an easy time to get started. As of this writing, they’re just now through the film.

There are two improvements about this particular viewing schedule.

First, there’s a more consistent narrative, and it’s easier to see the war–and individual battles–evolving. The show seemed to take a while to settle into itself and didn’t get into long-form storytelling until later on, but part of that is attributable to the fact that episodes were aired out of chronology. With a streaming service like Netflix, the effort involved in hopping between episodes (and seasons, and the film itself) is minimal and the payoff, in having a richer narrative immediately with clearer character development, is big.

Second, this re-watch breaks the film into three acts. Watching the acts on their own, as complete episodes in and of themselves, makes the film just another arc in the series. Its lower stakes (compared to the saga films), meandering pacing, somewhat jarring cuts between acts, and shifting tonal dissonance is forgivable when it’s understood that each episode is doing its own thing. We don’t need to have a galaxy-shaking event every week for the television show; The Clone Wars was often at its best when showing clone troopers with their boots on the ground. And it feels natural to make these divisions–after all, the film was originally a few different episodes of the planned television series, spliced together into a single theatrical release at the request of George Lucas.

Also, treating the film as its constituent episodes rather than a single component separate from the series means that it flows rather well with the supporting stories that chronologically take place earlier. We see Anakin and Obi-Wan break the blockade of Christophsis, deal with loss and betrayal, encounter Ventress, and then meet Ahsoka just in time for a final battle before racing off to beat the Sith to recovering Jabba the Hutt’s child. I wouldn’t point to any part of the film as one of my favorites in the entire series–a lot of it was silly, the animation and character models and storytelling still having had a bit of growing to do. But the Anakin defying Jedi orders in “Cat and Mouse” and the Rex who was just shaken by a betrayal of one of his own in “Hidden Enemy” meeting Ahsoka for the first time and being changed by her even as they provide guidance is a pretty cool thing to see. Plus, the Battle of Teth sequence, with its electric-guitar-and-exotica soundtrack, misty purple forests, and vertical firefight, is a fantastic television experience, even if it’s a bit short and (relatively) quiet for a theatrical sci-fi war film’s centerpiece battle.

Another takeaway from the re-watch: I don’t recall registering just how brutally the war was depicted. Maybe it’s the structure of the re-watch, or maybe I’m just registering because I already know that I got attached to some of these clones. So many die, often in heroically pointless ways. So much of the Battle of Christophsis, for instance, is repeated Jedi over-extension, with the clones dying for Jedi heroics. It’s not remarked on so much yet, but it’s very visible. And while the droids are played for laughs, it’s hard not to read them as sentient, many with full and unique personalities. While Anakin and Ahsoka are quite willing to mow down hostile droids, they do show an endearing love and respect for allied droids, especially R2-D2; similarly, while they are both willing to accept battlefield losses (at least later on), both are fiercely loyal to and protective of Captain Rex.

Similarly, the failings of the Jedi Order are really apparent to me now in a way that they weren’t on my initial watch. While Anakin is unwilling to leave an infant Hutt to die, he thinks it’s a very bad idea to work with the Hutts. Of course he would! They enslaved him and his mother! And Jabba is a notorious criminal! The Jedi and the Republic are willing to throw away principle and get in bed with a slave-dealing criminal organization for a strategic advantage. The war has already skewed their thinking. And while Ahsoka might be old enough to be a Padawan, placing her in command of troops and in the midst of battle is a terrible idea! The use of child warriors is shockingly poor judgment. It’s hard not to see the Jedi as radical religious crusaders at that point. Ahsoka sees so much killing and dying, and while she handles it well, it’s just wrong for the Jedi to have put her in that situation.

One of the weirdest things for me on re-watch is knowing that The Clone Wars represented a sort of soft canon reset before the official Disney reboot. Dave Filoni always showed himself to be aware of the Expanded Universe, even when he changed it. There was more respect for the EU setting than George Lucas ever showed, at least. But still, it was jarring to see an over-complicated, cluttered Clone Wars added to even further with so many new central characters and events when there was supposed to have been so much already documented post-Attack of the Clones. Re-watching with knowledge that this series represents almost the entirety of the “official” version of the Clone Wars relieves a lot of confusion and some mild frustration that younger me had (I’ll admit that I’m also just a lot mellower and less worried about canon issues than I was as a teen).

There’s a new, minor thing that bothers me now though: there is a level of familiarity with the old Expanded Universe, and that causes a new bit of confusion when those stories don’t “exist” within the current canon. Anakin, Obi-Wan, and Ventress have a clear history together. They hint at it a lot in their sparring. At the very least, this would seem to incorporate the introduction of Ventress from Genndy Tartakovsky’s Clone Wars. This makes sense–prior to Filoni’s run, Tartakovsky’s show had been well-promoted, highly praised, and rather visible on Cartoon Network. In addition to introducing Ventress, the show introduced Grievous, and it also showed Anakin’s transition from Padawan to Knight! But we don’t have any canon versions of these happenings, and Tartakovsky’s series now has very little visibility to new audiences. I feel that, at some point, at least certain elements of Clone Wars should be retold in the new canon. We can iron out the continuity contradictions, dial back the hyper-stylized format, and develop certain plot points more, but introducing Grievous and Ventress, charting the early course of the war, and showing Anakin’s growth from Padawan to a Knight ready to train the next generation would be great material for new stories.

Finally, I am struck by how much the chronological re-watch clearly centers the show around Anakin, Ahsoka, and Rex. This is really Ahsoka’s story–she’s present almost from the very beginning, and what comes before in that story directly lays the groundwork for her entrance on the scene. Yes, I know the film came first, but it felt like a separate and detached experience. The show itself started with more of a scattered anthology approach. The impact is rather different when we get this focus on Ahsoka almost immediately, with just enough of Anakin and Rex to see where they are when they meet her. It’s a different experience than encountering the show for the first time with the one-off “Ambush” episode. (And I didn’t even watch the show episodically at first–I was very sporadic and really only got interested in the series after seeing the 1.15 episode “Trespass,” though I later went back and watched in order after picking up the DVDs.)

If it’s been a while since you’ve watched The Clone Wars, or if you’ve never watched chronologically before (or even never watched the show at all), now’s a great time to dive in.

Bultar Swan Watch

I’ve been following 365 Days of Star Wars Women, which is exactly what it says on the tin: daily posts about the women in Star Wars–and not just the heroes and villains, but the actors, writers, producers, and film crew as well. It’s a fun way to highlight women’s representation in front of and behind the camera in a franchise that still leans heavily male both ways. I bring this up now because Bultar Swan recently got a post! I’ve written about my fondness for the character before…and it’s not often that she gets much notice.

20171001_150537I’ve reviewed the Powers of the Jedi Sourcebook entry on Jedi Knight Bultar Swan once more. It’s not just that such a minor background character had a write-up, though that was enough to get my attention as a youngling. What’s stayed with me about her is that she was a Jedi who was so familiar with violence and yet made a point to avoid killing in combat. The Jedi are depicted as quite willing to kill, despite Yoda’s admonition that a Jedi “uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack.” It’s veering on an uncomfortable reduction of Chinese martial arts that Swan is written as notable for a unique fighting style “that required her to maintain physical contact with her foes to judge their next moves,” but that fits into the character profile of one who focused on defense and disarming attacks to subdue, rather than disable or kill, an opponent. She knew there would probably come a point in time where she would have to kill an opponent, and while she apparently did not take pride in her mortality-free combat record, she was concerned with how she would react to the taking of a life. She first apprenticed under Micah Giett and then Plo Koon following her Master’s death; when Master Plo mentioned the possibility of her one day joining the Jedi Council, Swan said that she would not be anywhere near ready “until she had more experience with life and the Force,” including understanding how she would react to killing an opponent, before she could sit in judgment over any other Jedi. To me, all the above made Bultar Swan the model Jedi, much like Obi-Wan.

But that opinion must not have been very popular, as she remained virtually unused throughout the years of Legends storytelling following her initial appearance in Attack of the Clones, in which she was portrayed by Mimi Daraphet (Power of the Jedi was published in the same year as the film). The closest to starring role for Bultar Swan was the first arc of the Purge comics. Written by John Ostrander with art by Doug Wheatley, the first story followed a group of Jedi survivors of Order 66 who met in a secret conclave to discuss what to do next; one of the Order had actually betrayed the location of the conclave to the Empire, so that her fellow Jedi would be forced to fight against Vader and hopefully destroy him in a final battle. Swan and Tsui Choi are close to protagonists–to the extent that the protagonist isn’t Vader himself. Swan and Choi argue against seeking revenge against Vader. When they are forced into battle anyway, Swan attempts to stop one of her Jedi by giving in to the Dark Side, and she is killed by her fallen compatriot when he refuses to back down.

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For me, Purge represents a disappointing appearance for Bultar Swan. She has little agency over the story, and she is quickly transformed into a martyr, killed off. I recognize that a story like Purge doesn’t allow for a happy ending, and almost all the Jedi had to be killed off somehow, but aside from highlighting Swan’s embodiment of the Jedi Code, it doesn’t really do anything with her as a character. She’s a prop to show Vader killing some last, desperate Jedi.

Bultar Swan also has a very brief appearance in the 59th issue of Star Wars: Republic (also written by Ostrander, with art by Jan Duursema). Unfortunately, she just provides a few moments of exposition as a subordinate under Ki-Adi-Mundi.

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The 365 Days post references one other Bultar Swan appearance: Clone Wars Adventures Volume 7, in the story “Impregnable.” I’ve never read it, but it turns out that it’s fairly cheap and easy to find online. I’ve ordered a copy. That’ll probably result in a short follow-up to this post somewhere down the line. But given that it’s Clone Wars Adventures, a pulpy action series modeled after the Genndy Tartakovsky cartoons, I don’t expect anything close to a deep examination of the character.

Finally, Wookieepedia informs me that Swan also appeared in the children’s series Star Wars Adventures. I’m not particularly desperate to track that down for what seems to be a minor appearance in a children’s book.

Of course, all of the above representations of Bultar Swan, except for Attack of the Clones, are now non-canon, Legends. The character could be written in an entirely different way now, if she ever really appears at all. Her only new-canon appearance so far is in On the Front Lines by Daniel Wallace. Her character is presented as young, inexperienced, and surprised to see opponents willing to fight back instead of surrender before a lightsaber. There’s nothing that suggests that the original interpretation of the character is invalidated, but I do get the impression that Swan still has a lot more growing to do in this incarnation. It’s enough to know that she canonically survived the battle and was able to recount it, for now.

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What happens to Bultar Swan after she gets a taste of war? Does she soldier on, like a loyal Jedi? Does she recoil at the taking of life? Could she at first be accepting but later rethink the Jedi’s methods as the droids are recognized as increasingly sentient? Maybe she would stay loyal; maybe she would eventually become disillusioned and leave the Jedi Order, like Ahsoka, or stay to attempt to reform it from the inside. Could she have survived the Purge? And if not, how did she meet her end? She’s an excitingly blank slate of a character with just enough motivation and just enough dangling plot threads to remain compelling to me. I really hope that some day she sees more use.

Machete Viewing?

I watched the Star Wars films again over the Thanksgiving break, in anticipation of the release of The Last Jedi. To try to give myself a novel perspective, I decided I’d play with the “machete” viewing order I’ve heard so much about. Now, I believe that normally calls for a viewing of IV, V, II, III, VI, but my goal was to watch all the films, not trim things down. What I settled on was R1/IV double-feature, V, I, II, III, VI, VII. It was in some ways illuminating and made me think about how these movies were conceived and how they are viewed.

I took notes while viewing, and they raised questions that I might probe further at a later date. For now, I just want to briefly talk about my viewing experience as a whole. It won’t be comprehensive or conclusive, but it’s a start.

What most surprised me about my viewing was how dissonant Rogue One and A New Hope actually are. Of course, Rogue One has a darker ending than any other Star Wars film except perhaps Revenge of the Sith, but I was surprised to realize that when watched back-to-back, the films don’t bridge well together even with A New Hope picking up almost exactly where Rogue One left off. One of the biggest elements of discord: Rogue One is specific, whereas A New Hope is mythic.

A New Hope lays out the visual language and storytelling tools used in all the other saga films. We deal with archetypes, not just heroic archetypes or film tropes but in broad principles and institutions. Jedi Knights (whatever they are, exactly) defended the Republic for a thousand generations before the Dark Times, before the Empire. There is a Rebellion against that Empire. There is an Emperor. There was a Senate, but no more. Vader is all menace, seemingly completely removed from the military chain of command. He is almost a force of nature. Contrast with Rogue One, which has all the lore to work with of every film that has come since then. Rogue One shows the specifics of the Rebel Alliance, with political infighting and uncertainty over how to proceed. We see special forces operatives making bad calls. We see something approaching more specific, real organizations. Even Vader is not quite so removed. It’s sort of the nature of the film; where A New Hope is intentionally mythic, Rogue One fills in the details. It’s still bizarre.

Almost as disconcerting to me is how Rogue One seems to only loosely honor the connection to A New Hope. While Vader says he knows that plans were “beamed aboard” the Tantive IV, we know that the transmissions were actually to a capital ship; Vader saw the plans physically handed off to a courier who boarded Leia’s own ship. Leia outright lies to Vader about her purpose even though her crew barely escaped from an active war zone and Vader’s physical presence moments before his arrival. And Vader becomes more and more active and powerful in every new Star Wars installment so that it is curious why he becomes a lead-from-the-rear officer and conservative fencer by the time of the classic trilogy. Nothing is outright contradicted, as far as I can tell. People make mistakes; they lie; they alter the truth. This certainly happens in Star Wars. And Vader maybe has reasons for his varying degrees of displayed power. It’s not ruinous, but it just creates nagging moments of disconnection between the two films.

And while Rogue One adds further urgency and importance to the delivery of the Death Star plans with the lives lost and faint glimmer of hope at the end of this prequel, A New Hope, by way of being a preexisting entity, cannot take advantage of that urgency. The film is a much slower-paced title. The MacGuffin of the Death Star plans only becomes vital to the viewers when we realize that the Rebel base will be destroyed–meaning Leia and 3PO too!–if Luke isn’t able to blow the bad guys up in time. Rogue One’s fast burn dissolves into a slow sizzle. After the opening battle of A New Hope, everything slows.

At the end of the day, Rogue One is a fairly safe film that fills in gaps that don’t really need to be filled in. Its changes in focus and urgency and tone don’t really connect with the feel of the original film. On this re-watch, I appreciated more than ever the questions and dangling threads and implied epic scope of A New Hope. It’s a great film. It doesn’t really need Rogue One, and while I still enjoy R1 for its beautiful planetary vistas and the chemistry in its ensemble cast, I am realizing more and more that it’s simply an unnecessary film.

Unsurprisingly, The Empire Strikes Back remains my favorite film after the viewing. I watched the special editions of the classic trilogy this time, in contrast to the “theatrical” versions that came with the DVD release, and I think that Empire benefits most from the retroactive editing. The wampa cave scene and the Hoth battle scene are improved. And Bespin is just absolutely stunning with the addition of more exterior views. The special edition makes Empire feel bigger. Regardless, this viewing order neither helps nor hurts it.

Jumping back to Episode I was interesting at this point. If you were a new viewer, and you just learned that Darth Vader was Luke’s father, finding this little boy to be Anakin Skywalker would be incredibly jarring. Maybe Vader was lying, you might assume, without the guidance of Return of the Jedi. Maybe Anakin and Vader really are separate people somehow. How could such a sweet boy become Vader? As I recall, many fans of the original films were annoyed by this little, dorky, sweet version of young Anakin. It was an over-share. We don’t need to see Anakin as a child! But I’m thinking about how it would feel to go from V to II, or to live in a world without The Phantom Menace. And frankly, if your first exposure to Anakin is in Episode II, I think you lose something. That Anakin is already tortured by his fear of losing his mother, already tempted by a girl he met years ago, and quick to do very evil things in moments of anger and grief. That Anakin, though whiny, is someone we can immediately believe to be Vader. That even a good person can become evil, that even a seemingly normal person can harbor such great demons or grow into them, is a far more interesting message, and I think I understand more what George Lucas was trying to do with Episode I. There are larger problems with that film–chiefly, the time distance means that Episode I feels more like a prequel to the later two prequel films rather than a part of the trilogy, very little of narrative significance happens in this film since most of Anakin’s personal concerns are established in Episode II again anyway, and the pod race is excessively long and fairly pointless. But Lucas had purpose even if the delivery was flawed.

Watching Episode I after V gave me something to think about. I parallels IV in that it is a happy-go-lucky sort of film with a big explosion at the end and a big celebration after victory; both films inform the later films in their trilogies, but they are somewhat apart from them. If I were coming up with my own viewing order, I would probably remove Rogue One (it’s not a main saga film anyway) and start the viewer with A New Hope followed by The Phantom Menace. A new viewer would interpret Anakin to be Luke’s father without the knowledge that Anakin is Vader. Vader’s absence from The Phantom Menace would be a gnawing tension; where is the future threat? And viewing IV and I back to back shows them as companion pieces, kindred spirits, both about the journeys of Skywalkers. Follow The Phantom Menace up with The Empire Strikes back, to progress Luke’s story further and make the connections between both trilogies explicit; this viewing order also makes a reveal out of both Palpatine’s and Anakin’s true ultimate identities. Now that this darkness in Anakin is revealed, we can jump back to finish up the prequel trilogy…

And finish up the prequel trilogy I did. Maybe for the first time in my life, I somehow found Anakin charming and liked many aspects of his romance with Padme in Attack of the Clones. I don’t know exactly how this happened. I don’t know why it did. I think the new viewing order disrupted my default opinions about the films. Maybe I was able to shift away from popular opinion a little bit. Yes, Anakin can be creepy or intense, but he’s sensitive and caring and a bit of a flirt. Yes, he can be awkward–but in the way that many young men are awkward, for better or worse. This isn’t a flaw; Lucas clearly wants you to view him as awkward, angsty, still growing up. He lingers on Anakin’s flailing moments, plays up shots of others reacting to him, pairs the images with music that drives home the discomfort. It works. I can’t and won’t defend the failures in dialogue present, but I would point out that Lucas has always written fairly artificial and awkward dialogue into the films.

The most frustrating thing about Episode II is still that Anakin murders a whole village of indigenous people and somehow is not already branded as a Dark Sider. You don’t get much more Dark Side than that, no matter how big your anger and grief. No matter how Padme felt about Anakin, it’s also a shocking lack of judgment on her part that she would (a) simply accept Anakin afterward without reprimand and (b) not report Anakin to the authorities. They weren’t even in a relationship!

I think Attack of the Clones is still my least-favorite saga film, but Obi-Wan was charming as hell, I got more out of Anakin/Padme than I usually do, and the final battle was enjoyable as always (though the Yoda/Dooku fight has become more and more ridiculous to me with time).

Revenge of the Sith remained strong as always. You either buy into the tragedy or you don’t, I think. My wife and I both buy into it. Watching Return of the Jedi afterward provides a lovely bit of symmetry and a satisfying conclusion to the entirety of the saga, as well.

Interestingly, while The Force Awakens replicates so much of the previous films and nails the tone, on this viewing I found it to be rather peripheral and irrelevant (though still great fun). Then again, the same could be said for A New Hope or The Phantom Menace in isolation. We’ll have to see how the rest of this sequel trilogy goes.

All of the above is to say that changing viewing order did get me to rethink each of the films and their place in the larger saga. I think that the most logical viewing order remains either release date or sequential order, but I don’t begrudge the experimentation.

And if I wanted to do my own bit of experimental viewing order, that hopefully creates the most dramatic interconnection I could manage just by remixing the sequence, I think I’d go: IV, I, V, II, III, VI.

George Lucas, Star Wars, and Race

It is more difficult than it might seem to make a coherent and consistent statement about George Lucas’s views on race. This is, in part, because those views appear to be rather complicated, if not fully developed, and rather confused/confusing.

After the release of The Phantom Menace, there was of course some (often quite reasonable but sometimes hyperbolically pearl-clutching or bizarrely wrong) backlash to the minstrelsy evidenced in the hijinks and accent of Jar Jar Binks, the anti-Semitic stereotyping of Watto the Toydarian junk dealer, and the Asian caricatures imbued in the greedy Neimoidians like Nute Gunray (examples here, here, and here). But The Phantom Menace also brought us competent black heroes in the form of Samuel L. Jackson’s Jedi Master Mace Windu and Hugh Quarshie‘s Naboo Royal Guard Captain Panaka. The later prequel films broadened the previously limited (human) racial mix of Star Wars with the addition of prominent characters like Captain Typho, Queen Jamillia, and Jango Fett (played by Maori actor Temuera Morrison, who would also be the face of the clone troopers), as well as background parts like Bultar Swan and Depa Billaba. Thus Star Wars looked a little less white, with a range of characters with different ethnic backgrounds who could be heroes and villains, and yet that change came about along with some loaded ethnic stereotyping that hadn’t really been present in the films beforehand.

Of course, it’s easy to avoid ethnic stereotyping when the only humans in the room are white people (mostly men) speaking with American or British accents. In the classic trilogy, there was only Lando (Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker, though voiced by James Earl Jones when the mask was on, was of course portrayed, over the course of the films and their various editions, by David Prowse, Sebastian Shaw, and Hayden Christensen). There may have been people of color hidden as background actors in the streets of Cloud City, and there are a couple of black and Asian pilots who appear just long enough to blow up in the Battle of Endor, but Billy Dee Williams’ Lando Calrissian is the only prominent person of color in the entirety of the visible Star Wars galaxy throughout the original three movies.

Overall, this suggests growth on the part of George Lucas. Maybe he realized that representation of people from non-white ethnic backgrounds was important. Maybe he was just responding to critical and consumer complaints. I’m not sure if he really knows. One of the most awkward passages in Star Wars: The Annotated Screenplays comes from an excerpt of an interview with George Lucas. Lucas says:

At one point in the original Star Wars, Han Solo was going to be black. I was in the casting, and one of the finalists was a black actor, and I just decided that I liked Harrison the best. It didn’t have to do with race at all. I had a lot of different ideas. At one point Luke, Leia, and Ben were all going to be little people, and we did screen tests to see if I could do that. At one point Luke and Leia were going to be Oriental. I played with various ethnic groups, but when there are four main characters, it seemed better to have them all be the same race. But I had been interested right from the very beginning to get ethnic diversity into the project. So when I got to adding the Lando character, who was not originally written as a black man, there was a chance to put in variety. You know, at the time Star Wars came out, a lot of critics attacked the film for not having one of the characters be a black person. They also said that it was a chauvinistic movie. And I thought, Wait a minute, Leia is not a man, she is tough and independent, how can that be chauvinistic? The film got attacked for everything.

I don’t exactly have graceful oratory ability, and I put my foot in my mouth rather often, so I’m sympathetic to the possibility that Lucas just did a really poor job of conveying what he meant. But I’m not quoting out of context–that’s the entirety of the excerpt provided. He reads as defensive to me. It certainly seems like any addition of diversity was specifically a response to criticism. And remember, The Annotated Screenplays were published in 1997, so Lucas had these thoughts as he was preparing for the prequel trilogy.

I also think those comments feel misguidedly progressive. I think George Lucas probably wanted (and wants) to do the right thing, but for some reason does not quite know how or know whom to ask for guidance. Ethnic backgrounds seem almost like tokenistic check-boxes to him. Lucas claims he always wanted diversity, but somehow he could only find room for one significant non-white role in the entirety of the original trilogy? And why, exactly, did it “seem better” to have all the protagonists of the same race? Again, I think he wants to do the right thing, but it really feels like he misses the point of the criticism and rather belligerently dismisses the idea that there could have been anything that could have been improved with his creative choices or casting decisions.

Look, I have a tremendous amount of respect for Mr. Lucas (even though I know it might be hard to believe, especially if you could see everything I said about the prequel trilogy as an adolescent). He created a fantasy world that means so much to me and millions of others. He’s a talented visionary, but he has flaws. Some of those flaws–for instance, as a writer–he has openly acknowledged. But it can be very hard for people to admit to flaws regarding race and sex because it is really an ugly, yucky feeling to admit that something you did is racist or sexist. Racist or sexist is coded, correctly, to mean bad, but the reality is that we can all do bad things and think bad thoughts. We have to strive to be better people; none of us is born perfect. I certainly struggle with the reality that sometimes I do things that are racist or sexist. It can be easier just to defend yourself, to deny, rather than to recognize the flaw and work to improve. I think because George Lucas appears to have been so defensive, he set himself up for other failings even as he made improvements–as evidenced by the presence of a Jar Jar and a Watto next to a Mace and a Panaka.

In that light, Disney’s new ownership of Star Wars is positive. It seems like Kathleen Kennedy and crew have given real thought to those flaws, even while having a great history with and intimate understanding of the intellectual property. And so we continue to see more people of color and more women (and sometimes, though sadly still rarely, women of color) in new installments; we even have actual Hispanic actors in Star Wars, something surprisingly lacking for decades now. The Star Wars universe continues to feel truly more diverse, and not just with the inclusion of more exotic aliens.

Reading the films

I’ve finished my read of the novelizations for the first six Star Wars movies. Above is an image of my own battered copies of the books. They’ve been folded and marked up and underlined and occasionally dropped, and my cat became a bit too fond of the taste of the prequel collection.

I’ve posted reviews on Goodreads: prequels here and originals here. The books were okay. I mean, they’re novelizations; it’s sort of a different standard with adaptations of films than with other forms of literature. It’s interesting to see where books and films diverged, though. I’ve enjoyed learning about the development of the Star Wars movies–and as someone who has always loved to read and write, I’ve especially enjoyed learning about the development of the stories and screenplays for the films. It’s interesting to see how much these films were a collaborative effort, including the screenwriting, and to realize how elements of the films continued to evolve all the way through post-production. It’s one of the reasons why I’ve always enjoyed flipping through Star Wars: The Annotated Screenplays.

Maybe most interesting to me, although it’s not really a comment about the merits of any particular novelization, is how Matthew Stover’s adaptation of Revenge of the Sith so often echoed visual metaphors used in James Kahn’s adaptation of Return of the Jedi (shadow and darkness, of course, but even the use of a metaphorical dragon). This makes sense; Episode III is in many ways a dark reflection of Episode VI, a story where the hero is not able to withstand the temptation to act selfishly. If Stover drew from Return of the Jedi‘s language in crafting his own adaptation, I admire that attention to detail; if not, then it’s still an interesting coincidence.

Overall, III and VI were my favorite of the novelizations. They both benefited from some of the best characterizations of the protagonists (and villains). Kahn offers a compelling supplement to Episode VI; Stover might actually exceed the film version of Episode III. R.A. Salvatore’s Episode II novelization was also pretty good, and I especially appreciated the development of the Confederacy into a more realistic secessionist government with real motivations and goals, rather than the cartoonish league of villains in the films. This novelization and the course of The Clone Wars TV show, paired together, I think are the best examples of convincingly elaborating on the Confederacy.

Regardless, I’m glad that I can now say that I’ve read the Star Wars novelizations, flaws and all. It’s been an interesting experience.