Tag Archives: star wars

Empires: Old, New, Near, and Far, Far Away (May the Fourth Be with You)

I am in the midst of applying for academic jobs for next year. Although it is a tiring task, I have no doubt a job will come. (But the sooner the better!) I have had employment all three years since my Ph.D., after all. One part of the job application process is pitching to prospective departments fresh and exciting courses you could offer — although introductory Roman history courses seem to be the most well-attended in Classics, overall.

Then again, maybe my course on the reception of Classics in science fiction could change that statistic. Now, there are some obvious points of reception to consider when you turn your eye to sci-fi and the Classics — Battlestar Galactica and Virgil’s Aeneid, for example. Or time travel programmes that go to ancient Rome or Greece. Or any time there’s a gladiator fight.

Less obvious would be making them read Dan Simmons’ beautiful, gut-wrenching, space opera Hyperion, a multi-layered reception of classics, of theology, of theoretical physics, and of John Keats.

On the more obvious side are empires.

The most obvious empire, of course, is the evil Galactic Empire of Star Wars, with a dark magician Sith Lord as emperor. Here, empire is evil. In Rogue One, I finally felt the actual evil and oppression of the Empire. In Star Wars, we saw their brutality in the wanton murder of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru. In The Empire Strikes Back, we saw how they used force and economics to manipulate Lando Calrissian to their own ends. In Return of the Jedi they killed Ewoks. The rest of any evil perpetrated by the Empire in the original trilogy was largely confined to battle. Is killing ‘good people’ in battle any more evil when done by an evil Empire or a Rebel Alliance?

Anyway, as I say: Rogue One. I felt that here we finally felt the arbitrariness of their oppressive system and the suffering of ordinary people who weren’t harbouring fugitives from the Sith or buying droids formerly in Rebel possession. Just people. Suffering at the hands of a largely faceless government. Also, I really felt that Darth Vader was a violent, evil threat in that final scene.

Back to Classics: pitted against this Empire is the Rebel Alliance who wish to bring back the Old Republic. The ideals of this republic are modern-Americanised versions of ancient republican ideals, of freedom for local societies and individuals to serve beneath the big government in a mutually self-serving way.

What is interesting here is the fact that both the Roman Republic, as a transnational Mediterranean state, and the Roman Empire as the same, combine elements of republicanism and evil imperialism. They oppress at times. They leave local cities to be essentially self-governing at others (save, of course, the levying of taxes). They might wage a devastating war against your city and almost obliterate it (Republic: Corinth and Carthage, 146 BCE; Empire: Jerusalem 70 CE).

Coruscant is not the only world-city capital of a galactic empire, of course. Before Coruscant in a galaxy far, far away, there was Trantor, here in our Galaxy, the seat of galactic empire in Isaac Asimov’s Empire and Foundation novels. The original Foundation trilogy — FoundationFoundation and Empire, and Second Foundation — won the Hugo for Best Series Ever, FYI. So go and read it.

Asimov’s galactic empire, by the time of Foundation, at least, is a Good Thing. Or at least a Thing. Largely neutral as far as being an empire is concerned, but able to bring good things to its citizens. However, it is not far from its own fall. And in the wake of the fall of the empire will come galaxy-wide de-stabilisation. There will be chaos and a fall into ruin and a setting back the clock to an earlier time. Kind of like how we can’t tell if some Welsh archaeology is Stone Age or Post-Roman. Or the inferior quality of some Anglo-Saxon pottery, famously used as an illustration of this fact by Bryan Ward-Perkins in The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization.

The Foundation of the title is the foundation of a new empire, with the goal of lessening the impact of decline and fall, with the goal of keeping chaos at bay and gently directing history towards a beneficial conclusion for all humanity. For Asimov, empire is not necessarily good — he is the son of immigrant Russian Jews, after all. But he is aware enough of nuance to envision an empire as a good.

Asimov, then, is also inspired by the Classics in his empire — by the Fall of Rome more than by the transfer of power from the Senate to the Augustus.

What about the Romulan Star Empire in Star Trek? Obviously, the names of their home planets — Romulus and Remus — are classical. And the terminology of their governmental apparatus is itself Roman, with prefects and all that jazz. But what else is Roman about them?

Perhaps — and this is a spur-of-the-moment speculation — they represent a Gibbon-esque Byzantine Empire. Romulans are famous for speaking out of both sides of their mouths. They are notorious for being untrustworthy. They have secrets buried in their secrets. They are also the same species as Vulcans, but their governments are now divided after all these years.

Just a thought that needs more reflection.

These are only a few ways in which science fiction has represented empires. One of the important questions in reception is how does the cultural moment of the piece you are considering affect its representation and use of the classics. In a post-colonial, post-imperial — indeed, anti-imperial — climate, it is no great surprise that Firefly‘s Alliance is the faceless, exploitative villain. And, in a pre-World War I USA, are we surprised at John Carter’s union of the city-states of Barsoom as what is essentially an empire under Helium in The Warlord of Mars?

I do wonder how Solo in a few weeks will portray the evil Galactic Empire, living in a post-truth, fake news era with Trump as President of the USA and Putin acting like the latest Tsar? How does this political moment affect our reading of ancient Rome and empire’s reception in fiction?

But what about the Gammorean Guard? (Luke’s dark path)

Rancor eats gamorrean guardThe other night my wife and I were watching Return of the Jedi. As you well know, Luke Skywalker does battle with a monster called the Rancor in a cavern beneath the throne of Jabba the Hutt in Jabba’s Palace in Tattooine towards the beginning of the film. When Luke falls through the trapdoor activated by Jabba, one of the green, pig-headed guards — a Gammorean Guard (fact: Gommorian would be better) — falls with him.

The Gammorean Guard is promptly eaten by the Rancor.

Throughout Luke’s dragonslaying encounter with the Rancor, we get flashes of the crowd upstairs cheering on the fight or looking worried. Amongst them are other Gammorean Guards. Due to being men in rubber suits, they are impassive, unflappable. I noticed this time that as we see Luke’s accompanying Gammorean gobbled up by the Rancor that the shot cuts to one of the watching Gammorean Guards.

We don’t really think about this guy, do we? But I’m sure that his rubber heart was broken by watching a stop-motion version of his friend eaten by a stop-motion monster.

This is part of the whole wickedness of Jabba’s Palace. He doesn’t give a whit for sentient life. He lives for pleasure and monetary gain. When Luke poses a threat to that, not only does he casually attempt to feed Luke to a monster, he does so without being careful to keep his own minions safe. One of his personal guards is eaten by the monster to whom he feeds his enemies because of the hard, cruel heart lurking beneath his sluggish, flabby body.

jabba's palaceAnd then Luke kills the Rancor.

This looks to be a great moment for him. We see him in action, using his martial skills acquired in his Jedi training. We cheer him on in the conflict. Well done, Luke! You saved yourself and defeated the enemy.

But wars make one not great.

There lies the Rancor, dead and gone.

rancor keeperI’ve always been struck by the Rancor Keeper as he strides in, shirtless, to see his pet monster slain by the young Jedi. He sees the beast lying there dead and begins to cry, and an alien of some sort comforts him. I realised yesterday morning that I subconsciously thought of the Rancor Keeper as the Rancor’s dad.

Appropriate.

Here’s the next question that the pain of the Rancor Keeper and the meaningless slaying of the Gammorean Guard raises — for what? Was it worth it?

We automatically say, ‘Yes! Luke would have died otherwise.’

But Luke was in Jabba’s Palace of his own free will. So then we say, ‘Ah, but he was there in a daring rescue mission to set Han free from the carbonite freezing.’

And look how that single rescue mission of one man — one man who is not essential for the survival of the human race, let alone the rebellion against the Galactic Empire — transpires. Besides the Gammorean Guard and the Rancor, there are the many others dead, slain at the Sarlic Pit, either by Luke’s lightsaber or by falling into the pit’s beast where they will be slowly digested for 1000 years. Fan favourite Boba Fett goes this way (don’t worry, the comic books resurrect him).

The famous Bible quote is, ‘Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends’, not, ‘Greater love has no man that this, that he kill a whole bunch of dudes to rescue one friend.’

yodaIn The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda warns Luke not to go to Cloud City and confront Darth Vader. Luke is not ready. Doing so will set Luke down a dangerous path, a path of dancing with darkness and fear, a path that could lead to the Dark Side. What if this opening scene at Jabba’s Palace is intentionally ambiguous rather than straightforwardly heroic? What if Luke is still on his ambiguous path from Empire?

Mark Hamill certainly thought so, and imagined that Luke would actually go over to the Dark Side before finding redemption, just like his father. Some have even speculated that Darth Luke is the reason we don’t see Skywalker on any of the movie posters or in the trailers for The Force Awakens.

I, for one, think that Luke was headed on an ambiguous path. And he found himself in the Emperor’s Throne Room, and he confronted Darth Vader, and he was headed towards the Dark Side. You can see it in his fury, his rage, his violence. And then he cuts off his father’s hand. He looks at his own robotic hand. He realises that he is doing exactly what the Emperor wants. He realises that he is headed towards the Dark Side.

And unlike Anakin Skywalker, he stops.

If Luke had turned to the Dark Side, he would have had to have killed Darth Vader, in cold blood, just as Anakin killed hundreds of Jedi himself. But Luke is not his father. He is his father’s redemption. Thus the return of the Jedi.

And as Luke suffers for his realisation and choice of the Light over the Dark, Anakin Skywalker, one of the greatest Jedis of history, returns and kills off the Sith Lord, Emperor Palpatine.

But the path that led to that Throne Room, to that moment of decision where Luke almost chooses Darkness over Light, violence over mercy, death over life, includes Jabba’s Palace and the deaths of many of Jabba’s minions, from the Gammorean Guard to Boba Fett to Jabba the Hutt himself.

Han Shot First – And Why It Matters

Now, it may not matter in terms of great global or cosmic realities whether Greedo or Han shot first in the Mos Eisley cantina in Star Wars. However, in terms of story and what Star Wars is all about — or was all about, before GL took over complete creative control (perhaps he isn’t a genius after all) — it matters. And not just to me — Googling “han shot first” gets you over 199,000 hits.

When Star Wars was released in 1977, no one knew it would become an iconic, mythical, legendary hit and mainstay of popular culture like few other things. So when we meet Han Solo, he is a scoundrel capable of becoming a better man, but not yet — because Star Wars isn’t a mythic thing that buys into its own hype yet, right?

Anyway, when we meet Han Solo, we meet a criminal who smuggles stuff for some unseen mobster with the unsavoury name of Jabba the Hutt. Chances are, he’d’ve been a smuggler even if the Old Republic was still in business (unlike Malcolm Reynolds, he doesn’t seem to have fought in any world-shattering wars before taking up crime — oh, right, only the clones did that. Lame.).

So meet this scoundrel and criminal in a cantina in Mos Eisley, of all places — “You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.” (Ben Kenobi) We know nothing about him, except that he’s a smuggler who needs some cash, and was boarded by the Empire at some point. And he’s got nothing against shooting first.

So, when things with Greedo appear to be going South, he shoots him. Because Han Solo when we meet him is a greedy criminal who kills people to save his own skin. At least like Malcolm Reynolds’ foes, his opponent was armed, awake, and facing him.

Han Solo is not a knight in shining armour. Maybe towards the end of Return of the Jedi he is. But not in Star Wars in 1977 when we meet him. Not yet. He needs to get thrown into a trash compactor on the Death Star, befriend a kid named Luke Skywalker, join a rebellion, and fall for a princess before that happens. He needs to grow as a man.

If Greedo shoots first, this means that Han Solo, rather than being a scoundrel in need of redemption who can change, is already a good enough man. I mean, sure, he kills people. But only in self-defense. Only if they shoot first. He is no longer as dynamic a character; he does not grow as much. And thus, part of his essence, an important part of what makes this scruffy-looking nerfherder an important character is taken away from us by a man who doesn’t seem to realise that if it was good enough in 1977, it’s good enough in 1997 and good enough in 2007 and good enough in 2011.

Having villainous men become good is important in stories. We don’t need anti-heroes, necessarily, but it’s good not to have every one a Beowulf anymore (although Beowulf’s awesomeness actually decreases through the course of the epic, according to the critics). Everyone likes redemption stories. We don’t need our heroes born as heroes. In fact, having recently read over 100 saints’ lives, I can tell you how utterly boring that gets!

The fact is, we’re all born scoundrels, but we’re all capable of becoming heroes. Like Han Solo, who risks his life, his money, and — most important of all — his ship, the iconic Millennium Falcon in a rebellion he could quite easily have avoided once he got his reward before the destruction of the Death Star in Star Wars. But he didn’t — something in him had changed, and so we see him grow and change as a character from our first encounter with him in Mos Eisley through the battles and adventures of The Empire Strikes Back to the battle on the moon of Endor in Return of the Jedi.

Greedo shooting first destroys that and makes the story less of a story.

Perhaps George Lucas didn’t actually know what he was doing in the beginning; perhaps the greatness of the original trilogy as it was formed came not simply from Lucas but from the team of creative minds, including directors, screenwriters, actors, muppeteers, the Jim Henson Creature Shop, special effects teams, and more, that worked with the incipient vision Lucas had.