…Why isn’t Star Wars what I personally want it to be?
As you may have noticed, a new Star Wars film is coming. I’ve tried not to get too excited about it, but the veneer of aloof disinterest I was maintaining in order to protect me from inevitable and crushing disappointment has cracked. I watched Return of the Jedi this afternoon, the slightly hagiographic but nonetheless interesting documentary Empire of Dreams on Friday and have been mainlining Wookiepedia articles and fan theories over the last week. I’ve also been thinking about the short space of time for me that was between watching the original films and the release of The Phantom Menace.
One of the reasons for Star Wars‘ enduring popularity is that George Lucas created a galaxy with a sense of history. In the first film, the audience has the knowledge that stuff has been happening both immediately before the action takes place (the capture of the Death Star plans) as well as well as in the recent and distant past. Like many others, I had ideas about what some of those events might have been, before the prequel series came to set the record straight. It’s interesting that almost all of the events depicted in the newer films are referred to in one short scene in Obi-Wan Kenobi’s home or serve to build up to them. I think a reason that people were disappointed by the prequels is that often their own ideas about what happened before Episode IV were that little bit more exciting, stranger or just cooler than what Lucas eventually showed us. Here are some of mine.
The Clone Wars
For what has since been depicted as a major, galaxy-changing event, depicted in two of the three prequels, a couple of TV series and any number of Expanded Universe books and comics, The Clone Wars are referred to just twice in the first Star Wars film in a single scene. In my head, the Clone Wars were literally fought between cloned individuals – so you’d have evil versions of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke’s dad and others attacking and causing havoc in the galaxy whilst the Emperor seizes control in the confusion. Maybe the Emperor was an evil clone of whoever was in charge of the Old Republic? That’s actually not a million miles from what did happen. In any case, I thought that the Wars would be altogether less epic and more sneaky, surprise attacks on the Jedi, of which I assumed there’d be a lot fewer of…
I had thought there’d been about twenty or so Jedi at most. Firstly, as becoming a Jedi seemed like a really big deal, not something commonplace. I know on a galactic scale, the numbers of Jedi are very small in the prequels, but I never thought there’d be literally hundreds of them. They’re basically a public service. Having them so proliferated kind of cheapened the idea of these elite, mystical warrior-monks. It’s also claimed that Darth Vader hunted down and killed the Jedi Knights. I took that at face value and therefore assumed the numbers could never have been anything quite as large as depicted in the prequels.
Obi-Wan tells Luke that Yoda was the Jedi Master that trained him (so no Qui-Gon Jinn) and that he needs to go to Dagobah to enrol on his Jedi course. As such, I assumed that Yoda trained all the Jedi, was native to Dagobah and that potential Jedi would go on something like a pilgrimage there to be trained individually. Kind of like a Jedi gap year. After Yoda tells Luke in Return of the Jedi that all he needs to complete his training is to face Vader again, I also thought the last step for any Jedi trainee would be to defeat a ‘Sith’ in combat (not that we had the word Sith at that time. I just assumed there were always a bunch of bad Jedi around. Not just two). This was compounded in Episode I where Obi-Wan defeats Darth Maul before completing his own training.
Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader
In my head, Darth Vader was this bogeyman that was hunting down the Jedi like a villain in a slasher film, lurking in the shadows, striking when no one else is around and no one being quite sure who he was. I liked the idea that Anakin used the Darth Vader costume to obscure his identity rather than to keep him alive (at least at first) and the Jedi would all be paranoid and suspecting each other of being this Dark Sider until Obi-Wan is the only one that Anakin has left ’til the end (with the exception of that Jedi tutor on Dagobah) and there’d be this big shock for Obi-Wan when he realises it’s his own student that’s killed all the Jedi… That’s so much cooler to me than a bunch of would-be Stormtroopers shooting the Jedi and Anakin killing a bunch of kids. It would make Darth Vader seem a lot more of a badass than some child-catcher. I also had Obi-Wan literally shoving Vader into a volcano, though perhaps that’s a bit sillier than his actual maiming.
I never really made the distinction between ‘Knight’ and ‘Master’ and just assumed these were general descriptors rather than actual ranks and again, felt it was a little bit cheapening that this mystical order had a management system.
There’s more but those are the major ones. There’s a lot of interesting stuff the prequel trilogy brings up, but I can’t help feeling like it was always something of a missed opportunity. If we look to the example of The Empire Strikes Back, that has one of the most infamous plot twists in cinema history that stunned audiences at the time. The prequels never really chose to surprise us as viewers. You might suggest that surprise is tricky when we all know where the story has to end up, but I disagree. If anything, if we as an audience are certain about what’s going to unfold, then defying those expectations is all the more shocking.
For example – and I appreciate this idea would have needed a lot more work if it were ever to be seriously implemented, but what if the big twist of the prequels subverted the big twist of the originals? What if Lucas had chosen to reveal that Darth Vader wasn’t Luke’s father? What if he’d written it so that Obi-Wan has an affair with Padmé and the twins were his children rather than an unsuspecting Anakin’s? There’s a twist! I think you could get away with it narratively. Obi-Wan’s sense of guilt over Vader would be deepened and you could have him recognise that the only thing that would turn Vader back to the good side would be a potential relationship with a family he never had. Obi-Wan wouldn’t have just sacrificed his life to save Luke on the Death Star but also sacrificed his true relationship with him, all for the good of the galaxy… okay, so maybe that doesn’t really work, but the point stands that the prequels didn’t demonstrate Lucas’ ability to surprise and thrill as he did in the seventies and eighties.
Hopefully though, with a blank canvas and no preordained status quo to reach over a period of films, the new episodes have the chance to bring a bit more surprise and wonder to the apparently never-ending story. JJ Abrams certainly has a reputation for twists, so my hopes are high. I have another wacky theory and that’s that due to their decisive military contribution on Endor, the Alliance top-brass is now filled with Ewoks – so long as twists avoid involving two foot high alien teddy bears, I think I’ll be happy.
If you had any ideas about the history of Star Wars that were nixed by the prequels, please share them in the comments!