Dissecting Star Wars

So, yesterday Lou Anders posted a link on his Facebook page to an article by Tor.com contributor Ryan Britt. The article posits that in George Lucas's beloved Star Wars universe, the citizens are illiterate. In the comments of Lou's post, a discussion began about why this might have happened and the various ways other sci-fi/fantasy franchises have included reading, art and culture.

What results from this discussion? My brain will not shut off on this and now, I feel the need to inflict it upon you. So, join me after the jump for some dissection of one of film's greatest fantasy franchises...

*Note: Everything I posit hereafter will be using the six canon Star Wars films. I will not be including the Clone Wars, video games, novels or Christmas Special in my considerations. 

Britt's article is concerned that because we don't see the citizens of the Empire using the written word, they clearly don't know how to use it. Let's think about why the written word is used at all in our culture. You've got 3 main reasons:

-Art/entertainment (books, plays, poetry) -Communication (small scale - letters, emails, texts, social networking) -Information (large scale - newspapers, magazines, encyclopedia, record keeping)

All of these serve as a collective memory. Now, as we've seen in our own history, knowledge is power and those with power use the written word. Teaching a person to read has always been touted as the greatest form of empowerment. However, it has become so much more than that. Look at our text-based culture. Email, texts, Tweets... this blog. It's part of every day life. Our key forms of entertainment start at their roots with words. We rely on and revere the written word so much that we cannot imagine a humanoid culture living without it.

While I see where Britt is coming from, I think there are a few aspects of Lucas's worldbuilding that need to be taken into account. And not all of them are pretty. Believe me, I'd rather walk on my own lips than say anything negative about the original trilogy, but the more I think about this the more holes I see. My inner three year old is screaming as I write this, but in terms of storytelling... Star Wars is terribly flawed.

Iconclast

As we see in D&D and other such fantasy settings, there are multiple cultures that make up the Republic/Empire, but they all speak a common tongue. It cannot be easy to get Tridarians and Wookies to talk with one another. Hutts probably don't mix well with Gungans. Something about the inability to gargle, one presumes. Anyway, if you look at the senate scenes in the prequel films you see that the Republic is made of tons of races. We don't know who made first contact or how these many planets and civilizations came to form their Republic, but we do know that at some point they had to start talking.

Now, in his article Britt laments that most of the communication done in the Star Wars 'verse is video (holograms) or radio. "No one texts!" Britt says. When trying to wrangle a bajillion races--each with its own language, culture, nuances, etc--this actually makes sense. Have you tried texting with a Hutt? He fat-fingers everything and even auto-correct can't help you translate. Fuck that. Seriously, though, I suggest that this lack of written communication might be a necessary tool in Lucas's galaxy. When trying to govern and integrate so many different peoples, it might be easier to adopt an iconographic language that everyone can understand.

While it's necessary, it also robs ALL of those delegations of any semblance of culture. In shows like Star Trek and Babylon 5 you get a definite idea that each world has its own culture, its own literature and music and tradition. In fact, on these two shows, preserving that cultural identity is always key. I know that Narn opera is probably the worst thing you could do to your ears and that even Klingons dig the Bard of Avon.

However, in Star Wars we don't see any such reverence of art or culture. That massive library that the Jedi have compiled seems to house history and science. Did it have digital copies of Jabba's self-published romance novel? Or the scrolls of the Wookies' creation myth? The only hints we get of individual culture come in Episode 1 (the celebration parade between the Nubians and the Gungans, and Amidala's costumes), Episode 3 (the bubble opera thing, the myth of Darth Plagus), and Episode 6 with the Ewoks' reverence of a golden idol. But the Ewoks are treated as primitive teddy bears, so how important can their hokey little religion be? In fact the only religion we see is the Jedi faith and it seems that they are tolerated because they also bring peace. After the fall of the Republic, though, the whole system appears atheistic.

An atheistic society in and of itself isn't a bad thing. The problem is that Lucas erased all of these individual cultures--and the richness therein--more swiftly than the Emperor could have with the Death Star. George Lucas just removed any need for the written word for artistic purposes.

All Alone in the Dark Something else Britt brings up is the lack of news broadcasts. Even in the days before the Empire when Naboo is in a snit with the Trade Federation, you don't see evidence that this is being broadcast to the star system. It almost seems that each planet runs on its own. Each settlement keeps to itself. While this does keep with the Prime Directive that Star Trek made famous, it bodes ill for the Republic/Empire as a whole. Naboo can't get word out about the Trade Federation on any sort of grand scale. There isn't a system-wide outrage over what is happening, so Amidala has fewer avenues to seek help.

This punches a hole into the Emperor's grand plan, however. When Grand Moff Tarkin informs the big wigs on the Death Star that the Senate has been dissolved, he says that fear will keep the systems in line. "Fear of this battle station." Here's the thing... if no one but the Empire's lackeys and a prisoner sentenced to death witnessed the destruction of Alderaan, how are the regional governors supposed to use it as an example? Sure, you can say, "Hey, I haven't heard from Bill on Alderaan in a few days. My spice shipment is late," but that then takes manpower (time, money, fuel etc) to investigate. This plan isn't all that great for the Empire.

If Amidala had access to a large news outlet, could she have staved off the dire situation in the Senate that allowed Palpatine to grab power? Could the Rebellion have swelled at the outrage over Alderaan? Possibly, but would the written word have been the best vehicle for it? Doubtful.

It's one thing for someone to write about the tragedies going on every day in the Middle East, but it's more visceral when you see insurgents attacking with bombs and civilians bleeding from their heads. Telling you about 9/11 would not have the same kind of impact as showing you the destruction of the towers. (And part of that tragedy was based in cultural memory.) So, there's that aspect.

There are other benefits to using video/holographic media over the written word when trying to inform the masses. For one, you try an interplanetary paper route. For another, when able to see a person speaking, you get body language, inflection...things that just don't come across as well with words. I wonder, though, if video communication isn't as prevalent as it is in sci-fi because of 1960's earth life. With television becoming a powerful tool THEN, the writers of our beloved franchises are influenced by the visual and see the gains there. That's where the future is, right? Maybe that's the simple answer.

Star Wars, Star Trek, Babylon 5 and Firefly... all of them use video messaging. The Star Wars 'verse is the only one that lacks a widely broadcast news organization. Everything in Star Wars is word of mouth.

So we've eliminated art/culture and informative communication as reasons for the written word...but we've also established video communication and an icon-based system for the Galactic Republic/Empire. So, this negates the need for text-based personal communications. Thus, the need for the written word has been eradicated in Star Wars.

This Bothers Me And no, it's not because I'm a writer and love words. It's because I'm a Humanities geek. I love looking through the arts and mythologies of other cultures. I need to see that preserved as part of human history and hate the idea of homogenization. I don't like the idea that after a millenia of starfaring we lose our roots.

You see culture maintained and revered in Star Trek, Babylon 5 and even Firefly. Characters read (actual books!) in all of these television series. The crew of the Enterprise D enjoys watching plays that are--by their own calendars--800 years old! There are celebrations on Babylon 5 to honor the religions of each critter on that station. On Firefly you see not just high art but folk art and dance traditions throughout the smaller planets on the Rim.

Perhaps the difference is that these three franchises are Earth-based. They are projections of our culture, possible futures. Star Wars tells us immediately that this happened somewhere far far away from us. I've never gotten the idea that Tattooine was settled by some guy from Iowa, but I believe that same cornhusker is the Captain of the Federation's flagship. Firefly is able to establish that common culture immediately with the Sino-American influence and the mentions of Earth That Was.

One of the comments on Lou's feed suggested that Star Wars didn't have as much time for worldbuilding and establishing a culture since it is a film series rather than a television series. I think this is, honestly, a weak argument. It's a poor excuse for sub-par storytelling.

Let's do some math. Over the course of six films, Star Wars had 789 minutes with its audience. Star Trek had 3950 minutes with the original series and 9790 with The Next Generation. Babylon 5's five year arc had 4730 minutes. The numbers should say it all, right? Add a common heritage and of course Star Trek and B5 are richer worlds...they had the time.

But let's look at Firefly.

Firefly had 588 minutes with its audience (not including the film Serenity). That world is fertile. Like the Star Trek 'verse and Babylon 5, you can walk around in that setting and play, get your hands dirty and create. You can LIVE there. I'd say you can do the same thing with Star Wars. It's a world that you can describe and feel on a tactile level. Firefly, however, did more with its time than Star Wars in terms of worldbuilding.

And that's what it comes down to.

Time.

You have a limited time with your audience (be it film, television, radio or the written word). You have a finite resource and you must use it wisely and to the best effect. This is where Star Wars fails. For what it is, Star Wars is good. It is a staple of pop culture and one of my favorite geekdoms. It, like anything else, has its flaws. Limitations due to technology, money etc can account for some, but at the end of the day Star Wars is a story. It's a decent story that resonates with us because we can see ourselves in it, we see the familiar.

But... (and I hate that but)... it wasted many opportunities. And thus it falls short of the bar set by other franchises. That's not a bad thing. Just a sad thing.