The Word: The Dark Side Of The Force

This blog post was written for the online magazine Sci Phi Journal.

Like so many of my generation – which I still prefer to call the Children of the Eighties – Star Wars was a great part of my introduction to science-fiction. I grew up adoring it, practically worshiping it. Surely nothing could be so good as Star Wars. And in a sense, I was right: Star Wars became a movie so iconic that, while it could be imitated, it could not be directly borrowed from. After Star Wars, who would dare to use lightsabers (or forceblades, or laser swords) seriously? After Star Wars, who could possibly consider using any power that would correspond to The Force?

Of course, besides the fact that it would be a shameless rip-off, there are other reasons why no one but George Lucas would use a concept like The Force. It was so ill-defined that it could defensibly do just about anything. It was the ultimate deus ex machina, and only the fact that the writers had the sense to use it somewhat sparingly saved the movies at all from their most defining feature.

But the two worst things about Star Wars’ portrayal of The Force are ones that I rarely hear discussed. Firstly, it was a great example of that cardinal sin of storytelling: Telling, Not Showing. While it certainly makes sense for Luke’s use of the Force to be limited in the first Star Wars movie, it certainly doesn’t make much sense for Obi-Wan not to show him what the Force can do, any more than it makes sense for Obi-Wan and Darth Vader to fail to use the Force during their combat. (Yes, I realize that the primary reason for this was because Lucas himself had obviously not figured out what he wanted the Force to be capable of, yet. In which case, it’s bad worldbuilding). Secondly, it missed a great opportunity to build characters with the depth necessary to address truly hard questions about the nature of power and its ability to corrupt.

Strangely enough, this is one of the few things that the prequels do just a little bit better than the original trilogy does. In Attack of the Clones, we get a clear glimpse of what it can mean to turn to the Dark Side of the Force and why that might be attractive. In trying to save his mother, Anakin Skywalker lashes out in anger and slaughters the Sand People, down to the women and children. He shows no mercy in doing so, and he regrets it later. In The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda warns Luke that “once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny,” but we never see that in Luke. Instead, he is told to take it on faith that the Light Side of the Force will be better served if he abandons his friends to Darth Vader, which he understandably resists.

Luke is never seriously tempted to join the Dark Side. To question the Light Side, yes. But he is never really shown to have any desire to seize the Force for any evil purpose, as Anakin did. And the Dark Side’s mastery of Anakin Skywalker begins with a tactic that is familiar to many terrorist organizations and criminal gangs: the new initiate is required to kill. Ideally he is required to kill a non-combatant in the name of the group’s ideals. This tactic works for two reasons: firstly, it puts the initiate on the wrong side of the law. He cannot go back without facing serious penalties. Secondly, and far more seriously, the initiate can never turn his back on the group without admitting to himself that he is a murderer. The only way to defend himself from that is to profess that the murder was really a virtuous act. And this, if true, can only lead to more “virtuous acts.” More murder. More terror.

Another excellent portrayal of the Dark Side’s power was that done by Kevin J. Anderson with his character Kyp Durron, who comes to be able to use the Force directly through surges of fear and anger to free himself from captivity. Unguided by any master, he discovers that fear, anger and aggression make him powerful, and underline the truth of Yoda’s claim that the Dark Side is “quicker, easier, more seductive.” And of course, it is, because it always has been.

The Force is on one hand a tame god. It obeys the will of the user. But on the other hand, it is a metaphor for that most challenging of theological concepts: free will. And like any person who discovers that his or her anger and fear can be fashioned into a weapon to bend and manipulate others, the temptation to continue using it becomes a sword sharp as a lightsaber, unsafe to hold from any angle. If you stop using it, those you threaten will be encouraged to strike back (most likely for the same reasons you struck them in the first place). And even if they do not, you will be left to face the guilt and will be forced to confess that your actions were wrong from the outset. Far easier, then to find any excuse to keep using the dark power, always for the noblest of goals. But any Star Wars fan – and far more sadly, any history student – knows where that leads. It leads to killing children to save the thing you love, and then passing it off as a difference in “point of view.” To, in the words of a better character, Aral Vorkosigan, do terrible things in the present to avoid false terrors in the future. We do not have to be Jedi to be tempted by the Dark Side. It is in all of us.

Yes, Star Wars Fans, It Was Always Possible To Track Ships Traveling In Hyperspace: The Evidence

In The Last Jedi, the plot hinges on the idea that it is impossible to track ships through a hyperspace jump without cutting-edge First Order technology. I am going to make my case that it was always possible to track ships through hyperspace, and that this plot oint is an example of bad continuity.

Now at first glance, it seems that I am just wrong. After all, the Millennium Falcon always escapes Imperial pursuers by going to lightspeed. However, we need to examine the circumstances, here. Plainly, hyperspace jumps are not instantaneous, just very, very fast. Also, ships do not seem to be able to interact with each other physically (e.g. to fight battles) while in hyoerspace. Our first encounter with hyperspace is with the Falcon jumping away from Tatooine. Let’s look at that scene:

We have seen the Falcon jump to hyperspace. Then much later, at least long enough for Luke to start lightsaber training and R2-D2 to get involved in a board game with Chewbacca, Han comes in and says, “Well, you can forget your troubles with those Imperial slugs. I told you I’d outrun ’em!”
At the total lack of reaction he then says, “Don’t everybody thank me at once.”
Now, why this announcement, if the jump to lightspeed in itself meant they were untrackable? The clear implication is that the Empire was (or may have been) following them, and Han has spent the intervening time making sure of their escape. Of course Han was rather confident of his ability to do this: he’s flying the ship that “made the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs” after all (whatever that means) and believes himself to be one of the best star pilots in the galaxy.

Later, upon emergence in the Alderaan system, they encounter a TIE fighter. The exchange that follows is revealing:
LUKE: “It followed us!”
BEN: “No, it’s a short range fighter.”
The implication is that a longer-range craft could potentially have followed them. Ben isn’t just speculating about how it got there, because he doesn’t start that until his next line: “A fighter that small couldn’t have gotten this far into space on its own…”

Additionally, how is it possible that the Empire is chasing down Princess Leia’s ship at all at the beginning of the movie if there is no way to track ships through hyperspace? Rogue One clearly establishes that this has happened. Remember, Obi-Wan Kenobi, last of the Jedi Knights, is hiding out on Tatooine. There is nothing else of importance there and the Empire does not know he is there.

Now, in Empire we seem to see some of the strongest evidence that hyperspace tracking is impossible, because the Falcon’s final getaway is by jumping to lightspeed, and the whole plot of the film hinges on the Falcon’s broken hyperdrive. However, it seems reasonable that by this time the Empire has simply learned that the Falcon is uniquely able to elude pursuit by jumping to hyperspace because of its speed. If the Falcon can complete a jump and start a new one before Imperial forces arrive, then of course it cannot be tracked.

Now, when Han Solo pulls his disappearing act by charging the Star Destroyer, Darth Vader orders the Falcon’s trajectory extrapolated from “its last known trajectory,” after killing the Star Destroyer’s captain for incompetence. Clearly, Vader expected better. Perhaps that he could have tracked them through hyperspace? After all, how would Vader have known the hyperdrive was malfunctioning? That Han Solo pulled off a gutsy and complex maneuver that foiled the Empire’s ability to track them does not imply that no such tracking ability exists.

Finally, in Return of the Jedi, we have our strongest piece of evidence that prior that tracking a ship through hyperspace is possible. It can be seen in this video at about 2:26-2:30.

There is a screen showing the Death Star II, and a cloud of rapidly approaching dots, just as Leia says, “Han, the fleet will be here any second.” Occam’s Razor suggests, “Hey look, the Imperials are tracking the Rebel fleet in hyperspace as it approaches.”

Now, none of this makes The Last Jedi a crappy movie. As stated earlier, I quite liked it. But it’s not in line with earlier continuity, and to my mind, that’s just a bit of lazy writing. I invite all arguments, but they’re going to have to explain away all of these incidents, not just one of them.

From Somewhere In Orbit

The Awesome Bad Idea

I think the most awesome bad idea to come out of The Last Jedi had to be Admiral Holdo’s lightspeed ram of Supreme Leader Snoke’s corpse’s flagship. It was absolutely beautiful onscreen, and something I have always, always wanted to see.

So why was it a terrible idea?

For two reasons: firstly, she comes up with it completely off-the-cuff, which suggests that she (and presumably a whole lot of people) knew exactly what that would do.

Therefore, and secondly, a weapon that devastating, whereby a comparatively small ship devastates a superduperdreadnaught, would have to be put into practice. And if a kamikaze is that effective, it will be used. (Think I’m wrong? I’ll remind you that guided missiles became a reality less than a decade after Japan flew kamikazes into US ships, and were in the planning stages even then). So hyperspace transition missiles would definitely be a thing, especially since we know that hyperdrives can be made small enough to effectively propel fighter craft.

What awesome bad ideas have you seen, and why were they bad? More importantly, could anything have been done to make them good?

What, Writer, Is Your Plan To Fail?

Continuing a discussion vaguely related to The Last Jedi, a military friend of mine pointed out that one of the two real problems with Admiral Holdo’s escape plan (which was not a bad plan in concept, just in execution) was that she had absolutey no back-up plan in case it failed. Real military leaders need back-up plans, contingencies in case the enemy does something unexpected (like, say, suddenly being able to track you through hyperspace). However, I’d point out that Holdo is hardly alone in the Star Wars universe for failing at this. A few examples of how people in the Star Wars universe utterly fail at contingency planning include:

The complete failure of both the Old and New Republics to have a military, or means of raising one rapidly. The whole reason unwarlike people have militaries is for the contingency of suddenly being attacked, or facing a quickly rising threat.

The Rebels in New Hope were apparently content to simply wait for the Death Star to come blow them up, even though they must have had some transport ships to have gotten them to Yavin in the first place. In fact, one would have thought that evacuation plans would have been on their mind most heavily, since they didn’t know they were getting Death Star plans until the last minute.

The Empire is not a lot better in the planning department: They had no plan to catch the Millennium Falcon if its hyperdrive could be fixed. And why in the world did they sabotage it so it would be that easy to fix? They couldn’t have had a platoon of stormtroopers use its hyperdrive motivator for target practice? That’s the laziest job of sabotage ever.

The Rebels didn’t really have a plan for what to do if their commando strike team didn’t bust the shield bunker, which is indeed really stupid. Given the fleet they had mustered, they desperately needed a brute-force, we’ll-take-it-down-when-we-get-there-if-it-costs-us-a-few-cruiser-divisions plan to blow that thing, given the risk to their entire navy. And they also really needed a plan for what to do if half the Imperial Fleet showed up, because it did.

Of course, the supreme failures in the back-up planning department were the Jedi themselves. Wouldn’t you have loved to have heard THAT Academy In-service Planning Day?
“So, it’s been determined that it’s best to start Jedi training at about age 2. 3, tops.”
“Great. What do we do if we find a Force-sensitive who’s older?”
“I guess we… don’t train them!”
Okay! And just let that person wander around the galaxy with an unspeakable power they won’t know how to use. No danger of turning to the horrible Dark Side there! Hell, even killing potential-but-too-old-Jedi would have been a more ethical plan!

My guess is that this oversight exists because of the Rule of Cool, because desperate, do-or-die plans are romantic. Of course, they do happen, but only in extremis, and are usually far less romantic in real life. General Heinrici’s desperate defense of Berlin in 1945 comes to mind, for example.

The point is, that when you write, you may indeed wish to portray an against-the-odds victory, or a doomed last stand. But such things should happen because everything else was tried and failed. Let your heroes die on Plan Q, not because they couldn’t be bothered to come up with a Plan B.


From Somewhere in Orbit

The Last Jedi: My Thoughts (Not That You Asked)

Introduction: I’ve been very grateful to everyone who has been thoughtful enough to avoid spoilers for the past month, or at least been thoughtful enough to warn me so that I wouldn’t read spoilers. Because of that, walking into the theater today, I was only aware of one major plot event in the movie, and very much appreciated that. Also, since having kids, I’ve gotten a new perspective on how impossible it can be to see a hot new movie within a reasonable amount of time, so am trying to be extra sensitive to those who may STILL be trying to avoid spoilers. Okay, that should fill up the preview for Facebook: ON TO THE SPOILERS!!!

The Good Stuff: I’m going to open up by saying that overall, I thought the good in this movie far outweighed the bad. I think Mark Hamill rose to heights of acting I’ve not previously seen from him. The rest of the cast likewise did well, but being a writer and not a drama geek anymore, I’m going to mostly discuss the writing.

I thought this film may have done more than any other to show what a Jedi on the cusp of “turning” to the Dark or Light really looks like in the complex relationship between Kylo and Rey. There was an ambiguity portrayed in these characters’ actions that explored how someone may reject a specific evil, and yet refuse to embrace virtue. There was a sense that Rey really was tempted by Kylo’s offer, not of power, but of belonging, whereas I never got the sense that Luke was ever truly tempted by Darth Vader as a father. Luke already had too strong sense of identity as Vader’s adversary for that.

I liked that there was no great secret behind Rey’s parentage, and the wound that this dealt her as she came to terms with that. I liked the backstory that filled in the reason Luke “lost” Ben Solo, and the tension that created with Rey.

I also really liked that Luke Skywalker correctly cut down the Jedi Council as a collective failure that allowed the Empire to seize power. I wish he’d turned some of that insight onto Yoda.

I very much liked that Supreme Leader Snoke had guards that actually seemed to be competent. I liked a little less that Kylo Ren, whom we saw stopping blaster bolts in Ep. VII, seems not to have considered directly using the Force a bit more in that fight.

I have to admire the visual homages to Empire and Jedi that managed not to feel nearly as much like a retread of those films as The Force Awakens did of New Hope. I am stunned and delighted that they had the guts to fit an homage to Hardware Wars in there.

The Bad Stuff: As far as the discussion that I am vaguely aware of regarding Vice-Admiral Holdo and her competence, I do think that Holdo’s command style was awfully opaque. Why, after all, not tell the people on her own ship what was going on, to give them hope? On the other hand, an opaque command style really doesn’t justify a subordinate relieving her of command. Poe Dameron is a mutinous idiot, and his and Finn’s and Rose’s actions led directly to the death of what appeared to be something like 2/3 of the Rebels Holdo planned to save. And him demanding to know what was going on right after her assumption of command and while she is obviously busy was just asinine.

One of my biggest peeves with the movie is the whole “no one can track anything through hyperspace” plot point. In all seriousness, this has ALWAYS been possible in Star Wars, from the very first: The Empire follows the Millennium Falcon through hyperspace to get to the Rebel Base. And before anyone says “But that’s because they put a homing beacon on their ship!” Uh-uh. Bullshit. Leia says “They’re tracking us.” Makes no mention of how. And if everyone knew it had to be a homing beacon, Hand and Chewie could at least have searched for one. Moreover, if everyone knew that the only way to track ships through hyperspace was by means of homing beacons, someone aboard that Rebel flagship should have said “Great Maker! Some spy has planted a homing beacon aboard our ship!” Not “Wow! The First Order must have just developed a whole new order of technology that-a-stormtrooper-and-a-maintenance-tech-can-deduce-must-be-based-on-the-same-principles-of-any-active-tracking-and-if-we-talk-really-fast-we-can-slide-weaklogicbytheaudienceandscream IT MUST BE ONLY ON THE LEAD SHIP SO WE CAN MOUNT A HOPELESS COMMANDO RAID ON THAT ONE WEAK POINT ‘CAUSE WE’RE REBELS THAT’S HOW WE ROLL!!”
Oh, and yeah, the whole argument that no one’s ever tracked anyone through hyperspace is also bullshit because in Jedi Han and Leia read Imperial sensors that were tracking the Rebel armada before it emerged from hyperspace. So there’s that.

This next one pains me to say, but there’s no way around it: I loved that someone finally decided to use a hyperspace ram on the big screen. That was an epic moment. Except…

…if that was possible and so easy to think of, why did the Rebels not use it during the Battle of Endor when they seemed sure to lose? Three or four hyperspace lances through a Death Star would have ruined the Emperor’s whole day, and would probably have been a net gain of ships for the Alliance besides.

The Dumb: Yoda has looked less wise with each passing movie. I really wanted Luke to rip into him. Aside from the line about the importance of passing on our failures to our students (which was poignant and true), Yoda came off as a cheap trick that weakened Luke’s character.

Oh, and along the lines of idiotic command decisions, Leia has the gall to slap Poe for not aborting in the middle of his attack run and endangering the bombers? Why the hell did she not just order them to abort herself and make Poe’s attack run moot?

And speaking of idiocy, the Empire has still not learned that you can’t shoot fighters down with anything but other fighters? That lesson should be well over two decades old.

I’m sorry, but Leia saving herself from the vacuum of space with the Force was dumb. Even dumber was them opening the door for her and not losing the whole corridor and themselves to decompression.

Okay, that’s it for now. All my judgments are, of course, right and true and utterly immune to criticism. Unless I think of something else later. Jump in, the argument’s fine!