Sunday, 13 December 2015

The Star Wars Prequels In My Head

Ever since The Phantom Menace came out in 1999, and shortly before that caused some people *cough cough* to lose interest in Star Wars altogether, fans have taken it upon themselves to articulate not only what was wrong about the prequels, but how they could have done 'em better. With Episode VII due shortly in theatres, I felt I might as well use this venue to dish out what has been lingering in the recesses of my mind for 16 years.

I understand what George Lucas' intentions were with The Phantom Menace. The "story" of Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan and Amidala and Anakin is not the actual "story." The real "story" is Chancellor Palpatine's rise to power. Unfortunately, in getting there the movie makes a few key mistakes that both violate the canon established in the original trilogy and just bored audiences to tears. Therefore, my Episode I: The Phantom Empire (because if I get to name it, it will be after an amazing old movie serial) would begin with a text crawl explaining how dozens of star systems have begun to split away from the venerable Galactic Republic, upsetting a thousand years of peace and stability. Not content to simply break away from the Republic, the Separatists have begun blockading influential planets to compel them to join the Separatists under threat of invasion. Now the Separatist forces have blockaded the planet of Queen Amidala and Senator Palpatine, leading the Jedi to send their most honoured member - Master Yoda - with his apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi to broker a peace.

From there, we see the diplomatic failure of Yoda and Obi-Wan in preventing a war. Separatist troops touch down on the planet, apparently lead by a Dark Lord of the Sith. Yoda and Obi-Wan manage to evacuate Queen Amidala and members of her government off the planet (which is most certainly not named Naboo) and begin the long journey to the Republic's capital planet of Coruscant. However, a run-in with Darth Maul and Separatist fighters force their ship to make an emergency landing on Tatooine. Gathering supplies to repair their ship, they meet a teenage hotshot named Anakin Skywalker: a brilliant pilot feeling trapped by his life on his family's moisture farm. He is also incredibly strong in The Force.

After helping them temporarily defeat Darth Maul, and initiating a romance with Queen Amidala, Anakin is allowed to join the entourage as they make their way to Coruscant. Chancellor Valorum, elected leader of the Senate, authorizes a battalion of Jedi to reclaim Amidala's and Palpatine's planet. Despite the best efforts of the Jedi, Yoda, Obi-Wan, and Anakin, the battalion is soundly defeated by the overwhelming numbers of Separatist troops. They discover that the Separatists have begun using illegal cloning technology to raise an undefeatable army. Smarting from their loss of this integral planet and so many Jedi, the Senate votes to oust Velorum and appoint Palpatine as Chancellor. His first act is to recognize that the Jedi are not sufficient to wage an all-out war with the Separatists. Instead, the Republic needs a standing army and navy: the Stormtroopers with their fleets of Star Destroyers.

By the end of my Episode I, Obi-Wan decides that he wants to train Anakin to be a Jedi. Yoda objects on the grounds that he senses great conflict in Anakin and that Obi-Wan is barely a full-fledged Jedi Knight himself. However, with their defeat at the hands of the Separatists, the Jedi cannot afford to be too particular. They need to replenish their numbers. Gone from my version is the "prophecy" and any such nonsense. Anakin is not a virgin birth or a child (nor did he build C-3P0). His relationship with Amidala begins right off the bat. Nor does Yoda ever whip out a lightsabre: he is far beyond crude violence. The powers of the Jedi are, however, not well understood or universally believed in. By the time of Episode IV, there are many people who do not believe in the Force and consider the Jedi merely a hokey old religion. That would not be possible if there were still billions of people who had seen Jedi ripping starships out of the sky and whatever else only 20 or 30 years before. The use of The Force throughout my prequels would be much more subtle and consistent with the original trilogy. Darth Maul also gets to live to fight another day, and it will be clear that he is working for a shadowy figure who we cannot help but recognize as the future Emperor.

Another of the great flaws of the prequel trilogy was its unrealistic depiction of the fall of the Republic and the Emperor's rise to power. Rather than mirror the ascent of Hitler or any other tyrant in history, it was just a bunch of stuff that happened with a bunch of clone Stormtroopers until Anakin became so whiny and incorrigible that he became Darth Vader. My Episode II: The Clone Wars would begin with another text crawl explaining that war with the Separatist's clone armies have ravaged the Republic. Hundreds of once-populous planets have been made uninhabitable, deathtolls are in the billions, billions more citizens of the Republic have been conscripted to fight a seemingly endless war, and the Republic is teetering on the brink of social, political, and economic collapse. Anakin Skywalker, now a Jedi Knight, has been fighting alongside his friend and mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi for years. As the Clone Wars rage, darkness begins to consume Anakin.

In this episode, Anakin is married to Amidala, who has been trying her best to hold her refugee people together despite the loss of their home planet. Shaped by this tragedy and years of fighting the Clone Wars, Anakin is succumbing ever more to authoritarian ideals, expressing how the sacrifice of freedom for security is necessary to maintain the Republic and that a final solution is required to destroy the Separatists once and for all. All of this disturbs Obi-Wan, of course, but he is torn between the true Jedi path and his loyalty to his friend and former apprentice. Anakin is also torn between loyalty to Obi-Wan and the Jedi on one hand, and loyalty to Chancellor Palpatine, who has taken Anakin under his wing (through their connection in Amidala) and has been instituting ever more fascistic policies in the name of peace and order.

The looming shadow is that the Separatists are nearing Coruscant. War has devastated the Republic and it shows. No longer the glittering jewel pulsing with life that we saw in Episode I, Coruscant is now a decaying, impoverished planet. The Republic's sacrifices and losses in this war have been too great. And now the capital is doomed to fall before the Clone Army. The Jedi have also been sensing that this war is not merely a political battle, but a struggle between the Light Side and the Dark Side of The Force. Darth Maul is still active, leading the Separatists to victory on world after world. Yet there is also the rot of the Dark Side at the root of the Republic. The Jedi do not know who or what this is - it is too powerful to sense clearly - but it is there and they begin to sense that there is an evil plot afoot to overthrow the Republic from within.

In a daring assault, the Separatists manage to kidnap Chancellor Palpatine. Against the better judgement of Obi-Wan, Anakin goes out to rescue him with a battalion of Stormtroopers. Eventually they work their way into the sanctum of the lead ship where Darth Maul is keeping Palpatine. Maul and Anakin fight, rage and hatred taking over the young Jedi as he is goaded on by both the Dark Lord of the Sith and the Chancellor. Beneath them, Coruscant is being destroyed by orbital bombardments. Anakin can feel the Dark Side creeping up on him but knows that outright murder is not the path of the Light Side. Nevertheless, Palpatine tells him, destroying Maul will be the only way to end the war. At last comes the moment of truth, and with Darth Maul on his knees, Anakin executes him. Palpatine explains that together they shall make their new Empire strong again and christens Anakin by a new title: Darth Vader, the new Dark Lord of the Sith.

My version of Episode I introduces us to our cast of characters and sets everything up so that Episode II can be entirely devoted to Anakin's turn to the Dark Side against a theatre of devastating war. With his becoming Darth Vader at the end of Episode II, that leaves the entirety of Episode III to deal with his conflict with Obi-Wan, his loss of Amidala, and the conversion of the Republic into the Empire. You might also have noticed that each film in my series would end on a fairly dour and ominous note, as befits the Republic's decay and Anakin's descent into evil.

One of the critical issues in Anakin's conversion is that it has to be a credible turn from goodness to evil. While Palpatine might be evil for the sake of his own selfish ambition (prematurely aging because of the corruption of the Dark Side), the original trilogy firmly establishes that Anakin was a good and noble Jedi Knight whose goodness was twisted towards evil. One of the worst crimes of how the prequel trilogy depicts Anakin is that when Luke tosses his lightsabre aside and says that he is a Jedi like his father before him, my brain immediately snipes "I hope not! Your father was a terrible Jedi." Therefore, in my version, Anakin turns to the Dark Side because he sincerely believes that the Dark Side is the only valid path for restoring and protecting the Republic/Empire.

My Episode III: Revenge of the Sith begins with a text crawl explaining that Darth Maul is dead and the Clone Wars have ended. Chancellor Palpatine has declared himself the Emperor of a new Galactic Empire, promising to restore peace, order, and prosperity. Imperial Stormtroopers are quickly reclaiming world after world, routing the remaining Separatists and enforcing the new laws of the Empire. But Senators and Jedi loyal to the ideals of the Republic are conspiring in secret to overthrow the Emperor.

The dominant plotlines in this film are the political struggle between the Jedi and the Emperor, and the personal struggle between Anakin, Amidala, and Obi-Wan. Amidala and Obi-Wan feel both fear of the new Dark Lord of the Sith and guilt at somehow being responsible for his turn to the Dark Side. They both wonder if they could have done more to help him or stop him. Obi-Wan wonders if Master Yoda wasn't right all along and he wasn't ready to train Anakin. Amidala also bears a secret that she confides only to Obi-Wan: she is pregnant. Not only does she fear for herself, but she fears for what will happen to their children if they are raised under the influence of Darth Vader and the Emperor. Despite turning himself over to the Dark Side and being fully prepared to rationalize this to both Amidala and Obi-Wan, he secretly harbours his own misgivings. He is conflicted, because he can feel the Dark Side pulling him away from those he loves.

The Emperor's new laws put numerous, chaffing restrictions on the Jedi. Most insulting is that he has now placed Darth Vader as the head of the Jedi Council. Anakin mouths the rhetoric of a new age of peace as the old enmity between the Jedi and the Sith is finally put to rest. Balance can only come to The Force when the Light Side and the Dark Side are working together, he says. The secret conspiracy between the Jedi Council and the Loyalist Senators - which includes Yoda, Obi-Wan, Bail Organa of Alderaan, and Amidala - manages to find evidence that it was actually Palpatine who orchestrated the Clone Wars. The Loyalists attempt to convene a Senatorial Hearing to bring this evidence forward, but it is immediately dissolved by the Emperor so as not to "sow dissent" before the important task of restoring peace. Without any other recourse, the Jedi confront the Emperor, but sadly they are routed by Stormtroopers, Darth Vader, and the Emperor's own powerful command of The Force.

After the failed attempt to bring the Emperor to justice, the Jedi are outlawed. The Emperor is extremely popular with the citizens of the new Empire, so the tide of public opinion turns against these so-called "outdated, reactionary terrorists." A sudden Imperial Inquiry conveniently finds that the Jedi fabricated their evidence and that it was really they who were behind the Separatists. All over the Empire, Jedi are hunted down by Stormtroopers, civilian and planetary militias, and Darth Vader. Many are eliminated as they fight for their lives. Those that are captured are summarily tortured and executed. Even people who display any kind of Force sensitivity are taken out into the streets and shot. The witch-hunts expand to the Loyalist Senators. Some are able to disguise their involvement, like Organa, but others must flee and go into hiding. From their seclusion they lay out the groundwork for a Rebel Alliance. Yoda himself escapes to the planet Dagobah on the far outskirts of the galaxy.

Anakin is now aware that Obi-Wan and Amidala were both involved in the Loyalist plot. He is feeling betrayed and is no longer interested in hearing anything they have to say. The Emperor has charged him with bringing them to "justice," and even more, he is out for vengeance. Obi-Wan and Anakin first locked lightsabres in the battle in the Emperor's palace, with no definitive outcome. They do so again, and in the ensuing conflict it looks as though Obi-Wan and Amidala are killed. This was an elaborate ruse, however, designed to buy Amidala time to escape with Bail Organa and go into hiding on Alderaan. Obi-Wan refuses to go with them. He realizes that he must take responsibility for Anakin and confront him one last time. Amidala and Organa pledge to wait as long as they can for his return.

Obi-Wan surprises Anakin in a factory where he is overseeing the creation of new Imperial war machines. Their battle is as psychological as it is physical (mirroring the Luke-Vader battles in Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi). Eventually it is clear that, in his feelings of confusion and betrayal, Anakin has turned wholly to the Dark Side. Obi-Wan has no recourse but to kill him. In a final, finessed maneuver, Obi-Wan sends Anakin careening into a smelting pit. Picking up Anakin's lightsabre, Obi-Wan returns to Organa's ship and they speed away to Alderaan. Darth Vader, however, survives. Everything that remained of Anakin Skywalker, including his flesh, has been burned away by the molten pit. Preserved by the Dark Side and recovered by emergency droids, Darth Vader undergoes a process of mechanization to save his life.

On Alderaan, months later, Amidala - now masquerading as a servant in the Organa household - gives birth to twins. They realize that it would be too dangerous for the children to stay together, and for Obi-Wan to stay with them. If Darth Vader ever discovered them, all hope would be lost. One twin, who remains nameless, stays with Amidala on Alderaan. Obi-Wan takes the other twin to Tatooine, where he turns it over to Anakin's sister Beru and her husband Owen Lars. He tells them that the child's name is "Luke" and then leaves to live as a hermit in the Tatooine wilderness, prepared to watch over the boy as he grows up and train him in the ways of the Jedi when the time is right.

This is all an idle exercise, of course. But when I try to watch the original theatrical versions of the original trilogy (accept no substitutes), a storyline like this is what I have in my head. Like many, I do my best to pretend that the prequels do not exist.         

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