Sunday, February 17, 2019

Star Wars and the Question of Canon 6: Dark Empire.

I started all this to try and reach an understanding of just what kind of story Star Wars is and what are the themes and ideas that give it its identity.  I set about trying to find the answers to these issues by examining both the original trilogy, along with a selected series of materials stemming from the Expanded Universe.  The big take-away from this attempt at a deep dive into the franchise has revealed a number of thematic concepts that more or less define the core of both the first trilogy and its literary, audio, and digital off-shoots.  These concepts can be divided into three categories.

The first is the surprising number of symbols, characters, and even plot elements that can be discerned as deriving from Elizabethan Drama.  In particular the characters of Luke, Vader, and the Emperor contain character notes and trajectories similar to those found in the work of Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe.  The main Renaissance theatrical texts that find a modern echo in the OT are Doctor Faustus, Macbeth by way of King Lear, and Hamlet.  It is the thematic content of these plays which seems to inform a great deal of plots of ANH, TESB, and ROTJ.

The second shared element in all the narratives under consideration is the subject of characters who change from one type of individual into another.  Each of the main films, even the novels and video games in the franchise concern themselves with how a person's outlook, and hence their entire identity can reshaped by the force of the narrative events that happen to them.  The best way to gain an understanding of what I'm talking about is not to focus on the heroic trio of the OT.  Those characters have become a bit too familiar to audiences everywhere to the point that there might be a risk of turning them into ciphers for one's own personality or outlook at the expense of objectivity.  A better candidate to help understand this theme of change from black to white is the spinoff figure of Kyle Katarn.  He is a character who begins as an anti-hero who finds himself turning into a Jedi.  The dichotomy at work here is like what happens when a professional thief one day decides to become an aid to the police in catching others just like him.  The transformation of Kyle is from that of a negative to a positive state by the time his story reaches its conclusion.  It is the one theme he shares with the OT crew.

Because this theme of narrative transformation is so prevalent in each of the franchise stories I've chosen, it may help to point out the worldview behind this constant motif.  I said above that the nature of change demonstrated in the SW story was that of  going from a negative to a positive.  The reason for this might have something to do with the final third element in these stories, and it has to do with storytelling modes and genres.  I would argue that it is necessary to understand that the SW trilogy and its EU off-shoots are fundamentally works of Romantic fiction

This is an important point to emphasize, as establishing what genre tropes and structures make-up both the OT and EU will go a long way toward clarifying the nature and definition of the franchise.  If you can define what gives SW it's identity as a story, then you can comes as close as possible to defining which possible sequel material deserves to be singled out as canon.  I think the fact that the trilogy counts as a Romantic tale means that whatever comes after has to be consonant with that mode.  Too much of a deviation would strike a false note that would be noticeable to most of the audience.  Even if they can never find the words for it, the existence of that false note will cause them to use phrases like "something just seems off somehow".  The reason things seem off is because of the introduction of a discordant note in what is supposed to be a harmonious Romantic mode.

The best proof of SW as a work of Epic Romance comes from one it's main sources of inspiration: Joseph Campbell.  According to his biographer Stephen Larsen, Campbell spent the better part of his career in teaching a class on German Romanticism (233).  This study course was aided a great deal by his meetings with scholars like Heinrich Zimmer (319).  For better or worse, the net result is that it means Campbell is in some sense an heir of the Romantic School of creative writing.  It is a method of approach to both writing and criticism that is contained in a text like The Hero with a Thousand Faces, a book that went on to influence directors like George Lucas.  Because of this historical excavation it is possible to make the case that SW does count as a work of Romantic fiction.  This forms an identifiable tie-in with the works of Shakespeare inasmuch as the Romantics were the inheritors of many of the tropes and dramatic practices from the playwright's day.  From this vantage point it is possible that the constant recurrence of certain types of Shakespearean motifs begin to make just a bit more psychological and thematic sense. 

The ability to define the franchise as a Romantic work of art does carry with it a certain amount of limitation in terms of what kinds of stories you can tell in this fictional universe.  What works in a horror story, for instance, will always be out of place in the Far Away setting.  There has been at least one attempt to wed the Romantic setting of SW to the gory aesthetic of a horror story.  The problem is while there's talent involved, the writer still can't bring his ingredients together to create a unified whole.  The styles of Romanticism and Lovecraftian Cosmicism are always clashing in a way that fails to gell in a satisfying final product.  This doesn't seem to be the only literary mode that serves an ill fit with the franchise, as it seems to be the natural function of the Romantic or Epic mode to act as a contrasting or transformative agent to the anti-heroic nihilism to which it acts as a form of counter-cultural response.

While it might not be possible to set a work of horror in the SW galaxy, it may still be possible to tell a Romance Epic with elements of Gothic fiction thrown into the mix.  Such appears to be the case with Dark Empire.  It has to be stressed that here that it is possible to draw a dividing line between between the modern genre known as horror and the elements and themes labeled as Gothic.  The genre of horror was an outgrowth of certain narrative and atmospheric tropes first utilized in the work of the Romantic poets such as Coleridge's Ancient MarinerThese tropes were then transferred to the burgeoning novel format by Victorian author Horace Walpole with the publication of The Castle of Otranto.  While this work and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein helped cement Horror as the main genre of Gothic aesthetics, it must be remembered that the tropes normally identified as Gothic (an atmosphere of foreboding and dread, confusion on the part of the protagonists, the blurring of illusion and reality) all had an independent existence in myth and folktale before each separate element came together to form the modern horror story.  It is, after all, just a version of a fairy tale where the emphasis has been placed on the ogres, goblins, and trolls under the bridge instead of the elves and nymphs in the pastorals.

Dark Empire serves as a neat blend of both the Science Fictional and the Gothic.  There are other reasons as well for taking a deep dive into an entry in the Star Wars Expanded Universe that has had the bad luck to fall through the cracks of mass audience attention.  I'd like to examine not just the Gothic strands in the story, but also its connection to classical myth.  I'd like to go so far as to argue that part of the writings of Plato is a the heart of what I consider a fitting end to the Skywalker saga.  In order to do this, I will be reviewing yet another audio drama.  This time the production is based off the first series of a graphic novel run.  I will be focusing strictly on the audio adaptation because I consider it a general improvement on its source material.  In this regard, it is interesting to note the way that characters and situations in this universe can expand and grow when given enough time and actual creative effort.  With that in mind, let's go exploring.

Plot Synopsis

There is nothing as troubling as a guilty past.  This is something Luke Skywalker knows all too well.  While he has managed to create a public career covered in one glory after another, there are still certain problems that are enough to keep a man awake at night.  Most of those troubles are the ones concerned with the past.

In some ways it's ridiculous to worry over a past that you never really knew because you weren't a part of it.  While it is true that Luke is the off-spring of one of the most notorious figures in history, there's remarkably little to go on, at least as far as he's concerned. He's never  known what his family is like, so it is a bit of a contradiction in terms to be bothered by something you can never be a part of.  It doesn't change the fact that Luke still has questions about a past that's no longer his.  Therefore the result of an impossible contradiction is that he wishes he knew more about not just his own family, but also what could make a sound mind look for any kind of refuge in pure insanity?

He finds the start of his answers in an old, holographic diary kept by none other than the Emperor of the Galactic Empire.  Not long after it seems like a black hole opens from a tear in the fabric of space-time and just swallows Luke up.  Now it's up to Leia, Luke's sister and a growing Jedi in her own right, to hunt down her missing bother.  It's not the kind of situation you can just take for granted, otherwise reality will have your guts for garters by revealing that nothing is what it seems.  Where Luke and Leia's exploits will lead them this time is toward a surprising confrontation with a specter from their past.

Responses to Criticism. 

The story of Dark Empire got its start as a 6 part comic book series.  The original graphic novel was composed by Tom Veitch, and it was first published back in 1991.  At the time, it seems to have come in for a certain amount of criticism.  There may be a reason for this, however, before I examine the main cause, I'd like to take the three commonest complaints I've heard in relation to the first book in what wound up being another three part trilogy.

The most frequent complaint I've heard is that it somehow spoils the ending of the OT.  Vader sacrificed himself for nothing, or he didn't fulfill the chosen one prophecy.  Taking things one at a time, I'd argue that the real goal of the resolution is twofold.  Vader has (1) rescued his only living son and one half of all that's left of his family.  He has also (2) rescued himself from being just a puppet on a string.  There is also the additional bonus that Vader has also helped the Rebel Alliance in that moment.  You could make the argument over whether that was intentional, however I tend to think it was more an added bonus than anything deliberate.  A good way to look at that part is to consider it as an unconscious borrowing from Renaissance literary symbolism, and regard it as a Chain of Being reaction.  What happens to one segment of the Chain will have a necessary reaction effect on all the other segments.

As to whether it spoils any prophecy, I've made clear once before already that I find the prequels to be too subpar to be canonical.  I've written this entire series on the understanding that the prequels would not factor in to any calls I'd make on either the OT or the EU.  This was something I'd decided long before the discussion had reached the main films.  That is a choice I still hold to, and it informs every word written here.

I've also heard complaints to the effect that the whole idea of the Emperor cloning himself doesn't fit in the Far Away galaxy.  The problem I have with this argument is that it is self-contradictory when the trope of clones or biological doppelgangers has been an established feature of the Sci-Fi genre since as far back as Huxley's Brave New World.  To be fair, though, this is one criticism I'm at least willing to meet half-way.  Whenever we hear this complaint, the question we should ask is are the critics talking about all three entries in the Dark Empire series?  If the answer is yes, then we are perhaps a step closer to a more reasonable perspective on things.

While I continue to defend the first six issues of DE, I also have to admit that once the first run was over it probably should have been considered all she wrote.  Tom Veitch, or whoever was in charge, should have known better than to run a decent enough idea into the ground.  The six installments that comprise the first Dark Empire tell a complete narrative with a setup, conflict, and a definite resolution.  When the script reaches the end credits, I am also willing to argue that it is also a wrap on any future Skywalker stories.  We end on perhaps the most satisfying note between Luke and Leia as the curtain closes.  There the audience and writers should leave them and be willing to let it end that way.  It would have been a more preferable outcome to the second and third DE installments we wound up with.

If I'm willing to go to bat for DE 1, I'm afraid I can't do the same for all the issues that came after.  Once we reach part two we've gone from a decently written finale that manages to keep everything well within the SW wheelhouse to something of a downgraded Saturday morning level.  Actually, what we're left with is more of an insult to Saturday kid's shows.  Those old programs at least had the potential to be entertaining in a way that didn't insult the intelligence of its young audience.  Parts two and three of Dark Empire are like the rejected concepts that Teenage Mutant Turtles would have found ridiculous.  The less said about the other entries, the better!  I don't think there was enough material in Veitch's idea for a trilogy.  To cut it short and labor the obvious, while I'm willing willing to call part one canon, the other two installments are best thought of as non-canonical.

The final criticism has to do with the idea that Luke goes over to the dark side.  I first heard this claim made in an official guide a good many years ago.  I remember wondering what that was all about.  The curious thing is I don't recall losing any sleep over it.  The real irony comes in when you go to either the source material or its adaptation and realize that nothing like that ever actually happens.  Instead we're given an intriguing game of cat-and-mouse where everyone is forced to wear metaphorical masks of one sort of another, and there's always more going on than meets the eye.  Whoever wrote that guide entry must not have been a very good reader.

Still, there are elements involving Luke's interactions with the Emperor when they meet again for the first time that have received criticism from audiences.  The one complaint to carry a certain amount of validity in this regard is that Luke surrenders to the villain a bit too quick to leave any dramatic impact.  This criticism is valid so far as it goes on account of the way this plot portrayed in the original graphic novel.  It all happens in just a panel or two, with little to no build up and a sparse handful of dialogue.  The reason for this is simple once it's understood that even graphic novels have to operate under a budget.  If the producers haven't bothered to give the artists and writers the necessary amount of time needed to shepherd any possible story to completion, then it really doesn't matter how good the initial conception was to start out with.  If you can't supply all the necessary writing and work needed for the text to make sense then the unavoidable outcome is that the narrative is going to feel rushed or disjointed, and the whole story will suffer as a result.

This is where the radio adaptation is able to rise above its own source material.  Returning to the adapter's chair is John Whitman, who also wrote the Dark Forces/Jedi Knight series as a full cast audio drama.  He brings the same sophistication from that production to DE as well.  In a few places, such as the first meeting between Luke and the Emperor, he is able to provide all the necessary dialogue, action, and context for the story to work.  Whitman injects these scenes with the missing edge that keeps the listener hooked as it plays out.  When it is over he has the audience eating from the palm of his hand and ready for the most important response to a work of fiction.  We want to know what happens next.

A Surface Look at the Story. 

I can't say I knew what to expect when I forked over the twenty-one dollars and nineteen scents for a copy of this performance.  All I was hoping is that I didn't waste my time.  I'd heard of its reputation as a black sheep in the EU, and so in that sense the start of it all was very similar to the moment of trepidation when I first tuned into Dietz and Whitman's Dark Forces.

The good news is that rather than being repelled, the story did what all writing is supposed to do and drew me right in.  Radio may be one of the most under-appreciated formats for telling a story.  The key is that since there are no visuals the words of a text become the most important element in entertaining the audience.  When the words started it was a relief to here no false notes in terms of characterization and interaction.  Han and Leia were still the same quarreling couple, with the added bonus that fatherhood seems to have given an edge to everyone's favorite smuggler.  From the very start Han is always on the alert, and trying to think and act as fast as he can.

The direction Veitch and Whitman have gone with Leia is rewarding in a different way.  It fixes one minor problem with ROTJ.  In that film, we were given the first hints that Leia had the same ability to tap into the Force as her brother.  It's fine so far as it goes.  The trouble is it's a plot thread that is introduced and never developed after that.  You can make the argument that it is Luke's story, and yet if that's the case, why even bring it up at all?

Here is where Veitch and Whitman have made an important creative choice.  They show an awareness of this plot thread, and together they decided to tackle it head on.  To this date, they are the two authors (aside from Timothy Zahn) who have managed to get Leia right.  I said elsewhere that she is a character who is constantly having her identity stripped away and remade into something else throughout the trilogy, yet we were never given a satisfactory pay-off to it all.  Here, we see that pay-off, and we're shown a girl who has slowly begun to grasp the bigger picture behind her own identity.  Rather than wanting run from it, like on Endor, she has made a major decision to go all all in. 

When we are re-introduced to her at the start of the action, she is something alright.  She's far different from the regrettable half-cipher of Jedi, and once more back to being a full participant in the story.  The difference is that the author's have allowed the character to grow by showing how she has begun to embrace her family legacy.  The result, when we catch up with her the first time is a woman who has found a way to take charge of her own life, and of the events around her, by tapping into the same source of power as her brother.  Perhaps the most gratifying aspect is the way this character has grown from the adversities thrown at her.  The funny thing is how the writing seems to imply that she accomplishes all this by getting rid of all the excess baggage that ultimately has very little to do with who she is.  This is best demonstrated in a series of vital character interactions later in the proceedings.  While it may not be entirely true to call this girl a full-fledged Jedi, she does go a long toward proving herself worthy as a knight.

As the play wound on it was a pleasant surprise to hear a young Billy Dee Williams back as Lando.  His scenes are a welcome return for fans of the OT, and you can tell by his performance that Williams is having a blast being back.

The real test for Whitman is how he handles both Luke and the Emperor.  All I know is that he managed to pull it off, at least as far as I was concerned.  He introduces both hero and antagonist in a beginning scene that establishes both a dramatic mood of foreboding (with a constant threat of violent insanity waiting to bring the house down) that is more or less maintained throughout the drama, as well as setting up the stakes involved in the main conflict.

However, the crux of any fictional setup is whether the dramatic pay-off works.  Whitman does an interesting card trick with this.  He let's the pay-off come early by re-introducing the Emperor near the start of the proceedings and then manages to play it out to the very end.  Whitman seems to know that both Luke and the Emperor are the trump cards he needs to pull off this particular gambit.  That means he has to make every moment count whenever one or both characters are on-stage.  It's to his credit as an adapter that he displays the necessary skill not just to write these scenes.  He also has a knack of making them dramatically convincing.

A perfect example is when Leia and Han finally match up with Luke.  This is a pivotal scene in which all three main characters come face to face with the one man responsible for pretty much everything that has gone wrong in their lives, putting each of them through a series public and private hells.  This makes it one of those scenes where Whitman either has to get it all as right as possible, or drop the ball, pack up his pen, and go home.  There are two details that let the audience know how well the writer has succeeded in his task.

The first has to do with the interactions between Leia and the Emperor.  She has met the man who has taken everything she's ever known about herself away from her.  So what does he do?  He plays upon all that inner turmoil by coaxing her into acting out of all the bitterness, bile, and disappointments that are usually the first step on the road towards full-blown psychosis.  In other words, he acts as the devil on her left shoulder in order to coax her into a fatal mistake that would make her his new puppet.  The value in these scenes is that it shows how the Emperor isn't the kind of baddie that acts for the sheer sake of antagonism.  He is the kind of mastermind who always looks for ways to turn someone's turmoil to his own advantage.  It offers the suggestion that this has been at least a potential part of his plan all along.  He abuses in order to control.

The second aspect that makes this scene work is the way he handles Luke.  This is a fine line scene for the character.  Even the slightest misstep would have given off the a hollow note that would clue any aware listener in the audience that somehow it's just not working.  Instead, Whitman accomplishes two goals at once.  He shows some of his cards, but he doesn't turn them all over at once.  At best, he only reveals one or two clubs without showing his full hand.  Those elements he keeps in reserve for later on in the action.  The net result is that we get a scene fraught with significance and the author shows his skill at keeping audiences on the edge of their seats by careful hints that there is more waiting in the wings.  Without going into spoilers, the writing reveals one of the greatest ironies about the franchise.  It's clear Whitman realizes just how much the character of Luke, and not Anakin is the real heart of SW.  It makes sense based on the way the author handles the character in a sequence where the audience is shown just how intimidating a presence Luke can have.  It can almost be said that this scene helps establish just why the son is able to outshine the father.  The punchline to this bit of irony is that nothing in the hinted at sequence is what it seems.

This seems as good a place as any to take a closer look into the hidden themes of that give DE the dramatic resonance that make up its identity.  The funny thing is how this one wound up being something of a very unexpected surprise in terms of what a deep dig into underlying ideas turned up.  The least shocking bit, however, is that the central themes do involve a return of the kind of classical concepts that made up the OT.  First though, it's probably best to take a break from things.

An Interlude that isn't an Interlude.

Plato in Outer Space.

A while back, I posted an article by a writer named Valerie Erzahlerin on the significance of the plot structure in Timothy Zahn's Thrawn trilogy.  In that essay, she discussed the importance of what she labeled "the anagogical structure" of a well told narrative.  It was one part of a three to four layered approach to both storytelling and literary criticism.  It's significance lies in a what a kind of skeletal study of the structure of any given narrative can tells us about all possible stories.  This is something of a novel idea for those of us who tend to work in a more piecemeal fashion by examining and image here or an idea there depending on what we are able to take away from an initial impression of the fictional work as a whole.

So far, I have only had two successes with this narrative structural examination approach, and the irony is that it led me to the last place I was thinking of.  It's just possible to trace a line of resemblance between Dark Empire and The Silver Chair, part of the Chronicles of Narnia series.  This resemblance takes place on the deep structural level that Erzahlerin talks about.  A very amateur diagram of these correspondences could be listed as follows:

Rilian - Luke

Jill - Leia

Scrubb - Han

The Green Lady - The Emperor

Giant Country/Castle Harfang - The Smuggler's Homeworld Planet.

King of the Giants - Boba Fett.

I'll have to admit there's a kind of irony at work in the way both plots seem to line up at a basic structural level.  Both revolve around a young man who is whisked away by the story's villain.  Each one contains a rescue attempt made by two or more parties.  The novel and the radio play also contain a strong female character who grows as the story evolves.

At the same time, it has to be noted that there are differences between the two tales.  For instance, while the two child protagonists are at the heart of the Narnia yarn, Luke is still very much the lead of the DE storyline.  To take the differences even further, it is left an open question whether Luke is under any kind of enchantment, or else he's just putting on an act in order to fool the bad guys.
 The furthest I will go is to suggest that this is yet another example of archetypes at work in the creative process of different writers separated by time and place.  This goes back to a theory made in an earlier post, where I laid out the thematic and narrative similarities in the work of Lucas and Shakespeare.  I suggested that it is possible that Imagination can take the elements or ingredients that make up any given story, and potentially re-shuffle it all into something similar, yet new, in the mind of differing artists.  All I can suggest is that just such a process is or was at work when Veitch came to create the story for Dark Empire.

This imaginative process could also account for the structural similarities in the two narratives.  Both feature what I'd have to describe as an imaginary U-shaped structure, starting on a downward line of descent that eventually begins to progress on an upward trajectory of ascent  These structures can be outlined by the fact that both stories have a number of similar settings.  In TSC, these settings are: England, a Floating Island, Narnia Proper, A  Kingdom of Unfriendly Giants, and an Underground Kingdom.  Most of these settings are then assume a reverse order as the story moves from descent to ascent.  In DE, the settings go in descending order as follows: Coruscant, the Rebel's Pinnacle Base, the coastal world of Mon Calamari, A Smuggler's Planet, and the Emperor's Stronghold.  From there, the story lifts back up to Calamari, then once more to the Rebel Base. 

Perhaps this type of narrative design is fitting for a SW story.  It has the advantage of taking things back to some of the old, familiar themes of the OT.  The story as a whole seems to be one big magnified rendition, or performance of one particular aspect of the Hero's Journey that Joseph Campbell referred to as either the Belly of the Whale (74), or the Journey or Descent into the Underworld (413).

According to Campbell, this is the stage in the narrative where the "hero is swallowed into the unknown, and would appear to have died (74)".  The basic ideas of dissolution and potential reconstitution seem to be this trope's stock and trade.  Campbell frames it as a moment where the hero has to undergo "a form of self-annihilation" or transformation of character (77).  Campbell uses the metaphor of a snake sloughing off its old, dead skin (ibid), though the process from caterpillar to butterfly might have been a bit more apt analogy for this narrative trope.  In other words, we are back to the familiar theme of the transformation of the hero from a minus situation to that of a plus.

Northrop Frye is yet another critic who can prove helpful in this situation.  In his book, The Secular Scripture, he devotes two whole chapters to the themes of descent and ascent in Romantic fiction.  According to Frye:

"We identified two types of descent themes: those that descend from a higher world to this one and those that descend from this world to a lower one.  The general theme of descent,we saw, was that of a growing confusion of identity and restrictions on action.  There is a break in consciousness at the beginning, with analogies to falling asleep, followed by a descent to a lower world which is sometimes a world of cruelty and imprisonment, sometimes an oracular cave.  In the descent there is a growing isolation and immobility: charms and spells hold one motionless; human beings are turned into subhuman creatures, and made more mechanical in behavior; hero or heroine are trapped in labyrinths or prisons.  The narrative themes and images of ascent are much the same in reverse, and the chief conceptions are those of escape, remembrance, or discovery of one's real identity, growing freedom, and the breaking of enchantment.  Again there are two major narrative divisions: the ascent from a lower world and the ascent to a higher world (129)".

This passage is interesting on a number of levels.  On the one hand, Frye has managed to list the four major dramatic movements of descent and re-ascent outlined for the plot of Dark Empire.  At the same time, he has provided a catalogue of all the major themes that are hit upon in the course of Veitch's story.
Luke finds himself plucked away out of the clear blue sky from all he's ever known or cared.  For the long stretches of the narrative he is forced to navigate his role as a special kind of prisoner held captive at the heart of the Empire's center of operations.  His movements are monitored, and to call his freedom curtailed is a polite way of putting it.  Added to this is the constant need to monitor his own choices and moral deliberations, as one false step could either bring the whole organization down on him, or else he'd fall into a special kind of trap designed with just his particular type of emotional baggage in mind.  If he makes one step out of line, or becomes too sure of himself, he might just wind up as the Emperor's slave without realizing where the wrong turn was.

For Leia, the challenge is a bit different.  She has spent half a lifetime of having all previous ideas about herself subtracted one piece after another.  Now, for the first time, there is the possibility of something different.  It may also be something just a bit more true to the kind of person she really is.  She has the opportunity to be more than just a survivor.  She could be the sort of girl who can pick up the fragments of a broken life and arrange them into the new identity of a Jedi.  At least, that's the promise her life can have if she can keep it.         

The major threat for both protagonists comes in the form of abuse from their long-term nemesis, the Emperor.  It is in this installment, more than any other, that we are shown the sophistication of the villain's approach to thwarting the Jedi twins.  His method seems to be the deliberate and semi-structured heaping of all kind of indignities and traumas on both of them.   This plot point is a logical extension of the character as shown in ROTJ.

We meet the Emperor for the first time in the former installment.  There he is portrayed as a man supreme in the confidence of his own abilities.  When meet him again in DE he is seething at the impossible fact that he is just as vulnerable as others.  At the same time that he'd like to ignore this impossibility, he also uses it as a factor in his thinking.  His approach to the Skywalker twins is more cautious this time around.  He is by turns more searching and probing in his method of attack.  Gone is all out bombast of Jedi.  In it's place we have someone who is like a cornered cobra, willing to bide its time while delivering occasional whip-like, glancing blows at his opponents.

In coming into an impossible contact with his own helplessness, the Emperor's overwhelming desire is not just to kill Luke and Leia.  Instead, he is willing to put them both through a physical and mental crucible in order to show that he is better than either of them.  The goal of all this is to see if he can find a way of making them his own personal puppets.  While there is a physical aspect to his method of attacking the twins, his biggest strength seems to rest on his ability to confuse their minds.  The constant challenge that Luke and Leia have to face off against in the course of the narrative is the potential loss of those very traits that define their characters.  It is here that the educational video posted above comes into play.  I think the main challenge the twins have to face is how to keep a clear picture of what's right and wrong in front of them while trying to fend off the lures the Emperor puts in their way.  It is this plot element that generates the majority of the drama in the radio play.  It also serves to highlight the story's major theme, one that takes us back to the Allegory of the Cave
The best I can tell is that Plato's allegory is about the need to tell the difference between truth and illusion.  The prisoner's in his story are individuals who have been kept in a constant state of deliberate, enforced delusion.  Their circumstances force them to accept their situation as a given.  Meanwhile, the reality of their situation is different from how they perceive it.  The trouble with illusion is that reality has a harsh way of shattering it into less than fragments.  This can be something of a crisis for those who take issue with the inevitable demands reality tends to place on its subjects.  In life, as in fiction, if one insists on living in a dream, they may be thought mad.  The problem with madmen is that they often like to turn their wrath against those who are willing to stay above ground. 

At it's core, I think the story of Dark Empire works as a sort of riff on the Allegory of the Cave.  In this reading Luke is an unwilling subject who finds himself thrust into a setting which can serve as a Sci-Fi equivalent for Plato's underground prison.  The worst part is that it is being run by a galactic Faust figure.  While the symbolism of the Cave can imply a sense of confinement or a prison, in the same terms it can also have several meanings in one.  I think the most appropriate symbol in terms of DE's story is that of the Cave as Crucible.  The particular Cave Castle established by the Faust figure in the story is a place of transformation, as well as confinement.  It is here that the Skywalker twins face their final test.  Perhaps it's an unintentional irony that this test is a sort of echo of the grove of trees in Empire where Luke faces off against illusions of himself.  While their adversary has more or less dragged them down into the depths, it is another thing to call down up, and try to pretend as if things are exactly as their abuser says.  The goal is to hold onto what they know is the truth, and not sink down to the Emperor's level.  The irony is that it is precisely their refusal to yield to the madman that brings about the necessary positive change in both their circumstances and character.  This is the basic conflict at the heart of the story.  Luke and Leia must not learn, so much as remember to hold on to the lessons they've already learned.  They must never forget or doubt that "there be bad and good, as the pirates say (1)".

The messages at the center of the tale are old enough to be considered antique.  I suppose in less skilled hands, the ideas of right and wrong could come off as a series of simplistic platitudes.  The curious thing is how the best of Star Wars was able to take these old antiquities and present them as something fresh and vibrant.  I suppose the big lesson to take away from it is whether it's possible to make the dichotomy between good and evil interesting in a way that makes sense.        

In this series of posts I've done the best I can to suggest reasons for favoring a selection of material from the Star Wars Expanded Universe as the best possible candidates as worthy sequels to the original trilogy that started way back in 1977.  What you see here is the best I can do towards fulfilling that goal.  It would perhaps take a more scholarly mind than mine to get it all right, of course.  For all that, I stand by what I've said.  I'd like to think I've done little more than plant a flag of some sort for an alternate viewpoint, if nothing else.

In some ways, the entire series was halfway designed to lead up to this moment.  Out of all the  EU stories I know, this is the one where I can say I was able to just plain have fun with the whole thing.  After listening to the Dark Empire radio play, I've got to ask what would anyone say if I told you that here we have a SW story that is insane in the best way possible?

The remarkable part is how the story manages to wed two types opposing narrative styles into a successful finished product.  It is the first time, so far as I know, that the literary sensibilities of the actual Gothic genre have been applied to the Far,Far Away galaxy.  There is even a moment during the proceedings that brings to mind elements of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.  Such is the nature of the kind of darker ethos you can expect to hear within the grooves of this CD pack.

I don't want to give the wrong idea, though.  This is not a gore fest, or any kind of story that doesn't belong in SW such as straight genre horror.  Instead, it's a story that is willing to push the crazy envelope for all it's worth in perhaps the best sense of those words.  Perhaps it is this Gothic aesthetic, combined with the format of the audio medium that makes this entry feel like an actual stage play more than any of the others.  This added theatrical level would also serve as yet another link in the traditions that the OT series is known for tapping into.  Often the best scenes are those where the action has been reduced to just three players on the audio stage.  In these moments, it is easy to imagine the story being performed in the kind of minimalist playhouse Shakespeare might have owned. 

This is not to say that it's guaranteed to work for everyone.  It's true there are different aesthetic reactions to different works of art, and it's possible that this audio drama may be too out of sympathy for some listeners.  Still, it doesn't change my reactions.  Maybe what I'm about to say is heretical.  If so, then at least I'm consistent in taking a heretic's stance when it comes to pop-culture in general.  In fact, I'm just going to go there admit that of all the SW stories I've ever watched, read, or heard, this one, for better or worse, counts as my favorite.  I like it enough to break whatever official rank there is and say I'm willing to go as far and speak of an original tetralogy, rather than just a trilogy.  Every time I set it aside after a listen, it does what any good story is supposed to do as it continues to grow in my mind in terms of sheer narrative power.  That's just my reaction, however.  I'm aware that mileage can always vary in these cases.

One final goal of this whole series was to see if it was possible to define what is the nature of SW in general?  The best I can say after all this is that it's a modern form of Romantic Epic that reaffirms a lot of the old ideas and themes that gave these poetic forms their nature as far back as ancient antiquity.  Because of this, the universe created by George Lucas tends to have an optimistic aspect in it's writing.  A recurring criticism about this type of story is that it is too naive for its own good.  It fails to take in, or understand, the problems of real life.

The trouble with this line of thought is that the very critics who hurls such invective are themselves wed to various and conflicting types of ideologies for too many differing reasons to form a coherent critical-aesthetic philosophy that would allow them to engage with any given text in an understandable manner.  History also tends to show that such ideological thinking has the fatal drawback of being the cause of the very social ills the critics profess to be against.  So far, there is still no definitive proof that this type of thinking or its aesthetic judgments, have ever amounted to much in the history of the great conversation about art.

The very fact that these Romantic tropes have not just survived the end of the primitive folk cultures that birthed them, but have also managed to find ways of gaining a foothold in the popular culture at large, points to their serving some sort of essential service or function for the civilizations in which they are either born, or else when achieve a level of cultural resonance that allows a society to grow or change in a positive direction.  For that very reason it may be a mistake to either dismiss or change change a story in a way that is at odds with whatever information the Imagination might be hinting at.  Perhaps it is their cultural significance that accounts for their popularity.

In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell makes a remark about the nature of heroes in world mythology.  "Such heroes appear at the dawn stage of every...past.  They are the culture heroes, the city founders (272)".  For better or worse, it does seem to be the case that all the major civilizations, the ones who were able to survive all the growing pains, needed some set of meta-narratives in order to even exist.  There are plenty of examples of this sort of thing everywhere you turn.  Rome had Romulus, Remus, and Aeneas.  England has its legends of the historical King Alfred.  Even the U.S. has a play dedicated to the memory of Alexander Hamilton.

That said, it'd be a mistake to overlook the ways myths have been abused and used to prey on others (and here I am thinking about the Nazis).  The punchline is that you can yell and scream until you're blue in the face.  As long as you are alive, you will have an imagination somewhere in your head, and that old wild card will - not - shut - up.  Nor does there seem to be any full proof method or mechanism of bringing it to heel.  The real challenge seems to be how does one keep the imagination from being abused?  I wish I knew of a perfect answer.  The most logical one at the moment seems to be that every civilization has a kind of built-in responsibility to realize that intertwined with its history is the stories that either create or help define its character.  The capacity of a culture to understand its defining mythology is a task that requires the ability to both recognize and break away from all ideological cant.  Such an undertaking may prove a complex and arduous challenge.  However, I don't that that makes it an impossible one.

Star Wars is not a founding myth, yet it does seem to be one with a great deal of cultural resonance.  It's an aid to both reflection and understanding of not just American culture, but perhaps also it helps to get a better picture of Western Civilization as a whole.  It can also act as a reminder of why people have stories to begin with.  I hope what I've written here can work in the same way, as as small, yet helpful, contribution.

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