In last week’s new release Maul: Lockdown, Darth Maul is sent to uncover a reclusive and mysterious arms dealer hiding out in Cog Hive Seven, a space-based prison whose architecture is infinitely rearrangeable. This has two benefits: one, escape is much more complicated when the route out of your cell is constantly changing, and two, it allows Warden Sadiki Blirr to pick any two inmates and smack them together like action figures. The resulting deathmatches are then broadcast to the galaxy for gambling purposes, with Blirr herself collecting a healthy piece of the profits. This system of near-constant combat makes up the spine of Lockdown‘s bloody proceedings, and while the Rubix-Cube-like concept of Cog Hive Seven is a novel approach, the general premise of gladiatorial combat has a long and storied history in the Galaxy Far, Far Away, dating almost all the way to the beginning of the Expanded Universe.
My comrade Lucas Jackson touched on gladiators briefly back in Star Wars and Genre: The Sports Story, and he may well return to the subject one day, so I won’t get too into the details here; what I’m more interested in is what the many instances of coercive life-or-death combat suggest about the Star Wars setting as a whole.
Given the wealth of material set during Palpatine’s rule of the galaxy, one thing we can say for certain is that the Empire had no problem with it. Simon Greyshade was an ex-Imperial Senator in high standing, and he ran the Big Game off of the Wheel all the way back in Marvel’s Star Wars #19, with nary an upturned nose at the notion.
More recently, we’ve seen the Secret Apprentice fight in the Tarko-se Arena in The Force Unleashed II, Cog Hive Seven operating with seeming impunity (unless you count the Hutts) in Lockdown, the Cauldron on Rattatak in the Clone Wars Animated Series, and of course, the great Petranaki Arena on Geonosis in Attack of the Clones. All of these, except maybe The Wheel, could theoretically be seen as, well, extragovernmental operations rather than legitimate businesses, but even in the days of the Republic, Roman-style arena fighting seems as prosaic a notion as it was in, well, ancient Rome.
It’s easy enough to simply point out that the GFFA is styled after the lawless Old West—smugglers, blockade runners, barroom shootouts, and so on are there to add familiarity to an otherwise far-out premise. But something about Cog Hive Seven stuck in my head, and eventually I realized that it had reminded me of something Essential Guide to Warfare author Jason Fry told us in an interview last year:
“Frankly, I can’t imagine any government working on that scale — you have too many leaps upward in terms of the few representing the many, too much power concentrated in too few hands, and too many opportunities for very large populations to feel disenfranchised. I suppose if you handed me a galaxy and told me I had to govern it […] I’d set up some kind of large loose-knit confederation, with a few simple do-no-harm rules to govern relations among neighbors and promote commonly accepted standards and practices.”
Not only do I think Jason has a point here, I’m starting to think that maybe this is the scenario the GFFA is living with; far more than we tend to realize.
One of the primary complaints about the direction of the Expanded Universe in the years after Return of the Jedi is the frequency of major galactic threats; the idea that the Big Three saved the galaxy from the Empire (well, unless you live on Bastion) but didn’t really save the galaxy. Reboot or no reboot, it’s safe to assume that this “problem” will live on in the Sequel Trilogy’s major conflict, but I’m beginning to question if it’s really a problem, or just the way galactic-scale society is.
“How will the Emperor maintain control without the bureaucracy?”
“The regional governors now have direct control of their territories.”
Consider the governors. Upon dissolving the Senate, the final bureaucratic checkmate of the Empire—ostensibly the most thoroughly autocratic government the galaxy had ever seen—wasn’t a curfew, or a ration, or a draft, it was picking a random Englishman, sending him to a random sector, and saying “you handle that”. As long as taxes were paid and dissent quashed, Palpatine didn’t much seem to care what the locals got up to—how else could one government possibly encompass both sophisticated, urbane planets like Alderaan and unruly hellholes like Tatooine?
Taking that one step further, I suspect that even the Republic Senate was far less powerful than it appeared; and in The Phantom Menace, it didn’t even appear all that powerful. Their method of dealing with a place like Tatooine is to cede it to the Hutts altogether, which is kinda like the US government ceding Albuquerque to Walter White. This is intended, of course, to demonstrate how ineffectual the Republic had gotten, but even in its heyday, they never seemed—with no standing army, mind you—to go out of their way to ensure, say, suffrage for Dugs, or wage parity for Kuati males, or liberty for Klatooinians. Indeed, the Klatooinian species’ continued subservience to the Hutts even forty-some-odd years after Endor is a major part of the plot of the Fate of the Jedi series.
So as not to be totally pessimistic, I’m happy to suppose that social justice problems were the main purview of the Jedi Order during that millennium of peace—and that their inability to help Naboo in TPM is just further evidence of their own decay. But it’s interesting to think about what kind of galactic government would require an NGO full of warrior-monks to even begin to do something about a practice as evil as forced labor among the disenfranchised—or worse, forced deathmatches. The Old Republic may have been the Republic of legend, but I suspect it was legendary more for its longevity than its efficacy. The “real” GFFA may have been far more of a Wild West than we ever realized.