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Second Look – Programmable Souls: On Droids and Narrative

Beyond analyzing the Expanded Universe from a storytelling standpoint, another function I want this site to perform is to scrutinize what Star Wars is about, thematically, from an informed, adult perspective. It’s important to keep in mind that the films function, very deliberately, as children’s entertainment, but one of the great pleasures of SW for me is poking at the edges of that superficial narrative to see what deeper messages and implications can be extracted. When one of the first guest-article pitches I saw, from the inimitable Becca Hughes, was on the role of droids in the films’ explicit man-vs-machine paradigm, I knew I had a winner:

“Droids are magical helpers. Droids are familiars. If this were pure fantasy, Artoo-Detoo might well be Puck. Mechanizing the role is, once again, an easy way to adhere to the decor of the Star Wars universe, but slapping “droid” on both the comedy sidekicks and the faceless minions implies a commonality I don’t actually think is there. The similarities are cosmetic. Thinking of Threepio and Artoo as soulless is, well, soulless, but the movies clearly invite us not to think about battle droids as anything other than automata.”

This might be a purely intellectual exercise, Becca goes on to say, if not for the importance of Darth Vader—and by extension, narrative “warning signs” like Luke’s mechanical hand and the entirety of General Grievous—to the overall message of the story. If Vader’s irredeemability is evidenced by his being “more machine than man”, what does that say for the characters who are all machine? Click here to read what Becca had to say about it.

Second Look – The Rise and Fall of the Supporting Cast Post-Return of the Jedi

One of our bigger early successes, traffic-wise, was a piece from Lucas Jackson on “the rise and fall of the supporting cast” in the Expanded Universe. Having interacted with Lucas on the TFN Literature forum for a number of years, I knew exactly where he’d be going with it, and while on the whole I try to keep an optimistic tone here, that topic, like his Case of the Disappearing Generals a few weeks ago, is something that he and I see as such a fundamental dilemma for the post-movie EU that I made a rare tonal exception and let him “go negative”, as it were:

“Ben Skywalker lacks companions his own age. Rogue Squadron is no longer filled with dear old friends. The senators are all strangers to the reader. There are no currently active links to the seedy world of the fringe who can draw the action in that direction. Fresh new characters like Lon Shevu, Dyon Stadd, and Thann Mithric are killed rather than developed. The grand, unified cast’s stock is diminishing without being replenished, and the Star Wars galaxy looks smaller, hollower, and colder as a result.”

The primary goal of this site, above and beyond positivity, is to function nominally within a post-EU franchise, meaning that while we embrace the EU—even ensconce ourselves in it at times—we recognize that Star Wars is bigger than that, and one doesn’t need to treat every written word as gospel to value the many lessons the EU teaches us about how SW works. Even if the sequels completely reboot the story, the post-Return of the Jedi narrative that currently exists is nothing less than a master class in What Works and What Doesn’t Work, and should be treated as such—and Lucas’ Supporting Cast piece (and its immediate follow-up, Jedi, Sith, and Force Tunnel Vision) is lesson number one.

Second Look – Vergere: An Ultra-Traditionalist Jedi, A Radical Daoist

When we were first getting this site up and running, I took a couple old pieces of mine from my defunct blog at StarWars.com and reposted them here—partly to teach myself the ins and outs of WordPress formatting, and partly just to help populate the site in advance of staff writing ramping up. Since our official launch on July 8th, every single piece has been brand-new—with one exception.

A late addition to the site, staffer Tyler Williams came to me in August and asked whether I’d be interested in a piece he’d written for his Religions of China and Japan class a couple years back, in which he extolled the philosophy of the character Vergere and its roots in real-world Daoism:

“In the words of the Jedi Vergere, “Everything I tell you is a lie. Every question I ask is a trick. You will find no truth in me.” In Daoism, there IS no truth that a teacher can simply impart to a student. ANYTHING that a teacher simply “teaches” to a student is a lie. The truth of the Dao is beyond any words that society has created to describe it.”

Vergere’s perspective, Tyler posited, actually cut closer to the root of what the Force—which George Lucas based largely on Daoism—was intended to be than did the modern, proactive Jedi of the post-RotJ era. A newly-written postscript drove this point home further by comparing Vergere to what we’ve since learned about the earliest Jedi philosophy from the Dawn of the Jedi series.

Tyler’s article was also one of the first ones I saw fit to run in multiple pieces; click here for part one and click here for part two.

Second Look – The Clone Wars: 2002-2005 – Looking Back at a Unique Experience

Thousands upon thousands of words have been written about the effect the TV series The Clone Wars had on Star Wars continuity—many of them, naturally, by your friendly Eleven-ThirtyEight staff. But one thing TCW missed out on that most people don’t talk about anymore was the one-of-a-kind opportunity Lucasfilm had the first time around—to tell one continuing story straight though from Attack of the Clones to Revenge of the Sith; and in real time, to boot. On August 20, coincidentally one day after yesterday’s Second Look pick, Ben Crofts published a look back at this awesome experience:

“What Lucasfilm (LFL) seemed to realize is that they had a unique opportunity here, to tell the stories of the Clone Wars, to greatly expand and show the full scale of this vast galactic conflict. A twin track strategy was deployed – Del Rey (DR) would do a series of books, each focusing on particular aspects of the conflict, while Dark Horse Comics (DHC) would spin their own ongoing tale.”

Ben’s retrospective not only served as a reminder of all the great Clone Wars stories that were told the first time around, but also showed us just what could be done with total cross-medium synergy—before then, as Ben points out, the best bridge stories always came out after the fact, once all the details were known. If there’s one area where SW films in the post-Lucas era really have a chance to break new ground, it just might be there. Ben’s full piece can be read here.

Second Look – Episode VII and the Death of Luke Skywalker

I had a bit of a quandary this month. Eleven-ThirtyEight is only a couple weeks away from its six-month anniversary, and our writing staff has done such a great job of keeping up with our schedule and maintaining a great level of article quality that I decided they’d earned the week of Christmas off. I figured at the time that there wouldn’t be much harm in just letting the site sit still over the holidays, and resuming our usual publishing schedule on the 30th.

Then Reddit discovered us. Since December 1st, we’ve had an amazing run of three or four viral “events” (epidemics?) in less than two weeks, boosting our regular traffic such that if you’re reading this post, there’s roughly a fifty/fifty chance you’d never been here before this month.

Which reminds me: hi, everybody!

So anyway, two things followed from that—one, if you just discovered ETE in the last couple weeks, the last thing we want to do is abandon you for a week just when you’ve decided this is a place worth keeping an eye on. The second thing is, you probably still haven’t seen the overwhelming majority of the content on this site.

As such, we’ll be running a five-part series this whole week called Second Look. Ever see a long-running TV show do a marathon on Thanksgiving or Christmas Day, but with new interstitial bits between the episodes to keep your attention? This’ll be kinda like that. I’ve gone back through our archives and picked out five articles and/or series that I think are the real cream of ETE’s crop, and I’m going to give them another chance in the limelight. So if you’re curious about our wares, but wary of the archives, stay tuned! First up…

Episode VII and the Death of Luke Skywalker

On August 19, Lisa Schap presented one of our first pieces looking ahead to Episode VII. The sequel trilogy, Lisa felt, needed to open with a major character death akin to Obi-Wan Kenobi’s in A New Hope. Not only would such a thing drive home the stakes of the film’s new threat, but it would force the new generation of main characters to step to the plate themselves:

“They’ll need the freedom to get into their own sorts of trouble and I firmly believe one of the failings of the Expanded Universe in developing new Jedi is that Luke Skywalker is always there looming over the characters and it is difficult to believe, in universe, that the most powerful man in the galaxy wouldn’t go deal with the problem himself.”

Check it out!