Star Wars and Genre: The Prison Story

The Great Escape, maybe the greatest prison escape movie, so it's pretty well named
The Great Escape — maybe the greatest escape movie, so it’s pretty well named

With Maul: Lockdown soon to appear on bookshelves, the time seems right to take a look at the prison story genre. Stories about prison and prisoners go back a long time (though probably not as far back as you might think, given the relatively recent introduction of imprisonment as punishment). Though Lockdown is the first pure prison story of note for Star Wars, the genre has its place in the Star Wars franchise as well.

Prison stories, though united by their depiction of the experience of incarceration, tend to break down into two main groups. There are escape stories, which concentrate on portraying jailbreak attempts — they are often spiritual cousins of the heist story, focused on elaborate schemes to get out rather than in. Then there are prison life stories, which are concerned with depicting the travails of life behind bars rather than telling a jailbreak yarn. It’s not always a binary distinction; The Shawshank Redemption manages the twist of seeming to be solely a prison life story until the end reveals that it’s been an escape story all along, too. Cool Hand Luke‘s titular hero’s escapes are an important part of his character, but the film’s focus is not on their execution, but on the toll prison life is taking on Luke. But overall, the distinction is useful.

Since the Star Wars franchise is better suited to adventurous capers than melancholy meditations on the hardships of the incarcerated, and since both the regular casts of characters and the needs of a franchise geared toward ongoing story tend against protagonists rotting away in jail, the Expanded Universe is always going to lend itself more naturally to escape stories than to ones about prison life. I will focus, therefore, on that area of storytelling, a type of adventure that is a natural fit for the setting.

Of course, not every story where the heroes escape captivity will necessarily qualify as a prison escape story. Luke, Han, and Chewie’s rescue of Leia from Detention Block AA-23 doesn’t make A New Hope a prison story. Similarly, when Han and Leia spend a brief period in the slammer in Enemy Lines II: Rebel Stand, only to be sprung by the droids, it’s simply a brief action episode in a larger story, not a story focused on engaging with the experience of imprisonment. Planet of Twilight provides another non-example; though Leia spends most of the novel in captivity, she’s not in prison. Locked up in the villain’s villa and drugged into a stupor, Leia isn’t having the prison experience. The prison story requires more — the story itself must be built around the experience of incarceration in a prison or prisoner-of-war camp — and the escape story must devote a significant chunk of its narrative to the conception and execution of the escape from prison.

Escape from Dagu: the prison story we could have had. I guess we weren’t ready for villains with crotch-lasers.

Very few Star Wars stories meet that standard. X-wing: The Krytos Trap features a prison storyline for Corran Horn as he experiences and then escapes Lusankya. Corran’s half of the story is a pure prison tale, even though it is only half of the story. Maul: Lockdown, featuring Darth Maul infiltrating a prison to carry out a Sith mission, is poised to become the very first undiluted prison novel of the Expanded Universe. It could have been beaten to the punch a decade ago by Escape from Dagu, but that novel, in which Shaak Ti had to lead a breakout from a Clone Wars prison camp, was canceled before it could see the light of day.

While Escape from Dagu might be dead, I think the concept deserves to live. The escape story is a classic genre of adventure, one with plenty of room for fights, thrills, and drama. With the numerous wars that characterize the setting, there is always room for protagonists to be captured by the enemy and forced to escape from a prisoner-of-war camp. The Expanded Universe is just begging for a good story in the vein of The Great Escape. For all the adventures written for the Big Three to fill the time between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, or for Anakin and Obi-Wan during the Clone Wars, it’s surprising no one has hit upon the idea of the prison escape and taken full advantage.

Of course, prisoner-of-war stories needn’t be limited to the main characters. It’s probably too late for it, but I’ve always thought that Tycho Celchu’s escape from Akrit’tar would make for a great tie-in to the X-wing series. Any X-wing pilot, clone trooper, or Old Republic trooper can be captured, though. It might be especially interesting to imagine what kind of facility might be designed to hold groups of captured Jedi Knights during the Republic’s many wars with the Sith.

First of many, or one-off?

Star Wars isn’t limited to prisoners of war, either. There are many, many characters with criminal backgrounds, and the setting could use even more. Any of them could have done time in penitentiaries (some, like Booster Terrik, are known to have). Surely Han and Chewie must have been captured by the authorities at some time in their smuggling career; wouldn’t it be fun to see them surviving in prison, fighting gangs and putting together a plan to bust out? And any Jedi could go undercover in prison to bust a narcotics ring or crooked warden or weasel information from an incarcerated gangster.

For such a robust genre of adventure entertainment, it is disappointing that the Expanded Universe hasn’t taken better advantage of the prison escape story. It is a type of tale to which the setting is extremely well-suited. Captivity can occur naturally to almost any Star Wars character, and the prison brawls and thrilling schemes of the prison escape lend themselves easily to Star Wars-style pulp adventure. Writers and editors would be wise to seek the kind of variety in action the prison escape can offer them, and hopefully Lockdown will represent the start of a look in that direction rather than stand as a lone outlier.

Lucas Jackson

Lucas Jackson's biggest interests are history, political theory, the art of storytelling, and talking about any of the preceding three interests. Star Wars captivated his imagination at age nine when he learned that not only were there amazing movies, but an entire galaxy of interconnecting stories to discover. That appeal, of an interconnected set of stories in an almost impossibly deep setting, has kept the Expanded Universe a constant part of his life ever since. Since age seventeen, as Havac, he has enjoyed discussing that passion online with friends, strangers, and strangers who become friends, primarily via the Jedi Council Forums and Wookieepedia. Now someone has been stupid enough to give him his own forum in which to spout off.

5 thoughts to “Star Wars and Genre: The Prison Story”

  1. Great article, rather interesting. The prison genre has never been very present in the Star Wars material. We’ve had some sub-plots in some books, but nothing too prominent. If I remember well, “The Unifyng Force” opened with an scape from a Vong prisoner camp. And “Death Troopers” was set in a prison-ship, although the novel quickly leaves behind the prison-novel style. But there isn’t a whole novel which is really about this environment. I hope we’ll be able to see some examples in this saga in the future. Star Wars has proven that any genre can fit in this universe, if done correctly.

  2. Growing up, I read one of the earliest EU novels, Han Solo at Stars’ End, and it seemed like exactly what this article is asking for. They get a specialized team together, bust into a Corporate Sector Authority prison, and bust everyone out. Han has to make a daring escape involving knowing how much charge someone has in their blaster, and they have to lead people through these air-locked tubes.

    1. Han Solo at Stars’ End has a great escape sequence, but since the book isn’t from the perspective of an imprisoned Chewbacca, but about Han getting in and out of the prison, it’s really more in the format of a heist story, in which Han happens to be stealing . . . Chewie.

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