Star Wars and Totalitarianism: Less is More

Totalitarianism is a frightening notion and, in theory, one of the things the Rebels fight against in SW. The last pre-reboot book, Honor Amongst Thieves, had Han and Chewie pay a visit to a cold, tightly controlled Imperial world called Cioran. It makes for a quite chilling example of what the Empire’s vision of utopia is. At the same time the story is smart enough to know that for Star Wars a light touch is better where totalitarian systems are concerned. Why? Because totalitarianism is both a past and present horror.

With the end of the Cold War, the spectre of totalitarianism faded to a degree. To many now, the Cold War is two decades away and consigned to history. Yet, while the world has the sheer lunacy of North Korea to remind it of totalitarianism’s excesses, its more subtle form embodied in China tends to be missed. To do justice to what totalitarianism embodies would be for SW to abandon much of what it is. No looking up, no hope for the future, no freedom to even think, never mind act!

To understand totalitarianism, it is surprisingly simple – you are never alone, ever. At the same time one of the justifications for the perpetuation of the system is that there are enemies, internal and external. Thus there will always be a ready supply of spies and adversaries to be unmasked:

You did not do anything? What about this journal here? This testimony of treason and plans against the state? This absolute proof of your disloyalty before which you have no defence? Of course, you could not do this alone, no, your neighbour must have been aware or else you have been reported sooner! You insist they truly know nothing of your actions? Then they must know, for why else would you protect?

And the whole time, everyone else gets the message – this could be you. Do not merely mind your own business, keep an eye on others lest you become caught up in the system. Of course, by having this web of fear in place, all are supporting, entirely willingly, the very system that holds them in place. For an individual such as Darth Sidious, this is paradise.

It’s quite damning that the name Big Brother is likely known more as an entertainment series of dubious nature than it’s original invoking by Orwell in 1984. At the same time, often we are watched, by satellites and CCTV, but nothing to fear, if you have nothing to hide, right? If only – a system like the Empire would always be able to find something, even from the most careful individual. Which reinforces the central message – this happened to them, it could happen to you. So what’s stopping SW going deeper into this sort of area? Basically everything! SW is the story of rebels defeating the big, terrifying Galactic Empire. It is not about showing how individuals get broken down by that system, rendered unto entirely willing supporters and upholders through fear and unable to think for themselves. Still, might there be a way? One of the best examples of this is the Death Star. Because that goes boom, people tend to stop considering where that was going. Oh, blowing up worlds, obviously? Well, yes, but why?

The book Death Star gives an answer but it does so quietly, subtly. Everyone likes to say they would never betray their principles, or their family or loved ones or friends. But what about when it’s one or the other? When it’s people versus principle? What about when your entire home-world’s existence is on the line?

You want to play in the big leagues? You’re in the biggest now. Tell us what we want to know and we might, might, spare your planet or render it as an object lesson! Keep quiet and it’s going boom! Even Leia gave in to this ultimate form of pressure, only for Tarkin to still order Alderaan’s destruction. Tarkin’s likely view? If Leia truly wanted her home-world safe she would never have opposed the Empire. It’s practically an extrapolation to the max of the mobster principle: You have anything you care about? Oh, you do? Take care, it’d be a shame if anything happened to it. Overkill? Excessive? Most certainly.

Death Star did a great job of showing how people get enmeshed into the Imperial system. Indeed, one of the criticisms made of the book is too many of the characters get to escape at the end, that the story would have been more effective with them dying on the Death Star at Yavin. That it would have been more fitting for them to be shown not defying the odds, as the opposite is standard for SW stories. Got a mad plan or gambit? It’ll succeed. Plus, killing off your cast of characters to make a point is a very high risk move. Blackadder Goes Forth pulled that off, but that was a pitch black comedy set in WW1.

The comic Darklighter has a wonderfully disturbing scene of Tarkin giving a speech to Imperial cadets, with Biggs amongst the audience. In it he explains the effect of seeing the Death Star take up position above a world. Tarkin’s point is clear – destroy a couple of worlds, demonstrate the power of the weapon and everyone will capitulate as soon as it arrives and is sighted. In this respect Tarkin could likely convince almost anyone of his benign intent for the planet-killer – say what you like, he didn’t lack for charm or that particular current buzzword – executive presence. But it’s still the same overkill response – comply or get blasted. Beneath the sophisticated veneer lurks a total thug who’ll kill worlds to get his way.

Finally, there is one last reason why SW does not delve much into the totalitarian nature of its adversary – there just isn’t that much there. Instead it’s far more interesting to give the bad guys the cool tech, the AT-ATs, the Star Destroyers and frankly? They need it. They need a seductive edge beyond: Join up and you can do anything to anyone and get away with it because you are an Imperial and they are scum! That line works fine for the average psychopath, but the more idealistic individuals? They need something more, invoke the need for order, for the good of the state to over-ride the good of the individual – which is a road the EU took on rendering the Empire less of an absolute monster.