By Robert Gregg Barker
The third thing I wanted to talk about is the lore. It is the least of the three things I have talked about, with Style and Theme being more important. But it is still important. Star Wars for the most part is a period piece. There is geography, history, culture, and physics, while not immutable, once established they are the boundaries in which the suspension of disbelief lives. There are no aerial dog fights in an American Civil War story. There are no submarine battles in the Napoleonic Wars. You cannot hack a computer and take control of an enemy facility in World War II. To do any story from this era requires some knowledge of the era. That is not a huge restriction. There have been many authors that have written period pieces with an intimate detailed knowledge of the era they are writing about and there are some that do not require intimate knowledge.
Stephen Crane’s “Red Badge of Courage” takes place in a generic battle during the American Civil War. The purpose is not to map the events of a real battle, but to tell the story of an ordinary soldier, their life of terror and how they deal with their fears through battle. Crane was 22 when he wrote the story, he grew up decades after the war had ended. While criticized by some veterans of the conflict, it became an instant hit for its realism and naturalism. The story triumphed over anything that it may have possibly gotten wrong and is considered an important read in the experience of soldiers of that conflict.
The Star Wars universe is big and broad enough to entertain just about any story especially since there are countless worlds that sit outside of the view of galactic events. But the trouble is (or the appeal of it from where you sit) is once you go into that stream of galactic events, you have to abide by the events and rules of what has happened. Even the Doctor from Doctor Who recognizes such things as Time Locked. The Clone Wars will happen, the Empire will be born, the rebellion will destroy both Death Stars, the Empire will fight a final desperate battle at Jakku, the New Republic will rise in place of the Empire. These are major events either seen or referenced in all of the 9 main films.
The moment I got excited for lore was watching the teacher droid on Navaro. The droid simply laid out the geography of the Galaxy. The history of the Galaxy is hundreds of thousands of years old. To know the geography is to know the history. The droid mentions the Outer Rim, but it also mentions the Mid Rim, the Colonies, the Expansion Area, the Core and the Deep Core. I was bewildered hearing what they were saying. The Deep Core was first mentioned in Dark Horse’s Dark Empire, when Star Wars made its triumphant return in 1991, the same year that Heir of the Empire came out. It was the same year that Zahn mentioned “The Unknown Regions” which would become the area where Thrawn came from, but also where the First Order would operate.
Why is all this important? Because it is the lay of the land. You know where one force is and where the other forces are. That will not be the main purpose of the stories to be told but it helps make more sense if you know what is going on. Why was Darth Vader and the Emperor afraid of knowledge of the Death Star getting out? Because they did not have absolute control of the core worlds. The Death Star was being built in the Outer Rim where they had absolute control. Once it was built it didn’t matter who knew. Why does it matter that Tatooine is close to Geonosis? Because Obi-wan needs Anakin to relay a message to the distant capital Coruscant. Distances matter. They are significant plot points for one film and travel takes time. Unless there is a significant change later, it should take the same amount of time to get from here to there.
It is not fan service to see the Empire or the New Republic at certain points in a story. They are the dominant powers in the galaxy at the time of the Mandalorian. It is not fan service to see a Star Destroyer, a TIE fighter or a stormtrooper. This is how power is projected by the Empire. Now that does not mean that this is the only things we will see, but it is difficult to not see them. If you go to Paris what you see in the streets will vary wildly depending on the year. 1938, 1942, 1945, 1947 are less than 10 years apart, but the streets of Paris look different depending on the era.
The Mandalorian seems to care about the galaxy it is in. Not all areas are the same and it remembers it well as we travel back and forth among them. Fuel is a concern. You can only travel the galaxy in a ship that has hyperdrive. Money is a concern and there are various kinds of compensation. The urge to get away and just find a quiet life unplugged from everything is strong. Pirates and raiders are common. People go about living their lives and having families. They harvest food in oceans and in ponds. Some work in industrial settings. Others toil in mines. All of them need to be protected. There are vast fleets out there. There are cities of magnificent architecture. There are space stations that boggle the mind in size. There are planets of every kind of environment imaginable. It Is all there. It is a magnificent sand box to play in. It is what makes it Star Wars.
You don’t have to read every book, you don’t have to read every comic, you don’t have to see every episode. This knowledge is not required for enjoying the stories. You do not even have to if you are going to write Star Wars stories. You WILL have to if you are going to mess with large galactic events. Big swing changes should be evaluated for their effect. Not that they should not happen, but they should be weighed with what it means.
The rich lore is give weight to the world. You dig under and you find more and more if you choose. Or you can take it at surface value. They have made 43 years of books and comics and other material. Some of it falls out of fashion or canon, but so much is drawn upon, that a simple adherence to this history will make what came before not only viable but sought out for decades to come.
By Robert Gregg Barker
I spoke before about style. Now I want to speak about themes. Because themes are where you can speak to a small audience or be broad enough to reach everyone, across generations and cultures.
The thing best about Star Wars when I was a teenager was, I would meet people from anywhere in the world and they would have a deep love of the trilogy. We would eat different food, speak different languages, worship different faiths, come from very different climates and daily experiences and yet….we would have this connection through this shared experience.
The original Star Wars came at a very cynical time in American history. We had just got out of a costly war. We had lost faith in public institutions. The country was more focused on anti-heroes and didn’t give much credit to things we had taken for granted for many years. We had just come out after having deconstructed many mores and values until we could not take them seriously. But that is the interesting thing about myths that have improbable even unrealistic standards. At the right moment when there is no more center and you need something to grasp hold of, the myths can be there, unsullied as they cannot be touched by mortal hands. This is the land of religious tales, but even without that, most nations have tall tales that share mores, values and themes that are considered important enough to be imparted to its people.
So, what are the themes of The Mandalorian….it has style, but it’s themes are what you will remember forever. The biggest is loyalty to family. It overshadows everything else. Other themes may be adopted, but this will never be eclipsed.
1. Loyalty to Mandalorians – This is a tribal familial love born out of gratitude to the people who took him in after his parents perished during the Clone Wars. The loyalty cut across all disagreements up to and including sacrificing one’s self for others. The loyalty is born of purpose and that purpose is ensuring their people survive. Even when the price is learned for his covert breaking cover to help him escape, there is no anger on the part of the Armorer. They had executed their duty to help Grogu and Din. This is the way.
2. Loyalty to Grogu – This is the foundation of the show. Outside of his clan, this is the thing he cares about more than his own life. The safety and wellbeing of this small young creature who is a foundling like he was. This goes beyond keeping him safe from the machinations of the Imperial Remnant and turns into a quest for him to find the best life for Grogu, reconnecting him to the Jedi. Din follows wherever that path would take him, no matter what the cost. And Grogu is as real as any human toddler, curious, putting things in his mouth, not listening, meaning no harm but getting into trouble. We may not relate to the life of an intergalactic bounty hunter, but most of us can relate to interacting with a precocious
toddler that requires too much attention.
3. Loyalty to his friends – Along the way, Din has made closer connections to the people that have crossed his path: Cara Dune, Grief Carga, Kieli, IG-11 and now Ashoka Tano and Bo Katan. The stakes are high and none of them are safe. Kieli and IG-11 sacrifice themselves trying to help Grogu and the others. Dune and Carga are working hard to build a new life, but their goals align with Din’s. Assisting them is not simply helping friends but nurturing a home they can return.
The goals of Ashoka and Bo Katan may not be clear as of yet, but Din and Grogu may cross their paths again and their interests are likely to align.
And this simple theme when boiled to its basic root is love. This isn’t different than the love of Luke stopping his training to go help his friends Han, Leia and Chewie. It hasn’t gotten to the level of love that was seen at the end of Return of the Jedi where Luke’s love redeems his father. It was not power or Jedi skill or even Jedi wisdom…..he simply was not going to hate his father. And in that, the Emperor lost and was not able to control him.
The theme of the prequels was attachments. It was what leads to all kinds of terrible behavior that causes one to follow the Dark Side.
In the OT, it is the attachments that redeems Luke and his father at the end. The danger of attachments is even mentioned by Ashoka as a reason why Grogu should not be trained as a Jedi. At this point his powers are so strong and finely honed I am not sure that he would simply forget them.
I do not think we will get a lesson that is antithetical to the themes of love, family and loyalty. We have had far too much deconstruction, lessons that life is hard, you will be disappointed, and you are right to not trust. We cannot have another blow like that. Which isn’t to say that pain won’t be on the horizon or that we will not face more death and loss. Death and loss are a normal part of life and Star Wars and The Mandalorian doesn’t shy away from it. It simply says that in the end love wins out.
There are some that feel this is cornball or too simplistic for our age, but it has been a universal theme that cuts across generations and cultures. It wells up emotions and memories in such a way that it is a gut punch we cannot brace against. What do you want to have? I want something like that. These themes say, “We can have that together if you want”. And that is how you have a multigenerational global phenomenon. It isn’t with the flashy lights and special effects. It isn’t with stormtroopers and X-wings. Or even Beskar Mandalorian armor. It is with themes we understand and hunger for. The belonging of someone that loves us and we love them and that they will always be in our corner and we in theirs. That is what we seek and gives us definition. That is the theme of the Mandalorian. And why even now early in its inception it will be remembered for a very long time.
By Robert Gregg Barker
I wanted to talk about three things about Star Wars and The Mandalorian, but each thing is so big it may need three separate posts to talk about them. I want to talk about Style, Themes and Lore. I think I am going to tackle them in that order.
I have been watching my parents intently watching The Mandalorian.
They are most definitely not Star Wars fans and their distaste for the fantastic has only grown as they have gotten older. Or maybe they always didn’t like science fiction and fantasy and now they don’t hide their contempt for it as much. They are enthralled with The Mandalorian. They look forward to watching it every week to see what happens next. And for my mother to now hunger for more backstory means two things. One, it is not mindless entertainment for her. Two, she can’t possibly be the only one wanting to know more about the characters and history.
A driving imperative for Disney with this vast collection of 43 years of material, 11 movies, two television movies, 5 cartoon series, numerous specials, video games, novels and comic books is getting neophytes to want to look at them, without it being obvious that the company new fans to consume them. You first must get them in the door and style is the best way to do that.
It is long known that Lucas was heavily influenced by Akira Kurosawa and modeled much of the original Star Wars after his film “The Hidden Fortress”. Kurosawa formed a symbiotic relationship with American Westerns and even Shakespeare with his adapting of stories for the Samurai format. These stories were later readapted by American westerns and Italian “spaghetti western” directors and producers. The films were incredibly visual while not having lavish production costs. They “showed” instead of “telling” audiences what was going on. It was not uncommon that we didn’t even know the names of protagonists. Objectives would be simple, moral choices would be made clear and you would follow to see what happens next.
Most Americans are not aware of World Cinema. They have likely not seen the French New Wave, German Expressionism, the surreal films of Fellini or Bergman, post war Japanese Samurai films, Korean cinema. You don’t have to know the language; you only have to see how they are framed. The mark of a good visual film is that you can turn the dialogue all off and yet everything you see start to finish makes sense. In that regard World Cinema, or in this case Spaghetti Westerns and Samurai films (particularly Kurosawa) are the masters. And this is not stealing, it is more of a lifting of technique to bring about a certain style. Sam Mendes was asked how he invented the following camera method for his World War I tale “1917”. He simply responded telling them to watch the Soviet era World War 2 film “Come and See”. Everything Director Wes Anderson does is taken from 80 years of World Cinema, particularly the French New Wave. He even publishes books showing the exact frames he lifts and recreates for his stories.
With Dave Filoni and John Favreau, this is much the same. They are lifting in many cases, the same situation, the same scene, the same framing. Only the setting and the characters are different. This is all carefully chosen and deliberate manipulation. For those who are cinephiles, it is an apparent homage. For those who have never seen it before, it strikes like a bolt of lightning to their souls. “Some of these shots were absolutely gorgeous” a man said on twitter with the recent episode. “Because the episode was directed by an illustrator and it shows” I replied. One of the hallmarks of the Original Trilogy was that there were so many scenes that could be frozen and perfect as a post card. “One perfect shot” is a popular twitter and Instagram site showing this done with many films. At the end of every Mandalorian episode is a slide show of the production art created for the film.
I do not expect every episode to be in the style of Samurai and Spaghetti westerns. They are very conscious of different styles and bringing them out to fit the situation. Style is the cover of the book that gets you to read it. It will get you to become invested in the characters, their stories and the themes. But then you better show up and perform with those characters and their stories. If you do, then you can look back at the style fondly and remember that there was substance behind it.