Friday, 9 March 2018

How George Lucas gave us glimpses of a Star Wars bigger universe - part two

We’ve been looking at how Star Wars cleverly gave us glimpses of a bigger galaxy than we saw on screen. In the conclusion of this two-part post, I’ll turn to what the film told us about droids and alien species, and the life of Luke Skywalker.

George Lucas is underrated as a storyteller. 

An 'idea fragment' George Lucas
wrote as he was outlining Star Wars
He always found writing difficult, but he was determined to finish the Star Wars screenplay alone. (In the end, there was an uncredited polish of the dialogue by Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz.)

One of the many things he got right with Star Wars was the way he implied a much bigger galaxy than we were seeing in his story. It was probably helpful that he had written four completely different screenplays, so his fantasy universe was particularly well-thought out. So when a character mentioned the spice mines of Kessel or the Clone Wars, we had the sense that there was a rich and complicated reality around our characters, with its own history.

In part two of this post, I wanted to take a look at some more ways in which Star Wars gives us glimpses of that universe. 

The Star Wars guide to droid ownership

Luke inspects the Jawas' line-up of droids in Star Wars

There are a lot of droids in Star Wars. From the silver droid shaped like C-3PO that we see aboard the Rebel blockade runner through to the mouse robots that scurry around the Death Star, the film is full of them. Creating that many robots was clearly a major task for production effects supervisor John Stears and his crew, but it was important to Lucas’s vision. 

But the thing about droids – as with the film’s spaceships – is that nobody in the Star Wars universe finds them that remarkable. They’re everyday objects, like cars or appliances, and are often in grimy or worn condition.

The film gives us an exotic array of them, and when we see them collected on the Jawa sandcrawler we might wonder what they all do.

Consider what we learn about those droids:

Aunt Beru needs a droid that speaks a language called Bocce.

Droids can be sophisticated enough to grasp etiquette and protocol. (And when we were kids, who even knew what those words meant?)

A droid can be vulnerable to something called a bad motivator, and a droid’s behaviour can be restricted through something called a restraining bolt.

Droids can have their memories erased, which is convenient when you buy one from someone who may not be the legal owner.

Droids that have been in space battles can pick up “carbon scoring”. However, they can be cleaned in an oil bath.

And we are told that as droid technology evolves, their behaviour may be changing. After all, C3PO says: "These astro droids are getting quite out of hand. Even I can't understand their logic at times."

Aliens and alien cultures

A Sandperson, aka Tusken Raider, in Star Wars

Star Wars introduced us to more non-human species than we had ever seen on screen before.

This was most obviously the case in the Mos Eisley cantina scene – the only sequence in which the film dwells on the variety of exotic inhabitants of its galaxy.

Subsequent generations of viewers may not even realise how striking that scene seemed back then and how much it was talked about. But of course, the film gives us a look at other alien species too:

  • Jawas. It’s a while before we learn what they’re called, and they are particularly mysterious. We understand that they eke out a living by travelling the arid Tatooine landscape selling droids in its remote settlements. We discover that the droids aren’t always theirs to sell. But we also grasp that the Jawas are looked down on. They’re treated dismissively by Luke’s Uncle Owen, while Luke chases one away from touching his landspeeder, and even Threepio calls them “disgusting creatures”. 
  • Sandpeople. Known as Tusken Raiders in the surrounding publicity, but not in the flm, they add a real sense of menace to the Tatooine sequences. We know they’re so violent that it’s dangerous to venture far on Tatooine at night. We see them attack Luke, of course, and we learn that “the Jundland wastes are not to be travelled lightly”. Obi-Wan Kenobi demonstrates that they are “easily startled” but will return in greater numbers. They are formidable assailants, riding “single file, to disguise their numbers”, but have previously stopped short of attacking anything as big as a Jawa sandcrawler. 
  • The garbage masher monster (or Dia-Noga). It’s not mentioned by name in the film, but it’s given the name Dia-Noga outside the movie. The monster which grabs Luke in the Death Star’s trash compactor is not part of a culture in the way that the Jawas and Sandpeople are, but its existence does point to the careful way George Lucas thought out his galaxy. When Mark Hamill asked about the creature and how it came to be in this environment, Lucas was ready with an answer. These creatures were kept to digest organic waste, and the reason it lets Luke go is that it hears the sound which signals that the walls are about to move in to crush the man-made waste – sending the Dia-Noga back to its hidey-hole. 
  • Whoever built the temple on the fourth moon of Yavin. The Rebels in Star Wars don’t have a purpose-built base. Lucas had the idea that they would have converted an ancient temple. In the published versions of the screenplay, it’s called the Massassi temple, giving a name to those who built it, but in the film we don’t even get that much of a clue. The fact that the Rebels are in this structure is not even mentioned – it’s just there, a hint that this galaxy has an ancient tradition. 

Who are the stormtroopers anyway? 

The stormtroopers who discuss the VT-16

Star Wars was careful to keep certain things mysterious. We don’t know what’s under those Jawa hoods or the Sandpeople’s bandaged headgear. And of course, we don’t see Darth Vader without his helmet.

But who, or what, are the stormtroopers? The film doesn’t give us too many clues.

We might infer, from the references to the Clone Wars, that they are clones – especially since Obi-Wan Kenobi describes them as “weak-minded”. They certainly don’t seem very bright. They fail to locate the missing droids, with all the technology of the Empire behind them. They somehow fail to catch up with the old man who has recently wielded a lightsaber in the cantina. And they can be startled into running away from just one space pirate with a gun.

And yet there is one tiny clue that the stormtroopers might be ordinary humans.

It’s in the dialogue between the two troopers who are keeping guard near the Death Star’s tractor beam controls, and who fail to notice Obi-Wan Kenobi turning off the power.

They discuss what’s going on aboard the battle station, and whether it’s “another drill”.

Then one says: “You seen that new VT-16?”

His companion replies: “Yeah. Some of the other guys were telling me about it...”

This little exchange is our one hit that maybe the stormtroopers are maybe not clones, automatons or a crack squad of soldiers. They could be just working stiffs like anyone else. 

The world of Luke Skywalker

Luke Skywalker in the Lars garage

Finally, I’d like to take a brief look at the world Luke Skywalker leaves behind when his uncle and aunt are conveniently slaughtered.

I’ve already mentioned what we know of Tatooine’s geography and the moisture farming business, but what about life as a young man? Lucas has thought this one out particularly well – helped, perhaps, by the fact that he wrote and shot scenes featuring Luke and his friends that were deleted from the finished film.

We know that Luke is eager to leave the farm. He wants to go to an institution called the Academy – a place to which you have to transmit an application.

It seems to be something young men tend to do in order to get off the planet, since when Uncle Owen tells him to wait another season, Luke says “That’s just what you said when Biggs and Tank left.”

This is one of a couple of references to Biggs (most of whose scenes were dropped from the film). Luke observes that “Biggs is right” about him never getting off “this rock”.

In the meantime, Luke seems to be keen to get away from the farm to visit somewhere called Tosche Station – ostensibly to “pick up some power converters”, although his uncle suspects his purpose is to “waste time with your friends”.

Luke has a landspeeder, but it’s clearly not the latest and best model of transport. When he sells it, he has to accept a derisory amount because “Ever since the XP38 came out, these things just aren’t in demand.”

However, there’s something we don’t learn about Tatooine life until much later in the movie, when Luke is being briefed about the mission to attack the Death Star.

“I used to bullseye wamp rats in my T16 back home. They’re not much bigger than two metres,” he says.

We might surmise that the T16 is the winged vehicle we see in the garage alongside Luke’s landspeeder. But the fact that he uses it for some exceptional achievements in pest control might be a clue that maybe this kid really is the gifted hero the galaxy needs. 

Creating an imaginary universe is a difficult job. Star Wars does it convincingly, and that’s partly because we get the sense that George Lucas did a lot of thinking about the worlds he created. With all that knowledge to draw on, he could reveal his wider galaxy in little glimpses.

He did that visually too, by filling the picture with characters and objects that hint at the bigger, exotic reality our characters live in. I’d like to return to that subject in a future post.

But in the meantime, I hope I've made the case that George Lucas is a much more skilful writer than he’s sometimes given credit for.

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