Just watched the political discussion show, Empire, on Aljazeera. Jolly good. I’m quite enjoying switching to the Doha-based network whenever BBC News starts wittering about cricket and there’s nothing good on Parliament. They had, among others, Carl Bernstein of All the President’s Men fame going on about Wikileaks, cyber activism and national security.
The whole thing got me thinking, though, how much of my morality is framed in the context of Star Wars. No, really.
The word Empire has negative connotations for me, but not because of Gandhi or Zephaniah, but Palpatine.
When I was a kid, you had to read the novelisations even to know his name was Palpatine: in the original trilogy he was always simply The Emperor.
And he was bad.
The Star Wars universe was always more complex than people gave it credit for. Critics spoke of a simplistic, black and white morality but, cheap shots aside, part of us did want to see an Ewok take one in the ghoulies (in the same way that Kubrick’s The Shining’s great strength, in my opinion, is that part of us does want to see Shelley Duvall get an axe in the head.)
But, admittedly, the good-guy–bad-guy divide was never too blurred. The Empire wasn’t nice and no one but those on the payroll had a good word for it. It had tons of cool tech that let it kill more people from further away, and that only made us root for the plucky rebels with their makeshift, temperature-sensative devices and teddy bear allies.
This was brought to my mind as I played a FPS game with a pal in his flat. It wasn’t Call of Duty or Medal of Honour, I don’t think, but it was of that ilk, complete with modern Middle East setting with Afghan mountains, all pale brown dust and blazing sun. We, the protagonists, operated several flavours of automatic weaponry. At one point we were in a helicopter with destructive capability that would terrify an AT-AT.
Our opponents, on the other hand, were always on foot, armed with AK-47s (and the occasional makeshift anti-aircraft gun) and were generally running into a hail of bullets.
Before anyone starts breathing faster, let me stress I mean to express no opinion (here) about the UK’s recent and current Middle Eastern adventures; nor do I wish to suggest that might automatically equals wrong. I just mean that as we killed more people from further away, I felt very much like I was the agent of a bloated empire. And the empire I mean isn’t the undead British Empire, or the American Empire By Any Other Name, but THE empire: the Evil Empire in a galaxy far, far away.
The extent that that reflects any empire of actual history, recent or otherwise, is the doing of the filmmakers’ agendas, conscious or otherwise, or their accidents. I’d be prepared to accept that, in Hollywood, might might really equal wrong, so strong is an audience’s empathy for the underdog.
So perhaps I should read no more into it than that I absorbed a storyteller’s trick, framed in a particularly arresting galactic context, too liberally as a child.
The Afghans are not Ewoks, but the Emperor was a very bad man.