The new Star Wars movie The Force Awakens comes out in December. Although I haven’t written much about it on this blog, I’ve been a big Star Wars fan since I was a kid. At first I was thinking of re-watching and reviewing the previous six movies on this blog as a sort of lead-in to The Force Awakens. But I realized that so many others have written about them already. Besides, I just couldn’t decide what order to review them in!
Then it occurred to me to look at some of the tie-ins that have been published over the past 38 years, the comic books and novels. Most of those have never been examined in-depth.
I know that many people were disappointed in George Lucas’ prequel trilogy. While I readily acknowledge that those films were flawed, I still enjoyed them. And they opened up a whole new world of possibilities for the so-called “expanded universe.” Dark Horse, which had the rights to publish Star Wars comic books from 1991 to 2014, released many excellent stories set during the prequel era.
My favorite writer to work on the Dark Horse comics was John Ostrander. He has always been incredibly adept at crafting stories that combine action, drama and political intrigue. This made him particularly well suited to examining the events of the prequel era.
Star Wars: Republic #61 is written by Ostrander, with artwork by Brandon Badeaux & Armando Durruthy and a cover by Brian Ching. It was published in January 2004.
Sixteen months after the Battle of Geonosis the Clone Wars are raging across the galaxy. Senator Bail Organa is en-route from his home planet of Alderaan to the capital on Coruscant when his ship is attacked by space pirates. Fortunately the Jedi arrive to drive off the raiders.
Landing on Coruscant, Organa is greeted by Senator Mon Mothma. She is unsettled by the Senate’s willingness to leave oversight of the war to Supreme Chancellor Palpatine. Organa acknowledges he is perplexed the Senate hasn’t discussed the Republic’s recent catastrophic defeat on Jabim.
That evening Organa is secretly visited by Finis Valorum, the previous Chancellor who resigned in disgrace after a vote of no confidence. Valorum is aghast at the Senate granting Palpatine more and more power. Organa rationalizes that this is “temporary,” to which Valorum fires back…
“The Senate barters away the fundamental rights upon which the Republic was built! You trust that the tyrant you are creating will give them back to you when the crisis is over? Palpatine will give back nothing! No one who seeks power the way that he does ever surrenders it willingly!”
Valorum informs Organa that Palpatine is using the assault on the Senator’s ship to reintroduce the Security and Enforcement Act. Organa is alarmed by this news. As their meeting ends the two are unknowingly observed by a cleaning droid equipped with a camera.
The next day Organa has an audience with Palpatine. The Senator questions the lack of debate on Jabim. Palpatine waves this away, arguing that if the facts of the Republic’s defeat were on the record it would serve to alarm those whose loyalty is wavering. Organa then informs the Chancellor that he resents the space pirate attack being used as an excuse to reintroduce the Security and Enforcement Act, and that he will be opposing it. An unperturbed Palpatine simply replies:
“You must, of course, do as you think best. Might I give you a small warning? It would not be wise for you to see Finis Valorum again. Dirt rubs off so easily, and can tarnish those who would otherwise seem clean.”
Of course Organa detects the implied threats beneath Palpatine’s seemingly polite words, and he begins to ponder if Valorum is correct. Soon after he and Mon Mothma meet with Valorum, who is preparing to depart Coruscant. Organa says he is starting to share Valorum’s suspicions concerning Palpatine. Valorum boards his ship, which takes off… and then, to Organa and Mon Mothma’s horror, the vessel explodes above the spaceport.
The following day in the Senate, the destruction of the ship by an act of “terrorism” is offered as a further argument for the necessity of the Security and Enforcement Act. Organa addresses his colleagues, voicing his opposition. He passionately argues of the dangers that occur when too much power is held by a single individual:
“This chamber is a place of reason, invested with certain powers and authorities! When power is invested in many, it cannot be seized by one! That was the plan and the purpose when the Republic was formed!
“The powers that this Act seeks to invest in the Supreme Chancellor belong to the Senate! They are our responsibilities and given to us in trust…
“We fight for the Republic. But what is the Republic, if not the principles on which it is based? To cast aside those principles would make even a clear-cut victory in this war pointless.”
Despite Organa’s efforts, the Act is passed into law by the Senate. Although he has lost this battle, Organa tells Mon Mothma he now recognizes the importance of fighting for the integrity of the Republic.
When Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith were released in 2002 and 2005, Lucas was asked if he was commenting upon George W. Bush’s “War on Terror,” the passage of the Patriot Act, and the formation of the Department of Homeland Security. Lucas denied this, stating that both the original trilogy and the back story he utilized in the prequels were originally conceived in the early-to-mid 1970s. If there was any influence, it was actually Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War.
Lucas went on to state that the prequels were an observation of the cyclical nature of human history. Specifically he was commenting upon how democracies often give way to dictatorships as citizens willingly give up their rights & freedoms for the promise of security.
This is something that I’ve observed on this blog before, the seductive lure of the so-called “benevolent dictator” who will supposedly guide a nation through turbulent times with a firm hand, relieving the population of the burden of the messy, complicated business of democracy.
I went to see Attack of the Clones in the theater with my father. He didn’t regard the rise of the Separatists and the Battle of Geonosis being secretly orchestrated by Palpatine to enable himself to obtain “emergency powers” from the Senate as a reference to the War on Terror. Instead my father was reminded of how in 1964 Lyndon Johnson convinced Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in response to a supposed act of aggression by North Vietnam. This gave the President the power to utilize military force in Southeast Asia to combat “Communist aggression” without a formal declaration of war from Congress.
In 2008 I met Karen Traviss, author of several novels set during the Clone Wars, at a book signing. As with Lucas, she commented that her books were not inspired by the War on Terror per se, but on reoccurring motifs throughout history. Traviss stated that just as people seeing the prequels in the early 21st Century might be reminded of Bush, so too would those born in the mid 20th Century recall Johnson and Nixon, and a Roman centurion watching the movies would see parallels to the rise of Julius Caesar.
Nevertheless, when I met John Ostrander at a comic convention in early 2005, he confirmed for me that Republic #61 was certainly his commentary on the War on Terror.
There were several scenes filmed by Lucas for Revenge of the Sith where Padme Amidala, Bail Organa and Mon Mothma, realizing that Palpatine does not intend to relinquish his extra powers once the war concludes, begin organizing the movement that would become the Rebel Alliance. Unfortunately these ended up on the cutting room floor, although they were included in the extras on the DVD. As these were omitted from the actual movie, I’m glad that at least in the comic books Ostrander was able to depict some of the events that placed Organa and Mon Mothma on the path to opposing Palpatine.
Ostrander is correct that “temporary” or “emergency” powers granted to heads of state are often anything but transitory and are seldom relinquished. One only needs look at the transition from George W. Bush to Barack Obama. I don’t know if Republicans honestly believed that the authorizations that they granted the Presidency in the aftermath of September 11th would simply vanish into thin air once Bush left office. But they certainly appeared to be completely shocked when Obama utilized those same broad powers to authorize drone strikes and conduct warrantless surveillance on millions of American citizens.
This is one of the reasons why I am a huge science fiction fan. Yes, sci-fi is fun with its robots and rockets and ray guns. But the genre also allows writers to offer commentary on political and social issues via allegory and symbolism. Often it is much easier to critically analyze these controversial topics by transposing them into the future or onto another planet, to address divisive questions in a setting less likely to arouse bitter partisanship.
Ostrander certainly did this in his work on the Star Wars comic books published by Dark Horse, crafting stories that were both entertaining and thought-provoking.