Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Five SF Misconceptions Set Straight

5. Star Wars is set in the future, not the past. This has been confusing people for years. The fact that the movie starts with "A long time ago..." plus the fact that it came out in the 70s, when people took Erich Von Daniken seriously, had everyone assuming that this was intended as an "Ancient Astronauts" kind of thing, and that we were seeing events that somehow took place before recorded history. In another galaxy. In fact, one of Star Wars' biggest imitators, Battlestar Galactica (the original), made the "humans came from the stars" an explicit part of their storyline, which helped cement this whole idea further in people's minds, to the point where no one questions it now.

Certainly, the fact that Lucas was going for a mythical, fairy-tale feel with Star Wars makes this idea seem a little more plausible. And Star Wars throws a lot of confusing stuff at you right at the start, so "this is all happening in the past somehow" seems like just one more gnat to swallow. But what a lot of people don't realize is that "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away" was a last-minute addition to the movie. Even the original novelization, by Lucas himself, began with the more ambiguous "another galaxy, another time". It's pretty clear he was trying to evoke old-fashioned campfire mythology without explicitly contradicting the idea that this was taking place amongst a typical star-spanning future civilization, one clearly evoked by Isaac Asimov's Foundation series and Frank Herbert's Dune, from which Lucas borrows liberally in his world-building. (And it's worth noting that both of those stories take place in a future so distant that Earth has been either forgotten or relegated to the status of insignificant backwater, one which no one bothers to mention.)

But wait, you say, back up--regardless of Lucas's original intentions, the movie DOES open with that line establishing the story as existing in the past, so all this is moot, right? I mean, I'm pretty sure "Sith" wasn't intended as meaning "evil jedi" originally (Darth Vader simply had "Sith lord" as a title, and he happened to be a jedi who had gone evil--but that's two different things) but the Prequels have established it otherwise. But no: "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away" isn't intended from OUR perspective. It's from the perspective of some other chroniclers in the far, far distant future (and possibly another galaxy). Lucas even mentions these guys repeatedly in the early drafts and concept notes: they're called The Whills, as in The Journal of the Whills. Which is what the entire Star Wars series is--a record of future history. Given how badly Lucas has jumped the shark, I doubt we're ever going to return to this concept, but it's out there, and nothing we've seen has ever contradicted it.

And speaking of Lucas jumping the shark--

4. Midichlorians are not the same thing as The Force. I'm not trying to defend the Star Wars prequels in any way, shape or form, but one of the biggest complaints about The Phantom Menace--that it reduces the force to a biological condition--simply isn't accurate. The midichlorians are LINKED to the force, yes, but people seem to have leapt to the conclusion that these little guys are what gives you the ability to use The Force. And the higher your midichlorian count, the stronger your force powers.

Even though this is explicitly contradicted by the dialogue.

The discussion is pretty straightforward. Anakin's midichlorian count is revealed to be absurdly high, "higher even than Master Yoda's". "What does that mean?" asks Obi-Wan. "I don't know," says Qui-Gon.

So if Midichlorians gave you super-force powers, why would they be acting so confused? It would mean something pretty straightforward: that Anakin is the super-Force messiah and they should all be bowing down to him. But in fact the Jedi seem to treat Anakin's midichlorian count as a weird, vaguely interesting anomaly, nothing more. It doesn't even justify training him as a Jedi, apparently. And--somewhat more crucial--does Anakin ever display a mastery of the Force higher than Yoda's? No he does not. Hell, Obi-Wan kicks his ass. Anakin's high midichlorian count is a weird fluke, not the end-all and be-all of Jedidom, and the Force remains a mystical anomaly.

Man, I feel nerdy. Let's move on to something more straightforward.

3. The new Star Trek did not "erase" all the other ones from continuity. Ah, that's...better?

For some reason this was a huge complaint around the interwebs back when we were all convinced the new Star Trek was going to suck, and even after we all saw and enjoyed it there were still people moaning a little about how everything Star Trek has been wiped from continuity "except Enterprise" (usually accompanied by moans of despair).

This appears to be a hangover from Crisis on Infinite Earths. Lord knows Trek fans and superhero fans can give each other a run for their money in the OCD trivia sweepstakes. And the desire to have a single "continuity" seems to be inescapable, even when so much time and effort could be spared by simply acknowledging the presence of a new timeline and chilling the fuck out. But if you won't accept that, how about the fact that it's fucking Star Trek and alternate timelines have been part of the show's mythology since 1966?!? I mean, did Eric Bana wipe the "Mirror universe" from continuity as well? No? Then shut up.

Fortunately people seem to be accepting this one--I'm told the new Star Trek online game is set in the old, nerdy continuity. So the idea seems to be that the new movies will be an effecitve in-continuity reboot for mainstream audiences, but the hardcore will still have their Star Trek Classic(tm) with all the old baggage. Makes sense to me.

2. Deckard is not a replicant. Yes, I know this is contradicted by Ridley Scott himself. He was taking the piss, guys. Deckard being a replicant makes no sense, plot-wise or thematically, and the idea is based entirely on that one weird line in which the number of escaped replicants is miscounted (which, incidentally, was corrected in the director's cut) and a few strange arguments about the unicorn dream sequence. Anyway, this one's been thoroughly dismantled by Scott "El Santo" Ashlin at 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting, so just click on the link and save us all some time. But not before I talk about:

1. Pretty much everything about the second Matrix movie. Now this is a movie I do think gets unfairly maligned--the third movie has a lot more problems, but even so, it's got a lot of value in it as well. The main reason I like the second movie is that it actually expands, thematically, on the first in a way that most sequels don't bother with...and I absolutely love that they're willing to twist the premise of the first around the way they do. That said, there are some awkward bits from a story perspective, but a lot of the issues people have can be corrected (though sometimes a bit of fanwank is needed.)

Why doesn't Neo just fly away during the Burly Brawl? Because, if you notice, Neo can't just leap into the air; he needs to bend down and build up power first. The pile of Smiths assaulting him makes that impossible until he's cleared a space.

Why is Smith alive again at all? Because his experience with Neo--his "merging" with him at the end--made him capable of thinking outside the box in a way that the other programs can't, and part of that newfound realization--Neo "setting him free" as he puts it--is that you can't really "kill" a computer program. He became spiritually self-aware, and reconstituted himself. Essentially, it's what Neo did at the end of the first movie. This is why he quickly starts taking over the Matrix--without needing to abide by the rules, he's become essentially unstoppable.

Why does Neo defy the Architect, dooming the human race? It's not so much that he dooms anybody as that he rejects the choice he's offered. The whole series up until that point has been leading to this, thematically: Neo's made a big deal of his own freedom of choice up until now, but at this point, choice is being used as a method of control. Neo's basically exercising the only freedom left to him--the freedom to opt out, even if it means disaster. But he also believes that he can make his own rules, and doesn't have to accept the Architect's pronouncement of how things will play out. Very buddhist.

Oh, and why can Neo control the machines in the real world now? Because he's been to The Source. I'm amazed at how many people miss this bit. He's developed a link with the machines, one that they all seem to share--he's infected their code the way Smith has infected the Matrix. This is a big part of why the machines let Neo solve their problems in the final movie--they realize they're at a bit of a stalemate. They've got Neo wrecking their shit from without, and Smith taking over the Matrix from within. Chaos has corrupted the system.

If it helps, though, I still agree the rave scene was silly.

1 comment:

  1. Damn, that is a fine point about "A long time ago" that I had NEVER CONSIDERED.

    Also, the Star Trek continuity thing ... I don't get why they tried to make that gel with existing stuff at all. Especially with the divergence being fairly recent. If Khan comes out of cryo-freeze and *isn't* Ricardo Montalban, isn't that technically a continuity error? Not like I particularly care, but when you live by the sword, you die by the sword on this sort of thing.

    Me, I just would've said "All new continuity!" and turned the dogs loose on anyone who needed an in-story explanation.