Why is Star Wars set in space?
Earlier today, I was thinking that Star Wars could just as easily be set in a medieval fantasy world. You have the peasant boy who gets caught up in the quest to become a magical knight, save the princess, overcome the evil emperor, etc. Basically everything in Star Wars is just fantasy.
So why set it in space?
Are all the spaceships and lasers and planets just a shallow aesthetic topping to give the ol’ Hero’s Journey some added flair? I combed over the story again in my mind, and something stood out to me. There was, in fact, one particular thing that couldn’t be translated to medieval times: the Death Star.
Star Destroyers can just be galleons, jedi can just be paladins, droids can just be dwarves, but the Death Star… what would the Death Star be?
The Death Star is just the Death Star. It is this transcendent, floating orb of utter destruction. The Death Star can’t exist in any other universe than in Star Wars. It can’t be in a medieval fantasy. The closest thing that would come to that would maybe some sort of floating or flying siege engine…? which would be cool. But it just wouldn’t the Death Star. But, it wouldn’t work in a generic science fiction world either. (I’m tempted to say Star Trek, but Star Trek has its own complicated things going on that I don’t have time to get into.) In that generic world, we are bound to what is sorta speculatively feasible. But the Death Star is proudly, righteously, planet-explodingly unfeasible. Why on earth would anyone ever want to build a Death Star? A weapon the size of a moon? It can only exist in a space fantasy, because it’s so strikingly impossible.
See, the Death Star’s purpose as an artificial moon is not just a technological one; it’s a mythological one. The Emperor wants to strike terror into the hearts of his subjects. He doesn’t want to just blow them up; he wants to blow them up from a kickass robo-planet he flies around the galaxy with. Likewise, Lucas’ purpose is not to make a story that is technologically feasible, but mythologically resonant.
But I feel that because of this, some people think Star Wars is just about mythology. But Star Wars is about technology.
It’s also about how technology isn’t good enough. In its day, the movie was revolutionary for portraying a technologically advanced intergalactic civilization that still suffered from severe decay and poverty–as opposed to some generic, shiny science fiction world where enlightened man has conquered all obstacles. Star Wars is about rust, sleaze, and space stations.
There’s this super important scene in the movie where Darth Vader chokes Admiral Motti for having a disturbing lack of faith. Admiral Motti sees the Death Star as purely mechanical, but Vader–and the Emperor–aren’t fools. They recognize the spiritual–the Force–but only as a means to more power. Technology and imperial conquest are merely the consequence of their spiritual position.
But what is the result? A failing society only held together by fear.
Our heroes have to learn the truth. When Luke is in the Death Star trench, he has to put aside the targeting computer which has been shown to be ineffective. The only thing left he can trust in is the Force. And this is the message of Star Wars: technology isn’t good enough. Technology is always failing us. You need the spiritual.
Darth Vader, then, can’t just be a cursed knight in a medieval suit of armor. His armor itself has to be his life support, the technology that has allowed him to carry on doing evil. And, at the end, when he has renounced power and the Emperor and the dark side for the sake of his son, he forsakes his armor, as well. He takes off the mask that kept him alive–and trapped–for so long, so that he can see his son face to face. That is the real, that is the spiritual. And more than that: it’s love. The Emperor is quite comfortable using his supernatural powers, but he doesn’t love a single thing.
Death Star –> Technology is corrupt / used by power hungry people / generally failing –> We as individuals / society need to be awakened to the spiritual –> Luke’s Heroic Journey –> Anakin’s Heroic Journey –> Love
We see in Star Wars this wonderful harmonic chain of artifact to theme to aesthetic to story to character. All of its parts fit together so preciously well. From this conceptual pattern, all the rest descends naturally: of course it has to be lightsabers instead of just blasters or just swords, because a lightsaber is connected to both the future and the past, symbolic power and technological power. Of course it has to be droids, and space ships, and different planets, and so on and so forth. It’s not just fantasy, it’s not just science fiction. It is just the way it has to be. It’s Star Wars. And it’s great.
We are still left with some interesting questions:
I. How well do the sequels and prequels integrate the idea of ‘technology is not good enough’? Do they echo it at all?
II. I think there’s a possible lesson about post-commercial art here in the way that Star Wars (internally) fully disconnects itself from our pop culture while at the same time (externally) becoming one of the most powerful forces of it. This lends it a sort of internal purity while also being crazy profitable. Then again, you have Ewoks…
III. Star Wars falls just short of Christianity by leaving the supernatural as a mostly impersonal, mysterious power. How can we continue the narrative of the spiritual triumphant over technological while also representing the spiritual in the specific incarnation of Christ? What does Christian science fantasy look like? I’m predicting something akin to Mormonism. Mormons also happen to be super interested in science fiction… there’s something happening here.