by Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz. A version was published as “Constitutional lessons in ‘Star Wars'” in The Malay Mail 23 December 2015
I remember thinking Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace was fairly crap when it came out in 1999, a real let down after all the anticipation. The primary reason was Jar Jar Binks, but I later understood that it was deliberately kiddish to attract a new generation of Star Wars fans. Of course it has succeeded in doing that, with the release of Episode VII: The Force Awakens being an even bigger event – which will no doubt, in turn, nurture new legions of wannabe Jedi knights. (There are no Episode VII spoilers in this article.)
Like no doubt millions of people on this planet, I have been re-watching the previous episodes to refresh my memory of the epic saga before watching the latest instalment. There was a big debate as to the order in which to watch them: purists argued for IV-V-VI-I-II-III, and movie buffs have offered other permutations that enable fuller appreciation of certain characters or story arcs. However, since our group included those who had not watched all the films before (such people exist), we decided on I-II-III-IV-V-VI. It was thought that throwing in the animated series and computer games that precede and enrich the timeline would cause friends to lose their jobs.
There really is no fictional universe like Star Wars: every brand from Lego to Royal Selangor wants to be associated with it, there are rewrites in the language of Shakespeare and remakes in the style of wayang kulit, and there are of course hordes of fans that discuss the finer points of lightsabre technique, ship design, and the stellar music of John Williams (who like R2-D2 and C-3PO features in every episode).
All these creations serve to tell a story that George Lucas envisaged as a Western in a cosmic setting, a space opera that apart from epic battles also contained riveting stories of personal development and agonising love stories (literally in the prequel trilogy, rather more emotionally in the original trilogy). Despite all the cool technology and epic battle scenes, it is the palpable and relatable human feelings of despair and hope, tragedy and triumph, pain and love that make the series so widely adored.
But upon my recent viewing there was another arc that was also relatable to the real world: the politics, and it is perhaps this aspect that most benefits from watching the movies in the universe’s chronological order.
In Episode I we learn that the Galactic Republic is composed of thousands of systems. Each one has its own form of government (Naboo is an elected monarchy with Queen Amidala as head of state) while sending a senator to represent it in the legislature on the capital planet Coruscant (Naboo sends Senator Palapatine – though we are not told how he was chosen as senator or whether each constituency uses the same method to choose its senator). Dissent grows after a trade dispute escalates through Episode II, and dithering in the capital causes a political transfer of leadership so that Senator Palpatine becomes Supreme Chancellor of the Republic and is granted emergency powers to deal with the conflict. This results in an all-out war between the separatists (using a droid army) and the republic (using a clone army that fortunately exists just when they are needed, but originally ordered in mysterious circumstances).
In Episode III it is revealed that Palpatine was behind the trade dispute, transfer of power, creation of the army and the war itself for the sole reason of concentrating power in himself – for he is actually a Sith Lord. Alongside this is the discrediting and sidelining of other institutions: we are told that Palpatine has control of the senate and the courts, and we see how the Jedi Order – historically tasked to defend and maintain peace in the republic – is discredited and ultimately physically destroyed. The ultimate downfall of the republic is portrayed in a session of the senate where Palpatine announces the reorganisation of the republic into an empire – “So this is how liberty dies,” says now Senator Amidala of Naboo, “with thunderous applause”. It is the most politically charged moment of all six films, setting up the redemption to come in the next three episodes.
Unfortunately the real world is simultaneously more mundane and scary: as we have seen, in some cases legislators do not even need an elaborate plot concocted over decades by the Dark Side to enable long-term emergency powers by a single person.
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Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz is the President of IDEAS