Pedestrian ‘Star Wars’ v. epic ‘Star Wars’
Fighter Flight is a rather enjoyable episode on many levels, but one of its main characteristics, for good or ill, is that it debuts something perhaps unfamiliar to the average Star Wars fan — the everyday pedestrian’s view of that galaxy, far, far away.
One of the many taglines for Dave Filoni’s previous Star Wars helm was that each episode should feel like a “mini-movie.” Indeed, each iteration of all six seasons of Star Wars: The Clone Wars begins with a microcosm of John Williams’ staple brassy arpeggio, with the main titling spread across the screen, followed by an auditory monologue serving as an ersatz opening crawl. As many have attested, each of these elements serve as modern obeisance to the Hollywood traditions of mid-20th century science fiction and action/adventure storytelling, visual design, and musical score. In its debut volume on November 27, 2013, Rebel Force Radio’s Star Wars Oxygen podcast co-host David Collins spoke at length about George Lucas’ and editor Paul Hirsch’s use of temporary musical cues to establish the tempo, expectations and atmosphere for what would later become composer John Williams’ Oscar-winning score. For what served as the ephemeral main title theme prior to the treasured film’s release was 1952’s Ivanhoe overture, while elements of the Mars movement from Gustav Holst’s The Planets suite pulls us into the conflict between the iconic star destroyer and rebel blockade runner. Each of these pieces establishes a heavy brass and percussive motif that infuses the adrenaline of high adventure, swashbuckling, warfare, and a hero’s journey about to begin. Of course, that is Star Wars set to unfold on a super-sized screen, with merely a two hour window to resolve its crisis.
Conversely, Star Wars: Rebels is primed for the small screen, propagated by a publicly traded corporation which can enable an expedition through a narrative that spans (hopefully) multiple television seasons, featuring the same six protagonists. With this in mind, one should almost expect the regular abandonment of opening artistic homages and flourishes that defined the main cinematic experience for some of the more quotidian moments in a character’s life. Ultimately, television is about the slow build — those simple human moments that, if executed effectively, set the stage for a stronger and deeper dramatic experience that bares witness to the ascension of cable dramas surpassing the theatrical experience in quality.
To be sure, Star Wars: Rebels does feature a Kiner-composed, Williams-inspired brassy six-note arpeggio that accompanies the plastering of the official logo filling our screens. But rather than accompanying the exposition, it delineates the demarcation between the exposition and the rising action of each episode — a common practice for much of the 21st century’s major network programming. Customary productions of my youth (Alice, The Jeffersons, Laverne and Shirley, Three’s Company, Sanford and Son, The Facts of Life, Diffrent Strokes, Eight is Enough, The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, Dallas, Knots Landing, The Cosby Show, Family Ties, A Different World, Cheers…) universally began with often memorable opening tracks while introducing the cast opposite hilarious sequences taken from moments during the current and/or previous seasons. By about the mid-1990s, a shift toward placing the opening theme between the exposition involving the characters on set and the rising action occurred — most notably among the upstart Fox Network’s new programming like Married With Children and Living Single, the latter of which hilariously starred Clone Wars’ Mace Windu actor Terrence T.C. Carson as Kyle Barker. Author Jon Burlingame, in his 1996 TV’s Biggest Hits: The Story of Television Themes from Dragnet to Friends, states that, even during this period, an opening montage would last 40 – 60 seconds. Though these shows still featured full length themes, their early 21st century predecessors began a trend that truncated the refrain to just a few notes, with the cast credits fading in and out of live scenes, as commonly found in cinema. Others simply flashed logos, most notably ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy (which departed from its 26-second theme in 2005), Ugly Betty, and NBC’s Heroes. Such an approach, in the modern era, may make more business sense. Not only can producers maximize their storytelling time with shorter or non-existent themes, most people in the DVR age simply skip past these themes, if not outright changing the channel when watching during the regular broadcast time. Tara Ariano, co-founder of Television Without Pity.com and a contributor to MSNBC.com, was quoted in 2006 by the Associated Press as saying, “full-on opening credit (and) theme song is kind of a waste, from a business perspective. The networks sort of assume we watch the show, so we don’t need to have the premise explained to us each week…In the era of the DVR, half the people watching the show are just fast-forwarding that anyway.” Indeed, I often hit the ‘skip’ button on my blu-ray player when binge watching entire series on disc when their opening montages emerge — the exception of which is HBO’s Game of Thrones, as their theme is admittedly addictive. Another angle driving this trend, according to TV historian Tim Brooks, is the role of our perceived instantly gratified, attention-challenged, contemporary audience who presses producers to, “…[tighten] everything, making it go from joke to joke, from action to action, from shootout to shootout, so that you won’t press the dreaded remote control.”
Contributing to this discussion was Slate writer June Thomas, who in 2010 argued that episode runtimes have shrunk as advertisement breaks have grown longer, contributing to this demise of the 60 second hummable lead-in.
Over the six years that Star Wars: The Clone Wars has aired, either on Cartoon Network or via Netflix, I have not heard of a single person criticizing the show for simply having a more traditional Star Wars exposition, modified to simulate a 1940’s World War II-era newsreel narration — even as I have read a few critiques of the style and design of that opening. Ultimately, viewers are used to this if they are fans of the franchise. Rebels, under the purview of new management and a differing economic business plan, has thus far demonstrated a penchant for aligning itself with the realities of television in the digital age.
Contrary to last week’s Droids in Distress, this episode opens with the Ghost in a lazy stroll to the surface of Lothal, accompanied by composer Kevin Kiner’s leisurely interpretation of the Star Wars main title — not the triumphant “call-to-action” reminiscent of Ivanhoe or Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s 1942 opening score to Kings Row, but a version one might expect at the lead-in scene of a Star Trek prime, or spin-off, television series. We cut to Ezra attempting to move a bowl with his latent Force abilities, with Chopper serving as the foil. The humorous play between them, which extends to Zeb, further reinforces the intended homage to Stephen J. Cannell’s 1980s-era The A-Team. Thus far, Chopper serves as silly and practical joke-playing Murdock, while Zeb is the slumbering B.A.”Bad Attitude” Baracus, who wishes to “end” rather than “pity” anyone who awakens his slumber. Ending up in a tussle that wreaks havoc on the ship, Hera banishes both Ezra and Zeb to a quest for a fruit that should be impossible to find. As the “mother” figure of this newly expanding team, her solution to the ailing crew is a common one parents of older children will identify with — i.e., “I don’t care where you go, but you got to get up outta here!” Though not intimately connected to Hera, Kanan serves as the “father” of the group, supporting Hera’s decision for disciplining the crew members, though waiting until their departure to remind Hera that these ‘meilooruns’ Ezra and Zeb were sent to procure do not grow on Lothal. So far, beyond simple flirtatious bantering between the two, there has been no confirmation of a burgeoning romance here, and Jonathan Jackson Miller’s A New Dawn suggests that Hera is far too dedicated to ending Palpatine’s imperial reign to allow a distraction like a romantic relationship into her life when Kanan first crosses her path. As he embarks on his first tour of the Ghost, right at the end of the book, Miller writes of Hera’s thoughts:
He obviously liked her starship, she could see as he walked around it. That was good. He was also smitten with her, she could tell — and she was all right with that, too. She didn’t want to tell him that her war had already begun, and that in war, there was no time for anything else. He would probably understand that eventually.
Fast-forward a number of years and we see that he apparently has gotten the message, but that doesn’t stop the two from attempting to entertain themselves together, when the mission runs long, awaiting the call from the quarreling “brothers” as to their whereabouts. Slipping right into that traditional father role, Kanan nearly has a nervous breakdown when the sounds of an Imperial TIE fighter’s engines can be heard in the background — it’s as if older children were sent on an errand in the family car, only to hear police sirens in the background of a cell call. In essence, this is the average Joe’s Star Wars, where writers and creators have a lot more time to develop the social dynamics of the characters, during an era in which the audience demands it from their television characters.
Tarkin’s Five Year Plan
Each year, as I teach basic historical concepts to high schoolers, I’m often amazed at how many of them are unfamiliar with the principle aspects of an empire. I have to thank George Lucas and Steven Spielberg for teaching me those elementary concepts without us ever coming in contact, and without ever entering a classroom involving their intuitive instruction. Both the ‘Empire’ of Star Wars and the Hollywood Nazis of Indiana Jones served as generic analogies which made studying their earthbound ancestors rather facile. With Lucas and Spielberg, one finds a genius in fostering a fictional world which serves their intended dichotomous objective of entertaining an audience while honing in on the deeper lessons humanity must engender. While placing a fictional character within the confines of recognizable historical villainy (during a period prior to world cataclysm that many audiences either celebrate or directly recall) may appear to be a simpler task, Lucas managed to traverse the confines of our atmosphere and transplant crowds the world over into a far away, yet immediately recognizable, galaxy capable of teaching the same lessons surrounding the cost of tyranny.
Though it is seductive to immediately draw parallels between Palpatine’s Empire and Nazi-era Germany, one finds attributes in Star Wars that many Terran empires exhibit:
In a general sense, there is an excessive emphasis on industrialization — particularly as it pertains to military hardware over the needs and concerns of citizenry, nor the preservation of nature. This is front and center on the fictional outer rim world of Lothal, as the Star Wars: Rebels Visual Guide (2014) tells us the Empire is using the grassy world to mass produce TIE fighters and other weapons, as the agrarian sector is slowly replaced. (16-17)
There is the exaltation of nationalistic fervor, as witnessed in the rhetoric and demeanor of last week’s Minister Tua, who aggrandized the Imperial academy, and Empire in general, while basking in the overt genocidal victory of Agent Kallus over Zeb’s Lasan.
And there is a thriving culture of militarism, which eventually eschews, and later supplants, a fatigued and ailing democratic body — as recently depicted in Lucas’ Prequel Trilogy and The Clone Wars animated series.
But as George is a visual and auditory storyteller, his Imperial officers are dressed in the trappings of fascism, while speaking often in high British cadance. In 1997’s Star Wars: The Magic of Myth, author Mary Henderson states that Lucas inspired costume designer and military historian John Mollo to draw upon late 19th and early 20th century European Imperial uniforms as the impetus for his Empire’s standard officer issue. The old ulanka, or uniforms of the 19th century German mounted lancers (called Uhlans), also made famous by Baron Manfred “Red Baron” von Richthofen, informed the tunic, trousers, and boots of Imperial officers; the cap borrowed from that of Alpine trooper divisions. (184-185)
The Imperial presence on Lothal, as depicted in Fighter Flight, channels yet another early dictatorship — that of Stalin’s Soviet Union. While on a supply run in the town of Kothar, essentially a border town from the Old West, Ezra runs in to a colleague of his parents — farmer Morad Sumar. Soon thereafter, an Imperial officer with a stormtrooper cadre approaches his stand, giving him one last opportunity to sell his farm before the Empire procures the property without his assistance. Farmers like Sumar are depicted as frontier homesteaders, not unlike the adventurers headed out to the Great Plains of mid to late 19th century America, forging fresh opportunities while seizing upon the 160 acres of “free land” afforded U.S. citizens via the Homestead Act. Joining that charge were European immigrants who were invited to heed that “Ho! For Kansas!” call, though the vast majority of the millions venturing here couldn’t afford to leave the metropolis ports 3rd class steerage could book. Under the banner of Manifest Destiny, a concept not all that dissimilar to the Empire’s fundamental goals in Star Wars, the homesteaders — families that could turn acres of “wild,” fallow land into a thriving plot of wheat, where animals could also be nursed and slaughtered for food — became icons of the pioneer, rugged individualistic ethos that defined what it was to be “American.” One can also similarly imagine Morad and his wife emigrating to the grasslands of our principal locale, hoping to begin a new life, in an age of increasing war and instability; though the ocean of stars would not be vast enough to separate them from the great galactic struggle that would enshrine their society.
A direct contrast to that sense of individual ownership and sacrifice, as symbolized by Sumar and his homestead along the Lothalian plains, is the command economy of state-sponsored communism. Not as adept as the military and economic powerhouses of Europe at the start of WWI, Russia suffered tremendous casualties against the Germans, who greatly out-produced Czar Nicholas II’s weak domestic industrial base. Upon the success of the Bolshevik revolution, which afforded Russia its famous communist empire, and with the succession of Joseph Stalin to the head of the regime, the burgeoning Soviet government sought to correct past weaknesses. Enter Stalin’s Five Year Plans, which sought to ensure the creation of an economic powerhouse via complete government control of heavy industry, transportation, and farm output — with varying success. While the large Soviet manufacturing infrastructure grew considerably in a ten year period, the general standard of living continued at low levels. Wages were low, consumer goods and conveniences were scarce, and workers were forbidden to strike. Concerning agrarian pursuits, Stalin forced all peasants to farm on state-owned collectives (communal farms), where the government would provide all equipment, seed, and implement modern farming techniques. It was his wish to significantly increase production of grain to feed the workers in the urban manufacturing centers, and to export excess grain for additional profits. But his heavy handed approach to farming fostered resistance, as many peasants simply grew enough to feed themselves, sabotaged farm equipment and tools, killed state-owned animals, and burned crops. In his fury, Stalin blamed the resistance on what he believed to be influential wealthy farmers known as kulaks, whom he banished to labor camps upon confiscating their lands and assets.
Prior to the release of Rebels, Dave Filoni and Simon Kinberg were both quoted as suggesting the time period for the storyline of the show would place the audience at a period five years prior to A New Hope. In a recently-released trailer for upcoming episodes of Rebels, Sabine can clearly be heard stating that the Empire has, “five year plans” for all Outer Rim worlds. As an aerial shot establishes Morad Sumar’s property, which appears rather large and elaborate in comparison to the Lars homestead on Tatooine, one could assume the role of he and his wife as the kulaks of this far away galaxy, while Tarkin — the Imperial enforcer for the Outer Rim — has his agents move against them in the pursuit of additional land and resources for the augmentation of Imperial assets. Perhaps we have found the deeper reason for why the producers decided to begin this show where it does on the grand Star Wars timeline.
- The TIES that bind. Earlier in the year, prior to the debut of the show, Producer Dave Filoni showed clips of Zeb flying the TIE fighter from this episode, and suggested that the central premise for the story came from his desire to play with the TIE fighter toy, and have hero action figures piloting the craft through his fantasy melees. Maybe it’s just a Pittsburgh thing, which is my home town as well, but ultimately I did the same thing growing up playing with my set of toys. Many of my friends had various vehicles, ranging from the Millenium Falcon to X-wings, to even AT-ATs. While I had a considerable number of figures, I most certainly didn’t have many of the vehicles and ships other kids had — EXCEPT ONE, which was Darth Vader’s TIE fighter. I can distinctly recall a moment in which I recounted the events of Empire Strikes Back while visiting with my mother, and I strategically positioned myself next to her book case, which served as the ersatz Cloud City lower levels, with one book sticking out horizontally from the shelf, serving as a ledge for Vader and Luke to do battle. The twist in my plot, however, was to have Luke lose his hand, dangle for dear life from that book, scream over the realization that his own flesh and blood had maimed him for life, and tumble down the pit of Russian literature of his own volition…and end up NOT suspended over the gaseous planet core, but comfortably seated within Vader’s own craft for the getaway. And this was a common twist in my adventures (largely because that’s the only vehicle I had). But that toy, as well as the sounds of the engines, really made me intrigued with the fighter. It was a wonderful experience to explore this craft amidst the fun Zeb and Ezra were having.
- Cue the music. It was stated on a number of occasions that Kiner’s latest music would be informed quite a bit by the original scores of John Williams — the lack of which was often a criticism from some fans (not myself!) of previous scores from The Clone Wars. The music in this episode drew from intimate moments throughout the entire six film Lucas treatment. Within Empire, Williams developed a distinctive Droids theme, which can be heard when R2 and 3P0 are first introduced, but also follows their adventures up through the escape from Bespin. Fighter Flight sees Kiner use a high-key flute iteration of this theme while Ezra and Zeb spot the coveted meilooruns being procured by the Empire — a take on this elusive motif I thought was wonderfully composed. And in an interesting take, in the wake of fears from some fans who felt that Disney would ignore the Prequel era in light of those who found them abhorrent, the music that accompanies Ezra and Zeb’s interception of the troop transport carrying the imprisoned farmers is inspired by the Williams queue that accompanies Anakin Skywalker’s trip into the Tusken camp, where he finds his captured mother. So much for having nothing to do with the Prequels…
- Blocking the shot. In a recent press conference, after the Los Angeles premiere of Spark of Rebellion, Dave Filoni discussed how vastly divergent his youthful tastes ranged, compared to his contemporaries, as his favorite character in Star Wars was the AT-AT driver. As a direct homage to his love of those moments in Empire, as the camera followed the action of the Imperial Troop Transport, the scene is framed identically with those scenes from Hoth. Within the cockpit, depicted in reverse-angle Go-Pro fashion, one sees two drivers positioned at the edge of the frame, with the officer positioned in the center, as General Veers had in our 1980 theatre houses.