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Senate Spy

October 19, 2009

In the fourth episode of this second season of The Clone Wars, we see yet another experiment in genre, this time integrating the thriller into the Star Wars universe. Senate Spy, apparently based on the Alfred Hitchcock classic Notorious, mixes intrigue with stunning locales, all-the-while setting-up a new story arc that will continue for several episodes to come.

Padme Amidala has been requested by the Jedi Council to spy on Rush Clovis, a fellow senator and delegate of the InterGalactic Banking Clan, in order to uncover ties between the Banking Clan and the Separatists. But Amidala and Clovis were once “good friends”, leading Anakin Skywalker to worry that the flame of romance may be rekindled between his (secret) wife and this charming Scipian.

Padme Amidala and Rush Clovis share a dinner on Coruscant

Padme Amidala and Rush Clovis share a dinner on Coruscant

The fortune cookie this week refers to Anakin’s jealousy: “A true heart should never be doubted.” Jealousy and possessiveness, of course, are functions of unhealthy attachment — that which ultimately turns Anakin to the Dark Side — but here we get to see a gentler, and sometimes more humorous take on the same theme, as Anakin tosses Clovis around in the back of a Naboo star skiff with some deliberately rough piloting. And, once again, the idea that “duty” should supersede personal considerations is raised, but also in a more light-hearted manner.

In terms of political machinations, however, this has to be one of the most densely-packed episodes to date, nicely fleshing-out the relationships between corporate entities, the Separatists and the Republic, while also adding a few new twists in the process.

The important point to remember is that the InterGalactic Banking Clan never openly aligned themselves with the Separatists in Attack of the Clones. They may have agreed to help equip and arm the Separatist forces, but this agreement was made behind closed doors. As Senate Spy reveals, ostensibly the Banking Clan merely manages debts between lending institutions and debtors such as the Trade Federation, as well as other related transactions (presumably on a suitably large scale). Business is business, after all.

Similarly, the Trade Federation may be conspiring with Count Dooku, but just as in the case of the Battle of Naboo, we have a situation where an organising body can remain untainted despite the actions of its viceroy. Captain Panaka may have had tough words to say at the end of The Phantom Menace (i.e. “I think you can kiss your trade franchise goodbye”), but nothing eventuated. Why should things be different this time?

Lott Dod, delegate for the Trade Federation

Lott Dod, delegate for the Trade Federation

Here we have a political climate which allows for corporate interests to not just lobby senators, but to actually have representatives in the Galactic Senate itself. How could there ever be justice or fairness in such a world?

One on level, George Lucas is commenting on the enormous power wielded by corporate interests in our own world. The tobacco lobby, for example, represents the interests of companies who continue to sell a product featuring known chemical carcinogens, yet the lobby itself still exists and still has great political power. Giving them a seat in the Senate would really just be the logical extension of these politics of corruption.

On a deeper level, the question here really is, can your ethics be bought and sold? If you’re a hero on his journey, you need to turn away from that call to the Dark Side: like Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back, you resist the temptation, pull back and even take a leap into the unknown rather than sell your soul.

But others instead choose not to rise to the challenge: they serve their own egos first and foremost, and so, of course, they turn a blind eye to corruption, thereby becoming corrupt themselves. This is indeed “the quick and easy path”, and it’s not just a danger in that galaxy far, far away.

Will you be a hero? Will you accept the call to adventure and turn away from the Dark Side of the Force? Heroes and heroines are made, not born — they are every man or woman who ignores temptation and continues on their journey, no matter the personal cost. We can all be heroes, if we make that same choice.

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The Light and the Darkness

October 14, 2009

“What’s in there?” Luke asks before entering the cave.

Yoda, sitting on a tree root, looks down and and plays with his cane as he offers his wisdom: “Only what you take with you.”

Inside the cave, Luke has a troubling vision — one that foreshadows the terrible truth he is about to discover…

A vision; an omen; a foreshadowing of things to come...

A vision; an omen; a foreshadowing of things to come...

The surprise twist at the end of The Empire Strikes Back is infamous for its sheer audacity. Here we have Luke Skywalker, the young man who destroyed the Death Star and helped bring the galaxy that much closer to freedom, and Darth Vader, a heartless cyborg who has fully embraced the Dark Side of the Force, and yet… they’re father and son?

“That’s not true! That’s impossible!”

But indeed it is true. And it’s so shocking because it cuts to the heart of that which we would rather ignore: the darkness — the Dark Side of the Force — is not some external foe that can be battled with blasters and lightsabers; it is an internal potentiality that we all carry with us.

The Ego is the conscious light in the darkness of the psyche’s depths: it is who we are, from a very limited, temporal perspective. The Shadow, on the other hand, is those aspects of ourself that cannot be seen by the Ego: our personal blind spot.

But the Shadow is more than just quirks and foibles. To quote Carl Jung, it has a “demonic dynamism” — the evil that lurks in the hearts of ordinary men. It’s exactly because these aspects hide in the darkness that they are twisted and distorted, appearing as caricatures and grotesqueries; had they been brought into the light, they would breathe and grow as trees in the open air.

In an earlier post I made the point that the characters in Star Wars are not meant to be interpreted as individuals but rather as aspects of the human psyche. Again, I must emphasise this point, especially in regards to the Ego and Shadow: Luke and Anakin Skywalker both represent the Ego; Darth Vader represents the Shadow.

More specifically, both Anakin and Luke symbolise the dominant psychological function; using John Beebe’s framework, Vader symbolises the Opposing Personality: “a figure that opposes, critizes and seduces the ego”. The entire climactic duel of The Empire Strikes Back places Vader very plainly in this role.

Darth Vader as Beebe's "Opposing Personality"

Darth Vader as Beebe's "Opposing Personality"

And so now we’re ready to look at the real message behind the line that stunned Star Wars fans the world over:

“No. I am your father.”

The shock is not so much that Vader is Luke’s father; the shock is that, just as the good man who was Luke’s father turned to evil, so too could Luke — as could any of us.

The vision in the cave, of Vader’s mask cracked open with Luke’s face staring out from underneath, has dual (yet synonymous) meanings: on the one hand, it foreshadows the twist, that Vader is Luke’s father; on the other hand, it equates Luke with Vader. They are both sides of the same coin.

And so this is a problem we all must face up to eventually. Will we refuse to accept that we aren’t so different from our enemies after all, or will we integrate our Shadow, pulling it up into consciousness and realising the Self? This is no easy task.

Good and Evil, Ego and Shadow: the light and the darkness. Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader: an archetypal duality.

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Technological Terror

October 12, 2009

“The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force,” intones the menacing Darth Vader as he stands in the Death Star conference room. And so it is — even a Dark Lord of the Sith can recognise this fact.

The Force is “an energy field created by all living things” — it is the vitality of life itself: that ground of being that is accessed through mythological motifs, prayer and meditation. The Death Star, on the other hand, is the antithesis of the experience of living, snuffing-out any bright flame of hope in the galaxy.

Admiral Motti and Darth Vader debate the effectiveness of the Death Star

Admiral Motti and Darth Vader debate the effectiveness of the Death Star

This is the line drawn between the feminine and masculine principles. The feminine is passive, introspective and compassionate, exemplified by none other than Qui-Gon Jinn in The Phantom Menace. The masculine, meanwhile, is active and aggressive, operating from the head instead of the heart.

Woman represents life: she is that from which all life enters the world. She is creative and organic, symbolised by Mother Nature herself; she is the Force.

Man wields the symbols of death: the spear, the sword, the gun. He is the warrior: the ultimate destructive force. What he creates is artificial, towering over nature as a monument to the ability to harness and dominate.

In our Western culture, it is no coincidence that we worship at the altar of a masculine God. Unlike nature-based Goddess religions, our spiritual heritage is one where nature is a corrupting influence, where man is separate from nature and both are separate from a jealous God. Indeed, man has dominion over the natural world itself.

And what is the price for this warped view of our place in the world? Global warming, mutually assured destruction and a disposable consumer culture where two all-beef patties serve as the foundation for a nutritious meal.

The Death Star is that masculine principle writ large without any balancing feminine influence. Instead, the feminine is subjugated within it, held captive and tortured while men in monochromatic costumes debate the sheer effectiveness of this instrument of fear.

What is the first target to test the Death Star’s destructive capabilities? It is Princess Leia Organa’s homeworld of Alderaan. Firstly, Alderaan represents Leia, the feminine, the Anima; secondly, it is a modern yet natural, organic planet (as seen in Revenge of the Sith), symbolising the ability to embrace life on its own terms; and thirdly, it is a key component in the Rebellion’s plan-of-attack, thus acting as a proxy for the Force itself. All three are in conflict with the callous ideals that the Death Star embodies.

The Death Star approaches Alderaan

The Death Star approaches Alderaan

Initially, high-tech might wins out over the creative life-force, and Alderaan is destroyed. But, as Vader points out, the Force is stronger than even the greatest intellectual construct.

It is not technology, nor conscious skills, that win the day for the Rebels and help them to destroy the Death Star. It is the Force itself, with one young man letting go his “conscious self” and surrendering to the impulse of life, using the Force and taking a leap of faith.

Life — the Force — resists the urge to be bent, twisted, moulded to suit the purposes of the intellect. You may succeed briefly, but in the end, your “moment of triumph” is mere illusion.

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Children of the Force

October 12, 2009

The third episode of broadcast season 2 of The Clone Wars is the third episode of the second production season; it’s also the first episode to be seen that demonstrates the quantum leap in production values between the two seasons. The lighting is more atmospheric and the CG character models are far more expressive. In terms of just sheer look-and-feel, the closest comparison would be to the difference between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back.

In Children of the Force, Cad Bane continues his mission to kidnap Force-sensitive children on behalf of Darth Sidious, using the Jedi holocron as his guide. Anakin Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Mace Windu must set things right before Bane’s client can achieve his goal.

Cad Bane consults with Darth Sidious

Cad Bane consults with Darth Sidious

The fortune cookie for this week’s episode advises that “[t]he first step to correcting a mistake is patience.” Again, this refers back to the previous episode, Cargo of Doom, where Ahsoka advised Anakin to be patient in his pursuit of Bane.

But the two most interesting moments in Children of the Force are casual asides that are almost glossed-over. The Star Wars films (and each of the prequel films in particular) have always possessed a rather subversive quality, where the main thematic point is often hidden due to deliberate misdirection on George Lucas’ part. Recall the Battle of Geonosis, where the Republic battles the Separatists in an epic struggle of Good versus Evil, and yet the cinematic language says otherwise.

The first moment to look out for is when Anakin and Ahsoka land on Naboo. Ahsoka asks to “take the lead” because she has “a score to settle”. Anakin, not the wisest of the Jedi, agrees to Ahsoka’s request without hesitation. This is a direct contradiction of the fortune cookie: patience, a foregoing of Ego-driven impulses, is quite opposed to personal vendettas and an all-too-eager pursuit of one’s enemies. The Force was not guiding Anakin and Ahsoka that day.

Anakin Skywalkerand Ahsoka Tano arrive on Naboo in pursuit of Bane

Anakin Skywalkerand Ahsoka Tano arrive on Naboo in pursuit of Bane

The second moment occurs after the interrogation of Bane. Chancellor Palpatine wants a full report on the Jedi’s progress on the matter; Obi-Wan objects, stating that this is purely an internal matter, but Anakin counters with the observation that as the Jedi are acting as a military force, they are now subject to full governmental oversight.

This is how the Jedi Order has become irreparably compromised. By becoming Generals in a (manufactured) war, the Jedi can no longer function as autonomous peacekeepers, instead acting on behalf of the Chancellor himself. Once they discover the truth — that they have been working in the service of a Sith Lord — they cannot confront him without it being an act of treason.

They have been boxed into a corner from which they cannot hope to escape. This will be their ultimate undoing, and in reality, the Chosen One has very little to do with it.

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Cargo of Doom

October 11, 2009

The second episode of the season 2 premiere of The Clone Wars sees Anakin Skywalker and his Padawan, Ahsoka Tano, pursue the cunning bounty hunter Cad Bane in an attempt to regain the stolen Jedi holocron. Meanwhile, Bane tortures General Bolla Ropal in the hopes of getting him to unlock the holocron, thereby meeting Bane’s objectives.

The most talked-about aspect of this episode must surely be the zero-G battle sequence. It truly is a thing of beauty, and director Rob Coleman should be commended for how adeptly he pulls it off. (This is not surprising; his episodes are always stunningly cinematic.) But from a writing standpoint, the real drawcard here is the thematic continuity between this episode and the previous one, Holocron Heist.

Anakin battles Bane in a zero-G environment

Anakin battles Bane in a zero-G environment

“Overconfidence is the most dangerous form of carelessness” declares the fortune cookie for Cargo of Doom — a core theme throughout the entire Star Wars saga. Overconfidence was the downfall of the Jedi Order, the Achilles heel of the Empire and the one thing Yoda warned Luke against when confronting the Emperor. In Holocron Heist, Ahsoka’s overconfidence manifested in her disobeying orders on the battlefield: there, it resulted in her being moved to guard duties; in Cargo of Doom, however, it almost costs her her life.

It’s one of those paradoxes of life that the more we learn, the more aware we become of just how much we don’t actually know. This is far too scary an idea for some people to face: they latch onto religious dogma, political ideologies… anything to provide the illusion of certainty. These are the people who refuse the call to adventure, instead holing themselves up inside their personal comfort zones.

Then there are those who embrace the call. They are willing to “let go” and let the Force guide them, so-to-speak.

In Cargo of Doom we have a moment of great irony, as Ahsoka follows in her Master’s footsteps as she impulsively pursues Bane just as Anakin did with Dooku in Attack of the Clones. “I’m not impressed,” she quips to Bane, believing she has bested him. Yet soon the tables are turned, and she becomes Bane’s captive.

Ahsoka, captured by Bane

Ahsoka, captured by Bane

Here, once again, we see the price paid by those not fully willing to surrender to the Force. The Ego, the seat of consciousness, is throwing its weight around while the Self, that which speaks to us when we quiet our mind, hardly gets a look-in. This is the real crux of the tension between knowledge and wisdom. Ahsoka has been well-trained — she has knowledge to spare — but her wisdom is solely lacking. She has yet to fully embrace the Force on its own terms.

By the end of the episode, however, Ahsoka herself is reminding Anakin to be patient — in other words, to listen to the Force, the Self — as he runs off in pursuit of Bane. He claims to be determined to retrieve the holocron, but is it a noble cause driving him, or is it really just a personal vendetta against Bane, now that he has hurt someone Anakin feels close to (i.e. Ahsoka)? Yoda observed as far back as the Clone Wars feature that having a Padawan would force Anakin to confront his issues with attachment. And attachment, of course, is all about the Ego.

If Ahsoka is slowly learning the truly Ego-less intent of the Jedi, Anakin’s still not listening to his higher Self. And it will cost him more than he could possibly imagine.

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Holocron Heist

October 11, 2009

In Holocron Heist, the debut episode of season 2 of Star Wars: The Clone Wars, things are really heating up. Season 1 introduced new characters and laid the groundwork for the story about to come; if season 1 was the first act, season 2 is the start of the second act — the meat of the story.

Bounty hunter Cad Bane (introduced in the season 1 finale, Hostage Crisis) has been tasked by Darth Sidious to steal a Jedi Holocron from the Temple for reasons as-yet unknown. Meanwhile, Ahsoka Tano has been put on guard duty after disobeying orders in a battle on Felucia, and coincidentally, she happens to be guarding the Holocrons in question. It therefore falls on the shoulders of Anakin Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Ahsoka herself to thwart this daring heist.

Ahsoka Tano battles Separatists on Felucia

Ahsoka Tano battles Separatists on Felucia

One of the pleasures of watching The Clone Wars is in seeing various genres pop-up that were rarely seen in the films themselves. Here we have a classic heist episode, complete with schematic analysis, elaborate disguises and a good, old-fashioned laser-based alarm system. George Lucas has always loved a good homage, and here is no exception — it’s very nicely done, in fact. It doesn’t feel at all out-of-place in the Star Wars universe, either.

The other interesting thing to note is the effect Anakin’s mixed signals are having on his Padawan. Throughout season 1, he advised Ahsoka to be guided by her own agenda yet still respect authority (or at least feign respect). She blatantly disobeys orders on the battlefield in the first act, pursuing the enemy at all cost — clearly an artefact of Anakin’s rather warped point-of-view.

Cad Bane and Clawdite changeling Cato Parasitti plan the heist

Cad Bane and Clawdite changeling Cato Parasitti plan the heist

In Jungian terms, this relates back to Anakin’s unbalanced Introverted attitude, where external demands (such as a duty to respect the chain of command) fade into the distance, with a kind of ego-driven impulsiveness taking precedence. One need only recall Anakin’s headstrong attempt to best Count Dooku at the climax of Attack of the Clones to see the root of Ahsoka’s disobedience. (Luckily, she hasn’t lost a limb… yet.)

“A lesson learned is a lesson earned” is the fortune cookie for this episode. If Ahsoka really has learnt her lesson, there may be hope for her yet. Sadly, Anakin still has over 20 years of suffering to endure before his lessons are learnt — for that, he needs to be reminded of the power of human compassion.

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A Wasteland of Dry Stones

October 8, 2009

With time comes change. We get older; our family and friends die; our skin loses its elasticity; our eyes become weak; our hair becomes grey.

Depressing, isn’t it?

Buddhism recognises this as a fact of life, and it is — it is “the first noble truth”. The second noble truth is that the reason all of this is depressing to us is because we wish things to be otherwise.

Now, in a moment of great joy, you might exclaim, “I want this moment to last forever!” But it never does.

Perhaps you’ve had great friendships that have eroded with the passage of time. Maybe the area where you grew up is now unrecognisable. Or is it just that you can’t physically do what you could 20 years ago?

In any case, it’s only by fighting this very fundamental aspect of life that you find the experience depressing, frustrating, maddening. Embracing life means, necessarily, embracing change — embracing death: the death of people, the end of relationships, the falling away of things we hold near and dear at this moment. But it also means simply enjoying the promise of new possibilities on the horizon.

This is an active choice that we must all make in our own lives: enjoy the moment, but free yourself of attachment to that which can never last.

On Mustafar, Anakin fully refuses the call to adventure.

On Mustafar, Anakin fully refuses the call to adventure.

In Campbell’s monomyth framework, this choice appears as the first stage of the hero’s journey: “the call to adventure”. The hero or heroine who embraces life accepts the call to adventure, for better or worse. He or she is lifted out of the ordinary world and placed beyond the boundaries of rationality, ready to be transformed and renewed. A refusal of the call, however, is a clear rejection of the essence of life itself and its endless cycles; to quote Campbell himself, the end result of this refusal is that the hero’s own “flowering world becomes a wasteland of dry stones”. The lifeblood has been drained from the earth, leaving only barren plains.

Enter Anakin Skywalker.

Despite his mother emphasising to him upon his initial departure, “Don’t look back,” Anakin indeed does look back. Superficially, he accepts the call to adventure, but his heart is never truly in it. Throughout Attack of the Clones in particular, he acts as Anakin first and as a Jedi second. This is what the refusal of the call actually looks like in everyday life, be it a married man who continues to act as if he were single, or a political leader who places personal loyalties above the duties of the office: the choice made is to hold onto the old ways of being. Like Peter Pan, they refuse to “grow up” — to grown into their new roles and accept the call to adventure.

This is Anakin’s weakness, and he pays dearly for his mistake. He is possessive, jealous and greedy, craving control over life, love and nature itself. He doesn’t accept life on its own terms, instead insisting that it bends to his will. The cost for this attitude is nothing less than his humanity — his soul.

Anakin transformed into Darth Vader: more machine than man

Anakin transformed into Darth Vader: Dark Lord of the Sith

Of course we should try to help others and continue to make the world a better place, but the choice is not between passive acceptance and active betterment; the choice is between living in accord with nature and merely treating life itself as a commodity.

Once we stop respecting life, we lose that which makes us human. That is they way of the Sith. That is the Dark Side of the Force.