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Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Medium is the Missage

Across various platforms the other day, I wrote or had conversations about  Star Wars. Hardly a thing unique to me: with the reveal of the new and final Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens trailer, most everyone was either talking or typing about Star Wars, or else enduring those of us who couldn't shut up about it.

'Cept I wasn't breaking down the trailer, scene by scene, and offering theories on what each shot meant. I wasn't spinning complicated theories over why Luke Skywalker was missing from both the official theatrical poster or the trailer. I wasn't focused on Han Solo's apparent Dana-Scully moment of acceptance that the Force is real. Because I'm a rebel, and a failed geek.

For whatever reason, and after a lifetime of watching the movies, I zeroed in on the apparent lack of mass media in the Star Wars galaxy.

First things first: I am a fair-weather fan of Star Wars. The original trilogy is great, and I've watched those movies many times. I saw the prequel trilogy in theatres one time each, and slept through most of the third movie, which was known as Star Wars: ROTS for a reason. I never ventured into the expanded universe--the tie-in books and games and cartoons, though I'm not opposed to their existence.

Secondly: It turns out the expanded universe is a non-starter now. When Disney acquired the franchise, they cut the fat, and the fat was the vast expansion of the core of the galaxy far, far away. No matter what happened in that expanded universe, it is all neither here nor there. So far, what has happened in the original six movies is all that matters in that galaxy.

To those who've tried to say my thought experiment is flawed because I did not toe the waters of the murky expansion, I say there is nothing there to consider. The films are my focus.

And the films, as George Lucas has said, are meant to be echoes of one another. "You see the echo of where they're gonna go," he said in a behind-the-scenes short. "They're like poetry. They rhyme."

True, not all poetry rhymes, and I'd argue that he lost the meter in the prequels, but okay, George. Your creation, your rules. If you can insist with a straight face that there is no underwear in space, then you can say the films you spent most of your life making are rhyming poems. What mortal hand or eye dare question this symmetry?

In 1964, Marshall McLuhan released Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, which was surprisingly not a book presaging all the dick-lengthening emails future generations would receive in their email inbox. No, Understanding Media was sort of McLuhan's way of opening Schrodinger's box and explaining, at length, what had just happened. The medium, McLuhan famously stated, was the message. To me, his book is about what happens when the cat--the object of import in Schrodinger's thought experiment--comes to realize the real story is not about the cyanide pill but about the person contemplating the ramifications of peeking into the box.

Anyway, my point here--obscured a bit by a weak analogy--is that A New Hope came out in 1977, the same year McLuhan had gained such notoriety for his thoughts on mass media that he practically invented the double-meta joke by appearing in a fantasy sequence in Annie Hall. In fact, by 1977, people were so obsessed with the concept of media and how media affects us, several films and novels and television shows and New Yorker think-pieces had been released on the subject. Network comes to mind. All the President's Men--the book, then the film--as well.

The idea of media, and its uses, is an interesting subject for me. Which is why, while everyone else was speculating on Luke's absence and why there's a new Death Star in the poster, I was wondering why there is so little memory-retention in all the Star Wars movies.

To contrast, think of Star Trek. Not wanting to get in a geek war over which of the Stars is better: Trek or Wars. I like both. I'm a fan of both. I know random things about both. But from a mere media standpoint, Star Trek is a stronger example of McLuhan's theories if only because for Star Trek there is a reliance on media not present in Star Wars. There is a continuum. People recall previous, defunct cultures and languages, and consult texts, and occasionally come across the future equivalent of news alerts.

True: Star Trek is meant to be our future.

Star Wars is meant to be a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.

However, the characters of both Star Wars and Star Trek act in very human-like ways. The characters on the trek are just as relatable to us as the alien forms in the wars. (Spoiler: both the future treks and the past, distant wars were dreamed up by humans.) It's understandable that Star Trek would reference Shakespeare and Milton and The Beastie Boys' "Sabotage," a song that happens to mention Spock and therefore causes all sorts of implications. (Schrodinger's Cat would suggest you keep the box closed on that discussion.) And to be fair to Star Wars, we do get one lousy opera and a dance number to give us an idea there is some culture in the galaxy.

It has been pointed out to me that the Empire of Star Wars was a totalitarian regime. North Korea, China, and Soviet Russia were cited as examples of such a regime. Fine, except all of those totalitarian states had state-run media. The Empire, so far as I can tell, lacked even a Baghdad Bob to spread the Good Word of the Empire's deeds. Even Nazi Germany had a media center, and they were killing people with even more gusto than the Empire, so surely the word was spreading without Goebbels. Yet even the Nazis needed a propaganda minister.

FOX News would've loved the obliteration of Alderaan, and given pelnty of coverage. Alas.

(I must pause here to say the one piece of expanded-universe works difficult to strip out of the new Disney property is the Star Wars Holiday Special. Not only did that special introduce Boba Fett, but so far as I can tell, it's one of the only Star Wars properties to include the concept of a mass media for the Empire. There are cooking shows, news bulletins, and even emergency broadcasts from the Empire. Also, Lumpy, Chewbacca's son, consults actual printed material in order to create a droid. Imagine! Someone in Star Wars actually reads instructions before just randomly doing something (blue prints don't count)).

The medium is the message. McLuhan was right, of course. Star Wars is a medium, and it is more truly the message to us than Star Trek could ever be. In one, people recall the recent past, consult texts from time to time, and are aware of the basic concept of news reports.

In the other, everyone seems to have a memory wipe every 20-30 years, no one cites anything more weighty than their own faulty memory, and at no point is anyone seen reading a damn book or watching a documentary or news story.

To me, it is interesting. And I don't--really, I don't--mean to compare Star Wars to Star Trek. It's just a handy comparison, as both the Stars are popular enough to get across the shorthand to my (random) thoughts. Plenty of science fiction and fantasy works integrate media. Star Wars, however, is so stripped of mass media that I find it remarkable.

Going back to North Korea, for instance: if North Korea, a tiny country on a tiny planet in a tiny star system, existed in one of the star systems of Star Wars, and if it still had its state-run media intact, people all across that far-away galaxy would know about each "successful" nuclear missile test NK attempted, and would be convinced the "success" was an actual success, and be terrified of tiny NK. In Star Wars, the Empire tested its Death Star by blowing up an entire planet... and the only person with a clue it happened, aside from those on the planet or the Death Star, was Obi Wan.

What's the use? It reminds me of the end of Dr. Strangelove, when Strangelove demands to know the point of a Doomsday Device if no one knows you have it. The Empire should've video'd that shit and posted it to their propaganda broadcast agency. Otherwise, they risk losing their grip on power and being brought down by a bunch of teddy bears.

And here we are. Thirty years have passed. Han, of all people, is forced to remind the young'uns what happened just a generation back. In Star Wars, there are flying cars, cities that look like Blade Runner, inter-planetary commerce, hyperspace travel... and still, just an oral tradition of passing stories down--and you quite literally need to find the right person to pass down the right story to the right rebel in order to get the story started all over again.

Perhaps the reason there's an echo is because there are so many hollow skulls in Star Wars.

The medium is the message. In this case, the medium is a story about people with such short-term memories they can't quite get why they live in a dystopia full of wonderful inventions, and yet have no libraries, internet, or decent opera.

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