I have a theory when it comes to the Star Wars prequels: I think that they are, fundamentally, stories and theatrical experiences with the same depth, scope, grandeur, and quality of the original trilogy. This fundamental strength, however, is masked by the peculiar foibles that have, unfortunately, become emblematic of George Lucas’ recent work: The fart jokes. The anachronistic comedy. The self-indulgent special effects sequences.
But I would further hold that these foibles are, in fact, only cosmetic in nature. In fact, I think an analogy can be drawn to the Special Editions of the original trilogy. Here, too, we see the same foibles: The sinister rendered comical. Droids performing Three Stooges routines. Scenes reinstated which should have (and did) hit the cutting room floor because they lessened the films.
But if you take away all the foibles and sweep them away, you still have the fundamentally great movies we all remember and love.
I think the same thing is true of the prequels. The only difference is that we were never given the chance to see the great version of these films. Instead, all we’ve ever seen are the “special edition” edits — complete with all the foibles and flaws that turn greatness into heartbreaking mediocrity.
This is why, I think, there is a particular fascination with the “phantom edits” of these films (particularly The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones). I don’t think any of these “phantom edits” have, in fact, managed to be entirely successful — either due to lack of talent; insufficient technical facility; or the excesses of fanboy agendas — but that’s a subject for another time.
Instead, I want to talk about one of the things that I think Lucas does particularly well in the original trilogy: The scheming of Palpatine.
A common misunderstanding is that “everything goes just like Palpatine wants it to”. The reality is actually a lot subtler and more powerful than that.
THE ORIGINAL PLAN
Let’s begin at the beginning. Before The Phantom Menace opens, what is Palpatine’s plan? Well, to some degree, we need to interpolate (since Palpatine never deigns to monologue like a Bond villain). But the best answer would seem to be this:
As Senator Palpatine, arrange for the Senate to pass exorbitant tax laws targeting the trade guilds. Then, as Darth Sidious, use the outrage over these new tax laws to forge an alliance with the Trade Federation. Use the Trade Federation to trigger a crisis by having them invade his own home planet of Naboo. Use this crisis to trigger a vote of no confidence in Chancellor Velorum and then use his own political connections plus the sizable sympathy vote to be elected the new Supreme Chancellor.
Once that’s been achieved, he would force Queen Amidala to sign a treaty with the Trade Federation, creating a home base for the Separatist movement. He could then gradually increase the scale and scope of the crisis until the Senate was forced to vote him emergency powers. Once he had those, he could tighten his grip on the universe.
THE PHANTOM MENACE
In The Phantom Menace we see these plans get disrupted — at least to some extent. With the help of Qui-Gonn and Obi-Wan, Queen Amidala escapes. Palpatine tries to cope with this situation by sending Darth Maul to recapture Amidala.
In fact, recapturing Amidala is absolutely crucial for the success of Palpatine’s original plan. But Amidala escapes again, finally reaching Coruscant. This forces Palpatine to adjust his scheme: He uses Amidala’s presence on Coruscant to trigger the no confidence vote.
But no sooner is that done than Amidala throws a new wrench into his plans by announcing her intention to return to Naboo. Palpatine tries to have Amidala killed (“Wipe them out, all of them.) — probably in the hopes of creating a martyr — but she thwarts him again, this time by winning the war and defeating the Trade Federation’s droid army.
Ironically, however, this helps Palpatine, too: He was elected Chancellor on a promise to clear up this Trade Federation problem and, within a matter of weeks, the problem has apparently been cleared up. Palpatine can undoubtedly use this huge success to solidify his political support and his position as Chancellor.
The brilliance of The Phantom Menace, masked by Lucas’ foibles, is a story in which the heroes win every single battle… and end up losing the war. And they don’t even know it.
ATTACK OF THE CLONES
To be fair, the heroes in The Phantom Menace probably delayed Palpatine’s plans — forcing him to re-trench and re-establish his plans for a Separatist movement.
But over the next ten years, Palpatine secretly uses his political connections to prevent any lasting repercussions from reaching the Trade Federation; somehow arranges for the creation of a Clone Army; and gets his plans for the Separatist movement back on track. In Attack of the Clones we see the Separatist movement create a crisis great enough for the Senate to vote Palpatine emergency powers (essentially giving him complete control of the government). Palpatine can then activate his clone army and create a conflagration across the galaxy.
The brilliance of Attack of the Clones, masked to a somewhat lesser extent by Lucas’ foibles, is a villain playing both sides of the game while making the heroes do all the work for him. For Palpatine it doesn’t actually matter which side wins the Clone Wars: He controls them both.
Attack of the Clones also features the type of rapid readjustment we saw Palpatine perform in The Phantom Menace. At the very beginning of the movie, there is an attempted assassination attempt on Senator Amidala. One reason for this assassination is explicitly given in the film: The Trade Federation wants her assassinated before they’ll agree to sign on with Count Dooku.
But there’s also a deeper level at work here: Amidala is the leader of the Loyalists, who are opposed to the Military Creation Act. Palpatine is publicly her ally in this, but privately he knows the time is fast-approaching when he’s going to be making a political about-face on this one (all the while talking about the “sad necessity” of his actions). Amidala, however, is an idealist and might prove troublesome. As a martyr, however, she’s not only out of the way — her death could be used as his reason for performing the about-face.
When the assassination attempt fails, however, Palpatine manipulates events again to achieve his desired results: He gets her to return home to Naboo. Meanwhile, on Coruscant, he manipulates the junior senator from Naboo (Jar-Jar) into proposing the very measure Amidala would have probably fought with her last breath.
On top of all that, I suspect an even deeper level of machination: Palpatine knows of Anakin’s feelings for Amidala. And not only does he manipulate the situation to get Amidala off Coruscant, he manipulates it so that she’s sent off of Coruscant with Anakin. Palpatine must suspect that this will create a love that he can then use as a lever to help turn Anakin to the dark side.
REVENGE OF THE SITH
Finally, in Revenge of the Sith, we see the end-game which allows Palpatine to simultaneously become Emperor and destroy the Jedi.
The war he has created and orchestrated from both sides has served not only to create a military state that he rigidly controls, it has also thinned the ranks of the Jedi. Both of these are necessary for the successful execution of Order 66, which paves the way for the dissolution of the Jedi Council and the extermination of the Jedi.
Once those goals have been accomplished, Palpatine quickly brings the civil war to an end. (Easily accomplished, since he controls both sides.) Like an antique Roman, Palpatine refuses to relinquish his emergency powers and becomes Emperor.
THE ORIGINAL TRILOGY
Between the end of Revenge of the Sith and the beginning of A New Hope, Palpatine has continued to “tighten his grip” (as Princess Leia puts it). In terms of the Jedi, this means Darth Vader’s hunting down and destroying the last of that “ancient order”. In the case of the Empire, it means steadily strengthening the regional governors and weakening the Senate.
As A New Hope begins, Palpatine is actually laying down the finishing touches of his Imperial dreams: The Senate has been dissolved and he will rule directly through the governors. All of this is possible, however, only because the Death Star gives him an absolute threat of tyrannical force with which to enforce his will.
When the Death Star is destroyed, Palpatine is dealt a serious blow. What we see in The Empire Strikes Back is the Empire trying to maintain its absolute power using the Imperial Navy. But Palpatine knew that would never be sufficient (that’s why he built the Death Star in the first place) — and, just as Princess Leia predicted, more and more systems are slipping through his fingers. The Rebel Alliance is growing in strength, although it’s still on the run.
In Return of the Jedi we see it all fall apart: The new Death Star is Palpatine’s attempt to restore the control he tried to grasp in A New Hope. And, of course, it fails rather dramatically.
POLITICS AND THE FORCE
This little essay has dealt primarily with Palpatine’s political machinations. But one of the things that makes Star Wars particularly powerful is that there are actually three meta-stories being woven throughout the saga:
First, there are Palpatine’s political machinations — the story of the rise and fall of the Empire.
Second, there is Palpatine’s war against the Jedi — the story of the rise and fall of the Sith (and, conversely, the fall and rebirth of the Jedi).
Third, there is the saga of the Skywalkers — the corruption of Anakin and the pure hero quest of Luke. (Particularly notable here is that a strong argument can be made that Palpatine actually fights a battle against prophecy and, for a limited time, wins. As Obi-Wan tearfully cries out in Revenge of the Sith, Anakin was the Chosen One… and Palpatine took that away from him.)
And although I’m not going to go into it here, there is as much depth and complexity in the second and third tales, in my opinion, as there is in the first.