Does Star Wars really need the Jedi?

Imagine if in the middle of the Second World War, Allied forces had successfully captured Adolf Hitler, wiped his memory, brainwashed him into becoming an elite soldier for their cause, and used his knowledge to defeat the Nazis, thus making him a hero and absolving him of all his horrific crimes.

Does that sound mind-bendingly insane, astronomically stupid, and morally reprehensible to you? Well, I’ve just described the plot to Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, arguably the most beloved video game in the Star Wars universe, and one of the best works of media to ever come out of the franchise.

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I don’t suppose there’s much risk in spoiling a 13-year-old game but (SPOILER ALERT) your main character’s identity as the amnesiac Sith lord Revan is one of the best-known plot twists in video game history. Finding out that you, the protagonist, are actually the one who started the bloody galactic conquest you’ve been spending the entire game fighting is a pretty huge player punch that casts a lot of your previous choices in a new light, especially if you’ve been playing as a faithful follower of the light side of the Force. It opens up a lot of questions about free will, nature versus nurture, and how they relate to a person’s innate capacity for good or evil.

Unfortunately, and I say this with great love for the game, the potential for a thorough exploration of these questions is limited by its fairly Manichaeistic morality system. Despite the presence of well-written, three-dimensional characters, you’re still presented with clearly-defined “good” and “evil” choices whose context, with some notable exceptions, avoids any kind of complication. In case things get too ambiguous for you, the game helps clear things up by “rewarding” repeated “dark side” choices with increasingly pale skin and red eyes. The further down the dark path you go, the uglier you look. The underlying problem is the same one that permeates most Star Wars movies and games: an uncritical embrace of core Jedi principles.

In a 1999 article for Salon.com, sci-fi author David Brin strongly criticized these ideas using World War II analogies similar to the one I made earlier. Unlike Brin, I happen to love Star Wars, but his article makes several valid points, chief among them being the Jedi’s vision of atonement: Apparently, all it takes is sincere personal remorse and one strong, irreversible act of good to get you in the clear. Darth Vader sacrifices his life to save his son from the Emperor and all his sins are absolved. In Knights of the Old Republic, Revan can ultimately choose not to join the dark side and reclaim his/her mantle of Dark Lord of the Sith and go on to save the galaxy without facing any real repercussions for past crimes. Sure, one of the characters will briefly chew you out for being indirectly responsible for the death of his wife, but he’ll forgive you for it if you express remorse—and if you play as a woman, you can even romance him! No matter how many awful things you may have done in your playthrough (fraud, racketeering, extortion, murder, even genocide), not betraying the Republic will inevitably result in a New Hope-style ending with a big ceremony in your honor.

But perhaps the most contentious aspect of this philosophy is the idea that evil is caused by inherently negative emotions like fear or anger and that the best solution, as explicitly articulated by Obi-Wan’s ghost in Return of the Jedi, is to “bury your feelings deep down”. In theory, this sounds plausible. After all, fear and anger are pretty unpleasant feelings, and as recent events have shown, people often make very bad decisions based on them.

In practice, however, this view of human nature is both simplistic and unhealthy. Emotions are complex, multi-faceted things whose morality largely depends on psychological and environmental circumstance. Fear is a natural response to the potential dangers of life, something that’s designed to keep you alive and aware; it only gets bad if you let it direct your every thought and action without taking the time to consider your options. Decisions driven by anger can be destructive and harmful to both yourself and others, but the emotion itself is not intrinsically negative. If carefully controlled and directed towards the right target, anger can be a powerful force for positive personal, social, and political transformation (see: the civil rights movement, the LGBT rights movement, and virtually every successful pro-democracy movement in history). Even Jesus Himself, the very paragon of love, empathy, and forgiveness, was not above the odd bout of righteous anger. As one particularly complex dark side-aligned character from Knights of the Old Republic put it, “sometimes, anger and hate are deserved and right. Sometimes, things change because of it.”

We’ve seen the Jedi make mistakes and their ideas challenged before in Star Wars media, particularly in Knights’s masterful sequel The Sith Lords. Even the prequels, clumsy as they were, more or less implied that the Jedi’s forcible suppression of familial and romantic bonds was at least partially responsible for Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side. In fact, reading the Jedi Order’s history on Wookieepedia paints the picture of a deeply flawed, stubbornly conservative institution whose reaction to dissident ideas and potentially dangerous knowledge is to systematically censor them instead of directly engaging with them. As history keeps showing us, this kind of approach invariably makes things worse. Seeing as the Order seems to continually create its own worst enemies, one has to seriously wonder if its existence causes more harm than it prevents.

With all that in mind, the prospect of watching Rogue One—apparently the very first Star Wars film without any Jedi or Force-sensitives among its main characters—becomes all the more exciting. How will the protagonists solve their problems without the help of Force powers? More importantly, how could the absence of any Jedi in a Star Wars film affect the series’ good-versus-evil narrative? If the writers find new ways to introduce, define and solve conflicts within a Star Wars story, then we may face the previously-unthinkable prospect of Star Wars movies whose moral foundation operates beyond predefined conceptions of a “light” or “dark” side of the Force. Who knows? The Force Awakens sequels may end up mapping out a future where both Jedi and Sith would be obsolete.

Crazy? Maybe. But no matter what direction the franchise takes, writers must find a way to expand upon its underlying philosophies in order to avoid telling the same story over and over again. Think of all the Star Wars comics or novels starring non-Force sensitives like Boba Fett or Han Solo that aren’t about yet another war between the forces of light and darkness. The potential is all there, just waiting to be mined. Here’s hoping Rogue One makes a few good strikes in the right vein.

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  • Anon24

    IMO
    yes. Jedi or just Force Wielders and the Force is the
    spiritual-philosophical nexus of the SW universe, without them the “feel” of
    SW would be too spartan and militaristic, and just seem like Call of
    Duty in Space, which Star Wars should NOT become IMO.

  • Rocketboy1313

    I would argue that you do not need to make the Jedi the focus of a story in the universe. I like the zeerust rough feel of the starships and the high adventure feel, having the force be around and something they reference (to me) seems like enough. It is like how we have lots of movies set in the real world that do not have kung fu monks in them.

    BUT, many people see the Jedi as the draw point of the series (nerds mostly) and would feel any story to be diminished by lacking the Jedi. These people will complain loud enough that even though they are a tiny minority they will still be heard.

  • Greenhornet

    What bothers me about “Star wars: Knights Of The Old Republic” (And a few other sci-fi movies/stories) is that although it takes place thousands of years before the original movie, all the tech is THE SAME! How did technology stagnate long ago?
    Look, I know that they wanted to do something familiar to the fans, but that was too much. If they wanted to do it that way, why not just set the game “a few years before the rise of the Sith”?
    Alternately, they could have been bold and presented a new setting where the Jedi Order was just forming. I would have gone with a Flash Gordon type affair in the early days of space travel. Make it look like “THE FUTURE!” envisioned in the 1930’s or 1950’s in all it’s coolness. Let there be an inhabitable world on the other side of the sun and a moon with a breathable atmosphere. Throw in a little “Rocketman”, too. Arm the characters with steel swords, but give them an electrically-charged one later in the game. Let laser and sonic guns be something new, rare and SPECIAL.
    Just my opinion.

  • K

    As far as Vader is concerned, his fate runs along the lines of the Christian idea of a “deathbed conversion”. The idea is that if a person actually sees the light and makes a genuine profession of faith in Christ, they are absolved of their sins and forgiven (the key being “genuine”). In this case, Vader saw the error of his ways, overcame his negative nature and struck down the man who was harming his son. It cost him his life, and he would still be seen by the galaxy as a horrible criminal, but he’d truly repented and got into Jedi Heaven rather than Sith Hell.
    As for a “Star Wars” story without Jedi, that’s nothing new. One of the earliest and best spin-off novels was “Han Solo at Stars End” by Brian Daley. It was published in 1978 and is basically an adventure story with Han & Chewie. The Jedi are mentioned once in passing, as is the Empire. No Vader, no lightsabers, no mention of the Force, no prophecies, no mention of the Sith. It’s just good guys versus bad guys, with lots of action and Han demonstrating a tarnished heart of gold long before he joined the Rebellion. It’s a very fun read, and I hope it’ll be a basis for the developing Han Solo movie.