Deconstructing the Star Wars Sequels: The Last Jedi

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the storytelling structure in The Force Awakens and how it mimics the narrative shape of A New Hope without the character growth to support it. Today we look at The Last Jedi, the second and most challenging of the new trilogy movies. Where The Force Awakens was too committed to reenacting a familiar story to offer any new ideas, The Last Jedi is too much in love with its ideas to build a story around them.

Rey on the Jedi island, from Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi

The Last Jedi does not run on nostalgia like The Force Awakens. It toys with some echoes of The Empire Strikes Back—the rebels are on the run chased by Imperial forces while the novice Jedi goes off to train with an old master, learning something about their parents along the way—but these echoes do not drive the plot the same way A New Hope did for The Force Awakens. The story of The Last Jedi is instead driven by Rian Johnson’s desire to challenge every trope and convention of the space opera that he can.

The movie does a good job posing the questions. What if the hot-shot pilot who doesn’t play by the rules is actually making things worse with his antics? What if the old master is broken by guilt and remorse and doesn’t want to train the chosen one? What if the chosen one isn’t actually all that chosen? What if the previous movie’s shadowy overhanging villain is actually a chump who gets himself bisected mid-monologue? What if the rebels and the Empire both buy their weapons from the same scummy arms dealers? What if the heroes send out a desperate last call for help in their hour of need and no one comes? The what-ifs go on and on, each of them a worthy hook to hang plot on, but none ever taking up any weight. The movie asks plenty of questions, but never gets around to the answers.

Instead of actual development for the plot and characters, we get empty gestures at development. We are clearly meant to think that Poe has Learned a Lesson by the end of the movie when Leia tells the others to follow him, but just what that lesson was and how he learned it are a mystery. Similarly, Finn’s retort to Phasma, calling himself “Rebel scum,” is framed as if it ought to mark a turning point for the character, but the rest of the movie doesn’t do the work of showing us that his relationship to the Rebellion/Resistance matters. Rey comes the nearest to having a character arc. After spending most of the movie looking to others to guide her on what being a Jedi means, she strikes out on her own and uses the Force to move rocks and save her friends. It’s the closest the movie comes to a payoff, but it barely adds anything to her development in The Force Awakens, and it’s not much to show for having Rey stuck between grumpy uncle Luke and creepy stalker Kylo for most of the movie. The structure of a narrative arc is built into the film, but the story isn’t there to fill it.

The time and narrative energy that could have been put into building the story and challenging the characters is instead spent on gambit after gambit that doesn’t pay off. Luke’s lessons teach Rey nothing. Finn and Rose’s side quest to the casino planet is pointless and deflates much of the tension built by the First Order’s pursuit of the fleeing rebels. Poe’s mutiny gets undone with a kicked-over steam vent and a blaster. The movie invests more energy into critiquing the socio-economics of a galaxy far far away than in giving our heroes anything meaningful to do.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about this movie is how it dangles the possibility of meaningful development in front of us only to do nothing with it. Characters like Vice Admiral Holdo and Commander D’Acy are vast untapped wells of awesomeness reduced to Teaching a Man a Lesson. The number of times that important moments in the movie correspond to women with outstretched hands—from Rey lifting rocks and Leia pulling herself back out of space to Rose patting a giant horse-puppy and Holdo jumping into hyperdrive—makes it seems as though the gesture ought to mean something, it just doesn’t. Johnson’s other movies, notably his following creation, Knives Out, show that he is quite capable of handling complex story structures (something I’m not confident I can say about J. J. Abrams). In this case, though, it feels as though the director got so focused on making his movie about failure that he ended up failing to make a movie.

None of this is to say that there aren’t good things in The Last Jedi. It has some of the sequel trilogy’s sharpest dialogue and most striking visuals, from Poe’s jabs at Hux at the beginning to the red scars of battle streaming across the stark white ground of the salt planet at the end. It introduces what may in fact be the most daring idea in the new Star Wars universe: that a Jedi can come from anywhere (at least until the next movie took a big step back.) But these things arrive within a movie that is so committed to the task of deconstructing Star Wars that it deconstructs it right down to the ground and leaves nothing behind.

Image: Rey from The Last Jedi via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

1,001 Posts

This is our thousand-and-first post on Co-Geeking! Goodness, did any of us expect to get here?

We started off six years ago in the summer of 2015 with some ideas of what we wanted to write about. The blog has grown and developed since then as we sometimes dig into big projects together and other times just share whatever comes to mind.

Here are the most popular posts we’ve done in all that time:

  1. Do-It-Yourself Fantasy Place Name Generator – A technique for creating place names that feel authentic and lived-in.
  2. Testing Witches with Water – Digging into the myths about dunking people in water to see whether they’re witches or not.
  3. Sean Bean on the LotR Joke in The Martian – A bit from an interview with Sean Bean about his role in The Martian and the movie’s Lord of the Rings joke.
  4. Hogwarts Dueling Club Tablecloth Transformed into Wall Hanging – A beautiful example of geeky crafting if you want to add some wizarding-school flair to your home.
  5. Custom is King – A glimpse at multiculturalism in action over two thousand years ago.

Thanks for being with us, everyone. More to come!

Eppu and Erik

Announcements from your hosts.

Stupid Writer Tricks: Character Voices

Writing dialogue is not one of my strengths as a writer. I often struggle to give my characters their own voices. So I have a stupid trick to help me get the voice right for characters I’m going to spend a lot of time with: When thinking of their dialogue in my own head, I give them a distinctive accent, tone, or speaking style. It doesn’t always come through onto the page, but it helps me think about how a particular character would talk.

For an example, here’s how I wrote the voices for the main characters in my story “How I Saved Athens from the Stone Monsters.”

The story is about Mnestra and Lampedo, two flute girls working the streets of Athens who get caught in the chaos when the rich, ambitious aristocrat Alkbiades uses a mysterious artifact to make the city’s statues come to life and go on a rampage. To make the story work, it was important to convey the personalities of these three key characters.

Mnestra, as narrator of the story, was the most important to get right. I wanted her to come across as self-possessed, confident, and a little snarky. I also wanted her to feel accessible as a character, someone we felt like we knew. With a story set so far in the past, there was a danger that the characters would feel distant and hard to identify with. Mnestra’s world is certainly not like our own, even before the monsters appear. I wanted to close that gap and make her feel real. There’s also a long history of ancient Greek and Roman characters in modern fiction written as if they were stiff upper-class Brits (in no small part because Greek and Roman literature was for a long time a crucial part of upper-class British education). I didn’t want Mnestra to sound like that.

So when I was thinking about her lines, I thought of her as a jaded teenager. I wrote the first few sentences of the story almost before I really knew where the plot was going, just to make sure I had Mnestra’s voice down.

Okay, so that thing with the statues? The smashed penises thing? That was my idea. But let me explain. I had a good reason for it.

She’s a little overly blasé and vague like a teen trying to play it cool. She leads into the story gradually, like a high schooler with a bent fender sidling up to a freaked-out parent.

In the first draft of the story, there was a lot more of Mnestra’s attitude throughout, but in revising, I found that I didn’t need all of that, and in fact once the action picked up later, it just slowed things down. I edited out most of it, but kept a few sarcastic asides in where they felt appropriate.

Lampedo was a different problem. Her character changed a lot as I was writing. I originally wrote her as shy and delicate, but some good editorial feedback made me rethink her relationship to Mnestra. I rewrote the pair to be less “surrogate sisters” and more “buddy cops,” which gave the story more to work with. Lampedo instead ended up being tough and prickly.

I had a hard time writing the new version of Lampedo’s voice until I started thinking of her with a Russian accent. Not just a Russian accent but a Russian attitude: proud, prematurely world-weary, fatalistic. Here’s a little dialogue between Mnestra and Lampedo after they first get away from the attacking statues.

“Isis’ milk!” I hissed at her. “What did you think you were doing, trying to fight those things?”

“A warrior always attacks,” she answered, grabbing a wine jug. She pulled out the cork with her teeth and drank a big glug.

“We’re not warriors!” I snapped. “We’re flute girls. Don’t you get that? We have to be smart.”

“You say ‘smart,’” she scoffed. “You mean weak.”

“Have you ever seen an old flute girl?” I asked her. “No, there aren’t any. Most of us end up as graveyard women spreading for scraps. You only get through if you have a plan.”

“What’s yours?” she asked. “Hide in a storeroom?”

Alkibiades was a different challenge. Alkibiades is an aristocrat, and his driving motivation in my story (as in history) is that he feels he has never been shown the respect that his status entitles him to. Unlike with Mnestra, I leaned hard into the “stiff upper-class Brit” mode with him to convey that not only is he of a much higher social class than the flute girls but he’s also to an extent putting on an act of what he thinks an Athenian aristocrat should be like. If you can imagine a sinister version of Bertie Wooster, that’s what I heard in my head when writing his lines. Here’s how he intervenes when some potential clients are threatening to get violent with Mnestra and Lampedo.

But before anything could happen, a man on horseback came riding up and waved the twits back.

“I say, is that any way for an Athenian to behave?” he rebuked them. “Tussling with girls in the street? Don’t you know there’s a war on?”

Later, at his dinner party, Alkibiades tries to reassert his status after having his political position usurped by his rival Nikias. He starts a philosophical dialogue but is undermined by his own guests:

“Friends,” Alkibiades began, “let us make this a festival of the mind, not only of the body.” A couple of men near us snickered, but Alkibiades pretended not to notice. “Let me propose a subject for our discourse. What is the measure of a man’s worth?”

“The length of his cock!” a drunken voice called out.

“The quality of his wine!” another added before the laughter had faded.

“His virtue,” proposed an old white-head. A few other suggestions floated around the room. When the merriment had subsided a little, Alkibiades offered his own answer.

“I should say that the measure of a man’s worth is the greatness of the challenges he has overcome. The greatest of all men I name Leonidas of Sparta who faced the Persians at Thermopylai. When the Persian king demanded that the Spartans lay down their arms, he answered: ‘Come and take them.’”

“Then they all died and the Persians burned Athens,” someone objected. Alkibiades was undeterred.

“What more can a man ask for than to face an unbeatable foe with unwavering courage?”

“Sending Nikias out to do it!” came an answer. Alkibiades’s face went red and he sat down as the rest of the room exploded with laughter.

I have a great admiration for people who can write rich, fluid dialogue that drips with character. That’s not where my strengths lie. This is the stupid trick I use instead, and it works for me.

How It Happens is an occasional feature looking at the inner workings of various creative efforts.

Deconstructing the Star Wars Sequels: The Force Awakens

We’ve all had a few years to mull over the Star Wars sequel trilogy, and opinions are mixed. Some people love them and some hate them, but most of us seem to be in the middle, enjoying some things about the movies while feeling an overall dissatisfaction. It is, of course, true that any franchise so deeply loved as Star Wars was going to have a hard time living up to fans’ hopes with its long-awaited return. Not to mention Star Wars fans can be a particularly unpleasable lot. Still, I think a significant part of what made Episodes 7-9 feel lackluster comes from how they handle the structure of their storytelling. In this and a couple future posts, I want to dig into what that means.

Finn and Rey on the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars: The Force Awakens

The most obvious thing about the narrative structure of The Force Awakens is that it hews very close to the story of A New Hope. We start with a lost droid carrying vital information running into a potential Jedi on a backwater desert planet and end with x-wing fighters blow a giant planet-killing ship out of the sky. In between we get everything from a cantina with its own funky jazz band to rebels sneaking around the corridors of an imperial supership to rescue a captured young woman. Your cruisers can’t repel nostalgia of that magnitude.

There’s a good reason why this story doesn’t work as well as A New Hope. When he first sat down to plan out the Star Wars story, George Lucas played to his strengths, and storytelling is not one of them. For all that we think of Lucas now as the creator of one of the great stories of our time, he has always been a filmmaker first. The story of A New Hope is not particularly original, nor is it trying to be. It knowingly walks the steps of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey. The hero’s journey concept is a controversial one, its substance disputed by folklorists and its application embraced by some writers but rejected by others. But rather than delve into Campbell, I want to look at something related but simpler: the three act structure.

The three act structure is a fundamental storytelling tool that can be found in everything from fairy tales to Hollywood blockbusters. There are lots of different ways of explaining it and, just like the hero’s journey, different people have different interpretations of it, from the very basic to the immensely complex, but here’s a simple version of how it goes.

Act 1: We meet the main character and learn enough about the world they live in to care about them. The main character is faced with a problem that they must solve or there will be consequences.

Act 2: The character attempts to solve the problem but fails. Their attempt fails because they did it in a way that did not require them to change. There may be consequences for their failure, or the potential consequences of failing to solve the larger problem may grow greater.

Act 3: The character accepts that they must change, and with that change they are now able to solve the problem.

Not every story follows this pattern, to be sure, but it underlies a lot of familiar narratives. To take a well-known example, Homer’s Odyssey works along these lines. Act 1: We meet Odysseus and learn about his struggle to get home. We learn about the greedy suitors feasting all day on his meat and wine and see them scheme to kill Telemachus, force Penelope to marry one of them, and finally get their hands on Odysseus’ wealth if he does not get home. Act 2: Odysseus tries to get home, but he runs into obstacles. The worst of his problems comes from the fact that he cannot bear to slip away from the cyclops by calling himself “No one.” Instead, his pride drives him to turn around and shout out his real name, which allows the cyclops to call down Poseidon’s curse on him. It costs Odysseus his crew and ten years of wandering. Act 3: Odysseus finally gets home to Ithaca and accepts that he must disguise himself as a beggar and not give away his identity until he is ready to kill all the suitors and reclaim his home and family.

A New Hope is a textbook example of the three act structure. In Act 1 we meet Luke Skywalker and learn of the importance of bringing R2-D2 and the Death Star technical readouts to the rebels before the Empire can destroy more planets with their new weapon. In At 2, Luke attempts to solve the problem by rescuing Leia and getting the droid back to her, but without letting go of the idea that he’s just a farm boy from the sticks. It costs him his mentor and his last connection to Tatooine as Obi-Wan Kenobi sacrifices himself to let the Millennium Falcon escape the Death Star. In Act 3, the Death Star threatens the rebel base on Yavin, and Luke finally accepts that he must become more than he was and trust the Force in order to defeat the Empire.

The three act structure works best with a single character at its center so we can watch how they grow and change when faced with a challenge. (It can work with an ensemble, too, though. Take Avengers: In Act 1, we see the problem—Loki steals the cube—and meet the heroes: Iron Man, Captain America, etc. In Act 2, the heroes try to deal with Loki by each doing what they do best; it doesn’t work, Loki gets away, and Coulson dies. In Act 3, the heroes get past their differences, come together as a team, and stop Loki’s fiendish plan.) A New Hope is centered on Luke. Other characters have important moments and experience some growth—especially Han, who chooses to come back and help fight the Death Star rather than fly away with his money—but Luke’s growth into a Jedi is the core of the story.

For all that The Force Awakens does its best to follow along with A New Hope‘s story, it doesn’t have the same focus. Knowing that the Luke-Han-Leia trio was such an important part of the original trilogy, The Force Awakens spends a lot of time setting up Rey, Finn, and Poe as their new counterparts. To the extent that any character’s story provides the narrative line running through The Force Awakens, it is Finn, the mutinous stormtrooper. Finn works well as an audience surrogate character to introduce new and old fans alike to the world of the new trilogy—everything is as new to us as it is to him—but his story does not follow the three act structure. He makes his big choice at the beginning of the film, putting down his blaster and breaking Poe out of the First Order’s lock-up. In the end he chooses to go back to the world he escaped from to rescue Rey, but that is by far the least momentous change his character undergoes. Poe, for his part, is a hot-shot pilot at the start of the movie and still a hot-shot pilot at the end; he has plenty of good moments as a character, but this movie is not about what happens to him.

Rey’s story is the one that tracks most closely with Luke’s (orphan kid from a desert planet meets runaway rebel droid and discovers their Jedi powers), but the movie is not structured around Rey’s journey the same way A New Hope was structured around Luke’s. Rey starts out by running away and looking to others to solve her problem with BB-8, and in the end she comes into her own as a budding Jedi. She has a beautiful moment overcoming her fear and trusting the Force to let her mind-trick her way out of First Order holding, but the story of the movie is not her story. Rey’s growth and her confrontation with Kylo Ren are things that happen in parallel with the larger plot; they are not key to it the way Luke’s story was.

There are plenty of weaknesses in The Force Awakens, from an over-reliance on nostalgia to underbaked worldbuilding, but one of its fundamental problems is that it is so focused on rewriting A New Hope it loses sight of what A New Hope was itself rewriting. What we get in The Force Awakens is a copy of a copy, with all the flaws that come with it.

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Rating: Babylon 5, Season 2

The second season of Babylon 5 brings in a new captain and a new look for the Minbari ambassador, and sees the larger story begin to take shape. Here’s how we rated this season’s episodes:

Babylon 5 season 2 DVD box cover
  1. “Points of Departure” – 4
  2. “Revelations” – 5.5
  3. “The Geometry of Shadows” – 2.5
  4. “A Distant Star” – 1.5
  5. “The Long Dark” – 4
  6. “A Spider in the Web” – 4
  7. “Soul Mates” – 7
  8. “A Race Through Dark Places” – 4
  9. “The Coming of Shadows” – 5.5
  10. “GROPOS” – 4
  11. “All Alone in the Night” – 4
  12. “Acts of Sacrifice” – 4.5
  13. “Hunter, Prey” – 4.5
  14. “There All the Honor Lies” – 5.5
  15. “And Now for a Word” – 4.5
  16. “In the Shadows of Z’Ha’Dum” – 8
  17. “Knives” – 4.5
  18. “Confessions and Lamentations” – 4
  19. “Divided Loyalties” – 6
  20. “The Long, Twilight Struggle” – 5.5
  21. “Comes the Inquisitor” – 0
  22. “The Fall of Night” – 6

Season 2 comes in slightly ahead of season 1, with an average rating of 4.5, up just a little from the first season’s 4.4. Most of this season’s episodes fall between 4 and 5.5, a competent if not inspiring range. Only a few stand out above this range, but not many fall under it, either. Most episodes have their weaknesses, but they also offer something worth seeing in terms of developing the story or giving the characters room to grow.

This season has two pieces of narrative heavy lifting to accomplish. The first is to establish Bruce Boxleitner’s John Sheridan as the replacement for Michael O’Hare’s Jeffery Sinclair. O’Hare bowed out of the series after the first season, as we know now, because of his increasingly difficult mental health problems, even though important elements of the ongoing story had already been tied to the character. The transition to the new station commander is a little clunky at times, but O’Hare’s decision to leave is completely understandable, and it is a credit both to Boxleitner and to the production team that they found ways to position the new captain where they needed him for the long-term story without just making him a copy of Sinclair.

The other major piece of business this season accomplishes is establishing the growing menace of the Shadows. The slow build is expertly handled, with little pieces of information filtering in, episode by episode, letting us know that something is out there, something powerful and terrifying, without giving the game away too soon. If for nothing else, the gradual build-up of the Shadows makes it worth rewatching most if not all of the season.

Our lowest-rated episode of the season is “Comes the Inquisitor,” which we gave a complete 0. In this episode, the Vorlons subject Ambassador Delenn to a cruel test of her worthiness as a tool against the rise of the Shadows. The writing is loose, the characterization weak, and the story driven too much by larger narrative needs and a giggling serial killer fanboyism, not enough by the characters within it.

At the other end of the scale, “In the Shadows of Z’Ha’Dum” gets an 8. This episode does a lot to establish important elements for the future of the series, but it remains deeply grounded in the lives and emotions of the characters themselves. Sheridan confronts the Shadows’ agent Morden about his connection to the expedition that killed Sheridan’s wife. Meanwhile, elsewhere on the station, the pseudo-fascist government of Earth extends its tendrils into Babylon 5 through the innocuous-sounding but insidious Night Watch. The tensions are high in this episode, and the actors carry it well.

Babylon 5 remains a product of a different time, not just in television but in our history. The age shows, but time has been kinder to some of its elements than to others. Some parts of season 2 feel awkwardly dated now, other parts chillingly apt. But still, it is (for the most part) worth a rewatch.

Image: Babylon 5 season 2 DVD cover via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Lion-Slaying Women in the Roman Arena

Performing in the Roman arena, whether as a gladiator, a beast-hunter, or some other kind of violent entertainer was mostly a man’s job, but that doesn’t mean women never took part. The poet Martial celebrated a woman (or women, Martial is vague on the details) who slew a lion as part of the games put on the emperor Domitian.

Warlike Mars, unconquered in arms, serves you, Caesar,
but this is not enough: Venus herself serves you, too.

Martial, On the Spectacles 7

Fame used to sing the tale of how great Hercules
laid low the lion in Nemea’s wide valley.
Enough of that old legend: now after your games, Caesar,
we have seen such things done by women’s hands.

Martial, On the Spectacles 8

(My own translations)

Some scholars think these are two separate poems, others that they were originally one poem and the first two lines got accidentally split off at some point when manuscripts were being copied out. In any case, it seems pretty clear that women also took up arms to perform for the crowds in Rome.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

The Importance of Being Spock

When I was young, there wasn’t a lot to choose from in children’s media. This was before the internet and back when there were only a few tv channels. What there was was mostly written for the “average kid.” Those of us who weren’t “average kids” (whatever that even means) didn’t have much chance to see ourselves reflected in the things we watched and read.

As a young person who enjoyed reading books, learning things, and thinking, I didn’t have many role models in my media. “Smart” characters tended to be portrayed as weirdos and outsiders. At best they could be inventive but eccentric cranks like Professor Calculus from Tintin. More often they were comically bumbling know-it-alls like Dr. Bunsen Honeydew from the Muppets or Owl from Winnie-the-Pooh. They were often insufferably arrogant about their intelligence, like Brainy Smurf. This was the image of smartness I saw as a young child: smug, generally useless, and barely tolerated by the people around them. (It’s also true that these characters were invariably male, but that’s a separate issue for another time.)

Then I discovered Star Trek. I can’t remember how old I was, but I was still pretty young when my sister and I stumbled across afternoon reruns of original series episodes on one of the local channels. I was hooked. It was my first exposure to adult speculative fiction, and it opened up a whole new world of storytelling to me, but there’s no question that there was one thing about Star Trek I loved above all else: Spock.

Spock from Star Trek

In some ways, Spock was like the other “smart” characters I had seen before. He was an outsider, an alien on a ship full of humans. He had quirks. He was sometimes razzed on by other characters (especially Dr. McCoy). But despite these things that set him apart, he was emphatically part of the crew, embraced and appreciated by them. His knowledge and intelligence were respected by his fellow spacefarers and often contributed to solving the problem of the episode. Spock was the first time I saw a smart character who was valued for being smart.

Anyone who knew me as a child knows how deeply I identified with Spock. I was Spock for Halloween at least once (and probably more often, though I can’t remember). When teased by my classmates (I wouldn’t say I was bullied, but kids are kids—sometimes people were mean to me, sometimes I was mean to them) I imitated his arch emotionlessness in self-defense. I devoured any kind of Star Trek trivia, but it was always Spock I loved the most.

As I grew older I gathered more role models for people who loved knowing things and whose knowledge was appreciated by those around them, from Sherlock Holmes and Brother Cadfael to Professor McGonagall and Jadzia Dax. But you never forget your first. Spock will always have a special place in my heart because in him I saw the first glimmer of what I wanted to become: someone whose love of books and ideas could become something valuable I could contribute to the world around me. I know I’m not alone in these feelings. I think a lot of the quiet, bookish kids of my generation first saw ourselves in Spock.

We’ve come a long way since then. There’s lots more to choose from for kids’ tv, movies, and books these days. I wonder if that makes a difference, or if there are other touchstone characters for younger generations of thoughtful, curious kids.

What about the rest of you? Who was the fictional character you first looked at and thought: “That’s me?”

In Character is an occasional feature looking at some of our favorite characters from written works and media to see what drives them, what makes them work, and what makes us love them so much.

Rules-Lawyering Monarchy

How do you get rid of a monarchy? Getting rid of kings isn’t the hard part (at least in theory, if not always in practice)—get the peasants angry enough, pass out the torches and the pitchforks, then roll out the guillotine when the time comes. No, the hard part is getting rid of the idea of kings. Monarchs cling to power through force, but also through instilling in people the idea that there is something special about kingship, something an ordinary person would never be able to replace. As long as that idea exists, someone can hitch their own ambitions to it.

I’ve written before about how the myths and legends that make up the part of the DNA of modern fantasy literature often have a pro-monarchical bias and about ways of building your fantasy worlds for something other than monarchy. It’s worth noting that we are not the first people to face this problem. The ancient Greeks and Romans also had to grapple with the monarchic parts of their past as they created new ways of life and they found interesting ways of disarming the idea that kings were necessary.

In the early iron age and archaic periods (roughly 900-490 BCE), societies in ancient Greece were small, and power structures were not particularly stable. We get a glimpse of this life in the Homeric epics. The contentious relationships among the assembled Greek kings at Troy and the competition for wealth and power among Helen’s suitors back on Ithaca reflect a world in which power was held by rich warlords competing with each other for preeminence. The Greek word for these warlords was basileus (plural basileis). The word does not exactly match up with what we typically think of as kings: there was more than one basileus in any community, and their power was more personal than institutional, but a basileus was the closest thing early Greece had to a king. Basileus was also the word Greeks used for the kings of other peoples, such as the Lydians and the Persians.

We don’t know much about how the ideologies by which basileis justified their power, but many basileis in mythology were the children of gods or had other kinds special relationships with the divine. Literary and archaeological evidence shows that basileus families maintained the worship of heroic ancestors. These facts point to a religious element: basileis held onto power in part by claiming a vital role in maintaining their communities’ relationships with the gods.

This ideology presented a problem for those agitating for a wider sharing of power, but it was a problem that had a solution. The earliest organized government we know of in Athens (not one we would call democratic, but one that was clearly designed to keep any one person from holding too much power) had an official position dedicated to overseeing religious affairs. That position was called the basileus. We can imagine some frustrated Athenians at some point saying: “So, the gods will only favor us if we have a king? Fine, we’ll call this guy over here ‘king’ and just not give him any real power. Good enough!”

Something similar happened in Rome. In its early history, the city was ruled by a king (in Latin: rex). Later, the kings were replaced with a republican government that, much like the one in early Athens, was specifically designed to keep power from falling into one person’s hands. We know little about the ideology of Rome’s early kings, but later Roman legends gave them religious associations, and it seems that they also asserted a special role in the city’s relationship with the gods. The Roman republic similarly got around this problem by just calling someone else “king.” Specifically, republican Rome had a priestly official whose title was rex sacrorum, meaning “king of the sacred things,” to carry on the religious duties of the old king. This office came with particular limitations intended to make sure that its holder could never make himself into a real king, including a ban on handling weapons and on being present while the Roman army was assembled for war.

Athenians and Romans found was of disarming monarchic ideology by subverting its claims in ways worthy of the weaseliest of rules lawyers.

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Rating: Babylon 5, Season 1

Babylon 5 is something you either fondly remember or have forgotten ever existed. There isn’t much middle ground for this ambitious, expansive, flawed masterpiece of science fiction television. Here’s what we thought on our rewatch of season 1 (note that this does not include the pilot movie, “The Gathering”):

Babylon 5 season 1 DVD cover
  1. “Midnight on the Firing Line” – 5.5
  2. “Soul Hunter” – 4
  3. “Born to the Purple” – 4
  4. “Infection” – 3
  5. “Parliament of Dreams” – 8
  6. “Mind War” – 6
  7. “The War Prayer” – 2.5
  8. “And the Sky Full of Stars” – 4
  9. “Deathwalker” – 2
  10. “Believers” – 3
  11. “Survivors” – 4
  12. “By Any Means Necessary” – 7
  13. “Signs and Portents” – 6
  14. “TKO” – 2.5
  15. “Grail” – 5
  16. “Eyes” – 5
  17. “Legacies” – 6.5
  18. “A Voice in the Wilderness, part 1” – 4
  19. “A Voice in the Wilderness, part 2” – 3.5
  20. “Babylon Squared” – 5
  21. “The Quality of Mercy” – 5
  22. “Chrysalis” – 3.5

The average rating this season is a rather low 4.4. It’s a shaky start for a series that aimed to do so much, perhaps unavoidably so since the greater story Babylon 5 wanted to tell required so much background and worldbuilding. Some episodes this season end up falling flat because they were there not so much to tell an episode-long story as to fill us in on things we would need to know later. The idea of telling a connected arc story over dozens or hundreds of individual episodes was still new and largely untested in US media (apart from soap operas, which occupied a very different space in entertainment than B5 aspired to). Season 1 played it safe, probably by necessity, convincing both an uninitiated audience and a hesitant network to buy into the world of the show before striking out into such new territory. Three decades on and arcs are everywhere, even in series that don’t really need them. B5 may seem quaint now, like a Model-T car, but without it our modern television landscape might look very different.

Babylon 5 is a collection of contradictions. It is two parts Star Trek and one part Tolkien, with too much geeking out over the physics of space travel to be fantasy and too many ancient prophecies and mystical rebirths to be science fiction. It is the most Star Trek-like of all the shows that sold themselves as “not like Star Trek,” and the one that most strenuously insists on the difference. In some ways, it is timeless, telling a story that spans the lifetime of the universe and finding its narrative touchstones in everything from Arthurian legend to World War II. In other ways, it is unmistakably a product of the US in the nineties: a time when we believed competent military technocrats could solve everything, thought Russia was going to be our friend and Japan an alien menace, and bought collarless shirts and Zima.

But the contradiction that strikes us the most on rewatching is in the talents of the actors. Most of the main cast are adequate, if not inspiring. Guest roles are a mixed bag of lifeless line readings and overdone melodrama. There’s a lot of tedious under- and overacted scenes to get past if you want to watch Babylon 5 straight through. Yet amid these tepid talents are some blazing stars. Claudia Christian as the snarky second in command Ivanova owns every scene she’s in. Bill Mumy’s Lennier and Stephen Furst’s Vir, two junior diplomatic aides, are as endearingly awkward now as they were three decades ago and a delight to rewatch. But the most mesmerizing performances come from Peter Jurasik as the louche, cynical Centauri Ambassador Mollari and Andreas Katsulas as the canny, passionate Narn Ambassador G’Kar. Every scene with either one of them is elevated by their presence, and the scenes with both positively crackle with energy. Watching the two of them dance around one another like knife fighters, first as mortal enemies and later as fire-forged allies if not exactly friends, is as thrilling now as it was the first time around.

Babylon 5 is a parade of strengths and weaknesses, and it is in some sense to its credit that the two do not cancel each other out. Not surprisingly, the worst episode of the season falls under the weight of a lot of these weaknesses, and the best soars with the strengths. At the bottom of the heap we have “Deathwalker,” in which a war criminal from Narn’s past reappears offering the secret to eternal life. We rated it a 2. On rewatching, you can see that this episode helps set up the tensions between the galactic powers and the controlling hand of the Vorlons, but that comes at the expense of any meaningful development or resolution of the immediate conflict raised in the episode.

At the other end, the best episode of this season is “The Parliament of Dreams,” rating an 8. So much of what was great about B5 is on display in this episode. The main storyline, about a cultural exchange of religious traditions among the assembled ambassadors, gives depth and richness to the alien races while the secondary story, about an attempt on G’Kar’s life, gives the character some of his first opportunities for growth.

Do you have any special memories of the first season of Babylon 5? Let us know!

Image: Season 1 DVD cover of Babylon 5 via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Flexible Roman Glass?

Did an ancient Roman inventor come up with flexible glass? That’s one possible interpretation of a curious anecdote told by several Roman sources.

A Roman drinking glass

The evidence

There is no archaeological evidence for flexible Roman glass; nothing like it has turned up in any excavation. All the evidence we have is literary, three mentions from various sources. Here is what we have (my own translations):

In the reign of Tiberius, a kind of glass was invented that was concocted in such a way that it was flexible, but the entire workshop of its inventor was destroyed so that the price of bronze, silver, and gold would not be brought down (a rumor that has for a long time had more repetition than credibility).

Pliny, Natural History 36.66

There was once an artisan who made a glass drinking up that was unbreakable. When he was given an audience with the emperor to show off his invention, he made the emperor hand the cup back to him, then hurled it to the stone floor. The emperor could not have been more alarmed. The man picked the cup up off the ground, and it was dented just like a bronze cup, but he produced a small hammer from his pocket and with very little effort he made the cup good as new. With this performance, he thought he was in the throne of Jupiter.

The emperor then asked: “No one else knows how to make glass like this, do they?”

Now, look what happened. When the man answered “No,” the emperor ordered him beheaded, because if knowledge of this invention got out, we would treat gold like mud.

Petronius, Satyricon 51

[An engineer comes up with a novel way of renovating a collapsing building, for which the emperor Tiberius jealously exiles him.] Later this man came to the emperor as a supplicant and deliberately let a glass drinking cup fall to the floor in front of him, and although the cup was somehow damaged, after rubbing and beating it with his hands on the spot he showed the emperor that it was unbroken. He was aiming to get himself a pardon, but the emperor ordered him executed.

Cassius Dio, Roman History 57.21

Could it be true?

There are a few reasons to think these stories might be true, if not in all details then at least in the most interesting one: that some Roman crafter figured out how to make a material that looked like glass but didn’t shatter like it.

The fact that we have this story from three different sources gives it some credibility, especially since two of those sources, Pliny and Petronius, are roughly contemporary with the emperor Tiberius under whom the unbreakable glass was supposed to have been invented.

Flexible kinds of glass exist today, but they are recent developments. It is unlikely that a Roman glassmaker, even if they had stumbled on the right chemical formula, would have had a furnace capable of high enough temperatures with precise enough control to have achieved the same result. It is more possible to imagine that a Roman artisan came up with something like modern plastic. Early plastics developed in the 1800s used materials that would have been available to the Romans, such as cellulose from wood, the resin of the sweetgum tree, and proteins derived from milk, eggs, and blood. Some of the plastics derived from these materials are translucent and flexible, and might have appeared to onlookers unfamiliar with their source as flexible glass.

Despite these considerations, though, there are much stronger reasons to think that nothing like flexible glass was ever created in antiquity.

Probably not

First of all, we have to look at our sources critically. None of them is very good as evidence. Pliny straight out tells us that he doesn’t believe the story he is relating. Petronius puts the story into the mouth of a boorish and narcissistic fictional character, far from a reliable narrator. And Cassius Dio was writing about two centuries later and seems to have garbled this story with the tale of a later emperor, Hadrian, and his jealousy of a famous architect. Although it is interesting that we have versions of this story from three different sources, all that means is that, as Pliny notes, it was a tale widely told, not necessarily that there was any truth to it.

The fact that this story is connected with Tiberius also points to it being unreliable. Pliny, Petronius, and Cassius Dio were all part of the Roman elite, who generally disliked Tiberius. As the second emperor of Rome after the beloved Augustus, Tiberius had big sandals to fill and little of his predecessor’s charisma and social grace. The accounts of Tiberius as emperor that have come down to us describe him as tactless, cynical, cruel, and prone to paranoia. He also ruled Rome during a time of economic hardship, and his pragmatic concern for financial stability (including worrying about things like the prices of commodities and the steadiness of the gold and silver supply) came off as small-minded stinginess to the rest of the Roman upper crust. The idea of Tiberius responding to a wondrous new invention by destroying both it and the inventor appealed to existing prejudices about him, which helped the story spread. Romans like Pliny and Petronius already believed that Tiberius was cruel when he should have been magnanimous, tight-fisted when he should have been generous, and quick to apply violence to those who did not deserve it. The story of the wondrous glass cup not only made these qualities manifest, it served as a cautionary tale about the foolishness of such behavior. It was, in short, a good story, and good stories spread easily even when they aren’t true.

If there is any kind of truth behind the tale, it may be something less revolutionary. Glassmaking is a skilled art, and in antiquity it practitioners carefully guarded their secrets. To an uninitiated observer, the malleability of hot glass in a glass-blower’s workshop may have seemed quite wondrous, and the story may have spread from there without the crucial understanding that glass only flows so easily when it is fresh from the furnace. Additionally, around the time of Tiberius, new kinds of mold-blown glass were coming onto the Roman market that imitated the shapes of metal vessels. To the average Roman aristocrat shopping for luxury housewares, the idea that a material might exist combining the translucency of glass with the malleability of metal might not seem so far-fetched. If these ideas were already circulating in Roman literary circles, it is not strange to imagine that someone put them together with the existing negative perceptions of Tiberius and concocted a “What if” story that took on a life of its own as gossip and political mudslinging.

In the end, it is unlikely that any Roman artisan ever figured out how to make flexible glass. As interesting as the story is, it tells us more about the perception of Tiberius than it does about any fabulous ancient discoveries.

Further reading:

Champlin, Edward. “Tiberius the Wise.” Historia Bd. 57, H. 4 (2008): 408-425

Keller, Vera. “Storied Objects, Scientific Objects, and Renaissance Experiment: The Case of Malleable Glass.” Renaissance Quarterly 70, no. 2 (2017): 594-632.

Stern, E. Marianne. “Ancient Glass in a Philological Context.” Mnemosyne 4th ser. 60, f. 3 (2007): 341-406.

Image: Roman drinking glass (not flexible), photograph by Marie-Lan Nguyen via Wikimedia (Domvs Romana, Mdina, Malta; 1st c. BCE-2nd c. CE; glass)

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.