Old Dogs and Dead Horses: The Power of the Angsty Side

If you thought the earlier post was long, this one’s going to blow your mind like a superlaser hitting a planet (see? I’m clever!) If you’re not up for reading the equivalent of a short-story (if short-stories were disjointed argu-rants against stereotypical roles of Good Vs. Evil), you should probably turn back now. Nnnnow. Right now. Okay, so the rest of you are staying? Excelsior! Following on from my relatively low-risk post earlier today, here’s a much more flammable one. I mentioned the Jedi and the Sith earlier, and that reminded me of how much they depress me, for the wrongest of wrong reasons. The Sith, you see, are an entire order of people defined by interstellar teen angst of the worst sort.

Now, I know Disney just axed the entirety of the expanded universe as it formerly stood, and maybe they’re going to fix all my issues with it. Then again, it’s Disney, so we might just end up with a universe in which Sith Lords invariably kill themselves by accident while attacking Jedi Knights at the edge of tall things. You know how many Disney heroes actually kill their villains? There’s the prince in Sleeping Beauty, that’s the only one I can think of at the moment. But I digress, and it’s not useful this time so I can’t keep it going. Once the new expanded universe takes shape, I’ll update this article if it actually turns out to be necessary, but this is about opportunities writers have already missed, thus it should still be relevant. Let me open with the current(ly defunct) reason for the creation of the Sith Order: in essence, a number of early Jedi found the Jedi Code impractically restrictive, so they broke away from the Jedi Order and left for the far reaches of space to go do their own thing. So far, so good.

Ha, yeah, you'd think that. Common sense? Not in Star Wars!

Hey, a galaxy’s a big place. Plenty of room for everybody, right?

For those other, probably much nerdier (compliment) lore nerds out there- this is a discussion of the Sith ORDER, not the Sith species. Canon is only relevant in the sense that I’m going to point out where I think it’s boring and monotone or just stupid; I’m going to  stick to the Sith Code as a reference purely so I can point out how this all could’ve been done differently without scrapping the entire universe, which would defeat the purpose of this discussion. I am stating what I think would make for a more interesting and more intelligent set of narrative possibilities. Please leave aside any discussions of the reasons within the universe why the Sith are as they are, I’m not talking about those.

Anyway, the Sith established a code based on harnessing the power of emotion. ‘The Force shall free me,’ and so on. It was very much a code based on achieving strength and power, on mastery of the self in relation to war and combat, rather than the sort of peaceful balance sought by the Jedi. Both codes, I want to point out, are effectively neutral philosophies: despite their huge emphasis on peace, the Jedi still fight. Neither code has an inherent set of morals; the words are deliberately neutral. The Sith code is actually far more general, allowing for far more interpretations. The Sith should be the most interesting bunch, a real mixed bag of everyone from galactic white knights with even stricter morals than Jedi, to classically evil bastards like Darth Sidious. That’s what the Sith could be, should be and would be if anyone paid attention to the fact that writing needs conflict, and internal conflict is so very potent.

Instead, cue entry after entry into the expanded universe of yet another Machiavellian, evil Sith Lord who wants only to destroy the Jedi, as if there’s a factory somewhere that turns them out too (guess we know where Palpatine got his self-cloning idea from). Not a single one of them chooses to break this mold, either to stay in the shadows or simply to give the entire ridiculous eternal struggle the finger, and go do his own thing. Not a damn one. This isn’t just poor writing in the sense that most villains are interchangeable, it’s ridiculous in that the Sith miss their own point, and come on– there are way too many Star Wars books for all of them to succeed using the same formula, and would one experiment hurt that badly? If a child runs away from home, that child doesn’t usually make a point of coming back later to torch the place. That would be insane and make no sense. If I go away from home to find myself, I would only feel motivated to return home if I realized home is where I belonged. When the Puritans left England, they didn’t later turn around and try to invade England. Seeing my point yet?

You could conquer the entire galaxy based on nothing but misdirection and manipulation…

 

And yet, in spite of fighting a freaking giant war (several) in order to be free of the Jedi, the Sith then immediately decided to let themselves be bound by the Jedi in every other conceivable way. The Jedi cooperate with each other towards common goals, so it follows that the Sith have to murder each other relentlessly even if it makes them weaker as a whole. The Jedi can be compassionate and reasonable, so the Sith must be absolutely ruthless, merciless and effectively insane at all times. The Jedi try to keep a lid on their emotions, so the Sith have to be be ruled by their emotions. Do you see the hideous irony here? It might make for a good joke, but for an entire interstellar nation of people to be this lacking in self awareness is just damned stupid. It’s an entire army of stereotypes with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. It worked for Palpatine because he was A. One guy and B. the main villain of his series, and we knew he was at least competent enough to build the Empire, even if he misjudged his apprentice in the final hours. Of course, given what we’re supposed to accept as the starting material, it’s hard to blame him for believing that Vader wouldn’t have the grit to betray him:

… but Sidious, even you couldn’t defeat George Lucas’ bad writing.

None of this makes any sense for an order who want to found themselves on using strength as a means to an end– the final part of the code is simply ‘freedom’. That’s it. They wanted to be able to make their own way, so they decided to set themselves up as diametrically opposed to the Jedi order. Any time you feel strong emotion towards someone or respond to something they’re doing, you are giving that person a measure of control over you. This is extremely simple. The reason that parents (hopefully) learn to ignore their kids at times is that responding a to a child under certain circumstances is showing that child there’s a response to be gained, room for manipulation. Obviously there are times when this can’t be avoided, such as when a toddler starts throwing a fit in a grocery store purely to get attention, but for the most part it’s better to ignore these things. And that’s why I think the Sith in their current form are so pathetic- all they’ve done is give the Jedi a different, in some ways even stricter level of control over them, and destroy themselves in the process. Brilliant work guys, some freedom you’ve got there. Is the entire Sith Order some weird metaphor for masochism?

If someone plays a word association game in the Star Wars universe, I guarantee the responses to ‘Jedi’ will be ‘force,’ ‘lightsaber’ and ‘Sith.’ If the association is that natural, someone’s little schism didn’t do very much.

Here are my two biggest problems with this, one logical and one literary: why would any Jedi fall to the Dark Side, when it’s painfully obvious that the Sith always die to the last man at some point? Even if they don’t fear death (and plenty of them obviously do), why would anyone say, ‘Hurrah for certain oblivion to no purpose at all!’ to join the Sith? Why would anyone willingly sign on with an order whose mission statement is: ‘Murder everyone else, but especially other people like us?’ And don’t give me that ‘lure of the Dark Side’ bullshit, there are plenty of freelancers and Gray Jedi who get to have their cake and eat it too, using both sides of the Force in unison. Why would I join the Sith when I can just join some perfectly neutral order, keep my social habits, have some people I can rely on, and get the freedom to do whatever I think is best with my abilities? It’s trading one too-strict code for another one, but under the new one I’m murdered if I don’t learn to live without sleep in the first few days (is there a Force technique for never needing to sleep? Probably.) . Killing someone while they’re asleep is a well-established form of cowardice, by the way; the Sith code doesn’t emphasis being evil, it emphases being strong. This is a habit that makes no sense even if you keep all the rest of their history the same.

Now, from a literary standpoint: having the Sith be something other than a homogeneously evil group is just way more interesting. Suddenly, instead of a uniformly evil organization that any idiot would agree needs to be destroyed (what this makes Anakin Skywalker is open for debate), it’s not black and white anymore. Some Sith are a more positive influence than any Jedi, and all of them have gotten very good at what they do. You can’t just say ‘kill all Sith,’ because a lot of Sith are influential people with friends and families and networks of connections, and someone might start thinking you’re crazy. You know, like we usually say someone is when they advocate the wholesale annihilation of a culture? They’re just as much of an establishment as the Jedi are. The closest we came to this was returning to a planet in Knights of the Old Republic II which once housed a Jedi Enclave, and finding out that in the aftermath of the war no one saw any practical difference between the Jedi and the Sith, which was at least progress, but that was a game which stood out for cleverly undermining the entire universe, and whose example was totally ignored.

The Sith ought to be tempting because off all the freedom they offer, and the Jedi’s crusade against them should have some unsettling undertones of authority coming down hard on people who don’t fit the accepted societal norm. This means that the Jedi have to face a constant internal conflict, constant nagging doubt as to whether what they’re doing is right, and the readers can in turn get invested in both sides. There’s no way for this to be bad for the overall narrative unless it’s poorly executed, and if it’s poorly executed then odds are good the rest will be too.

Side note- how do the Sith always lose duels when the Sith spend all their time learning how to fight? The logical ratio of Jedi of the same age needed to kill one Sith should usually be in the area of at least 3:1, getting higher the further up the ranks you go. For the Sith to be bad at fighting is completely counterintuitive and just a wasted opportunity- people hate strong villains, right? If their only purpose is to be hated, they should at least be tough. And for a physical conflict to be meaningful, the villains need to be a threat. Every time I read an Expanded Universe novel with decent characters, let’s say several Jedi protagonists, and I like them, and they’re about to fight Sith, I should be terrified to find out which of my favorites is about to die horribly. Sort of like Game of Thrones with more lightsabers and less current cultural relevance.

Now, a lengthy concrete example to round this off and make sure all of you have the chance to call me on what I’m saying. Which one sounds more interesting to you: another cartoonishly evil Sith Lord, or a Sith who (gasp!) actually chooses to take his Order’s open code and run with it? Let’s say a saber duelist, a man who takes the Sith code as a guide only in its most literal sense. His immediate goal is to build his strength, improve his skill, and most importantly, have nothing whatsoever to do with the Jedi unless they bother him first. Let’s say he calls himself Darth Nebulous, and the first thing he’d tell you is that he enjoys how ridiculous his Sith ‘name’ is. ‘Take it to mean I’m so adaptive and subtle that no one can figure me out. Or, to mean that I’m nothing but hot gas. Both are valid,’ he’d say.

If you met Nebulous in a cantina on Tatooine (which I’m choosing because it’s an easy example), your first thought would not be, ‘By the Force, he looks like a Sith Lord!’ He keeps his Sith robes in storage when he’s not fighting in them, because he’s looking to improve his skills, not fight an infinite array of would-be bounty hunters, wannabe Jedi and other less-than-challenging dregs. When he does fight in his robes, and that’s only for a saber-duel, he never takes them off. They don’t impede his movement and they help obscure the shape of his body, making precise cuts against most of his body harder to execute and confusing his opponents by giving the appearance of movement where there isn’t any. He fights either for fun or for keeps, no middle ground- if he hamstrings another Force-sensitive, expect the spinal cord to be the next thing he severs.

Otherwise, he’s just going to disarm his opponents, bifurcate their sabers, and tell them to screw off, he’s got better people to kill. And if someone did get the better of him, he would absolutely not run away, because that’s the same as dying to him. If he has the option of running away, he won’t fight at his best, so he’s cultivated a Samurai-like mindset of embracing his death when it’s clearly before him. He’s not a coward, which makes sense- how can someone who deliberately chose a life of violence be a coward and still have any success? Everyone starts out weak. In order to be strong, he had to have some guts.

Nebulous also tends to help the weak. Yes, you read that right- help the weak. Because he wants to improve his strength, remember? Picking on the weak doesn’t do that. It’s no challenge. Toppling a powerful crime lord and all his guards, though- that might be decent practice. And surprisingly, Nebulous is a moralistic guy- he wants to bring some semblance of peace to the galaxy, not by a military dictatorship, but by doing the opposite- making sure no one power can take control and abuse its strength with impunity. Nebulous has the end goal of making the entire galaxy strong and free. If he’s dangerous to peace, it’s because he’s too idealistic, setting his goals too high, and he isn’t willing to accept the possibility that some of the issues in the galaxy aren’t so easy to fix. He likes people, he has friends, he’s willing to trust if people are willing to trust him back. And unlike the Jedi, who seek to subdue their emotions, Nebulous wants to control his, which isn’t the same thing. He wants to be able to think clearly while utterly furious, to use the power his emotions offer but banish them when he doesn’t need them.

None of these things go against the Sith code (which, again, I’m leaving intact). It’s all very well and good to argue about how the Light and Dark Sides have to balance each other, but that doesn’t seem to show very much in the narratives we’ve had so far. I was told Lucas okayed pretty much anything for the Expanded Universe, but to look at how the Sith are presented, you’d think he gave a standing order: ‘All villains as flat and blandly evil as possible. Like malicious wheat pancakes.’ Fun fact; Light and Dark, themselves, are neutral concepts in literal meaning, but their implied meanings are what we tend to obey. Too much sun would scorch Earth to a barren rock and kill all of us, so it’s a little odd that we associate light with positivity and dark with evil. I don’t think you’d say that about nuclear weapons, though, no matter how gloriously cleansing and infinitely bright their light might be- because it might be construed as creepy to start waxing poetic about the first device we invented that might actually let us kill our entire species in one go.

Yet no light at all would have us all freeze, and let’s be honest- no matter how much we love winter’s first snows, by February even the coldest hearts are starting to want a reminder of what plants smell like, or to see the sun for longer than ten seconds between onrushing blizzards. If we (now counterintuitively, after the sun analogy) take the Light as the absence of emotion and Dark as its excess, which Star Wars seem to do, then the balance point is clear- the Light is logic and clarity. The Dark is feeling. Empathy comes from combining the two, with emphasis on the second- to comprehend the idea of you suffering the same thing that someone in front of you is, and want to help them on those grounds. The danger of emotion is simply that we can only handle so much of it at once; the danger of logic is that logically, we should only help people when we’re certain of getting repaid with interest.

Just because Star Wars has such a huge community, doesn’t mean that it can’t have better writing. People can be much more open-minded than we give them credit for- just give ’em a chance. Personally, if they’re going to write hundreds of novels about it anyway, I want at least a few of them to take some damn chances. Is that so bad? I don’t think so.

Remember, these are just opinions. I shouldn’t have to state that, since if I’m saying them I’d hope they’re my opinions, but I will. If you think I’m wrong, that’s fine; writing quality is extremely subjective and there’s room for plenty of different methods. If you want to discuss why, that’s also fine. If anyone decides to start a flame war here, I reserve the right to stop responding to the comments, since odds are good they’ll keep going whether I join in or not. And why should I rudely interrupt people who are having such rollicking debates with themselves? Oh, just to undermine myself: I don’t think the Prequels were quite as awful as some people are claiming. In another ten years I expect they’ll say, “They’d have been good if ‘Star Wars’ wasn’t in the title.”

Begin.

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