Last week, three different sources pointed me to Rod Hilton’s blog post from last fall on the Machete order for watching the films of the Star Wars saga (especially for newcomers). While his overall proposed order (start with IV – A New Hope and V – The Empire Strikes Back, then go with the prequels, then show VI – Return of the Jedi isn’t new — Last year, we covered Drew McWeendy’s Film Nerd 2.0 showings to his two sons), Machete goes a step further by cutting out The Phantom Menace. Not because Hilton feels it is a bad movie, but because he points out that it is mostly irrelevant to the saga. Either a point gets brought up again in the other prequels or it isn’t needed at all in the larger scheme of things (Darth Maul, Qui-Gon Jinn, Valorum, podracing). He points out how he thinks it makes the saga stronger, by preserving some of the big reveals, and relating whiny Anakin to whiny Luke as showing Luke on the same path to the dark side in Return of the Jedi as Anakin in Revenge of the Sith. He also points out some of the weaknesses of his ordering of the films, most notably about the Prophecy of the Chosen One, and Anakin’s return to rescue Shmi and pick up Threepio in Attack of the Clones. The Machete Order got me thinking, and also prompted a discussion among some Club Jaders, who looked at the notion of order and TPM‘s relevance from several angles.
So, does The Phantom Menace matter?
To quote Obi-Wan Kenobi: “From a certain point of view.” I think it really comes down to what you expect the Star Wars saga to be about. Is it about Luke Skywalker, with the story of his father a backstory? Is it the story about Anakin Skywalker, fallen hero redeemed by his son? The order itself seems to lend itself to focusing on Luke’s journey, with Anakin’s journey as a flashback after the revelation in The Empire Strikes Back. But the key here is what Machete says about how cutting TPM improves Anakin’s character as a dark mirror for Luke:
Beyond this, Episode I establishes Anakin as a cute little kid, totally innocent. But Episode II quickly establishes him as impulsive and power-hungry, which keeps his character consistent with eventually becoming Darth Vader. Obi-Wan never really seems to have any control over Anakin, struggling between treating him as a friend (their very first conversation together in Episode II) and treating him as an apprentice (their second conversation, with Padmé). Anakin is never a carefree child yelling “yippee”, he’s a complex teenager nearly boiling over with rage in almost every scene. It makes much more sense for Anakin to have always been this way.
Improving Anakin’s character? Maybe. Maybe not. But certainly this view changes it from the way it was depicted. And if Anakin is the focus of the saga, then changing Anakin just seems like a no-no.
The Evolution of Anakin Skywalker
In The Phantom Menace, Anakin is more than just carefree and cute, he is selfless. Despite having little control over his own situation, he wants to help his new friends, and begs his mom to risk his life to do so. To go from this state of wanting to save strangers to the rage-boiling Jedi who slaughters an entire village after failing to save his mother, to the betrayer of Jedi and top servant of the Emperor while trying (and failing) to save his wife, to the man willing to betray the Emperor to save his son. This cycle is more potent for having the boy who dreams of growing up to be a Jedi to free all the slaves.
Kelly in Club Jade put it this way:
“You go into it knowing this kid grows up to be a monster. How is that possible? The mind reels. Or my mind did, anyway.
Without this to set up AOTC, I don’t think AOTC works at all. Now, I didn’t think it worked anyway, other than that one brilliant bit at the picnic with Padmé when Anakin explained his theory of politics and you could suddenly see how Darth Vader could be a monster with the best intentions. But if you take away the Qui-Gon/Obi-Wan relationship as a foundation, and you take away seeing Anakin as an innocent young boy who wasn’t an arrogant emo teenager, you lose all that sense of the train wreck that is coming. TPM we saw a good boy we knew was going to grow up to be evil. I AOTC we saw a snotty, emo, selfish teenager who we knew was going to grow up to be evil. To that I say, “Yeah, and?” It just isn’t the big leap from Teenage Anakin to Vader as it is from Child Anakin to Vader.”
When we get to the redemption of Anakin by saving his son, is he going back from villain to angry selfish teenager? One could argue that saving his son is a selfish act, much like his attempts to save his mother and wife from death – Someone is hurting the person I care about and I got to put a stop to that, fate of the galaxy be damned. Protecting your own isn’t exactly altruism. Killing the Emperor also isn’t really selfless – after all, the Sith expect the apprentice to eventually turn on the master. And Vader isn’t really a close friend to the Emperor – you could believe that betraying the Emperor is as much killing a hated master that keeps him enslaved. So I doubt Vader would be sad at Sidious’ death.
But, in the case of Luke – Luke is barely his own family, there’s kinship, but no relationship. Vader at this point doesn’t really know Luke, and at first, wants to turn Luke to the dark side, perhaps to overthrow the Emperor. But now, here is his son before him, moving on a similar path that Anakin once walked: a Jedi like his father before him. Though goaded into anger and managing to best Vader in the duel, Luke chooses to turn away from the path of anger and prepares to sacrifice himself. And in this moment, Anakin emerges from the machine of Darth Vader and sees how to save someone else: by sacrificing himself. By being selfess. Anakin, (with or without the “NOOOOO!”), goes back to the good person he was as a child – willing to give of himself for those around him. He’s not going back to the teenager filled with angst and rage. Maybe Jake Lloyd should have been picked to portray the ghost of Anakin in the Blu-Ray edits.
Setting the stage
Yes, the ten year gap between I and II makes some of the story elements less relevant. Kelly points out the importance of Qui-Gon Jinn’s character even if he is never ‘seen’ again: there is “the Master-Padawan relationship and Qui-Gon’s importance both to Obi-Wan and Anakin and how that influenced future events.” Expanding on the first part:
“Seeing the Jedi/Padawan relationship at work. This was completely different than what we saw in the classic trilogy because, of course, there’s pretty much just Luke and Yoda and everyone else is gone. And then there’s just Luke by himself.
Now, it could be argued that we see that in AOTC, too, with Obi-Wan and Anakin, but the thing is, that relationship is dysfunctional. And we only can know that by having something to compare it to, by seeing a more typical Jedi-Padawan team in TPM. I found Anakin’s arguing with Obi-Wan in front of Padmé in AOTC shocking *because* we saw the Obi-Wan/Qui-Gon dynamic. Obi-Wan was allowed to question, but in private. In public, he submitted to Qui-Gon’s authority.”
In short, TPM sets up the norm, so that we can know when it is being broken. The entire “before” picture is painted in the prequels, and in TPM, we see it prior to Palpatine’s rise to the top: what the Republic is like, what the Jedi are like, what Anakin is like, what Padmé is like. Is this important to the overall saga? Jennifer Quail points out that overall the status quo shown in TPM isn’t all that great in hindsight:
Qui-Gon’s relationship with Obi-Wan IS dysfunctional (and Qui-Gon himself is not really very good at being a Jedi). The Republic senate is at best too big to do anything practical and at worst filled with morons, the Jedi Council don’t do anything useful, and ultimately, knowing that’s coming…the Republic and Jedi kinda deserve it. Really, if THIS is them at their peak, Palpatine would be an idiot NOT to overthrow it.
In short, if the Empire is the embodiment of evil that the original trilogy is, the Republic supported by Jedi that the OT characters look on with nostalgia isn’t the good thing they hold it up to be. She goes on further:
All the prequels suffer from working towards a foregone conclusion, but TPM is the one where getting to that point requires too many characters to do too many overtly stupid things that can’t be explained away by their being an unstable teen with an unsuited teacher…Teenage girls should never be given planetary-level authority, Qui-Gon should have left [Anakin] where he found him and said “Too bad the kid’s too old.” I can believe in AOTC that Anakin and Padme would decide, all logic and instruction to the contrary, to go after Obi-Wan and rescue him.
The key here is that TPM does have a lot of poor decision making going on by the characters. Imagine if the Jedi Council decided that, “Yes, Qui-Gon’s wish that the boy should be trained should be honored, but rather than apprenticing the potential Chosen One who has been tested to show fear to a brand new Jedi Knight who never trained anyone, we’ll have him train with Yoda or another top master, and perhaps since we know he has an attachment to his mother, we’ll make sure that she is safe by keeping an eye on her, so that he’ll never have to worry about her well-being.” Yup, Yoda makes a pretty stupid decision so that the known outcome of Obi-Wan training Anakin can come to pass. But then all those known outcomes mentioned in the classic trilogy: some of those didn’t quite pan out in ways that made sense: Obi-wan claiming that Yoda was the Jedi who trained him – never depicted, and instead we have Qui-Gon; Leia remembering her mother looking sad, and having died when she was very young: a little too young for regular memories. But enough picking apart TPM for its characters making decisions that are forced by the plot. The question at hand is TPM needed to establish the world before it goes topsy-turvy. We do see it in the process of falling apart, in AOTC and ROTS, but I think there are some things we see only in TPM that are worth knowing in the long run: Qui-Gon and his relationship to both Obi-Wan and Anakin, Shmi as mother and slave, and the bits of humor that weren’t as present in the rest of the prequels. Does this keep it from being The Silmarillion to the Star Wars saga? Are these things major enough? Hmm…
The big picture
As I mentioned earlier, whether TPM matters or not depends on your point of view – what you want Star Wars to mean. Is it really just about the original trilogy, with Anakin’s fall as a flashback to reveal that really this monster IS Luke’s father? Or is it the tragedy of a good man with good intentions, twisted by larger forces to be something he wasn’t, and only can break free at the end? Or is it as Machete points out it might be: two parallel stories of father and son as young heroes thrust onto the galactic stage as Jedi but with different outcomes.
Carla points out the key for context when choosing a viewing order:
I think it’s a matter of knowing your audience. While I don’t 100% agree with the article [Machete Order], I think it’s make a half-decent case for giving that order a try. Particularly if it’s shown to a adult audience who prefers a darker story line.
She points out that if you view the saga primarily as Luke’s story with a Vader flashback, then the Machete Order works. But TPM is needed when showing the saga for deeper meaning:
While removing [TPM] makes the symbolism tidier, it does lose some of the spiritual and psychological journey. Vader’s sudden change at the end, doesn’t seem so sudden, because we get to see how pure and loving the relationship with his mother had been. Family is more than an abstract concept for him. His fall makes more sense, because we see how the Jedi council first dismissed him. And Yoda is casting doom and gloom at him from first glance, because he’s feeling the entirely natural emotion of fear. And you do get the impression that his very existence makes them uneasy, which explains how he becomes the mixed-up simultaneously cocky and insecure teen. Obi-wan is semi-forced to be his friend. Qui-Gon’s talks about him like a found treasure. Other than his mother, Padmé is the only one who shows genuine concern without ulterior motive…thus the obsession with her…also makes psychological sense.
So in the end, Episode I matters if Anakin matters. And if you’re showing the films to someone who hasn’t seen them before, the order (and what is maintained or omitted) will determine what matters. And cutting something out isn’t giving your first time viewer a fair chance to determine what matters and resonates with them. Let them decide if The Phantom Menace matters or not to them – don’t just settle for your own certain point of view.
This Jawa’s given his two creds – what’s your opinion on viewing order and Episode I’s relevance? (Some of Club Jade’s members proposed that the best viewing order is IV-V-VI-I-II-III-IV-V-VI, but that does eat up a bit more time than most newcomers might want to invest.)