First Order stormtroopers at April’s Star Wars Celebration in Orlando. (Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images)
On May 25, 1977, filmmaker George Lucas and Twentieth Century Fox released “Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope” — the first movie in a planned series of nine films. The movie soon became a cultural phenomenon. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the launch of the Star Wars series.
We never see a journalist in “Star Wars.” Not in eight movies and counting.
The galaxy is otherwise rich in professions. There are bartenders, bounty hunters, geneticists, one librarian, medics, moisture farmers, musicians, senators, soldiers and a lady who sells toads out of the sewer. The character who comes closest to an act of journalism, if we’re being generous, is a two-headed alien who commentates during a podrace. His sportscast is mostly hackwork, stuff like “It’s Skywalker!” and “The crowds are going nuts!” Worse still, he’s not very impartial; at the sight of the gangster Jabba the Hutt, both of his heads gargle in apparent fealty.
If there was ever a galaxy far, far away in need of a smart and independent press, you’re looking at it.
“Fake news in ‘Star Wars’ is probably their number one problem,” says Ryan Britt, an editor who specializes in science fiction at the website Inverse. Britt, in his 2015 book “Luke Skywalker Can’t Read,” makes a provocative claim: Most “Star Wars” denizens, if they’re not illiterate, seem fundamentally disinterested in reading.
“There’s a lack of deep reading and understanding and comprehension,” Britt says. “The transference of cultural memory is really, really short.”
Though Luke occasionally uses the written word to complete tasks, such as navigating to a distant planet, we never see him read for fun or education. Nobody does. You’d be correct if you argued that fleeing a Death Star isn’t the best time to flip through the latest issue of Space Vogue. But even during the prequel series, amid the calm and luxury of the capital planet, there’s nary a holographic newspaper or textbook in sight. And so propaganda reigns. Facts quickly turn into distorted myth.
This lack of media, from Britt’s point of view, enriches the fictional universe. “It’s not an indictment that ‘Star Wars’ is poorly written,” he says. “It explains the dysfunction.”
Fake news is a deadly symptom of the media-poor culture displayed in “Star Wars.” Facebook, in a report released at the end of April, defined fake news as a “catch-all” phrase that may include “hoaxes, rumors, memes, online abuse, and factual misstatements by public figures that are reported in otherwise accurate news pieces.” And in “Star Wars,” a few whopping “factual misstatements” by a public figure give rise to an evil empire.
Near the end of the prequel “Revenge of the Sith,” the elected leader of the Galactic Republic gives a speech. It’s a rousing speech, full of carnage and conspiracy. Supreme Chancellor Palpatine spins a wild theory that the powerful elite, the Jedi, wish to subvert the government. It’s also total bull.
A “Jedi rebellion” has been foiled, Palpatine says. (This is false. Palpatine ordered his troopers to shoot the Jedi in the back, a slaughter presumably carried out on thousands of planets.) The Jedi disfigured his face in a failed assassination attempt, he says. (False again, though difficult to investigate — Palpatine resisted arrest in his private office, then zapped any would-be witnesses to death.)
With that, a millennium-old democracy dies. Palpatine announces that the Republic is now an empire, promising “a safe and secure society, which I assure you will last for 10,000 years.”
Almost everyone in Palpatine’s audience greets his speech with thunderous applause.
There are a few heads shaken and sad words muttered. But nobody jots down notes. Nobody switches on a recorder. Nobody in the chamber raises a tentacle and asks, “Uh, excuse me, Mr. Chancellor …?”
Meanwhile, what appear to be drones equipped with video cameras hover around the Senate chamber. The movie never explains the drones’ purpose, but it’s easy to imagine that the robots are filming the emperor’s speech. (In fact, the “Star Wars” television show “Rebels” later offers a glimpse of imperial propaganda recorded from that very location.) If so, there is no evidence that the galaxy tuned into the robot feed to see a popular and rightly outraged news anchor listing the democratic laws broken and historical context ignored.
The emperor swiftly consolidates control. It will take 19 years for isolated pockets of outrage to blossom into a full rebellion against the Empire.
“When you take out print, when you legislate against media, what results is some kind of totalitarian state,” says Joseph Hurtgen, an English instructor at Georgia’s Young Harris College and an expert in archival theory, the way information is kept and stored. “That’s always where this goes when you undermine print culture.”
The funny thing about records in “Star Wars,” Hurtgen says, is that they betray an obsession with technology. “The only archive that anybody bothers to keep in ‘Star Wars’ is technology,” he says. “Nobody’s writing down memos or news.”
Even those technological archives are devoid of context. The Jedi library contains volumes of star charts but allows no room for questioning their accuracy. “The library is complete garbage,” in Britt’s estimation. As for the Empire, as seen in “Rogue One,” its most precious archive is a tower of blueprints.
“There’s no analysis, right?” Hurtgen says. “There’s no knowledge about eschatological probabilities when manufacturing Death Stars.” Which is to say, the Empire never seems to learn from its mistakes. Nor are the Jedi blameless, says Hurtgen: Their mantra is to “examine your feelings,” a far cry from rational discourse as applied by political philosophers. (“Examining feelings gives us Hammurabi extracting teeth; Austria-Hungary, 1914, declaring war on Serbia; Trump tweeting, well, anything,” per Hurtgen.)
In fictional epics with fleshed-out worlds, there’s usually some sort of journalism, if only a TV on in the background — because if universe-altering events are happening, any halfway decent media outlet will be paying attention.
Harry Potter reads the Daily Prophet. Superhero comics are filthy with reporters. In the sci-fi graphic novel series “Saga,” hailed as a spiritual successor to “Star Wars,” a photographer and tabloid journalist play small but critical roles. Reporters pop up in “Star Trek.” In the “Battlestar Galactica” reboot, a TV series in which the total human population shrinks to 50,000 refugees, an early episode is shot from a journalist’s point of view. And yet in “Star Wars?” Zilch.
In this media void, history takes on the murk of a Dagobah swamp. During “A New Hope,” the “Star Wars” movie set just 19 years after “Revenge of the Sith,” the Jedi were described as members of an “ancient religion.” In the recent “The Force Awakens” film, the young hero Rey admits she believed that Luke Skywalker, perhaps the most important historical figure from a mere 30 years earlier, was only a “myth.”
Every so often, excitable fans of the series will tell Britt that the “Star Wars” expanded universe — books, TV shows, comics — prove him wrong. (Britt’s idea certainly seems to rub some people the wrong way. “That stupid illiteracy theory,” huffed one pop culture website last year.) Most frequently invoked to their defense is the HoloNet, the “Star Wars” equivalent of the Internet.
Even so, it seems doubtful that the HoloNet promoted the free exchange of ideas. The HoloNet News, per its Lucasfilm-approved description, was not a bastion of hard-hitting journalism. The ostensibly democratic Republic took it over first. Then, under Palpatine’s reign, it became “the official state-sanctioned news agency of the Empire.” (An organization named the “Ministry of Information” made sure that “stories were consistent with government messaging.”)
The “Star Wars” films are similar to Western movies, Hurtgen says, because both take place in a “space free of normal institutions. And one of those great institutions is education. All that’s left is storytelling, as an oral culture.”
When the first “Star Wars” film was released in 1977, he argues, it was the perfect time for an escapist fantasy about a society that doesn’t read. The previous economic era, in which a lack of a college education was not a barrier to a steady job, had come to a close.
“There’s something to a narrative appearing at a moment when higher learning and literacy are more and more required,” Hurtgen says. “The great heroes don’t have to do that. They’re fine all on their own.”
There’s a line of reasoning that argues the stories we tell reflect who we are as a society. “One thing I would wonder,” Hurtgen says, “if we’re telling stories in which there’s no media culture, there’s no written word — what does that mean for us that ‘Star Wars’ would become one of the most popular tales?”