Thursday, December 6, 2012

Why Midichlorians Matter

(And yes, that is a pun)

So I was listening to the ModernScholar series. It's a really good idea, this lecture series where the top professors in their field pontificate on any number of subjects. I have found, however, that the execution is somewhat lacking. For instance, one professor, while outlining the basics of a work of literature, used the verb tense "hung" when he should have used "hanged." Worse still, he also attributed a quote to Percy Shelley which actually dripped from the pen of William Blake.

But even worse yet, I made a plunge into the study of sciencefiction. I thought it might have some interesting things to say about Dune, which was the main topic on one of the discs. Well, quite naturally, the professor mentioned Star Wars in the introduction. After rightly arguing that it wasn't hard science fiction, he began to make erroneous comments. The one that really sticks in my mind is that a lightsaber was simply a tool in that galaxy far, far away, something as common as a lawnmower. Whatever. There were also a couple of other observations which fell flat. 

Of course, the professor couldn't stop there. He remarked on the use of science in science fiction, particularly citing midichlorians as George Lucas' attempt to ruin his own franchise by turning the Force into some kind of blood disease or some such. I've blocked the main quote from memory. So yes, this guy is allegedly one of the top minds in his field, and this is what he has to say about the Wars.
Not that this isn't common. The confusion that has erupted across fandom from the inclusion of midichlorians in The Phantom Menace is still being felt today, outraging everyone from this professor to Simon Pegg. The Force was ruined, they said. No longer was it a nice, mystical energy field created all things, but pointless, biological, microscopic organisms in the blood. How in the living hell anyone came to this conclusion is beyond me. How anyone, even his most vocal, hateful opponents, could literally believe George Lucas could be so achingly stupid is hard to believe, though that is the prevailing sentiment. 

At Celebration VI, apparently Seth Green and the other creators of Star Wars Detours were joking with George Lucas about the hated midis. And that was when Lucas apparently launched into a brilliant, half hour long philosophical of explanation of them. Word on the street has it that everyone present came out of it loving midichlorians. 

This only makes sense. After all, they've been part of Lucas' notes on the saga since the seventies. And since it's been canon since the original trilogy that Force ability is in fact passed down through bloodlines, the notion that there is - horror of horrors - an actual biological connection lines up perfectly. But so many people wandered out of the theaters utterly dumbfounded in '99. 

Tell you what I'm going to do. I'm going to post a few pages from my upcoming book that center around, clarify, and explore these little microscopic buggers. And I'll just hope against hope that this helps quell the haters a bit. This from Chapter Two: The Symbiosis -

So the theme of symbiosis has been briefly examined on a galactic, planetary, cultural, and character level, but it goes deeper still.

In Ethics, the Dalai Lama states that when the lens of symbiosis is taken up, “We begin to see that the universe we inhabit can be understood in terms of a living organism where each cell works in balanced cooperation with every other cell to sustain the whole.” For our purposes here, the Living Force is the organism uniting the galaxy and, yes, as the Dalai Lama himself said, that extends to the cellular level.

To me, this is only so much common sense, yet one of the most hotly contested elements in The Phantom Menace was the inclusion of midichlorians, the tiny, microscopic organisms that allow Jedi to commune with the Force. Of course, there seems to be an extraordinary amount of confusion regarding what midichlorians even are. Inexplicably, many walked out of the theater believing that the Force was no longer a mystical energy field created by all living things, but some sort of weird blood disease. Never mind that this was never stated, discussed, or even alluded to in the film or the script.

Aside from portraying the maverick Jedi master Qui-Gon Jinn, Liam Neeson seemed to have little trouble with the concept, though he did ask his director about them. “He said that we all have thousands of bacteria in our systems – suppose a particular strain had a life force that was connected to the universe? And what if some people had a stronger strain of these bacteria than others did?” Neeson recounted, adding, “I thought the idea was both fascinating and believable."

The key word here is “connected,” both literally and thematically. As his fictional counterpart advises young Anakin, “Without midichlorians, life could not exist, and we would have no knowledge of the Force. They continually speak to you, telling you the will of the Force.”
Very clearly, the film states that without the midichlorians, we would have no knowledge of the Force. At no point does anyone say without midichlorians, the Force would not exist, only no one would be connected to it. Likewise, the midichlorians “speak” to the Jedi, telling them the “will” of the Force. If the Force and the midichlorians were the same thing, Qui-Gon would have said they tell us their will, as in the possessive.
At no point are the two said to be identical or interchangeable. The midichlorians are just the antennas that pick up the signal of the Force, as simple as that. Yet given the amount of incomprehensibility those little guys have produced, I’ll step aside and let the George Lucas himself explain them, and then round out our theme.

In the 2005 Vanity Fair interview, he conveniently launched into nothing short of a soliloquy on them:

It means that between the Force, which is sort of a life force, and reality, the connectors between these two things are what we call [midichlorians]. They’re kind of based on mitochondria, which are a completely different species, a different animal, that live inside every single cell and allow it to live, allow it to reproduce, allow life to exist. They also, in their own way, communicate with the Force itself. The more you have, the more your cells are able to speak intuitively to the Force itself and use the powers of the Force.

Of course, many have vehemently objected to the Force having any connection to the material, biological world at all. As Yoda waxed poetic in The Empire Strikes Back, “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.” Unfortunately, our little green master seemed to have momentarily forgotten that the Force is the offspring of the material world. Physical life is the very root of it, the thing that causes it to grow and expand. No biological galaxy means no luminous energy, and this has been part of Star Wars canon since the beginning.
Conveniently, there is a fabulous article in Star Wars and Philosophy that delves into this while discussing environmental ethics. Elizabeth F. Cooke of Creighton University cleverly shoots down the mind-body antagonism some have seen in the saga.
Establishing Yoda’s oft-quoted line as only part of the picture, Cooke writes how the Living Force “isn’t so much the ‘mind-over-matter’ picture as one of mind and matter interacting as two parts of a whole. A Jedi padawan’s task is to become more in touch with the physical world by being more at one with the Force – a task achieved through both physical and mental training. A Jedi must learn to ‘feel’ the Force, rather than just think about it.”
This also fundamentally ties in with the fact that every species with close, harmonious ties to the physical world, like the Gungans, Wookiees, or Ewoks, are invariably shown in a positive light. In their own way, they are as bound up in the life force as the Jedi. As Cooke explains, “They work with nature to defend nature, and nature is one with the Force.”
Contrary to popular understanding, not every spirituality has to be predicated on an eternal war between religion and science, much less spirit and matter. This is a cultural oddity that Lucas is clearly trying to rectify with his inclusion of midichlorians. Like neural pathways in the brain, the midichlorians are conduits, the bridge connecting spirit and flesh to create a greater whole. Clearly there has to be some kind of biological component at work, which is why the Force is inherited, or at least stronger in certain families than others. The only reason anyone knows that the Force spirits is because midichlorians matter.
This interdependence is something science is discovering as well, with scientists increasingly realizing, from astronomy to quantum physics, that no single part is isolated and separate from the whole. In Life of Earth: Portrait of a Beautiful, Middle-Aged, Stressed-Out World, Stanley R. Rice wonderfully illustrates how symbiont circles operate:

Much of the subsequent biography of Earth consists of cells merging together
the processes that they already had, producing complexity from primordially
simple parts. By joining together, each of them benefitted from the other.
They formed partnerships that accomplished things that neither could do
alone. This is symbiosis: the close cooperation, and perhaps even fusion,
of more than one species into a cooperative unit. It is symbiosis that
transformed Earth from a broth of simple cells into everything it is today.

This is a beautiful thing, and it is arguably the central theme of Star Wars.
Again, nothing is changing on any level whatsoever besides the size scale. Some objected to the young Obi-Wan Kenobi using a microscope aboard the Queen’s ship to study midichlorians at all, but they might just as well object to Luke Skywalker studying Tusken Raiders from afar with his macrobinoculars in A New Hope. Whether reality is seen from under a microscope or through a telescope, nothing is changing but the level of magnification.
To object to midichlorians is really to object to Force users themselves, since the former is merely a microscopic view of the latter. Or to put it another way, as the Jedi contact, communicate, and use the Force in the larger body of the galaxy, so midichlorians channel and use the Force in the larger body of the Jedi.
Again, nothing has been altered or rewritten except the size scale.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

It's a Small Galaxy After All

So, some stuff happened since my last post. Galaxy-shattering stuff. Paradigm-shifting, even. An event so momentous it shook the Star Wars franchise to its very core, one that has redefined it for all time. The world changed this week, and it changed forever.

I finished writing my book, and it should now be safely in the hands of McFarland Publishers.

OH - and Disney also bought Lucasfilm and the long rumored Episodes VII-IX are going to be filmed after all. 

After a genuinely trying October, I don't know which of those sentences are harder to believe. Tuesday I finally had a day off, which I was going to devote to peace and relaxation. I never take a nap in the middle of the day, but I did Tuesday. Then my phone started buzzing, afire with texts and Facebook messages. It didn't stop for almost six hours straight, and was quite literally hot in my hands. 

I'll just go on record now as echoing what everyone has been saying interminably since the news broke - this feels like something out of a dream. We all feel about as disoriented as Luke Skywalker when he first got to Dagobah. Still, there is something familiar about where we all are. 

The ever-shifting statements regarding the number of episodes that will make up the saga we know and love (except for those who hate it, of course). Lucas' continued insistence on his ambition to retire and go make small experimental films that no one will want to see. And of course the affiliation of Lucasfilm and Disney. On that score, I can say that the only direct coming together of the two I experienced was Star Tours this summer in Orlando, and if that is any indication of what is to come, we are all in for a treat. 

Of course, when has the fandom itself ever been wholeheartedly willing to set aside its collective ego and embrace something as sweet and tempting as a possible treat? Business goes on as usual, with a certain segment of the community as fired with righteous indignation as on the day they first heard about midichlorians. 

For years, George Lucas refused to give up creative control of Star Wars, which had fans furious. Now that he's finally given all of it up to Kathleen Kennedy and crew, surprise, they're stil furious. For years, the possibility of another trilogy was denied and refused, with fans angrily foaming at the mouth. Now that the new sequel trilogy has been acknowledged and confirmed, surprise, fans are still angrily foaming at the mouth. Situation normal.

But for the rest of us, more or less happy, fans, the news still bowled us over, like a Wookiee barreling through a cantina, drunk on Corellian ale. Even now, several days after the announcement, it still requires some internal adjustment. Merely the idea of a castle with fireworks over it initiating a new film, as opposed to the sublimely familiar Twentieth Century FOX logo, is a lot to assimilate. 

For me, I was a little saddened by the news. After all, despite all the protests about Lucas "selling out," he was in fact about the only person who never did. But alas, as Yoda reminds us, all is impermanent. Even Lucasfilm. And with the Flanneled One himself approaching seventy years old, retirement was imminent. Faced with the possibility of his company's uncertain future after his death, he took the necessary steps to ensure its survival. 

While many laud the move as only a logical progression, it is somewhat sad to think of one of the few independent entertainment companies being gobbled up by yet another ever-inflating corporation. There is no denying that Lucasfilm itself was a corporation in both design and execution but, as so many failed to understand or appreciate, it was also a raised, defiant middle finger to the mega conglomerates now dictating much of what we consume as entertainment. Even after thirty-five years of producing arguably the biggest, most successful franchise in the world, it retained its independence, a stubborn, maverick film company that did things its own way, when the usual trend was to blow with whatever prevailing winds looked to produce the most box office receipts. 

So for that, I'm a little disheartened. On the other hand, Lucas and his company was by and large totally misunderstood, with the filmmaker himself largely being given nothing but grief for filming and financing his artistic visions however he saw fit. Of course, some are seeing this move as a "sell out," despite their insistence that he sold out long ago. It seems prudent to remind some factions that not only did he give half his money to charity a few years ago, lo and behold, he did the same thing all over again with the four billion from the Disney sale. Yes, some people have been so consistently wrong about GL for so long there's really no point in even arguing anymore. 

The good news for those of us no-good, dirty rotten Lucas lovers is that he isn't leaving the game altogether. While that may make some wince, it makes me smile. Thanks to all those conference calls this week, Bob Iger and company have confirmed that Lucas not only has a lot of notes on the trilogy to come, but also extensive treatments for the three films. We can only hope that there were also extensive clauses built into the contract dictating what can and can't be done with the existing films, as well as with the ones to come. Rumor also has it that the Bearded One may at least have as much input into Episode VII as he enjoys on The Clone Wars and had on The Empire Strikes Back.

Speaking of The Clone Wars, I'm not even going to speculate about possible writers and directors and all of that. Just glad it's not my decision to make. I think we as a fan base do feel a special connection and collective trust of Dave Filoni for his work on the franchise for the past few years, so let's hope he has some major input into all this before it's over. And speaking of The Clone Wars, it would be equally intriguing if the long-speculated fate of Ahsoka was actually to star in and launch the new trilogy!

To be sure, the merger does raise some possible red flags about the future of the Wars. Talk now centers around not only Episodes VII-IX, but any number of spin-off movies with Disney now in control. Like the modern Expanded Universe, there is always a potential for over-saturation and the dilution of the saga, with films debuting every couple of years into the foreseeable future. There are any number of things that could go wrong, despite most of us wanting it to go so right. 

Still, Disney has infinitely deeper pockets and resources than Lucasfilm ever did, so much so that the potential does shine brighter than the twin suns of Tatooine. As many like to point out, if Cars gets its own theme park, there is no reason why we shouldn't be walking around Lucasland in a few years, enjoying cups of Jawa Juice and riding around on amusement park-style Podracers. And of course, simply the thought of an older Mark Hamill donning the Jedi robes again, perhaps sporting a beard like his mentor Obi-Wan, and fading in as a blue Force ghost is enough to send most of us into delirious fanboy ecstasy. 

Yet again, even this is a double-edged lightsaber. It has been confirmed that the next three films will be original stories, which begs the question - what will they be about?! Return of the Jedi did have a perfect ending, and a nice symmetry with the prequels. The Emperor was dead, Vader was redeemed, the Force was balanced, and the Ewoks were happy. Not to mention that Lucas has insisted that the story of the Skywalkers was told in the first six films. If we are getting that Luke Skywalker cameo, it may very well be in an older mentor vein, with the lightsabers being passed off to the next generation. 

While I am rather happy to simply let our heroes from the original trilogy simply enjoy retirement, one does have to wonder where the threat will even come from. We obviously aren't going to be seeing any Yuuzhan Vong invasions, and to bring the Sith back would be to partially negate Vader's sacrifice in killing the Emperor. But if not the Sith, then who? The same goes for the Empire which, if the film is taking place forty years in the future as rumored, shouldn't be much of any issue any more. 
Happily, not for me to decide, and if GL has already worked up story notes, then I'm good. Philosophically, however, I get a little more territorial. As has been a topic of discussion among friends for years now, Luke Skywalker tossing his lightsaber away at the end of Return of the Jedi was a paradigm-shifting act. That can't simply be written off. This was the end of a thousand year cycle of Sith violence and darkness.

The progression within the existing trilogies can be helpfully viewed through the lens of the Bible. The old Jedi Order, with their codes and regulations, is largely a religion of law. The actions of Luke Skywalker, and the philosophies passed down by Qui-Gon Jinn, largely establish a religion of love. This movement is vaguely analogous to the transition from the Old Testament to the New, where much the same pattern established itself. 

While the word "wars" is right there in the title, it does seem a little unfortunate for another galaxy-wide conflict to erupt by the time of the next episode. The Force has been balanced, and it would be nice to think of the galaxy as a whole to be a more enlightened place as a result of it. The dark side no longer clouds everything, a fact which probably even filters down into the lives of ordinary beings. Perhaps a galaxy-regulating Republic is no longer even needed, though that is almost certainly a bit more anarchic than Lucas' vision allows. 

The main crux is the Jedi. If Luke does indeed "pass on" what he has learned, he most certainly would have taught Leia. And if he forms a new Jedi Order, then he will imbue it with what he has learned, namely that violence, while sometimes necessary, is simply NOT the answer. This new Order would more likely than not sport lightsabers simply for training and ceremonial purposes, and be organized along the lines of a passive, non-violent resistance movement. 

And this is where the path gets rather razor thin. Love him or hate him, Lucas understands better than anyone on the planet the mythological and philosophical thrust of these movies. Here at The Star Wars Heresies, that is perhaps the primary means of concern. If someone else is to take over the production of these films, then I want to be able to freeze frame my Blu-Ray extras and count the number of Joseph Campbell books on their book shelves.

Yeah, sure, I'm not going to cling to my preconceptions like a Sith witch Force choking a Rodian, but the spiritual core of Star Wars really needs to be understood and protected above all else. This would be the easiest thing to let slip by, and I would hate to see it happen. 

Okay, I guess I should admit that when I throw lines like "the spiritual core of Star Wars" around, I'm really talking about its Buddhist leanings. While the excellent The Dharma Of Star Wars pretty explicitly denies that the saga is a Buddhist allegory or such ... it really is. As George Lucas told TIME magazine during production of the prequels, he does live in Marin County, and "we're all Buddhists up here." Not to mention Irvin Kershner and Lawrence Kasdan were both studying Zen during the time of Empire and Jedi. Matthew Wood of sound design and General Grievous fame was heavily influenced by Alan Watts and is even helping his son Mark put together a documentary about him. Watts of course was not only a friend of Campbell's but one of the primary exporters of Eastern philosophy to the West.

This is rather ingrained in the whole enterprise. The Jedi have a temple, not a church; they don't pray, they meditate; they don't worship the Force, they become one with it. Certainly, it's open to a very broad variety of theological and philosophical interpretations, but Buddhism, particularly Zen, seems very much to be its heart. Ironically, considering Disney had Bernie Glassman working on the script for Tron Legacy, imbuing that film with a strong Zen-born spiritual subtext, Star Wars might get lucky.

And lastly, outside of the film and it's potentials and pitfalls, I have heard a consistent voice echoing across Facebook and forums and podcasts. This one is not concerned with the execution of what is to come, which fandom has very little control of it. Rather, the emphasis has shifted to something we do have some element of control over - namely our freakin' selves. 

If we are to have a new kind of Star Wars, we need a new kind of fan. One that can let go, embrace change, and simply enjoy themselves, as opposed to one that clings to the past, fears every change, and turns the entire event into a stress-filled anxiety attack. I could go William Shatner here and talk about "Getting a Life," but I won't.

Instead, I keep flashing back to Dead Poet's Society. Like one of the guys said, "Are we just guys out here reading a bunch of poems to ourselves, or do we really mean what we say?"  Same freakin' thing. Are we just a bunch of guys sitting around complaining on the Internet, or are we a bunch of potential Jedi ourselves who actually mean what we say? If we love the Force so much, we need to start acting like it, and let the light side flow through us. 

So get ready to take that first step into a larger world, cause Star Wars' future just got a whole lot bigger. 

And if you need some more reading and listening to help you kick your enthusiasm about this new world into hyperdrive, check out all this stuff -

And wow those links won't show up right ....

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Return of the Jedi

 .... at least from the four day extravaganza that was Star Wars Celebration VI.

Early on, I made it very clear that if Celebration VI wasn’t one of the greatest weekends in the history of Western civilization, I was going to be very disappointed. I wasn’t disappointed. My first Star Wars Celebration was well worth the wait, being everything I had counted on, as well as a little bit more.
For four days, the world essentially blurred into lightspeed, and I was catapulted to that long ago, far away galaxy. Only last week, it was tantalizing close, in Orlando, Florida. Karen Armstrong once noted that mythic drama and ritual had an element to it she thought of as “sacred play,” and as my reality pleasantly widened to include astromech droids, bounty hunters, Sith Lords, and Jedi Knights, that phrase sums up Celebration rather well.

As per my advice, many readers did "friend" me on Facebook. And as such, you pretty much got an hour-by-hour playback of how magical the time down in Florida was. I am currently going back through and making notes from there, as well as organizing an endless collection of camera pics, phone photos, and shaky videos.

However, there is so much material it is going to be awhile before I can do much of anything with it. I'm pondering doing some blog posts, or perhaps even a little website. Regardless, it needs an online home somewhere, even though I currently simply do not have the time necessary for such a task. The book contract looms at the beginning of November, as well as another side Star Wars project in the works.

But so much happened. In the span of four or five days, I catalogued a series of colorful adventures with a stuffed Ewok; won a tip of the hat from none other than Dave Filoni; discussed Alan Watts with Matthew Wood in the lobby of our hotel; saw a sneak preview of season five of the Clone Wars; made new friends from as far away as Sweden; discussed midichlorians with a molecular biologist who wasn't even at the con; secured a set of Forcecast trading cards; met Kenny Baker in a bar; had a reunion with Anthony Daniels; enjoyed the best screening of Return of the Jedi since the initial one in 1983; watched Ian McDiarmid Sith lightning James Arnold Taylor on stage; cheered Warwick Davis as he rode around on a segue; congratulated Mary Franklin on a con well done; got blasted into the Battle of Coruscant on Star Tours at Disney World; shook hands with a gazillion people; and actually saw George Lucas with my own eyes.

Oh, and about a thousand other things.

In short, it was some of the best days of my entire existence. And thanks to my friend Dean who accompanied me. If it hadn't been for him, I would still be wondering around in circles around the Exhibition Hall, jaw scraping the floor. It was like falling through a portal into your favorite world of fiction, with panels and podcasts and celebrities and costumes and just endless awesome.

If anyone has the means and a deep, abiding love of The Wars, I cannot suggest going highly enough. Bring on Celebration VII. In the meantime, you can check out this wonderful recount of some of the Force magic that went down at A Certain Point of View.


Friday, August 17, 2012

Celebrating Good Times

Yes, the Star Wars Heresies will be attending Celebration VI at the Orange County Convention Center in Or-Lando, Florida next week. Finally. For the first time ever. A ten year veteran of Dragoncon with no Celebration experience whatsoever. Shameful. Much like a droid, I seem to be made to suffer.

But soon that’s all going to change. While there are a million things to do, I have managed to scan the schedule for Thursday and Friday. Conflicts abound. No cloning technology available. Still, “Bottled Water and a Plan: Maximize Your Celebration VI Experience” Thursday morning seems like a no-brainer.

Obviously, Ian McDiarmid and Mark Hamill are a must. Not to mention Warwick Davis! The legend himself was scheduled for Dragoncon years ago but was unable to make it. Until he was announced for this, I was still carrying the dead weight of disappointment around in my heart. The red carpet premiere of The Clone Wars is another do-or-die one. Mix that in with and Forcecast party, digital screenings of all the movies, not to mention endless rounds of panels and podcasts, and another vacation will be needed after this one.

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure when I’ll be able to get near this blog again. There will no doubt be fun and insightful coverage, but probably not until I get back from Orlando. And then it just depends on whether or not I’m switching jobs (as in the real world variety) a week or two later.

Hopefully I can grow more proficient with my uncle’s camera, so there will be more pictures than you can shake an Ewok at. If any of you noble readers out there haven’t yet friended me on Facebook (Paul F. McDonald), do so now. I will certainly try to do some commentary and picture uploading for those who can’t make it.

As typical of my style, there will be some heresy spread. I’m considering doing a sneak preview CD-R of my book, complete with intro and sample chapters for certain members of the Star Wars social media machine. I will also be gathering with my fellow Lucas-loving blasphemers at the “Why We Love the Prequels” panel on Sunday, complete with luncheon afterward (though as I keep pointing out, I mean seriously, why not just name a panel “Why We Love Winning a Million Dollars” or “Why We Love Mind-Blowing Sex”?).

The schedule is amping up to insanity, but as some have already done, Facebook messaging is probably the best way to get in touch with me. Keep in mind, this is only for people who want to meet and say hello, not for people who want to punch me in the face. Or freeze me in carbonite – though that Disney thing is going to be awesome!

But anyway, wish all of you could be there. So many online friends I want to meet. On the other hand, so little time. And I personally do require food and sleep at these things. Dammit. Celebration really should be a week.

Amidst the heat and fun and inevitable chaos, I hope the Force is with us all. I have no doubt it’s going to be!