I recall vividly the first time I ever saw Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope, or Star Wars as it was simply known then. I was four years old and it was on its original cinematic release. I loved it. So much so that I wet myself. Literally. I didn’t want to leave for a single moment of the glorious visual treat unfolding in front of me and it was either that or give in to my very full bladder. Despite the ignominy of having to exit the cinema dripping with urine, I considered it a fair cop at the age of four.
My other confession is that I have a daughter who has just gone two years of age and already she’s seen Episode IV. And I didn’t even wait until she was two to show the movie to her. I was at home with her one day, ill with the flu, and decided in order to give myself a break I would put the film on and wait until her attention span gave out. I figured this would take around fifteen minutes, which is a long time in one year old land. Instead, I found myself sitting there, two hours later, having to press play again because my daughter wanted to watch all of the credits to the very end. When they were finished, she pointed to the TV screen and said “Again”. For the record, I didn’t show my one year old daughter Star Wars twice in a row.
Since that day, Star Wars has become a major obsession for her. When we go anywhere in the car she says, “Daddy being Han Solo”. By request, her second birthday cake was in the shape of Darth Vader’s head. I have gone on to show her the other two films in the original trilogy and they were loved just as much. She particularly fell for Yoda, who became her favourite Star Wars character. She likes to paraphrase the 900 year old Jedi master frequently (“You think you not scared? You will be!”). So in the interests of equal time, I thought that I had to show her The Phantom Menace. I, like most people of my generation, the ones who had seen the original trilogy when they were first released, was appalled by the prequels. But I thought given I had shown her the original three movies at what most people would call far too young an age, I had to see what she thought of Episode I. It seemed only fair. Also, it presented a good experiment; it is often said that we only liked the original trilogy so much and hated the prequels because we had been exposed to one of the trilogies as impressionable, small children and the other as cynical adults. So here was a grand chance to test this theory.
Despite everything that has been written about Phantom Menace since its release, all the heartfelt claims that the film had ruined people’s childhoods, the tracts about Jar Jar Binks, the Plinkett reviews, my daughter provided what I believe to be the best ever review of Episode I:
“This isn’t Star Wars.”
At four words, it even has brevity on its side. This was delivered about ten minutes into the movie, just as Qui-Gon and Obi Wan are about to land on Naboo. Then up came Jar Jar. At this point, I got a very forceful, “I don’t like this! SHUT IT OFF!!” shouted at me and that was the end of the Phantom Menace experiment. Sufficed to say, my daughter has never subsequently said to me, “Daddy being Nute Gunray”.
So here’s the thing: everyone has had a bash at what’s wrong with the Star Wars prequel trilogy again and again and again, so I thought I would try and be constructive and think about how they could be re-imagined as something not completely and utterly pants. I know I’m not the absolute first person to attempt this, but I haven’t heard anyone else echo my vision for how the prequels should have gone anywhere else out there, so I think I have something unique to offer. So here goes. Warning: although I love Star Wars, I would not qualify as an obsessive. I have never read any Star Wars related novels and the entire “extended universe” is a total mystery to me. So I’m simply going from the movies and my enjoyment of them down through the years.
The backdrop to the first film has to be as follows: the Sith have made a long foreshadowed reappearance in the galaxy. As obsessives will spot, right off the bat I’m throwing something central away from the actual prequels trilogy, namely the truly moronic “Rule of Two”. If there can only ever be two Sith at any one time then surely that means that the ways in which they could ever take control of the galaxy – or even cause a major disruption to the Republic – would be extremely limited? So in my version of the prequels there are shedloads of Sith, just so we’re clear. The Jedi have had a few battles with the Sith here and there and one Sith in particular has gained a bit of a reputation for being a nonpareil fighter, a certain Darth Maul. In fact, it is the assumption of most of the Jedi Order at this stage that Maul is the ringleader of the newly formed Sith Order (although there is no proof either way). Against this, you have a large group of Separatists who want to break away from the Republic. This is made up of the Hutts and a growing number of both Outer Rim and Inner Rim systems. They feel that the Republic is too Core Worlds focused and human centric. They are threatening to secede from the Republic and rule themselves, a sort of Confederacy in space. Many of the Jedi think that the Sith are behind it all but again this is conjecture.
Qui-Gon Jin and Obi Wan Kenobi are the two Jedi knights who are escorting Padme Amidala, the teenaged queen from Alderaan who is acting as the Republic’s representative, to a neutral planet in the Outer Rim where she will meet with representatives of the Separatists in an attempt to avoid a secession and possible galactic war. Padme is the diplomat in this scenario; the Jedi are simply her guardians. Qui-Gon is an older, conservative Jedi. He believes in careful consideration and not jumping to conclusions. Obi Wan is young (early twenties) and more eager to follow his instincts. On the way into the negotiations Obi Wan says he is sure the Sith are behind all of the problems with the Separatists. Qui-Gon says that the younger Jedi should listen to the Separatists concerns with an open mind and heart as perhaps many of them are at least semi-reasonable qualms.
First on the agenda is the idea that the Separatists have created a massive army of clones whom they are going to use to invade an abundance of systems, claiming them from the Republic before creating a new parallel commonwealth. The Separatists vigorously deny the existence of the army, but the Republic claims to have proof. The debate around this heats up until all attention is drawn to a more pressing concern; a group of Siths have stormed the hall (Darth Maul is not amongst them), lightsabers drawn, and proceed to hijack the meeting, seemingly with the intent of capturing or killing Padme Amidala. A battle between the dark lords and the two Jedi ensues, with Qui-Gon and Obi Wan just managing to help Padme and her entourage escape. Upon leaving behind the summit, the ship the Jedi and the Alderaan delegation are travelling in is damaged by an attacking ship. Obi Wan says that the vessel was a Separatists’ model, proving to him that the summit was a trap and was only called to ambush Padme and her people; Qui-Gon counters by asking what such a thing could possibly gain the Separatists and to remind Obi Wan to take all factors into consideration before making conclusions. Incidentally, although I haven’t explicitly said this as yet, Obi Wan is not Qui-Gon’s underling in this re-imagined Episode I. They are both Jedi knights, one simply older and more thoughtful than the other.
The damaged ship has to land somewhere as the hyperdrive has been badly damaged. They alight on Tatooine, the closest planet, in a dramatic crash landing. They detect a small settlement half a mile away, a farm. Qui-Gon goes to check it out while Obi Wan stays to look after the Alderaanese (I think I’ve just invented this word). The older Jedi comes upon the settlement of Cliegg Lars, a moisture farmer. He has two sons, Owen and Anakin, Owen being the eldest in his early twenties and Anakin being around eighteen or so (the idea of having Anakin as a little boy was stupid on so many levels). Qui-Gon explains to Cliegg they are a passing diplomatic delegation and that their ship has been damaged, without going into too much detail. They need to travel to the nearest town and have their mode of transport repaired. Cliegg says that the nearest large settlement is quite some ways away and that a sandstorm is coming. He invites the group to stay on his farm until it blows over, an offer that Qui-Gon accepts.
As the two Jedis, the Alderaan royal and her delegation are introduced to the farm, a whole number of relationships and counter-relationships are developed almost instantly. Owen is naturally xenophobic and doesn’t like the idea of strangers staying with them. He keeps his distance from all of them, despite Qui-Gon attempting to be kind towards the young farmer (part of Owen’s fear of outsiders is a result of he and Anakin’s mother having been killed by a Tuskan Raider several years previous). Qui-Gon gets on better with Cliegg and the two become quick friends despite having led incredibly different lives. Anakin is desperate to get off of Tatoonie, see the galaxy and have adventures (as a clear shadow of Luke in Episode IV) and is thrilled to meet actual Jedi knights. Obi Wan, not used to being looked up to, develops a fast friendship with Anakin. As the sandstorm descends and lasts for several days, Obi Wan offers Anakin some very basic Jedi pointers, such as some basic lightsaber training, which are eagerly accepted (and much to the chagrin of Qui-Gon who warns Obi Wan of the dangers of such action). But the biggest relationship that is established here is that between Anakin and the teenaged monarch from Alderaan. It is clear it is love at first sight and although their relationship proceeds no further at this stage it is obvious how they are attracted to one another. Seeing this tangle of connections emerge before him, and fearing a disturbance in the force telling him that the Sith are near, Qui-Gon suggests they push on at the first abatement of the sandstorm. When this occurs, Anakin offers to drive them to Mos Eisley and back, which the entourage of strangers accepts. Padme and the Alderaan crew stays on the farm while the two Jedi go to town to pick up the parts that are needed.
The trip to Mos Eisley proceeds as planned and the part needed to repair the Alderaan ship is procured. But during the trip back to the farm, the speeder is hijacked by a lightsaber wielding Sith: Darth Maul. The two Jedi tell Anakin to stand well back as they joust with Maul. But the Sith turns out to be very powerful and Qui-Gon is killed. Obi Wan tries to stay focused, clearly angry at his old friend being murdered. But Maul is too much for him; the young Jedi is injured and lays on the sand, prostrate, while Maul laughs, toying with him. Obi Wan yells for Anakin to get away while there is still time. Anakin looks at the dead Qui-Gon and his lightsaber. On a whim, Anakin grabs the weapon, lights it up and attacks the Sith lord. Darth Maul is caught off guard but quickly recovers. Anakin and Maul begin to battle with the lightsabers. Obi Wan cries for Anakin to run off, but he knows already it is too late to do this. The young farmer boy that he had come to be fond of is now destined to be scythed down by the Sith in front of his eyes. Maul begins by having fun, toying with Anakin. But Anakin puts in some decent moves, even managing to hurt Maul, focusing the Sith’s attention. The two begin to fight in earnest, Anakin holding his own. Anakin gets a bit lucky and manages to dislodge Maul from his lightsaber. Seeing himself exposed and noticing that Obi Wan has now recovered himself enough to fight again, Maul decides to flee. Anakin helps the Jedi knight back into the speeder as he is thanked by the incredulous Obi Wan. Anakin uses the opportunity during the trip back to the farm to tell Obi Wan that he wants to go with him when he leaves. He wants to become a Jedi. Obi Wan is non-committal, feeling torn.
When Anakin and Obi Wan return to the farm, Padme is extremely upset; she has discovered from a message that Alderaan has been attacked in her absence by a clone army. Other Core Worlds have joined together to offer some resistance, but the planet cannot hold out for another week or so without further backup. Obi Wan contacts Jedi high command to tell them about Qui-Gon’s death and to ask for further instructions given the Alderaan situation. He is told that Qui-Gon had been appointed as the general to lead the battle against the invading clone troops, so in his stead Obi Wan must fulfil this role. He is to depart for Alderaan immediately. Throughout this remote conversation, Obi Wan never mentions the fact that he has been injured in the fight with Maul. The doctor amongst the Alderaan contingent examines him. The Jedi knight is badly hurt and needs rest. Anakin uses this opening to reassert his desire to come with Obi Wan to Alderaan to help him. What if they are attacked by Sith again? Anakin has demonstrated his abilities and would be a useful asset. Obi Wan, reluctantly, agrees that Anakin can come along so long as his father is amenable to the idea.
Cliegg says he will be sad to lose one of his sons before the harvest, but that he knows Anakin isn’t cut out to be a farmer. He gives Anakin his reluctant blessing. Owen, however, is furious. Before Anakin departs, his brother makes it clear that he is abandoning his family and explains the extra work this will leave on his shoulders come the harvest. “Don’t get involved in this idealistic crusade. It isn’t our fight.” Anakin ignores his brother and he, Obi Wan and Padme’s contingent depart for Alderaan.
When the ship arrives on Alderaan, chaos is the order of the day. Padme is told by one of her attendants that the planet is on the verge of defeat. The final straw will be a large, never before seen type of ship they have detected on its way towards them which they have learned the Separatists call a Star Destroyer. It will be able to take out the last of Alderaan’s defences from space, remotely, with no need to land or send out smaller ships to attack the surface. General Kenobi rouses himself from his sickbed and lays out the plan: they should be able to time the Star Destroyer’s arrival in the system. When it does, there needs to be an armada of X-Wing fighters there to at least keep it occupied. In the meantime, he will discuss with Coruscant the obtaining of a laser cannon large enough to destroy the approaching ship. This plan is agreed to after discussion. Anakin volunteers to lead one of the units, flying an X-Wing himself. Obi Wan questions Anakin’s ability to fly a fighter of that size. Anakin reassures him easily by saying he’s a better pilot that a lightsaber swordsman.
The battle goes down and Anakin saves the day by figuring out for himself the Star Destroyer’s weak spot. The immediate threat to the planet destroyed, the arrival of the cannon from Coruscant acts as a deterrent to the clone army, who retreat. The day is saved, for now.
Following the victory celebrations, Obi Wan travels with Anakin to Coruscant. They enter the Jedi temple together, but at one point Obi Wan tells his young, would-be apprentice to stay where he is. Obi Wan enters a large chamber where there are many Jedi keeping a figure behind a large curtain guard. Obi Wan enters into a conversation with the figure behind the curtain, asking permission to train Anakin. We can tell by the voice and the shape of the shadow that it is Yoda behind the drapery. Yoda is highly reluctant for Obi Wan to begin training so old a pupil. Obi Wan retorts that Anakin not only saved his life on Tatoonie, but was the hero of the battle of Alderaan. Yoda reluctantly accepts: Anakin will become Obi Wan’s padawan.
The film ends with the Senate (the only time it is in the movie). A man announces that Supreme Chancellor Palpatine is about to address them. Palpatine steps up to the podium and gives a rousing speech about how the time for appeasement with the Separatists is at an end. The Clone Wars have begun.
Having now recited the whole plot of my re-imagined Episode I, here are what I think are its strengths. Anakin as a young adult has loads of advantages. He is Obi Wan’s approximate age, so a real feeling of friendship can be developed right away (one of the biggest flaws of the prequels is that Anakin and Obi Wan’s friendship is never developed). There is no need for midichlorians, because that was only introduced as a plot device as Anakin was eight and had no other way of demonstrating his potential as a Jedi (something I take care of with the Maul fight). I have dropped the droids because they are unnecessary and none of the attempts to shoehorn them into Lucas’ prequels worked. The Padme and Anakin romance can develop from the first movie, again because Anakin is no longer a pre-adolescent. I’ve kept both Yoda and Palpatine, two figures who will loom large in the following two movies, to one scene each but right at the close of the film, a form of foreshadowing. Yoda as exposition dialogue machine was another blight on the prequels.
You might say that re-imagining Phantom Menace, while fun, is somewhat pointless. The prequel trilogy was made as it was made, the films are never now going to be re-made. But who knows? The Star Wars franchise has so much life in it, and someone other than Lucas has the rights to it now, you never know. Perhaps one day there will be an Episode I that won’t cause my daughter to scream “SHUT IT OFF!” at the screen.