Harmonising the Jedi

There’s this idea in religious studies, but usually something you only examine as a member of that religion, where you try to take conflicting or seemingly conflicting incidents in different texts and try to construct an explanation for how those things work together. This idea, of trying to bring these works together, is known as harmonisation. It’s a way that multiple conflicting canons – in the religious sense – can be ‘explained’ into one another. It also, when you understand it as a practice, makes a lot of changed texts make sense.

Like Star Wars movies.

Looking at Star Wars as a sequence of related texts, it starts with a single text, called Star Wars. In that, we are given some vague hints as to what the Jedi are. We meet one Jedi, and we are introduced to a light saber and to the concept of ‘the force,’ that Luke needs to, famously, use. There isn’t much specified as to what that means. We do get a vision of a Jedi, though – a cranky old man in robes in a desert who is pretty scary powerful.

Then we get the next two movies, Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. There, we’re treated to meeting Yoda and further expansion on what Darth Vader and the Emperor are, and what the Dark Side means. The movies are vague about some specifics, but there are still some clear details. On the one hand, characters are depicted as being able to ‘tell’ when stuff happens in the world around them, and even communicate across vast distances. There’s also some Just Actual Telekinesis.

We also get a nice clear example of physical force powers. Luke can use the Force to flip a device into his hand the size of his phone from a small distance away, while under duress, and Yoda can lift an entire X-wing up into the air, late in his life, with seemingly very little strain. From there we see a bit more Warrior Monk style techniques, balance and long distance communication.

This creates a sort of ‘core text’ – the thing that the text starts from. The first movie introduces the idea, the next two kind of expand on it. What follows from there is an enormous, nasty, gnarled canon of what we call expanded media. Exploration in the Star Wars universe after this point flowed from novels and videogames and a few tabletop games. This media is probably best compared to an apocrypha – not thoroughly examined, and contradictory to the original in some ways.

What’s useful to remember here though is the influence of games. See, Force powers are the kind of things players like and want to do and use. Games invite balance, though, and that means that in the tabletop game space and the videogames, Force powers were being treated as things for game mechanical exploration, which means, well, different takes on how to balance superpowers. In Dark Forces 2, Force powers were balanced against a sort of recharging energy pool, a mana system. The West End RPG sourcebooks created a lot of Star Wars canon, at the hand of Greg Costikyan, who I’m reading for my PhD and he’s responsible for the word ‘Twi’lek’ (pronounced TWIH lek). That’s not important, but when I learned it I had to sit back and take a break from my computer.

Anyway, force powers in games encourages a vision of game balance, and game balance tends to want a feeling of give-and-take to keep people from just, for lack of a better term ‘spamming’ force powers. It also seems to have taken a fairly conservative angle on it – there aren’t a lot of characters kicking ass with constant use of force powers, instead being seen as a sort of supplement to ‘has a laser sword.’

The funny thing is, the idea of ‘not using lots of force powers all the time to not be overpowered’ doesn’t matter, really, considering the different games you’re seeing it used. It isn’t like it’s mandatory to be dangerous. After all, by sheer body count Kyle Katarn probably outdoes Luke Skywalker in just his first game, without ever having to get any force powers or a bulk discount by blowing up a satellite. He was fucking up Dark Troopers en masse with his un-elegant un-civilised guns.

But okay, that’s three texts; the first movie, the two sequels, and the gnarled mass of Expanded Universe. Returning to the source, we then get the Prequels. These want to show an earlier time of the Star Wars universe, an early incarnation, and therefore, what the Jedi were and what they could do before they were burned back to Just Obi-Wan Kenobi.

What we get is… like… weirdly similar.

See, back in Star Wars when it was just Star Wars, Obi-Wan dressed like, well kind of like a big jawa. He wore robes, they were shades of brown, and he kept his hood up to protect himself from all that desert on Tatooine (pronounced ‘ta-tooey-eeney’). But then we roll back a mere few decades and it turns out that Obi-Wan dressed like that, all the time, and so did all the Jedi? The Jedi aesthetic was ‘like the Jedi from the first movies.’

That’s weird.

What’s more, the Sith of the prequels dressed like the Sith of the first movies – again, regardless of time or place. Now, this is easy to explain out of character – these aesthetics were already set in place, the prequels came second and the characters were meant to look like the Jedi of the at-the-time thirty year old movies.

In this space, we do see some more force powers, but, despite the advances in CGI, it’s strange to notice the way that the Jedi powers don’t seem to get into the same space as ‘lifting an X-Wing.’ There’s more acrobatic movement, but it’s also funny the way the force seemed to be like… blocked by the light barriers in The Phantom Menace (pronounced ‘men-ah-chay’).

There is the narrative of Darth Plageuis the Wise and I’m sorry I had to type those words, this story is so dumb. Anyway, we learn there that there’s a Sith powerful enough to just… stop people dying. It’s not explained how or what he saved them from, whether this is a matter of people being sustained alive despite having their heads or bodies removed, or if it’s just ‘no aging’ or whatever. It’s after all, a short legend.

After that, we get another realm of non-canon appearances. Videogames and RPG sourcebooks and third party media continue, and try to implement some of those ideas. But now it’s still backfilling – it’s still trying to keep to the space that the movies have created, and that means force use narrows. You can use the force for a lot of things that aren’t visible, that aren’t obvious. Funnily enough, the Force is super useful for doing things that ah, don’t need a CGI budget to make happen? Funny that.

Anyway, the Disney acquisition happens, and all that non-canon stuff gets declared non-canon. There are some TV series, the Clone Wars and their ilk, and then two more movies, A Newer Hope and Jesus Fucking Christ This Rules So Much. In those movies, we get to see more force use, but we also see, again, the aesthetic of a force user whose whole thing is that she looks like a – well, a big jawa. There’s the same kind of small telekinetic use of powers, and mind-influencing.

Eventually we see a small child, who isn’t part of an established hierarchy of existing families demonstrate force powers, hinting that now, we’re getting to see the force become more than just one small group. That’s exciting.

And that’s it, that’s all the main canon depictions of the Force.

Now all of this rundown is a list of what Star Wars has in it, what people have to deal with for what the Force can do.

What we get to when we talk about harmonisation, and where things get interesting and where, crucially, I am going to stop, is where people try to work out a rationale that works for explaining why.

Why is lightning from your fingers ‘bad force’ when throwing someone off a bridge isn’t ‘bad force?’ Why is saving someone from dying ‘bad force’ when healing yourself is ‘good force?’ Why is Kyle Katarn, a walking apocalypse before he gets force power, a good guy when Starkiller’s willingness to kill is seen as a sign he is a bad guy?

Ostensibly, the answer is: it’s dumb.

But that’s the coward’s route, the fandom says. There has to be a reason. There has to be a philosophical position. There has to be a how. And that how is what interests me. The how of seeing people reduce philosophical positions, to try and work out what the force wants. If we didn’t colour code the villains and heroes in this world, how could we tell?

Anyway, the question of how you justify or explain different elements of the Force powers is left as an exercise to the reader.