Thursday, March 7, 2013

Episode Review: Clone Wars on trial

Republic v. Tano
The Clone Wars Season 5 finale, "The Wrong Jedi", is getting a lot of attention for forcing Ahsoka Tano to make a tough decision about her life. However, the episode is also notable as the first time we've seen a trial in a Star Wars story told by George Lucas himself.* It is a rare glimpse into the practice of law in a Galaxy Far, Far Away.

First, I think the most surprising aspect of the Star Wars judicial system is a clear division between Jedi and secular courts. In fact, we never really find what a Jedi trial would look like. Master Yoda only mentions that he'd prefer Ahsoka be judged according to "Jedi traditions", not "Jedi law". this would seem to suggest that the Jedi judge their own through a less formal, less legalistic process, such as arbitration or customary law.

However, the little of Jedi procedures we do see on screen suggests that in reality the Jedi process is one that centralizes power into the hands of the Jedi Council. The Council forms a body called the Chamber of Judgement in order to decide Ahsoka's fate. The very name implies judgment, not justice, suggesting that the Jedi Council is more used to proclaiming judgments than to hearing arguments in a case. The name also evokes the infamous Star Chamber, the infamous court that operated on behalf of the English monarchy until the Civil War. 

In fact, there doesn't even seem to have been any trial at all. In the U.S., even important administrative decisions, such as terminating an employee, might be subject to trial-like procedures. It seems that the Jedi Masters took a vote, but never allowed Ahsoka to make her own case. In an interview on IGN, Clone Wars supervising director Dave Filoni suggests Yoda, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Plo Koon dissented, but, unlike judges, did not publish their dissenting opinions. The other masters simply believe the worst about Ahsoka based on dubious evidence. Saesee Tiin states that the presence of nanodroids near Ahsoka when she was captured was "enough to convict her" - conveniently ignoring the fact that she was found unconscious at the scene of the crime. 

At the beginning of the episode, the Jedi are protective of their jurisdiction. Interestingly, they do not seem protective of Ahsoka herself (most of the Jedi seem to presume her guilt) but rather care about their bureaucratic turf. It's an interesting commentary that the Jedi care more about high politics than people. However, the Jedi eventually cave into Admiral Tarkin's demand that she be transferred to military jurisdiction, presumably because clones were killed in the bombing.

Some Star Wars fans felt the actual trial seemed a bit of a stretch because it is conducted entirely by celebrity politicians. Admiral Tarkin is the prosecutor, Senator Amidala is the defense counsel, Chancellor Palpatine is the judge, and a bench of senators serves as the jury. However, I don't think this was simply an attempt to make the trial scenes more interesting for kids. Rather, I think George Lucas was once again harkening back to politics in ancient Rome. During the Roman Republic, great orators and politicians would serve as lawyers in high-profile cases in order to gain what we today would call media exposure. Cicero rose to fame by prosecuting a corrupt governor of Sicily, Gaius Verres. Tarkin, as an ambitious military officer with an interest in political power, probably saw the trial as a golden opportunity.

You can't handle the truth!
The involvement of the entire Senate also speaks to the gravity of the situation. In the real work, senates and legislatures are sometimes tasked to try certain political crimes, such as impeachment of a president or judge. It seems clear in this episode that trials involving Jedi are likewise both rare and serious. Given that the Jedi Order is essentially a collection of the most powerful beings in the galaxy, it certainly makes sense that the Senate would want to keep close tabs on Jedi. After all, as Dooku proves, a rogue Jedi can wreck immeasurable havoc. 

Galactic law also gives the Senate the right to oversee Jedi affairs. The Jedi are technically accountable to the Senate and conduct missions on behalf of the Senate. In fact, in some ways it's perhaps surprising that the Jedi and Senate had been able to work so well together for the previous 1,000 years. As a race of superior beings, the Jedi must have been frustrated by the decisions and corruption of secular politicians. For their part, senators must have worried constantly about the threat from disgruntled Jedi. Part of the solution was to create a Jedi ideology that emphasized peace and freedom from attachments (they are less likely to be tempted by power if they are not attached to the material world). However, for the equilibrium to hold, the Senate must be reassured that rogue Jedi will be punished swiftly and harshly. That, I suspect, is the real reason why the Senate insisted on conducting the trial of Ahsoka itself.

Ultimately, we didn't see much of the trial during the 22-minute episode. The episode justly focused on finding the real culprit and resolving Ahsoka's emotional journey. However, hopefully the episode marks a new willingness to use courtroom drama in Star Wars. There are many, many potential stories waiting to be told about law and order in the Galaxy Far, Far Away.

* Some of the Expanded Universe novels, such as the Fate of the Jedi series, do have courtroom scenes, although the novels are not considered "G-level" canon.

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