Monday, August 5, 2013

Tell or Show?

io9 has an article claiming that A New Hope engages in better world-building than The Phantom Menace. While it does get into some of the usual Prequel-bashing, it does raise a serious question. In the Original Trilogy, we never saw the halls of political power on-camera. They were always off-camera and related by third parties, such as when Tarkin infamously tells the Death Star Committee* that the Emperor had disbanded the Senate. By contrast, with the Prequels, we see the Galactic Senate and we see major events transpire in the Senate, such as when Palpatine introduces the New Order.

Typically, English professors will generally advise that artists and authors should "show, not tell" important events. However, many Star Wars fans feel that the Senate scenes are amongst the weakest in the Prequels. So what's wrong with showing in this case?

For my part, I think there's a difference between showing what has to be shown and showing exposition that could be summarized more efficiently. For example, I think for TPM to work, we had to see Queen Amidala at least try to appeal to the Senate. Amidala is a pacifist and so it was important that we see her attempt to find a peaceful solution to the invasion of Naboo. The Senate scene did that and then allowed Amidala to return to Naboo and engage in an insurgency, all while staying true to her character.

Just as important, we needed to know that the Senate was dysfunctional and could not solve problems. Maybe this is something that could have been stated by one of the characters, but here I actually think Lucas made the right call in showing the dysfunction. It would have been hard to convince audiences that the Senate was so bad that Senators would soon be calling for a dictatorship. So, while the Senate scene was boring, in a way it was meant to be boring. It was showing, not telling, that the Senate could not operate.

By contrast, the Senate scenes in the later movies did much less to move the plot along. We probably didn't need to see Jar Jar propose emergency powers or Palpatine's declaration of Empire. They're key moments in galactic history, but we probably wouldn't have lost much if, as in ANH, a character just mentioned those events in dialogue. However, even with those scenes, we do see the Senators' cheering Palpatine on. However, I'd argue Amidala's famous quote - "So, this is how liberty dies... With thunderous applause" - actually does a better job conveying the situation than the actual scene. The scene itself never really gives us a closeup of the Senators applauding for Palpatine. We don't really know any of them. The only Senators we know at this point are Amidala and Bail Organa. So we in the audience give greater weight to their words than to the applause of background characters.

Of course, this debate will have huge implications for the Sequel Trilogy. Should the actions of the political elite be shown on-screen or off-screen? My guess is that J.J. Abrams won't really want to dwell in the Galactic Senate, but he might use one or two characters - such as a Chancellor Leia Organa Solo - to give viewers a glimpse into the halls of power.

* My new name for the ruling body of the Death Star.

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