Patrick Freyne: Give the Galactic Empire a break. They’re just trying to get things done
I’d like to see a David Simon-helmed show dealing with galactic housing policy
Star Wars: Emperor Palpatine cheers up the troops in The Bad Batch
Everyone is always going on about the Skywalkers – Luke, Leia, Darth, Kylo – a bunch of helmet-haired (and headed), Kennedyesque dynasty politicians waffling on about “the Force” when us regular folk are worrying about more prosaic things like who’s going to collect the space bins and rising taxes due to planets exploding and the fact that small creatures in hoods keep stealing our broken robots.
Personally, I’ve always been a Palpatine man. Joe “the Emperor” Palpatine was a lovable eccentric of the old school in galactic politics. He had a sibilant posh voice (he could really enunciate his words), literally sparkling eyes and a jaunty cowl. Politicians can’t really pull off a cowl these days (although Micheál Martin tried for a while).
Now, compare this man of substance and vision to Luke Skywalker being all vague and pseudoscientific while wearing a dressing gown like the Big Lebowski (who is also a Jedi now – all older films are now being assigned to one of the shared cinema universes: Marvel, DC or Star Wars). Yeah, they’re just workshy idealists, the Skywalkers.
In the first episode there are loads of pew-pew-pew noises and a bit of betrayal, and by the end of the episode our heroes are off in space, preparing to fight with the rebel alliance
Palpatine got things done. He sponsored Keynesian infrastructural projects such as the Death Star, and he was tough on crime (the so-called “rebel alliance”) and religious fundamentalism (those weirdo Jedis). I know that it’s fashionable to malign our galaxy’s achievements as an empire these days and that knocking down statues of Emperor Palpatine is considered “cool” by some young people, but Palpatine achieved a lot, building loads of useful gun turrets for the ungrateful Ewoks of Endor or forming public-private partnerships with exotically monikered entrepreneurs such as Jabba the Hutt, Boba Fett and Elon Musk.
Joe “the Worker’s Friend” Palpatine makes only a brief appearance in the first episode of The Bad Batch (Disney+), the latest animated instalment in the Star Wars saga, which, you’ll be pleased to hear, is never ever going to end. He turns up, his huge cowly head shimmering in a ghostly fashion as he cheers up the troops at a point between the first run of prequels and the original film, now called Star Wars: Episode IV – A Mission to Moscow.
The Bad Batch themselves aren’t as interesting. They’re five misfit stormtroopers who have more in common than they think, much like the characters in John Hughes’s The Breakfast Club. The main reason they have loads in common is because they’re cloned from the same guy, but, unlike all the other clones in the series, they each represent one of the five human personality types: there’s the leader with good hair (me); the big strong stupid guy (you); the clever one with glasses (Brainy Smurf); the sneaky one who’s good at guns (my nephew); and the cyborg who is confused (Molly Ringwald). Scientists now know that any group of five people will each start independently exhibiting one of these disparate traits, but they didn’t know that in the early days of the Galactic Empire.
At the outset of The Bad Batch, beloved Emperor Palpatine is engaged in one of his famous reforms of the military. A forward-thinking secularist, he has decided that it’s a bad idea to have whole branches of government overseen by a mystical priest cast (the Jedi) and so he ... well, it sounds bad on paper, but he has them all killed. Look, it’s easy to come up with alternative policies when you’re sitting on the opposition benches or, indeed, holed up on one of those rebel planets with only one geographical feature (ice/forest/desert/swamp).
Like the Skywalkers, our protagonists are troubled by this move towards modernisation, and before long they’re disobeying orders and befriending a weird mystical child with big eyes. This is probably inspired by The Mandalorian’s breakout character, Baby Yoda. Sadly, unlike Baby Yoda, who is the most compelling creature committed to celluloid and arguably the greatest actor of his generation, the mystical child in The Bad Batch was born in the uncanny valley and isn’t even green, much like your own stupid children.
Anyway, over the course of the first episode there are loads of pew-pew-pew noises and a bit of betrayal, and by the end of the episode our heroes are off in space, preparing to fight with the rebel alliance, instead of staying put and engaging with the difficult work of agrarian reform and creating governmental institutions.
I’d like to see a David Simon-helmed show dealing with housing policy or local government in the Galactic Empire. Given that almost all television and cinema must now be created within the same three cinematic universes, this is probably inevitable.
Beyond Star Wars, the other type of art created in the 21st century is superhero-related. Jupiter’s Legacy (Netflix) is the type of gritty superhero tale ushered into existence by the comic-book writing of Alan Moore in the 1980s and from which superhero stories no longer seem able to escape.
In fairness to Moore, he was trying to point a finger at the fascistic implications of charismatic strongmen being allowed to circumvent legal norms (the billionaire Bruce Wayne using his vast fortune to don a rubber suit and beat up poor people rather than paying more tax, for example). But Moore’s message was lost on many comic-book fans, who just agreed that ultraviolent superheroes having sex and saying bad words was pretty cool and could only be improved by writing more superhero comics with even more ultraviolence, sex and bad words.
Jupiter’s Legacy is in this tradition, and, in fairness, it’s better than it ought to be. It’s well paced and well acted, and it looks good despite having nothing particularly new to say. On the downside, it buys into the tiresome comic-book trope that the world has become darker and more violent since the homophobic, racist war-torn 20th century.
It also leaves unquestioned why an advanced alien race who granted a bunch of humans unearthly superpowers in the 1930s (the origin story here) would also want them to wear skin-tight muscle-clinging multicoloured supersuits.
On the other hand, I really liked how they built up a plausible intergenerational psychodrama between the ultraheroic superhero the Utopian and his wayward younger relatives, who are damaged and hurt due to being caught in his vast shadow. As a towering figure respected by all of my younger relatives, I could relate.