Part V – Time Travel and Nostalgia

Lost, Fringe, Doctor Who, Star Trek, The Flash, Harry Potter, Legends of Tomorrow, even Game of Thrones. Why do so many of the stories we love involve time travel?

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Traveling to one’s past is not necessarily a doomed venture. “Sometimes the only way to move forward is to revisit the things in your past that were holding you back,” Barry Allen says in the The Flash episode “Flashback.” “Because once we do, you’ll see that you can go further than you ever imagined.”

Even without the benefit of physical time travel, looking back with fondness recalls the pleasure of nostalgia— a word that’s been thrown around a lot recently thanks in large part to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, in which J. J. Abrams effectively invites audiences on a collective trip to 1977.

Behold, a side-by-side comparison of A New Hope and The Force Awakens:

For what it’s worth, most audiences and critics (and I include myself in both categories) loved The Force Awakens. The Hero’s Journey template has always been there, and Abrams capitalized on familiar iconography to remind fans what they loved about the original Star Wars movie to hook their emotions onto this new one. Change is scary. We revel in the familiar.

Terry Matalas and fellow 12 Monkeys Executive Producer Travis Fickett embraced this idea with their television series. “Nostalgia is an incredible way to connect to the audience,” Matalas says. “[It’s] a way to use the goodwill the audience has for the [Terry] Gilliam film or a particular time period to garner an emotional response and connection to our characters.”

(For an intensive study on how Inside Out utilizes nostalgia, check out my piece here!)

Nowadays, you’d be hard-pressed to find a franchise or beloved film that has not been summoned from the catacombs of pop culture history for an inevitable “reboot” or “revival”; Gilmore Girls, Twin Peaks, MacGyver, Lethal WeaponThe Exorcist and Xena: The Warrior Princess are only a smattering of fan favorites returning to a small screen near you. Though the sheer volume of reboots may feel excessive, the psychological appeal makes sense. As often as we look back with regret, we also hearken back to happier, simpler times from our childhoods, times that recall certain film and television franchises of yore.

As often as we look back with regret, we also hearken back to happier, simpler times from our childhoods.

One of the most high profile iterations of the reboot effect is Star Trek, which is undergoing separate renaissances in the cinema and on television. When it comes to Star Trek, nostalgia has been at play even within the narratives of the original universe, and more often than not, the writers used time travel to explore this theme.

In “Trials and Tribble-ations,” a fifth season episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine written by Ron Moore (now executive producer of Outlander) and René Echevarria, the DS9 crew travels back in time to prevent the assassination of Captain Kirk by a rogue Klingon. The weapon of choice? A booby-trapped tribble.

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The assassination plot allows the DS9 writers, in 1996, to insert their crew into the cherished Original Series episode from 1967, “The Trouble with Tribbles,” for a fun little romp of nostalgic mayhem. In “Trials and Tribble-ations,” Captain Sisko (Avery Brooks) and members of his crew get to live out every Star Trek fan’s dream: stepping aboard the USS Enterprise and meeting the inimitable Captain Kirk.

The episode is notable for its tongue-in-cheek approach to time travel, starting off with a visit from the sassy Department of Temporal Investigations. The two agents interrogate Captain Sisko and reveal that they hate predestination paradoxes, time loops and jokes. “Trials and Tribble-ations,” of course, indulges in a bit of all three.

For all of its humor, “Trials and Tribble-ations” sets up a pretty airtight time travel story in the vein of the causal loop model: The Deep Space Nine crew successfully conserves the original timeline from “The Trouble with Tribbles” in which Captain Kirk is not, in fact, assassinated.

Though he is still “bonked” by Tribbles…

The 2009 Star Trek film reboot by J. J. Abrams also takes a dip in the nostalgia pool. In the film, an elderly Spock (Leonard Nimoy, reprising his iconic role) convinces a young Kirk (Chris Pine) that they can change the course of events by remedying a mistake made by Spock 129 years in the future. Kirk— brash, idealistic, impetuous— takes this older Spock (dubbed “Spock Prime”) at his word and rushes into action.

What Spock Prime doesn’t let on is that our Kirk is already living out an alternate history. In the “prime” timeline, Spock’s failure to prevent the destruction of the planet Romulus catapults him and Nero (Nero), the Romulan villain of this film, through a black hole to another universe, whereupon Nero attacks a Starfleet ship captained by our Kirk’s father, killing him on the day of Kirk’s birth. Thus, Abrams’s franchise is not rewriting decades of original Star Trek history, but branching off into a different timeline altogether. It’s a neat bit of time travel trickery, allowing Trekkies to savor this new iteration while the original series lives on in a parallel universe.

Check back in next week for mirror images: Spock and Spock Prime, and hope and faith. Or, you know, just hop in your time machine and read it now. If you choose that option, hit me up, I have some questions…

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There’s Good in the Star Wars Prequels, I Know It: A Defense of ‘Attack of the Clones’

Just like the hooded Sith Lord looming over his six “Star Wars” films, George Lucas has built himself an empire. After writing and directing the acclaimed “THX-1138” (1971) and “American Graffiti” (1973), Lucas threw his heart and mind into “Star Wars,” the epic space opera which hit theaters in 1977 and would go on to redefine science fiction cinema for decades to come. Inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s fast-paced adventure movies and drawing heavily from Joseph Campbell’s conception of the monomyth, the original “Star Wars” trilogy blended visually stunning action sequences with mystical themes while endearing the public to swashbuckling heroes, lovable scoundrels and rebellious princesses. Of course, there are villains in this saga as well, and Lucas himself became one as despised as the dark Emperor himself after the release “Star Wars” prequels, starting with “The Phantom Menace” in 1999. The man who created “Star Wars” was now accused of ruining it all with half-baked origin stories, mind-numbing politicizing and cringe-inducing dialogue. Where was the magic of the original trilogy? These were not the prequels the fans were looking for.

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I was nine when “The Phantom Menace” was released. That year, I dressed up as Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) for the Jewish holiday of Purim; pickings were slim back then as far as female Star Wars characters go. Purim After hearing so much about the legendary original trilogy from my father, I was thrilled to finally have a trilogy of my own; as a result, I loved the movies on sight. Years later, when I realized how universally maligned the prequels were, pure nostalgia compelled me to their defense. But even from a critical perspective, taking a closer look at the prequel trilogy reveals a thematically layered, visually arresting, and compellingly tragic tale that doesn’t get the credit it deserves. The second of the prequels, “Attack of the Clones” (2002) marks the pinnacle of storytelling acumen as it reflects the larger whole, weaving together individual threads of cinematic achievement to display a tapestry as bold and spellbinding as the myth it encapsulates.

Much like the recently released and well-regarded “Episode VII: The Force Awakens,” “Attack of the Clones” takes its cues from the original trilogy, capitalizing on the nostalgia factor with specific callbacks to Episodes Four through Six: Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) enter a cantina on Coruscant reminiscent of the memorable site of the shooting spree between Han Solo and Greedo at Mos Eisley. While there, Obi-Wan’s cheeky use of the Jedi mind-trick— “You don’t want to sell me deathsticks,” he purrs to a skeevy-looking low-life— alludes to Alec Guinness’s original rendition of “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for” in “Episode IV: A New Hope.” Another line that has become a gleefully implemented running joke throughout the series— “I have a bad feeling about this”— is wryly uttered by Anakin as he, Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman) and Obi-Wan face impending doom in a Geonosis battle arena. These meta-textual moments are pure, unadulterated fun—admit it, you cracked a grin— but they also serve to situate the film within the larger context of the George Lucas canon, feeding into the epic scope of a six-part story of the rise and fall of good and evil.

To express the integral connection between the two trilogies, Lucas meticulously designed the prequels to “rhyme” with the originals. In “Attack of the Clones,” this plays out in the cinematic mirroring of shots and sequences, as with Han hiding his Millennium Falcon on the side of the the larger Star Destroyer in “The Empire Strikes Back” and Obi-Wan pulling the same trick on the side of an asteroid. There is also a dismembered Skywalker scene, a blossoming romance, and a bounty hunter called Fett. The deliberate parallels— and there are many— link the films visually and thematically. Lucas certainly knew what he was doing, and a careful viewer of the prequels will pick up on these enticing, metaphorically significant cues.

“Attack of the Clones” contains just enough politicizing to make the galaxy far, far away feel real, but it wisely fixates more intensely on the grander themes of good, evil, and the sliding scale between the two. The pulsating dramatic tension of the prequels hinges on the knowledge of what comes later, and the film capitalizes on this by building up the hubris of the Jedi in anticipation of their eventual— and inevitable— fall. While life in the Jedi Temple peacefully flourishes, Obi-Wan pokes around looking for the planet of Kamino— a stormy world signifying the upcoming unrest. The planet, however, evades his grasp, and the temple archivist declares with haughty finitude that “if an item does not appear in our records, it does not exist!”

At the beginning of the film, after Padmé is targeted for assassination, she correctly identifies the mastermind as Count Dooku, but the Jedi dismiss her with similarly misplaced confidence: “Count Dooku was once a Jedi,” Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) says. “He wouldn’t assassinate anyone.” Ki-Adi-Mundi (Silas Carson) agrees: “He’s a political idealist, not a murderer.” Even when Obi-Wan, captured and shackled, engages in conversation with Dooku himself, Obi-Wan refuses to believe Dooku’s tales about the rise of the nefarious Sith. Though the dark side clouds the Force, the narrative implications are clear: these esteemed Jedi Knights, keepers of the peace and guardians of the good, have become arrogant. In a manner befitting a Shakespearean tragedy, the heroes of the democratic republic are becoming the very cause of its downfall.

The prequel trilogy also inverts the traditional hero’s journey by placing Anakin Skywalker— destined to torment the galaxy as Darth Vader— as its protagonist, and “Attack of the Clones” features the incident that precipitated Anakin’s turn to the dark side: the capture and death of his mother. As Anakin converses with Padmé before racing off, the camera briefly pans to their silhouettes, where Darth Vader’s helmet is prominently profiled on Anakin’s head, a powerful image foreshadowing (quite literally) what’s to come. Upon discovering his mother’s fate, Anakin slaughters the entire village of raiders in a fit of rage, and Hayden Christensen sells every beat of visceral, emotional trauma as John William’s iconic “Imperial March” crescendos in the background. It’s one of the truly cathartic scenes depicting Anakin Skywalker’s descent, and from the camerawork to the acting, it’s orchestrated beautifully.

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We can identify with Anakin’s journey because we feel that he is right to question the Jedi’s loftiness and stark emotional abstinence. Humans without feelings are more like particularly skilled droids, or clones. And it is Anakin, in a moment of omniscient wisdom, who lays out the paradox at the heart of the Jedi code. It is well known that attachment and possession are forbidden to a Jedi, he tells Padmé. However: “Compassion, which I would define as unconditional love, is essential to a Jedi’s life. So you might say that we are encouraged to love.” That Anakin is constantly chastised for embracing love— that is the true tragedy.

Other characters also make the most of their moments in the spotlight, such as the late Christopher Lee, playing to his strengths as the deliciously diabolical Dooku, and the hapless droid C-3PO (voiced by Anthony Daniels), spouting punny one-liners and unintentional social commentary at every turn. (“You obviously still have a lot to learn about human behavior,” C-3PO tells R2-D2 as Padmé and Anakin hurry away. “If they had wanted our help, they would have asked for it!”) The character of Padmé may feel underdeveloped in the previous film and is egregiously mishandled in the subsequent one, but her role in “Attack of the Clones” is prominent and most reminiscent of that of her future daughter and feminist icon, Princess Leia. When Anakin interrupts her in political proceedings on her home planet, she firmly puts him in his place, and while the Galactic Senate defers in worshipful reverence to the Jedi, Padmé speaks up, holding her own as a sharp-minded politician who strives tirelessly to sustain democratic ideals. As the opposition leader against the shady “Separatists,” Padmé is a strong public figure, and she proves that she can go toe-to-toe on personal matters as well.

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But the most complex relationship of the prequels is that of Anakin and Obi-Wan, as “Attack of the Clones” explores the deep connection that has emerged between stern master and wayward pupil, between father figure and prodigal son. Every interaction between the pair is laced with an undercurrent of gloom arising from the audience’s knowledge of Obi-Wan’s fate at the hand of Darth Vader in “A New Hope.” “Why do I get the feeling you’re going to be the death of me?” Obi-Wan jests at the beginning of “Attack of the Clones.” It’s a gem of a line, dripping with tragic irony. But it also reflects the easy rapport enjoyed by the two characters, and, indeed, by the two actors. McGregor and Christensen bring out the best in each other (unsurprising in a film otherwise riddled with CGI characters); both seem to truly enjoy trading dry quips and witty banter, and that boyish enthusiasm is contagious. I happen to enjoy Christensen’s monotone poutiness— Anakin is supposed to be a moody teenager, after all— and it balances well with Obi-Wan’s holier-than-thou snark. McGregor especially shines, fleshing out a character previously recognized more as an icon than a human being with hopes and fears of his own.

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“Attack of the Clones” showcases this legendary partnership at its apex, teasing a myriad off-screen adventures as well.  Meanwhile, we witness the beginning of an insidious tension creeping into their relationship; an austere Obi-Wan forbids Anakin to form personal attachments, as is the Jedi way, even while he himself unwittingly fosters a closeness with Anakin. Obi-Wan also frequently berates Anakin for acting rashly, specifically when it comes to the protection of one Padmé Amidala. Yet it is Obi-Wan who instinctively hurls himself out of a window in order to catch a probe droid after Padmé’s life is threatened yet again. Though  the two present vastly different exteriors, they are more alike than they might expect— hence the close, brotherly connection, and hence the heartbreak as their fates diverge.

The film’s score traces these transformations every step of the way. John Williams’s “Imperial March” hums ominously in the background whenever Anakin dips into the dark side, and it explodes triumphantly as the newly created Clone Army (later to turn on the Republic— another blurring of good and evil) marches onto the scene to close out the film. A new John Williams composition makes its debut as well, becoming an instant classic: “Across the Stars,” the hopeful yet mournful theme of Anakin and Padmé, the title alone alluding to the Romeo-and-Juliet tragedy of the star-crossed lovers. At the end of “Attack of the Clones,” “The Imperial March” bleeds into “Across the Stars” as scenes of the marching clones give way to Anakin and Padmé’s secret wedding. The stage is set in these two closing shots: the fall of democracy, the rise of evil, and the blossoming of a doomed love.

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“Attack of the Clones” was also notable for its pioneering special effects, and indeed, the dazzling visuals of this film still stand apart. Some of the CGI can be deemed excessive, but taken as a whole, it illustrates Lucas’s unparalleled penchant for world-building. Each alien rendered onscreen captivates the imagination, from Ki-Adi-Mundi’s enlarged cranium to Mas Amedda’s blue-skinned, quadra-horned visage. Each planet retains an infinite index of unique characteristics as well, from the opulent palaces of Naboo to the tech-noir metropolis of Coruscant— which serves as the setting for an exhilarating speeder chase— and Kamino, the water world on which Obi-Wan and bounty hunter Jango Fett engage in a rain-drenched, Mortal Kombat-style duel.

From the cantina on Coruscant to— yes— the lake on Naboo, “Attack of the Clones” features some of the most compelling characters, tragic themes, and awe-inducing visuals and music the Star Wars universe has to offer. Search your feelings— you know it to be true. You only have to let go of your hate and embrace the emotional journey unfolding right in front of you.

‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ and the Art of Nostalgia

Returning to a galaxy far, far away in Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. (Disney / LucasFilm)

The nostalgia is strong with this one. Also the stunning special effects (trippy new Force-choke makeover, man). Also BB-8. All the BB-8.

It was impossible to have too much hype for this movie. Not because it is just that good but because after a certain undefinable point, the hype for the movie morphed into the hypeof the movie. I mean, please. I was already mentally raving about the film by the time the cheesy yellow logo appeared onscreen. J.J. could’ve thrown in a lens flare or two and called it a day, and we all would’ve gone home happy.

He didn’t, though. Spoiler alert: plot happens. Although…not toomuch plot. “The Force Awakens” is all about setting us up for an infinitude of sequels, and it does so beautifully. New characters Rey and Finn and Poe Dameron are cute and snippy and great. BB-8 steals the show. Leia (ahem, General Organa) and Han are old and grizzled. BB-8 continues to steal the show.

“The Force Awakens” is also surprisingly funny. Of course, that could’ve just been the giddiness of finally being in the damn theater and seeing the damn movie, but there were lots of giggles, all of them heartfelt. Also, BB-8.

The one glaring issue is the villain situation. Adam Driver is not at all convincing as an evil Sith lord, and no one else (General Hux, Jar Ja– I mean, Supreme Leader Snoke, Captain Phasma) gets enough screen-time or backstory to pick up the slack.

That’s okay, though, because “The Force Awakens” is pretty much a rehashing of “A New Hope,” so it does its job by laying the groundwork of the new world order and introducing us to the characters we’ll soon come to love like our own…okay, like the other fictional characters we love more than anyone in real life.

And, again, nostalgia. The movie is a beloved jumble of in-jokes and call-backs that’ll send even the biggest skeptic into paroxysms of nerdtastic glee. It also makes “The Force Awakens” feel a bit recycled, but that’s okay– because it’s the greatest hunk of junk in the galaxy.

The Bard is Strong with This One

You might have heard someone giggle on the subway recently, utterly immersed in a small, unassuming-looking book. You might have then snuck a peek to see what book this person found so amusing, and upon glimpsing the word “Shakespeare” on the cover, you would then have scoffed and judged this person to be insufferably pretentious, both for reading Shakespeare on the subway and for understanding it well enough to laugh at the centuries-old jokes.

But you wouldn’t be able to look away from this unusual sight, so you’d steal another glimpse at the book’s title, under the pretense of discovering which of the Bard’s masterpieces this young woman was enjoying. It is then that you’d notice the next two words of the title: Star Wars.

‘Tis true. And ‘tis most glorious indeed! (I’ll have you know that I seriously considered composing this blog post in iambic pentameter, but decided to leave it to the poets and the PhDs. I know, I know. Try to reign in your disappointment.)

William Shakespeare’s Star Wars: Verily, a New Hope is the project taken on by Ian Doescher, the intrepid, delightfully creative mind behind the most fantastic, most exciting, most unbelievably geektastic mashup in mashup history. It’s the book I never knew I needed until I learned of its existence. As one Goodreads user aptly pointed out, it’s the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of nerd culture literature; why have chocolate and peanut butter separately when you can enjoy them together in a single, delicious, unforgettable treat?

When you cross George Lucas’ sweeping Star Wars saga with the brilliant prose of William Shakespeare, a Reese’s Cup is exactly what you get.

My first thought upon picking up Shakespeare’s Star Wars was, of course, lolwtfbbq? And after it dawned upon me that this creation combined two of my favorite things in the galaxy (“Raindrops on roses and Shakespeare on Star Wars…”), I wondered how many other people counted Shakespeare and Star Wars among their favorite cultural pleasures, and I was shocked to learn that the number is apparently more than, say, three.

I discovered my appreciation for the Bard only recently, while sitting through the 8:40 AM Shakespeare class of Peter Platt (with whom every Barnard woman who took this course is in love) and actually enjoying it. I now consider myself something of a Shakespeare aficionado, having read (/dirt off shoulders) nine and 1/5 of Entertainment Weekly’s Top Ten Greatest Shakespeare plays– along with a number of others. As for my Star Wars obsession, well, refer to this post of mine for a primer.

While highly unconventional, Doescher’s masterpiece actually works. As the author points out in his afterword, Shakespeare’s works and George Lucas’ series are much more tightly intertwined than you might think. For one, Wikipedia (hail!) classifies Star Wars as an “epic space opera,” which, for me, calls to mind an absurdly amusing image of Dark Helmet belting out a duet with Rocky Horror on an abandoned space station, but it just goes to show that pairing the scifi classic with an artist whose plays reflect many of the same themes is not completely out of left field.

Doescher reimagines the iconic Star Wars characters as sixteenth-century heroes, heroines, villains, and clowns, and the lyrical prose that flows from their lips marks one of the only glaring differences between the Bard’s Star Wars characters and those of Mr. Lucas. Princess Leia thrives as particularly strong-willed Shakespearean heroine, akin to the quick-witted princess in Love’s Labour’s Lost, while stage directions such as “Enter Ghost of Obi-Wan Kenobi” immediately call to mind the many other-worldly beings who have haunted Shakespeare’s plays—most notably, the late King Hamlet. Beloved droids R2-D2 and C-3PO slot in seamlessly as a futuristic Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, while R2 is written as a Puck-ish character who sneakily moves along the plot, revealing to no one but the audience that he can, in fact, speak English. (Though it must be said: R2-D2’s iambic pentameter beep-whistle-squeaking is priceless.)

Darth Vader, of course, takes center stage as a Shylock-esque villain (with notable Othello overtones) whose hardened exterior may reveal just a brief spark of humanity. And when Luke waxes philosophical about the stormtrooper he has killed while clutching that fallen soldier’s helmet in his hands, I could practically see the mirror image of Hamlet addressing Yorick’s skull, spewing the same existential angst.  (However, I’m pretty sure that Hamlet’s words were “Alas, poor Yorick,” rather than “Alas, poor stormtrooper.” Details, details.)

The interconnected themes of tragedy, sacrifice, and budding romance loom large over this sweeping enterprise of a play, merging Shakespearean staples with the modern-day characters that audiences know and love. But, unsurprisingly, my favorite lines in the play were the famous Shakespeare quotes swapped with scifi terminology, and the the well-known Star Wars quotes rewritten in sixteenth century English iambic pentameter.

Alas! Some samples of the first category: (Feel free to test yourself and brag to me about how many you knew offhand)

C-3PO: Now is the summer of our happiness / Made winter by this sudden, fierce attack! (1.1.1-2) [Real quote]

LUKE: –But O, what now? / What light through yonder flashing sensor breaks? (3.5. 45-46) [Real quote]

R2-D2: [aside] A plague on both our circuit boards, I say! (4.4.122) [Real quote]

LUKE: Friends, rebels, starfighters, lend me your ears. (5.4.65) [Real quote]

…And some shining examples of the second:

LEIA: –O help me, Obi-Wan /Kenobi, help. Thou art mine only hope. (1.6.77-78) [Real quote]

OBI-WAN: –True it is, / That these are not the droids for which thou search’st. (3.1.22-23) [Real quote]

OBI-Wan: The Force, it shall be with thee always, Luke. (4.2. 55) (Um, do I really have to link this one?)

If you haven’t gotten the picture yet, this is a wondrous work of fiction that contains thumb-biting, fortune’s fools, and rousing soliloquies along with blaster fights, lightsaber duels, and droid yard sales. And I personally think that the celebrated Han-Leia banter is even more enjoyable in old English. (“Thou sweatheart of ingratitude!” “Thine edgy trigger finger!” Oh snap.)

Shakespeare’s Star Wars is the perfect blend of these two cherished classics. I was so enthused by this book that I was suddenly inspired to tackle another Shakespeare play (see: the tab on my computer with the entire text of Much Ado About Nothing) and revisit the world of Star Wars (see: the boxed set of the original trilogy currently residing on my desk). This quirky, unconventional combination of two cultural behemoths is truly a Force to be reckoned with.