Writing Tips and Film Critique

Re-Imagining Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (The Effects of Removing a Character)

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, RedLetterMedia released its Plinkett review of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Admittedly, I was a bit defensive, at first, because of how much I love The Phantom Menace and its display of the Jedi in their prime, as George Lucas would say. Burying my feelings, however, allowed me to see that even though this is a beloved film of mine, it is also deeply flawed. Although I don’t agree with every point made in the Plinkett review (For example, the reviewer claims the movie has no protagonists; this is incorrect as the problem is that the co-protagonists, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan simply lack clear motivation), it does a lot to show why the story of The Phantom Menace really could use a touch-up. While I didn’t care for the review simply calling characters boring, as this label does nothing to explain why the characters are uninteresting, I did appreciate all the questions the reviewer asks about the story, the characters, and motivations or lack thereof. Anyway, let’s dive straight into my re-imagining of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

First, let’s address the Trade Federation, since they are the main troublemakers at the beginning of the film. To start, the reason for the Federation blockading and invading the planet of Naboo is murky at best. According to the Star Wars Wiki, the blockade and subsequent invasion occurred as a response to the Senate passing a law that levied taxes against the Trade Federation in previously established Trade Free Zones. Did anyone get that just by watching the film? I would guess not. (Heck, I didn’t know that until I looked up the Trade Federation on the Star Wars Wiki while writing this.) All the film’s opening crawl states is, “The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute. Hoping to resolve the matter with a blockade of deadly battleships, the greedy Trade Federation has stopped all shipping to the small planet of Naboo.” This, however, does nothing to tell us who the dispute is with or give us a key detail about the dispute. It also doesn’t explain why the Trade Federation invade Naboo and capture the queen, or why they want her to sign a treaty that would give them control of the planet. Why would they need control of the planet when the blockade has stopped shipping, which is their goal? We don’t even know why the Trade Federation is following the advice of Sidious. So, I would simplify the reason for the invasion of Naboo, so the audience can have a quick explanation through an exchange of dialogue, possibly between Trade Federation leader Viceroy Nute Gunray and Darth Sidious.

Viceroy: “Our show of force has failed, my Lord. The queen has pledged not to sign the new treaty we offer, and two Jedi await my presence to engage in negotiations.”
Sidious: “Reinforce your blockade, launch an invasion on the Theed Royal Palace, and hold the queen and her people hostage until she does sign.”
Viceroy: “But the Senate will not recognize a treaty signed under duress, especially since the deal far more favors the Trade Federation. The Naboo representative will object and call for re-negotiation.”
Sidious: “Let me worry about the Senate. The Naboo are weak. Capture the queen, make her sign, and you will have the greater wealth you seek, minus my price. Once other planets see your willingness to force them into your desired trade deals, they will fall into line. Your prosperity will be beyond imagination.”
Viceroy: “And what of the Jedi?”
Sidious: “The chancellor should not have brought them into this. Kill them immediately.”
Viceroy: “But my Lord, is that legal?”
Sidious: “I will make it legal.”

So, with that exchange, we’ve established that the greedy Trade Federation wants to negotiate more favorable trade deals for themselves, starting with Naboo, and that Sidious is all too willing to help them, for a price, which tells us about the relationship between the Federation and Sidious. In addition, we’ve established that the Trade Federation conflicts with the Senate, which assures trade deals are fair to both parties, limiting the amount of money the Trade Federation can make in their business. So, here we have clearly established the motivation behind the Trade Federation’s blockade and invasion of Naboo as well as the Trade Federation needing Sidious to help them with any trouble they may have with the Senate, which is why they follow his orders. Also, if you caught it, I threw in a nod to the Viceroy not knowing the identity of Sidious: “The Naboo representative will object.” Remember that, in The Phantom Menace, Sidious is really Senator Palpatine, the Naboo representative.

Now, on to the Jedi. To be blunt, Qui-Gon should die at the beginning of the film, and Darth Maul should kill him. While fighting the Battle Droids and Droidekas (aka Destroyer Droids), Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan do a Force run to reach a bay door before it closes. Obi-Wan slides under, and just as Qui-Gon is about to make the same slide, he halts to a stop as he’s stabbed by a flaring red lightsaber. He stands face-to-face with his killer, a demon-faced Darth Maul who is angrily pleased with his surprise kill. Obi-Wan helplessly looks on while Darth Maul detracts his lightsaber and allows Qui-Gon’s body to slump to the floor while the bay door slams to a shut, separating Obi-Wan from his view of the tragedy that has befallen his master. Now, Obi-Wan has a clear motivation for staying close to the Naboo queen as she battles the Trade Federation later in the story: He wants to find Qui-Gon’s killer and bring him to justice, similar to how Luke, in A New Hope, found reason to follow Ben Kenobi on a damned fool adventure against the Empire after Stormtroopers murdered his aunt and uncle. This also thrusts Obi-Wan into a leadership position that he may not be ready for. It was Qui-Gon who was going to lead them down to the planet to find the Naboo queen – who Qui-Gon suspected would be the main target of the invasion – and escort her to safety. Now, with his mentor dead, Obi-Wan must go on this quest himself, and now, this story is starting to feel more like a hero’s journey.

So, at this point, once Obi-Wan has made his way down to the planet, the monumental question then becomes this: Do I keep Jar Jar Binks in the story? It’s no secret that Jar Jar is a character despised by a segment of Star Wars fans. Personally, I’ve always been okay with Jar Jar; the only problem I have with him is that he’s overexposed. A character that is clumsy and goofy isn’t a bad character, but when the clumsiness and goofiness is used too often and even takes center stage in the final, epic battle, that can cause some annoyance for the people in the audience who want a more serious take on amphibious-type aliens called Gungans fighting an army of robots. So, do I keep Jar Jar Binks?

Yes. However, Jar Jar will not be clumsy and goofy, and he wasn’t banished from the Gungan city. He’s simply a Gungan, and his path crosses with Obi-Wan’s as the invasion of Naboo is underway. After Obi-Wan saves his life, Jar Jar serves as Obi-Wan’s guide through the forest, to the Theed Royal Palace, which isn’t half-a-planet away but rather less than a few hundred kilometers away. (Why would the Trade Federation start an invasion from the other side of the planet? Good catch, Plinkett!) Obi-Wan and Jar Jar find the 17-year-old queen (rather than 14-year-old as in the actual film), and as Obi-Wan fights through the initial wave of the invading force to whisk the queen away from Naboo on her ship, a few of the freed Naboo pilots board fighters to escort the queen’s ship through the blockade, at least until the final fighters are destroyed as the queen’s ship narrowly survives the final surge of enemy fire within the blockade, the damage sustained by the ship forcing Obi-Wan to suggest limping to the planet Tatooine for repairs.

Now, we get to the question of why, in the actual film, Qui-Gon didn’t simply trade the queen’s ship for a smaller ship with a working hyperdrive. While that’s never addressed in the film, I figure it would be good to have a small exchange of dialogue, perhaps between Obi-Wan and Captain Panaka, concerning this very subject.

Obi-Wan: “Do we have anything to barter?”
Panaka: “Not in the amounts we need for a new hyperdrive, unless we can trade our ship for a smaller transport.”
Obi-Wan: “Without a hyperdrive, this ship isn’t worth much more than its shell. It’s unlikely any dealer out here would trade for even a junker solid enough to get us all the way to Coruscant.”

Easy fix, right? From here, the story plays out like the movie, for the most part, with Obi-Wan, Jar Jar, and Padme – the queen’s handmaiden 😉 – setting out to find the parts they need to repair the ship. With Obi-Wan not on the ship to warn against an action of sending out a signal that can be traced, someone on the ship directs a distress call to Coruscant, a call that is intercepted by Sidious. This fixes the mystery in the actual film of how Darth Maul completed a trace after Qui-Gon had told Obi-Wan not to allow anyone to respond to messages that were likely bait for a trace. Anyway, Obi-Wan and company find a dealer, Watto, who happens to have a Force-sensitive slave named Anakin. Obi-Wan shows a subtle attentiveness toward the 14-year-old boy (rather than 9-year-old as in the actual film) as Obi-Wan has never felt such a strong presence before, not even with Yoda. Do you notice how I’m not mentioning midi-chlorians at all here? That’s on purpose. We want to hold onto the mystic nature of the Force that was given to us in the Original Trilogy. To continue, as Obi-Wan heads outside to deal with Watto, Anakin and Padme talk for a bit, but their conversation doesn’t start with Anakin asking, “Are you an angel?” I’m sorry, but I cringe every time I hear that, especially with how the young actor delivers the line. Instead, Anakin can be staring at Padme (not a creepy stare but a curious stare), trying to think of a way to strike up a conversation with this attractive girl, without sounding awkward. We can still use the “angel” bit; it just has to sound like a less cringy pick-up line.

Padme: “Why are you staring?”
Anakin: “Oh… You… remind me of an angel.”
Padme: “A what?”
Anakin: “An angel. I’ve heard traders passing through talk about them. They say angels are the most beautiful creatures in the galaxy.”
Padme: (offended) “Creature? Thank you?”
Anakin: “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to… I mean, I don’t see many… like you…”
Padme: “It’s okay. I’m sure you don’t get off-planet much. I mean, you’re a slave, right?”
Anakin: (offended) “I’m a person.”
Padme: “I’m sorry… uhhh…”
Anakin: “Anakin.”
Padme: “Anakin. I’m Padme.”
Anakin: (smiles) “Well, Padme, now that we’ve got our awkward greetings out of the way…”
Padme: (smiles) “…and insulted each other pretty well…”

From that dialogue, you can see how they’re a bit awkward toward each other and even have a moment of playfulness at the end. They’re from two completely different worlds and don’t really know how to talk to each other at first, but after trading offenses, they do end up on the same page. That, I feel is a nice start to Anakin and Padme showing a bit of interest in one another. This is why Anakin is older in my re-imagining of the film, because a 14-year-old Padme becoming closely tied to a 9-year-old Anakin, as in the actual film, doesn’t sit completely right with me. So, in my version, the two are more of U.S. high school age, with Padme (17) a more experienced senior and Anakin (14) an unrefined freshman. This way, they are old enough to have an initial spark of attraction that builds in the next film.

So, with the introductions out of the way, how about the events surrounding the podrace and Anakin’s eventual freedom from slavery? First, at the dinner Anakin and his mother host for Obi-Wan, Jar Jar, and Padme, when Anakin and his mother speak with their guests about slavery’s existence on Tatooine despite the Republic’s laws banning slavery, Anakin can tell Obi-Wan and Padme that he’s a pilot, and Watto doesn’t know. Anakin trained in secret, with a plan to find his and his mother’s detonator implants, remove them, and steal a ship to fly away from Tatooine forever. This change makes it more realistic for Anakin, later in the story, to jump in a Naboo fighter and become a key player in the space battle to destroy the Droid Control Ship. This change also plays well with Ben Kenobi’s recollection of Anakin in A New Hope, when he says that Anakin was already a pilot when he met Anakin.

Okay, let’s set up the podrace. I like the idea of Anakin building his own pod, but I think the terms of the “team-up” with Watto should be altered a bit. I mean, in the actual film, it was a bit complex, and when the race was over, Watto was sad that he lost “everything” betting on the race even though, according to the terms of his agreement with Qui-Gon, Watto was to keep all the money Anakin won by coming in first place. So, in my version, the terms of the agreement must be different and more simply explained.

Watto: “The boy tells me you want to use him in the race.”
Obi-Wan: “You will be compensated for his services to me.”
Watto: “And how will you enter the race with no pod or entry fee?”
Obi-Wan: “I have acquired a pod in a game of chance…”
Watto: “I hope you didn’t kill anyone I know for it.”
Obi-Wan: “…and I’d like to sell my ship to you, for the entry fee and one day of the boy’s services.”
Watto: “I thought you wanted to fix your ship.”
Obi-Wan: “When Anakin wins the race, I’ll have the money to buy it back, plus the parts I need to fix it.”
Watto: “I suppose you expect me to show you enough courtesy to give you the money now and collect the ship later, after you lose.”
Obi-Wan: “It would save you the trouble of towing my ship just to have to give it back.”
Watto: “Hmmm… I like your confidence, and if you try to swindle me, you can be sure the Hutts will know about it. You have a deal, outlander. The moment you’ve lost, your ship will be in my possession.”
Obi-Wan: “You don’t think Anakin can win?”
Watto: “Don’t get me wrong; I like the boy. He has won races and money for me, but he’s never won a race Sebulba was entered in. So, I don’t bother to enter the boy in every race, not one with Sebubla anyway. Sebulba always wins, and he will win this one too, I think.”

With this change, we’ve simplified the terms of the agreement: Obi-Wan is selling the queen’s ship to Watto in exchange for the entry fee to the race as well as Anakin’s services for the day. Obi-Wan intends to win the race and use the first-place money to buy back the ship plus the parts he needs to fix the ship. Simple, right? Also, in the actual film, there’s a question of why Watto would spend the money to enter Anakin into races that Anakin always loses when Watto always bets on Sebulba anyway because Sebulba always wins. So, in my version, Watto makes it clear that Anakin has won races but never against Sebulba, which is why Watto isn’t entering Anakin into this race himself, clearing the way for Obi-Wan to enter Anakin. With this change, Watto’s behaviors concerning his entering Anakin into races and his constant betting on Sebulba, a different racer, make sense as they are now separate behaviors based on Watto’s analysis and developed strategy for maximizing his profits from his podracing activities. Also, now we know that Anakin is skilled enough to win a race. Having it so Anakin has never even finished a race, as stated in the actual film, while mildly humorous, is an unneeded further stacking of the odds against Anakin. It’s enough that Anakin has never beaten Sebulba. We don’t need Anakin to pull off a miracle right now; we’re only in the middle of the film.

Now, to keep things simple, in my version of the film, there is no second bet. In the actual film, before the race, Qui-Gon makes a bet with Watto that Anakin will beat Sebulba, wagering his pod against Anakin and his mother’s freedom, which Watto negotiates down to only Anakin’s freedom. In my version, discussion of Anakin’s freedom doesn’t come until after Anakin has won the race. When Watto tells Obi-Wan that he lost everything in his bet on Sebulba, Obi-Wan reminds Watto that he will reimburse Watto for the entry fee and Anakin’s services and have the sale from the parts he needs to fix the ship. Watto is still unhappy, though, and mentions that he will still have to sell one of his slaves to make a payment on a debt he owes. Obi-Wan offers to use the rest of the first-place prize money to buy Anakin and his mother’s freedom. Watto replies that the money Obi-Wan will have left, after buying back and fixing the ship, will only be enough to buy one slave. Obi-Wan chooses to buy the boy. Watto objects, accusing Obi-Wan of wanting Anakin for himself because Anakin can win races, and money, for him. Watto then offers to sell the boy’s mother to Obi-Wan, to which Obi-Wan responds, “I’ll take the boy,” as he reaches for his lightsaber. Watto relents, “Take him.” Obi-Wan bows, showing as much respect as he can to Watto, not feeling entirely right about the course of action he took to free Anakin. As Obi-Wan turns and leaves, Watto asks to no reply, “There is something special about the boy, isn’t there?”

Once Anakin is freed and says goodbye to his mother, we now have Obi-Wan sensing danger and encouraging Anakin to race to the queen’s ship. In the actual film, Darth Maul catches up to Qui-Gon and Anakin and engages in a fight with Qui-Gon. My re-imagining, is a bit different, starting prior to the podrace when we see Darth Maul arrive on Tatooine. He doesn’t arrive alone, as the Trade Federation has supplied him with a small battalion of Battle Droids. Later, as Obi-Wan and Anakin are within sight of the queen’s ship, Darth Maul speeds ahead of them and leaps between them and the ship. Obi-Wan and Maul ignite their lightsabers as they face each other, their angry gazes awaiting the inevitable clash. Obi-Wan now has his chance to fight Qui-Gon’s killer and instructs Anakin to run to the ship as he (Obi-Wan) distracts Maul. Anakin takes off, but as Obi-Wan and Maul close the gap between them, the Battle Droids appear from over the small hill and open fire on Obi-Wan, who turns to defend himself. Maul also spins, so he can defend the laser blasts coming from the queen’s ship, Panaka and a few of the Naboo soldiers laying down covering fire as they urge Obi-Wan to hurry back. Reluctantly, Obi-Wan races to the queen’s ship and hops onto the ramp, deflecting blaster bolts with his lightsaber as the ship lifts off. He backs inside as the ship gains altitude, staring down Darth Maul, both men fearless as they know their time to finally meet in combat will soon come. This ‘almost fight’ between Obi-Wan and Maul serves as a buildup to their inevitable confrontation in the film’s climax, teasing the audience enough to make them really want to see that duel between Obi-Wan and Darth Maul.

Now, we’re on Coruscant, and while the queen goes on with her business as shown in the actual film, in my version, there must be a change with Obi-Wan and the Jedi High Council because, frankly, Qui-Gon is dead, unlike in the actual film. In my re-imagining, the Jedi also initially express doubts that the subject in question is a Sith Lord since the Sith have been gone for so long; however, there is one other matter that requires resolution.

Obi-Wan: “Send me to track down this Sith Lord. I will discover the nature of their return.”
Ki-Adi-Mundi: “You? Alone?”
Yoda: “Slain, your master is. Need another, do you not?”
Obi-Wan: “I can be a Jedi Knight. I am ready to face the trials.”
Yoda: “Our own council we will keep on who is ready.”
Mace Windu: “You will remain on Coruscant for now, Obi-Wan. That is all. May the Force be with you.”

Of course, Obi-Wan doesn’t move when excused from the chamber, which sparks Yoda to ask if Obi-Wan has something more to say. Obi-Wan then informs the high council of Anakin and asks for the boy to undergo a test to discover his Force potential. The council agrees. Later, after the queen has testified before the Senate, called for a vote of no confidence in Chancellor Valorum, and expressed her intention to return to Naboo to take back the planet from the Trade Federation, and after the Jedi High Council has tested Anakin and informed Obi-Wan that Anakin is too old to begin training and, therefore, will not be trained, the high council gives Obi-Wan the green light to go after Darth Maul.

Mace Windu: “The queen is returning to Naboo. If this Sith Lord is in league with the Trade Federation, as you say, that is likely where he’ll be.”
Obi-Wan: “Then I will find him.”
Yoda: “Obi-Wan. A Padawan, you merely are. Dangerous this is.”
Mace Windu: “A full Jedi Knight should accompany you.”
Obi-Wan: “If that is what you feel is best. But I understand the danger, and I am willing to face this Sith Lord alone.”
Mace Windu: “Very well then. Bury your feelings, Obi-Wan. You control your fear, but do not give in to the anger you feel for Qui-Gon’s killer.”
Ki-Adi-Mundi: “That will lead you to the Dark Side.”
Yoda: “If return to us you do, a Jedi Knight shall you be.”
Obi-Wan: “What of Anakin?”
Mace Windu: “He cannot stay here in the temple. He’s not one of us.”
Obi-Wan: “Not yet.”

Okay, now we’ve established more feeling toward this upcoming duel. The Jedi High Council isn’t sure if Obi-Wan can take this Sith Lord by himself, and have expressed their concerns, but they use this as an opportunity to test Obi-Wan’s abilities and worthiness to becoming a full Jedi Knight. Obi-Wan is clearly facing a trial now. On his hero’s journey, so far, he had to overcome the sudden death of his master and mentor, Qui-Gon Jinn, and he has had to take over Qui-Gon’s duties of leading the mission to rescue the queen and escort her, safely, to Coruscant, which unexpectedly included having to find a way to acquire the parts needed to fix the queen’s ship while on Tatooine. With that mission over, Obi-Wan has a new challenge: find and defeat the Sith Lord without falling to the Dark Side. So, now we have more weight given to Obi-Wan on his journey. He is clearly the central character who must overcome obstacles and grow to face the challenges in front of him. By removing Qui-Gon from the story, early on, we have established Obi-Wan as the hero in the hero’s journey.

Sometimes, removing a character from the chess board and seeing what changes occur with the other characters as a result is the best way to strengthen another character and the story at the same time. This is what happened when George Lucas removed Anakin Skywalker (appearing as a Force ghost) from the first draft of The Empire Strikes Back, opting to merge Anakin with Darth Vader to form a single character. Suddenly, the story option that became the heart of the Original Trilogy opened up as Darth Vader became Luke’s father. And as I’ve shown here, a single alteration of killing Qui-Gon at the start of The Phantom Menace, rather than at the end, offers many changes that strengthen the character of Obi-Wan Kenobi and gives us, the audience, someone on a journey who we can follow.

Unfortunately, I have to end this re-imagining of The Phantom Menace here as this write-up has become much longer than I thought it would be (and I’m sure you have better things to do than reading my thoughts on a movie all day). In short, though. the remainder of the story can play out pretty much the same, except we no longer have the Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan versus Darth Maul duel. While that is my favorite duel in the whole Prequel Trilogy, I would sacrifice it to get an emotion-filled duel between Obi-Wan and Darth Maul (with his double-blade lightsaber), one that really makes me feel like Obi-Wan slicing Maul in half, at the end, is satisfying to the point of making me exhale, as if I’ve been through a major battle with Obi-Wan and can now relax.

Oh, there is one more big change I would make. Following the battle, Yoda would not tell Obi-Wan that the high council has agreed to let Obi-Wan train Anakin. Remember in A New Hope when Obi-Wan tells Luke that he thought he could instruct Darth Vader in the ways of the Force as well as Yoda? That should be addressed at the end of The Phantom Menace when Obi-Wan refuses to allow Yoda to talk him out of taking Anakin as his Padawan learner.

Yoda: “Agree with you, the council does not. Skywalker’s training, we will not allow.”
Obi-Wan: “This boy holds the potential for an unspeakable amount of power…”
Yoda: “Keep him close to us, we should? Hmmm?”
Obi-Wan: “We cannot allow him to fall under the influence of the remaining Sith, and he can help us. He is the Chosen One. I will train him, without you, if necessary.”
Yoda: “Believe you can instruct the boy well, do you?”
Obi-Wan: “Yes.”
Yoda: “Very well. To the council, I will speak. The wisdom of this decision, I will assure them of. Your apprentice, Skywalker will be.”

One thought on “Re-Imagining Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (The Effects of Removing a Character)

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