Last night I re-watched Star Wars Episode I. Like everyone else on the Internet, I've been conditioned to remember the film as the worst thing ever—an abomination before God and man!—but I do recall very much enjoying it when it first hit theaters in 1999, and post-re-watch, I feel comfortable saying that it's still a fun movie. It's not The Empire Strikes Back, which I think is what everyone wanted and likely the go-to film for most Star Wars fans when they need a fix of the originals. Instead, it's its own thing, and while the acting isn't great, the direction is a hell of a lot better than George Lucas is given credit for, and the story is a solid enough foundation for the films to come. I was surprised by how well the special effects have held up. Somehow over the years, I'd come to remember the CGI characters as cartoony and ridiculous, but they really aren't. Even the Gungan/battledroid scene at the end looks great. A lot of craftsmanship went into the film.
Now, look, there are things I didn't like. (Midichlorians, primarily.) And in my own fantasy world, the prequel-era Jedi Order was entirely different than what we got. I would have much preferred them to be kind of do-gooder knights, fighting battles that they decided were worth fighting—whether or not they were asked to help. In other words, they would have joined the Clone Wars because it was being fought, and they got caught up in the frenzy, and hey, let's go kill those clones! (I'm imagining that scene in Gone with the Wind where all the Southerners run off in excitement to fight the War of Northern Aggression, or whatever.) I would have liked the Jedi to get involved in things in which they have no business. Local disputes, high crime places, wars, and so on. Sometimes government officials put them on the payroll to help (as in the Clone Wars) and sometimes government officials just kind of roll their eyes—there go the Jedi, meddling again.
In other words, I would have had them as highly militarized Jesuits or Freemasons. The Jedi would have seen themselves as the "guardians of peace and justice in the galaxy," but few others would have. Their secrecy and mysteriousness would have explained the ease of their later persecution. Palpatine comes to power and says, "Look, the galaxy is in a real bind because these Jedi people keep causing problems. We need to stop them."
I suspect this is what George Lucas originally intended in the seventies. It explains why Uncle Owen called Obi-Wan Kenobi a "crazy old wizard," and suggested that Anakin was inveigled into some "damned fool idealistic crusade." (Crusade is the key word here.) It explains why Obi-Wan lied so often. (It's just what Jedi do—they're delusional and rationalize anything that gets them into the fight.) It explains why Obi-Wan was so eager to get involved in a rebellion he otherwise had no business joining. (Leia basically wanted him to mail a file to her father. Instead, he's hiring smugglers, recruiting a team, getting into bar fights and, once he finds himself on the Death Star, running off to handle Jedi business.)
I mean, look, Uncle Owen wanted Luke to stay away from Obi-Wan because Obi-Wan might cajole Luke into fighting a hopeless war. Then Luke and Obi-Wan meet, and what's the first thing the old man does? Cajoles Luke into fighting a hopeless war! "I need your help, Luke. She needs your help!" No he didn't and no she didn't. She needed a file to be carried from point A to point B. Had Alderaan not been destroyed, the two of them (plus Han and Chewie and an invoice for 10,000 credits) would have delivered the file, and Leia's father would have said, "Great, thank you Obi-Wan. It was great seeing you again. So do you and Luke need a ride back to Tattooine, or...?"
Indeed, the whole reason Obi-Wan was recruited for the epic challenge of delivering mail was because he lived on Tattooine, and that's the planet Leia happened to be near when she was captured. Had she been captured near Naboo, she'd have sent it to Ric Ollie, who served her mother in the Clone Wars and who would have then been her "only hope."
The Jedi as delusional, meddling knights would also have explained why only Jedi carry lightsabers (it's an ancient, insanely dangerous weapon for an ancient, insanely dangerous group of people). It would have explained why Darth Vader carried a lightsaber (he was a former Jedi) and explained why Emperor Palpatine was so amused by Luke's own lightsaber and condescending about the whole thing. ("Ah yes, a Jedi's weapon." As in: very cute. You've joined the crazies, too.)
None of this would have contradicted the original trilogy. But here's the thing: if George Lucas had gone this route, the fans would have strung him from a tree. By the time Episode I went into production, the Jedi had become Magic Super Priests in popular culture. The ultimate good fighting the ultimate evil. Had Lucas undermined this by making them a crazed, stateless French Foreign Legion, he would have all but gone to war with popular (though groundless) myth. It would have been like trying to rewrite Greek mythology.
And so he was basically forced (ha ha!) to figure out how to make a group of Super Good Guys remain super good, while somehow still writing a compelling drama. It was an impossible task. Consider how he handles Obi-Wan and Yoda in the prequels. Qui-Gon Jinn should have, by every measure, been Obi-Wan Kenobi. Reckless. Heedless of the orders of the Jedi Council. Fast to do a Jedi Mind Trick. That's the Obi-Wan of the original film! But that would have made Obi-Wan a problematic character in Magic Super Priest terms. By 1999, Obi-Wan Kenobi was a Christ figure! You can't have Jesus going around lying, deceiving, stealing, and pulling lightsabers at the first sign of trouble. So Lucas had to push Obi-Wan across the chessboard of his story without ever allowing Obi-Wan to make a mistake.
The same goes for Yoda. We remember Yoda from The Empire Strikes Back as a saint and an oracle, but he's neither of those things. The first thing he does when he meets Luke is lie to him and act crazy. Then he seduces Luke into joining the Jedi Order by building it up (talking to the dead!) and denying Luke access (you always want what you can't have). After suggesting to Luke that he's the only hope against Vader, the first thing Yoda says after Luke leaves is: "No, there is another." (This even suggests that Yoda had been lying to Obi-Wan!) In Return of the Jedi, Yoda's parting wisdom to Luke is... be a good person? Love your neighbor as yourself? Nope! It's "Go kill your father." Go handle old Jedi business, in other words. He even tells Luke that there is another Skywalker. As in: "Go recruit a team to do the job if you need to."
But by 1999, Yoda was a magical green Dali Lama. In the prequels, therefore, Lucas couldn't go the more natural direction of having a half-crazy goblin priest encouraging his followers to go fight the Clone Wars. Instead, he was forced to write a character who has to be totally mistaken about everything (i.e. Palpatine) without allowing him to ever actually make a mistake. Think about Yoda's dialogue. Aside from not wanting Anakin to be trained, he basically says things like "Blind we are!" and "Down a dangerous path this leads." Yoda never actually says anything helpful to anyone, and never uses a neuron of wisdom, because in either case, it would have revealed a tremendous fallibility that culture would not accept.
I actually find it offensive that the only Yoda we see today is the one swinging a lightsaber. What happened to "Great warrior? Wars not make one great." But that's because I'm as much a part of the culture as anyone. In fact, Fightin' Yoda is far more honest to the character than the Space Ghandi I remember.
It's impossible to appreciate the burden George Lucas carried into the writing room. If for no other reason, I admire the hell out of the prequel galaxy he created. It's diverse, brooding, and interesting. The Clone Wars computer animated series bears this out. Using the canvas Lucas created, the series was able to tell an rich, extraordinary story on an epic scale.
While I enjoyed Episode VII, I confess that it leaves me feeling a little empty. It's a really good film, but it takes no chances. George Lucas has long been accused of simply being in the business of selling toys, when in reality I think he's been in the business of solidifying a mythology that will be remembered forever. The toys just paid for it. By foregoing an original story, the latest Star Wars film suggests that it's borrowing carefully from a mythology for the sole purpose of—you guessed it—selling toys. The mythology will be footing the bill.