Is Backstory Necessary to Story? – musings of the Last Jedi

So everyone and their mother have something to say about The Last Jedi, a Star Wars movie that divided the whole Star Wars fandom for.. probably the 76547th time. In that respect, there’s not much that’s been left unsaid at this time. 

However, there is something that’s being said that properly intrigued me.  In multiple videos, numerous comments and countless blog posts, the fans are collectively complaining about one thing: the lack of any back story to one of the key characters of the New Trollogy: the Supreme Leader, Lord Snoke himself.

The unhappy fans claim the new movies miss key information such as to who Snoke is, where he comes from, how did he get to his current position in the First Order, how did he manage to make Kylo Ren his apprentice, is he a Sith, how did he become a Sith, whose apprentice was he, did he have anything to do with the Empire, who is his telekom provider, why… you get the picture.

Of course, it’s not a black and white world, and there are in fact some fans who actually like the New Trilogy. Back off people, there are kids out there, let them have their fun! Anyway, these fans have risen up to give a very interesting reply to the complainers, a reply that properly tickled my curious vein:

“You didn’t complain about not knowing any of that about the Emperor Palpatine in the Original Trilogy.”

– The Fans Who Like The Last Jedi

Think of people who like the movie what you will, but you can’t say they’re not absolutely right in this particular instance! In the Original Trilogy, we had no idea about any of the Emperor’s backstory. Actually, in the first movie – A New Hope – the Emperor doesn’t even once appear on screen! And by the end of The Return of the Jedi he gets killed while we’re none the wiser about who he is, where he came from, how did he get his powers, whose apprentice was he, how did he become the Emperor in the first place, why Darth Vader serves him nor how did he get Darth Vader to become his apprentice… not a single clue is given to us during the damn Original Trilogy and yet we’re ready to swear they’re one of the best movies ever made, with some of the best villains ever written!

Who ARE you, wonderful Mystery Man?

Actually, when a Prequel Trilogy of movies came out to answer all those questions, we all clamored – we don’t want it! Let us keep the mystery! Let us enjoy our questions! Let us write our fanfics! Don’t you understand it’s all the mystery and asking questions that makes it interesting?

So what’s the problem? Was the Original Trilogy any better than the New? Were we just kids back then, ready to accept flaws because we didn’t know any better? Have we only grown up now and see it’s flaws while watching the New Trollogy? Or is there something entirely different going on? How can we make sense of this???

Well, let’s dive right in!

Exposing the Emperor

Ok, get your head out of the gutter. Seriously.

Let us first examine the Original Trilogy and what we learn about the Emperor. In fact, let’s look at the movie one first. While it is entirely true he doesn’t even feature in the first film, we can argue it informs us quite a bit.

First thing, we learn he is an Emperor of a Galactic Empire. Think about it, there’s a lot of information right there. We know what an Emperor is, and we know what an Empire is. I mean sure, this is a different Galaxy and some details about how an Empire works are bound to be different, but we’re quite capable to intuit how much power he’s got. And then, it’s a Galactic Empire. Even when it’s just pronounced you kind of figure it covers the whole or at least a better part of a Galaxy, otherwise it wouldn’t have been called Galactic, right? And the confirmation comes through the dialogue in the movie: this fellow rules the whole Galaxy with what appears to be a pretty iron fist. In fact, he’s just dismissed the Imperial Senate, from what we can gather he’s a tyrant who doesn’t feel like hearing anyone else’s opinion.

Well, right there, we already know a lot. But that’s not nearly all we learn. Sure we don’t get to see the Emperor, but we do get to see a fair share of the Empire

We learn the Emperor’s sword is a powerful threatening presence of Darth Vader. His shield are the intelligent, unquestionably loyal seasoned warriors like Tarkin who assemble in faceless grey rooms to discuss how to best do his will. We saw these great men serving him without question, fear him and strive to please him. And also very honestly align with him in the effort to bring order to the galaxy.

Again, while never addressing the Emperor himself, this insight allows us to intuit a lot about what he must be like. We guessed he must be a brilliant, very powerful and very capable… well, person, to have the people of this caliber regard him with such respect, honor, fear and loyalty.

The Original Trilogy didn’t even come clean if the Emperor was human

We also learned he must be a very unscrupulous, tyrannical and evil to be served by Governors who unscrupulously blow up planets teeming with life, Knights who murder their old friends, commanders who send their underlings to their death without blinking and a very cruel enforcement of discipline that involves choking people and ruthlessly murdering them.

One good look at the servant can reveal a lot about the Master

You see, we actually learned quite a lot about the Emperor before ever laying our eyes on him. And once we did, it was confirmed everything we assumed about him was right. And on top of that, he had awesome magical powers that seemed to dwarf even Master Yoda’s, unyielding determination to crush the Rebellion and rule the Galaxy, absence of any kindness, humanity or compassion and a most glorious cackle as he obviously relished every second of every moment of his evil doing. He was also bestowed by exceeding arrogance – which, in turn, led him to under estimate his enemies, over estimate his own powers and end up being thrown down a chute by a man he considered his puppet.

What I wrote up there is something called Exposition. Exposition is carried out through what we call expository scenes and is used to display who a character is. Note, it is not to be mixed up with character development which deals in who the character becomes during the course of the movie. In the Original Trilogy, the Emperor has no development, but, as you can see, has quite a lot of exposition.

Since he is the main villain of the piece the consequence of good writing employed in the Emperor’s exposition is that, during the course of the movie we know exactly what is at stake: there is only a small group of Rebels between him and a whole Galaxy trembling in fear of an evil creature who can blow up their planets at a push of a button. And by the time of his defeat, we understand just who was defeated, why, and what the consequences of this defeat are.

Do we know his backstory, where he came from, how he rose to power and why did he succeed? Well now we do because that is what the Prequel Trilogy is about, but at the time of the Original Trilogy we didn’t – and we didn’t need to, because the Exposition gave us all the information we required to understand the events that unfolded within that Story.

The Curious Case of Lord? Snoke

Now let us examine the Exposition we have on our Main Villain in the New Trilogy. 

We learn Snoke is tihe Supreme Leader of the First Order. 

Now let us pause and just look at the language here. A “Supreme Leader“. “The First Order“. These words, in themselves, aren’t very informative. They do not form a set of assumptions we use to intuit their meaning. The Original Trilogy used familiar terms in order to let us intuit the set up of the story: we had an Empire. An Emperor. A Governor Tarkin. 

Sometimes, a hint of something familiar is all it takes for the audience to make a perfect joke. Or intuit an inner structure of a Galactic Empire.


While we never learn just what the Governor Tarkin is a Governor of, we do have a certain level of familiarity with what a Governor is and what his powers may be. We understand a Governor would be both, a military commander who orders Generals and Admirals and a familiar with local civilian royalty, namely Princesses. Which, again, requires no explanation.

A title of a Supreme Leader however does. While I can assume that means like, “the Head Honcho”, I really can’t be sure if that’s a military, a civilian, or an overall title. Does Snoke serve anybody? Is there like a syndicate and he’s their chief military officer? Or is he like the Godfather of some sort?

It doesn’t help the term “The First Order” is even less informative. What does that mean? Is that a military, are they a sect, a people, a religion, a political party or a country? Are they sovereign or do they belong to someone? Is there a Second and a Third Order, or are they the only one? How big are they? Do they span a Galaxy or own a couple dislocated planets?

As impressive as this visual is, it’s not very deeply informative.

So in the Original Trilogy just the words “Emperor of a Galactic Empire” inform a huge deal. We instantly know what this organisation is, how it works, how big it is and what’s the expanse of it’s power. In contrast, “The Supreme Leader of The First Order” leaves us about as clueless as we can be.

Now don’t get me wrong: I am not saying you can’t use unfamiliar terms in a Story, but I am saying you need the foresight to provide sufficient explanations to their meaning. The original trilogy used weird terms too, like Jabba the Hutt. But it also used dialogue to provide exposition on the character’s position and level of power the title signified. Governor Tarkin was also a Grand Moff, and there is a bit of a historical gold concerning late Peter Cushing’s cluelessness about what a Grand Moff is. But it also had the wits to cut any mention of it and stick to Governor in the original movies since it wasn’t going to be explained. The New Trilogy, however, just puts the words out there without bothering to give enough exposition for us to understand their context or meaning.

Incidentally, I’ve often wondered what a Grand Moff is… 

But I’ve dwelt on words long enough. Let’s see what can we learn about Snoke from his henchmen. We established we learned a lot about Palpatine just by watching the Imperials in the Original Trilogy. Can the same be said for Snoke?

Unlike Palpatine, Snoke is served by an array of people who are repeatedly proven utter buffoons: a warrior bested by a girl who never held a light saber, a general tricked by a yo’ mama joke, seasoned admirals who get killed because they’re unable to override orders given by kids.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3v30eVsmFQM
If this is the Master’s disposition toward his servants… why doesn’t he replace them?

So you see, again the audience is but confused. If this guy is so very powerful, why doesn’t he make better hires? Is this the best he can get or does he fail to see how useless they are? And if he’s an incompetent buffoon himself, how did he get as far as to create the Starkiller Base and single handedly wipe out the Republic? OK well maybe he didn’t create it: in the Last Jedi we are informed the First Order is buying weapons from the arms dealers. That suggests their power is very small and limited, if they depend of others and basically… The Market, for something as essential as weapons. Is Snoke maybe just their puppet? Did they give him the Starkiller base to… I don’t know what, kill them all and seize power over the Galaxy? Because of course they’re so naive. Or do they have something on him, like, his little daughter in some stall, cleaning race rabbit t poo. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. Nothing adds up. I don’t know.

To talk about words just a bit more, the New Trilogy does use some familiar ones too: but it uses them strangely. We have a General Hux who seems to command Snoke’s entire army. His authority is higher than even that of Snoke’s Admirals who seem to command… a single ship each? Isn’t that, like, a Captain? And his main military leader is just a General? Not a Grand General at least, if you won’t bother to explain why isn’t an Admiral of a sort in charge of a fleet? The title he holds would put Hux lower in command than characters we see in previous movies, but somehow the events of the movie suggest he holds more power than they do. What’s going on?

Mirror mirror on the wall, who’s the most powerful of them all..? Suuure.

This seems unimportant, but in the Original Trilogy a bunch of Admirals and Generals and Lieutenants meeting under the command of a Governor and spewing terms such as Imperial Senate indicated a complex structure that governed a vast force. Here, a single General indicates the First Order actually has comparatively a very small army. But all the events in the Force Awakens suggest the First Order is huge as it is capable of building a Death Star so much more powerful than the Death Star. This breeds but confusion.

Add to that we’re never allowed to understand how the destruction of the Star Killer base affected the First Order. In the Original Trilogy, the destruction of the Death Star barely slowed the Empire down, and it made sense: it’s a Galactic Empire. It’s huge. With the First Order, we just don’t know.

Since we don’t know any of these crucial details about our main villain and his faction, we also don’t quite get what’s even happening in The Last Jedi. What is the scope of the story and what are the stakes, exactly? Who is chasing the rebels at the beginning? A small bit of a huge force, or all that’s left of The First Order? Are the 400 escaping rebels the Galaxy’s last hope to break the unyielding grasp of a tyrannical regime while everyone else fears to help them because of how powerful the First Order is… Or is this 400 lunatics who buy guns from the NRA guys running away from 4 ships full of fanatical Space Nazis who have the same dealer and everyone else is going “you know what… Who cares? Just let these delusional freaks, that loon Snoke and the Crazy Cat Lady Leia have it out. Shh, don’t pick up that comm…”

“It’s those 400 idiots again, Colonel Sandurz. Engage Ludicrous speed and let’s get out of this quadrant.”

I got carried away talking about the First Order, though: let’s get back to Snoke himself. When Palpatine finally shows up on screen, we – as I described above – learn a lot new information about him. So what about Snoke?

Well, to be fair he turns out to be quite as devious and as sadistic as Palpatine. He’s just as prone to zapping people with force lightning. He seems more powerful with the force. He seems less patient and not as good a manipulator of human emotion. He… also seems to sport a more reasonable sense of fashion. Really, an Emperor of a Galactic Empire should have been able to afford more than a tatty old black robe.

Visually and as a character, Snoke does seem to work when he’s on screen

But fashion statement aside, let’s look at what each of them actually does. What’s the plan? By exposing the weaknesses of the Death Star Two the Emperor makes it possible for Luke to come to him and confront him. His plan is to make Luke fall to the Dark Side and replace the aging, weak Darth Vader as his aprentice. This backfires because in his arrogance he doesn’t forese Vader will side with his son, and the Father and Son kill him instead. Get it? Got it. 

Snoke… umm, Snoke uses force manipulation to lure Rey to come to him, then he compels Kylo Ren to kill her but instead Ren kills him and then for some reason after Snoke’s dead the Red Guards fight them two and.. And, for the life of me, I have no clue what was Snoke trying to achieve with this? Was he hoping Kylo would kill Rey and gain more power by doing so? But he didn’t trust nor did he respect Kylo. Why’d he want him more powerful? Was this a test? Like having him kill Han Solo was a test? If killing his own father wasn’t enough, why would killing some girl who humiliated him be enough? Was Snoke hoping Rey would release herself and kill Kylo, coming to serve him? If so, on what grounds? He never established communication with her. What is Snoke doing? And why…?

Ok so the whole upper chapter could be summed up in a single sentence: the exposition on Snoke is awful. It is confusing, contradictory, insufficient and leaves us in complete dark about who, how powerful and how far reaching  this character is while never reveling any of his goals or motivations. And all that after two movies.

Contrast this to the Emperor of the Galactic Empire about whom, by the first half of movie one, we clearly knew all of this. We understood his motivation was to enforce his tyrannical rule in the whole Galaxy. We understood how awful that would be. The thing about replacing Vader with Luke was sprung up (as well as invented) later, but his motivations were clear enough. Unlike Snoke’s. About whom we can’t even tell if he’s the top guy, or just works for someone else.

All we know, Snoke’s motivations might be to release his broom-floating grandson from the evil clutches of a donkeyhorserabbit owner! I dare you to prove this is not a viable theory! 

-Me

And this is why people are clamoring for backstory on Snoke: not because they actually need a backstory, but because they’re desperately hoping it would provide exposition the actual movies failed to give us. In other words, they want backstory information in hope to make sense of this mess.

So do we need the backstory or not? Who’s right? 

Well.. Let’s look at what backstory really is. 

One of my favorite movie analysts up to date, Lindsay Ellis (the Nostalgia Chick), provided a simple yet deeply insightful explanation of this subject in her extensive Lord of the Rings review. It even spoofs Tolkien’s special style:

Backstory, son of Exposition

– Lindsay Ellis

What this means is that backstory is a sort of a tool of exposition. You can look at the Exposition as a father: while the father is still strong and capable, backstory is a little boy who may be fun to have around, but isn’t really necessary to get the work done. This is the case of Emperor Palpatine in the original trilogy: his Exposition was perfect, so we didn’t need any backstory and thus weren’t asking for it.

Actually when we did get the backstory “boy” it turned out he was a bumbling buffoon we’d rather not be hanging out with.

But in the case of Snoke, the exposition is written so inadequately and incompetently we have no clue who Snoke is, what position he’s in, what he’s doing or why – and then he’s dead and we’re angry – not because they killed off a character but because we don’t understand what his death means and how it affects the story. This is the case of an old, senile Father Exposition making no sense due to his progressing Alzheimer, and this is where we call on the Son Backstory to try and make sense of his dad’s ravings. Because he’s the son, right, he knows him best, maybe he will help us understand?

When the Father fails, we ask the Son to take over. Which is not always a bright idea.

So that’s that, and you’re not crazy: the original trilogy are superior movies in spite not giving us any backstory on the Emperor.

And since no one is going to re-write and fix 7 and 8 (at least not officially), the damage’s been done and you’re right to ask for at least some backstory on Snoke because that’s about the only way to get them fixed. At least a tiny bit.

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