The original Star Wars film premiered in the 70s—1977 to be precise. Sure, arguably the best film—Empire Strikes Back—came out in 1980 and Star Wars lore has exponentially grown since then, but that original 70s groove and retro-future perspective has endured as a component of the franchise, creating an atemporality that works as a signature style for Star Wars. This is something I hope to see reflected by BioWare for Star Wars: The Old Republic.
Warning: This article links frequently to the TV Tropes website. Beware what you click, you may wind up entranced for hours.
I’ll start by explaining what I mean by “atemporality.” Atemporal means “free from the limitations of time.” So “atemporality” is a disregard or incongruity with one’s expected place in time. In speculative fiction (e.g., fantasy, science fiction), this leads to anachronisms such as high-tech advancements in the Victorian era (e.g., Steamboy), modern stylistic aesthetics in a historical time period (e.g., Samurai Champloo), or incongruous characters meeting and interacting who never would historically (e.g., Time Bandits). The Star Wars franchise includes atemporality both by intention and incidentally from the usual “datedness” of old special effects and technology from when Star Wars was first released. Both types add to the overall charm of Star Wars.
The incidental atemporality of the Star Wars franchise is simple enough to understand, as it’s unavoidable for any fiction set in the future. While Star Wars is technically set in the far past, it contains a vision of futuristic technology, but one based on a 1970s technological point of view. The style of clothing people wear. The haircuts. The computer terminals with vector graphics. Heck, compare a modern cellphone to the comlink C-3PO sports.
Technology and style have marched on, but Star Wars canon is ever stuck in that 70s mentality. And Star Wars is far from the only sci-fi franchise that has suffered from this. Look at William Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy where cellphones are absent—one of the heists requires a crack team of pay-phone hackers—and the incredible technology that everybody is fighting over in the third book is the ability to access the wondrous “cyberspace” via a wireless connection. The film Hackers also features the use of pay phones for hacking scams. And in Gibson’s Johnny Mnemonic, the titular character smuggles illegal data across borders using a high-tech skull implant that allows him to store a whopping 160 gigabytes (incredible!) worth of data.In the novel Gateway, we follow the adventures of a futuristic space explorer who interacts with unfathomable alien technology and bares his soul to his a computerized psychologist. Except all data is stored on cassette tapes and all the psychology is of the outdated Freudian variety. While these failures to predict futuristic technology, style, and science can date the work in question, one can’t deny that they also give it a distinct charm and style that is sometimes sought after intentionally by authors.
When George Lucas set out to write Star Wars, he had actually wanted to write an updated Flash Gordan film based on the campy sci-fi television series of his youth—something that was released in the 30s, making it even more dated. When Lucas couldn’t get the rights, he just decided to do his own thing, modeling the narrative on Campbell’s Monomyththeory and pulling ideas from a wide array of source material, including fantasy, westerns, spy films, modern politics, WWII war films, and other sci-fi settings like the Dune books. What he came up with was a mish-mash of atemporal features stolen from conflicting genres. Combined with the usual “datedness” described above, this has made Star Wars into some sort of space-opera–fantasy–western with a classic bildungsroman narrative and a raygun gothic (retro-futuristic) aesthetic that flaunts both established science (e.g., sound in space) and conventional wisdom for how technology from different eras would interact. I mean, the wookiees with swords win against tanks, the gungans with shields and slings win against robots driving tanks, and the ewoks with wooden spears win against a clone army with laser guns and giant chicken walker things! In other words, it has made Star Wars awesome. Its intentional atemporality and genre splicing has made Star Wars the one-stop shop for all genres, all different era aesthetics, and held together by solid characters (at least in the original trilogy).
This intentional atemporality is even called out in the opening lines of the original Star Wars crawl:
“A LONG TIME AGO in a galaxy far, far away.”
And in this time long ago we have futuristic technology unheard of today. Clearly this was intentional, and it’s what has allowed Star Wars to survive and even embrace becoming “dated” over time. I think this adaptability is one of the primary strengths of the setting, and has allowed Star Wars authors to experiment with more recent genres such as the modern war film, neo-noir, and horror. But it works best when it’s embraced by the writers, not when they try to fight against it or force real-world progression and interaction of technology.
The major consequence of the Star Wars setting’s inherent atemporality is that technology, style, and culture do not progress the same way that they do in real life. When you have stone age people interacting on a daily basis with futuristic technology—and both groups seem about equally capable—there’s really no driving force for technological improvement. Add in lost technologies that are more elaborate and powerful than anything in the “modern” era (e.g., the star forge, the mindharp of sharu) and insanely powerful prototype technology that’s seemingly better than anything else on the market and you have a very odd non-progression of galactic society. And for the most part, that’s how Star Wars works. The level of technology we see in the films is the same as that 5,000 years prior and one would assume 5,000 years after. Those times where a galaxy-wide progression of technology was actually attempted—in the early Tales of the Jedicomics and in some novels set after Return of the Jedi—it seems strange and out of place for the setting. Of course it makes sense that at some point the Jedi would have to develop the lightsaber, including prototype models, but then the design doesn’t really change for thousands of years! Yes, it makes sense that the earliest explorers would have to manually map out hyperspace routes using beacons and blind luck, but then suddenly navcomputers and astromech droids appear and are never really improved upon in thousands of years. Just look at the ship designs over time:
Of the designs on the left, the two that look the most similar—the Ebon Hawk and the Millennium Falcon—are thousands of years apart from each other. Yeah, I guess Count Dooku’s “solar sailer” looks like a sailboat too, just like the Starbreaker 12 there on the top, but at least that has normal controls and is flown by a robot chauffeur. The controls that we see Gav and Jori Daragon playing with on the Starbreaker may as well be actual ropes they have to pull and tie down to point the sails of their ship. (Which, again, could be totally awesome.)
Even when new models are revealed, such as when Luke was outfitted with an R7 astromech which was required to fly the new E-Wing starfighters, both it and the ship are stupid and he goes back to his old X-Wing with Artoo. And why do some seemingly awesome and game-changing pieces of technology—such as personal energy shielding—simply vanish in later eras? Especially when we then we see sudden leaps forward in technological capability, like from the basic TIE Fighter to the almighty beast of destruction, the TIE Defender. And even worse, when things that prequel-era items are drastically better than everything else—such as when the Naboo starfighter made an appearance in the Rogue Squadron games and was the bee’s knees. Yes, progressing technology makes sense for most media, but for Star Wars and other atemporal settings, better to just not try it and not worry about it. SWTOR seems to agree, as the technology we see looks to be intended to be on par with what we see in the films.
So we’re looking for two things to be reflected in SWTOR. Examples of atemporality—and not just the general ones like vibroswords, which are guaranteed—and specifically for examples of the 70s making an appearance. My favorite bit of TOR confirming that it will continue to utilize atemporality is this shot of the Imperial Agent rocking away at her personal computer:
Look at that thing. It’s a perfect example of a viewer-friendly interface, an extreme graphical representation, and of our graphics suck in the future at the same time! There’s no reason for that interface to be so gosh-darn big other than to let us, the person playing the game, see something that the designers want us to see. Imagine the tennis elbow using that interface would give you if you used it on a daily basis. And it’s so elaborate! Is the hologram really necessary? The desire to manipulate a 3D object that we see pushing gaming systems like the Nintendo Wii, the Microsoft Kinect, and the Playstation Move is not practical for daily use, let alone military field use. The Imperial Agent isn’t going to sneak into enemy territory for a stealth game of Dance Central or a vigorous session of Zumba Fitness, so the entire point is just that it looks cool. And this interface doesn’t even look that fancy! It has that harsh picture quality that matched how people thought holograms would look in the 70s. Worse, in-fact, as even Leia’s hologram didn’t look this utilitarian in the original film. It doesn’t have any of the fancy, modern animations and gimmicks that we see in similar interfaces such as in the CSI television shows or in the Minority Report film, let alone approach the hologram detail humans are capable of right now and are using for life-saving purposes such as creating teen idols who are even more fake and manufactured than ever before.
Another fun example is the female droid who has appeared in a couple of videos and as an avatar on the forums who is an obvious reference to —god blessit you stupid chihuahua rat dog stop it find a way to get comfortable or just get off my lap seriously— the female robot antagonist that appears in Fritz Lang’s masterpiece silent film Metropolis. A film whose art deco style has come to define the raygun gothic style from The Jetsons on down to BioShock.
Other than that, the clothing seems to be about the same as we saw from the films, a mix of spaghetti western and kurosawa movie plus a few extra shoulder pads. The guns still based off of WWII designs (although combined with hair dryers unfortunately) and we still get the fancy futuristic riot armor. I’m hoping the player hairstyles allow for the 70s shaggy bowl-cut look that was rocked so hard by Mark Hamill for his roll as Luke Skywalker. And hey, you gotta have some awesome 70s collars thrown in the mix for the Smuggler or Lando just won’t approve.
If I’m honest with myself I can tell that Han’s left it much wider open than the dude from SWTOR, but at least he’s got the door cracked open a little bit. I don’t see too many bell-bottoms or mini-skirts, but lets be honest, that’s a good thing. We do see a quality Lando Calrissian cape in the Smuggler concept art though, so that’s nice. No platform soles but a few of those boots have more of a heel than is strictly necessary. And the androgynous dresses/robes worn by the Jedi Consular and Sith Inquisitor are a bit too elaborate to be true hippie-wear, but the form is certainly there. Note, I say all this having been born in 1984 myself, so my concept of 70s style comes mostly from That 70s Show, Saturday Night Fever, and a few embarrassing items in my parents’ closet. Which sounds worse than it is now that I’ve typed it. Moving on.
All said, the 70s seem to be overshadowed by the conventional costumes we see in the various genres that make up Star Wars. Without an obvious reference to an iconic piece of 70s wardrobe, it’s debatable how much the prevalent style that was popular during Star Wars‘ filming and release will carry over into SWTOR. Still, I have hope that, in an Easy Rider (actually 1969) hairstyle here and a Shaft pair of sideburns there, one hopes that a bit of the then-contemporary influences will survive. I certainly hope so, because that common thread of style—that bit of campy datedness—is a big part of what sets Star Wars apart visually from the rest. And if nothing else, the atemporality of Star Wars would mean that should 70s style show up in SWTOR, it wouldn’t necessarily feel out of place.
What does everyone else think? Am I talking nonsense with all this “atemporality” stuff and comparing SWTOR to the decade that introduced us to the joy that is the afro? Or should the 70s be left in the past? Comment below or discuss here!