Like most Star Wars fans on the planet over the age of about twelve, I was totally crushed by the prequels. They were bad, not just “not as good as the originals”, but genuinely, horribly bad.
Their faults were legion: wooden acting, terrible scripts, dull storytelling, unimaginative direction, boring and underdeveloped characters and an almost comic over-reliance on CGI and spectacle. There was very little of the sense of verve and fun that made the original trilogy so entertaining (and which was there in spades in The Force Awakens).
One of the worst parts for my money was Lucas’ failure to provide a compelling answer to the two key questions that needed to be resolved by the prequels.
How and why did Anakin Skywalker – “the best star pilot in the galaxy”, best friend of Obi-Wan Kenobi, respected Jedi Knight – turn to the Dark Side and become Darth Vader, taking part in the destruction of the Jedi? How did a democratic Galactic Republic that had endured for 1000 years become an Empire ruled by fear and violence?
I’ll say this for Lucas; at a very basic level, he had the right idea about the answer to these two questions. Anakin is undone by his own anger and fear, which is exploited by Palpatine/Darth Sidious, and the Republic comes apart because unscrupulous and power-hungry people are able to exploit impatience with the inevitable sclerosis, compromise, chaos and uncertainty of democratic federations. But the way in which he shaped a story around these basic insights was deeply inadequate, cluttered with pointless characters and inane dialogue. The character development of Anakin - the central story of the whole damn trilogy! - was non-existent. You never see him as a respected, clever, accomplished, mature Jedi, the "cunning warrior" described by Obi-Wan in Episode IV, but only as a boy and then as a whiny, lovesick, vaguely arrogant teenager/early twentysomething, so his eventual turn to the dark side, and the reasons for that turn, have almost no dramatic resonance.
A recent chat with a friend reminded me that I’d often said I had my own ideas for how a better version of that story might have worked. So I wrote it down and sent it to him, and thought I’d put it on the blog too for all the Star Wars fans out there. Fairly obviously, it’s in a very rough first draft-type form and lots of details are left out.
We open during the Clone Wars. Just as in Lucas’ version, a clone army has been raised by the Republic to fight a separatist movement, which resents the Republic’s attempt to abolish slavery throughout the galaxy. The Jedi – who don’t have their HQ on Coruscant – are refusing to take sides, given their traditional role as peacekeepers, but many younger Jedi do not agree with this and some have decided to fight for the Republic. Simultaneously and separately, the Jedi are investigating reports that a Sith may be involved with the separatists. The Separatists are gaining unexpected victories in the war because they seem to have detailed knowledge of Republic weaponry.
Anakin is a young man in his mid-twenties, Obi-Wan about ten or fifteen years older. Anakin is a well-regarded and popular Jedi, however he has a very strong sense of justice and thinks the Jedi should support the Republic militarily, which has caused tension between him and Obi-Wan. He knows and is in touch with Jedi who are fighting for the Republic and has been impressed by the speeches of Senators Palpatine and Amidala who are among the leading hawks arguing for stronger action against the Separatists.
Anakin and Obi-Wan are sent to find out more about the Sith Lord who may be involved in the Separatist movement. They find him (Darth Maul) but he escapes after fighting them. During their travels Anakin is affected by seeing how the Republic’s weak authority allows corruption and disorder to flourish in many systems. Meanwhile one of the Jedi fighting against the Republic, a friend of Anakin’s, is taken prisoner by Separatists and then escapes, while doing so he comes across evidence that seems to point to agents provocateur within the Republic stoking and funding the Separatists.
The Jedi who found out about the agents provocateur tells the Jedi Council what he knows. Some are reluctant to investigate but others want to. That Jedi is later ambushed and killed, seemingly by Separatists. Anakin is upset and annoyed about this, blaming the Republic’s weakness, but doesn’t know the real background. He covertly attends meetings of the hawks and gets to know Amidala, and begins to form an attachment to her. The hawks, led by Palpatine while this is going on, are gathering more and more power to themselves.
Meanwhile Obi-Wan has been given the task of unravelling the mystery of the Separatist instigators. He is told to keep this a secret from everyone including Anakin. Eventually he finds that information is being leaked through a network of officers in the Republic military about the weaknesses of Republic ships and weapons to the Separatists. The uncovering of this information is enough to turn a major battle in the Republic’s favour, and the Jedi Council, under the influence of the hawks, finally let the Jedi fight for the Republic under General Organa. However, the moving force behind the spy network, presumed to be a high-up person, is still at large. Anakin is delighted by this and starts arguing that the Republic and the Jedi should intervene even more forcefully throughout the galaxy to establish order and peace. He has become very close to Palpatine’s faction. During a (climactic?) battle he sees Separatist troops killing Republic prisoners and in a moment of anger kills several of them. Before the end of this film we see that Palpatine is behind the spy network.
The Republic have regained the initiative in the war and are now forcefully pacifying formerly Separatist systems, leading the Jedi Council to once again dissociate themselves from the war. Anakin is enraged after a Separatist system that the Jedi Council successfully argued should be left in peace after its surrender launches a raid on neighbouring Republic systems, killing several Jedi and many civilians. Amidala narrowly escapes from this raid. Palpatine finally emerges as a leader of the Republic and reduces the powers of the Senate, and reveals his true self to Anakin. Anakin agrees to help him. Obi-Wan finally finds the evidence linking Palpatine to the Separatists, and tells Yoda, just as Palpatine executes Order 66 as in Revenge Of The Sith. Obi-wan pursues Anakin round the galaxy where he is attacking remaining Jedi and finally defeats him. Amidala, meanwhile, has fled from Palpatine having realised what is happening. She has realised she is having children and she dies in childbirth. Leia stays with Organa and Obi-Wan takes Luke to Tatooine.