The Trouble with Midi-chlorians

Between Binge Mode focusing on the Star Wars universe and the upcoming Rise of Skywalker bringing to an end the Skywalker narrative that I (and so many people) have grown up on and thought so much about, I’ve been in a Star Wars mood of late. I’ve decided to go back to the elements of the Star Wars story that I either hadn’t watched and considered or only saw once or twice.

This has lead me, against my better judgment, to re-watch Episode I: The Phantom Menace. It’s been many, many years since I’ve watched Phantom Menace but those very rough parts were still very much there. There was some stuff that I appreciated much more now (the lightsaber duel between Qui-Gon/Obi-Wan and Darth Maul and Ewan McGregor’s performance as Obi-Wan in general).

Here is the definition of midi-chlorians from the most important and valuable of resource–Wookieepedia:

Midi-chlorian was the scientific name for a species of sentient and microscopic organisms that inhabited the cells of every life form. Their existence was integral to the all-encompassing energy field known as the Force, connecting the Living Force to the Cosmic Force. By serving as the link between the living and cosmic aspects of the Force, the midi-chlorians made it possible to preserve an individual’s consciousness after death. With sufficient training and total immersion in the light side of the Force, the deceased could preserve their identity in the form of a Force spirit after becoming one with the Force.

In addition to their connection with the Force, midi-chlorians lived in a symbiotic relationship with their organic hosts—a bond that was especially strong with Force-sensitive beings, who possessed a high quantity of midi-chlorians in their cells. This mutually advantageous relationship allowed the midi-chlorians to communicate the will of the Force to their Force-sensitive symbionts, who were capable of utilizing the powers of the Force through the midi-chlorians

In the original trilogy, what the Force was was was left by and large as a mystery.

The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.

Obi-Wan Kenobi, A N ew Hope

Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size, do you? Hmm? Hmm. And well you should not. For my ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the Force around you; here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere, yes. Even between the land and the ship.

Yoda, The Empire Strikes Back

There is no delving into the specifics of what “makes” the Force. Yes, it is discussed and defined (an energy field that binds the galaxy together, it’s what connects us to one another) but there are not specific scientific and concrete explanations of what makes the Force. It is something that is inherently mystical, beyond the realm of the rational and the explainable in physical/biological terms.

What separates Star Wars from other science fiction (and here I’m thinking of Star Trek) is that mystical/spiritual/religious element. There is the possibility of the mystical and unseen as opposed to something like Star Trek, where there is an explicit denial of the religious and an emphasis on the very scientific. To say that the Force is something that exists because of the connection between a certain kind of cell in one’s body and that one’s Force sensitivity can be determined by some kind of biological test runs contrary to what Star Wars had always been and was a big part of what differentiated it from other depictions of science fiction.

But this what Lucas does in Phantom Menace, this is what he turns the Force into, into something closer to “hard” science fiction than the mystical quasi-fantasy in which it originally dealt. It has often been said about the prequels that it becomes clear that Lucas did not understand what made Star Wars special. But more than pandering to very young children to sell toys or an over reliance on technology and special effects at the expense of character development, the midi-chlorians are the greatest example of Lucas’ inability to really grasp what it is that made Star Wars resonate.

The original films and the newer films reflected something about the human need for mystery and wonder, it was filling (in a way) a kind of spiritual need that exists in all of us. But the prequel films do not reflect that both in how they were made and what they represent. The midi-chlorians and their introduction in The Phantom Menace are, in my mind, the biggest example of all this and did more damage to the Star Wars brand and narrative than anything else.

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