SQUEAKY MOUSE DROID
EPISODE 2: The Hyperdrive Motivator
Before the Squeaky Mouse Droid starts the actual topic of this column, there’s a tiny observation it would like to make about this universe. On Words With Friends (at least on the iOS edition) “Jedi” is not an acceptable word but “Sith” is.
Ok, that was going nowhere. So, where were we?
We find ourselves now at the beginning of a new Squeaky Mouse Droid column, the point of which is to just sound off about Star Wars.
Here goes: (Strap yourselves in while I make the calculations for a jump to light speed.)
It really says something about The Empire Strikes Back that there are a lot of people who consider it to be a near-perfect film; it’s hard enough to create a simply good film that takes place in the real world, let alone a “just decent” film that takes place in a more fantastical setting. Yet Empire takes place in another galaxy, and it’s a film that’s visually dazzling, and there were innovations made in just about every aspect of that film. From a narrative standpoint, it’s as risky as they come. Bottom line: that’s what The Empire Strikes Back is: something bold, something daring and and something altogether groundbreaking in every sense of the word, a film in which all of its separate elements were put together with professionalism and finesse to create a masterpiece that has withstood the test of time.
When a film such as this is near perfect, it is almost easier to find the flaws, to point out those things that can be nitpicked. Though there aren’t all that many, really, with Empire, there are a few that this Squeaky Mouse Droid keeps hearing people squawk about. The most prominent of these is the question of interstellar distances.
Together now: Ugh.
Let’s put aside the fact that anyone who would actually complain about this really doesn’t “get” Star Wars anyway..
This issue, such as it was, was somewhat less of a problem in A New Hope. To travel the great distances between stars in that film, the Millennium Falcon (and, supposedly, the other ships) simply used their hyperdrive. The problem was that the term “hyperdrive” seemed to be used synonymously with “light speed” throughout the film. The simple fact is that even if one could their ship up to light speed it would still take years to be able to go between stars. This dilemma is magnified in The Empire Strikes Back as the Falcon’s hyperdrive does not even function and yet the ship manages to visit three different star systems.
For this Squeaky Mouse Droid, this has never been a problem. This is science fantasy, not science fiction, after all. The people in this universe might also freely alternate between “light speed” and “hyperspace” because both terms express the point that the ship is crossing “light barrier” as they say, but the term “light speed” was more of an expression, a kind of figure of speech, something spoken in place of a technical number. Perhaps the term represents a range of time in which a ship can cross to another system, and when Han says that his ship can get to “point five past light speed,” that means that maybe he’d managed to coax a little more out of her than one could expect considering the distances and relative positions involved.
I once started a science fiction story and thus started to come up with a method of faster-than-light travel that had bit of my own “created science.” I imagined that each star in the galaxy could be assigned a numeric value for it’s relative gravitational pull, and a ship traveling from one star to another could line itself in such a way as to use those values to create a kind of attracting/repelling system. If the ship was going from a star with a base gravitational value of 5 to one that was a 6, the pilot would adjust the ship’s alignment and its own gravitational number so that it could make up the difference between the two gravitational numbers of the stars and, and once the ship itself was able to pick up the slack between a 5 and a 6, and was properly aligned with the destination star, it would be instantly pulled towards it, much like how the corresponding (or is it opposite? I’m no expert) poles of two separate batteries are instantly drawn to one another if lined up correctly. Maybe the Falcon’s hyperdrive system incorporates a crazy idea such as this.
Which still doesn’t explain it’s ability to traverse between systems in Empire, when the drive is down..
Which leads the Squeaky Mouse Droid to inform you, oh mighty reader, to think about this in a different way. The story, being a fantasy, has spaceships. Spaceships are (when it all comes down to it) merely storytelling tools used to allow the characters to travel through space. For the needs of storytelling, that means that the ships are able to travel between systems. In fact, they can go between systems even without this hyperdrive system, because that is simply what ships that travel through space do. They do it just as well as a car that can travel from one city to the next. A person from the past who’s never seen a car before might be scratching their heads if one of his science fiction books included one, but traveling by car makes sense to us, and traveling by spaceship makes sense to the characters in Star Wars.
Let’s go a little further with this. If a ship can get from system to system without hyperdrive, if it could just fly to another system, why have hyperdrive at all in the story?
The answer, just think about the car example. I live in a town that’s two hours (give or take) from both New York City in one direction and Philadelphia in the other. If I had to make a trip to Florida, the easiest and best way to do so would be for me to get in a plane. It’s a trip that’s about a 1,000 miles, after all. By comparison, both New York and Philly are close enough for me that, to make a trip by plane simply wouldn’t make any sense.
Now picture this: In Empire, Han has his sights on getting to Bespin to escape the Empire. From the dialogue, it’s a system that clearly is pretty far away. If he could, he’d engage the hyperdrive to make that journey. With all things being equal.
Prior to considering Bespin as a place to which he and his friends could take refuge, Han had flown his spaceship from the Hoth System to the Anoat system (this is where that asteroid field was located), and if you notice, he did not use the hyperdrive to make this journey. All you have to do to make sense of this is to extend the analogy and equate the hyperdrive system as a system that, while it may be a faster way to travel rather large distances but, in actuality, it is one that is actually quite inefficient if it were to be used when going between two systems that are relatively close together. The analogy: the hyperdrive is to Han what taking an airplane is to me.
In order for this analogy to work, you do have to shelve what you know about the actual distances (in miles or even light years) between stars, but we are talking story-telling shorthand and not science here.
In my scenario, I don’t have the money to take a plane to get to Florida. However, I could just get in my car and drive there. It would not be the most efficient mode transportation, but it would still work.
When Han says (of Bespin) that “it’s pretty far but I think we can make it” he might be considering the dreaded prospect that flying to Bespin from Anoat as the long, daunting journey that it is, but one his ship could make, just as my car could indeed make the trip to Florida.
So, to review: It is nonsensical for me to take a plane to New York city or Philadelphia. By the same token, it is nonsensical in the Star Wars universe for Han to engage the Falcon’s hyperdrive (even if it did work) to go from Hoth to Anoat. Despite the fact that Bespin is comparatively much further away than Anoat was, it’s still within the limits of his ship’s capabilities, even without hyperdrive.
So, if that’s the case, what exactly qualifies as being completely out of range for the Falcon? Well, I just think about my analogy again. If I needed to go to Europe – not Florida – to accomplish my mission, then I’d immediately have to concede that my car would not make it. The reason isn’t merely distance alone, but the terrain that lies between and my destination (in this case, a very large body of water called an “ocean”). To continue with my analogy, the Falcon probably couldn’t go to middle of the galaxy or the even some of the other spiral arms with the Falcon unless the hyperdrive was working. Though his ship, like all the ships in Star Wars, are designed to traverse the area between systems, it’s range is, at least on a galactic scale, quite limited.
I truly believe that this (admittedly geeky) analogy works. It would be foolery to import scientific numbers such as how fast light speed actually is or how much power could the Falcon’s engines actually generate, or how much time this all would actually take, into a light space serial adventure film like The Empire Strikes Back. Leave all the technical stuff behind, and imagine a working, functioning galaxy that has its own history in which people and aliens have lived for thousands of years. I’m a Star Trek fan as well, and that series always sold me into its world based on it’s verisimilitude with actual science and how it incorporates the elements that were created for the show. Star Wars, however, didn’t need to sell me on verisimilitude: it sold me on its production design. It sold me on it’s fast-paced storytelling, and on all of its gestures to high adventure. It sold me on its ever-deepening mythology, and its base conflict between good and evil that has captivated all of mankind. All I have to do is put on Star Wars and I’m drawn into that world, and the fact that it looks and feels real is all I need to be convinced – for a time- that it is.
At least, it is – the credits roll, and then I have to get into my car and get some food. That’s a trip that seems so much more stale because I’m not trying to outmaneuver any TIE fighters in the process.