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01 June 2018

The Last Jedi - analysis of theme and Holdo, with (yes) tenuous physics teaching connections

I’m a big fan of Alastair Stephens’ podcasts*.  He’s done a 12-episode series on Story and Star Wars, a 60-plus episode series on Tolkien’s works, and a long-running Harry Potter podcast.  Alastair doesn’t just give a fan’s perspective, though he is certainly a fan.  He delves into the text of a story. He commits literature on what many consider merely nerdish-pop culture phenomena.

Update: Some credible, in my judgment, #metoo details about Stephens came out in August 2018.  I’m now unsubscribed from his work; I’ve removed the link to his site.

Alastair finally got around to talking about The Last Jedi a few weeks back.  I sent him a response to some of his analysis.  In doing so, I realized that there’s a physics teaching connection to a couple of these.  And you can’t go wrong discussing Star Wars amongst physics teachers.  

So in the spirit of love for intellectual Star Wars discussion... Here are three thoughts on The Last Jedi after listening to Story and Star Wars:

(1) Alastair spends some time searching for The Last Jedi’s overarching theme, which he points out is not at all clear.  I took the theme of the show, such as it is, to be contained in Rose's final line to Finn: "saving what we love, not killing what we hate."  Poe was demoted for violating that principle. Rey found the part of Kylo that she could love and save, not kill and hate.  Rose's trip to Canto was "worth it" only when she saved the camel creature. Problematic Holdo planned to save what she could rather than make a heroic last stand. Luke took action when he realized that while he couldn’t destroy the first order or Kylo, he could at least save Leia, Rey, and the rebels.  

I certainly see Alastair’s question about the movie’s confused, disparate, and unfocused themes.  No argument there.  But, is it possible that all the possible themes he mentioned - war/peace, leadership/heroism, harmony/disharmony, etc. - could be encompassed in saving/killing?

(And, combined with the borderline polemic scenes on Canto, I took this theme as as close to a current political message as you'll get from Star Wars.)

Physics teaching connection: In many a May as the school year draws to a close, I find myself a bit bitter.  All too often, a colleague close to me is leaving the school; or a rotten, racist student accepts his barely-earned diploma with a sh*t eating grin; or I have to play nice as an unprofessional kiss-arse of a teacher is lauded by those who don’t make the effort to know better.  

Saving and killing are, of course, supremely hyperbolic when referencing life at a bucolic boarding school.  Nevertheless, I find myself reciting Rose’s mantra to myself.  The negatives that stick in my craw are far outweighed by the positives. The colleagues I love who remain on faculty (and the new folks coming in), the myriad students who graduate with pride at a job well done, the outstanding teachers who win well-deserved recognition… I need to treasure those people I love rather than seethe at those things and people that bother me.  If Star Wars helps me to do that, so be it.

That doesn’t mean I should give up the fight to improve my school, my students, and my own teaching.  I merely have to keep in mind that losing the battle of Hoth doesn’t mean losing the war.  

(2) Alastair presented an analysis of Admiral Holdo’s actions.  Her opposition to Poe - and, to judge by the mutiny that commences, her opposition to most of the rebels below a certain age - contrasts with her heroism and her camaraderie with Leia.  

I talked to the son of a Marine officer about her. He said, "A Marine captain who demands big-picture details from an admiral in a public forum would be rightly thrown in the brig.  The captain's job is to follow orders.  Holdo's response to Poe's insubordination was mild."  

Fair point.  Yet, as a physics teacher I see her response to fair questions from her subordinate as deeply problematic.  On the podcast Alastair indicated exactly the response I'd expect from Holdo, and that I give to students who question my methods.  Something like, “Poe, please understand that we do have a throw of the dice left.  I can’t divulge the details now, because I’m worried that the First Order can hear us.  But I promise that we will not merely wait here stoically to die.  Please trust me as Leia did.”

I’d be personally okay with even, “Poe, back the eff off.  I’m using what fuel we have for transports; we’re headed to a secret abandoned base.  That’s the plan.  I’d love it if you could now please take BB8 to do the final maintenance check on every transport.  That’s an order, Captain.”

The "shut up" response should be reserved for when the subordinate's questions broach into tendentiousness or bad faith.  And even then, making direct personal insults to a subordinate - “I’ve dealt with flyboys like you” - is not only out of bounds, but the exact opposite of productive.  (What talented, prideful subordinate ever responds to a direct insult with “Oh, the boss showed me.  I guess I’d better shut up now and do what she says.”?)  A large part of leadership is effective communication and managing the personalities of talented underlings.  Holdo failed.  

Physics teaching connection: The education industry does not well tolerate people with exceptional ability, especially if those people are brash.  To mix my performing arts metaphors, administrators want their teachers to be Burrs, not Hamiltons.  And, to my profession’s shame, teachers usually want their students to be Burrs, not Hamiltons.  Especially when the teacher is more Charles Lee than George Washington.  (Okay, back to Star Wars references.)

What is your plan when you’re presented with a student who’s extraordinarily talented, but who is impatient and frustrated with the strictures or the pace of your class?  What is your administration’s plan to deal with the young, brilliant, popular teacher who has the political acumen of Jar Jar Binks?  You should have such a plan.  The plan should provide support and encouragement, while at the same time guiding the Padawan toward wisdom. 

If your plan is to do a Holdo, you’re in the wrong profession.  I’m rather disturbed that a number of fans I talk to blame *Poe* for the catastrophes at the end of the second act.  "If he had just shut up and followed orders..."  No, that's on Holdo.  "If she had just communicated her plan and built trust..."

(3) Mechanisms of the force: Luke's mother of all Jedi Mind Tricks - A colleague of mine put the final scene with Luke into perspective for me.  We've never seen a force hologram with such power.  What if, my colleague asked, in the final confrontation Luke is performing a Kenobi-style Jedi Mind Trick... but not just on one mind.  He's performing the Jedi Mind Trick on every single person watching.  He's convincing all of the 200 or so people present to see something that's not really there, and to see the same thing that's not really there. This would explain the long-distance nature of the projection, in that Luke must touch minds through the force, not physically project a hologram equivalent.  It would explain how Luke can fight as a hologram, and why sometimes he is substantial and sometimes not - Luke is not physically fighting, he's merely making Kylo and observers see and believe in a fight.  It would explain Luke's death better - that sort of performance took all of his remaining energy. If that's true, that would make Luke truly the most powerful Jedi ever, and even a greater legendary hero.

Physics teaching connection: There is none.  Other than that virtually all physicists have a personal understanding of Star Wars and the Force.