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Why is Star Wars so fond of Death Stars? What’s the mysterious attraction of this plot device? (And no, it isn’t a tractor beam.)
Vast Plots and Concentrated Resolutions
The trouble with galaxy-spanning conflicts is that their resolution tends to be spread across years of time and vast regions of space, with armies of characters involved. No single battle won World War II, though one can while away enjoyable hours debating the importance of this or that engagement. No single hero won the American Revolution.
But in a story, we focus on certain characters, and a limited series of events. We can’t cover every fight and everyone’s contributions (though some authors seem determined to try). This is so even in a series of doorstopper novels; it’s even more true of a two-hour movie. How, then, can we give readers or viewers the satisfaction of seeing the overall conflict resolved?
One answer is to give up telling the whole story of the war or conflict, and just trace the tale of a few characters through the tapestry of events. This is the technique of Gone With the Wind or Titanic, and it works very well. We gain an appreciation of the whole through the experiences of a few people. But we don’t get the additional satisfaction of seeing the entire campaign come to a climax.
To show the audience that climax, we need to focus the storyline so that the campaign can get resolved in a single concentrated set of actions, ideally carried out by a few individuals. If we can rig things so that everything turns on a single crucial event, we can enjoy the overall resolution and enhance the achievements of Our Heroes.
I don’t know what the best term is for this kind of crux or turning point. I keep thinking of it as a “bottleneck,” or a gate that all the plot lines have to pass through—but “bottleneck” suggests a blockage, which isn’t the idea at all. The military notion of a “choke point”—a narrow passage through which an armed force must pass—is closer. Science fiction sometimes uses the term “Jonbar hinge” (named after an old SF story) for a crucial point at which the past can be changed—but that’s in a time travel context, rather than in the story’s present.
Whatever we call it, this is the action, almost always constituting the story’s climax, that solves the key conflict and lets everything wrap up neatly. Concentrating the whole burden of the plot into one critical event has an effect similar to that of Aristotle’s dramatic unities of time, place, and action.
Let’s look at some examples.
In three of the Star Wars movies (IV, VI, and VII), blowing up one Big Object forms the climax. We’re given to believe that if the original Death Star is operational, the Rebellion is doomed; destroying the Death Star doesn’t give the Rebellion a permanent victory, but at least the good guys can continue fighting. The second Death Star’s destruction (Return of the Jedi) has more far-reaching effects, because the Emperor is on board and dies as part of the same action. Starkiller Base in The Force Awakens is a similarly crucial danger.
There’s another “single point of failure” in the first prequel, The Phantom Menace. The irresistible invading army of droids is run from a single control ship in orbit. Once Our Heroes destroy the control ship, the droids all go dead. In one stroke, the invasion is ended. And we can still get home from the theatre before bedtime.
Geography and Control
This kind of blow-it-up plot isn’t restricted to F&SF. Terrestrial geography makes it even easier to position a crucial fortress or facility in a key spot. The World War II classic The Guns of Navarone turns on just such an installation. The whole story is about destroying that one fortress. (Well, and about the characters involved—but that’s true of most good fiction.)
In fact, it’s much harder to create a spatial choke point in featureless three-dimensional space—which is why the original Battlestar Galactica’s rip-off of Navarone (the double episode “Gun on Ice Planet Zero”) is so implausible. The Wikipedia summary begins: “Herded into a confined area of space by the Cylons” —but confined by what? This is why space adventures typically turn on something other than geography.
A more mobile fortress can be a plot bottleneck if it serves a critical function—say, power or control. We saw that in The Phantom Menace. The same device is used in Independence Day, where everything depends on the immense mother ship. You can use its computer system to lower the force shields on the city-destroyers thousands of miles away; and when Our Heroes deliver a single A-bomb to blow it up, all the other invader craft fail as well. Convenient.
If we’re dealing with an imaginary science fiction or fantasy opponent, we can also fall back on the classic trope of the hive mind—a culture centered around a single queen or other crucial individual, as in an ant colony. Kill the queen, and the other ants are no longer a problem. As TV Tropes observes: “This plot device is handy as it allows a handful of heroes to win the war without having to depict them fighting off the entire enemy force.”
One can see the intrusion of the hive-queen idea in the 1994 movie version of Robert A. Heinlein’s 1951 novel The Puppet Masters. In the novel, Earth is invaded by “slugs” from space, which attach themselves to humans and take over their minds. To defeat the slugs, the defenders use a disease that kills the slugs without immediately killing their human hosts. But since this is a specific infection, not the generalized bacteria of The War of the Worlds, a massive operation involving thousands of people is required to distribute the disease to the whole slug-ridden population. Heinlein specifically notes that even after the victory, “there is no way to be sure that the slugs are all gone” (ch. 35)—adding a sobering note of realism.
The movie, along with numerous other changes, introduces the entirely un-Heinleinian notion of a hive and a “mother slug.” The whole slug invasion is kept so confined and centralized that a single quick operation can get them all. The resolution seems too facile, too easy, especially if you’re familiar with the book. (A fascinating article by screenwriter Terry Rossio details how the original story for the film, which stuck close to the novel, was hijacked by the Hollywood movie-making process and turned into something quite different.)
One Ring to Rule It All
The ur-example of the crucial plot hinge is the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien handles it well: he builds up the Ring throughout the story to make it the one thing on which victory or defeat turns. We learn that Sauron has placed much of his power in the Ring, which means that if it’s destroyed, much of his power will vanish. The Tower of Barad-Dûr and other structures were made with the One Ring’s power, and fall with its destruction. The Ringwraiths were given their power by Sauron’s control of the nine human rings through the One (“One Ring to rule them all”). Sauron’s armies of orcs and humans are evidently held to a single purpose by Sauron’s will. Sauron himself, and all his works, are destroyed with the Ring. The groundwork for this crux has been laid so thoroughly that we accept the completeness of the destruction, and the victory, as the proper consummation of the epic narrative.
Tolkien, like Heinlein, adds a note of realism. There will be orcs hiding in remote places long after the end of the War of the Ring, though they will never be the threat they were under Sauron. And the end of Sauron is by no means the end of all evil, as depicted especially in the chapter titled “The Scouring of the Shire.” The heroes’ victory is satisfying, but it’s not absolute.
The LotR climax is only one example of the trope in which killing the final enemy causes his works to fail as well. This is the assumption TV Tropes calls “No Ontological Inertia”: the villain’s creations depend on the villain for their existence. Kill the Big Bad, and his lair collapses, his minions flee, and his deeds may be undone.
We see the Death Star-like plot bottleneck especially in fantasy and science fiction, where the author can design species and mechanisms to create the dependencies that make the plot solvable in a single event. But it can also appear in mainstream works, as The Guns of Navarone demonstrates.
The choke point is a great plot convenience. Real life tends to be messier. For that reason, the author has to take care to make the bottleneck believable, so the result is a concentrated climax and not an artificial, deus ex machina solution.