My journey with Star Wars began slack-jawed, staring up at a starfield as the Tantive IV fled a wedge-shaped Star Destroyer. Right from that moment, the story had been put in motion simply by the wide-angle shot of two ships, the imposing dark one pursuing the more diminutive vessel. As fans know, the scene moves quickly to the capture and boarding of the Rebel blockade runner, and we witness the two factions lined up on each side of the Star Wars. From the factions, we come to know the individuals through whose eyes we will watch the epic struggle between good and evil. It’s quite remarkable that with nothing more than two ships, the stage for an entire saga is set.
As I watched A New Hope recently, I began to wonder if the ships of Star Wars really aren’t characters in their own right. Talking machines like C-3PO and R2-D2 immediately carry that recognition; the pair may be droids, but each has become a beloved character in the eyes of Star Wars fans. But lines of dialogue aren’t what create a character – they also have qualities that make them distinctive and unique, and they embody the notion of thought, even feelings. Who hasn’t attributed the characteristics like loyalty and devotion to the little silver-and-blue astromech?
As a writer myself, I find that my understanding of what defines a character depends on the intention of the storyteller, even with non-sentients such as robots or vessels. Lifeforms, alive and in varying levels of sentience, can exist in a story as nothing more than as set dressing or props. Even in real life, we might call a fickle photocopier haunted or curse out a finicky cable-box for taunting us. When a writer or director uses an inanimate object in a way that creates expectation or emotion, or even personality, that’s when a droid or a ship comes to life as a character.
The Tantive IV or a Star Destroyer, in their brief moments onscreen, may be harder to see as individual characters. But how about the Death Star, Slave I, or Millennium Falcon? Personally, my favorite ship in the Star Wars saga is the flying hunk of junk that made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs. From his first mention of the ship in A New Hope, Han Solo speaks of the Falcon in a way that shows his affection for her. If you’ve ever known a car aficionado or watched American Graffiti, it’s quite obvious George Lucas drew parallels to the era where young men were defined by their relationship with their cars in Star Wars, too.
Much like its real-world counterpart Haynes Manuals, which sit proudly in many garages, the new Millennium Falcon Owner’s Workshop Manual details equipment specifications and offers troubleshooting advice. It also delves into the manufacturing and ownership history of the iconic Corellian Engineering Corporation YT-1300. What makes the Falcon unique, though, are the numerous modifications added later by Han Solo and his best friend Chewbacca that transformed her from a beat-up freighter to one of the fastest ships in the galaxy.
I’m not what you’d call a car aficionado, but like Han, I do get attached to my vehicles. Even beyond that, to the brand – the last three trucks I’ve driven are all Chevys. In part, it’s because my trucks have taken me a lot of places, held together in fateful collisions, refused to start and made me late for big meetings, and also managed to eke out an extra mile to the gas station when I probably should have stopped far earlier. In sharing so much of my life with it, the truck almost becomes part of the family.
Despite the Falcon’s inability to make the jump to lightspeed in The Empire Strikes Back, Han’s faith in his ship doesn’t seem to wane. Director Irvin Kershner has talked at length about his vision of Episode V as a fairy tale more than a comic book or scifi movie. In that light, it’s easy to wonder if he hadn’t made the fantastical leap to imbuing a magical role for the big ship – a fairy godmother of sorts, helping nudge Han and Leia toward true love.
For me, the best thing about science fiction, space opera, and fantasy is that the storyteller can play with an enormous range of philosophical and mystical ideas, even the notion that a hunk of space junk run by three droid-brains might become more than the sum of her parts. Beyond the movies, Star Wars Expanded Universe authors most definitely have toyed with the idea of portraying the YT-1300 as a character. James Luceno’s Millennium Falcon uses the fabled ship as a central set-piece around which he weaves a mystery-filled tale, but I think it was the role the ship played in the storyline of the New Jedi Order and Legacy of the Force series that proved the ship had enough character and fan support to carry that book.
R.A. Salvatore’s Vector Prime opens the New Jedi Order with a bang. Streaking away from the planet Sernpidal with Han and Leia’s son, Anakin Solo, as its pilot, the Falcon whisks to safety Han, his youngest son, and many more innocents – but only after Chewbacca’s life is sacrificed to escape the destruction of the world. Rereading the scene a few days ago, it was quite evident that Salvatore used the ship as another character in the heroic rescue scene. If Han were the courage and Chewbacca were the conscience of the threesome, then the Falcon certainly played her part as the heart. It’s a gut-wrenching beginning to the series, but Chewie’s death defines what is at stake for the rest of the war.
Many of the important character dynamics in the saga exist in threes: Luke, Han, and Leia; Obi-Wan, Anakin, and Padmé; Obi-Wan, Anakin, and Ahsoka Tano; and the Solo children Jaina, Jacen, and Anakin. If you think about the number of character trios in Star Wars, the possibilities seem endless, and even from the beginning Han, Chewbacca, and the Millennium Falcon were always considered inseparable. For that reason, Chewbacca’s death created a void just as tragic as Padmé’s death in the Prequel Trilogy. For the rest of the NJO, on mission after mission against the Yuuzhan Vong, the Falcon fought on, shuttling Jedi children to the Maw and carrying Han and Leia across the galaxy in search of the answers they sought to defeat the new galactic threat.
As a long-time fan of books, I personally haven’t felt a need to see the rendering of a big screen adventure to round out the fabled Episodes VII, VIII, and IX that have long been spoken of within the fandom. In many ways, the Legacy of the Force series brings the Skywalker saga to a point I think is inherent to the cyclical nature of Star Wars storytelling. The series brings the powerful dynamic of twins Jaina and Jacen Solo – so alike, yet so different – and pits them in an epic conflict that symbolizes the duality of the Force. A hero rises and a villain falls, melding the themes of Prequel Trilogy against the Original Trilogy in one storyline. As the siblings are pitted against one another, the Falcon – the ship in which they spent countless hours in childhood – again becomes central to the story. In one of the most heartbreaking yet beautifully conceived scenes set in Tempest, Jacen Solo stands on the bridge of the Super Star Destroyer Anakin Solo and orders the destruction of the Millennium Falcon with his father, mother, sister, and nephew aboard. It’s a turbolaser blast at the heart of the Skywalker-Solo family. I’ll admit I cried for the Noghri bodyguards lost when the laser shot cores the Falcon, but even more I feared for Han and his family, including his ship. Somehow, once again against all odds, the old girl holds it together; she lives to fight another day, and perhaps that says it all about her potential as a character. The family showdown could have happened anywhere, but it had that extra sense of resonance, and ramped up the stakes, by including the famous ship.
Great pains were taken to design the Corellian freighter and to even give her a story, and we fans care about her. When she appears onscreen or in the pages of a book, the Falcon embodies a set of qualities that make her unique. If something were to happen to her, it would hurt, at least for me, just as much as if it were a living character. For all those reasons, I think she’s earned her place as a beloved character in the galaxy far, far away.
What are your thoughts – is she just a souped-up freighter or a part of the cast of Star Wars characters? Do any other ships stick out in your mind that could be considered a character?
Tricia Barr is a transportation engineer, who in her spare time blogs about fangirls, storytelling, and Star Wars at FanGirl. Her musings about the Millennium Falcon were inspired while perusing the pages of the Millennium Falcon Owner’s Workshop Manual.