Mae, an assassin, crouches low in a combat stance, with knives in each hand. Masked, with tight braids, she is dressed unlike any Jedi or villain we have seen in Star Wars.

Don’t let A.I. write Star Wars

(Let me write Star Wars.)

I am ready for some writing in a galaxy far, far away, boy howdy, my soul is prepared. Will Leslye Headland do a Tony Gilroy and craft this year’s (hell, several years’) standout Star Wars entry? That’s anybody’s guess — one season of Russian Doll isn’t enough to go on — but optimistically, she and her team will write something, something with a point of view and narrative craft and all the other good things.

A year ago I put the A.I. theory out on the blog, re: The Book of Boba Fett‘s writing, and while I still think that theory is hilarious — and aptly extends to the writing woes on The Mandalorian and Ahsoka — even the fantasist in me doesn’t think it’s actually true. (If it turns out to be, though, I retain bragging rights.)

No, I think (with Occam’s Razor firmly in play) it’s much more likely that Favreau and Filoni are adequate mechanical screenwriters who are suddenly across way, way too much stuff, and the work is suffering as a result. How could it not? Ben Lindbergh had the best take on this premise on The Ringer, a plea for the creative future of the Mandoverse that I sincerely hope someone at Lucasfilm has read.

(Lindbergh does, however, note some very… A.I.-ish… discrepancies in the dialogue of certain episodes under review. “I’ve puzzled over how much repetition has crept into this season’s scripts, but also, what’s with all the dialogue that sounds as if it got garbled by Google Translate?” Just sayin’.)

Let’s also be fair and acknowledge that the Mandoverse was never intended to be Proust. Whether by design or inheritance it is now serving as baseline Star Wars, i.e. the entry level story that gathers new young fans and sends them to Disneyland. In that regard, it is probably doing just fine — or at least, The Mandalorian is, hence the forthcoming feature film — and has supplanted the Sequel Trilogy as the great hope of Disney’s Star Wars brand.

The Mandoverse therefore needs to be broadly accessible, uncomplicated for kids and families, and easily translateable into foreign markets. (Having a masked hero probably helps here, but as my old podcasting colleague Matti Price liked to remind us, you also need dialogue that doesn’t lose its simple meaning when you convert it to Mandarin.)

At its best, The Mandalorian was reminiscent of an ’80s drifter serial (one of those shows where the hero arrives in a town at the top of the episode, deals with some malfeasance, and then leaves town at the end; The Incredible Hulk, Highway to Heaven, and Quantum Leap were all examples), but now I think the actual creative target was more likely Saturday morning cartoons. And not necessarily the best ones (I’ve been re-watching He-Man and She-Ra lately, and man, those shows are surprisingly creative). Just one of the ones that was on, and sold toys, and kept you from reading the back of the breakfast cereal box.

Anyway. That’s enough denigrating with faint praise. I’ll just come out and say it: Favreau and Filoni have lost my confidence as showrunners, based on the last two seasons of The Mandalorian (yes: the one where Luke Skywalker shows up is one of the seasons on my list), and the (so far only) seasons of The Book of Boba Fett and Ahsoka.

And deep down — although snark (and conspiracy theories) are fun — when I say they lost my confidence, that basically means, they broke my heart a bit. Because I always want Star Wars to be good. Which is greedy and attachment-y of me, and Master Yoda would not approve. I get that. But the fact remains: I’d rather be rooting for every single member of the creative team who are making this thing that I love, and getting excited about every single thing they’re looking at doing. Having a couple of them, instead, whose output is marked by so many worrying, unaddressed problems that I am getting to the point of dropping off… well, it sucks.

That feeling’s probably also backdoor-responsible for my whole A.I. malarkey maclunkey, too. It’s a lot more reassuring to think that someone made one bad decision in an attempted innovation than that they’re just… not… great… at stuff. Feeding a bunch of episodes of The Mandalorian to a computer and ordering it to spit out a parallel series about Boba Fett, and ending up with a bunch of unnecessary backstory because the computer in question can only regurgitate language, not critically assess that language? Explains everything (except why you’d shoot it).

The lack of critical assessment is becoming a real killer with these large language models, regardless. (It feels like, only in the last couple of months, has the general public started to fret about the fact that a large language model doesn’t, say, fact-check its own work. Because that’s not what a large language model is.) If your only substantive programming command is “make thing like other thing,” then elements of quality don’t enter into it; it’s a variant of the old “garbage in, garbage out” maxim of data modelling. Also missing from the machine: the premise of inspiration itself, which is also something that cannot be ginned up via a command line.

As I write my way through my own projects, I’m consistently reminded of how much re-use and regurgitation there is in human creativity, by the way. I’m strip-mining every single thing I’ve ever thought about, whether it’s a line from my favourite novel or a weird habit I had when I was eleven. I’m curating which bits of backmatter go into the broth and hoping that the process is additive, but in some ways my brain is performing tasks not unlike ChatGPT being asked to “write an episode of television similar to The Bear.”

We’re always sifting and sorting and repopulating references, whether those references are from our own lives, stories we once read, or things that are happening in the news. The difference — I hope — is that art is the synthesis of such elements plus inspiration, whereas the best A.I. and L.L.M.s seem to be able to manufacture is synthesis without inspiration.

Will people — by which I mean general audiences, not critics or media obsessives — be able to tell the difference? Again, I hope so. When you realize that almost nobody takes the craft of artmaking in your preferred medium as seriously as you do — that for, like, 98% of the human race, TV is just “something that’s on” — it can be frightening to peer over the lip of the cliff and wonder if anyone’s going to notice the whole medium falling off it.

One addendum re: synthesis and Star Wars: it’s impossible not to note that while Star Wars, originally, was the synthesis of a few older storytelling modes and genres (simplistically: Westerns + Flash Gordon + samurai pictures + Joseph Campbell = Star Wars) boiled to a head in George Lucas’ brain, the new canon projects, particularly on TV, are the synthesis of older Star Wars into new forms. The Acolyte is exciting because it might have a take on the Jedi themselves (synthesized with, to be fair, wuxia pictures and “Let It Go” for some reason), because the Jedi are a substantive enough text on their own to generate interrogation within the story framework as a whole.

But at some point, this kind of Star Wars inbreeding is going to become dangerously short-sighted, if it hasn’t already. Just because there’s a lot of Star Wars now doesn’t mean that strip-mining only from within its existing facets should be the only way forward, creatively. I love Star Wars that has something to say about Star Wars as much as the next person, but I also think the minders of this universe could do better than only looking within the walls.

Bendis Items

ITEM!: I really did write a Star Wars spec script, which probably solves for exactly none of what I am describing above. Writing is hard! I have mad respect for everyone to ever do it, regardless! Anyways, I love my script. It’s a droid adventure that takes place between Episodes XIII and IX (because I refuse to abandon the Sequel Trilogy). Call me Lucasfilm!

ITEM!: If you missed it, I reviewed Criterion’s new blu-ray of All The Beauty and the Bloodshed, which is about much more substantive burdens of artmaking.

ITEM!: I also weighed in (briefly) on Dune with the Screen Anarchy gang.

ITEM!: I’ll add, however, that after writing that blurb, I saw Dune again, in 70mm IMAX, and got my head blown properly off. Cinema rules.