(this article originally appeared at screenwriting
website Twelvepoint.com, July 2010)
I stepped out of Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace (1999) onto the sidewalk in front of Mann’s Chinese, the second screening of opening day. As I stood there, arranging the debriefing session with my fellowgeeks, an awful thought kept surfacing -like a Dia Nogu’s eyeball. I thought…I thought, well…maybe I hadn’t enjoyed George Lucas’ long-awaited return as much as I should have. I had “a bad feeling”.
But you can’t just say you have “a bad feeling” if you’re serious about studying and making movies. If you don’t like something, you need to find out exactly why. We had looked forward to the return of the Star Wars saga for years, anticipating how wonderful it was going to be. It was not wonderful. Why?
The Phantom Menace is by no means entirely lousy. In fact, despite how universally the film is disparaged, it is not the worst Star Wars movie. The worst Star Wars movie is Episode 2 – Attack of the Clones (2002). Some of the film’s design is superb. Darth Maul – an exquisite cross between a predatory animal and a demonic monk – is one of the best character designs in all of Star Wars, and the final duel between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan and Darth Maul is one of the best action scenes of the entire saga.
Darth Maul, beautiful & inconsequential
So what is the key failing of The Phantom Menace? It’s not the awful dialogue, which isn’t, on the whole, much worse than in any of the other Star Wars movies, discounting the babblings of the reprehensible Jar Jar Binks. It’s not Jar Jar himself either that destroys the movie. We would like to lay all the blame on Jar Jar: ‘Oh, if it weren’t for Jar Jar, TPM would be pretty good.’ No. No, it wouldn’t. And it’s not the performances either – though, it’s true, most of them are shockingly strangled and lifeless.
The central flaw is, as usual, a script problem, and it’s such a fundamental script problem that no amount of clever, high-tech decoration can disguise it.
In trying to sleuth out exactly why a story doesn’t work, it’s good to put it up next to a story that you know does work. The original Lucas masterpiece, Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977) - which I always call simply “Star Wars”, and so should you – is held up as a paragon of solid script structure, and for good reason. Its simplicity and clarity makes it easy to analyse and understand and, furthermore, it’s a movie everyone has seen, which makes it easy to talk about. It’s also one of the most successful entertainments in history so there ought to be some value in studying it carefully.
When we put the script for The Phantom Menace side by side with the script from Star Wars, one feature distinguishes them from each other more than any other, an element triumphantly strong in one film, almost laughably weak in the other. The stakes. The real difference between the beloved 1977 original film and The Phantom Menace and the reason for latter’s failure is the height of the stakes for the characters.
High stakes are essential to telling a good story. “High stakes” doesn’t have to mean the threat of a bomb exploding in five minutes. A teen’s parents coming home in five minutes is more than enough to put us on the edge of our seats. It isn’t threats of physical torment that determine high stakes either – simply missing a bus can be the most devastating moment in a character’s life.
What determines the height of the stakes is how far apart the poles are of success and failure, as well as the character’s depth of commitment to achieving success. There is little middle ground in the best stories. In the movies we love, a character may strive for great success but the penalties for failure are equally great. The best stories not only have a Devil, they have a Deep Blue Sea.
In the greatest sports movies, for example, the stakes are rarely about whether or not the character will win. The character’s desire to win is usually paired with a penalty for failure that is psychologically catastrophic. In Chariots of Fire (1981), Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell certainly want to win but the tension of the story comes from their utter commitment to their calling, their commitment to their true selves. It goes beyond a desire to win a race. These men have left themselves no room to retreat; they are committed to an idea of themselves and of their futures. The genius of the Chariots of Fire script is that its climax hinges on the characters’ even greater commitment to personal honour and mutual respect, which is far greater than the desire for a medal.
It’s easy to think that death is the worst thing that could happen to a character. In the world of flesh and blood, this may or may not be true, but movies exist in the world of emotion. And an emotional catastrophe – one that is going to be communicated to the audience – can take a million forms and will almost always be more violent than any physical slaughter.
So back to our two Star Wars movies. Let’s take the five main characters from each film and examine the stakes each character faces -what action is asked of each character and what are the penalties of failure?
In Star Wars:
- LUKE must deliver R2D2 safely into the hands of the rebellion. If he fails, the fully-operational Death Star will mean the end of the rebellion – and of galactic freedom.
- DARTH VADER must retrieve the stolen Death Star plans and learn the location of the secret rebel base. If he fails, the rebels could destroy the Death Star and cripple the power of the Empire, and he will have a lot of explaining to do to the Emperor.
- HAN SOLO must pay back Jabba The Hutt. If he fails, he will be a fugitive, fleeing bounty hunters and ruthless gangsters for the rest of his life (wonderfully, he does fail in order that the other characters may succeed).
- PRINCESS LEIA must retrieve the plans for her fellow rebels. If she fails, it will mean the end of the rebellion.
- OBI-WAN KENOBI must get the plans safely to the rebels. If he fails, it will mean the end of the rebellion.
Looking at The Phantom Menace, we see a different picture:
- QUI-GON JINN must negotiate a peace between the Trade Federation and the Naboo. If he fails, the Trade Federation may take over the planet Naboo. Never really clear why this would be a terrible thing.
- QUEEN AMIDALA must stop the Trade Federation from dominating her planet, it would seem. If she fails she will no longer rule – and someone else will, I guess.
- DARTH SIDIOUS must make Queen Amidala sign a treaty with the Trade Federation. If he fails, the status quo will probably continue.
- ANAKIN SKYWALKER must increase his understanding of The Force and return to Tatooine to free his mother and the slaves. If he fails, he will have broken his promise to his mother. (note that he does fail, with no real consequences to anyone, including himself)
- JAR-JAR must do what he can to help Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan. If he fails, it’s doubtful the Jedis’ mission would be negatively affected and the status quo will continue.
The lack of consistent high stakes in The Phantom Menace is the movie’s main flaw. Almost across the board, the price of a character’s failing is simply that the status quo will continue or the slack will be picked up by some other character.
In Star Wars, the few main characters are the only people in the galaxy who can pull off the necessary task to resolve the conflict. In The Phantom Menace, few characters are really essential. We might wonder, for example, if Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan were cut from the story altogether, if anything might have changed? I tend to doubt it. The Trade Federation probably still would have invaded and Amidala would have had to lead some kind of armed resistance in the Third Act with or without their help.
If Anakin – who will become one of the most famous characters in movies – had never appeared in the film, would there have been any alteration in the story? Not likely. Apart from the destruction of the Trade Federation command ship – a lucky accident – Anakin is superfluous to the story. And two Jedi Knights who are supposed to be expert negotiators can certainly drum up spare parts for their ship without resorting to gambling on the life of a child.
The Phantom Villain of the movie, Darth Sidious, who is manipulating the Trade Federation, makes many villainous pronouncements but for no clearly discernible purpose. We have no reason to think he would sleep any worse for not making them.
Compare that to Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin’s predicament in Star Wars, where the Emperor himself is counting on Tarkin and his armoured bulldog to solve the problem – and fast. And it is a big problem. The secret plans for the keystone of the Empire’s new military strategy are flitting around the galaxy somewhere, possibly in the hands of the very people they are trying to crush.
"I'm taking an awful risk, Vader."
It’s been said over and over that if you want to make your hero work better, give him a better villain. Star Wars, with a very few strokes, conveys a great weight of responsibility on the villains. They can’t just decide to focus their energies elsewhere or wait for it all to blow over. If they fail, it’s their careers, their lives and the lives of all their associates that are in danger, not to mention the staggering investment in money, manpower and ideological commitment that the Death Star represents.
Also note how in Star Wars all the characters – protagonists and antagonists – are bound together by the same problem. Whatever the outcome is, every character will be permanently affected. It is simply not possible for any of the principal characters – or minor characters, for that matter – to pass through the story without being changed for the worse or the better. In fact, no one in the entire galaxy will be unaffected by how the story plays out. Those are high stakes.
(this article originally appeared at screenwriting
website Twelvepoint.com, March 2010)
I always pat myself on the back for having written a great scene, but writing a great scene doesn’t help you tell a great story any more than getting a great shot helps you make a great film. What makes a shot “great” is what’s on either side of it, its relationship to the larger assemblage of shots. What makes a scene great is how it plays against the scenes before and after it. A scene, no matter how I feel about it, is only useful insofar as it contributes to a larger whole, and that whole is its big brother, the ‘sequence’.
If you’ve never heard of sequences and are now feeling a bit disoriented in the story anatomy hierarchy, just remember: shots make up scenes; scenes make up sequences; sequences make up acts and acts, as we all know, make up movies.
Of all those building blocks, I would argue that it’s the sequence, not the scene or the revered act, which is the most important one in the screenwriter’s toolkit, and the one he or she must come to understand completely and intuitively. Yet sequences are not well understood by most writers, beyond a vague sense that a sequence is a few scenes stitched together for some kind of common purpose.
What’s a good definition of a sequence? Here’s mine: A sequence is a unit of story structure composed of a series of scenes with a coherent dramatic spine. It begins when a character is placed in a state of uncertainty or imbalance – i.e., when the hero has a big problem. It ends when that problem is resolved and – and here’s the key – the solution to that problem creates another, further problem that then begins a new sequence.
So a sequence begins when a character is confronted with a crisis – and a crisis is any situation in which you can’t say, ‘Let’s just forget the whole thing’ – and it concludes when that crisis is resolved in favour of a new crisis. When a sequence completely resolves or eliminates the central problem that began the whole story, then the movie is over.
A master storyteller is one who leads us to believe that each sequence will be the one that will finally resolve or defuse the main conflict of the story, that will solve all the character’s problems, and then surprises us, frustrates us, thrills us, by delivering the complete opposite: an even greater complication that draws us into a new sequence.
Each sequence has a beginning, a middle and an end. Or to frame it in writer’s language, an inciting incident, a rising action and a climax. You can even think of each sequence as having its own mini-story arc. LA-based screenwriting teacher, Chris Soth, calls his seminars on sequence structure, the ‘mini-movie method’ and encourages students to treat each sequence as if it were a short movie unto itself – not a bad suggestion if you don’t take it too literally.
Some screenwriters will construct a ‘beat sheet’, a kind of outline, for their scripts and often what they’re doing, though most amateur writers wouldn’t think of it in this way, is flailing around in the dark trying to find what the sequences are.
When there are troubles with a screenplay’s act structure, the real fault can often be found in its sequence structure. In my own writing, when the story feels adrift and vague – or when Act II just isn’t working – the cause is almost always a lack of clarity in the sequences that make up the film. I run into the trap of overconcentrating on individual scenes, stringing them together like a child’s bead project, without noting how they contribute to making up a larger sequence, and time and time again I have to look at the bigger picture.
Many screenwriters who are aware of and consciously manage sequence structure in their work have been influenced by the teachings of Frantisek ‘Frank’ Daniel who was Dean of the School Of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California in the late 1980s. This is where I learned about sequence structure, alongside many other media creatives whose names are more familiar to you than mine. Frank Daniel delighted packed lecture halls with his analyses of a wide range of films in terms of their sequence structures and many of us undergraduates would sneak into the back of his graduate level courses in order to learn something we knew was invaluable for our craft.
Frank insisted that every complete film story has exactly eight sequences, usually two sequences in the first act, four in the second, and two in the third act. Some say the origin of this eight-sequence template is the division of early feature length movies into reels, physical reels of film, usually around ten minutes long. Reels, typically with two projectors operating side by side, would have to be switched during a showing, and writing films in ten-minute, cohesive sequences then helped keep each dramatic beat of the story contained within its own reel. I have my doubts about this. I tend to think it worked the other way around. I think the reason a ten-minute reel was used in the first place was becausse that was – due to some mysterious quirk of the human emotional makeup – a satisfying length for a single dramatic beat to be introduced and progress to a climax. I believe the storytelling element came first and the technology followed.
I do not have the courage to say that every feature film always has eight sequences, although Frank Daniel used to amaze us by somehow making every film fit the structure. Sticking to a strict eight-sequence feature film model though can be very helpful in trouble-shooting. It encourages us to look more deeply when a story appears to have too few sequences, or to compress or cut when confronted by a plethora of sequences. The world is not literally divided into lines of latitude and longitude but it helps to pretend that it is.
Generally speaking, the better written a movie is, the clearer its sequence structure will be, and vice versa, the clearer your sequence structure is, the better your story will probably be. Films dominated by strong physical action, adventure movies and musicals, tend to have a more transparent sequence structure and lend themselves to easier analysis. Both action movies and musicals will often have set pieces at the climax of each sequence.
Solid sequences and the writer’s facility with them are what make some three-hour movies seem to fly by and some 80-minute movies last eons. Dances with Wolves (1990) is the second longest movie to win the Best Picture Oscar yet it flies by largely because of its rock-solid sequences, each with a clearly-defined tension that leads into the next sequence. On the other side of the coin, loose or vague sequence structure is usually to blame in that bizarre, yet frequent, phenomenon of a movie that is packed with action but is utterly boring and exhausting.
Ask a friend to list their favorite movies and you’ll get a diverse set of responses but it’s a good bet that most of the choices will have in common clear, strong sequence structure, and the very best will have sequences that keep surprising us and keep us guessing, and play in contrast or in sympathy with each other like find symphonic music.
I am an on again/off again David Lynch fan. I can never make up my mind whether I love his work or not. One thing that keeps me coming back though is his solid sequence structure. I may not like what he’s doing on the screen all the time but it’s always presented in a structurally rock-solid, coherent way if you look at the skeleton under the strange and fearsome flesh he puts on top of it. Imagine my surprise – lack of surprise, it should be – to learn when researching this article that David Lynch was a devoted student of Frank Daniel.
How a story is dissected into sequences may depend very much on the analyst’s point of view. Like an isolated, non-technical civilisation that doesn’t distinguish yellow from orange, for example, one analyst might see one large sequence where another sees two shorter sequences.
I’ve included below a simplified outline of the sequence structure of Star Wars: Episode IV (1977), indicating the problem that begins each sequence, and the resolution that ends it and launches us into the next sequence. You might disagree with my breakdown, which is good. Do your own analyses of as many films as you can and don’t worry too much about trying to force a movie into eight sequences. The key is to locate exactly where each new dramatic tension begins, note how the character tries to solve that tension, and then to find exactly where that tension is replaced by a new one.
STAR WARS 8 SEQUENCE BREAKDOWN
- Problem: The Empire is about to retrieve the Death Star plans, capture the Princess and send R2D2 and C3PO to the spice mines of Kessel – in short, the movie is about to be over.
- Complicated by: the droids are captured by Jawas.
- Resolution: The droids find safety with Owen Lars and his nephew Luke.
- Problem: Luke find a mysterious message from an important person begging for help from someone he might know.
- Complicated by: R2D2 runs away.
- Resolution: Luke decides to go with Ben Kenobi to Alderaan.
- Problem: Luke and Ben have to find a way to get to Alderaan at Mos Eisley Spaceport.
- Complicated by: Imperial forces are searching the city for them.
- Resolution: The Millennium Falcon escapes Mos Eisley and heads for Alderaan.
- Problem: Fly the droids and the plans safely to Alderaan.
- Complicated by: Alderaan is destroyed.
- Resolution: Our heroes are captured by the Death Star.
- Problem: They discover the Princess is aboard the Death Star.
- Complicated by: The Princess is scheduled to be terminated.
- Resolution: The Princess is rescued.
- Problem: They must take the most important person in the galaxy to safety, starting from the bottom of a garbage masher.
- Complicated by: Legions of single-minded fanatics are trying to kill them.
- Resolution: They escape the Death Star and the Death Star’s sentry ships.
- Problem: The Death star is following the heroes to the Rebel Base.
- Complicated by: Han is abandoning them.
- Resolution: Luke and the rebels fly out to destroy the Death Star.
- Problem: The Death Star is going to destroy the Rebel Base and end the rebellion forever.
- Complicated by: Darth Vader engages the rebel pilots in his own ship.
- Resolution: Luke destroys the Death Star and becomes the hero of the galaxy.
Sequence 8 begins.
Saw James Cameron’s “Avatar” (2009) yesterday afternoon in 3D at the Shepherd’s Bush VUE Cinemas in London. Went with my Dad who has seen more movies than I am ever likely to see, including the 3D masterpiece, “Bwana Devil” (1952).
One of my first thoughts was: Now I know what the Act III of “Return Of The Jedi” (1983) should have looked like.
“Avatar” isn’t Jim Cameron’s best movie. That honour still goes to “Aliens” (1986), as beautifully plotted an action movie as there has ever been. A respectable horror movie too, but it is primarily an action movie. Still, I really found “Avatar” exquisitely beautiful in its design and execution.
Already I’m getting flack from Film World Colleagues, who thought the movie ham-fisted. Where I saw delightful design choices, they saw lipstick on a pig.
The fact that there is nothing new in its premise – that “Avatar” is “Dances With Wolves” (1990) / “Little Big Man” (1970) / “Lawrence Of Arabia” ?? (1962) / “Fill In The Blank” In Space – seems a weak criticism of the movie, though it’s been trotted out a lot over the past couple weeks.
Native American actor & Vietnam vet, (far left) leads a Pawnee raiding party in Dances With Wolves. He played Eytukan in Avatar
Cameron has deliberately kept the story simple, obvious even, to provide a solid framework on which he can hang all his beautiful decoration. To get clever with both design and story at the same time could invite Unmanageability – the bane of Cameron’s existence. Cameron has always kept his plots and characters very simple, virtually mechanical in their efficiency. When he has tried to reach for more complex and subtle (relatively) themes and plotting, the movies have suffered. And, recalling the tales told about the production of Cameron’s two “wettest” movies, “The Abyss” and “Titanic”, his crews have suffered too. For Cameron, “Keep it simple” is a mantra that leads to success.
The story structure in “Avatar” is really quite adroit – solid and simple. As any good writer will tell you, “solid and simple” is actually hard to pull off, because false notes – and there are some in “Avatar” – stick out like signalling antennae on an alien lifeform.
The movie has a skeleton of very simple, rock-solid sequences – like its cousin “Dances With Wolves”. “Dances”, one of the longest movies to ever win a Best Picture Academy Award, flies by for most people because it is constructed of straightforward, firmly constructed sequences. Knowing where the story is going – having “seen it before” – carries the audience along. We are always anticipating the next beat. We know what is supposed to happen next, more or less, but we don’t know exactly how it will be presented. And that is the way expert storytellers do it – just ask Hitchcock.
Oh, and Cameron stole the entire “Avatar” idea from me. I wrote, in high school, a story of a race of simple blue-skinned aliens who lived on a jungle world. A human male is drawn into defending them from a highly technological man-machine who wants to take the blue-skinned guys’ precious, sacred mineral.
Naturally, I plan to sue.
Of course, I ripped off – and still do – all the other sci-fi writers I knew and loved. “Avatar” is a conservatively plotted, “classic sci-fi” story, in the vein of one of the Heinlein or Asimov books. It absorbs all the flavours and styles that those great 20th century sci-fi authors – and their hundreds of imitators – spun and then sings it back in Cameron’s voice. Just as I did in my own voice via my high school “Avatar” precursor.
We are in an age of illustration in movies – and we have Peter Jackson to thank/blame for it. The goal in so many big studio movie adaptations is not to bring new insight to a story or a franchise, but to illustrate an existing property faithfully. Peter Jackson’s stunning success rested on giving audiences exactly the “Lord Of The Rings” that they had imagined – plus a bit more. A lot of people – well, myself anyway – watched the “Lord Of The Rings” movies thinking, “Wow. If I had a bit more imagination, then that is exactly how I would have imagined it.” In other movies, the source material has been so sacred that barely a word or beat is changed in the film adaptation – “300″ and “Sin City”. I think “Avatar” follows in this tradition, illustrating a sci-fi story already existing in the back of our collective imaginations. Dragon riders, floating mountains, glowing forests with trees the size of skyscrapers – we all know bits and pieces of these from books and wall calendars and dreams. It’s as if Cameron has supplied the movie to a story we had known about all along.
There’s much more to say about “Avatar”. For one, its political stance is fascinating to me. It’s a major studio movie by a major studio director that takes an aggressively anti-neocon POV. Very unusual.
But I’d like to hear your comments, then we can get into some discussion.
Click to watch the Avatar trailer
You can’t have too many Star Wars lists. You just can’t.
Everyone has their favorite Star Wars dialog bits they love to hate. Here are some of mine:
- “Mesa cause one, two-y little bitty axadentes, huh?”, etc. – Jar Jar Binks, TPM
- “I will come back and free you, Mom. I promise.” – Anakin Skywalker, TPM
- “Now this is podracing!” – Anakin Skywalker, TPM
- “Mmm. Lost a planet, Master Obi-Wan has. How embarrassing. How embarrassing.” – Yoda, AOTC
- “Noooooooo!” – Anakin Skywalker, ROTS
- “Two fighters against a stardestroyer?” – Hobbie, TESB
- “Aiiiyyeeeeeee.” – Boba Fett, ROTJ
- “Many Bothons died to give us this information.” – Mon Mothma, ROTJ
- “I know. Somehow, I’ve always known!” – Princess Leia, ROTJ
- “He wasn’t. I can feel it.” – Princess Leia, ROTJ
As we all know, some of the best things in life are entirely untrue. This holds no less to be actually the fact with music as well – I think you’ll find.
If I’m honest with myself – and I am not – I must admit that many of my favorite musical ensembles are entirely fictional.
Neal Romanek’s Top 10 Favorite Fictional Bands
- Armada (aka Rod Torfulsen’s Armada) (of “The Kids In The Hall”)
- Buckaroo Banzai and the Hong Kong Cavaliers (of “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension”)
- Buddha Stalin (of “Strangers With Candy”)
- Dr. Teeth & The Electric Mayhem (of “The Muppet Show”)
- The Heaven Seventeen (of “A Clockwork Orange”)
- The Monkees (of “The Monkees”)
- Mos Eisley Cantina Band (of “Star Wars, Episode IV”)
- Spinal Tap (of “This Is Spinal Tap”)
- Tenacious D (of they who are The D)
- Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars (of “The Rise & Fall of Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars”)
Before George Lucas was consumed by the Dark Side of the Force, he used his powers for good and not for evil.
One of the great goods he did upon us all was giving us all kinds of wonderful new names – which were not new names at all. In fact they were very familiar names: Han, Luke, Sky, Walker, Millenium, Falcon, Chew, Tobacco. But these familiar sounds had been reshuffled, paired with one another in unlikely combinations. Words which had no extraordinary significance before to us, were slapped onto things strange and wondrous, where they acquired an unexpected depth and weight. So Taunton, a little town in England, became the name of a furry dinosaur with ram’s horns. Massassi, the name of an African goddess, became the name of the gigantic stone complex where the Rebels were holed up on the fourth moon of YAVIN.
My favorite star names are those of the Star Wars planets, because those have some of the most mundane and everyday roots – sometimes to the point of silliness – which, as a creator of fictional worlds, I find fascinating.
DAGOBAH, for example, is the name of a kind of ancient Indian temple. MUSTAFAR is essentially a common guy’s name in the Arabic-speaking world – the equivalent of Hank or Bob. And NABOO – as far as I can tell – has its origins in an abbreviation for the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) convention, 2000. And, of course, YAVIN is derived from the word we use to describe our own solar system’s giant gas planets. It would take a while to explain , but trust me there.
There are other planet names out there which George Lucas could have used – perhaps should have used – instead. I mean, let’s face it, MUSTAFAR is a stupid name for a planet. Planet Bob? What was he thinking?
It may be arrogance to think I can compete with the man who brought us CORUSCANT, HOTH and ORD MANTELL, but here are …
10 New Planet Names for the Star Wars Galaxy
- Moo Goo Gai Pan
- Angelina Jolie
- Pina Colada
Honorable Mention: Planet Kasdan
I honestly think my names could have improved the movies even that much better:
“I have chosen to test the station’s destructive power on your home planet of Cirrhosis.”
“What of the reports of the rebel fleet massing near Angelina Jolie?”
“You must learn the ways of the Force, if you are to come with to Scapula.”
“Our scoutships have reached Tandoori. They found the remains of a rebel base, but they estimate it has been deserted for some time.”
Much better. Much, much better. Don’t you think?
“OSHA’s mission is to assure the safety and health of the Galaxy’s workers by setting and enforcing standards; providing training, outreach, and education; establishing partnerships; and encouraging continual improvement in workplace safety and health.”
TO: Governor Tarkin, G.M.
CC: Adm. Motti, (10 others) …
FROM: Inspectors #239, #9662, #0882 – Imperial Occupational Safety and Health Administration
Dear Governor Tarkin:
We view with grave concern the staggering systematic safety and health failures on the new Imperial battle station called the “Death Star“. We regret to say we will be recommending a complete suspension of operations to address these safety concerns. And unless all the following problems are remedied within the next fiscal year, we will recommend the battle station be shut down permanently.
Our concerns include, but are not limited to, the following:
- HAND RAILS
As you know, there is a case pending against the firm that designed this so-called “ultimate power in the Universe”. We have received reports of at least 140 employees dying in falls which could have been prevented by the simple installation of railings and balustrades. No doubt many more falls have gone unreported. Some have complained that the cost of putting up railings throughout the station after the fact would be prohibitive. Be warned: the station WILL be shut down unless railings are installed.
It is our opinion that this drop in safety standards is a predictable result of “no bid” contracts.
- INADEQUATELY TRAINED SECURITY PERSONELL
Supposedly the first line of defense against intruders, the Death Star’s compliment of Stormtroopers is woefully undertrained. To quote an anonymous source: “These guys can’t hit the broad side of a space-barn.” In one reported security incident, a dozen Stormtroopers bearing the latest issue blaster carbines, all simultaneously firing, could not hit two unarmored human targets from thirty feet away. Other anecdotal evidence has suggested that in several incidents scores of troops have died at the hands of minimally armed combatants. Employees cannot rely solely on high-tech equipment. A well-trained employee makes a safe employee.
- SUPER-LASER SAFETY
The Death Star’s planet-destroyer super-laser controls are criminally dangerous.
We are appalled that a design made it to construction which requires human Operators to stand within 3 meters of a laser beam packing 90 gigajoules/sec. Operators, in death bed interviews, reported receiving only a minimally protective hardhat and were told by superiors to shield their eyes with their hands “if the beam gets too bright for you”.
Among our other concerns:
- Operators are exposed to 10,000 rem each time the super-laser is fired. Exposure to a single blast has resulted in loss of hair and teeth, 2nd degree burns, sterility, and bone marrow disintegration.
- Concern for Operator safety so lacking that Operators do not even receive gloves.
- Again, no handrails. Only a matter of time before a blinded and burned Operator stumbles into the firing shaft and is vaporized.
- Is it absolutely necessary to have controls located inside the barrel of the weapon?
- HANGAR BAYS
Please put doors on all hangar bays.
- REDEFINE AND CLARIFY ROLE OF OUTSIDE CONSULTANTS
We recognize that input from outside consultants – particularly those appointed directly by the Emperor – are vital to the success of the Imperial Strategy. However, Death Star employeees should not be expected to answer to outside consultants who are not employed by Death Star Human Resources. The issue also brings up labor union concerns, and though these are not strictly under our jurisdiction, we believe that the Command & Control structure must stay cleanly defined in order to safely operate such a complex enterprise as the Death Star.
Any intimidation of Death Star employees by these outside consultants – whether via physical or supernatural means – will not be tolerated.
- INADEQUATE WASTE DISPOSAL
The station has just become fully operational and already waste buildup has reached a condition of substantial biohazard, creating conditions which have allowed large, highly dangerous invertebrates to flourish.
a.) thorough fumigation, deck by deck, of the entire battle station
b.) a new sanitation system in which refuse is recycled or disposed of, instead of the current, untenable practice of garbage storage.
- ELIMINATE “MOUSE DROIDS”
There are hordes of tiny four-wheeled robots weaving in and out of the dense pedestrian traffic of the Death Star’s main corridors. These are an appalling accident hazard and we are shocked that this has not yet been addressed. You might as well litter the corriders with a thousand randomly placed skateboards. I understand that the new uniform requirement for knee-high boots has helped reduce ankle injuries throughout the Empire, but with these nervous little blighters zipping underfoot, repeated accidents will be unavoidable and costly.
We haven’t been fully apprised as to what function these robots serve. One employee interviewed said he thought they were message couriers. What’s wrong with email?
- STANDARDIZE LANGUAGE ON VITAL EQUIPMENT (RESOLVED)
We are happy to see that this has been addressed. As stated in previous reports, we viewed with apprehension the lack of standardization in languages used on vital pieces of equipment. There was sometimes English writing printed on vital equipment amidst the standard Imperial script.
Even given a large percentage of bilingual employees, regulations state that instructional language on vital equipment must be clearly readable and easily understood in an emergency. Mixing of languages makes quick apprehension impossible.
We acknowledge your replacement of all English text with the standard Imperial script, and we hope it is an indication that more vital safety issues will be addressed forthwith.
- EXHAUST PORT ISSUE?
Finally – though matters of defense are not in our purview – we feel that the open exhaust port at the end of one of the battle station’s trenches (the port in question is right below the main port) is a global safety concern. The shaft leads directly to the reactor system. A precise hit will start a chain reaction which could destroy the station. Although we recognize that only a precise hit will set up a chain reaction, we wonder if some defense specialists should examine the location and institute protective measures. Perhaps it could be ray shielded until a permanent solution is found?
We look forward, Governor, to hearing your plan of action at the closed meeting scheduled to take place after your imminent exercise at the planet Yavin.
- Inspectors #239, #9662, #0882 – Imperial Occupational Safety and Health Administration