In the lead-up to Star Wars: The Last Jedi, we look back at the first Jedi (narratively speaking) with a series of stories about the much-beloved and never-disparaged prequel trilogy.
There is precious little that makes my experience and enjoyment of Star Wars special. I like the films everyone likes, and am ambivalent about the other ones. I thought The Force Awakens was fun, if derivative. I’ve dabbled in various spinoff-media products, but have never been anything resembling a completist. I have standard-issue opinions about the mythology’s politics (the Rebel Alliance’s multiculturalism is nice, the Jedi concept is troublingly aristocratic, Jar Jar Binks is a racist abomination, and so on). All of that said, I do have one take so hot that it’s been searing a hole in my brain for nearly 20 years. Okay, deep breath. I’m ready.
The midi-chlorians aren’t that bad.
Indeed, I’d even go so far as to say they’re fascinating, albeit not necessarily in the way they were intended to be. This stance puts me into a tiny minority. Ever since George Lucas first introduced the world to these tiny organisms in 1999’s Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace, they’ve been one of the leading bugaboos for prequel skeptics. In that film, we learn about them from noble Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn. Perhaps I should just let the dear, departed Qui-Gon explain them to you as he does to wee Anakin Skywalker, after the latter has learned that he possesses an abnormally high midi-chlorian count:
ANAKIN: I heard Master Yoda talking about midi-chlorians. I’ve been wondering: What are midi-chlorians?
QUI-GON: Midi-chlorians are a microscopic life-form that resides within all living cells.
ANAKIN: They live inside me?
QUI-GON: Inside your cells, yes. And we are symbionts with them.
QUI-GON: Life-forms living together for mutual advantage. Without the midi-chlorians, life could not exist and we would have no knowledge of the Force. They continually speak to us, telling us the will of the Force. When you learn to quiet your mind, you’ll hear them speaking to you.
This felt like a radical change from the conception we’d previously had of the mysterious Jedi-powering entity known as the Force. In the original trilogy, it had been described in more ethereal terms. “It is an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together,” an aged Obi-Wan told Anakin’s son Luke. As Yoda put it in the movie after that one, “Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us.”
For decades, that was about it, as far as explanations of the Force went. Then, all of a sudden, per the first prequel, it seemed that Force abilities were caused by little bugs in your bloodstream. To make matters worse, Qui-Gon at one point suggests that Anakin’s mom may have been impregnated by midi-chlorians. Ersatz God had been abruptly trumped by garbage science in the eyes of dejected fanpeople.
“One word ruined Star Wars for me, and probably for a generation of fans, too,” wrote Evan Narcisse in Time, still ticked off more than a decade after the movie’s release. “That word wasn’t Jar Jar or Watto. It wasn’t a character. It was ‘midi-chlorians.’ With that one word, the mechanisms of the Force became less spiritual and more scientific. Major bummer.” Another luminary of the geek commentariat, Charlie Jane Anders, called them “a clumsy retcon that screws up an explanation we already had.” Lost and The Leftovers co-creator Damon Lindelof railed against them while describing why he didn’t want to get into the science of Lost’s island: “I feel like you have to be very careful about entering into midi-chlorian territory,” he said. “Never once did anyone ever say to me or did it occur to me to say, ‘What is the Force, exactly?’” Trawl message boards and you’ll find blunter assessments: As a user of the Ars Technica forum put it, “Star Wars - the force is a mystical energy = fantasy. Star Wars - the force is caused by mitichlorians [sic] = fuck you.”
Okay, so, first off: Yes, the Star Wars mythos would have been just fine, if not better, if it lacked the handful of bits in the prequel flicks that talk about midi-chlorians. There wasn’t anything wrong with the way the story had presented the Force previously. I’m not going to say the critters were a net positive for the franchise. Writers have struggled with them in canonical and quasi-canonical Star Wars spinoff stories ever since: There was a tale having to do with mapping the Jedi genome; an in-universe manual talked about how rock creatures without organic cells might interact with midi-chlorians; and some dude named Darth Tenebrous created things called maxi-chlorians, about which the less is said, the better. All of that could go out the window and we would, for the most part, be better for it.
But we live in a world with midi-chlorians, and it’s one where people are altogether too angry about them. That anger comes from a pair of misconceptions. For one thing, just because midi-chlorians exist doesn’t mean the compellingly airy-fairy nature of the Force goes away. Look at what Qui-Gon says: “They continually speak to us, telling us the will of the Force.” That in no way means midi-chlorians are the Force, just that they help connect us to it. The Force is still vaguely defined, allowing you to map whatever meaning you want onto it—it just so happens that there might be little creatures that help us become more sensitive to it, and some people have more of them than others. Ask yourself: How different is it from our other notions of the Jedi? It had already been established that they’re people who are somehow born with greater sensitivity to the Force, meaning we already accepted the idea of the Force as a birthright reserved for a chosen few, fundamentally different from the rest of us. Is it that big of a leap to say that their differences show up in biology, too?
This idea that midi-chlorians are a kind of baseline prerequisite, but not anywhere near the full explanation of the mystical nature of the Force, has recently become the canonical method of sewing them into the Star Wars legendarium with as few seams as possible. They’ve been addressed and explained most prominently in a pair of 2014 episodes of the animated series Star Wars: The Clone Wars. In “Voices” and “Destiny,” Yoda grapples with questions about the nature of life and death, specifically as they relate to the soul. What makes up a person’s essence, and what happens to it after the body is felled?
He is visited by the disembodied voice of long-dead Qui-Gon (shockingly, Liam Neeson returned for the performance), who tells him that the Force has two components: the Living Force and the Cosmic Force. “Living beings generate the Living Force, which in turn powers the wellspring that is the Cosmic Force,” he tells the little green Jedi Master. “All energy from the Living Force, from all things that have ever lived, feeds into the Cosmic Force, binding everything and communicating to us through the midi-chlorians.” Later, Yoda travels to a planet where the midi-chlorians first emerged. Some ghosts appear before him and talk about how the midi-chlorians are what “connects the Living Force and the Cosmic Force” and that “when a living thing dies, all is removed; life passes from the Living Force into the Cosmic Force and becomes one with it.” Doesn’t that leave the Force, itself, as something sufficiently metaphysical?
Yoda’s journey in Clone Wars also brings us to the second misconception that bedevils midi-chlorian haters: the belief that the Jedi have any idea what they’re talking about. He goes on his quest because he realizes that, even after 900-odd years of existence, there’s still a wealth of information that he doesn’t grasp. The Republic-era Jedi Order is certain that there is no life after death, but Yoda discovers that there is. Who’s to say the Jedi aren’t wrong about, well, everything?
If you look at the prequels from that perspective, they become far more engaging than if you assume these self-confident men (and they are usually men) have all the answers. It’s not that big of a stretch, to be honest. Take, for example, the prophecy of the Chosen One. Qui-Gon believes that young Anakin’s destiny was foretold by ancient Jedi who predicted the advent of a person who would bring balance to the Force. The audience is supposed to have enormous respect for Qui-Gon, but Jesus, given the whole “Anakin turning into Darth Vader and committing genocide” thing, was he wrong about that. Or think about the Jedi’s participation in the Clone Wars. These supposedly wise analysts of the world became unwitting warriors in the service of the Sith Lord Palpatine, helping to throw the entire Galaxy into bloody mayhem. If they’re so smart, how’d they miss that?
Same goes for midi-chlorians, in one possible interpretation. Maybe midi-chlorians are as stupid an explanation of the Force as their real-world critics say they are. What if high midi-chlorian counts had a loose correlation to Force sensitivity, but weren’t actual causes of it, and the Jedi just misinterpreted their data? What if this was something like medieval doctors rambling on for centuries about humors and leeches—a faux-scientific delusion that was wholeheartedly embraced by a guild of people who loved to preach their own greatness to the hoi polloi? Perhaps the Jedi had thunk themselves into utter stupidity on an array of matters. Midi-chlorians were just one manifestation of their high-minded idiocy. From that point of view, the prequels are a tragedy about well-intentioned intellectuals whose myopic condescension led them onto a path of war and self-immolation.
Which leads us to my personal fan theory about these loathed microorganisms. You’ll note that Obi-Wan and Yoda don’t tell Luke—the first of the new Jedi, who presumably should have as many facts as possible if he’s going to start up the old traditions again—anything about midi-chlorians. You may think that’s because Lucas hadn’t come up with his dumb idea yet when he made the first Star Wars picture. Oddly enough, you’d be wrong. According to J.W. Rinzler’s The Making of Star Wars, Lucas saw them as part of the mythos as early as 1977. “It is said that certain creatures are born with a higher awareness of the Force than humans,” the progenitor wrote in a guide on the rules of the universe. “Their brains are different; they have more midi-chlorians in their cells.” He didn’t feel there was enough time to effectively explain the organisms in the original trilogy, but he had them in the back of his mind. So how do we explain the fact that Luke’s trainers don’t mention them?
I like to think it’s because they realized in their old age that midi-chlorians aren’t worth worrying about. Yoda and Obi-Wan had decades to ponder the nature of the Force and refine their conception of it down to its essence. Maybe, in looking back on the downfall of the Jedi, they realized that hewing too closely to specific explanations of the Force was a fool’s errand, a pseudo-intellectual distraction from what’s really important: spiritual contemplation and selfless deeds. As such, they may have thought Luke had the opportunity to build a future Jedi Order that wouldn’t repeat their mistakes. Like their decision to hide Leia’s familial relationship to him, they felt that Luke was better off without certain tidbits—and, unlike their dissembling about his sister, this was a worthwhile sin of omission. A condescending one, yes, but hey, old Jedi habits die hard.
In making that choice, we can see Obi-Wan and Yoda doing what we all have to do with Star Wars: choose what works and ignore the rest of it. To say midi-chlorians ruined the franchise for you is to avoid the fact that you have to turn a blind eye to a ton of Star Wars stuff in order to enjoy the good parts. Even in the original trilogy, the writing and acting is often stilted and wooden. There are way too many coincidences and plot holes to make for a sensical plot. The heroes are, arguably, uncompromising terrorists. And so on and so on. But none of that really matters. As is true of the midi-chlorians, you either forget that those problems exist, or you engage with them in a constructive way. This is how one teaches a Jedi—or enjoys flawed fiction. Even in a Galaxy far, far away, it’s OK if your fave is problematic.