Thursday, May 11, 2023

Commentary: An Older Code

This is commentary for An Older Code.

This story is inspired by a pivotal scene in Return of the Jedi in which Darth Vader allows a shuttle carrying a technical crew for the forest moon to land even though it's carrying an older code.

I understand why this happens. Vader senses Luke aboard the shuttle and lets it pass because he’s more interested in turning Luke to the Dark Side than adhering to protocols.

I always wondered what other personnel aboard the Executor thought about this. Admiral Piett was going to let the shuttle pass even though it had an “older code.” That sounds risky given the strategic importance of the forest moon and the Death Star II project. How did rank-and-file personnel react?

The story set out to explore what Piett meant by “an older code,” why such a code would exist, and what policies would be in place to handle the situation we see in Return of the Jedi.

If the Imperial tech has a name in canon, I couldn’t find it. I used the decidedly Star Wars-sounding name Zarn Kellam. He’s a relatively low-ranking tech on the bridge of the Executor.

How intolerable must it have been to serve in the Empire? In addition to the Empire’s general soul-crushing nature, Zarn deals with “corporate” annoyances as well. In this story, he has to attend, via remote, an IT training seminar. Anyone who’s ever worked in a corporate environment has to empathize with the poor guy.

The security virtual meeting is basically anti-spam training for Imperial officers. It’s a reminder that Imperial workstations are reserved for Imperial business, lest any employees download TikTok on their consoles.

It is quite big of the Empire to grant, with “supreme generosity,” some downtime for its beleaguered servants. Note how the position of IT security head has changed multiple times in the span of a few years. Again, for anyone with experience with a corporation, this is commonplace. People change jobs and titles all the time and there’s always someone new in charge of something.

Spam in the Star Wars universe has to exist, right? “VaderCreds” is totally a riff on crypto. Sorry, crypto bros.

You can absolutely feel the weariness in Zarn when presented with a list of Executor officers who failed to pass their security training. It’s up to him to make sure they take it again and pass. Among the ship’s officers, he finds only Piett tolerable.

But the security training also includes a major change in Imperial policy: the Empire is accelerating its timetable for the expiration of the “master code.”

In my version of the Star Wars universe, the master code is distributed fleetwide every few months so ships can “prove” they’re part of the Imperial fleet. With a recent uptick in Rebel activity, Imperial High Command is concerned Rebels may try to steal ships in order to infiltrate Imperial space—the Moddell Sector in particular.

This change in policy is important, and Zarn believes his commanders need to follow it. Zarn doesn’t sound like a particularly dedicated Imperial, but he does believe in following the rules, if just because it will keep Imperial High Command off his back.

I wanted Zarn to have at least one friend on the ship. The brief interaction between the security training and the pivotal Tydirium scene is designed to give Zarn a little more personality.  It also shows us that four of his superiors are lazy and stupid. While Zarn holds Piett in somewhat high esteem, he doesn’t have much use for the other officers. He and his friend believe the officers should be held to higher standards.

Would the Empire care if you lost your life savings in a VaderCreds scam? As Zarn tells his friend, they absolutely wouldn’t care as long as you showed up for your next shift.

Zarn is likely joking about his friend asking an “ISB question,” but there’s probably some paranoia involved here. The Imperial Security Bureau is basically the gestapo of the Galactic Empire, with agents who observe and report on dissident behavior.

His friend’s story isn’t apocryphal at all. It’s literally what happens in the first Star Wars movie. General Tagge voiced his concerns about the rising threat of the Rebellion. Those concerns were summarily dismissed by Admiral Motti. Who blew up the Death Star? The Rebels. Who was right? Tagge.

The “Bantha” app is basically a Star Wars version of Discord I made up. Imperial personnel aren’t supposed to use it, as it’s on a long list of “banned apps.” Zarn’s friend makes the wrong read here, though, and believes the Empire is preparing to attack the Rebel fleet. Instead, the Imperials will hang back and let the Rebels come to them.

Zarn and his friend are both clearly worn down by the Galactic Civil War and Imperial culture in general. They hope an end to the war—one that’s coming soon—will mean they can take a trip somewhere or get a different job. I guess that would make them casual fascists?

We saw Felucia, of course, in Revenge of the Sith. I’m not sure it’s a place you’d want to visit, but it does have some beautiful flora.

Zarn is excited by the idea of doing something different with his life. Reminder: the Executor explodes during the Battle of Endor.

Back on the bridge, Zarn checks the energy shield integrity and notes a technical crew boosted the “output of their prefab bunker.” This is a direct reference to intel from “Many Bothans Lived.”

Ugh. Small talk with the admiral. At least Piett is personable, I guess?

It’s funny to think of an Imperial admiral getting a performance review, isn’t it? Did he have to rank himself on a five-point scale? Did his evaluation lead to a pay increase? Did he have to create vague “goals” for the upcoming year?

You can tell Piett is amused by the security training and doesn’t consider it very important. However, for Zarn’s sake, he’ll commit to finish it despite being in the middle of a war. Heck, maybe he can convince the deadbeat officers to take care of their stuff.

The rest of the scene plays out like it does in the movie, with the Tydirium arriving and requesting deactivation of the deflector shield.

Zarn notes that the pilot sounds “bored.” It’s a reference to Harrison Ford, who may not have given Jedi his most inspired Han Solo performance. I’ve never had a problem with it, but some fans believe he didn’t bring his “A” game to ROTJ and didn’t want to be in the movie. Legend says he wanted Solo killed off.

Zarn immediately notices the older code. New protocols mean the Executor should stop and detain the passengers for questioning. The rules do have a little wiggle room allowing fleet commanders “limited discretion” under extenuating circumstances, but the shuttle doesn’t appear to be in distress or anything like that.

Vaguely worded policy FOR THE WIN!

I feel like “more than two dozen people” would be larger than a typical technical support crew, but Piett knows his stuff. Poor Zarn finds himself quoting the Imperial IT flunky from earlier.

What does a dark wind feel like? Darth Vader. What does Darth Vader feel like? A dark wind. Is this a strained analogy? Absolutely.

This is Zarn’s moment of truth. When Vader shows interest in the shuttle, Zarn is certain the Dark Lord will vindicate him. Surely, he’ll follow the “stop and detain” order. He’s the last line of defense against a violation of Imperial policy! After all, Piett was about to clear the shuttle, even though it transmitted an “older code” that’s a clear violation of protocol.

Zarn’s faith goes unrewarded. Vader lets the shuttle pass.

Zarn is a mystifying mixture of fear and outrage. Vader can feel it. This author readily admits the brief scene between Vader and Zarn is an indulgence. Most of these stories don’t include interactions with main characters, although I suppose Zarn also directly interacts with Han Solo via the comm.

Zarn wants to report Vader. He wants to report Piett. They didn’t follow the rules. Protocols and policies keep the Empire safe!

But Zarn initially backs down. He even feels like he’s being Force-choked, although that’s all in his head. Vader would Force-choke an admiral for dropping out of lightspeed too close to a system, but he wouldn’t necessarily bother with a lowly technician who was trying to do the right thing, especially since Vader’s thoughts are centered on Luke and the Rebel incursion.

To Zarn’s surprise—and because Vader was in a good mood that day—Vader encourages him to file a report.

When his shift is over, Zarn is determined to write up a report detailing how Piett and Vader violated Imperial policy. The poor guy only has time to get a sandwich from the “fast-serve kiosk. 

He even quotes Vader in the report, writing that “while no man is above the rules, sometimes there are more important things than protocol.”

I imagine, years down the road, some archivist coming across a report from before the Battle of Endor in which Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith, completely ignored Imperial protocol. This revelation would appear in a book about the Galactic Empire and spawn dozens of news articles.

“Even in his downtime, Zarn Kellam served the Empire.” Kind of sad, isn’t it? Work-life balance clearly isn’t an Imperial priority.

Poor Zarn doesn’t even see the notification that Piett finished his security training.