Saturday, January 9, 2016

Saiyans and Midichlorians

In Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, George Lucas introduced something to the Star Wars universe that ruined the series for many people, and which basically every Star Wars book, game, and movie since (including Episodes II and III) has done its best to ignore: midichlorians.

Before midichlorians, the Force was basically unexplained. It was simply a power that "surrounds us, penetrates us, binds the galaxy together." Though the original trilogy suggested that the Force was strong in the Skywalker family, it seemed like something anybody could tap into if they had the right mindset. There was no science behind it. Indeed, it rebuked science for being too attached to sensory perception.

And then there was midichlorians: a way to measure Force potential in people. It explained something that didn't need explaining, and it explicitly marked the Skywalker family as chosen ones. Darth Vader was obsessed with destiny, but Luke's actions suggested that destiny is a lie. Midichlorians suggest that destiny is very real and measurable.

On that note, I want to talk about how, as midichlorians ruin Star Wars, Saiyans ruin Dragon Ball.

In the beginning, Goku is just a weird kid. He's strong, he's simple, and he has a tail. All of these, at the time, suggested that perhaps he was just a bit unevolved; there was a sort of benign neanderthal quality to him that made this kid weird but charming. He was content to simply exist in his forest home until Bulma showed up. Then, after that adventure, he just wants to get his grandfather's memento back. Later, he just wants to get stronger and face new challenges. For some reason he also turns into a giant gorilla when the moon is full, like he has some kind of lycanthropic gorilla curse.

He's a determined kid, too. He faces foes far stronger than he is at first and gets his head handed to him. Upon defeat, he manages to come back and defeat those foes, partly because he's learned their tricks and partly due to sheer determination. He eventually defeats actual demons and takes his place as the pure-hearted guardian of Earth after years of working hard, being kind, and learning new techniques. It's a fun story.

And then Dragon Ball Z comes along, introducing Goku's brother Raditz. Suddenly, Goku isn't so unique anymore. He's an alien called a "Saiyan." They're incredibly strong, and they have monkey tails that turn them into giant, destructive apes during a full moon. They also have this incredible, unique ability: when they fight and get beaten or badly hurt, they become much, much stronger after they recover.

With the introduction of the Saiyans, Goku is no longer a curiosity. There's a "science" to him. There's an explanation we didn't need for all the things Goku accomplished as a kid: the monkey thing wasn't a curse, it's a racial trait. Goku didn't make incredible comebacks through grit and determination, he was just literally more powerful during those rematches. What was once just a weird, backwater kid became an alien destined to become powerful. It's kind of disappointing, and it's one of the reasons many people seem to like Dragon Ball more than Dragon Ball Z: what was once charming, terrestrial lore became aliens, "science", and more aliens.

Unlike midichlorians, though, Saiyans opened the door to new stories that were still interesting. Though the Frieza Saga and the Buu Saga aren't as charming and fun as, say, the Red Ribbon Saga or the Piccolo Saga, they're still distinct and interesting in their own way. Moreover, they introduce new, compelling characters that we enjoy watching, even as they overshadow old favorites: the character arcs of Goku, Yamcha, and Bulma are replaced by the arcs of Gohan, Vegeta, and Trunks. And some old characters get to continue their own arcs, like Krillin and Piccolo.

In short, frankly, without the arrival of the Saiyans there wasn't much story left to tell in the Dragon Ball universe. And that's the difference between Saiyans and midichlorians: Saiyans gave back as much as they took away, while midichlorians added nothing.

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