This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK. It contains spoilers for A New Hope, Return Of The Jedi, and The Force Awakens.
In 1977’s Star Wars, the Empire has finished building their ultimate weapon, the Death Star. It’s a very important part of the Star Wars universe, chiefly because without it the name “Star Wars” doesn’t make as much sense. The first Death Star was destroyed at the end of that film, due to the Rebel Alliance capitalizing on a structural weakness. It was replaced by a second Death Star, which was destroyed at the end of 1983’s Return Of The Jedi after the Rebel Alliance capitalized on a structural weakness.
In 2015’s The Force Awakens (AKA Meet The New Hope, Same As The Old Hope), the First Order’s base of operations is a mobile ice planet. Whereas the Death Stars could wipe out whole planets, this Starkiller Base could destroy whole systems. It was destroyed at the end of the film due to the Resistance capitalizing on a structural weakness.
Someone once said “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.” The quote is frequently attributed to Albert Einstein but there’s no evidence to support this claim, and besides, Einstein was destroyed at the end of the film due to the Rebel Alliance capitalizing on a structural weakness.
So, given that they want to win, why do the Empire and their offshoots keep on building Death Stars when they consistently fail?
There are two explanations, one based in the real world and one in the Star Wars universe.
The “In Real Life” explanation
The Death Star is awesome.
It blows up a whole planet, just in case you weren’t sure that the Peter Cushing-led bad guys were definitely evil, and it’s HUGE. Plausibly moonish, some might say. Geeks like made-up tech that does impressive things, and this is a giant robot marble that floats around space like a malevolent National Lottery finger. Plus it has nooks and crannies. Plus it has a canteen. Plus it’s in Star Wars, which is really good.
It went straight into our collective imaginations as shorthand for evil, epic destructive capabilities, so that when the Emperor says “…this fully operational battle station” you know the stakes have been raised. Likewise in The Force Awakens as soon as we realize that the planet is a Death Star, we know shit just got non-fictional. That’s why it keeps coming back, because it’s cool and scary.
See also: “Why don’t we have another Hunger Games?”
The in-story explanation
According to the legends, a long long long time ago the Sith used huge Kyber Crystals (smaller ones are used in the construction of Light Sabers) to build superlasers capable of obliterating entire planets. The Geonosian weapon designers came up with a similar plan on the instructions of the Separatist Movement, which came into possession of Darth Sidious at the start of the Clone Wars (through no small amount of manipulation and treachery). When Darth Sidious became the Emperor he restricted access to Geonosis during construction of the battle station, so that it might remain a secret. Nonetheless, it was a long and difficult project, and such heavy protection and attempts to retrieve Kyber Crystals attracted suspicion and sabotage.
As a result, Princess Leia came into possession of technical readouts for the station after the Rebel Alliance noted that anything called a Death Star can’t be good, and sent in troops to recover the plans. Clearly waiting for someone to leave a laptop on a train wasn’t going to cut it here, and we’ll be seeing that story soon in the film Rogue One.
It’s worth noting that Grand Moff Tarkin really wanted the Death Star to succeed. He’d dedicated nearly twenty years of his life to a project that had some resistance within the Empire, as well as the sheer administrative nightmare of building a space station the size of a small moon in secret using the famously placid Wookie race as slave labor. Tarkin and the Emperor believed the Death Star would be the ultimate deterrent, enabling the Empire to control the Outer Rim through fear of reprisals.
When you’ve spent a long time on a passion project you do sometimes allow the heart to rule the head. Sometimes your editor says that your ten page feature ranking all the Ewoks in order of derpyness “could do with some trimming” and you refuse to believe him because you know in your heart that your article is nothing less than perfect. And so it was that Tarkin believed to the last that the Death Star would triumph. It had to, after he’d put so much time and effort into it, and when he was so close to total victory.
When it failed, the Emperor was miffed. He had the designer of the Death Star killed for allowing it one weakness, and then cloned him so he could begin work on the second one. This just goes to show that a high profile failure is not necessarily the end of your career, so much as an opportunity to get your name out there. It also shows the Emperor is perhaps blinkered in his vision, dedicated to destroying the rebellion and returning to the legendary days of Sith power. Hence, a second Death Star.
The construction was overseen by Tiaan Jerjerrod, who was afforded noticeably less time and money to build a superior battle station. While he certainly ensured that the exhaust shafts were secured on this model, he was being asked to achieve the impossible by the Emperor in terms of rapid construction and deployment. When the Emperor arrived on the Death Star II, it was still unfinished. Nonetheless, he felt secure due to the security measures in place guarding the shield generators on Endor.
There’s almost certainly an excellent reason why the shield generators could not be kept behind the shield.
The second Death Star was constructed on the edge of the Galaxy above Endor, and was built to maintain fear of the Empire and to restore confidence in its ranks after a devastating loss. The most rebellious planets would be hemmed in by the Imperial Fleet until the new Death Star could arrive, with the logic being that destroying the planets with the bulk of the enemy on them would be a decisive blow against the rebellion. Fortunately the Empire would never put up to two million military personnel in one location, so the same thing couldn’t possibly happen to them. Twice.
There are many historical parallels with the Empire’s behavior. France’s inability to defend Sedan – a vital strategic point akin to France’s thermal exhaust shaft – from first Prussian then later German forces; Hitler deciding to invade Russia during the winter after it went so well for Napoleon; King James II of Scotland using a favored cannon called ‘The Lion’ to attack Roxburgh Castle, only for it to explode and kill him.
The First Order of The Force Awakens are inspired by the history of the Death Stars, which was in turn inspired by legends of the ancient Sith. And yet its destruction may have been averted if the First Order had watched Jurassic World.
The underlying theme of the second most popular movie of 2015 was a commentary on “bigger equals better,” whereby the dinosaurs in the park were not deemed sufficiently awesome for tourists, and so a new made-up creature had to happen. The First Order regarded a planet-sized, galaxy-destroying battle station as the next step up from the Death Stars, with a planet in the Unknown Regions providing suitable cover for its construction.
However, to destroy a star system required a different and greater power source, which was large enough to be dangerous to the planet itself. It needed to be regulated, thus providing a weakness for the base. The shield for the planet also had a weakness based on its size, and its controls were located in one place (though behind the shield itself this time, so kudos for that). Clearly the First Order had also neglected to play Goldeneye on the N64, which would have demonstrated the folly of such a plan. In an attempt to prove themselves mightier than their predecessors, the First Order ended up failing in much the same way.
The Emperor’s hubristic desire to make the Death Stars succeed is similar, in some ways, to Stalin’s Five Year Plans. Both came from situations of growing rebellion, and a desire to see any potential uprisings quashed by improved technology at the state’s command. The industrial demands resulted in overworking the laborers (who were often prisoners), straining against a lack of time, internal purges of key personnel, and achieving some successes while failing to achieve their initial goals. In the end these plans failed due to their being overambitious.
Building a moon-sized gun is also somewhat overambitious. Trying to use said gun once the blueprints for it have been stolen is optimistic at best. And yet in both cases the possibility of success, with one decisive move, kept inspiring them to repeating their mistakes.
I don’t recall ever seeing eggs in a Star Wars film, but if the Empire do have access to them, they’re clearly storing them in one basket, based on the assumption that they’re too big to fail.
As a wise man once said, “Don’t get cocky.”