20,000 Per Cell: Why Midi-chlorians Suck

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One word ruined Star Wars for me, and probably for a generation of fans, too. 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. The draw of the concept of the Force in the Original Trilogy is that it comes across as a low-maintenance religion. It’s kinda like Unitarianism that also gives you psychic powers and enables you to jump, fight and stare better than other members of your respective species. (Seriously, Jedi wield eye contact like a weapon. Never get into a staring contest with them.) You couldn’t measure the Force really, unless it whopped you upside the head. It was just there, lingering like a threat or a promise.

Until, of course, “midi-chlorians.”

Moreover, “midi-chlorians” messes up every extrapolated wish fulfillment that accompanies Star Wars, too. Every kid who ever wanted to be a Jedi thought that all they’d have to do was train really hard, learn to concentrate and squint and they’d somehow connect to the energy that moves through all living things. But that stupid little Force Detector Qui-Gon pulls out in Phantom Menace scuttled the hopes of all such young dreamers. Forget about all those push-ups and those eyebrow raises you’ve been practicing. If you’ve got a low midi-chlorian count, won’t be no Jedi Academy for you, youngling.

But the midi-chlorian revelation raises a bunch of other questions, too. Is midichlorian count affected by diet or exercise? Do you have to be a vegan, like Todd Ingram? Do Dark Siders have high midichlorian counts after they give in to the universe’s bad mojo? Because, while those guys may be hella powerful, they sure don’t look healthy. What does the originator of the Star Wars mythos himself say?

Midi-chlorians are a loose depiction of mitochondria, which are necessary components for cells to divide. They probably had something–which will come out someday–to do with the beginnings of life and how one cell decided to become two cells with a little help from this other little creature who came in, without whom life couldn’t exist. And it’s really a way of saying we have hundreds of little creatures who live on us, and without them, we all would die. There wouldn’t be any life. They are necessary for us; we are necessary for them. Using them in the metaphor, saying society is the same way, says we all must get along with each other.

Look, far be it from me to deny Mr. Lucas his metaphors. And, yes, it seems that Lucas had these little microorganisms in mind from as early as 1977.  But, the problem with trying to create a modern-day fable is that you need to maintain some of the mystery. To me, the midi-chlorian macguffin is like saying some ninjas are just going to be sneakier than others because they have low cholesterol. Umm, what?

I know my lament isn’t a new thing and is just another voice added to the angry nerd chorus. Maybe this is too far a tangent, but when that device gets whipped out in Episode One, the line separating Star Trek and Star Wars blurs. The former series is about the empirical investigation of the universe, with technology at the forefront. The latter is more sociological, turning on the strength of personal belief and political will to change history.

“Midi-chlorians” take all the comparative religion ideas, all the quasi-mythological essences that churn at the core of Star Wars and turn them into easily quantifiable biology. And metaphor or not, I say “boo” to all that.