This is a transitional page gathering and sorting initial thoughts about several technical topics arising from The Phantom Menace. The topics covered here may eventually be divided and integrated with other pages dealing with more general subjects. However the temporary organisation may turn out to be semi-permanent.
Thanks are due to, in alphabetic order:
Shield technologies are represented in a very striking way in The Phantom Menace, but they're not necessarily irreconcilable with the movies of the classic STAR WARS era. The key difference is that the shields seen in action in The Phantom Menace were mostly in atmosphere, and they are not necessarily all the same type.
The first noteworthy and novel example of shielding in The Phantom Menace is the person-scale shielding projected by the droidekas of the Trade Federation. Droids using their shields usually remain stationary (with the one exception being the last droideka fleeing Anakin Skywalker's defence of the Theed hangar). It is unknown whether the shields innately make movement difficult, can only be activated by a motionless droid, or whether there is a deliberate restriction on droideka behaviour. Perhaps the absorption of heavy fire by the shields produces a kick that can knock over a droideka that doesn't stand with braced legs. (Whether their legs protrude from the shields, and whether the shields penetrate the ground may also have some bearing on this question.)
Shielded droidekas appear to be surrounded by a soft purple spherical haze. This haze is probably due to the interaction between the shield and the air aboard the Trade Federation ship. It may be airglow due to ionisation of the air in contact with a part of the shield that sits at an energy level or potential corresponding to an appropriate atomic or molecular transition of a constituent of the air.
An alternative, more complex explanation would be that the shield permeates the air but causes some kind of sharp alteration of the air's optical properties along a certain surface. Such an effect would have to be very sensitive to the wavelength of incident light in order to create the observed monochromatic haze. This is not the best theory, since it requires the specification of much more awkward ad hoc detail.
In any case, droidekas operating in vacuum would not show any visible shield effects; except for the ordinary splintering and absorption of incident blaster bolts.
Another interesting feature of the droideka shields is that the machines' own blasters are able to fire through them. This implies that these particular ray shields (and perhaps ray shields in general) are a vector or tensor effect. In other words, the effectiveness of shielding against incident bolts depends on direction, rather than all blaster shots being degraded equally. This model of shielding could account for the ability of large warships to fire upon their foes whilst keeping their own shields raised.
Second theory: the shields are lowered in instantaneous synchornism with the firing of the blaster bolts. This fine timing should be within the scope of droid technology, since comparable precision is achieved in many kinds of devices on Earth today, including the synchronised firing of machine-guns through propellers of World War I aircraft. However the initial activation of droideka shields is slow, taking an appreciable fraction of a second. The slowness of changing the shield activation state may preclude the rapid activation and deactivation needed to account for the observed bolt-passing. Perhaps shield generators have more complex capabilities permitting rapid switching despite the sluggish response implied by the initial activation, but it would be hard to prove on the basis of the presently slender evidence.
A seemingly simpler possibility is that the droids actually poke the muzzles of their blasters outside the shields when firing. Inanimate matter that moves sufficiently slowly can penetrate most particle shields, and ray shields needn't impede the movement of material objects at all. (In the hangar scenes it is obvious that the shield penetrates the floor, and therefore it should be possible for the guns to protrude as well.) Judging by eye, the muzzles certainly seem very close to the verge of the shield. On the other hand the blaster shots also cause an expanding elliptical flash or reflection that appears to propagate on along the shield's airglow surface. This flash suggests an interaction between bolts and shields. Bolt-shield interaction may require the bolt to be within the shield at that point, or alternatively it may be a kind of reflection effect.
A final interesting observation concerning the droideka shields is the fact that they were either invisible or inactive during the battle with the Grand Army of the Gungans. The significance of this is uncertain:
The Gungans deploy combined ray and deflector shielding from both large area generators and hand-held personal devices. These shields create striking airglow effects and also appear to refract light along a shell-like volume near the limits of the shield's range. This is probably due to the momentum-damping function of the particle shield. Molecules in the air crossing into the shield tend to be slowed or repelled away more rapidly, depending on the shield's settings. On the macroscopic scale this influence may be felt as a dramatic alteration of the temperature and density of the gas. The visible result is similar to a natural mirage effect formed by air layers of different temperatures near a hot ground.
A blaster bolt striking ray shielding in empty space becomes divided into a shower of lesser daughter bolts which must radiate their energy as harmless light more rapidly because of the increased surface area. The daughter bolts are necessarily more susceptible to further decay, and when the shield is stronger than the bolt the shower decays into an almost indefinite cascade of branching splinters so that it is dissipated as a mere blink of light. (These effects are obvious in frame-by-frame inspections of the shot that incapacitated the Tantive IV and the superlaser striking Alderaan's global shield in A New Hope.) The presence of atmosphere when a bolt strikes a shield changes the manner of dissipation. Some of the cascade energy can interact with the gas molecules via the shield, as well as with the shield directly. This additional mechanism changes the visible characteristics of the bolt diffusion. This was seen when battle droids fired upon Anakin Skywalker's grounded N-1 Naboo starfighter inside the hangars of the droid control ship. The bolts were instantly converted into a flash of pearly airglow diffused across a shield contour.
These pretty effects are unlike the visible manifestations of shields in previous STAR WARS movies. However they are not inconsistent, because they are demonstrations of shield-atmosphere interactions, which were rarely seen before. Shields in space are always invisible, and their influence on shots from beam weaponry is to create either a visible bolt-shower or a tighter flash-like decay cascade. The N-1 fighters hit by enemy fire in space did not show a pearly glow, and the most powerful example of shielding in the movie, the shields of the Federation control ship, behaved the same as the shielding of large vessels in every other STAR WARS film.
The Naboo pilots found the droid control ship's shields to be too strong for their attacks to be effective within the time available for their mission. We can assume that this refers to the ray shielding, which could effectively dissipate blaster fire from the fighters within a distance short enough that the hull remains unharmed. The ship must have had powerful deflector shielding as well, in order to give it immunity to any physical attacks, such as figher collisions and the impact of any proton torpedoes fired by the Naboo.
There were two noteworthy incidents involving the Federation vessel's shield capabilities. The first was when three N-1 fighters flying and firing in formation managed to destroy a large antenna dish and were engulfed in the ensuing explosion. This demonstrates some kind of weakness; perhaps the shielding is less effective around structures with sharp edges, or perhaps the shielding is weaker in the presence of the dish transmissions. In any case, this incident demonstrates that the Naboo mission was not totally hopeless, although they may have needed to much more time before they could hope to eliminate the rest of the transcievers.
The second interesting incident was when Anakin Skywalker's violently spinning fighter penetrated the droid control ship by passing through the aperature of the starboard hold. The ineffectiveness of the shield at that moment needs explanation. Some commentators assume that deflector shields are only scalar phenomena, failing to differentiate between incoming and outgoing objects, which would mean that the shields would have to be lowered during the launch of Federation fighters. This would expose the ship's interior in a wide variety of combat situations, and is therefore unvelievably impractical. If we indulge this theory, for the sake of argument, then Skwyalker must have entered the hold while Federation craft were entering or exiting. More realistically, the shields may be directional, but they were temporarily turned inwards because of incoming Federation fighters. Skywalker's pursuers might have triggered this effect automatically.
Alternatively, there may have been something about Skwyalker's motion that allowed him to pass the shield unscathed. Conventionally, deflector shields are less effective on slow-moving objects; so perhaps the damaged N-1 fighter was moving slowly enough that it wasn't discriminated. However the N-1 seemed fast enough to be a dangerous projectile, even though it was slower than a proton torpedo, and therefore a well-designed deflector shield ought to have impeded or blocked it. Perhaps the permission of Anakin's N-1 had something to do with its spin; it looked as if the fighter had more rotational kinetic energy than linear kinetic energy. If deflector shields exert a complicated vector or tensor force then perhaps a transient configuration of the hangar shield had an effect that was concentrated against the fighter's spin, or which coupled the spin to the forward motion in some way.
The Phantom Menace also reveals more of the tacit properties of ray shielding. The Gungan personal shields represent the first known example of ray shielding that causes a deflection of a blaster bolt. The Gungan infanry used their shields to reflect blaster bolts back in the general direction of their attackers. Ray shields on starships usually either cause an incident bolt to decay into a cascade of splinters or a more instantaneous blossum of harmless light if the shield is stronger. The reflection of undivided blaster bolts can probably be regarded as an extremely weak version of the splintering interaction, in which there is no splitting. The mirror-like agreement between the angles of incidence and reflection would then be a straightforward consequence of the conservation of energy/momentum.
Sometimes the blaster bolts seemed to be changed by reflection. A hail of bolts reflected from the front-line shields had less than the expected deadly effect on the advancing battle droid ranks. This may mean that the bolts lost energy despite remaining unsplit. However at least one blast was reflected by a Gungan during the later melee, and the attacking droid was disabled convincingly. There must be some variability in either the blaster setting, the effect of relfection, or the durability of the droids. (Perhaps that particular droid had already sustained damage.)
- In The Empire Strikes back the Millennium Falcon received enemy fire on its shields while in Bespin's atmosphere. None of the pearly glow effects were seen, which may say something about the power or concentration of the freighter's shields. Perhaps the difference occurs due to the absence of deflector shielding, which usually but not necessarily operates in conjuction with ray shielding. It is the deflector shields that interact directly with matter such as projectiles and air molecules. In one noteworthy instance, an enemy strike was dissipated at a point that was several metres from the freighter's hull. This must be the minimum extent of the freighter's ray shields, and it obviously isn't a tightly hull-hugging effect. These blossums of dissipated bolts are also seen in abundance in space battles throughout the STAR WARS movies. Each of these flashes can be understood as a bolt shower that is so heavily branched and rapidly diffused that it appears as a continuous blob of luminosity.
- In The Courtship of Princess Leia Prince Isolder used a personal deflector and ray shield [pp. 51–52] similar to those of Trade Federation droidekas. The airglow effects described in the book are almost identical to those seen onscreen. The book explains several important aspects of their use: contact with the shield scorches living tissue (which is a concern for live soldiers but not for droids); and personal shields don't have power sources that are great enough and portable enough for extended use by infantry. Thus they are an expensive anti-assassination device for humans but combat droids designed to carry their sufficiently heavy power systems could benefit from shielding. The Gungan personal shields may also be a short-duration device, perhaps recharged by the mobile power generators behind their lines. (It is interesting to note that no Gungan personal shields were seen in action after the collapse of their theatre shield generators.)
- In Entertainment Weekly Rob Coleman, animation director for TPM, confirms an important aspect of particle-shield physics. The effect of particle shielding is velocity-dependent.Why is it that Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan and the Trade Federation droids can pass through the Gungan bubbles and force fields, but laser beams can't? It's because those things are made out of a plasma-like material — mined from the ocean floor by the Gungans — that can be penetrated only by moving “reeeeeeaaallly” slow, ‘If you hit it very violently, you don't get in,&rsquo says Coleman. ‘Velocity is important.’
Droideka “destroyer droids” possess ray shielding which has a visible violet limb.
Gungan infantry take shelter under large deflector and ray shields carried by huge domesticated animals.
Gungans also carry personal ray shields, which cause a peculiar pink airglow.
This is how a shield acts on a turbolaser bolt in the absence of air: the bolt breaks into a shower of smaller rays, which would each subdivide in turn if the shield was more effective.
The Phantom Menace triples the canonical references to cloaking technology of STAR WARS (previously there was only a single mention by Captain Needa in The Empire Strikes Back). This indirectly discloses some interesting facts about the nature of these devices.
The first mention of cloaking fields was spoken by Qui-Gon Jinn to Ric Olie during their flight from Naboo. Jinn asked whether the Queen's starship had a cloaking device, which he implied would have been some help towars their escape. Olie replied that they did not have anything like it, since it wasn't a naval vessel. This seems to imply a few things:
From the descriptions of cloaks in the post-Return of the Jedi literature, we know that active cloaking fields inflict a "double-blind" effect on the cloaked vessel: the ship cannot appear on any sensors and is practically invisible, but its own sensors cannot see beyond the field. This inhibits navigation and naturally ensures that cloaks are only used with discretion. Perhaps Jinn hoped to use his Jedi instincts to navigate away from Naboo and through the blockade whilst cloaked.
The second mention of cloaking in material relating to The Phantom Menace is the cloak that is supposedly carried by Darth Maul's Sith Infiltrator. Though Maul's ship appears to be smaller than the Millennium Falcon (which is too small according to Captain Needa), perhaps it is sufficiently unique or relies upon power technologies that would be considered unacceptably unsafe or impractical for a pilot other than a Sith Lord. It is not hard to believe that Maul's vessel might be unique in one or more important respects.
Unfortunately for the enthusiasts for cloaking technology, this special capability was never actually demonstrated in the movie. It was added, for unknown reasons, as a feature of the ship profile in the Episode I: Incredible Cross Sections book. The article makes a point of describing a kind of rare natural crystals that are constituents of the Infiltrator's cloaking device, so perhaps this is a clue. Perhaps this vessel will be seen again in future STAR WARS stories or movies, with its cloak in action.
Darth Maul determined the position of Queen Amidala's royal yacht despite the fact that Kenobi forbade the sending of any reply to Sio Bibble's message. Online commentators have developed many speculations about things that may have taken place off-camera that would allow a trace: including betrayal or disobedience by someone aboard the yacht, or a deleted scene in which a call was sent to Senator Palpatine. However while these theories are not explicitly contradicted by the film, they go against the spirit of Jinn's command and they are not the sort of means that Maul could depend upon.
A more technological mechanism is needed. It may be helpful to regard Bibble's message as something like a modern e-mail message: since the destination is not known at the outset, the coded message would be copied and dispersed across the "HoloNet" hyperwave network throughout the galaxy. The act of receiving the transmission would inherently send out a signal for the termination of the other copies throughout the network. A clever analyst with appropriate tracing equipment and intuitions for supraluminal physics and information theory should be able to use the propagation of these acknowledgement/termination signals to locate the system where the message was received.
Why did Jinn and Kenobi not fear that the Trade Federation could do this? They were unconcerned by the idea of receiving transmissions; but they realised the greater danger involved in actively sending data. Perhaps the Federation lacks the resources for the former kind of network trace; if so then it is a great demonstration of the resources and skills at Darth Maul's disposal.
The STAR WARS Episode I 20-Month Calendar describes Queen Amidala contacting Senator Palpatine (before arriving on Tatooine) and relaying her plans to him. This leak would explain how Maul knew to search Tatooine, but unfortunately it appears to be contradicted by the movie. In The Phantom Menace, Darth Maul indicated that his knowledge of the Queen's whereabouts depended on a "trace", which would have been redundant if she had made a transmission in which she actually spoke of her destination.
Some observers of STAR WARS seem troubled by the issue of technological stasis in this fictional universe. Many readers have difficulty with this idea, because they wrongly take modern Western technological society as a point of reference for the STAR WARS environment. There are good physical reasons why a culture in a closed environment (be it bound to its home planet or bound to a particular galaxy) will eventually reach the limits of its resources and then either adopt a stable state or perish. History shows that most societies relax to a stable state when they run out of possibilities for territorial expansion etc. Also, there is bound to come a time when scientific discovery meets all of the needs of its society. This is not a bad condition, and it can be easily and convincingly argued that this is the natural state of humankind.
Objectively, the galaxy cannot have experienced major technological change at any time in recent millennia. The whole galaxy was governed in essentially the same way for over a thousand generations. The occurrence of vast periods of political stasis requires stasis in all of the fields of life that can affect politics. If any change of technology had been sustained and accumulated, it would have eventually altered the dynamics of the civilisation to the point where pre-existing institutions such as the Galactic Republic (and perhaps even the Jedi) would have been rendered irrelevent.
On a storytelling level, George Lucas did not set out to tell a tale about machines and technical developments. His stories are intended to be more eternal than the hundreds of factory-produced TV SF shows where the plot depends on the provision of some kind of novelty device.
None of the spin-off novels, comics or games published to date shows any empirical evidence of technological progress in the mainstream galactic society of the STAR WARS universe. On the fringes of the civilisation there are some exotic non-human societies that are experiencing technological change while they are adjusting towards a different status within or outside the supra-civilisation, by either ascending from a primitive state or else falling into decadence. However these isolated exceptions are not part of the technical mainstream. The only variations of galactic technology are due to either:
There are no more "advanced" technologies, starships or products in the mainstream STAR WARS universe (excepting pre-interstellar primitive societies and fringe groups that are isolated from the galactic community). It appears to be simply a matter of balancing technical tradeoffs of competing items in a strategic environment that oscillates sluggishly about a mean galactic level over the centuries. In some eras, a highly capable device is developed and manufactured, and its makers may consider it incrementally superior. In a different generation, those capabilities would be downplayed and atrophied as other requirements come to the fore. Elegance of design or economy of manufacture are examples of utilitarian values that sometimes take precedence over attributes such as speed or firepower. Lucafilm designers for Episode I have stated versions of this principle in numerous printed interviews, especially with regard to the technical aesthetics of the Naboo culture.
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