8 easy ways that the Empire wins in Star Wars
|LISTS - MOVIE LISTS|
If not for Imperial arrogance, flimsy construction techniques, and inexplicable decisions, the Rebellion wouldn't stand a chance...
As has been said a million times before, everyone loves an underdog. Nobody has managed to get through life without encountering the feeling of being mistreated, picked on, or not given a chance in an endeavor. There is always that conscious desire to back the crooked-legged horse, to see the perpetual loser somehow rise up and threaten the power of the perpetual winner, to see the valiant and righteous few rise up against the tyrannical and evil many.
That is where so much of the devotion and love for the Star Wars films stems from - the hopeless battle of the downtrodden and harried "good" against the powerful and technologically-superior "evil". Right up until the Death Star explodes, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope expertly captures the desperation of the Rebel Alliance in protecting their homes and families against their despotic pursuers. This hopelessness and near-resignation permeates the film's final battle... right up until Luke Skywalker drops a pair of proton torpedoes down an exhaust shaft and turns the galaxy's most powerful weapon into a quadrillion bits of space dust.
But as all devoted followers of the Star Wars franchise know, the final result was not a purely one-sided affair. Long before Luke ever had a chance to "push the button" at the fateful Battle of Yavin, the Empire had a bevy of opportunities to nip the Rebellion in the bud, but questionable decisions and smug dismissal of the Rebellion inevitably and repeatedly put the Imperials on the road to ruin. All things being equal, however, the Rebellion had no business defeating the Empire in A New Hope.
So in this vein, and as one of the biggest Star Wars fans in the galaxy and a lover of alternate history, here is my list of the eight pieces of helpful advice (much of it in hindsight) that the Empire could have used to cement its place as the ruling body of the galaxy and to defeat the Rebels forever. (For the sake of easy reading, the list is in chronological order).
1. Forget capturing Princess Leia - just blow up the Tantive IV.
A New Hope begins with one of the greatest opening scenes in film history. Princess Leia's ship, the diminutive Tantive IV, is being chased by the huge Imperial Star Destroyer "Devastator" over the planet of Tatooine. The far-smaller diplomatic vessel is quickly disabled and captured by the Star Destroyer's tractor beam. Once the resistance on board is quelled, Darth Vader himself boards the ship, interrogates and then kills its captain, and takes Leia prisoner, all the while ranting and raving about the Death Star's stolen blueprints that the Rebels are purported to be hiding. Leia denies everything but, in fact, the ship was carrying the stolen plans. During the firefight, she managed to download them into R2-D2's memory banks before the astromech and its companion, C-3PO, fled in an escape pod.
At this point during the Star Wars timeline, the Empire has two goals - to retrieve or destroy the stolen blueprints and to locate the secret Rebel base so that it can permanently snuff the last stronghold of resistance in the galaxy. With this in mind, Darth Vader gambles. In the hopes that the Tantive IV's occupants will provide him with both the stolen blueprints and the Rebel base's location, he captures the ship and tries to scare Captain Antilles and Princess Leia into giving him what he wants. It ends up being a colossal misstep - the plans are already flying down to the surface of Tatooine in the form of R2-D2's memory banks and neither Antilles or Leia can be interrogated into giving up the location of their headquarters.
So what could have Vader done differently here? Simple - instead of ordering the gunner to send a volley "across the bow", so to speak, he could have just ordered the Tantive IV to be obliterated. Such a loss would have been crushing to the Rebellion at this point in history. The stolen Death Star blueprints, which cost many lives and man hours to come by, would have been vaporized, along with Princess Leia, one of the figureheads of the fledgling Rebels. Yes, the Rebellion's Yavin IV base would have remained a mystery to the Imperials for a time, but so too would the Death's Star's fatal weakness have remained a mystery to the Rebel Alliance. Eventually, the overwhelming intelligence potential of the Imperial spy network would have discovered the Yavin IV location and it is extremely unlikely that the small resistance the Rebels would offer once the Death Star appeared in the sky would have done anything to stop the ensuing cataclysm.
2. Ok then... an escape pod just took off from the Tantive IV. Blow that up.
Darth Vader's aforementioned dubious decision in extending his own brand of leniency to the Tantive IV would be rendered moot if not for an ordinary Imperial gunner and his commander. With the Tantive IV's engines blasted into disrepair and the Star Destroyer closing in with its tractor beam, R2-D2 and C-3PO scurry away from teams of searching Stormtroopers and blast off in an escape pod. As it rockets to Tatooine's desolate surface, the future of the Rebellion literally rides with them. Little do they know that their tiny spacecraft is squarely in the sights of a gunner aboard the Devastator, who prepares to fire... until ordered to hold fire by his superior. His reasoning? There are no life forms aboard, so it must have "short circuited".
Let's ponder this. There are two possible reasons that the escape pod has found itself hurtling through space - either there has been some kind of short circuit or somebody put something in the pod and then programmed it to launch. In both cases, it's a bit silly to go out of your way to order your gunner to not destroy it, wouldn't you say? If it's a short circuit, then the pod literally becomes target practice. As Family Guy's Blue Harvest parody cleverly pointed out, it's not as if the Devastator has a finite number of lasers or that shooting needlessly affects its "budget". There aren't many actions that inspire as much suspicion during a firefight than seeing a fleeing escape pod. I'm no military expert, but I think it might behoove a team of gunners to keep all of their ducks in a row, so to speak, and blast anything that looks so obviously suspicious.
Perhaps you disagree with that assessment and say that the gunner's superior ordered him to hold fire in the hopes that the Imperials could find key evidence at the pod's crash site. After all, they did quickly send a team of Stormtroopers down to the surface to investigate.
Unfortunately, that makes no sense. As I said in the previous entry, the Empire's goals are to retrieve or destroy the stolen Death Star blueprints and to hopefully beat the Rebel base's location out of somebody in the meantime. There are no life forms on the escape pod, so the gunner's superior knows that there is nobody on the pod that can divulge helpful information (there is, actually, but he doesn't know that). Therefore, the only other possibility that the Devastator's crew might be aware of is that the plans are now hidden on board the dwindling escape pod; the last, desperate act of a cornered enemy. Well, if that's the case, one laser blast destroys the pod, the stolen plans, and any additional sensitive material that may be on board. The Empire doesn't necessarily need to retrieve the plans; they just need to make sure that the Rebel leaders don't receive the plans. Destroying the escape pod solves that problem. With R2-D2, C-3PO, and the plans blasted to dust, Obi-Wan continues his life as an outcast hermit, Luke Skywalker never realizes his destiny, and the rebel leaders at Yavin IV never find the Death Star's weakness. In short, it's all over. All it would have taken was the gunner's superior to go ahead and let him blow the pod into atoms and the Rebellion is finished.
3. Don't kill Luke's adoptive parents.
At this point in the film, the Imperials know that at least one android escaped from Princess Leia's consular ship and is somewhere on Tatooine, possibly with the stolen Death Star plans in its possession. They are also evidently prepared to make up for their previously-merciful trigger fingers by killing every living thing that they come across while they are hunting said android(s).
C-3PO and R2-D2 go their separate ways after an argument in the endless Tatooine desert, but are soon reunited after both are picked up by roving Jawa scavengers. They are sold to Owen Lars to work on the Lars moisture farm, where they are welcomed and cleaned by Lars' adopted son, Luke Skywalker. It is during this cleaning that R2-D2 suddenly plays Leia's holographic plea to Obi-Wan Kenobi that she downloaded along with the Death Star plans. Luke thinks he knows Kenobi from stories his uncle has told about a strange hermit out in the desert, but is reluctant to go looking for "Old Ben". R2 decides to go out looking by itself, forcing Luke to go retrieve his wayward droid. After being attacked by a band of Tusken Raiders, also known as Sandpeople, Luke is saved by Obi-Wan, who realizes his identity. It is at this point that the path towards the Empire's downfall begins...
...that is, it would be, if not for Luke's continued indifference.
Despite everything that he has seen thus far, including a trip to Obi-Wan's hut, stories about his father's supposed heroism during the Clone Wars, and even a peek at his father's old lightsaber, Luke is not to be swayed. His Uncle Owen needs him at his moisture farm and he just can't quite take a long-enough vacation to go help save the galaxy. Even when Obi-wan specifically tells Luke that he needs him, young Skywalker is ambivalent towards going against his uncle's wishes and sourly declines.
And that's when the stormtroopers who are feverishly searching Tatooine for R2-D2 and C-3PO drop the ball in a big way, albeit unknowingly. Luke, Ben, and the droids stumble across the remains of a burnt-out sandcrawler, which is surrounded by dead Jawas. They quickly deduce that they are the same Jawas that sold Owen the two droids earlier and that the sandcrawler was destroyed by Stormtroopers and not, as initially suspected, Sandpeople. An instant later, a horrified Luke realizes that the Stormtroopers are after the droids and, after killing the Jawas, would have next hunted for the droids' buyers, Luke's aunt and uncle. Luke jumps in his landspeeder and returns home, but it is too late - the charred bodies of Owen and Beru lay by their destroyed homestead.
It is this act of mostly-pointless sadism that finally causes Luke to join Obi-Wan and the Rebels. The pleas of a faraway princess, the fanciful tug of a heroic rebellion in the stars, battles, glory, and fighting against a spreading evil - all of these reasons are not enough to push Luke into throwing away his responsibilities at home... until the point comes when he no longer has a home. Only upon realizing that he has nothing left but the shirt on his back and an aging landspeeder does Luke finally agree to leave Tatooine. If the Stormtroopers hunting the droids simply leave Owen and Beru to their own devices after interrogating them as to the droids' whereabouts, it's highly likely that a bemused and befuddled Obi-Wan retreats back to his hut to meekly await death, his final mission ending in dismal failure, while a wishy-washy Luke goes back to checking moisture vaporators and working on his landspeeder, living out the rest of his days as an unremarkable nobody.
4. Perform a more thorough search of the Millennium Falcon.
This is a fairly minor point when compared to some of the others, but it must be touched upon. After Luke steels himself to join the Rebellion, the four travelers make their way to the spaceport city of Mos Eisley in order to find transport off of Tatooine and take R2-D2's Death Star plans to Alderaan, a Rebel stronghold and home to Bail Organa, Leia's adoptive father and one of Obi-Wan's old Clone War comrades. In Mos Eisley's seedy Cantina, Luke and Obi-wan meet smuggler Han Solo and his co-pilot Chewbacca, who agree to ferry the group to Alderaan for an exorbitant sum in their modified freighter, the Millennium Falcon. The newly-formed group successfully flees Tatooine in the nick of time (thanks in part to the awful shooting accuracy of a squadron of Stormtroopers... more on that later) and arrive at Alderaan's coordinates.
But it's too late. The Death Star has been there first and annihilated the planet with its giant superlaser, a show of strength by Imperial bureaucratic head Grand Moff Tarkin in the hopes that his new prisoner, Princess Leia, will buckle and reveal the location of the Rebel base. While Tarkin pressures a distraught Leia in the Death Star, the Falcon unexpectedly drops from hyperspace among the asteroid remnants of Alderaan and its occupants worryingly marvel at the power required to reduce a planet to rubble. Seconds later, Solo immediately gives chase to a TIE fighter which appears to be operating in deep space, an oddity for a short-range ship. The reality soon becomes clear, however, when the "small moon" that the Imperial ship is heading towards is actually the lingering Death Star, which captures the Falcon with a tractor beam before Solo can retreat. But imagine the Imperials' surprise when, once the Falcon is secured in a docking bay, the ship is scoured and found to be deserted. After the Stormtrooper recon team completes its sweep and leaves the ship, the Imperials apparently shrugging their collective shoulders in confusion, a floor panel is suddenly moved aside, and the Falcon's crew and passengers are revealed to be hiding in a secret compartment.
Now I know that all of this works to the casual observer, but put yourself in the place of the Imperials for a moment. This is the Imperial Navy, the most-prominent arm of the most powerful military force in the galaxy. Even further, one must figure that being assigned to the Death Star is probably a cushy detail, as it is certainly ego-boosting to be assigned to the most powerful weapon in the galaxy's most powerful military force. So by default, you have to assume that the stormtroopers who search the Falcon are either the best of the best, or quite near it. And yet they appear to do nothing more than give the captured ship a cursory once-over before leaving and announcing that it is secure. It doesn't add up and it certainly doesn't equate to a military order to search a ship. Yes, I'll admit that a mention is made of a "scanning team" that is on its way to verify that the ship is indeed abandoned, but while everyone loiters around waiting for said scanning team to grace the docking bay with its presence, the Falcon's ramp is guarded by a total of TWO stormtroopers. But more than that luckless pair in a moment.
A more realistic version of this scene would involve a large-enough detail of stormtroopers that can immediately take a fine-toothed comb to the Falcon, upon which one has to assume that Solo's secret hiding place is discovered in a matter of minutes and all six occupants are taken prisoner. Any number of scenarios could play out after this, but a few things are pretty certain. No rescue will be forthcoming for Princess Leia, as her eventual rescuers end up being imprisoned themselves. Vader ultimately discovers, through one avenue or another, that R2-D2 is carrying the Death Star plans, at which time both androids are certainly dismantled. Solo and Chewbacca are probably executed, as the Imperials would have little use for two unimportant smugglers. In the meantime, the Imperials also execute Leia, as per order, and Vader revels in the chance to exact revenge on his old adversary, Obi-Wan Kenobi, while unlocking the mystery as to why the nondescript farm-boy Kenobi was traveling with has such strong Force potential. Any way you slice it, the discovery of the Falcon's complement of travelers spells doom to them all and most likely an ultimate victory for the Empire. So why not take a few minutes and really make sure the ship is empty before you declare it as such, eh?
5. Rethink your troops' weapons & guard duty training.
For having a reputation as universally-feared, death-dealing warriors, Imperial stormtroopers sure are terrible at shooting their guns. What's the opposite of a crack shot? These guys couldn't hit the ground if they fell over. In recent years, this hapless attribute has been brought into even starker relief, considering that the back story of the stormtroopers was revealed in Episode II: Attack of the Clones as an army of clones born and bred specifically to make war. If I were Darth Vader or Grand Moff Tarkin, I might consider flying over to Kamino and asking its clone makers for a refund at the point of a superlaser. I don't have the time, and readers certainly don't have the patience, for me to highlight each and every occasion where just one well-placed shot by a stormtrooper would have changed the course of the entire war, so I'll just pick A New Hope's most obvious highlight.
Once Solo, Chewbacca, Luke, Obi-Wan, R2-D2, and C-3PO slink away from the Falcon after the stormtroopers' "search" of the ship, they decide to split up. Luke and Han pretend to be part of the Imperial squad that is searching the Falcon and shout for the two aforementioned unfortunate stormtroopers standing at the bottom of the ramp to "give them a hand" with something inside. What quickly transpires is something akin to a Looney Tunes short, as Solo uses this ruse as an opportunity to pull the old "shoot the guys and take their uniforms" routine. They then slap some handcuffs on Chewbacca and escort him to the cell block where Leia is being held, under the pretense that Chewie is a dangerous, newly-captured escapee.
In the meantime, Ben sneaks away to disable the tractor beam and R2-D2 and C-3PO hide near an astromech port in case anybody needs R2 to hack into a program or open a locked door. Han, Luke, and Chewie eventually rescue Leia and escape through a trash compactor, with a little help from the droids, while Ben uses a bit of Force suggestion to distract a handful of guards and disable the tractor beam. Ultimately, they all meet back at the Falcon, sans old Ben, and puzzle over how they are going to get past the couple dozen stormtroopers that are surrounding their getaway ship. Enter Obi-Wan, who nearly makes it back to the docking bay before being confronted by a waiting Vader in a nearby corridor. The two engage in a lightsaber battle just yards away from the Falcon and every single stormtrooper on guard leaves their post and wanders over to watch the action.
I'm pretty sure that any half-decent military worth its salt has some kind of regulation against leaving one's post, but it only gets worse. As the group scurries towards the Falcon to effect their escape, Luke notices Obi-Wan engaged in battle with Vader. It is at this moment that Obi-Wan sees the group attempting to escape and decides that, for lack of a better term, his job there is done. He submits to Vader and becomes one with the Force at the moment that Vader's lightsaber cuts through his ratty old robe. Ben's spirit lives on, but Luke and the audience believes him to be dead. As Luke screams in horror, the docking bay's entire contingent of stormtroopers turns as one and begins firing at him and the rest of the escapees, who are all perhaps 30 feet away.
If you've ever seen Star Wars, you know where I'm going with this. And if you haven't, what is wrong with you? you can probably guess. A distraught Skywalker stands stock still for a full five seconds, laser blasts streaking all around him, before finally coming to his senses and firing off a quick blast that hits a stormtrooper full in the chest. Suddenly, Ben's Force spirit speaks to him, telling him to run. He kills another couple of stormtroopers and then destroys the blast door controls on the far side of the bay, blocking Vader from entering the docking bay proper and attacking Luke himself. Not that Luke has much to worry about - Vader has been ignoring the firefight in favor of trying to puzzle out what became of Obi-Wan (a scene that nearly warrants its own entry on this list). During this entire sequence, Luke has literally not moved an inch from his original spot, hundreds of blaster shots exploding all around him. Finally, after the blast door closes, Luke turns and runs up the ramp into the Falcon, no worse for wear.
That's not even the first time that Luke and the gang have been confronted by stormtroopers in this film alone only to eventually emerge totally unscathed. A succession of comparable scenes also happen in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. In all of these instances, the combined damage that the stormtroopers manage to inflict on any of the major characters is blowing apart C-3PO in The Empire Strikes Back (he later gets reassembled with no lasting effects) and a grazing shot to Leia's shoulder towards the end of Return of the Jedi. Imagine if just one of the stormtroopers in that docking bay during Star Wars resists the temptation to shoot wildly and indiscriminately in Luke Skywalker's direction, takes careful aim, and guns down the young farmboy. Yes, the Falcon still escapes and the plans probably still find their way to Rebel leadership, but without Luke to fire the Death Star's fatal shot, there's a good chance that it's all for naught.
6. Death Star's navigators - take the scenic route.
After the Millennium Falcon escapes the grip of the Imperials and blasts away into hyperspace towards the secret rebel base on Yavin IV, the Imperials must be kicking themselves for letting such valuable prisoners slip through their fingers. Fortunately for the Empire, Darth Vader's ace-in-the-hole goes off without a hitch. While certainly not expecting the Falcon and its occupants to be able to successfully flee the Death Star, Vader had a homing beacon hidden on board just in case. After encountering minimal resistance while preparing to jump to hyperspace, Solo crows about his successful humiliation of the Empire, but Leia suspects differently. Sure enough, the Falcon singlehandedly alerts the Empire to the grand prize of them all - the last stronghold of the rebels - by leading them straight to it like a horse to water. Naturally, the Empire takes this priceless information and badly misuses it.
The climax of A New Hope is, without a doubt, gleefully thrilling. Much of the thrill stems from the tension caused by the Death Star slowly orbiting around the gas giant of Yavin in order to get a clear shot on Yavin IV, while countdowns by both the Death Star's and Rebels' computer systems begin to wind their way down to zero. It's a wonderful set piece, and supremely exciting, but it's also terribly dumbfounding as far as strategy goes. The huge battle station has hyperspeed capability. Otherwise, it would essentially be useless as a weapon. So why would the Imperals, who now have total victory nearly in their grasp, decide to appear on the far side of an enormous gas giant that now must be orbited in order to crush their enemy once and for all? During the moment that the Death Star materializes and begins to approach the Yavin system, the rebels are alerted, giving them time to man their ships and take whatever meager defensive measures they have available. It isn't much, but it ends up being enough.
Here's a sensible alternative that Imperial command could have, and should have, easily implemented - the Death Star's navigators check their maps or what-not and see that Yavin IV is currently on the far side of its huge gas giant planet. Instead of taking a direct path and needlessly alerting the Rebels beforehand, a simple triangulation route would have allowed the Death Star to fly past Yavin altogether, double back, and then appear right on top of Yavin IV sans obstructions before the Rebels could act in any way, allowing the Imperials to destroy the rebel base quickly and easily.
Simply put, a few extra minutes of hyperspace flight and A New Hope's final battle gets a whole lot shorter. The reason that this doesn't happen, of course, is that the concept of the Rebels somehow disabling or destroying the Death Star is an absolute impossibility in the minds of the Imperials. There is no sense of urgency because there is no reason to believe the Rebels have any time to mount an effective attack with their tiny fleet, even with the Death Star's blueprints in their possession. Once again, failure of leadership at the top does its part to doom the Empire. A little less 'savoring the moment' and a little more 'better safe than sorry' and the Rebellion goes up in a ball of fire.
7. Send out enough TIE Fighters to get the job done.
As the Death Star meanders its way towards the Rebellion's demise, the Rebels hiding in Yavin IV's ancient temples send out all the firepower they've got: 32 single-man attack fighters. It's a pitifully-small defense force, akin to 32 gnats attacking the Great Pyramid. In comparison, the Death Star houses EIGHT THOUSAND TIE FIGHTERS. That's right - 8,000. With an exasperated wave of the hand, Grand Moff Tarkin could create a TIE fighter-lined pathway in space between the Death Star and Yavin IV. To be perfectly honest, the superlaser isn't really even necessary. Eight thousand fighters would blot out the sun above the rebel base. TIE bombers could systematically turn the ancient temples into dust and the TIE fighters could mop up whatever resistance that might remain. At this point, Tarkin could destroy the Rebellion with a nod of his head.
But he doesn't.
Tarkin simply cannot bring himself to believe that the Rebels pose any threat to his beloved Death Star. So when told that the station's turbolaser batteries are having difficulty in targeting the small and maneuverable Rebel X-Wings, Tarkin is uninterested. Whether the X-Wings can be easily brought down or not is beside the point; the Grand Moff is perfectly content with allowing the gnats to sting until the Death Star swings around Yavin and blows its fourth moon into powder. When given the same intelligence by a slightly-panicky Imperial officer, Darth Vader relents and agrees that the Imperials need a fighter presence of their own... so he authorizes the launch of EIGHT TIE fighters. Eight. Out of a total complement of 8,000. Soon after, Vader realizes that the Rebels are up to something, so he takes his two wingmen and personally flies out to the battle in his custom-made Advanced TIE fighter, bringing the total of Imperial fighters to 11. Not only does Imperial leadership not allow their pilots to control the Death Star's airspace, they allow the Rebels a numerical advantage, for NO REASON besides arrogance and an unwillingness to believe that the Rebels have any chance of victory.
In a last attempt to sensitively bring up the fact that his commander is unnecessarily downplaying the Rebel threat, Tarkin's aide Major Bast asks Tarkin if he wishes to have his personal ship ready to evacuate if the worst should happen. Tarkin explodes, accusing Bast of attempting to steal his "moment of triumph". It is the last conversation of Tarkin's life. Perhaps in no other entry on this list is the Empire's supreme arrogance more obvious. Not only does Tarkin not consider the Rebels a threat, he can't even agree to unleash a portion of his monstrous TIE fighter swarm just to be safe, because the Rebels are so far beneath his level. If Tarkin had even agreed to deploy ONE PERCENT of his TIE forces, the Imperial fighters would outnumber the Rebels by roughly 2.5 to 1. With those odds, it is improbable that any Rebel pilots would have managed to maneuver their ships anywhere near their exhaust port target before they were overwhelmed by superior numbers and wiped out.
8. Put a grate on that pesky exhaust port.
By the time Luke Skywalker's fateful shot destroys the Death Star, the observer not only marvels at the different ways in which everything could have collapsed for the Rebellion, but also how they could have already collapsed for the Imperials. Despite numerous instances of dereliction of duty, short cuts, terrible marksmanship, and arrogance by everyone from the top of the leadership ladder on down to the newest conscript (see #1 - #7), the Empire is still in a position to rid itself of the pesky Rebellion as its doomsday weapon inches around the gas giant of Yavin and powers up its superlaser. But even after all of their previous mistakes, what finally does the Imperials in is what basically amounts to a construction rush job - the infamous thermal exhaust port that eagle-eyed Rebel leaders spot while hurriedly analyzing R2-D2's stolen Death Star plans.
It is the Rebels' only hope. The pilots must navigate the bristling arrays of turbolasers on the Death Star's surface and enter a narrow trench that is populated by even more turbolasers. At the end of the trench is an exhaust port two meters wide, into which the pilots must fire a proton torpedo in order to ignite the Death Star's energy core far beneath the surface. At the briefing in which they are told their objective, only Luke Skywalker seems optimistic. The rest of the pilots, mostly veterans, shake their heads in disbelief. The difficulty of their mission is clear - for the Rebel strike force to be successful, nothing short of a perfect shot will suffice.
The Death Star's thermal exhaust ports serve much the same function as exhaust mechanisms do in today's world. They are outlets for the heat and buildup of stray chemicals that result from the massive energy reactions that power the mammoth battle station. They clearly serve a necessary function, but that a clear shaft would run from the surface all the way down to the Death Star's energy core can be nothing short of a major oversight. Indeed, in Return of the Jedi, the second Death Star's exhaust ports were planned to have a complex grate system installed... if the Rebels hadn't destroyed that one as well before it could even be completed. Little good those events of the future did for the occupants of the first Death Star, however, as its designers seemed to have no idea that the exhaust ports might ever be used as a weapon transportation system against its own commanders.
Once again, the indifference of the Empire towards its weaker and ill-equipped enemies proves to be its most glaring weakness. And in this instance, it is the straw that finally breaks the camel's back. After overcoming all of its earlier missteps, the Empire is seconds away from killing the entirety of Rebel leadership in "one swift stroke", as Tarkin phrases it, but a seemingly-innocuous decision made years ago by a nameless designer is what hammers the final nail into the Imperial coffin. If it had occurred to anybody constructing the Death Star that the exhaust port amounted to a possible flaw in design, and any manner of grate or filtering obstruction had been placed in the exhaust port, the Rebel analysts spend their last minutes poring over the Death Star schematics in vain, unable to find any mistake or flaw, and the destruction of Yavin IV becomes an inevitability.
The worst of it is that Tarkin is actually informed of the Death Star's vulnerability during the rebel attack, yet we find no emergency construction crew frantically welding a grate onto the thermal exhaust port by the time Luke's torpedoes arrive, nor a special envoy of TIE fighters waiting to defend it, just in case.
As in real history, the fate of millions can hang on the most banal of details. And here, with the addition of a simple grate or crossbeam or steel lattice in one particular nondescript location, it is not the Rebellion that uses its victory to begin loosening the Imperials' iron grip on the galaxy, but the Empire that tightens its grip forever. So go ahead and install that grate, designers. Trust me.
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